James Blake

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Well this is embarrassing. We’re only like like, what? 7 months late with this thing? 2016 was a wild year for both of us, and it looks like 2017 is shaping up to be too, or else we’d have wrapped this up a long time ago. But here we are. Most of these blurbs were written last year, so if there’s some confusion in the tenses used, we apologize. But honestly, if you’re still reading this thing after all these years and you’re worried about inconsistent grammar, I don’t really know what to tell you.

As always, these were our favorite albums of the year, not necessarily the best… blah blah blah. You get it. Let’s just cut to the chase…

 

Chris’s Favorite Album of 2016

 

The Bound Of The Red DeerThe Bound of the Red Deer

by King Creosote & Michael Johnston

[self-released]

Most of what I love about The Bound of the Red Deer can be summed up in its fourth track, “Billows Roll.” After two minutes of uninterrupted piano, the song gives way to a simple couplet repeated only twice, “You have an anchor that steadies the soul / steadfast and sure my love, how the billows roll.” It’s thoughtful and understated, and I hear that desire for a sure anchor throughout the record.

The Bound of the Red Deer may be the least obvious pick for an album of the year – it’s a minor release from two fairly niche musicians to begin with, recorded quickly on acoustic instruments several years ago, then released without any fanfare last spring. They only played a few shows in its support after it slipped into the world, largely unnoticed (I’m pretty confident that “unnoticed” is the right word, because I’m pretty well obsessed with anything King Creosote does, but I didn’t even hear about this record until almost four months after it had been released), and then it just kind of floated away as both musicians moved onto other projects.

Overall it’s a quiet, ruminative record, one that’s content to just be what it is. Both Johnston and Creosote are veteran songwriters who’ve been working tirelessly for years, and these sturdy songs reflect it (they’re both part of the Canadian/Scottish songwriters collective The Burns Unit, whose 2010 record Side Show is absolutely worth your time, and on which a few of these songs originally appeared). The songs are thoughtfully arranged and beautifully realized, with pretty little moments abounding: the ascending piano line that opens “Since We’ve Fallen Out”, the buoyant sha-la-la vocals in “Hang Dog” and the celtic percussion that peppers it’s outro, the celestial coda of “Supermoon” where both men’s voices combine to chant “come in with the tide” until the song ebbs away. I suppose none of these moments are particularly notable in their own right, but taken together they form an undeniably beautiful whole.

This past year has been a turbulent one for me. We left Indianapolis, our home of seven years, and started a new life 2000 miles away in Seattle, Washington. We started a business in April and welcomed our second son in September. All good things for sure, but not things I’d recommend doing within a 12-month period if you can help it. As I’ve been thinking about our year, full of gale-force winds and tempestuous seas, it’s become pretty apparent why this record has spoken to me so much. I love King Creosote, and his music actually has become an anchor for me over the past several years – something I’ve returned to over and over again whenever I’ve needed it. The Bound of the Red Deer is another cable lashed to that anchor, “steadfast and sure (as) the billows roll.” –Chris

mp3: King Creosote + Michael Johnston – Billows Roll

 

 

Logan’s Favorite Album of 2016

 

The Colour in AnythingThe Colour In Anything

by James Blake

[Polydor]

During my first semester at college I took an introductory art history class. It covered everything from prehistoric fertility statues to contemporary street artists. It was hardly in depth, but broad strokes and shallow interpretations are about all I’m capable of digesting (I know next to nothing about music but compared to my knowledge and understanding of art, I’m a Juilliard graduate specializing in… let’s say Jazz drumming).

However, I do remember one particular piece of art from that class and the experience I had (and have) when looking at it. The Night Café by Vincent Van Gogh depicts the interior of a cafe, a billiard table is near the center of the scene and customers sit slouched, drunk or asleep, at tables that hug the walls of the room. The colors are garish and almost violent. Even now, the sickly yellow-green glow of the lamps in that piece is lurid and unsettling. I was amazed at how the careful selection of colors could evoke such emotion and when I listen to James Blake’s appropriately titled third album, The Colour in Everything, I am reminded of that painting. Whether intentional or not, Colour has an imagery associated with it. The various tracks feel as though they were painted in cool hues of blue, purple, and gray. Blake’s sound is, at times, thickly applied like an Impressionist, chunky and roughly textured — at other times he channels the fine and precise detail of a Rembrandt, while still maintaining the darkness and intense emotions that permeate the album from start to finish.

(I trust anyone who knows anything about art will laugh at my childlike and simpleton interpretation. But I’d say this was pretty good for a guy who still laughs when he hears Peter Paul Ruben’s work referred to as “Ruben’s Boobens.“) –Logan

mp3: James Blake – I Need a Forest Fire (feat. Bon Iver)

 

 

The rest of the best….

 

 

ArrowArrow

by Amy O

[Let’s Pretend Records]

One constant during years in Indianapolis was making the 40-minute drive down to Bloomington to see this or that concert. I’ve seen everyone from Bob Dylan to Sufjan Stevens, from Jens Lekman to Janelle Monae in that little gem of a town, and I’ll always be grateful for its wealth of charming little venues, from DIY spaces like Rhino’s and the Live Room at Russian Recording, to relative mainstays like the Bishop and Bluebird, to the historic Buskirk-Chumley Theater.

