Jan 022012

2011 was in many ways a frustrating, painful year. I suppose you can say that of every year, though. And what is the point of focusing on the negative as we look upon this first day of 2012? Look at all the bountiful gifts we received in the year past. Take, for instance, the following list of records that

selected as the best of 2011.

First off, some honorable mentions:

Radiohead, The King of Limbs. Wye Oak, Civilian. The Roots, Undun. Alexander, Alexander. The Band of Heathens, Top Hat Crown & The Clapmaster’s Son. Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues. Kurt Vile, Smoke Ring for My Halo. Real Estate, Days.

The Top Ten

10. The Belle Brigade, The Belle Brigade

This Los Angeles-based brother-sister duo flew a bit more under the radar, but their work, a throwback to the golden age, classic rock of the 1970′s, is strong enough for a mass audience. Barbara and Ethan Gruska’s self-titled debut would be worth a listen because of its lead single, “Losers,” alone. But that victorious, gorgeous song is just one of numerous sweet-as-sugar earworms this warm, instantly lovable record boasts. Fleetwood Mac is channeled on “Where Not to Look for Freedom,” and “Rusted Wheel” surges and pounds with overwhelming confidence. Shades of folk, bluegrass, gospel and rock slip around each other, making The Belle Brigade’s leap onto the scene an exciting, re-listenable introduction.

9. Quiet Company, We Are All Where We Belong

The only Austin artist on this year’s list, Quiet Company’s opus delivers all of the band’s hallmarks. As per usual, Taylor Muse’s evocative, earnest singing is delivered via a continuous stream of catchy, ultra-melodic indie pop. But Muse’s focus this time ’round – relationship with religion – infuses his band’s winning formula with fascinating spiritual and philosophical textures. “You, Me and the Boatman” introduces this powerful formula with a flourish, and later tracks “Preaching to the Choir Invisible” (Parts I and II) and “Fear and Fallacy, Sitting in a Tree” expand and invert the group’s musical worldview. Mid-album centerpiece “Everything Louder Than Everything Else” is breathtaking, and “The Easy Confidence” is a knotty and nasty as anything the group has recorded. This band continues to surprise and impress on its fourth album.

8. Panda Bear, Tomboy

Panda Bear’s fourth solo album didn’t get as much press as his third, Person Pitch, but the shimmering, straightforward beauty of Tomboy cannot be denied. From the ethereal chant of “You Can Count on Me,” to the stair-stepping dynamics of the title track, to the inspiring “Last Night at the Jetty,” Panda Bear flexes his considerable vocal and producing talent in creating a full-bodied aural experience. Sensuous symphonics and arrangement tricks make the 1-2 punch of “Alsatian Darn” and “Scheherazade” one of the most beguiling 8-minute stretches of 2011. Panda Bear is already off again with Avey Tare, Deakin and Geologist on the next Animal Collective project, but Tomboy shows once again that Noah Lennox on his own  is one of modern music’s most unique musical personalities.

7. Fucked Up, David Comes to Life

Hardcore Punk is not usually my wheelhouse, so it’s got to be something special that gets me interested. Amazingly, Fucked Up’s epic-length rock opera, David Comes to Life, manages to keep my attention for all 72 minutes. The guitar symphony that introduces the Canadian sextet’s third album, “Let Her Rest,” is ambitious in the way we expect progressive rock artists to be. But once Damian Abraham’s raw-throated vocals enter on “Queen of Hearts” it’s immediately clear what kind of band this is and how much ass they are going to kick. It’s not just the muscular, complex playing and fiery performances that makes David Comes to Life one of the landmark punk releases of the 21st century, though. Abraham and his cohorts have crafted an intelligent, challenging artistic statement here, with sophisticated lyrics and attention to character and storytelling details. Guest vocals by Kurt Vile, Jennifer Castle, and Madeline Follin add further emotional underpinning. Key tracks: “The Other Shoe,” “Ship of Fools,” “Turn the Season,” “One More Season.” With an album this great and this vast, there’s area for discovery on every track. It’s a thrilling intro to the genre.

