Thursday, March 17, 2011

1/4: Music Highlights and Lowlights in 2011

We're nearly a fourth of the way through 2011, folks, so I thought I'd catch you up on what I'm listening to and not listening to, as well as what records I'm looking forward to. I will say this: so far, this year has been filled with, in my opinion, more lackluster records than awesome ones and I'm hoping this isn't a trend for the rest of the year.

Let's start off with the awesome records first.

Radiohead - The King of Limbs

A lot of reviewers called Radiohead's latest "divisive" and a "re-hash of Kid A/Amnesiac material." Well, I must've missed out on the drums and bass record Radiohead secretly put out in 2002, titled DRMZNBYS, although it was supposedly majestic. No, The King of Limbs isn't as emotionally immediate as its predecessor, In Rainbows - what TKOL does is expand upon Radiohead's sound, still letting the songs breathe and sound fresh. It's not so much a re-hash of previous material as Radiohead being influenced by their own ouevre. Which is totally weird and exciting. Highlights: "Codex," "Separator," "Give Up the Ghost," "Little by Little."

Smith Westerns - Dye It Blonde

These ten wondrous pop gems are really making this year fly. Smith Westerns' songs are light and airy, for the most part, and about girls and getting drunk and having fun. Despite lead singer Cullen Omori's voice being under the influence of heavy reverb, the vocal melodies come through clean and strong. The guitar work is some of the best I've heard in a while: kind of like T. Rex and George Harrison. Highlights: "Weekend," "All Die Young, "Dye the World."

James Blake - James Blake

Nobody uses silence and repetition to greater emotional effect than James Blake. Sometimes it gets uncomfortable. Really. Uncomfortable. ......Which is also what makes this record particularly wonderful when you're feeling it. What this record isn't is a record to put on any old time; this one is saved for rainy drives at night or walking snow-covered streets. The final track is the first post-modern spiritual I've ever heard and it is truly great. Highlights: "The Wilhelm Scream," "To Care Like You," "Limit to Your Love," "Measurements."

The Hit Back - Who Are These Weird Old Kids?

Full disclosure: Jesse Hanabarger, lead singer of The Hit Back, and I have played in several bands together and I was once a member of this, his current outfit, albeit under a different a moniker: Legs Like Straw. The first time I heard the songs that would appear on The Hit Back's full-length debut, it was at a friend's house party. I didn't know what to expect. Needless to say, I was impressed with the change in format, the integration of more electronic sounds, mixing with the acoustic, almost folksy atmosphere. Their full-length doesn't disappoint from those earlier versions of the songs. In fact, the songs have gotten stronger and have fully grown into some of the best electro-acousti-pop I've heard recently. Highlights: "Tagalong," "Me and the Kid," "Too Fat to Crawl," "And You're the Night."

And now for the disappointments of 2011. Most of these bands are bands I had been expecting great things from but failed my catch my ear for whatever reason.

Bright Eyes - The People's Key

Once upon a time I was a fanboy of Bright Eyes. My early twenties are filled with latenight drunken singalongs to songs off I'm Wide Awake. Unfortunately, Conor Oberst continues his mediocre performances and songwriting that began in 2007.

Kurt Vile - Smoke Ring for My Halo

I was and still am positively addicted to Vile's previous LP, Childish Prodigy. The problem with his latest isn't his lyrics, which I've found to be quite engaging, perhaps more so than on CP; what Smoke Ring lacks is an immediacy, a fire beneath its structures. There is a time for relaxing by the pool - as Vile mostly seems content to do here - but sometimes it just gets boring.

The Strokes - Angles

This sucks. For every reason you can think of.

TV on the Radio

Their record, Nine Types of Light, isn't out yet but I've already been severely let down by the two songs they've released. I expect a bit of chaos from TV on the Radio, as if at any moment the song might fall apart; I expect off-kilter vocal performances (and sometimes a little off-key) from singers Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone. I expect frothy, stressful chord and tempo changes. What I don't expect is happy. What don't I expect is Fred Durst-style rapping. I only hope the rest of the record makes up for these two songs.

Okay, let's end on a lighter note. I'm looking forward to these three records:

Panda Bear - Tomboy
Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues
Bill Callahan - Apocalypse

From what I've heard of the new Panda Bear it's going to be a darker affair, more electric guitars, less samples. Should be a nice movement. I don't expect big changes from Fleet Foxes, but I don't really need it either. "Helplessness Blues" is a fantastic song in its own right. The same goes for Bill Callahan. He's one of the last great underrated songwriters and I expect this record to be about as good as anything else he's done and tinged with that unique bass voice.


  1. Good summation thus far. Although I gotta disagree about Vile's "Smoke Ring for My Halo." It's an album full of discovery, especially in the lyrics. However, this is my first listen to a Kurt Vile record, and only just listened to Childish Prodigy today so I've got a different perspective.
    I've given up on both TV on the Radio and Bright Eyes so I'm not surprised there.
    ...and that Strokes album...
    When I saw them on SNL I had major concerns for this record. They have failed to grow old gracefully and seem to be making music targeted at 17 year olds instead. I did enjoy a couple of tracks off of "angles" but in a fairly 17 year old superficial way.

  2. It's possible I'm being a little harsh on Vile; but CP was sooo good. Lyrically, I definitely agree that SRFMH is step up. Yet, there is something kind of beautiful yelling at the top of your lungs, "Flopping and flipping around like a fish on a ship!" from CP that really gets me.

    Definitely, The Strokes songs on Angles that sound like leftovers from Is This It or Room on Fire I kind of like...for nostalgic reasons, as you say...but otherwise, yeah. Fail.