A 2011 Album (and 67 Other Worthwhile Songs) Print
Music - Feature Stories
Written by Jeff Ignatius   
Thursday, 15 December 2011 11:30

Twenty favorite songs from 2011 clocking in at just under 76 minutes, roughly sequenced. No apologies for the narrowness of my tastes.

Paris Suit Yourself, “Sometimes.” From the flat, stuttering riff to the woodblock accents to the falsetto vocals, this one plays a bit like a parody of Queens of the Stone Age, which itself has occasionally seemed like a parody. But as I’ve long said about the songs of Spinal Tap: There are a lot of bands that would be proud to have made “Big Bottom” and “Stonehenge.” It’s such a fine line between stupid and clever, and even when you’re on the wrong side, sometimes it works.

Hella, “Self Checkout.” Back in 2005, I described the guitar-and-drums duo Hella as a “spastic, manic, lightning-speed instrumental racket, equal parts math rock and free jazz, calculation and improvisation ... . It’s strange and arresting, and – shockingly – instantly accessible if you keep your mind and ears open.” Thankfully, not much has changed. The secret of Hella generally and “Self Checkout” in particular is its violent lyricism – the feelings and wordless narrative crafted in the context of the din. As you might expect, there’s anger and frustration, but joy sneaks through; you can almost feel the exuberance of creation and the rush of nailing it.

Other Lives, “As I Lay My Head Down.” Four songs from Tamer Animals, one of my favorite albums of the year, could have made this list. The band has an unerring ear for full but lean, purposeful arrangements, and its sound is both atmospheric and earthy; you can float away on it or weigh each component. AllMusic.com accurately summarized that the “album flits between the majestic and the miniature, ... both elegant and organic, like classical music made by people living off the land.”

Eisley, “Ambulance.” Given its lovely piano-and-voice opening – later gently underscored by strings – the ultimate muscularity here comes as a bit of a surprise. But it’s necessary. As a pure ballad, it would be too precious, and the lyrics require a backdrop forceful and full enough to sustain the central metaphor of heartbreak as car wreck: “I need an ambulance / I took, I took the worst of the blow / Send me a redeemer / Let me know / If I’m gonna be all right / Am I gonna be all right? / ’Cause I know how it usually goes / I know how it usually goes.”

Thursday, “No Answers.” I generally don’t tolerate songs with synth leads, and this one puts it right up front. But the vocals here are so charming, and the triumphant, swelling, soaring, human chorus obliterates my resistance.

The David Mayfield Parade, “I Just Might Pray.” A song that begins “I was tired of being lonely / So I wished for someone like you” and includes lyrics such as “You’re like an angel when the sun is in my eyes” doesn’t inspire confidence. Words so earnest and blinded by love can only work when they’re really sold – and then they’ll likely still be saccharine. So consider this something of a miracle; there’s just enough cleverness (“You’re a lesson that I need to learn again”) and desperation to give it some depth, and the presentation is tuneful and contagious.

Jessica Lea Mayfield, “I’ll Be the One You Want Someday.” Her brother David’s song is downright giddy, and this is close to its opposite. A slow country/blues hybrid (not to be confused with country blues) with a big guitar channeling grief and longing, it works musically, but Mayfield’s deadpan voice and understated, bluntly plain lyrics star. She sings with a sleepy, calculated stiltedness reflecting teenage awkwardness, but with a skilled songwriter’s restraint: “I’d hold your hand but you do not want me.”

Danger Mouse & Daniele Luppi, “Two Against One.” The production, arrangement, and instrumentation – note the harpsichord – are expectedly meticulous and rich, but the vocal contributions from Jack White and a great lyrical premise give fitting voice to internal conflict: “I get the feeling that it’s two against one / I’m already fighting me, so what’s another one?”

Battles, “Africastle.” Instrumental prog rock in an atmospheric, spaghetti-Western- and African-influenced costume. It takes nearly two minutes for it to coalesce, plinks over reverb guitar and an organ pulse at the outset, but then it shifts to a bright, experimental dance track of sounds from a foreign land through a modern American filter. Its next phase harnesses the energy of the second section into an almost narrative drive, which is then reined in and slowly released before a denouement of squeaky electronics. A six-minute journey that feels like it covers continents and ages.

Teddy Thompson, “Over and Over.” He sings more like Chris Isaak than his father Richard, but here he’s got Dad’s lyrical bite, employed for supreme self-loathing: “Some time ago I came up with a plan / Shit on myself so that no one else can / I have perfected this stance / You better keep your distance.” And it’s delivered with a firm loveliness – gorgeously articulated strings, guitar, and voice.

Yes, Inferno, “Tunnels in London.” Compared to Hella, this instrumental workout likely comes across as glacial – but what wouldn’t? It cautiously backs into itself instead of recklessly diving in and takes almost twice as long to cover half the musical territory. It’s obviously more expansive in its instrumentation and aesthetic, but think of it as Hella on Ritalin.

