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Vivascene’s Take: The Best Albums of 2011

December 19th, 2011  |  Published in Music Must Haves, Vivascene Must Haves

There was a pleasing surfeit of great music released in 2011, so much so that our Vivascene Top Ten of 2011 couldn’t be contained in such a small bucket. Staff discussions, of which there were several, attempted to settle the matter at 30, then 15, and finally 20 top 10’s. What can we say? – not only can we not count, we also need more records. As if our cupboards, closets, shelves and hard drives weren’t already overflowing with vinyl, demos, great finds, inheritances and legal downloads…

What follows, in an apparent semblance of order, depending on the time of day, mood and substances ingested, are our choices for the Best Albums of 2011. Hyperlinks will connect you to our full reviews as originally published. We’re clear on the best album of the year, but putting a number to the rest strikes us as purely arbitrary.

Be sure to check out our companion article, The Most Controversial Albums of 2011, which you can find here.

Vivascene’s Take: The Best Albums of 2011

PJ Harvey, Let England Shake

The Number One Album of 2011: PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake

More a political statement than a musical odyssey, PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake is nonetheless an important musical event that manages simultaneously to be both historical and contemporary, while couched in the strongest instrumentation of her illustrious career. The album won the 2011 Mercury Prize over fierce competition, more probably for the album’s realization of its serious ambition than its music.

For one thing, several of the songs are about the carnage of war, and particularly about the brutal battlefield of Gallipoli, an event that occurred almost a hundred years ago. “Let England shake’, she sings, ‘weighed down with silent dead’. If the tune weren’t so glorious the song would be frightening.

The sound is a little muddled, but deliberately so, as if recalling a dream. PJ has deserted the piano of her former works. The instrumentation is mostly guitar and autoharp, supported by longtime band member John Parrish and former Bad Seed member Mick Harvey. Out of tune trumpets, bugles, and the odd xylophone show up mysteriously throughout the work, recalling the wartime soundscape and reminding the listener of how strangers and strange events emerge in our own lives.

You might think it has nothing to do with rock and roll, until that is, you hear PJ reference the Eddy Cochran line from ‘Summertime Blues’. You know the one: “I’m going to take my problems to The United Nations.’

Clever work, artfully composed, sad and bad to the bone.

Gillian Welch, The Harrow & The Harvest

Americana folk-roots music at its best. With the first Gillian Welch album of new material in eight years, Gillian and her partner/collaborator David Rawlings have produced an understated masterpiece. She calls The Harrow and The Harvest “a little dark and a little vengeful” and we call it unreservedly brilliant. With superb instrumentation, close harmony singing and a clean acoustic sound that harkens back to the classic sound of the Vanguard Records catalogue, this record ought to be declared a national treasure. Echoes of the Stanley Brothers, Bob Dylan, Bill Monroe and Appalachia abound, while the vocals of Gillian herself are exquisitely her own.

These are not dance songs, happy songs or trivial songs but give them a chance and you’ll find you can’t live without them. Anyone who can write “I can’t say your name without a crow flying by” deserves a place in the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Gillian Welch are also to be lauded for their continuing praise and performance of the works of other greats in their field, Townes Van Zandt among them. We’ll take this album over the latest by Robert Plant, Alison Kraus and Lucinda Williams any day (and we’re major fans of all three).

Tom Waits, Bad As Me

Tom Waits has released a stupefyingly great record in Bad As Me, proving once and for all that Tom, we hardly knew ye. We thought you’d got entirely lost in your own hipster gravel-voiced paradise, but actually you’ve been drawing us in one album at a time, until the only alternative presently left to us is to leave off all comparisons. Not that anyone stands a chance in hell of approaching your stature as one of America’s most important songwriters; we were going to stipulate “of the 20th century”, but with this new release we’ve dropped that qualifier. What you’ve got to say and how you’re saying it is so damned intriguing we’re sitting here thinking just how cool you are. You’re one badass musicmaker, maybe the only true original still walking around, with your sources and your influences buttoned up tight while you stay real loose.

The real stunner, though, is the title track “Bad As Me” which starts out strong and gets stronger with this spoken interjection: “No good, you say? Well, that’s good enough for me.” The song is sleazy, dirty, lowdown, somewhat scary and intoxicating enough to make you reach for the nearest injection of alcohol and accompanying semi-clad waitress. In other words, this is a great piece of work from the man who brought you “Bad Liver and a Broken Heart” as well as “This Piano Has Been Drinking”. This new track exhibits Waits’s familiar lyrical talent but with as savage as a twist as his “Trampled Rose” from a few years back: it’s heartlessly free of any sentiment, though still as darkly ironic as ever. And you can actually decipher the lyrics as he’s singing (well, mostly, and that’s a welcome change from too many of his records).

