Sunday, July 10, 2011

Sonic Sunday: Best Albums of the Year...So Far

Since we're about halfway through the year, I'm taking a little break from the "Soundtrack of My Life" project to give some shout-outs to my favorite albums (so far) of 2011.

Suck It And See, Arctic Monkeys
With an album title that would make Beavis and Butthead huh-huh-huh themselves hoarse, you might not expect the Arctic Monkeys' fourth release to be chock-full of sweetness and love, but as the album's closer goes, that's where you're wrong. (Turns out the title is a rather innocuous British phrase meaning, "give it a try and see how it goes.") This is probably the most straightforwardly poppy Monkeys album, which is great for me because, although I've liked all of the band's records, I've always preferred their pop side to their ultra-hip dance-punk side, gravitating toward the infectious melodies of songs like "Mardy Bum," "Fluorescent Adolescent" and my favorite track, from the unfairly maligned Humbug, "Cornerstone." While there are still some harder-edged tunes on Suck It ("Brick by Brick," "Library Pictures"), they turn out to be the weakest tracks. It's the pretty ditties, which perfectly showcase Alex Turner's adorably clever songwriting, that end up stealing the show, including standout track (and new single) "The Hellcat Spangled Shalalala," the bouncy "Black Treacle," the lovelorn one-two punch of "Love is a Laserquest" and the title song, and the aforementioned catchy closer, which sounds as if it could have been plucked straight from the ending credits of a John Hughes movie.

Suck "Suck It And See" and see! (Wow, that's confusing.)

Middle Brother, Middle Brother
I'm not sure we can really call Middle Brother a "supergroup," considering that none of its members—Matt Vasquez, John McCauley and Taylor Goldsmith—have reached "super-famous" status with their full-time bands, Delta Spirit, Deer Tick and Dawes, respectively. Still, the record certainly features super songwriting and super harmonies and, as a big Delta Spirit fan, I tend to think that anything Matt Vasquez is involved in must be pretty super. Unsurprisingly, I lean more toward the Vasquez-penned and sung tracks here: the foot-stomping "Blue Eyes," the plaintive "Theater" and the Phil Spector-esque "Someday." But it's actually two McCauley tunes, the rollicking "Me, Me, Me" and the title track (co-written with Goldsmith and someone terrifically named Johnny Corndawg), that are the most irresistible.

Listen to "Me, Me, Me."

This Modern Glitch, The Wombats
OK, so The Wombats aren't exactly changing the face of music, but who cares? Everyone doesn't have to be Radiohead (which is fine, since we definitely don't need another King of Limbs). I've loved these guys ever since I first laid ears on what is still one of my favorite songs ever, "Let's Dance to Joy Division." I adore the latest record by these '80s-inspired Brits, especially considering that the new album from my favorite from the '80s Brits, Duran Duran, ended up being a bit of a disappointment. Everything I would expect from the Double D is here: dance club rave ups ("Our Perfect Disease," "Tokyo"), moody new wave numbers ("Jump Into the Fog," "Anti-D," "1996") , pumping pop tunes ("Last Night I Dreamt," "Techno Fan," "Walking Disasters") and something kind of weird ("Schumacher the Champagne"). The only slight misstep is "Girls/Fast Cars," which sounds a bit like The Killers trying to cover a Warrant song, but it's still not terrible and is probably completely tongue-in-cheek anyway.

Listen to "1996."

Born This Way, Lady Gaga
Yes, the Lady Gaga backlash is in full effect but whatever. I don't think half of the people who are suddenly hating on her have even bothered to listen to this album. If they had, they'd probably have a hard time keeping still and an even harder time denying that it's a delightful dancegasm. Everyone's already experienced the pop power of "Born This Way" and "The Edge of Glory," the metal-disco of "Judas" and the teen girl anthem, "Hair," but there is a lot more worthy of attention here, most notably "Marry The Night" (a driving rocker that could have been written by Jim Steinman if it were about four minutes longer), "Scheiße" (full of fake German and techno beats) and "Bad Kids" (a throbbing, impossibly hooky song with just a hint of "Open Your Heart" in the chorus). Also, any album with a song called "Highway Unicorn" on it is a winner in my book.

Listen to "Marry The Night."

Mission Bell, Amos Lee
So, 2011 seems like the year of folk (or alt-folk), with new albums from Bon Iver, Iron & Wine, Fleet Foxes and The Low Anthem, just to name a few. Although Bon Iver and Fleet Foxes have dominated all the other "best of" lists I've seen, Amos Lee's latest is my favorite among the Folk Pack. While all the hipster sites (I'm looking at you, Pitchfork) can write 12 paragraphs about why I shouldn't be left as completely cold as I am by Bon Iver's "brilliant" album, I can't even completely explain in one why I love Lee's (relatively uncelebrated) record so much. All I can say is that there is just something about his voice that moves me. And that feeling trumps all the tl;dr five-star write-ups the reviewers can dish out.