The Envy Corps, “Med. Song.” The exotic, concise, and nimble lead-guitar line should be the envy of any rock band, but it’s just the beginning of this enigmatic song’s allure. The drums and bass mimic and play off that guitar over a bed of electronics, while Luke Pettipoole’s falsetto drifts and darts above, with graceful precision. Comparisons to Radiohead are inevitable given the singing and fastidious textures, but the Envy Corps’ It Culls You easily stands on its own merits as one of my favorite records of 2011.

EMA, “Anteroom.” I didn’t much like Past Life Martyred Saints, the debut of Erika M. Anderson, but the directness and openness of this track speak to me. It seems birthed by Nirvana’s “Something in the Way,” haunted by experience, and resigned to bad things: “No one has to shriek and no one has to worry now / I will get exactly what’s coming for me.” But the hushed harmonies and careful phrasing feel anything but doomy, and its repeated closing carries both promise and threat: “If this time through / We don’t get it right / I’ll come back to you / In another life.”

Yellow Ostrich, “Whale.” There are real words here, but the only ones that stick are “oh oh” – the first we hear over a basic tribal beat and ambient noise, and oft-repeated. Before the climax – when all its aspects join together in celebration – it’s amazing the inviting tropical vibe that Alex Schaaf conjures with minimal components: that opening beat, the vocals, and the singing over only a guitar.

Vivian Girls, “I Heard You Say.” The melding of jangly, lo-fi indie rock and frail girl-group harmonies has rarely sounded this vital – with gently probing lead guitar and chorus vocals that are breathy and heavenly yet grounded in their warbles and casual matching. In the verses, the singing is matter-of-fact and almost fatigued: “I’m so cold.”

The Strokes, “Metabolism.” The rubbery, propulsive, and tight opening is so great it comes back ... and back ... and back ... and back one more time. That’s a compliment; use what you got. Everything else – including the sharp guitar solo and a full-throated vocal performance – is reduced to connective tissue and window dressing.

Bedroom Sons, “Frozen to the Bone.” A simple song of polar dynamics, pensive and then agitated, that DeKalb, Illinois-based singer/guitarist/songwriter Chris Dertz has arranged and performed with a shrewd, poised blend of patience and urgency. Icy stabs of distorted guitar interrupt the gently told tale in its first half, foreshadowing a later explosion of focused bitterness and noise. But those are balanced by the tone of the lead guitar and background vocals in the climax – creating a tension that gives the song its breath.

Campfire OK, “Not Young Not Old.” The title and lyrics articulate the gulf between youth and agedness – casting that big blank slab of life not as opportunity but as a cause for middle-age ennui and paralysis: “No, I don’t smile, I don’t laugh / Bury these seeds of crops once past.” There’s certainly an anxiety in the light horns, but the music and performance – meditative, detailed, warm, insistent – go a long way toward dispelling the gloom.

The Cerny Brothers, “The Thief.” In a song that plays like a weary lullaby, the Cerny Brothers (originally from the Quad Cities area) turn the most rudimentary musical tools – acoustic guitar and voice – into poignancy. That’s hard enough for young songwriters and performers, more difficult still when the song is as bare and languid as “The Thief,” in which the guitar merely repeats itself, the singing is measured, somber, and soft, and the harmonies are spare. The confidence and skill to do so much with so little is reflected in the lyrics: “I can turn darkness into light.”

Grouplove, “Colours.” The album on which this song appears is titled Never Trust a Happy Song, so here’s my advice: Do not trust “Colours.” It’s not merely a happy song; it’s a happy virus that infects within a few seconds. That’s partly from the exuberant aesthetic, the gigantic, affirming chorus (“It really ain’t that bad”), and – more than anything else – the female singing that pairs with the male lead as the ends of lines lift ecstatically. There’s a dark verse that should seem glibly dismissive – “He shot himself self / There’s blood on the wall / ’Cause he couldn’t face the truth” – but it adds a layer; “Colours” becomes defiantly positive.

Second Fiddles

Adele, “Rolling in the Deep” and “Turning Tables.” Honestly, one of these probably deserves a spot on the mix album, but she needs no help from me. A great soul voice, with the discipline to serve the songs rather than the ego.

Tori Amos, “Shattering Sea.”

Cold War Kids, “Royal Blue.”

Nikka Costa, “Pro*Whoa!” Doubtlessly, the year’s best song featuring the word “coochie.”

The Decemberists, “Down by the Water.”

Drive-By Truckers, “Used to Be a Cop.”

Elliott Brood, “Their Will.”

Explosions in the Sky, “Human Qualities.”

Feist, “Caught a Long Wind.”