Some amazing backup work from the likes of David Hidalgo, Charlie Musselwhite, Keith Richards, Marc Ribot, Flea and a host of others make this Tom’s strongest release in years.

Adele, 21

No surprises here. Adele has been given her due time and time again, but it would be an oversight and a downright infraction on music not to mention 21. It transcends commercial success and radio-butchery alike, not easily dismissible like other flash-in-the-pan pop stars.

Why are we so attracted to figures like Adele, like Bon Iver, who had their hearts broken and became musical recluses, aurally licking their wounds and finding solace? Most because it’s yielded some of the best damn music of the decade. It’s also a great “fuck you”, and a kind of passive aggressive schadenfreude for the audience. But there’s nothing subtle or passive about the album’s opener, “Rolling in the Deep”. When Adele busts out with”There’s a fire starting in my heart/ Reaching a fever pitch and it’s bringing me out the dark”, it’s felt. The song itself actually has very simple instrumentation – and who needs it when the key instrument, Adele’s voice, has such a disarming command?

The album proceeds as any break-up would; bitterness, regret, all the back-and-forths of a confused heart, approached with a vulnerability that’s less poetic and more realistic. Mentioning highlights seems redundant, but what the hell: “Turning Tables” is not to be missed, and “Take It All” has a Freddy Mercury-appeal with it’s gospel-accompaniment and smooth pacing. And “Someone Like You” defies cliche – it really is a song for the ages.

The Black Keys, El Camino

We know, we know: it just came out. El Camino is still in our “Recently Added” list; it’s barely had time to settle comfortably in our mind’s catalogue – but it hardly needs it. It’s The Black Keys for godssakes – it’s our party and we can preordain if we want to.

We’ll get the big, looming question over with: is it as good as Brothers? No. But it doesn’t need to be. Any equation that involves Dan Auerbach, Patrick Carney and producer Danger Mouse is by all standards gold. El Camino fuses the best of classic rock and meets it halfway with the Keys’ counter-intuitive brand of gritty Nashville mettle.

Crowd-pleasers are “Little Black Submarines”, “Lonely Boy” and “Gold On The Ceiling”.

Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues

Fleet Foxes’ sophomore album Helplessless Blues signals something special: the union of contemporary songwriting with the adventurousness of the great folk-rock traditions that made the late 1960s and early 1970s so treasured by music fans of every stripe. In this album Robin Pecknold reaches back several decades to Van Morrison’s soulful and jazzy Astral Weeks, to Simon and Garfunkel’s great piece of Americana they called Bookends, and even dare we say it to the mostly unheralded but brilliant Surf’s Up by The Beach Boys. Combine that with some of the sweetest singing to be found this side of Fairport Convention and you have in Helplessness Blues a new landmark album that is inevitably one of the finest recordings of 2011.

The songs are constructed to be heard within the context of the whole album, with wisdom and talent far exceeding the band’s years. Although it’s a shame to continuously compare a new album to its predecessor, when the previous album is respected to the extent that Fleet Foxes is, comparison is inevitable and this album is certainly not as instantly engaging as the last. It is a complex album that commands attention if you want to experience all it has to offer.

Exciting stuff, though, and who would have guessed that the folk music tradition still had something to say to young songwriters today, and would enable Robin Pecknold to bring forth this wonder?

Beg, borrow, or steal this album. One of those Must Haves.

The Decemberists, The King Is Dead

With both a strong immediacy of appeal and staying power, The DecemberistsThe King Is Dead is one superb album featuring one of the absolutely ubiquitous tracks of the year “Down By The Water”.

Moving on from their rock opera The Hazards of Love, Colin Meloy has crafted a lighter American roots-focused work that features the terrific vocals of Gillian Welch on several tracks. This stuff is both infectious and deep, without being moralistic.

Meloy has one of the great voices in American music today, and he’s a deceptively easy-on-the-ears, enviably fine writer with the chops to make several great albums in the future. Reminds us of what Band of Horses has been trying to do: bring forth something authentic, unforced, and worth repeated listenings. The King Is Dead will attract the folkies and roots enthusiasts who thought music like this wasn’t being made anymore, but it’s much more than that. Highly recommended to all and sundry alike.

Feist, Metals

Metals reconfirms Leslie Feist as Canada’s most treasured artist. If 2007’s The Reminder‘s staggering success and “1234”‘s felt too commercial and light-hearted for you, Metals is its dark step-sister. With hard to penetrate, emotionally difficult songs that develop, expand and unravel beautifully, Feist captures the unadulterated pain and mostly incommunicable pain and disappointment of a failed relationship.