Listen to "Violin."
Other choice cuts: "Windows Are Rolled Down," "Flower," "Cup of Sorrow"

Early In The Morning, James Vincent McMorrow
Technically, this album was released in 2010 (only in the UK), but I can get away with putting it on my list because it wasn't released in the US until the beginning of this year. I was actually just recently introduced to this guy by Bloody Awful Poetry. (Thanks, kiddo! I'll take all the Irishmen you can throw at me.) I wasn't sure I would like him when she compared him to Bon Iver, but after I took a listen, I thought, "Yeah...Justin Vernon WISHES." As I said before, Bon Iver's music just leaves me cold. I just don't get it. It all seems so soulless. (Well, OK, "Calgary" is a pretty good song and "Beth/Rest" takes advantage of my love of all things '80s.) McMorrow, though, oozes soul. So if you only have one spot left in your life for a guy with a high voice and an acoustic guitar, pass on Vernon and go for McMorrow. I did, and I'm happier for it.

Listen to "We Don't Eat."
Other choice cuts: "If I Had A Boat," "This Old Dark Machine," "Hear the Noise That Moves So Soft and Low"

Yuck, Yuck
Wow, was this band formed in the wrong decade! The biggest influences I can pick out of Yuck's debut album are The Cure, Sonic Youth, Teenage Fanclub and any number of shoegaze bands. They're really good about not completely ripping off any one band's sound, while managing to sound like just about anything you might have heard while lazing on the couch, half-watching 120 Minutes. I've never been a huge fan of Sonic Youth, or really any of those types of fuzz-rockers, so I'm not really that keen on a few of the more lo-fi sounding tracks, like "Rubber" and "Operation" (although I want to like the latter because it has a nice guitar riff). But when Yuck focuses on their melodic side...God, they make me wish I was back in college.

Listen to "Sunday."
Other choice cuts: "Shook Down," "Georgia," "Stutter"

21, Adele
This girl's voice is just stunning. If I may steal a frequent American Idol-ism, she could sing the phone book and it would sound wonderful. Hey, she manages to take a couple of songs co-written by Ryan Tedder ("Rumour Has It" and "Turning Tables") and keep them from sounding like every other Ryan Tedder-penned song, which is no easy feat. By now, everyone's quite familiar with the kick-ass single, "Rolling in the Deep," and many of you have probably heard the heart-wrenching "Someone Like You," which is actually only really heart-wrenching in the live version. In fact, my biggest complaint about this album is that the studio version of that song is so blah and emotionless. And whose idea was it for Adele to go up into her higher register at the end of the chorus? Whoever it was: way to ruin the song, pal.

Listen to "Turning Tables."
Other choice cuts: "Rumour Has It," "Don't You Remember," "One and Only"

Ukulele Songs, Eddie Vedder
Clearly, this album isn't going to be for everyone. Most of the negative comments I've heard about it, though, revolve around the idea that all ukulele songs start to sound the same after a while. One could say the same thing about an album full of songs accompanied only by acoustic guitar, but no one ever does. Sure, the ukulele has a much more distinctive sound than an acoustic guitar, but so what. Eddie's created some beautiful melodies here. This album transports me. Specifically, it transports me to a canoe in the middle of a beautiful lake, where Eddie is sitting across from me plucking away, sweet words dripping from his lips and the sun forming a halo around his perfect, wavy mane. Uh, and then other stuff happens that I won't get into here.

Listen to "You're True." (Yes, the main riff does sound like a Hawaiian "Pinball Wizard.")
Other choice cuts: "Without You," "More Than You Know," "Longing to Belong"

Kiss Each Other Clean, Iron & Wine
And here's your last blast of alt-folk, courtesy of Sam Beam. Of course, his newest record seems to be riling a lot of long-time fans who think he should be more like Justin Vernon and lock himself in a cabin and keep his songs as sparse as possible. I am with the majority as far as liking the last album (The Shepherd's Dog) better, but I might be in the minority as far as thinking that Beam is heading in a really interesting direction. Bring in more horns, I say!

Listen to "Tree by the River."
Other choice cuts: "Me and Lazarus," "Glad Man Singing," "Your Fake Name is Good Enough for Me"

Honorable mentions:
Helplessness Blues, Fleet Foxes
The Future Is Medieval, Kaiser Chiefs
Collapse Into Now, R.E.M.
Codes and Keys, Death Cab for Cutie
Little Hell, City And Colour


Dr. Kenneth Noisewater said...

Dang! These are some good songs. I'm going to need to reference this the next time I need some new music. Do you know where to get some free downloads of this stuff, especially the band with the dude from Dawes?

Brahm (alfred lives here) said...

