Friday, January 20, 2012

Best Albums of 2011 (Part 2 of 2)

Thom Yorke hands out newspapers to announce album release

Sorry to keep you two readers on the edge of your seat for a couple days. Here's my top four albums of 2011.

#4- Radiohead, "The King of Limbs" (Ticker Tape Ltd)

The King of Limbs

If Radiohead has proved one thing over the second half of their twenty year career, it's that they don't give a fuck what their audience thinks. After garnering a large following in the '90s thanks to the post-grunge hits "Creep", "High and Dry", "Just", and "Karma Police" (among others), Thom Yorke and his posse took a drastic 180 with 2000's extremely experimental "Kid A" and never looked back.
This caused quite a remarkable response; "Kid A" and it's two successors were critically shrugged off and openly reviled by longtime fans, but sales were through the roof. Indeed, Radiohead is often referenced as one of the most capable and groundbreaking bands in current music, despite the fact that you'd be hard pressed to find a glowing review of any their albums since "OK Computer" back in 1997. Why is this?
A few years ago I ran across this Onion article from 2001. To some Onion reader who hadn't gone through this gritty process of getting to know a Radiohead album, I'm sure this blurb was completely unentertaining. For the several hundred thousand people who bought "Kid" upon its release only to groan and put it aside, it was a frank documentation of their own first year with the album.
Radiohead albums are like the Stanley Kubrick films of their generation and media, in that they not only go unappreciated for a time after their release, but also inspire disgust. In the initial Rolling Stone review of the album, journalist David Fricke, though more appreciative of the release than many of his colleagues, still accredits it some monumental faults. "This is pop? Radiohead are a rock band", Fricke scowls. He concludes, "There are times...when the record seems absolutely airless, entombed in chrome." An unflattering assessment indeed. Yet eight years later, what album should find itself in the #1 spot on Rolling Stone's albums of the decade?
It baffles me, then, that audiences continue to shrug aside new Radiohead releases like this year's "The King of Limbs". Mocking the release for its brevity (8 tracks clocking in at just over 37 minutes) and its minimalism, you'd think this group's fanbase would have learned by now.
When I first heard the album, I will admit to feeling underwhelmed. In fact, the album made me feel nothing. At the time I was doing some diving in the beautiful Seychelles, and "Limbs"' empty beats and shameless repetition did not exactly jive with my easy-living tropical state of mind.
I was lucky enough, however, to be surrounded by Brits at the time. I haven't officially checked, but I'm fairly sure that Radiohead fandom is a prerequisite for British citizenship. Due to their persistence to get to know the album, I was able to come around to it, and now it's probably in my top 3 Radiohead releases.
The approach of the album is to reveal melodies and beats slowly through repetition. In this release, every song is a pyramid song (and I mean that in a structural context, not in allusion to the Amnesiac single), coyly revealing its juicy bits sparingly. As with any Radiohead album, your appreciation for it will likely not set in during a listen. Rather, you walk away from it, flustered after not uncovering its secrets on listen number five or six, and you'll find when you're away that the songs have gotten under your skin, and you need to go back.
Amidst the small amount of listeners who have embraced the album there is a divide, as well. Many people believe that one half of the album is superior to the other- The first half, full of some of the band's most experimental tracks, is certainly a fairly inaccessible access point. For me, however, it is far superior to the album's back half, which while brilliant seems to be trying to recreate the seductive ambience of "In Rainbows", a futile act.
Where "Limbs" really shines through is its altered subject matter. An early reviewer of the album noted that "the angst is gone", and that absence is what makes the album such a pleasant listen. For the first time in twenty years, the songs lack an undecurrent of depressive thought, and instead are more aesthetically dedicated. It's a refreshing change as a listener, as the album is proof that Radiohead is still capable of fruitful, dramatic evolution.
This has been an atypical review, in that I have not mentioned a single song off of the album specifically. That is really the way a Radiohead album should be observed. More so than most other bands, Radiohead's albums are flowing, coherent, and interdependent pieces. Having likely already heard "Lotus Flower" and seen Thom Yorke dancing like he's having a seizure, you've drawn your own conclusions. However, with this band, a song is anything but representative of the work from which it derives.