Just before we moved I got one last chance to make that drive to Bloomington to see Hop Along at the Bishop with one of my very best friends. Hop Along were, of course, incredible (they’re honestly one of the best bands working today), but I was pleasantly surprised to thoroughly enjoy the opening act – a local group fronted by a young woman going by Amy O. That night was the release show for her latest record, Arrow, and she and her band just played its ten spritely songs straight through. I was so impressed I bought the album on cassette (that was the only format she was selling, if I recall) and went on to listen to this lo-fi garage-pop gem all year. She’s got another record on the horizon, so keep an ear out for this talented export from one of my favorite little Indiana towns. -Chris

mp3: Amy O – Arrow

 

WildflowerWildflower

by The Avalanches

[Modular Recordings/Astralwerks]

This definitely wasn’t Since I Left You, Part II. But honestly, how could it be? After 16 years, The Avalanches made the wise decision to not try and recreate a stone-cold masterpiece, instead coming back with something a little goofier, a little less mysterious, and with a lot more MCs. It might not prove to be as timeless as that first bit of lightning-in-a-bottle, but you know what? I still love it. -Chris

mp3: The Avalanches – Because I’m Me (feat. Camp Lo)

 

22, A Million22, A Million

by Bon Iver

[Jagjaguwar]

When 22, A Million finally saw the light of day, I read a lot of reviews that described it as “Justin Vernon gets weird,” which struck me as odd. Because, in my mind, Justin Vernon’s always been weird. Sure, the narrative for For Emma, Forever Ago was pretty cliched, and yes, it was mainly a man and his guitar – but aside from that, it’s a weird little record, made up of droning alternate tunings and word-soup free-associative lyricism. It was weird! On the Blood Bank EP, Bon Iver flirted with Reichian tonal patterns on “Babies” and was honestly the first singer-songwriter I knew of to experiment with autotune on “Woods.” It was also weird! On 2012’s Bon Iver, Bon Iver he swapped his guitar for maximalist cut-and-paste sound collages that ended with a straight-shooting homage to Bruce Hornsby. That was weird! And I’m not even mentioning all his forays into hip-hop (a la Kanye), experimental rock (Volcano Choir’s first record) and adult contemporary (Gayngs). It’s all been weird!

So yeah, 22, A Million is weird, but c’mon, it’s not like Vernon’s been writing variations on “Hey There Delilah” for the past ten years. The real difference this time around is how fully Vernon leans into his post-guitar phase – the majority of 22, A Million is made up of glitchy electronics and disjointed samples, creating the bed for Vernon’s trademark falsetto, only this time it’s more often distorted than not. So yeah, it’s weird. But just like all the other weirdness Vernon’s put his name on, the record is almost uniformly gorgeous, another testament to the man’s creative genius. -Chris

mp3: Bon Iver – 22 (OVER S∞∞N)

 

case_lang_veirscase/lang/veirs

by case/lang/veirs

[Anti-]

I got deep into this record in the weeks after my second son was born — it’s like a time capsule for this AM-radio golden era that probably never actually existed, but still makes the perfect soundtrack for a lazy afternoon. Neko Case is, as always, a force of nature, and KD Lang and Laura Veirs are just brilliant as ever. It’s an album that doesn’t try hard to win you over, but it doesn’t really need to. It’s just doing it’s thing and it’s thing is enough. -Chris

mp3: case/lang/veirs – Best Kept Secret

 

GoodnessGoodness

by The Hotelier

[Tiny Engines]

EDITORS NOTE: We consider this a family-friendly blog. We try to limit things like profanity and nudity when we can help it, and even though this cover isn’t particularly offensive, it still had a whole lot of naked, hence the pixelation. 🙂

I’m not a creative type. I like to doodle but that’s about it. I often think that I’m one who’s been blessed to appreciate and applaud those that are creative but at the same time is cursed to not be creative myself. I’ve surrounded myself with creative people; people who can use words, music, pencils, and other mediums to create art. Many of these people find inspiration in the mundane and use that to soothe and to solve. People who, when faced with a 3-year old refusing to go to bed, illustrate a comic showing a brave pillow-wielding heroine fighting a sleep deprived monster or who, upon seeing a doe grazing outside their cabin window, ruminate on life, death, and God. I find myself frustrated that I just don’t see the world the way they do. Goodness, by The Hotelier, has many of these moments (including the aforementioned inspiration from a doe). It has been an especially inspiring record since welcoming my first child this year because, if even in the smallest way, I think I’m starting to see the world a bit differently. Holding my son (essentially a little helpless poop factory and sleep destroyer) has made me think more about my life, the path I’ve been on, and, even in these dark times, allows me to see the beauty in this world. He really makes me “see life in exploding color”.

Okay, so maybe it’s all of the above that makes me love this album, or maybe I just enjoy over-the-top spoken word intros (which it definitely has). -Logan

mp3: The Hotelier – Soft Animal

 

Astronaut Meets ApplemanAstronaut Meets Appleman

by King Creosote

[Domino]

In the short five years since I stumbled upon King Creosote he’s released at least 9 albums worth of music (at least I think he has – his “official” releases can be pretty hard to pin down, much less purchase). The guy is just ridiculously prolific, especially considering the fact that the man’s been making music for three decades! This year alone, KC released this on Domino Records, Queens of Brush County on his own Fence Records, and self-released The Bound of the Red Deer with Michael Johnston. How’s anyone supposed to keep up with that?