6. The Strokes, Angles

Although it seemed like it took forever to get The Strokes’ fourth album, it turned out to be well worth the wait. Their first release to fully measure up to their classic debut, Is This It?, Angles is a concise and efficient delivery of all the great things the New York quintet did on their third LP, First Impressions of Earth, minus all the bloat. Opener “Macchu Picchu” shows that they’ve moved into the future while keeping their lock-step likability. “Under Cover of Darkness” is wily and adventurous, and “Two Kinds of Happiness” looks back to the Cars while riding one of Julian Casablancas’ most yearning chorus melodies. It’s clear how far everyone has come in terms of musicianship and as composers. “Taken for a Fool” is as irresistible as “You’re So Right” is icy and bracing. “Call Me Back” shows tenderness and a willing to experiment that can only be good for a group as meticulous as The Strokes. “Gratisfaction” and “Life is Simple in the Moonlight” end the record on confident and searching notes, and Angles as a whole leaves you wanting to come back for more.

5. Tom Waits, Bad As Me

Before I heard Tom Waits was working on an album of new material, I kinda figured he was semi-retired. After all, he’s more than earned his lifetime pass at this point. Tom Waits is an artist of nearly unparalleled accomplishment; he has nothing to prove, obviously. But Bad As Me shows him to be as strong as he’s ever been. One of his more accessible records, it also ranks with his very best. The full-speed train opener, “Chicago,” shows that age hasn’t slowed Waits down one bit. “Talking At The Same Time” is smoky, beautiful and mysterious. “Kiss Me” is a husky-voiced throwback to Waits’ piano crooner past. Guest spots by Keith Richards on several tracks adds additional grit. He and Waits debut on “Last Leaf,” a song about surviving, and its one of the most effective cuts, context-wise, in modern times. But Waits can get still bawdy and rowdy with the best of them, as “Satisfaction,” “Get Lost” and the frightening “Hell Broke Luce” attest. “New Year’s Eve,” the closer, is a perfect sign-off note for this record and 2011. Let’s hope Tom comes through Austin on his tour for the record.

4. TV On The Radio, Nine Types Of Light

The loss of Gerard Smith was one of 2011′s worst musical moments. However, to again look to the positive, his final work with his seminal art-rock band, TV On The Radio, was an instant classic that stands as a monumental tribute. With each successive release, the Brooklyn quintet has pared its sound down into leaner permutations and packages. The only bad thing you can say about Nine Types Of Light is that it’s too short. The album reveals the full-blooded romantic underneath the electronic/white noise accents and wide-ranging genre mutations. “Second Song” builds from a drone to a horn smackdown. “Keep Your Heart” soothes inside Kyp Malone’s growl. “Killer Crane,” the massive Tunde Adebimpe composition in the middle of the record, is a tower of swooning crescendos. “Will Do,” perhaps the catchiest song TV On The Radio have ever produced, is the greatest R&B hit the 70′s never produced. With a punch-out end song in “Caffeinated Consciousness,” TV On The Radio put the bow on another year where they were one of the best acts going.

3. Wilco, The Whole Love

Wilco continued their dense exploration of the Americana psyche on The Whole Love, an album that simultaneously pushed them back to their roots and pulled them further into experimentation than anything since A Ghost Is Born. This album is the best thing Jeff Tweedy and the boys have released since the landmark Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. From the krautrock riff in opener “Art of Almost” to quintessential Wilco winners like “I Might” and “It Dawned on Me,” there isn’t a moment of The Whole Love that doesn’t swell with bright-eyed invention. “Capitol City” ambles humorously, “Black Moon” simmers with tension, “Born Alone” dives and weaves (and lets Tweedy show off his Tom Petty impression) and “Standing O” knocks you into your seat. Closer “One Sunday Morning (Song For Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend)” is the most pensive, nostalgic and lovely 12 minutes of 2011. That Wilco can find one simple melodic idea and wrench so much meaning out of it is a testament to their staying power. The Whole Love looms large in their legend.

2. PJ Harvey, Let England Shake

My God, PJ Harvey’s vitality is something to be treasured. You simply can’t miss the fact that now, 20 years into her career, Polly Jean is still making some of the best music of her career. Some of the best music that’s available, period. Although there are no bad PJ Harvey records, surely Let England Shake is one of her finest moments. A soaring, majestic collection of music ripped from the thoughts and concerns of today’s world, Harvey’s artistry allows her topical concerns to become universal statements, so her record both defines both the moment of its birth and summarizes its content for future generations. The bristly title track gives way to the slurring “England,”  which then jumps to the galvanizing “On Battleship Hill” and ringing “The Glorious Land.” Harvey’s wiry voice is in fine form throughout and the wide-open production provides yet another new context for her music. There are worlds to explore within the appropriately-titled “Bitter Branches,” or the chilly “In The Dark Places,” or in the propulsive revival “Written On The Forehead.”   In twenty years, we’re gonna be talking about Let England Shake as one of the major releases of this era.