Essential Tracks: Wait, didn't you hear what I just said?

#3- Bon Iver, "Bon Iver"...Bon Iver? (Jagjaguwar)

Bon Iver, Bon Iver, Bon fucking Iver

DC or Marvel should make a graphic novel series in which Justin Vernon is the hipster superhero. The man started out with a mysterious origin story: Armed only with a guitar and some books, Vernon retreated to a remote cabin in the deep freeze of Wisconsin for months on end. When he emerged, he boasted a thick beard, an earthy lifestyle, and some beautiful recordings. These recordings would soon become his celebrated album, "For Emma, Forever Ago".
His newfound superpower after his return was the ability to spread the hipsterdom, despite not being a particularly pretentious or clean-living individual himself. The man was more of a carrier of the hipster disease, able to spread it effortlessly without necessarily succumbing to it himself. Vernon has stated many times that his sojourn in the Wisconsin winter was not as romanticized as the Bon Iver myth would have you believe. He had electricity, he used the phone, he went on the internet from time to time. But the hipster population of the world sees what they want to, and continue to interpret his lifestyle as some sort of statement, instead of assuming that a man can go to a wintry cabin simply because it's a pleasant place to be.
The word "masterpiece" was bandied around a lot (too much) when "Emma" came out. Like most cinematic superheroes, however, Vernon's second outing blew his first out of the water. His eponymous release (double-eponymous?) is his Dark Knight, his Spider Man 2, to "Emma"'s Batman Begins/Spider Man 1. In his first album, Vernon established an identity with a very basic, if entrancing sound. In the years that followed, hipsters the world round tried desperately to emulate his simple yet delightful formula, to mixed effects.
As if to stay ahead of the crowd, Vernon has expanded his repertoire greatly in his second effort, incorporating a supporting band which not only backs him up, but which he relies on heavily in many songs.
There are moments that mirror the gentle simplicity of his first album. "Holocene", for one, sounds as if it could have been ripped straight off of "Emma". Even so, "Holocene" would have been one of the best, if not the best track off of that album had it been present. In the rare moments where Vernon does step backwards, his stylistically similar material is structurally and melodically superior to his past work.
The best track on the album, "Towers", dips into a childhood nostalgia for summer days and youthful daydreams. Really, the entire album is about daydreams and fantasy, each track named after a place Vernon holds dear to him, or of a place he dreams of someday going. The opener "Perth" has a gentle melody which holds within it a hopefulness and a celebration. The fictitious location is unattainable, and thus Vernon's perfect image of it can never be sullied. No wonder the album's cover, depicting a majestic landscape, is so calming and inviting.
This optimistic tone is a promising progression away from the more reflective and regretful "Emma". It seems as if this great new artist is just now hitting his groove, and hopefully in 2012 we will see that this Hipster Knight Rises.

Essential Tracks: "Perth", "Holocene", "Towers"

#2- M83, "Hurry Up, We're Dreaming" (M83 Recording Inc.)