With that kind of prolificacy, quality can be a real concern, but this guy just keeps pumping out winner after winner for me, and Astronaut Meets Appleman is no exception. Lots of KC’s records can be considered DIY affairs, but this one takes the hat-tip from 2014’s well-received From Scotland With Love and sticks with the higher production values. You can hear it in the gorgeous vocal textures and harp scales on the back half of “You Just Want” or in the lush low end in “Love Life”, or in the accordion and strings that drive the crescendo in “Surface” (in fact the accordion is all over this thing, and I love it so much). Listen, I know I’ve crossed over completely into fanboy territory with this guy and I’ve lost any semblance of objective credibility here, so you can just dismiss anything I say about him from here on out if you want. But make sure you at least take a listen first, because you might just find yourself in the same boat. -Chris

mp3: King Creosote – Surface

 

SonderlustSonderlust

by Kishi Bashi

[Joyful Noise]

Two years ago when Chris and I put together our year-end list, we had two albums vying for the number one spot, Sharon Van Etten’s Are We There and Kishi Bashi’s Lighght. Ultimately, if memory serves me right, we settled on Lighght strictly because Chris and I had had a fantastic year – 2014 had been one of the best years in our lives and we wanted our “top” album to reflect that optimism. Personally, I was celebrating my relationship and engagement to my now wife. I’m still in awe of my wife, but particularly in that year, when we decided to get married, I could not believe my luck. She is the everything I was made to believe was asking too much. The beauty and, at times, the lighthearted silliness of Lighght encapsulated what made 2014 wonderful. Now, two years later, I’m married, I’ve just welcomed my son into the world, and Kishi Bashi’s Sonderlust is beautifully in line with these life changes.

Both albums, ultimately, are about love. But where Lighght was frantic, excited, and just generally matched that thrill of a new love and romance, Sonderlust seems to take a more honest, fragile, and realistic approach to love. There is a mature love expressed in this album. A love based on understanding, compromise, and true affection. And you can take my word on this. I’ve been married for almost TWO years, so I’m pretty much an expert on mature and celestial love. –Logan

mp3: Kishi Bashi – Statues in a Gallery

 

Wild Dark MetalWild Dark Metal

by Mason Jennings

[Stats and Brackets]

This record occupies an odd space for me. It came out just as we were packing up and preparing to leave our home of seven years to start all over in the Pacific Northwest. I listened to it almost exclusively as I finished packing up our little duplex rental, repainting and filling holes in the 70-year old plaster walls. It’s what I listened to during the nights after my wife and son flew ahead of me to our new home — it played on an old portable turntable while I slept on an air mattress on the bare wooden floor surrounded by the dregs of everything we own, the things that didn’t file away easily into previously packed categories.

I haven’t returned to it much since that week, and I’m not sure when I will again. But the last two songs, “How I Feel About You” and “On The Starry Banks”, have never really left me since those nights on the floor in our old house, like little beacons from another life. -Chris

mp3: Mason Jennings – How I Feel About You

 

PreoccupationsPreoccupations

by Preoccupations

[Jagjaguwar]

With all of the talk of love and happiness in my other posts, I feel like we need to take it a tad darker.

2016 was a nuts year for me and my family. I’ll try not to go into too much detail, but it all started in February when I decided, along with my doctor, that I could discontinue my anti-anxiety medication. I had been in a really good spot for a while and I was feeling quite triumphant. My beautiful wife was pregnant, we had just put a down payment on a home we were building, and I had just received a pretty nice pay bump at work. These things and more led me to feeling emotionally stable, comfortable, and confident. And boy was I happy.

And then things started happening, not bad things, undeniably good things. Over the next four months, the ground was broken on our home, I left my old job to take a great position at a company I love, we moved into our new home, and the little boy continued to grow until he joined us mid-November, happy and healthy. During this time, even while we were celebrating such wonderful things, I felt the shake of my old anxiety. New father jitters. Homeowner nerves. New job stomach. Holiday exhaustion. It was easy to dismiss these things and not acknowledge that maybe I needed that help again. Things were wonderful and I was happy! You could look at any aspect of my life now versus 5 years ago and see the almost exponential difference. But I couldn’t shake the feeling of some unknown dread. Completely unidentifiable but, in my head, 100% real. It sucked.

Preoccupations (formerly Viet Cong) have, in my opinion, captured this emotional struggle with their self-titled release. Preoccupations is heavy. It perpetually beats these emotions into you through an almost monotonous repetition that keeps you uneasy and on edge. This was obviously the band’s intent. Each track title alludes to a battle so many people are facing day to day (and I fully realize I am very lucky and I feel a bit uneasy even putting myself in the same category as those that carry a far heavier burden). So far, I’ve described Preoccupations as an emotional struggle and a battle, but what is beautiful is that, at no point, is there the thought of a surrender. It might be an ongoing fight, you might lose battles here and there, but ultimately, the war of this album closes repeating the following line, “You’re not scared. Carry your fever away from here.

(And in case you were wondering, I’m feeling much better now. I’m back on my meds and things are going great.) -Logan

mp3: Preoccupations – Anxiety

 

A Moon Shaped PoolA Moon Shaped Pool

by Radiohead

[XL Recordings]

I don’t have much to add to any discussion on Radiohead, so I’ll keep this brief. As someone who genuinely enjoyed The King of Limbs, I wasn’t looking for some redemptive comeback record as much as I was looking for another gorgeous collection of songs — but no matter what you were hoping for, I think A Moon Shaped Pool probably delivered — it’s just that great. Like most  of Radiohead’s work, it’s claustrophobic and anxious while still somehow being tender and breathtakingly beautiful. But what’s most striking to me about A Moon Shaped Pool is how generous it is. Honestly, there’s so few examples of bands this successful making music this vital this late in their career – and the fact is, Thom Yorke & co. honestly didn’t need to. But they did, and it sounds like they put everything they had into it. And then they go and throw freaking “True Love Waits” on the end of it too? I mean, come on. We don’t deserve this. -Chris

mp3: Radiohead – True Love Waits

 

SVIIBSVIIB

by School of Seven Bells

[Vagrant]

I was pretty late to the School of Seven Bells party. I liked their second record well enough and put “I L U” on several mixes back in 2010, but besides that, they’d flown completely under my radar. Then, in 2013, Benjamin Curtis passed away due to complications associated with lymphoma. His surviving bandmate Alejandra Deheza released the last thing they’d recorded together, a cover of Joey Ramones’ “I Got Knocked Down (But I’ll Get Up),” which Curtis had reportedly been working on in his hospital bed right up until his death. The over seven-minute take on the snotty classic won me over easily, and from there I dove back into a truly impressive catalog, cut much too short. So you can imagine how excited I was to learn that Deheza was finishing and planned to release the record she and Curtis had been working on before he died. The result is SVIIB, the likely last record under the School of Seven Bells moniker.