Metals came as a breath of fresh air after Feist took a year-long sabbatical from playing any music.

“I wasn’t curious anymore. It seemed like so long. But then, after that year, I looked up and I still hadn’t gotten my land legs back at all. I needed another year. By then, everyone had calmed and receded back into the wallpaper. I was in a crazy, private, awesome bubble again, and that’s when I started to write.”

Trust us, her curiosity returned, resulting in bold themes approached with an unmatched ingenuity in tracks like “How Come You Never Go There” and “Anti-Pioneer” (hold out for the hair-raising instrumental blossoming at 3:25 if you’re on the fence about this one).

St. Vincent, Strange Mercy

This woman can do no wrong – incapable of boring, or anything less than captivating. Annie Clark, the gorgeous marionette that is St. Vincent, released Strange Mercy in September of this year. It’s hard to say whether the album came as a shock; on one hand, it’s astonishing that her third studio album could be as forceful and limit-pushing as her first two offerings, Actor and Marry Me. But then again, how can we expect anything but brilliance from a women who appears to have some sort of synesthesia? Her capacity to evoke images from instrumentals and resonant vocals puts her in a league of her own.

Strange Mercy was still a thematic departure from her previous work – it’s darker and more lyrically challenging. She usually deals in ironies, and this is no exception.

“Cruel” and “Surgeon” are the most appealing for their range and usages of contrasting instruments but really, anything from the album is golden, a complete trip.

Portugal.The Man, In the Mountain, In the Cloud

This album defined a summer, and is now expectably defining several ads on TV. Oregan-based Portugal. The Man had only seen successes on a smaller scale with The Satanic Satanist until this well-timed stunner. It was only a matter of time, but John Gourley’s falsetto strikes a universal chord and paints rapturous pictures of bliss and youth.

It’s not often that you encounter an album like In the Mountain, In the Cloud, wherein every track follows an impulsive strain. Although not really a concept album, the album is consistently notional in conception and execution. “So American” and “Got It All (This Can’t Be Living Now)” are necessary for any playlist – summer or not, while “Share Me With The Sun” and “Sleep Forever” are concentrated euphoria, with a bed of instrumentals that raise goosebumps, but never threaten to overpower the sentiment.

Jürgen Müller, Science of the Sea

Jürgen Müller was studying oceanic science at the University of Kiel in Germany during the late 1970s when he decided to express his love for all things subaqueous through a different method than what he was accustomed to. So he bought some electronic instruments and set out to create a collection of ambient compositions that would be suitable for nature documentaries. Although Science of the Sea never made it on to the Planet Earth DVD, it did end up in the offices of Digitalis Recordings, where it was reissued for wide release this past summer.

What makes this mysterious piece of music so captivating lies in Müller’s uncannily precise representation of both the romantic and unfathomable aspects of the ocean. With tracks that are sometimes whimsical but always incredibly pretty to listen to, Science of the Sea has a sincere sense of wonder that’s not unlike what one might feel on a Technicolor jaunt into oceanic paradise for the very first time.

Lindsey Buckingham, Seeds We Sow

It’s becoming clearer that the success of Fleetwood Mac was fueled by the genius of Lindsey Buckingham, and his current release Seeds We Sow finds him with his playing, singing and writing powers intact. Not only is Buckingham’s fingerpicking still blazingly quick, it is unfailingly melodic, a combination rarely found in guitarists of great technical facility. He exhibits similar flourishes on the brilliant “Illumination” and its clever wordplay in “the process of illumination”. And “That’s The Way That Love Goes” is both classic Buckingham and classic FMac. If only the drumming on this cut were as spectacular as that of Mick Fleetwood’s (though it’s dammably good), the song would rocket up the music charts. His singing on this track is powerful too, though not in the usual fashion: it’s both delicate and unabashedly passionate, with some great dynamics.

Then there’s “Stars Are Crazy” with some crazy-good acoustic guitar, powerful melody, and popsong perfection. If this track were on a 45, you’d sit there transfixed playing it over and over again in a blissed-out trance, thinking to yourself “htf does he do that?”.

The centrepiece of the record, though, is “When She Comes Down”, a ballad of anthemic proportions that can get under your skin in a first listen; more majestic than slow, more heartfelt than sentimental, and as sticky as spruce gum (the original sugar-free confection), the song is simultaneously sad and exhilarating.

Seeds We Sow manages to be both a great indie-rock record and a perfect pop album. And did we mention how crazy we are about “Stars Are Crazy?”

Elbow, Build A Rocket, Boys!

