Unrequired Listening

Spencer’s Favorite Albums of 2011

2011 was the year of my punk awakening. In the summer, I watched The Decline of Western Civilization with my dad and was moved by how energetic those idiot kids from back then were. Having grown up till age four in a rock club, I saw a lot of music from that world, but it was all before I could remember it. When I watched that movie, I’d never seen music played so obnoxiously, irreverently, confidently. I’d never seen people believe in themselves so violently.

As you’ll be able to tell from my favorite 2011 releases, I love and, I hope, always will love wimpy, non-heavy music, but now I guess I’m aware of my punk heart. It’s a pretty nice source of salvation when you’re a teen battling that high school battle. To be able to lose yourself in music is a privilege that I, self-conscious, awkward and nerdy, have finally come to know.

In an only sorta particular order (I liked a lot of these records equally):

10. Wilco — The Whole Love

Sure, I’m obligated to put this one in because my father won’t feed me if I don’t, but I wholeheartedly loved The Whole Love. I love all of Wilco’s music. I think they really got onto something different with this one, which, in my opinion, makes them less dad-rock than any band blowing up right now with a sophomore album that sounds identical to their first. You can’t call Wilco geezers if they’re still innovating. Fine, call them geezers, but they’re geezers who move forward. My mind was blown when I heard The Whole Love for the first time (and I’ve heard a lot of Wilco).

9. Various Artists — Opika Pende

Not to make this entire list about my dad, but he buys a disgusting amount of music; there is basically a constant stream of packages filled with records showing up on our doorstep. Among them, there are usually a couple beautiful compilations of historical recordings, like this one from Dust-to-Digital. Opika Pende is a box set of African music recorded from 1909 to the mid 1960s. Something about it reminds me of my childhood. It’s refreshingly cheerful.

8. Liam Finn — Fomo

I started listening to Liam Finn’s music after my family visited New Zealand for his dad’s 7 Worlds Collide project in 2008. Boy, does that family know how to write pop songs.

7. Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks — Mirror Traffic

Call me a stupid snot-nosed new-generation hipster brat, but I love Pavement. (I’m not sure if this will redeem me or just make me sound even more pretentious, but I saw them play a lot in the 90s, so you could say that my interest is genuine.) It’s a great band! It was a great band… Stephen Malkmus was a part of why it was great, and that part lives on today in Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks. On top of that greatness, Beck produced this record, and Beck… is a genius.

6. James Blake — James Blake

It seems like James Blake is either a hit or miss with people’s opinions. I really liked this record. The man’s voice is rich as crunk, but his restraint is what really gets me. He writes songs that are more a composition than a performance, a trait that he shares with a lot of artists nowadays, but is hard to pull off interestingly. It’s not just a guy with a synthesizer and vocal chords; it’s a guy with a synthesizer, vocal chords and a vision. Wow, that sounds dumb.

5. Fool’s Gold — Leave No Trace

If I heard just one song by Fool’s Gold, I would probably hate it. But somehow, as I listened to Leave No Trace, I really grew to like it. That’s incredibly backhanded, but it’s a great record. I’m a big fan of jangly.

4. Shabazz Palaces — Black Up

This is a record that comes from a place very, very far from my world, but it still managed to reach me. Like James Blake, these guys struck me with their arrangements. To a genre that’s typically assembly-line produced—Hollywood producers in one room, generic songwriting team in the other, Dr. Dre’s Beats headphones on every person in the studio—they bring a mature creativity.

3. Deerhoof — Deerhoof Vs. Evil

Whenever someone asks me about my favorite band, I usually stutter for fifteen seconds and then settle on Deerhoof. Greg Saunier, the drummer and leader-but-not-frontman of Deerhoof, has been my drumming idol since I was about eight years old. If I had to describe their music in one word, I would use this boring, but appropriate one: interesting. They sound like a polygamous marriage between Rock and sister-wives Weird and Pretty, in which Weird is the dominant figure of the relationship.