But you don’t need to know all that history to enjoy this thing – these songs stand up just fine on their own. Side A’s killer run of “Ablaze” through “A Thousand Times More” is as bleary-eyed and brilliant as anything else in their repertoire, and while the second half is more sedate in comparison, it’s no less pretty for it – all shimmery and enveloping in the way that Deheza’s and Curtis’s best work always has been. In short, SVIIB is just a gorgeous batch of songs, and certainly a worthy coda to a singular run of records.

mp3: School of Seven Bells – A Thousand Times More

 

We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service

by A Tribe Called Quest

[Epic]

I just wasn’t that plugged into hip-hop this year. All the releases I was most excited about left me feeling cold (Kanye, Chance), and I’m just not that interested in any of the newest rappers I’ve heard (That’s right! I’m old! Get off my lawn!).

But something about seeing Q-Tip spit his bars from “We The People….” on SNL mere days after learning that a narcissistic authoritarian cheetoh-in-a-wig was going to be the next leader of the free world got my blood pumping. Since then, it’s been a sheer joy to revel in Tribe’s return from the grave – a vital document that appeared at exactly the right time. –Chris

mp3: A Tribe Called Quest – We the People…

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2013 Singles Header

So we had so much fun putting together our Top Albums list, we decided to go ahead and make a Top Songs list too! Hopefully this kind of makes up for not posting all year! This list basically collects the songs that really killed us this year, whether they were world-conquering disco anthems, churning electronic chamber pieces, Billboard Top-40 hits, covers of Billboard Top-40 hits, or slowed-down versions of Dolly Parton classics – these are all just amazing songs.

Our rules for inclusion were simple: only one song per artist (Sorry “Afterlife”!), songs could come from one of our Favorite Albums, but couldn’t have been included in our Favorite Album post (Sorry “Holy”!), and finally, every song had to be unequivocally awesome. I promise they all qualify.

They’re listed below in alphabetical order by artist, because we don’t hate ourselves and weren’t about to rank these in any kind of favorite order. That being said, my favorite song of the year was hands-down “Song For Zula” by Phosphorescent. That song is my 2013 jam. Here’s hoping you find your 2013 jam below.

Read the rest of this entry »

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2013 Header2Well another year has come and gone, and we still haven’t been writing too much around here. We’re still listening to tons of great music, of course, but for some reason the urge to write about it hasn’t been there. Maybe it will strike again someday, but maybe it won’t. It’s hard to say.

One thing’s for sure though, we still very much enjoy putting together this year-end list. It’s become one of our favorite things each November to start emailing back and forth some of our preliminary thoughts on what should and shouldn’t make the list, and then spending a few weeks listing and re-listing, then splicing our lists and figuring out who will write what. It’s a lot of fun, and while we’re fairly certain at this point we’re at an all-time low for potential readers, we still like to think there might be somebody who’ll enjoy reading about what moved us this year.

But if not, that’s ok. We probably get the most out of this anyway, and at least we’ll have something to look back on when we’re telling our grandchildren all about what we listened to before we all got Google Glasses implanted in our heads and all the music ever made was constantly streaming right into our frontal lobes. They’ll probably think it’s quaint how we tried to quantify our favorite music of the year. And it probably is. But maybe we are quaint in our sleepy little corner of the internet. At least we’ve got great music here.

 

Rilo Kiley19. Rkives

by Rilo Kiley

[Little Record Company]

Ever since Rilo Kiley’s quiet demise a few years ago, there’s been fevered talk among fans of a collection of rare and unreleased material, and that collection finally saw the light of day this year in the cheekily titled Rkives. Considering that this may be the last we’ll ever hear from this remarkable band, I was probably going to enjoy it no matter what – but here’s the thing: this collection is so good you don’t need to be a RK devotee to thoroughly enjoy it. Frankly, the whole thing is miles better than any odds and ends collection has any right to be. The first half – from Jenny Lewis’s baleful ode to LA “Let Me Back In”, through the vintage-Rilo Kiley wordy-rockers “It’ll Get You There” and “Runnin’ Around”, all the way to the power-pop sing-a-long “I Remember You” – is as good as any stretch of recorded music I’ve heard all year. In the middle of that stretch is a Blake Sennett number that, in my opinion, is better than any song he contributed to any of their proper releases, and its blistering guitar outro is worth the price of admission alone. The second half isn’t as consistently impressive, but it still yields some gems, like the Execution of All Things b-side “Emotional”, before it closes with one of RK’s oldest and most iconic tunes “The Frug”. That song, from the band’s 1998 debut EP, is probably still the most concise encapsulation of everything that made this group so special – from the wry humor and playful guitar, to Jenny’s beautiful alto and subtly devastating lyrical confessions (“I can take my clothes off/I cannot fall in love”). For this Rilo Kiley fan, I couldn’t have asked for much more than this. -Chris

mp3: Rilo Kiley – Let Me Back In

 

Okkervil River18. The Silver Gymnasium

by Okkervil River

[ATO]

