Welcome my friends, to the second week of Listmas, and the first installment of my Top 50 Albums of the Year. To put it in the simplest terms possible, I love this list. I love everything on it and everything about it. In my opinion, it’s the finest list I’ve ever put together, the most balanced and well-ordered. I feel it truly encompasses the best of the best from 2011, and honestly I couldn’t always say that in previous years. I’ve always doubted myself in one aspect or another. To answer your next question, yes, I’m upset that there were a few albums that couldn’t quite make the cut. I set the limit at 50, because it seems to be the fairest and most encompassing number to use. Coming up with 50 wasn’t so much a problem, but 55 or 60 might have been. At the end of all this, I may include a couple of honorable mentions, but primarily what you’re seeing here is what you get, and I’ve only made one small adjustment from my initial first draft. So we’ll be going through the Top 50 Albums all this week, 10 each day, until we hit number one. I hope it makes for some excitement and a great read on your part, and I also hope you discover something new as well, even if the most voracious of music lovers might recognize every single one of these. And so we begin with #50-41 today. Click past the jump to read onward!
50. Tennis – Cape Dory
Prior to the start of 2011, Tennis was a buzz band, earning loads of attention for the handful of songs they had released. Their debut full length “Cape Dory” emerged in January and seems to have left more than a few out in the cold. Perhaps the dead of winter was not the ideal time to be releasing your record full of songs about the 7 months you spent living on a boat and sailing down the coast. While I praised the album on its initial release, both for bringing a little warmth to contrast the weather outside and because it contained a whole bunch of super catchy pop songs, that passion only grew as the plants and flowers did as well. I never made it onto a boat this past summer, but thanks to moments like “Take Me Somewhere”, “Baltimore”, “Long Boat Pass” and “Marathon”, I felt like I did. Now it’s up to the band to capitalize on the buzz they’re now receiving for the pair of songs already released from their upcoming sophmore album, due in February this time.
49. Iron & Wine – Kiss Each Other Clean
The success of the song “Tree by the River” essentially put a curse on this record. If you listen to the right radio stations, there’s a very good chance you heard that song to the point of excess and annoyance. It puts a bad taste in my mouth now, in spite of entering through my ear holes. At the time it first emerged though, I was convinced (and in plenty of ways still am) that it was one of Iron & Wine’s best tracks to date. But placing that aside, there’s so many other great things “Kiss Each Other Clean” has going for it. As Iron & Wine have become bigger and bigger in terms of popularity, the size of the band has ballooned as well, to the point where it sounds like an army worked on this album. Sam Beam remains the center of it all though, and his hushed vocals, remarkable lyrics and strong ear for melody take the wheel and steer this record into one of the band’s best. If you need more proof, just give a listen to “Me and Lazarus”, “Rabbit Will Run” and “Big Burned Hand” as a couple of non-annoying reference points.
48. …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead – Tao of the Dead
My passion for …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead has waned with each passing year, as the band has been seemingly cursed since earning that 10.0 from Pitchfork for their 2002 record “Source, Tags and Codes”. Freed from their major label contract a couple years back after trying and failing to push their sound to new territories via heavy concepts and epic orchestration, “Tao of the Dead” was a strong and noble attempt to reclaim their roots. Pared down to just a four piece and focused almost exclusively on guitars, the record retained some conceptual elements by being divided into two halves. The first half spanned 11 tracks and 36 minutes, with every song in the key of D, while the second half was a single 16.5 minute song in 5 movements that was recorded entirely in the key of F. In spite of and not because of that concept, the band’s return to pure, 90s-style no frills rock turned it into their finest release in nearly 10 years. It’s still too early to say they’re where they need to be, but “Tao of the Dead” is a grand step suggesting they’re ready to fight for their survival.
47. Beirut – The Rip Tide
Beirut’s first two records were grand slices of baroque pop that bled Eastern European and the American South, respectively. Zach Condon’s liberal use of instruments and increasingly elaborate arrangements began to feel stale a couple years ago, though there was some interesting light at the end of that tunnel via some solo electro-pop tracks released under the name Realpeople at the time. The hope was he might incorporate some of those elements into “The Rip Tide” to help give Beirut a new twist. That turned out to be only slightly true, the overall additions being so minimal they were barely noticed. But the songs themselves got stripped down, reduced to only 3-4 core instruments like ukulele, piano and horns, and the result was the poppiest and most beautiful Beirut record to date. It’s by no means Condon’s best, but thanks to moments like “A Candle’s Fire”, “Santa Fe” and “Payne’s Bay”, there’s a bunch of delightful and at times weird moments that provide hope Beirut will be around for a long time to come.
46. Unknown Mortal Orchestra – Unknown Mortal Orchestra
Unknown Mortal Orchestra seemingly appeared from out of nowhere, a couple songs posted to a Bandcamp page and nothing more. No name and no location, just the music. There’s something comforting about such anonymity in this day and age when a Google search turns up far too much about almost anybody. That said, the homespun and clearly cheaply recorded quality of UMO’s self-titled debut is effortlessly charming, bouncy and upbeat without coming across as forced or calculated. The beats come first, often settling for funky and fun, and then frontman Ruban Nielson’s vocals often interact with the guitars and other instruments like they’re trading licks. It’s an inventive way to put a song together, and that’s why “Ffunny Ffriends”, “Little Blu House” and “How Can You Luv Me?” can be counted among the record’s many highlights. It’ll be interesting to see what the band can do with an actual budget and recording studio, even as there are concerns about limitations to their sound. Of course such limitations only make them more human, and in turn that much more endearing.