2. Fruit Bats — Tripper

I said I have a punk heart, but in my heart of heart of hearts I have a folk heart. When I heard Fruit Bats for the first time this year, it felt like the manifestation of my dream folk-rock band, 2011-style.

1. St. Vincent — Strange Mercy

2011 was a year of incredible indie arrangements. Strange Mercy is one of the most well-made, woozy records I’ve ever heard. The best bands have a distinct flavor, and St. Vincent definitely has one. And I like it.

Filed under:

Joey’s Favorite Albums of 2011

2011 was an important year for me, musically. The first concert I ever went to was in 2009, my second a year later in 2010, and then, in what seemed like an overnight transition, I started going to shows on a monthly, sometimes weekly basis. I suppose I can blame this change of pace on two important things that happened to me at the end of 2010: I moved to San Francisco, and then I turned 21. Looking back, there was no better way I could have set up 2011.

My memories from last year, being newly 21 and obsessed with music, are a bit scattered, often blurry, and generally include beer, shots of godawful alcohol that I should never drink but always do, and learning the etiquette of live shows. I witnessed the oft-used “I’m trying to find my mom!” excuse from too many drunk girls as they pushed through my friends to get as close to the stage as possible.

I saw a stupid number of shows in 2011: new bands in small venues all within walking distance from my apartment, festivals like Coachella and Outside Lands, even Jay-Z and Kanye West in an arena filled with an unbelievable number of white people. I couldn’t get enough. The best way I can describe the change between 2010 and 2011 is that I used to like music, and then, suddenly, I loved music. Live shows changed everything for me.

And so it makes sense that my favorite records from last year are mostly from artists I saw live. Not all, but most.

10. M83 — Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming

Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming was my first foray into M83. I first listened to this album during a run from my apartment to the Bay Bridge and back. That night, they were playing at the Mezzanine in San Francisco, which was reason enough for me to give the album a listen. Later, at a quarter to 10pm, a friend texted me: he had an extra ticket to M83, for free, and did I want to go. Uh, yes, yes I did. A half hour later, we were buying each other beers while M83 filled the venue with songs I didn’t even know, but seemed to immediately love. My friend later reminded me to check out their previous albums, and so my favorite part of discovering Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming was in turn discovering their back catalogue.

9. Beirut — The Rip Tide

I first heard Zach Condon on the charity compilation album Dark Was The Night. His (Beirut’s) song, Mimizan, was surrounded by the likes of Spoon, The National, Arcade Fire, Bon Iver, and Yo La Tengo, so when I first heard it in all of its eclectic oddities, I thought “That’s nice, I guess, but this guy is kind of weird.” That was three years ago, and I never gave Beirut a second chance, not until I came across Pitchfork’s review of The Rip Tide. The unusual combination of instruments remain (accordion and all), and his voice complements the music in a way that makes you want to dance and then maybe cry just a little. The title track is a simple song with simple lyrics: beginning with a piano, then restrained drums, and a beautiful blend of brass instruments, while he sings a story of living, or feeling, alone. Most of what he writes is open to interpretation, of course, but often, as in the case of this song, his lyrics hit close to home. Unexpected empathy while listening to music is a rare and enjoyable thing, and I discovered that many times while listening to this album.

8. Wye Oak — Civilian

Listening to Wye Oak’s Civilian for the umpteenth time, I realized something about my listening habits from last year: nearly all of the music I listened to in 2011 was written by and performed by guys. Sure, there’s Beyoncé and Rihanna and others, but indie rock? St. Vincent’s Strange Mercy, Feist’s Metals, and North Highlands’ Wild One come to mind. There are others, but that’s all I can remember. All I know is I can name a lot more bands with guys in them from last year. It may be that I simply prefer listening to male vocalists in bands—I don’t know—but Wye Oak was on repeat for days when I first bought this record. Jenn Wasner’s voice is haunting, soothing, and powerful, as are the instruments behind (and sometimes in front of) her voice. The volume on this record is erratic, notably on “Holy, Holy”, where her verses are followed by dialed-up loudness from both the guitar and drums. They yell for your attention, reminding you she’s not done yet.