Okkervil River has never appeared on a WiAC year-end list. The closest they got is their collaboration with Roky Erickson (and boy, that’s still such a good album) but that doesn’t really count as a proper OR album. I don’t expect you to have an encyclopedic knowledge of our lists, but if I were you, I would have bet money that The Stand Ins or I Am Very Far would have showed up. Nope. Well it’s time that oversight was remedied. Talk about a slow burn though. If Chris questions the inclusion of any album on this list it should be this entry. When he asked me what I first thought of this album I was pretty dismissive, “Eh, it’s ok.” I liked it, but when I held it up to earlier albums, it just didn’t move me. It took a solid amount of time before I realized The Silver Gymnasium is its own beast entirely. A beautiful, moving beast.  Let me sum it up so you can get to the next entry: the music is triumphant, the lyrics are tragic, but ultimately, the past is the past. -Logan

mp3: Okkervil River – Stay Young

 

Daft Punk17. Random Access Memories

by Daft Punk

[Columbia]

I was going to write about how this was exactly the record I didn’t know I needed this year, how an over-the-top disco kitsche-fest pushed the exact groove buttons I didn’t even know I had. And I was going to write about how I was initially disappointed that the whole record didn’t sound like “Get Lucky”, until I realized that one “Get Lucky” is probably all the “Get Lucky” the universe could contain. And I was going to write how much “Motherboard” sounds like Daft Punk collaborating with Philip Glass and how much I love that. But then I realized that everything I feel about this record is pretty succinctly expressed in these two videos. So just watch those and you’ll understand. -Chris

mp3: Daft Punk – Doin’ It Right

 

Haim16. Days Are Gone

by Haim

[Polydor]

I don’t have much to write here that hasn’t already been written elsewhere. Three sisters play in a family rock-n-roll cover band as kids, obviously take great notes, come up with a perfect amalgamation of everything that was great about popular rock in the 70’s and 80’s and then unleash it on the world in the form of songs like “The Wire”, “Falling” and “Don’t Save Me”. Their musicianship is fantastic, their hooks undeniable. If anyone has a problem with these girls, it’s because they must hate fun and probably murder kittens for a hobby. Just kidding, they probably just listen to the hype more than to the music, because this is some great music. -Chris

mp3: Haim – Don’t Save Me

 

Foals15. Holy Fire

by Foals

[Transgressive]

I remember a reggae-heavy record shop in Laguna Beach I visited sometime in 2010. No real treasures until the twice-baked owner showed me to a random box from the back that was like the Room of Requirement. Think about an album and it appeared in a puff of bubonic chronic smoke. I walked away with three or four albums, one of which was Total Life Forever, which would be my first real introduction to Foals, and it is still such a great album.  Now if Tim McGraw has taught us anything, it’s that the memory of your first love never fades away, and I will always love TLF, but Holy Fire outshines it in just about every way. Guys, the beginning of this album is something else. Listening to the prelude and the first few minutes of “Inhaler” you think, “Oh this is going to be a great Foals album” and then Yannis Phillippakis screams “and I can’t get enough…SPACE!” and you’re whole world stops existing. But you’re fine with it; ‘cause in its place is distortion, rock, and the unsent spirit of grunge. -Logan

mp3: Foals – Inhaler

 

Yo La Tengo14. Fade

by Yo La Tengo

[Matador]

So I have a difficult relationship with digital music, and my experience with Yo La Tengo’s gorgeous new album illustrates perfectly my fraught relationship with recorded music when it’s divorced from physical media. I finally signed up for Spotify this year, and Fade was probably one of the first records I used my new-found account to listen to back in January, and I actually listened to it quite a bit. But I didn’t fall in love with it. I knew I liked it and that it was very good, but I didn’t have any real emotional connection to it. It wasn’t until very recently, when I bought it on vinyl at my local independent record store, that I really fell for this record. So why is that? The music hadn’t changed – the only thing that changed was how I interacted with it. I think there’s something about the commitment that physical media demands – that act of saying “I Choose You” to a record and then going out and buying it – that makes the difference. That act of choosing tends to focus my attention and tastes so that I really do end up liking something more than if I’d just streamed it 30 times. It also doesn’t hurt that I’m such a visual person and album art plays such a huge role in how I interact with a piece of music (and man, does Fade have some gorgeous album art). When I can’t flip through liner notes or lyrics I always feel like the artist is keeping me at arm’s length, and I can’t develop the same relationship with it. And then there is something about the physical act of putting something on the turntable/CD player/cassette deck that somehow makes the relationship between me and the music more permanent – like that physical act just brought our relationship into the real world. It’s like that Perro Del Mar song, “you gotta give to get” – even just the very minor effort required to turn a record over somehow imbues emotional resonance to what I’m listening to, and that opens me up to really be moved by what the music has to offer. And so far, I just can’t have that same experience with on-demand stream-whatever-you-want digital music. So in conclusion: Yo La Tengo’s Fade is a beautiful record and you should listen to it on some kind of physical thing that exists in the world. -Chris

mp3: Yo La Tengo – Before We Run

 

Jon Hopkins13. Immunity

by Jon Hopkins

[Domino]

Electronic music can sometimes be pretty cold. That’s nothing new. But more and more, electronic musicians seem to be finding ways of letting in the heat. Not the four-on-the-floor club-anthem kind of heat though – but the human touch kind of heat, the warmth you feel whenever you can tell something was labored over and loved into existence. Jon Hopkins is the master at this kind of heat. On Immunity he explores a remarkable breadth of ways to express it, like in “Collider” when he leaves in the sound of someone speaking… not the actual words they spoke, but the sound they made when they spoke them, the sound of air leaving their lips. Or like halfway through “Breathe This Air”, when the swirling bass falls off leaving just Hopkins’ piano and the sound of… something falling in the hall? Or maybe it’s someone walking into the room? I’m not sure what it is, but it’s entrancing. Immunity is full of little touches like that, where the music is wrapped up in the sound of the space it was made in, so much so that the space is as much a part of the record as the actual music. Nowhere is this more true than on the eponymous closing track, featuring King Creosote (another one of my year-end favorites), where the song itself seems to expand and encompass whatever space and time you happen to be listening to it in… it’s breath-taking, and might just be one of the prettiest pieces of music released all year. -Chris

mp3: Jon Hopkins – Immunity

 