The underdog of the bunch. Frankly, we can’t understand why Elbow aren’t major stars. Yes, they did win a Mercury Prize back in 2009 for The Seldom Seen Kid, and their concerts are famously well-attended by thousands of passionate fans, but on this side of the pond they’re pretty much unknown.

The band makes serious and subtle music that somehow manages to charge the spirit with joy and with Build A Rocket, Boys! they’ve managed to make a record that doesn’t sound in the least as though it came about while they were touring. While their previous album was saturated with melancholy, this new work finds the band energized, thoughtful and reawakened to the joy of life.

This is a deeply felt and many-layered album with sonic textures galore. Moods of nostalgia complement the adult awareness and celebration of both the power and transitory nature of youth and romance as we are propelled into urban life.

Standout tracks are “Lippy Kids”, “With Love”, and “The River”, the last with its notable Brian Eno influence. “Open Arms” is a stadium rocker destined for sports area play for years to come, with the memorable line “The man you are will know the boy you were.” And “High Ideals” may well be one of the best songs about marriage and the sweet poison of infidelity ever written.

Josh T. Pearson, Last of The Country Gentlemen

Josh T. Pearson is the real deal, an artist who wrests his work from the depths of his soul. He’s not looking to write hit material and he’s honest enough to admit that you probably don’t know who he is and a good part of the time neither does he. But something’s in him way down deep, and Last of the Country Gentlemen is music highly reminiscent of Jeff Buckley, Tim Buckley, John Prine, Tim Hardin, Hank Williams and innumerable other greats who crafted their art out of necessity, not from any commercial instinct.

On “Woman, When I’ve Raised Hell” he tells the story of a love gone wrong and a man fighting for his dignity. A common tale, but you won’t soon forget the restraint and beauty with which Pearson delivers his understated but powerful message.

And on “Sweetheart I Ain’t Your Christ”, it’s both bittersweet and ingenious when he sings, “When I said I’d give my life, I wasn’t talking suicide” . And on the wryly named “Honeymoon Is Great, I Wish You Were Her”, both the title and the performance cut to the bone.

In his own words:

I’ve been writing real quiet and sad songs the last six months because I’ve been real quiet and sad”

We’re coming out of our long winter of discontent”

The album is destined to be a classic, perhaps an underground classic, but that doesn’t diminish the wonder of Last of The Country Gentlemen.

Kurt Vile, Smoke Ring For My Halo

Trying to describe Kurt Vile is a challenge. Musically he is like Glen Campbell crossed with Nick Drake…or J Mascis leading a Go-Betweens cover band. Vile is wholly unique if somewhat moppy-haired. The thirty-one year old Philadelphia-born musician emerged in 2011 as one of the indie scenes leading singer-songwriters. A day will come when Dylan, Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen and Paul Simon will stop writing songs and the singer-songwriter movement will need new leaders, a reserve of grunts and the new blood of songs. Someone will have to pick up the task. Vile seems ready to do so today.

His powers of observation, melody and rhyme are some of the sharpest heard in a long while. Smoke Ring for My Halo sounds more assured with each listen. Vile’s brand of lo-fi acoustic rock melds cheap-sounding percussions and Casio-style electronics with structured, conscientious song writing that is so charming you’ll want to take pockets of drugs and gaze at your shoes all day.

“Baby’s Arms” has faint traces of Patsy Cline’s country classic in it. Meanwhile, Big Star fans will hear familiar chords as well, as it sounds like a Chilton-Bell relic from the #1 Record I.

“Ghost Town” is the albums epic, a Blonde on Blonde-style narco-narrative. “Society is My Friend” takes the listener on a trip through the wires with Vile. “Jesus Fever” is jangle-pop and tacky drum machine, but goodness me, it is marvellous.

Smoke Ring is an absolute treasure for hipsters and non-hipsters alike.

Smith Westerns, Dye It Blonde

The Smith Westerns frontman Cullen Omori recently said the band went back in time and across the pond for their influences:

“I think one of the main influences was a lot of 90s Britpop. The songs are more involved but are still poppy and still catchy. Oasis, Suede, Teenage Fanclub– those are all really big influences, as well the T. Rex and David Bowie thing.”

Notice they didn’t mention The Beatles, which to this ear are the biggest influence on their sound and their song construction, as well as their layered approach to both voices and guitars in the studio. Long vocal lines and dreamy guitars make the listener forget that the lyrics for the most part aren’t up to the standards of their music. Much like the later Beatles efforts. In fact, Dye It Blonde could be viewed as a Beatles tribute album in the rough.