1. R.E.M., Collapse Into Now

Nearly 30 years ago, R.E.M. released Murmur, which has since gone on to be universally recognized as one of the best debut albums of all time. In time, their final album, Collapse Into Now, will be accepted as one of the best farewell records ever, as well. The retirement of R.E.M. is one of the major musical epochal events of 2011. An era is over, truly. But R.E.M. went out on a high note. Collapse Into Now collects all of the alt-rock pioneers’ various styles and looks out proudly and defiantly into the future. The star-punching opener “Discoverer” bookends the best album of 2011, and it stops by wistful acoustic musings (“Uberlin,” “Me, Marlon Brando, Marlon Brando and I”), unstoppable choruses in three-part harmony (“It Happened Today”), blatantly emotional and pretty ballads (“Oh My Heart,” “Walk It Back”) and some of the most fun R.E.M. has ever had (the goofy “Mine Smell Like Honey” and Peaches-assisted raver “Alligator_Aviator_Autopilot_Antimatter”) before meeting the horizon line of the future with fuzzy, Patti Smith-guesting oblivion on “Blue.” The album’s relationship with the world around it makes it like the American response to Let England Shake, and it makes a similarly fraught, emotionally charged statement about that world. R.E.M., this country’s greatest rock band, waves goodbye from the cover of Collapse Into Now. No more R.E.M. concerts or music video or records. They exited with gas in the tank, and we’ve gotta make it on our own from here. I’m glad to have had one last release for the road.

So that was 2011. Now, let’s get to the present! AME’s resolution: to get the album reviews up closer to their actual release dates. See ya’ll in 2012.

Sep 212011

The AME crew found a significantly better route to Zilker Park on Saturday, which meant that we were in much better mental and physical shape to take in what ACL had to offer. As always, there were acts that I regrettably missed. Two of Austin’s hot risers, the sun-washed electro group Fresh Millions and eccentric hippie crooners Cowboy and Indian, and Los Angeles’s The Belle Brigade had early shows and played before my group arrived. The Belle Brigade’s self-titled 2011 release might be one of this year’s best records, so that one particularly hurt. But I have a feeling all three of these groups will be playing in the city again soon, so it was important to forward on.

As we entered the park we were able to hear the last 20 minutes of Young the Giant’s concert. It was totally context-free and hard to get a track on the music because of the late entry onto the grounds, but the band sounded muscular and dynamic. I’m sure the first forty minutes would’ve been fun. The first full act I was able to take in was Alexander at the Google+ stage. Alex Ebert is front man for Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeroes, but his serene, accomplished solo material shows off the less exuberant side of his musicality. The album is also one of the year’s strongest releases. Ebert, in his floppy, wide-brimmed hat and loose shirt, overcame the mid-day doldrums that sunk Friday’s afternoon acts and pulled the crowd into his spiritual,  folkie sound. A few members of the Magnetic Zeroes served as Alexander’s backing group, but the solo act is a totally different animal from his commune/other band. This was proven when the group launched into an impromptu, totally re-arranged version of “Carries On,” one of the highlight track from 2009′s Up From Below.

It was a wonderfully ramshackle, off-the-wing performance that rested on Alexander’s steady-eyed, memorable compositions. “Awake My Body” and “In the Twilight” stirred the pot, but Ebert’s stage banter helped to warm the crowd up. One song was pulled out despite Alexander’s warning that “we haven’t rehearsed this.” This led to a great, halting performance that featured Ebert instructing the stalwart Stewart Cole to “go ahead, pick up your horn, you know, da da da da da da.” Cole responded by throwing out a few melody lines that mirrored Ebert’s lyrics. The effect and song were charming. “A Million Years” closed the show on an appropriate sing-a-long. I’m thinking this Alexander Ebert is a pretty major talent. Both times I have seen him live (my first time was with his band last year at La Zona Rosa) he’s excelled. Some people in the audience didn’t even know he was involved with the Magnetic Zeroes – they must’ve been waiting for Skrillex – but their attention was rapt.