Hurry Up, We're Dreaming

Unlike last year, there's no general consensus on the top album of the year. As the AV Club pointed out in their top albums list earlier in the month, their 15 or so journalists all picked separate top albums of the year. Last year, it was widely agreed upon that Kanye West's "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy" had swept in at the last minute to irrefutably steal the #1 spot. As such, most of the real battling went on in the #2-5 slots.
Although there's not a unanimous frontrunner this year, there are several albums that have the makings of a best album. Generally the albums that win on these lists are sprawling, diverse, bombastic efforts, and there was no shortage of those this year.
Take M83's "Hurry Up, We're Dreaming" an 80's-retro jubilee of synthesizers and space age vocals. The frenchman Anthony Gonzalez has dropped ambitious electronic efforts on us in the past, but never anything with such a gleeful , carefree energy. Compare his last album's ("Saturdays=Youth") single "We Own the Sky" to almost anything off of "Hurry Up" and the difference is apparent. While singles like this were sonically exciting and decidedly retro, they had a contemplative aspect to them that too often brought a somber tone to the work.
Now look at this album's lead single, "Midnight City" (the video below). If the Throne's "Niggas in Paris" was the most culturally relevant song of the year, "Midnight City" is the best song of the year. In true M83 fashion, the lyrics are soothing if somewhat hard to parse, and the instrumentals are gripping in their simplicity. In this four-note melody (you know what four notes I mean), Gonzalez has found the most infectious refrain this side of the top 40. Like so many simple riffs from history ("Superstition" comes to mind), this is bound to live on for years, being chopped and rearranged in a feeble attempt to duplicate this song's intoxicating ambience.
What's truly amazing about the song is that it does seem to conjure images of a city in nighttime. It's an unexplainable phenomenon, but everyone seems to agree that the song itself feels like rolling through a shining but silent metropolis. This sort of powerful imagery is not an easy feat, and this gem of a song must be cherished.
This isn't to say that "Midnight City" goes unrivaled. Songs like "Reunion", "OK Pal", and the berserkly named "Steve McQueen" (More on him soon) riff masterfully on the album's unique aesthetic. This, like "Fantasy", and like the #1 album, is organized into intentional lulls and crescendos, rewarding climaxes and movements. All of its 70 minutes feels organic, a rare example of the well executed double album.

Essential Tracks: "Midnight City", "OK Pal", "Steve McQueen"

#1- Fucked Up, "David Comes to Life"

David Comes To Life

It's not every day that you run across a pretentious punk band. By which I mean, I have never run across a pretentious punk band until now. It sounds like an unpleasant combination, doesn't it?
Well, it's not unpleasant. In fact, Fucked Up's condescending attitude about punk is what allows them to be so extremely good. You probably don't like punk music, as most people, young or old, seem to have a general problem with all punk. I'm sort of the same way; after overcoming a Linkin Park phase when I was 15, I've stayed away from bands with a frontman possessing anything fiercer than a gutteral growl.
What Fucked Up has suggested in the interviews that labeled them pretentious essentially mirrors the distaste that the general populace has for the genre. They've stated that the majority of punk is an overzealous, underdesigned mess, an intriguing point. After these claims were made, critics naturally asked, "Pray tell, Fucked Up, how does one make subtler punk music?"
"David Comes To Life" is Fucked Up's answer to that query. It is a punk album with screamy vocals and blaring instrumentals, but it's also so much more. The album is truly a blend of different eras and genres of rock. The opener, "Let Her Rest", for example, is a well-paced instrumental that suggests that anything but a punk album will follow.
Fucked Up is masterful at eschewing the pitfalls which normally plague the genre- There's no gratuitous screaming, or intentionally cacophonous instrumentals. Every word conveys a part of the story, and the guitarist and bassist have no greed for the limelight. Sonically, the instruments are often filtered in just as strongly as the vocals, but they're always a background piece, carrying the melody selflessly.
The album is the most complete fruition of a concept album I have ever seen. The tracks chronicle the unfolding narrative of two politically motivated lovers in 19th Century Britain. As per the tradition of rock operas, the narrative is extremely complex. While at first daunting, this makes "David" a rewarding repeat listen, as you'll find yourself perceiving different characters and plot threads the more time you give it. Admittedly, I don't even have my mind wrapped around the whole ordeal yet. I eagerly await the (hopefully) inevitable day when this album is turned into a musical, as it sounds like the soundtrack to a fantastic post-modern piece.
If you were to give someone an instrumental copy of "David", they certainly would not think it was a punk album. They would probably assume it was pretty radio-friendly, in fact. The punk vocals don't detract from these instrumentals so much as they cause the listener to view them in a new light.
Therein lies the real strength of the album- Each song, despite being one chapter in a much larger saga, can aesthetically stand alone, and they're some of the best tracks of the year. The album is truly an oddity, and will likely reach a larger audience as time goes on, being that it's just so goddam irresistible.

Essential Tracks: "Queen of Hearts", "The Other Shoe", "Turn the Season", "Serves Me Right"

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