James Blake12. Overgrown

by James Blake

[ATLAS]

To me, my love of James Blake is a continuing mystery. Those of you that were with us in 2011 will remember Mr. Blake’s self-titled album appeared on my year-end list. I didn’t know why I liked him so much then and I still don’t know why I like him so much now (my friend Rachel says that all of her gay friends are obsessed with James Blake… I’m not going to read into that). Maybe I unknowingly love Romanticism and the poetry of William Blake. I’ll let my brother Ty explain: “Can’t believe he [James Blake] is only 24 though, that is the age when you’re most prone to High Romanticism. I always loved the English Romantics, Byron, Shelley, Keats et al. I’d like to assume you know what I’m talking about but none of those dudes I just mentioned wrote Lord of the Rings so you probably don’t. I can’t believe BYU is a real school. Anyway, yeah, James Blake is maybe the spiritual ancestor of William Blake.” Oh well, maybe I’ll never know why Overgrown is so great, but with songs like “Digital Lion” and “Retrograde” it is undeniably one of the years best. (And yes, I am excited to see the new Hobbit movie. Screw you Ty.) -Logan

mp3: James Blake – Retrograde

 

Mark Kozelek11. Perils From The Sea

by Mark Kozelek & Jimmy LaValle

[Caldo Verde]

It was a good year to be a Mark Kozelek fan. The man released three whole albums of new music, not to mention a Phish-like deluge of live records, plus a few singles teasing an early 2014 release – it was a lot of music to unpack, and frankly it’s all worth your time. But of the recent bounty, I’ve gotten most lost in this, his collaboration with the Album Leaf’s Jimmy LaValle – whose electronic blips and boops add a subtle new dimension to Kozelek’s stories, somehow managing to make them even more spacious and ethereal. Not that the music is that different from your average Sun Kil Moon fare – LaValle’s synthetic backdrops are not particularly lush or elaborate, but instead rather sparse arrangements of beats and midi melodies, essentially the electronic version of “the-man-and-his-guitar” sound – but they strike just the right note for this batch of Kozelek’s ruminations on nostalgia, aging, family, love, and death. The record is long (most songs clock in over seven minutes), but the songs are varied enough and so uniformly excellent that the length is just an invitation to get lost in Kozelek’s world. Ranging from the complicated have/have-not morality of “Gustavo”, to the stream-of-consciousness anti-lullaby of “Ceiling Gazing”, to the grand, conflicted affirmation of “Somehow the Wonder of Life Prevails”, there is not a slight song on here. They are all beautiful and thoughtful and should be a part of your life. -Chris

mp3: Mark Kozelek & Jimmy LaValle – Ceiling Gazing

 

Marnie Stern10. The Chronicles of Marnia

by Marnie Stern

[Kill Rock Stars]

True confessions: the reason I started listening to Marnie Stern was because she went off in an interview about how much she hated the ending of LOST, and how she was more upset about the end of that show than about her last break-up – and I thought “YES! THAT IS EXACTLY HOW I FEEL!” (Just ask anyone who’s inadvertently brought this topic up with me over the last several years – I promise they regret it.) It turns out her taste in television is not the only thing to love about Marnie Stern – because she happens to make fantastic music. She reminds me a little of early Mates of State – the manic energy, the lyrical free-association, the frenetic melodies bouncing around like an ADHD kindergartener – just replace the Korgs with some serious guitar slaying and you’ll start to picture what’s going on here. This record is just fun from front to back, and unlike some TV shows I can think of, I can recommend it without reservation. -Chris

mp3: Marnie Stern – The Chronicles Of Marnia

 

Portugal The Man9. Evil Friends

by Portugal. The Man

[Atlantic]

Oh boy, oh boy, I LOVE Evil Friends. My love notwithstanding though, I won’t let me nieces and nephews listen to this album, and I dread the day when my future children (Ha! Not likely!) discover this album in a dusty box in the basement. All of my parenting about only listening to obscenity-free music will go straight out the window (kind of like when Chris discovered one of his Dad’s records had the f-word on it… that record was James Taylor’s Greatest Hits. I don’t look forward to destroying Evil Friends just to prove a point.) Really though, this album is just perfect. It has that perfect combination of funk, psych, and rock that I’ve craved all year. “Modern Jesus” is maybe one of the best Portugal. The Man songs ever, “Waves” makes me want to protest something, even if I’m not sure what, and “Creep In a T-shirt” is so darn catchy I can hardly stand it. However, if I had to pick a favorite song, it would be “Smile”; if I could write music, I would have written “Smile”. To a great degree, it’s exactly what I want out of life. Is that selfish? Probably.  I get news-fatigue.  I get tired of the bickering politicians, reports on how fat, poor, and stupid we’re all becoming, and yes, I get tired of hearing about starvation, genocides, and the general suffering of humanity. It’s nice to forget the world sometimes. -Logan

mp3: Portugal. The Man – Smile

 

King Creosote8. That Might Well Be It, Darling

by King Creosote

[Domino]