The plan was unclear after that, but our choice was made for us by the fact that we had lost our group in the ACL crowd and now needed to re-locate them. This is a common occurrence that every festival-goer has to tread through, so there was a dutiful trek through Alison Krauss & Union Station’s adoring crowd at the Bud Light stage. In the time it took to find our compatriots (which we finally did) we heard Krauss and her astounding Union Station swoon and tear through many of the roots siren’s most revered tunes. The track that got everyone excited was, of course, “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow.” Eleven years ago, Krauss’s rendition of the traditional tune jump-started the 21st century folk revival. Arguably, one of modern music’s biggest upheaval’s can be traced to Alison and The Coen Brothers.

Back at Google+, we checked out the reason for that huge crowd push forward following Alexander’s set. Black-haired, black-suited, bespectacled DJ Skrillex took no time driving his ravenous crowd into a frenzy. His whizzing samples and looped beats didn’t let up at any point during his set, and Sonny Moore (his real name) looked like he was having a blast. He was dancing at his station as hard as his fans in the crowd. According to The AV Club, some people consider Skrillex the “Nickelback of dance music,” whatever that means, but those people sounds like jerks. “Wahh, people are having fun! This must be bad.” The crowd was loving this set, and even though it’s not my preferred genre I appreciated the energy and effect. A memorable part of Skrillex’s set was an onstage dance by a young boy who had been fully decked-out in punk rock attire by Austin Kiddie Limits. At one point, Skrillex picked the kid up and had him shout out to the crowd over the microphone. Then he put the kid back down – he went back to dancing – and Skrillex hit another knob without missing a beat.

After that it was kill-time until TV on the Radio. We got some food and drinks and heard a bit of Cut Copy. AME received a Cut Copy EP about a year ago, but it didn’t make much of an impression. Wow, was I wrong on my assumptions about this band. They were more lively and less down-in-the-mouth than I ever would’ve expected. We should probably give them a second chance.

But when 7 PM rolled around it was about one thing: TV on the Radio at Google+. I’ve been talking several times in this article about some artists’ 2011 releases being among the best I’ve heard all year. Well, Nine Types of Light, TV on the Radio’s latest, might be the best of the year. It was a ferocious, knock-you-back-on-your-ass performance. The Brooklyn band more than lived up to their critical darling status. Watching the galvanizing opener “Halfway Home,” or the beautiful rendition of “Will Do,” or the pummeling “Blues from Down Here,” there’s no way this isn’t one of the top music acts performing at the moment. Also, an “I’m old” alert: several high school girls walked in front of me during the performance singing along perfectly to “Staring at the Sun,” one of TV on the Radio’s earliest popular songs. I don’t even know those words. Yikes. It was a shame to realize Gerard Smith couldn’t be with them, but TV on the Radio may have given the best show at ACL 2011.

Additionally, multiple reports place Christian Bale backstage during TV on the Radio’s set, recording the show on his iPhone. I didn’t see him, so he must’ve been visible from the opposite angle of where I was. Still, that’s pretty cool to have Batman at ACL.

8 PM marked the huge movement of humanity back to the Bud Light stage to see the legend, Stevie Wonder. One of the genuine geniuses of music, Wonder represents a huge coup for ACL. Too bad Bud Light’s sound problems – which were apparent at Kanye West’s show the previous night – were even worse Saturday. Why had Alison Krauss sounded so great earlier that day? When one of the de-facto greatest musicians in American history graces the ACL stage, the people should make sure we can at least hear his voice. An opening cover of “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You)” heralded Wonder’s appearance. He was wearing a gold and red-striped dashiki and playing a keytar. The intro went on and on and on, and I looked forward to a set dominated by Stevie’s Songs in the Key of Life approach. That means that each tune is about seven or eight minutes long. Length is not a problem when it’s Stevie Wonder, and the man himself seemed extremely into it onstage.

I bet the people up close had a great show. But the further back you were the more you had to strain to hear “Higher Ground,” “Sir Duke” and a note-for-note rendition of “The Way You Make Me Feel.” Wonder hit all of the jams – “Master Blaster (Jammin’),” “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing” and the inevitable finale “Superstition.” His voice sounds exactly the same as it did 40 years ago. Even with the sound problems he was special in person. I can only imagine how transcendent the experience would’ve been if the speakers were up to their full ability.