Liam Finn, “Reckless.”

Foo Fighters, “I Should Have Known.” A paint-by-numbers escalation from sorrow to rage, but painted really, really well.

Fucked Up, “I Was There.”

The Go! Team, “Rolling Blackouts.”

Ha Ha Tonka, “Jesusita.”

Kaizers Orchestra, “Philemon Arthur & the Dung.”

Kasabian, “Velociraptor!” One could not possibly improve the catchy/cheesy chorus, as voracious and dumb as its subject: “Velociraptor / He gonna find ya / He gonna kill ya / He gonna eat ya.”

Little Hurricane, “Crocodile Tears,” “Haunted Heart,” and “Give Em Hell.”

David Lowery, “I Sold the Arabs the Moon.”

Mogwai, “San Pedro.”

Peter Bjorn & John, “Second Chance.” I wouldn’t blame anybody who cringes at this song after its ubiquity in Bud Light Lime commercials and on ESPN. Given its irresistible hook and cowbell, it was destined to sell something, but it deserved better products.

Social Distortion, “Road Zombie.”

Those Darlins, “Be Your Bro.” At half its length, this would have easily made my primary list, bluntly coarse, funny, and true: “I just wanna / I just wanna / Be your brother / You just wanna be my boyfriend / I just wanna run and play in the dirt with you / You just wanna stick it in.” Alas, the song never gets past its brilliant concept and retro-girl-group pastiche.

Times New Viking, “No Room to Live.” There’s nothing at all modern about this sloppy lo-fi nugget, as likely to have been unearthed after 40-odd years as produced this year. But good songs are good songs, no matter how backward-looking they might be.

Wild Flag, “Future Crimes.”

Rachael Yamagata, “Starlight.”

Second Helpings

Campfire OK, “Brass.”

The David Mayfield Parade, “Blue Skies Again.”

The Envy Corps, “Ms. Hospital Corners” and “Exchequer.”

Hella, “Osaka.”

Other Lives, “For 12,” “Tamer Animals,” and “Dust Bowl III.”

Vivian Girls, “Trying to Pretend.”

Blasts from the Past

For no good reason, I exclude from each year’s mix album artists who were featured in previous years – dating back to 2006. These are my favorite 2011 tracks from some of those artists.

Arctic Monkeys, “All My Own Stunts.”

The Black Keys, “Lonely Boy” and “Little Black Submarines.”

Ane Brun, “One” and “I Would Hurt a Fly.”

The Dodos, “Going Under” and “Hunting Season.”

PJ Harvey, “The Last Living Rose,” “The Glorious Land,” “The Words That Maketh Murder,” “On Battleship Hill,” and “The Big Guns Called Me Back Again.” In a career largely composed of great and nearly great albums, Let England Shake might be her best.

Klaxons, “Hello 23” and “Sorcerer City.” Leftovers from last year’s Surfing the Void that put most bands’ A sides to shame. Jerks.

O’Death, “Bugs,” “Alamar,” “Black Dress,” “Ourselves,” and “Pushing Out.” On Outside, the band’s punkish-bluegrass bluster gave way to delicacy and introspection, with thoughtful, rigorous arrangements. I miss the howling intensity of “Vacant Moan” (featured here in 2008), but I’ll happily take this.

Peter Wolf Crier, “Beach.”

Radiohead, “Little by Little.”

Tapes ’n Tapes, “Outro.”

A Covers EP

Nirvana’s Nevermind turned 20 this year, and Spin’s Newermind tribute had plenty of strong efforts and a few fantastic ones: Amanda Palmer’s “Polly” (simultaneously kitchen-sink and spare) and Foxy Shazam’s stylistically careening “Drain You” (with mariachi horns replacing the climactic guitars). There was also the poetic justice of the Meat Puppets doing “Smells Like Teen Spirit” as ... well, a Meat Puppets song.

And speaking of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” the soundtrack to The Muppets featured a perfectly odd, fragmentary Muppets Barbershop Quartet version that manages to be faithful to both the original and the barbershop style. (Please note: Meat Puppets = M’uppets.)

In a similar rip-it-apart-and-put-it-back-together vein, Guards’ cavernous, slow-motion “Motorbreath” (roughly one-third the speed of the Metallica original) transforms the song from proud anthem to lonely lament.

Of course, covers don’t need to deconstruct their source material. Fiona Apple & Jon Brion delivered a lovely, pillow-soft, and true “Everyday” on Rave on Buddy Holly.

And Quad Cities native Lissie, on her Covered Up with Flowers EP, proved herself a strong interpreter, particularly with Kid Cudi’s “Pursuit of Happiness” and Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance.” There’s no re-imagining here, but her treatments are nearly transcendent merely by grafting that big, expressive voice onto sturdy rock treatments.

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