Some good ones on here! I really like the Arctic Monkeys album, and was not a real fan until now.

My fave of the year is Adele, every track is a gem and I play it endlessly. Also loving the Stevie Nicks album In Your Dreams, produced by Dave Stewart and has some cool Eurythimcs moments on it.

Also confess to the Glee Warblers album being on heavy rotation...

words...words...words... said...

I would like to point out that I often say every song accompanied by acoustic guitar sounds the same. *rock pose*

Malcolm said...

If I ever get around to doing my "best of 2011 so far" list, "21" will definitely be on it.

I only found "Collapse Into Now" to be OK. However, one of the tracks (Uberlin) ranks among R.E.M.'s best.

Brahm, I like that Glee Warblers album too!

bloody awful poetry said...

Nice list, mom! And so glad that the Irish man made it. You said it perfectly - McMorrow's falsetto definitely has more emotion in it (and also I can mostly understand what he is singing, which is a lovely change). Have not tried out the new Iron & Wine, or The Wombats, but I will be doing that now. I also did not know that Eddie Vedder made an album of ukulele songs. Seriously, where has this BEEN all year?

tennysoneehemingway said...

Hmmm, no love for the new Gillian Welch album? Album of the year for mine. But, I am biased.

Candy's daily Dandy said...

Suck it and see??? I would use that as my anthem based on the titile alone.

Some good stuff here Becks. Never would peg you as a Gaga fan. I'm loving these songs.

Little Ms Blogger said...

I will openly admit, I'm a concert whore (well, when I had $$ to go), but couldn't name the artist when a song is playing. So, I have only heard of 3 artists you mentioned.

I love Amos Lee and will confess to shying away from Lady Gaga and Adele because of the media attention (ya know how people hype up a movie, you see it and it sucks) well, I avoid media press, but have to say, I listened to Adele and loved it. Lady Gaga still doesn't impress me, but have to say I LOVE Yuck and Arctic Monkeys. When I listened to both, I was immediately transported back to the 80s and my love the British punk sound.

I'll now check out their albums - thanks for sharing.

BeckEye said...

Dr. Ken - Well, I'm a big believer in getting a few songs for free, but if you like them, you should really buy the whole album. However, I've been known to "share" entire albums from time to time.

Brahm - I love Stevie but what I've heard of her new album so far hasn't really grabbed me. Maybe I'll give it another shot.

WWW - You say a lot of things that you think are important. ;)

Malcolm - Yeah, I had high hopes for the new R.E.M. because the first few songs I'd heard had their old vibe, but I thought the album was just OK. Still, it gets a mention for some good songs and the guest appearance by Eddie Vedder.

BAP - Eddie's album just came out in May, so don't feel too bad about not hearing it. But go listen to it now!

Tennyson - Haven't heard it! I'll have to check that one out.

Candy - You must have A.D.D.! I've talked of my gaga-ness over Gaga many, many times.

Little Ms. Blogger - I used to be a concert whore too, but as you say, they're too expensive now. Although Arctic Monkeys just announced a show here and tickets are between $25-$35, so I should probably be able to swing that one. If this is your first time hearing them, you should definitely go back and check out the rest of their catalog. They're a great band.

Billy said...

The Monkeys and Middle Brother are now on my DEFINITE list. I'm still investigating Amos.

GaGa deserves to be mentioned by anyone willing to sacrifice cool cred to do so.

I don't quite like JVMcMorrow quite as much as you, but it's pretty good stuff nonetheless.

I'm totally with you on Adele. That woman transcends categories because her voice is just that damn unique and good.

A decent half-year for music, all things considered.

BeckEye said...

Well, Billy, I don't think I ever had any cool cred to begin with. :)

Alice said...

i always feel like such a putz when you do these posts because i am SO lame when it comes to knowing/finding new music. however, i now have all sorts of lovely songs ot get me through the rest of the workday. hurrah!

Vinny "Bond" Marini said...

I purchase almost zero major label music these days. My purchases are independent artists..and most of the music I receive is sent to me free.

Barbara Bruederlin said...

Interesting list! I do like Yuck, despite the name (or perhaps because of the name, who knows). But I am most interested in finally hearing Eddie Vedder take on the ukulele. It's the new cowbell.

Jay Amabile said...

Full agree on what you wrote about GaGa's Born This Way album. I've been addicted to it since the day it came out. Good stuff.

Lee Ann said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lee Ann said...

Hey Beck, it has been a long time since I have been on. Just stopped by to see what is going on and say hello. Love the new look of your blog...beautiful, fun and professional. Extremely cool!
Take care,
Lee Ann

Cora said...

Jeebus, how many posts have I missed?! I knew I was behind a bit, but dang.... clearly I am farther behind that I realized I was.

gennifer6 said...

mmmm....this makes me wanna go steal music. I miss LimeWire....


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