Since falling fast and hard for Diamond Mine a couple years ago, I’ve dived head-long into the rabbit-hole of Kenny Anderson’s (AKA King Creosote’s) discography, and it’s been an experience. Over the past decade and a half the guy has released something like 50 records, ranging from proper studio releases to self-made CD-Rs to locally distributed vinyl records, and so much of it is so genuinely fantastic that it’s pretty overwhelming. For instance, this year’s That Might Well Be It, Darling was originally released last year in the form of three vinyl-only EPs, which were themselves re-recordings of 2010’s tour-only vinyl record, That Might Be It Darling, which was the follow-up to 2009’s performance-only record, My Nth Bit of Strange in Umpteen Years. You see what I mean? This guy is nuts. Sonically, Darling strays far from the incubated intimacy I originally fell for on Diamond Mine – instead showcasing the raucous bandleader and wry songsmith that’s spearheaded the close-knit Fence Collective in Scotland for years, and it legitimately feels like a clutch of good friends hammering out a solid set to a sold-out hometown crowd, and loving every minute of it. Book-ended by sing-along barnstormers “Little Man” and “Going Gone”, the record contains everything from bright folk-rockers to tears-in-your beer torch songs to an 11-minute showcase of what Kenny Anderson can do with that voice and an indelible melody. This is yet another great entry into an already pretty overwhelming discography. -Chris

mp3: King Creosote – On the Night of the Bonfire

 

Mikal Cronin7. MCII

by Mikal Cronin

[Merge]

I just love this record so much. It’s fuzzed-out garage rock for people with feelings, or maybe just people who really love a good pop song. Because seriously, Cronin’s stuff is right up there with any of the classic pop songsmiths – Wilson, Davies, Nilsson, you name it and I hear their peer on MCII. Every one of these 10 songs is a 3-4 minute punch of unbelievably concise songcraft – unveiling brilliant melody after brilliant melody, every one gilded with hooks and bridges and codas that add just enough weight to what might have otherwise been just another good garage record. Cronin also expands on his composition skills here, using a clutch of strings and keys to complement that ever-fuzzy guitar. And oh man, can we talk about that guitar? Because that unapologetically overdriven monster has soundtracked many a roadtrip for me this year, so much that I can hardly hear the hook on “Shout It Out” and not reach to roll down the windows. -Chris

mp3: Mikal Cronin – Shout It Out

 

Local Natives6. Hummingbird

by Local Natives

[Frenchkiss]

In years past, I didn’t want a concert to influence how much I enjoyed an album, I wanted the album to stand on its own instead. Now I can understand why I tried to do that then, but like most of the decisions I made in my early to mid-twenties, I’ve come to realize that was stupid. That isn’t to say if you haven’t seen Local Natives in concert you won’t get why Hummingbird is so incredible and totally deserving of being one the best albums of the year, but if you haven’t seen them, you may not get why I’m so deeply in love with it. Really, this album is the best and this band is the best, and you should see them (preferably you should have seen them when they were touring with Frightened Rabbit AND the National this year. Oh man, just thinking about that lineup…). We’re not talking about concerts though, we’re talking about albums and this one got to me right away. I enjoyed Gorilla Manor, but Hummingbird is quite a different experience. It’s a little…darker, I guess? Not as poppy for sure, but it seems to have traded that for some depth. “Wooly Mammoth” blows it out of the water. Starting off with that chunky guitar and drums and then the transition into the smooth and soaring chorus… sublime. -Logan

mp3: Local Natives – Wooly Mammoth

 

Low5. The Invisible Way

by Low

[Sub Pop]

I’ve slept on Low for years. But something finally clicked about a year ago and I finally started my descent into the annals of their 20-year career – and man, has it been wonderful. Fast forward to this past March: we took an impromptu road-trip to the Shawnee National Forest in the southern tip of Illinois, which if you didn’t know, is gorgeous (see: Exhibit A). We explored ancient rock formations, Ohio-river pirate caves, and Native-American ruins. It felt kind of surreal, like we were discovering this magical other world, one that had existed for years right under our noses but no-one knew about it. During that whole trip we listened to a mix I’d made of Low’s music, and thinking about it now, I couldn’t think of a more appropriate soundtrack for the understated grandeur of that little corner of the Midwest than the gorgeously understated songs of Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker, themselves natives of another little corner of the Midwest. That mix ended with “Just Make It Stop”, a chugging highlight from The Invisible Way, Low’s most recent record. I know I’m speaking as a recent convert here, but I think this album is a perfect encapsulation of what Low does so well. The production (leant by Jeff Tweedy – yet another Midwestern native) is especially warm – often you can literally hear the space they’re recording in, their voices and piano chords bouncing back off the walls. But something is still slightly, even inexplicably, distant… like you’re just peeking in on some magical other world, one that you may have just found, one that isn’t going to give up all its mysteries just yet. -Chris

mp3: Low – Just Make It Stop

 

JR_TBIIT_Digipack_F4. The Beast In Its Tracks

by Josh Ritter

[Pytheas]

My admiration for Josh Ritter is well documented. But I was a little skeptical when I first heard rumors that this record was a more stripped back affair, recorded after his recent divorce. We’ve all heard the old trope: “guy gets his heart broken, gets back to basics and bears it all on record”, and its not always a good omen. But here’s the thing, this isn’t really a break-up record. There’s no real mud-slinging, no pining, no naval-gazing. For Ritter, who’s always been interested in the grand scope of things (even the titles of his records seem to conjure the sweeping arc of history, with phrases like Golden Age, Historical Conquests, or So Runs The World Away), those things would all seem kind of slight. Instead, this is the chance for him to place what happened to him within a grander scope, and he does. Instead of dwelling on the period of heartbreak and loneliness following the break, he starts the narrative a bit later, after he’s pulled through and finds himself in a new, healthier relationship – he first describes his new lover in relation to his old (he says they only look alike “in a certain light”), but later, as the old lover’s memory begins to fade, he focuses more and more on his new love alone, essentially dedicating the records second half to her. There’s a palpable sense of moving on, of things working out. On “Hopeful” he sings “the world is as the world is, everybody’s gonna hurt like hell sometimes” over a loping gait and plinking keys, but then he adds “she’s hopeful for me, coming out of the dark clouds” – essentially laying out the thesis for the record: we all hurt like hell sometimes, but it gets better. -Chris

mp3: Josh Ritter – Hopeful

 