45. Los Campesinos! – Hello Sadness
You’ve got to hand it to Los Campesinos! for keeping their heads on straight and their eyes on the prize. Their fourth album (or third, depending on what you feel qualifies) feels like a perfectly logical progression from the ones that came before it, ever-deepening in maturity and songcraft. Perhaps the smartest thing they’ve done on “Hello Sadness” though is to bring back a touch more of that delightful, indie pop-driven sound of their debut. Their last couple albums had a lot more downbeat material to match Gareth’s unlucky in love lyrics, but I dare you not to be sucked into songs like “By Your Hand” and the title track in spite of how dark they go otherwise. Gareth continues to show progress as both a singer and a songwriter, stretching himself to new and different levels than ever before. It’s fascinating to hear him have the same sense of conviction about a sports team (see: “Every Defeat A Divorce (Three Lions)”) as he does a tragic romance (see: “Light Leaves, Dark Sees Part II”). This may not be the best LC! record, but they’ve yet to make a bad one either.
44. Cold Cave – Cherish the Light Years
Cold Cave’s debut album “Love Comes Close” felt like a rather boring rehash of any number of 80s synth-related albums. There was something about its rather minimalist structure that seemed to me needed a serious kick in the pants. Upon hearing “Cherish the Light Years”, I felt more like I was being kicked in the face. The band had exceeded my expectations and in some respects even overshot the realm of common sense. Here’s a record that sees a widescreen, stadium-sized jugular and simply goes for it unabashedly and with little regard for anything in its way. Opening track “The Great Pan is Dead” feels like you’re being pumped full of bullets from a synth machine gun, and Wes Eisold’s vocals respond accordingly and soar like he’s doing everything in his power to keep up. So much of the album has that same feel and it’s at once exhilarating but also tiring after awhile. That’s kind of nice though, having a record tire you out instead of vice versa.
43. Cymbals Eat Guitars – Lenses Alien
In case you missed it, I paid Cymbals Eat Guitars a heavy compliment last week in naming their song “Rifle Eyesight (Proper Name)” my favorite song of 2011. I just think it’s severely impressive, ballsy and defines a lot of what was great about this past year. For me, that song was a game-changer for the band, coming off their triumphant debut “Why There Are Mountains”. The issue with their new one “Lenses Alien” as a whole is that nothing else on the record even comes close to having that same power or effect. By and large that’s okay though, and most of the songs are excellent on their own. “Shore Points” is devastatingly catchy, “The Current” is so thrillingly tenuous there’s concern it’ll break apart at any moment, and “Plainclothes” is dark and disturbing in just the right measure. There’s a power to this record when digested as a whole that truly reflects the band’s ambitious intent. They don’t quite hit a home run, but come pretty damn close.
42. Wild Flag – Wild Flag
Choosing to view Wild Flag as some sort of Sleater-Kinney offshoot is a little unfair to the talents of Mary Timony and Rebecca Cole, but really with Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss all you’re missing is a Corin Tucker. Unfortunately her presence (and signature wail) is what’s most missed on Wild Flag’s debut album. Timony is great, but can often come across as limp next to Brownstein’s sheer intensity. It would have helped this album so much more if Timony gave back what Brownstein was throwing at her. That said, what a wonderful album anyways. The opening chug of “Romance” provides a great salvo for the rest of the record, “Glass Tambourine” makes it seem like they’re having so much fun together, and “Racehorse” is such an incredible ride it almost doesn’t need lyrics. These four women work exceptionally well with one another, and while one of them might stick out from time to time and mess with what might seem like good momentum, the truth is they’re trying their hardest to avoid repeating themselves and all they’ve done previously. Sometimes you need to just stop wishing for what isn’t there and start appreciating what is.
41. The Antlers – Burst Apart
Considering their last album “Hospice” earned The Antlers plenty of attention for slow burning songs with occasional heavy bursts of noise and energy, many thought they’d expand upon those ideas and go bigger and bolder and Arcade Fire-esque. Instead of that, the band chose to go in a sharply different direction, scaling back their guitar work for something more pensive and electronic-based. If “Hospice” was their “OK Computer”, “Burst Apart” was their “Kid A”. And you know what? The dark atmospherics of “Burst Apart” also sound great, and prove that The Antlers are much more versatile and talented than most gave them credit for. Most are probably familiar with singles like “Parentheses” and “Every Night My Teeth Are Falling Out”, but the gorgeous (albeit depressing) creep of “Rolled Together” or “Corsicana” are no less striking provided you give them your full and undivided attention. This is a very understated album, and for Antlers devotees, also very underrated.
TOMORROW: My Top 50 Albums of 2011 #40-31!