Music: Best of 2011 Part I

It’s that time of year again. Actually, it’s a few days late because I couldn’t decide what to put in, but let’s gloss over that and get to the good stuff. Strap yourselves in and prepare for a whistle-stop tour of music I enjoyed in 2011, laced with witty asides and the occasional marginally relevant anecdote. In two parts because it got a bit unwieldy as a single post once I’d embedded videos; this post covers albums, the second one will take in gigs and miscellany. Where I’ve already written something about the gig/album in question, the subtitle will be a link.

Albums

Counting Crows – August and Everything After: Live at Town Hall

In a move deeply predictable to those who know me, I think a Counting Crows album is the best release of the year. I’m cheating on at least two counts here, firstly because it’s a DVD, and secondly because it contains no new music. In fairness, it is also a CD/download album, but its well worth getting the DVD. Town Hall is beautiful, the lighting designer needs a medal, and Adam Duritz is still a be-dreadlocked whirling dervish of a frontman. He’ll never be particularly cool, but in 1993 he wrote some beautiful songs and in 2007 he performed them in front of some cameras. That’s really all there is to it.

June Tabor & Oysterband – Ragged Kingdom

It was a good year for reunited folk-rock colossi, and Shrewsbury Folk Festival had them both. But then they would, and this is why we love them. I saw a full set by June and the band in Nottingham in November, a gig marred by some of the worst live sound I’ve heard all year, but nonetheless a great night. Tabor’s voice ages like a fine wine, and the band are a more nuanced, delicate instrument than they were 20 years ago when they made Freedom and Rain. Their choice of material is eclectic but brilliant, and the result is an album garnering award nominations.

Graham Colton – Pacific Coast Eyes

The first four tracks of Pacific Coast Eyes are pure summer pop perfection. It’s not that the rest are bad, just that the  first four are inspired,dovetailing beautifully into a little song-cycle of unrequited longing, nostalgia and sunglasses. It also features the runner-up in my Best Sappy/Cute Lyric of the Year Award, narrowly pipped by Teddy Thompson (see below):

You weren’t standing with who you came with,
You told me your name, it was short for Elizabeth.
You don’t drink cos you can’t stand the taste,
You talk like a boy but you still like a little chase.

(As an aside, the fact that people have started writing nostalgic premature-midlife-crisis songs about being born in the 1980s (see below) is making em feel dangerously grown up.)

File away until the sun comes out again, then roll down the windows and enjoy.

Ryan Adams – Ashes & Fire

Lucky Now is beautiful. Musically it wouldn’t stand out if you dropped it into the middle of his first album, but lyrically it has real immediacy. It is a song of sober, 2011-vintage Adams looking ruefully back. It’s also a song of New York. The rest isn’t quite as lovely, but nonetheless a worthy addition to Adams’ substantial discography.

The Civil Wars – Barton Hollow

Suffers in comparison to their live performance only because they appear to accomplish more with less. Their vocal performances have grown since they made this record, and most of the overdubs don’t bring much to the party. If you can, see them live. I’ve got tickets to see them in Leeds in March, and there are still tickets for some of the tour dates at the time of writing. That said, this is still a pretty remarkable clutch of songs.

Wilco – The Whole Love

Continuing Wilco’s slide towards middle-aged mediocrity, or the best instalment yet of their third age? The Whole Love has convinced me that Wilco are alive, well and maturing like a fine wine. Those of us who had our concerns around the time Sky Blue Sky emerged and were only partly assuaged by Wilco (the album).

It reminds me a lot of REM’s Automatic for the People. There are string arrangements and Wurlitzer electric piano textures. There’s also a sense that the best has probably passed by now, as has any sense of trendsetting or avantgarde, but that none of that really matters. It’s good stuff, it’s very Wilco and it has none of the hesitancy or laid-back laziness that at times killed Sky Blue Sky and Wilco (the album). It’s the first album on their own label, dBpm, and between that and their own festival (SolidSound) they’re fast turning into a cottage industry. Try the first track, below, and revel in the wonderfully bipolar nature of Wilco in 2011, swinging from weird, ambient noisemaking to glorious Nels Cline guitar solos via Jeff Tweedy’s driving, sinister verses. Long live Wilco!

Blitzen Trapper – American Goldwing

Glorious retro-fest filtered through 21st century indie rock sound. It’s the Rolling Stones via the Black Crowes with Eagles harmonies as played by the bastard offspring of Band of Horses and Wilco, and it makes me grin like an idiot. This record has so much groove it’s ridiculous. I tried telling someone it sounded a lot like T.Rex and Led Zeppelin, and they looked at me like I’d gone mad. Had I continued and told them that there are hints of early Elton John or early Bowie in “Astronaut”, I have no doubt they would have asked me to stop flaying their sacred cows and leave. It’s true though; “Street Fighting Sun” is pure Zep, “Your Crying Eyes” is Bowie’s Suffragette City for a new generation. Is it original? Not terribly. Is it fun? Hugely. Is it bizarrely cool this year? Apparently so. And, thanks to the benelovent indie god that is SubPop, you can listen to whole thing for nothing on YouTube (below). Do so, then decide you’re going to buy a copy anyway.

Teddy Thompson – Bella

Deserves a place on this list simply for the line

I guess it’s good loving that I want the most
Someone who turns my bread into buttered toast

but would qualify anyway, with a slew of catchy melodies and clever lyrics like this. Teddy’s voice gets better with every passing year, as does his sense of a good pop song. I have the feeling he’s building towards a truly brilliant album at some point, but until then this is a very, very good one. If you can, see him live, especially if it’s just him and a guitar in a cathedral.

The Wailin’ Jennys – Bright Morning Stars

More than ever before the Jennys are pulling in three disparate directions. David Travers-Smith produces once again, but there’s too much slow, jazzy contemplation. Opening track Swing Low, Sail High is gorgeous, but the good vibes dissipate quickly and leave behind a disparate, patchy collection of songs. Lovely in places, but I haven’t bonded with in the way I did with Firecracker.

Gillian Welch – Harrow and the Harvest

Eight years is so long to wait for an album that it’s almost impossible for it to meet with expectation. Not bad by any stretch, but part of a trend towards inconsistency that started with Soul Journey. That said, if your decline starts with Time (The Revelator), there’s a lot of room to make good music on the way. Revelator is desert island stuff for me, and probably something of a miraculous one-off even by the high standards of Welch and Rawlings.  The Harrow and the Harvest is good, great in places, but dull in others. At its best, you believe every word Welch sings, and yearn to sing along, to join the tales of lonesome souls. David Rawlings is still a genius, his guitar parts and vocal harmonies top notch as ever.

Gemma Hayes – Let It Break

Not a bad album, but suffers from being compared to Hayes’ remarkable and underappreciated back catalogue. Her first album, the Mercury-nominated Night on my Side is gorgeous and her third, The Hollow of Morning, is a delicate, harrowing collection that still transports me to a transcendent set at the Bodega in Nottingham whenever I hear it. I played it nine times the following day; I doubt I’ve played Let It Break nine times since I got it.

 

OK, so that’s albums. Tomorrow, good gigs I went to, EPs and assorted other musical things that aren’t full-length albums and a few thoughts for 2012.

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