Volcano Choir3. Repave

by Volcano Choir

[Jagjaguwar]

This year, unlike in years past, Chris and I share very few year-end albums in common. Which I think is great… sure you disagree on some things, but you’ve got fundamentals. We still need to shy away from talking about Portugal. The Man or Israeli/Palestinian relations (really Chris? The ’67 demarcation line? c’mon man)(NOTE: I don’t actually know Chris’ thoughts on this subject), but again, we agree on the fundamentals and really nothing is more fundamental than loving Justin Vernon and his projects. No question that Repave was going to be on our list. After I heard the first four tracks it was just, “Yep, this is it. Here it is guys. I found it. Everything you want is right here. I found it.” The biggest question, more than on any other album on this list, was what song to include in this entry.  “Tiderays” or maybe “Byegone”? I finally settled on “Comrade” (though not choosing “Acetate” may still keep me up at night). Sure, my four most favorite songs from Repave are the first four and comprise the first half, but don’t think that I consider this a one-sided album. Start to finish this is beautiful. -Logan

mp3: Volcano Choir – Comrade

 

Frightened Rabbit2. Pedestrian Verse

by Frightened Rabbit

[Atlantic]

I have a pretty funny story about how I ended up on a date with a married woman at a Frightened Rabbit concert this year, but it would take way too long to explain, so instead I’m going to tell you about the homemade calendar I plan on making. For real though, 12 tracks on Pedestrian Verse, 12 months in the years, and some of the most quotable lyrics ever. Yep, it’s gonna happen (and my mom said I’d never use the skills I developed in my college bookbinding course) (okay Ty, I get it, BYU might not be a real school). Each month would feature my favorite line from each track: “Acts of Man” (“I’m here, not heroic, but I’ll try”), “Backyard Skulls” (“White silent skulls are smiling at hypocrisy”), “Holy” (oh man, “Holy” guys, maybe the line of the year, “You’re acting all holy, me, I’m just full of holes”), “The Woodpile” (“Would you come brighten my corner?”), etc. Pedestrian Verse and Frightened Rabbit dominated the first half of this year and it was my most listened to album, by a decent margin too. More than anything though, this album excites me; it engages me like no other album on this list, and it’s the most exciting album of the year. -Logan

mp3: Frightened Rabbit – Holy

 

National1. Trouble Will Find Me

by The National

[4AD]

It’s become more and more clear to me over the years that the National are probably my favorite band. Which is sort of interesting, because over those same years I’ve become less and less likely to even have a favorite band at all. Generally, the older I get, the more I listen to music from a broader base, and the less I seem to obsess over any one particular group the way I did in my teens and early twenties. That is, except for the National. I kind of do obsess over them. I love everything they’ve ever done almost without exception. I collect even their 7-inches and EPs. Every time I’ve seen them perform live, the experience has been more akin to a spiritual rite than a rock and roll show. I even know every member of the band by name (even the bassist!). I cannot think of a more talented pair of guitarists/composers than the Dessner brothers, and I don’t think there has been a better low-end in rock music than the Devendorfs (I recently wrote a 1400-word treatise to a friend on how Bryan Devendorf is the best living drummer in rock right now), and then there’s Matt Berninger and his way of tying words into knots around already knotty subjects. And that voice? Just stop. The talent contained in this group is just staggering. And Trouble Will Find Me is that staggeringly talented band operating at their peak. It’s easily their most immediate, most visceral record since Alligator, but with the same poise and consistency of Boxer, combined with the fully realized production and sound of High Violet. It’s the natural culmination of everything they’ve done up to this point, taking everything they do so well and doing it, well, so well. Every song feels as if its already been part of their canon for years, and I’ve had some sort of experience with just about every single one on this record; whether it was falling in love with “I Should Live in Salt” while driving through the mountains of West Virginia in June, or getting a lump in the back of my throat while watching them perform “Graceless” in Louisville, or playing “Hard to Find” on repeat while watching the sun set behind a wintry Indianapolis skyline. I’ve returned to this record over and over again all year, and it’s continued to amaze and inspire every time. And I guess that’s why we have favorite bands – because bands like the National keep making records like this. -Chris

mp3: The National – Don’t Swallow the Cap

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It’s been pretty quiet around here for awhile (so quiet that we’re pretty sure just our mom’s are checking this thing at this point) (hi moms!), but even though we haven’t been writing all that much, we promise we’ve still been listening to loads of good music. So putting this list together has been a good chance for us to finally put down how we feel about some of the great stuff we’ve heard this year. We just hope it’s as fun for you to browse through as it was for us to pull together!

Before reading on, just a quick note about a record that’s not on this list: The Head & The Heart’s debut record saw a major label release this year (on Sub Pop), and although we’ve probably listened to that absolute gem of a record more than just about any other this year, we didn’t include it on account of it being on our year-end list for 2010, since they self-released it that year. But just know this: under different circumstances, The Head & The Heart would most certainly top this list. So if you haven’t heard them yet, let that be your invitation! Because they are so great!

So with that out of the way, we’re ready to unveil our Top 21 Albums of 2011. Just remember that this list represents our favorite albums of the year, and not necessarily the best albums of the year. If we had to pick what we thought were the very best albums critically, this list might look a little different. But we’re not critics, so we’re not going to worry about who made the greatest artistic strides or whatever this year. These are simply our very favorite albums of the year: the ones that made us laugh, cry, dance, smile, press repeat, wet our pants, etc. Basically, this is what we’ll remember when we look back on 2011.

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