7. Girls — Father, Son, Holy Ghost

The name of the single that accompanied this album, “Vomit”, initially turned me off to the idea of even listening to the album in the first place. On the surface, it’s a misleading title. It’s one of the best songs of the year, a love song, and the genres it crosses over veer left and right, from lo-fi rock, folksy singalong, and finally, gospel singers(!). It’s a beautifully strange song surrounded by equally wonderful tracks, written by Christopher Owens, a musician who isn’t afraid to share some seriously painful emotions from his bizarre and self-admittedly fucked up life.

6. Smith Westerns — Dye It Blonde

Judging by lead singer Cullen Omori’s Twitter stream, you wouldn’t guess he could have or would have written one of the best albums of the year. The writing is unexpected, and his tweets are easily forgiven after just one listen to “All Die Young”, a track that starts with organs, a simple piano melody, drums, and then a sonic sounding electric guitar. Cullen sings about youthful love with such authenticity, with backing vocals by his bandmates, in a way that testifies to how great the rest of the record is. Smile, an unmistakably cliché love song (“Love is a waste of time/but the sun still shines/And it shines for you”) redeems itself as you can hear the sincerity in the voices from these guys. We’ve heard it all before, but their ages are reason enough to listen to their music with fresh ears.

5. Youth Lagoon — The Year of Hibernation

Trevor Powers, the solo multi-instrumentalist behind Youth Lagoon, had a catastrophically good year. Shortly before The Year of Hibernation was released back in September, he put out a music video for “Montana”, a song that begins modestly and slowly builds to a crescendoing, powerful conclusion. The video set a new standard for music videos as short films, and at just under five minutes long, I was tearing up by the end of it. The rest of his music is on that same level of emotional intensity. It’s just him, a few instruments, and his words, all from his bedroom in Boise, Idaho. It’s a sad album in ways, because I can feel the anxiety and loneliness in his voice, which at times is drowned out by heavy drum beats played alongside his keyboard and electric guitar. He played a small show in San Francisco on my birthday in November. Between songs, he didn’t talk much, and when he did, it was about how he has anxiety issues and has trouble in front of crowds. In April, he’s returning to a slightly bigger venue, and then joining Death Cab For Cutie as opener on their upcoming tour. At the rate he’s going, he has no choice but to overcome his anxiety—he won’t be an opening act for much longer.

4. Yuck — Yuck

Many have said Yuck’s self-titled debut is an early 90s era record released in 2011. They’re probably right, though I can’t say for certain. Some of my favorite albums were released in the early 90s, but I discovered them 15 or 20 years later. When Dinosaur Jr. and Sonic Youth and Nirvana and Weezer and so many others were releasing music, I was learning to walk. When Kurt Cobain died, I was probably crying, but for a totally different reason. I love this album because it gives a new generation the chance to listen to a 90s era record on first release without the disadvantage of, you know, not being alive way back then. Yuck’s self-titled album is simply a great, honest rock record. It’s noisy, mellow, soothing, and borderline annoying in all the right places. One of my favorite shows last year was Yuck opening for the Smith Westerns at Bottom of the Hill, a tiny venue in San Francisco. Yuck was good, though like most shows in smaller venues, the mixing for the opener sucked compared to the main act. The Smith Westerns took the stage, and midway through their show, I noticed the guys (and girl) in Yuck were right in front of me watching the show. Something about that moment stayed with me. There was no separation between them and us. We’re around the same age, and we’re all learning and trying and doing in similar ways. It was oddly encouraging, standing next to these guys, listening to great music, playing life by ear, knowing they were doing the same thing.

3. Wilco — The Whole Love

Okay, let’s be honest: Spencer is going to have way more interesting things to say about this album. I should probably just say I really loved The Whole Love and you should buy it and listen the hell out of it if you haven’t already, and you should just read his write-up on it.