That said, this is a young group – their first album came out in 2009 when they were in high school.Now signed to Fat Possum Records, this release and the solid backing of one of the most interesting record companies around both bode well for the future of this group.

Standout tracks are “Weekend” “All Die Young”, and the epic (14:31) “Only One”.

Great stuff – very catchy and memorable. Highly recommended.

Sleep∞Over, Forever

Sleep∞Over is Austin, Texas’s Stephanie Franciotti, and her debut record Forever was one of the big surprises of 2011. When the band was born, Franciotti was one of three members. By the time of the album’s recording, Sarah Brown and Christa Palazzolo had departed to form their own band, Boyfriend. Franciotti seemed to manage just fine on her own, however, and delivered a bewitching dream pop debut.

Clocking in at just over 35 minutes, Forever is all bombastic drums and shadowy resonance, carried by Franciotti’s powerful and alluring vocals. The album juxtaposes shimmery pop jams with haunting ambient experiments, resulting in a listening experience that is highly engrossing and addictive. Even if this is the first time you’ve heard of the musician, don’t be surprised if Forever ends up being one of your favourite albums of 2011.

Ry Cooder, Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down

Ry Cooder‘s new album Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down ranks up there with the best of his work, which is passionately praised by a significant audience of connoisseurs and musicians. His blend of brilliant guitar playing and somewhat quirky mix of rock and roll, Tex-Mex, off the wall lyrics and superb backing doesn’t fit into any genre but his own. He’s dead serious in the guise of a smile and a knowing wink. He’s also a pioneer and a true innovator in melding world music with blues, black, Mexican, country, rock, film soundtracks: you name it, Ry Cooder has been involved.

His current release focuses on the economic state of America and the mess that politics, war and big business has foisted on the average man. Sounds like protest music, but hot damn, the infectious beat and the masterful playing get you to third base long before you realize the potency of the lyric. The man is known as a guitar player, but he’s highly underrated both as a songwriter and as a vocalist: his smooth, deep and calculating contributions in the vocal arena place him as one of the best in all of roots music. In fact, his rendition of “John Lee Hooker For President” on the new record is note-perfect, in guitar styling and the stammering, mannered blues for which Hooker is known.

Ryan Adams, Ashes and Fire

Ryan Adams has been nothing if not prolific in his career. But in recent years he has seemed unfocused, indulgent and inconsistent. It’s one thing to release a handful of albums and singles each year, it’s another to release albums of quality. That had been the problem for Adams until this year. Ashes & Fire not only marks a return to form for the former Whiskeytown front man, it is arguably his best album to date.

Ashes & Fire is the sound of a mature Adams. The album is sparse, vulnerable and intimate. Ashes is akin to Neil Young’s doom-laden albums of the mid-70s, minus the bat shit craziness and influence of “honey slides.” But I digress. The songs on Ashes are the most personal yet from Adams’s. Marriage has mellowed the man without cutting off his testicles or turning him into James Taylor. Few acoustic-heavy records punched above their weight class as Ashes did this year.

“Chains of Love”, a warm buttery slice of AM soft rock, exemplifies what I have always said: a two minute twenty second pop song is the greatest art form humans ever did create. “Invisible Riverside” is a subtly powerful track awash in country-rock treatments. “Come Home” is a gentle, weepy number that will live long in the Adams songbook.

Adams has returned in a major way. Ashes is no Heartbreaker retread, but a stately and wizened collection of songs from a young man still on his journey. Exquisitely produced by Glyn Johns (the Rick Rubin of the 1970s), Ashes is a uniformly excellent album brimming with laid back, late night charms. Ashes is not only a great album of 2011, it is one of Adams’s personal bests.

Wilco, The Whole Love

Wilco has been touted by Rolling Stone as one of “America’s most consistently interesting bands”, and on their ninth album, The Whole Love, they galvanize and affirm that truth. On first listen, The Whole Love sounds like a non-aggressive return to an ever-evolving indie scene. It’s anything but. Although the underlying theme seems to be “on the brink” with song titles like “Art of Almost” and “I Might”, Wilco proves that their sound is closer to a title like “The Whole Love” – with a cohesive and engaging sound that they haven’t captured since Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002); The Whole Love seamlessly merges a spectrum of isolated genres to create a distinctive sonic milieu. Not many acts today can master a disparity of sound (their experimentals) and maintain a firm vein of unity. Most commonly referred to as indie rock or alt-country, Wilco manages to threaten even the broadest, the most all-encompassing of musical classifications.

The title – The Whole Love – must be Wilco’s assertion that this is the one. The album which signals their harnessing of divergent sounds and making them work harder than any other band in the indie rock scene – let alone one that’s been around for a cool sixteen years.

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