Tuesday, July 12, 2011

1/2: Music Highlights and Lowlights in 2011

We're a little over halfway through 2011 and, musically speaking, it's a dark and dreary year. Not that there isn't a lot of great music being produced and released, but of that great music, much of it is gloomy, murky, seen from underwater. Or maybe it's just my choice of music. Anyway, here are some of the records that I think continue to stand out, and some I think don't. (You can read my previous post on the highlights and lowlights from January to March here.)

Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues
Fleet Foxes' self-titled debut had plenty of catchy melodies, guitar hooks, fine-tuned lyrics and gorgeous harmonies. Though their follow-up largely builds on the previous (especially lyrically), the melodies are stranger and the guitar hooks more sporadic and folksier. The band also moves into more experimental territory: songs breakdown and start again as something else or never quite lift off, seemingly floating in a dark bubble. The record is a grower, for sure, but with each listen more layers reveal themselves. Highlights: "Battery Kinzie," "Helplessness Blues," "The Shrine/An Argument."

Bon Iver - Bon Iver
For fans expecting a quiet, intimate affair akin to For Emma, Forever Ago, Bon Iver's debut, expect your face to pinch in confusion. Justin Vernon's sophomore epic LP is a different listening experience. Influences from his more experimental project, Volcano Choir, are evident, as is a serious love of Peter Gabriel. This is a sprawling, all-over-the-place record and one that deserves your attention. Highlights: "Holocene," "Calgary," "Beth/Rest."

Tune-Yards - w h o k i l l
Merrill Garbus's Tune-Yards project is simply amazing, from the Captain Beefheart-esque guitar lines to her wildly abrasive, yet emotional, voice. It is a testament to her skill as a songwriter and performer that she can pull off being funny, serious, heartbreaking, and so intense your eyes feel like they're going to pop out of your head in the course of one song. No one could pull that sort of experimentation off without sounding hokey expect Garbus and she does so quite gracefully. Highlights: "Powa," "Bizness," "You Yes You."

Bill Callahan - Apocalypse
Apocalypse continues Bill Callahan's weird version of folk music. This one has a distinctly western pulp feel to it. Saguaro and sand; hot suns; cowboys and cattle; fiddles; guitar squelches appear like mirages of oases. It is a stark landscape Callahan uncovers, but throughout these seven songs, you get the feeling he also finds it a beautiful place to be. Highlights: "America!," "Riding for the Feeling," "One Fine Morning."

Cass McCombs - Wit's End
Wit's End is the quietest, bleakest record in McComb's career, and he is no stranger to bleak or quiet. Every song here is weightless in a vacuum of its own making. This is also his least poppy record, and yet, it is his most immediate and most intense. However, you can't jog to the record; or do dishes or write to it. It's a record that puts its claws into your spine and your mouth, to tear into your ears and clog your nose. Highlights: "County Line," "Hermit's Cave," "A Knock Upon the Door."

These records are really good, but for whatever reason, aren't in constant rotation here at The Spiral:

The Antlers - Burst Apart
Not as moving or as epic as Hospice, but still full of good songs.

Okkervil River- I Am Very Far
Darkest, murkiest record yet from Will Sheff's project, but seriously, enough of songs about songwriting, okay?

My Morning Jacket - Circuital
They may never top the scale and awesome motown-influenced pop of Z, but this record will be a close second. Much better than the previous Evil Urges.

Shabazz Palaces - Black Up
I was introduced to this experimental hiphop project from Digable Planets member Ishmael "Butterfly" Butler and haven't looked back.

And some of those that didn't quite strike my fancy:

Paul Simon - So Beautiful or So What
I really want to like everything Paul Simon does, I really do, but sometimes it's hard. Certainly, So Beautiful or So What is a far better record than his previous hot mess, Surprise. Still, nothing on SBoSW stands out, nothing is as immediate as, say, Still Crazy After All These Years or his self-titled debut or Graceland; instead, this is yet another disaffected, distant record from a musician who should know better.

TV on the Radio - Nine Types of Light
It's fairly common to release a bad record after a thrilling masterpiece and TV on the Radio have proven they can do just that. Dear Science is a record that sounds as fresh now as it did four years ago when it was released and I suspect will sound as fresh in five years and so on. I cannot say the same for Nine Types of Light. The songwriting is lackluster; the production is boring; this sounds like a band trying to make it big.

Panda Bear - Tomboy
I love almost everything Animal Collective does and also really enjoyed Panda Bear's Person Pitch record, in part because they never do the same thing twice. Each record is its own entity, adding to an already impressive career. Unfortunately, Tomboy is the first record that feels like Noah Lennox has grown too comfortable; all of these songs could've been outtakes from Animal Collective's previous lp, Merriweather Post Pavilion. A shame.

I have yet to hear the new Woods record, Sun & Shade, but they are one of my favorite bands. An honorable mention goes to Ty Segall, who is really improving as a songwriter and I'm greatly looking forward to what he does next.

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