That said, simply saying “I really loved The Whole Love” doesn’t do this album enough justice. It’s true, though: I loved this album. I’ve loved all of their albums. Wilco is the most consistently great band around, putting out a total of now nine records since 1994. The longest they’ve gone between albums is three years, and every time they return, they bring something new and different and exciting, and the best part is it’s always still uniquely Wilco.

I enjoyed their previous, self-titled album from 2009, but The Whole Love resonates with me in a far more personal way. The songwriting shines from the first track to the last, and it’s my favorite aspect of their latest record. Songs like “Open Mind” hit me like a ton of bricks. Yeah, yeah, it’s a love song, but I interpret it differently because I live a different life. Jeff sings: “Oh I can only dream of the dreams we’d share if you weren’t so defined / I would love to be the one to open up your mind.” I grew up with a family of Republicans, so you might guess how this song has its own meaning to me.

"Art of Almost", the epic opening track, should satisfy the needs of those hoping for more "experimental" Wilco—I like to call those people pretentious douchebags, but that’s just me. I’d rather have nine wonderfully diverse albums than nine Yankee Hotel Foxtrots.

2. Bon Iver — Bon Iver

I didn’t catch most of the words on this album. Justin Vernon’s falsetto voice is more a beautiful, abstract instrument than a discernible word maker, and I’ve found that listening for his lyrics can actually take away from the experience of listening to his songs as a whole.

His show at the Greek Theatre at U.C. Berkeley sold out in no time, and I ended up spending $100 on a ticket I found through Craigslist. It seemed expensive at the time, but as it turned out, it was money very well spent. I’ve heard so many people at so many concerts say the same thing: “That was the best show I’ve ever seen!” I usually try to reserve sudden judgement like that after shows, but Bon Iver was one of the most powerful, moving, and amazing shows I’ve ever been to, and I was sure of this halfway through their set. A friend who was at the show later told me that his wife started crying at the end of “Flume.” Sometimes music just hits you, and you get caught in the moment. Emotions go wild, and you get stuck in a weird trance, staring at who knows what, listening to music and letting your thoughts go deep. That was the entire Bon Iver show for me. The album is great on my iPod, but live was an entirely different experience.

Oh, yeah, one more thing: I’m pro Beth/Rest. It’s a great song whether it belongs in an 80s Tom Cruise movie or not.

1. James Blake — James Blake

James Blake’s Wikipedia page lists his genres as dubstep, post-dubstep, electronic, and soul. Whatever you want to call it, I hadn’t heard music quite like what he put out last year. It’s easy to focus on his vocal abilities on James Blake, but the songs on CMYK—his previous, non-vocal EP—show his skill as a producer, and are great lead-ins to his vocal material on his self-titled album.

And his vocals are disturbingly good. Watching him live only reinforced this notion. He has a naturally high voice that he expertly layers and cuts up and repeats and reverbs around the beats he’s also created. It really is quite remarkable how perfectly he’s put it all together. I wondered how he would perform his album in a live environment; he’s said in interviews that it took a lot of practice and experimentation and trial and error to get right. And, without a doubt, he got it right. James and his touring band replicated his album flawlessly.

In a year dominated by Skrillex—which, if I’m not mistaken, is what happens when you record kitchen blenders having rough sex with a garbage disposal—hearing James Blake honestly discuss the current state of popular music, dubstep in particular, added to my faith that we’re not all doomed to terrible music forever:

I think the dubstep that has come over to the US, and certain producers — who I can’t even be bothered naming — have definitely hit upon a sort of frat-boy market where there’s this macho-ism being reflected in the sounds and the way the music makes you feel. And to me, that is a million miles away from where dubstep started. It’s a million miles away from the ethos of it. It’s been influenced so much by electro and rave, into who can make the dirtiest, filthiest bass sound, almost like a pissing competition, and that’s not really necessary. And I just think that largely that is not going to appeal to women. I find that whole side of things to be pretty frustrating, because that is a direct misrepresentation of the sound as far as I’m concerned.

Yes, yes, a million times yes.

And he sings, too. Not bad.

Filed under: