Top 10 Albums of 2011

As I’ve gazed around the various lists detailing the best albums of 2011 these past few weeks it’s become more and more clear that I’m out of touch with the critical mass. The albums that are frequently lauding did nothing for me. David Comes to Life left me more preoccupied than fucked up. Bon Iver bored. James Blake made me long for the tennis player. House of Balloons was good, but not gripping. 21 simply wasn’t in my wheelhouse. Watch the Throne was just plain bad. Ect., ect…

So just keep that in mind. I’m apparently horribly out of touch.

Here are the 10 best albums of 2011…

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10. Capes – Tancred

Radiating a tranquil warmth, Capes, the solo debut of Now, Now guitarist Jess Abbott, is welcoming and easy to slip into. Abbott’s tiny voice barely breaks through the layer of sparse, lo-fi instrumentals, but the smallness is intentional and gives the album character. Unassuming and genuine, Capes is the coziest little album of the year.

9. Strange Negotiations – David Bazan

If the masses of Occupy movement had any sense about them, they’d adopt Strange Negotiations as their official album. David Bazan remains as downtrodden as ever, only now it’s the the greedy folks behind the recent financial collapse that have got him bumming. His lyrics are angrier than they’ve ever been, taking aim at those now known as “The 1%” (“Wolves at the Door,” “Strange Negotiations”). Bazan’s somberness on more personal tunes also rings true thanks to very atmospheric, moody arrangements that perfectly suit his melancholy vocals (“Wont’ Let Go”, “Virginia”). Strange Negotiations isn’t an album of hope, but it’s certainly an album of now.

8. The Big Roar – The Joy Formidable

The title of The Joy Formidable’s first LP, The Big Roar, is actually kind of an understatement. The album is a massive tsunami wave of rock noise led by frontwoman Ritzy Bryan’s manic energy. Appropriately, her distinctive guitar sound is a processed pedal attack drowning in guitar effects. In fact, the entirety of The Big Roar is lustrously produced in a manner that would be considered severe overproduction for almost any other act. Yet it totally fits The Joy Formidable’s sprawling sound; one that’s laced with heavy, chaotic instrumental outros. And as much as Bryan’s wailing and guitar flailing gets the attention, the album would be a failure without The Joy Formidable’s solid as stone rhythm section (drummer Matt Thomas and bassist Rhydian Dafydd), who keep Bryan in check and thunderously drive the songs forward. The Big Roar is loud pop rock music in all its shimmering, glistening glory.

7. 13 Chambers – Wugazi

This year’s best mash-up album is all about edge: the hard-edge delivery of the Wu-Tang Clan’s (and their members’ solo projects’) rhymes, Fugazi’s samples instrumentals which brood in the backdrop seemingly on the edge of erupting at any second, and the way that Cecil Otter and Swiss Andy brought it all together so that there’s seemingly no distinctive edge separating the two mashees. The Wu’s lyrics match the tone of their new found post-hardcore backing with shocking ease. The Fugazi element works, in part, because they’re not the most distinctively unique samples, allowing the vocals enter the mix more natural sounding way. The whole package blends together seamlessly, to the point where a listener coming in cold could legitimately think that this is a just a hip hop album where the rappers decided to use a live rock band to back it. And that’s the whole goal of any mash-up, right?

6. Oui Camera Oui – The Heavenly States

The Heavenly States continue to toll away in rock ‘n roll obscurity, but that just makes Oui Camera Oui (or 2008’s album of the year Delayer) an even more special gem. Perhaps the reason the band is an under the radar treat is because they don’t do anything “sexy.” The Heavenly States excels at simplicity – all ya need is a hook, great lyrics, balance in instrumentation. Boom. Done. Onto the next song. Whether it’s sweeping sing-alongs (“Berlin Wall”) or more downbeat numbers (“Monarchia”) frontman Ted Nesseth’s words come across with more sincerity than just about anyone in the music business today (especially when compared to his male peers). And if that’s not enough for you, Oui Camera Oui is far and away the best album of wolf-fucking music released this year.*

*Listen to the record…you’ll understand. Continue reading

Matt Hopper Feature From The Inlander

Fireworks

Alaska breeds isolation and oddity. Singer-songwriter Matt Hopper understands this well from his early days as a Last Frontier troubadour. One night Hopper might’ve played a rec center; the next night he would be onstage at some fisherman bar with a bartender named Future.

“There aren’t a lot of traditional music venues with a sound guy and a green room and all that stuff,” says Hopper. “It’s like, ‘Cool, here’s a bar in Talkeetna that you can play for $300, but you’ve gotta play for four hours. And all the locals are gonna come check you out. And if it’s not bluegrass, they’re just gonna keep drinking and ignore you in the corner.’” Hopper has been rambling around the country since starting his music career eight years ago in Anchorage. He’s lived in a spectrum of cities — from Los Angeles to Madison, Wis. — but currently calls Boise home.

Likely due to his tendency to relocate, Hopper’s backing band, the Roman Candles, has an absurdly high turnover rate. In fact, the band is more of a loose concept than a band, as multiple incarnations can exist at any given time.

“I’ve got a band in Alaska and a band in Boise,” he says. “And at one point I had a band in Austin, Texas. And Nashville. I know a bunch of guys in New York that will back me up.”

“That’s kinda how I roll, because I’m a songwriter. I’m not necessarily tied down by the fact that I need three other dudes or women to make my sound happen.” Continue reading

Top 10 Songs of 2011

Songs! There sure were a lot of them this year, weren’t there? Like, at least 100 of them. Easily. Maybe more. Here are the 10 (+1) best of that bunch.

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Honorable mention: “Whirring” – The Joy Formidable

If I allowed The Joy Formidable’s spinning opus to be on this list, it’d probably crack the top half. However, I’m DQ’ing it for the following two reasons:

A) Despite coming to prominence this year as a single off of The Joy Formidable’s excellent debut LP The Big Roar, the song was previously released on the band’s EP A Balloon Called Moaning. That EP came out in 2008 in Japan, 2009 in the UK, and 2010 in the States, so claiming it as a song of 2011 would be somewhat disingenuous.

B) More importantly, aforementioned previously released version is better than 2011’s more known version. It’s rawer and shorter, doing away with the unnecessarily long instrumental outro. Since this is, after all, a great pop song, there’s no need for the excess fluff tacked on the end.

10. “Life’s a Happy Song” from The Muppets Original Soundtrack

You’re damn right The Muppets made this list. The entire soundtrack to the film is golden, thanks to songwriting by Bret McKinzie of Flight of the Conchords. The Conchords’ sense of silliness and fun is on display in this song (which essentially serves as the film’s main theme). “Life’s a Happy Song” is pure-hearted upbeat fun filled with simple, gleeful rhyme. If this song can’t bring a smile to your face, then you really need to get over yourself.

9. “Won’t Let Go” – David Bazan

There’s a surprisingly long lineage of rock songs about spacemen: Bowie (“Space Oddity”), Elton John (“Rocket Man”), and the Foo (“Next Year”) to name a few. But none of those astronaut tunes are quite as dour as “Won’t Let Go” – David Bazan’s take on the theme. With hushed ambient backing Bazan’s repetition of the refrain “I will not let go…of you” feels like a gut-punch. There may be a glimmer of hope in his hopelessness, but you have to mine through a poetically rough shell to reach it.

8. “Berlin Wall” – The Heavenly States

“Berlin Wall” is the best rock ‘n roll sing-along in some time. The song slowly and patiently builds layer upon layer of backing music to support its rallying cries that dream of a post-war machine world. Finger-picked acoustic guitar leads to keys, backing vocals, and a distant beat. The flourishes keep coming until a chorus of voices explodes into a of massive nebulous of jubilation. “Berlin Wall” begs the listener to belt along and is crafted in a way that makes anyone who doesn’t join in after a few spins seem foolish.

7. “Cruel” – St. Vincent

I would not have put my money on Annie Clark making a killer dance track, but that’s just what she did with “Cruel.” While the song starts with sweeping strings typical of a St. Vincent song, they quickly give way to a throbbing beat, vaguely Caribbean-feeling electronic twitterings, and a downright dirty fuzzy guitar line to accompany her woeful lines of causal cruelty. It’s enough to make all the indie tweesters that adore her stop staring for a second to shake their shoulders and hips.

6. “Bridge Burning” – Foo Fighters

After years of growing a little soft (eww…you got Norah Jones in my Foo and it’s gross), Foo Fighters quite literally roared back into rocking mode with “Bridge Burning.” The opening track to Wasting Light set a tone of unadulterated non-stop rock and the Foo never looked back. The song’s opening apprehensive string clangings quickly burst into furious drums, heavy guitars, and Ghrol screams. “Bridge Burning” condenses the essence of Foo into a powder keg and then throws a match it’s way. The resulting explosion is a sound to be heard.

Continue reading

Top 10 Albums of 2010 Revisited

As is the tradition around here at Long Live the Album, I look back at last year’s best album list before tackling the current years incarnation. This is that. Because music is fluid, so why not make revisions, additions, and subtractions?

The Original Top 10 Albums of 2010

1. Swim – Caribou
2. Home Acres – Aloha
3. The Suburbs – Arcade Fire
4. Champ – Tokyo Police Club
5. True Devotion – Rocky Votolato
6. Where the Messengers Meet – Mt. St. Helen’s Vietnam Band
7. My Dinosaur Life – Motion City Soundtrack
8. White Crosses – Against Me!
9. Personal Life – The Thermals
10. The Game of Monogamy – Tim Kasher

The Updated Top 10 Albums of 2010

1. Swim – Caribou
2. Home Acres – Aloha
3. The Suburbs – Arcade Fire
4. Epic – Sharon Van Etten
5. Champ – Tokyo Police Club
6. True Devotion – Rocky Votolato
7. The Game of Monogamy – Tim Kasher
8. Personal Life – The Thermals
9. Where the Messengers Meet – Mt. St. Helen’s Vietnam Band
10. My Dinosaur Life – Motion City Soundtrack

Notes:

*I’ve fallen madly in love with Sharon Van Etten’s music (not Sharon herself mind you – I want to date these songs). The broken-up sorrow of Epic keeps me coming back. From the defiantly angry (still in) love song of “A Crime” to more upbeat numbers like “Peace Signs” and “One Day,” each track builds on Ms. Van Etten’s powerfully personal voice. I can’t believe it took me until this year’s SXSW to catch on to her tunes.

*You guys, Home Acres is still so, so good. I really wish people knew Aloha.

*Lyrically The Game of Monogamy has stuck with me more than any other album on last year’s list. Tim’s musings on the crushing tedium and hopelessness of marriage still stings. It deserved to move up on those merits.

*I had Personal Life ranked slightly lower to close last year mainly because it’s simply not as good as the best The Thermals albums. But the warmth of these pop songs seems more timeless with each passing listen, hence the bump.

Supersuckers Feature From The Inlander

Liquor, Women, Drugs and Killing

If that headline doesn’t sound like a good time, the Supersuckers ain’t for you.

Boot-stompin’, beer-drinkin’, hell-raisin’ — this is what the Supersuckers are all about.

And for over two decades, the Seattle rockers have been blasting buzzed bar patrons from coast to coast with their brand of rock and roll. Longevity like that is rare, but frontman and bassist Eddie Spaghetti doesn’t revel in it. He sees it more as a historical inevitability.

“Rock and roll as an art form is still kinda new in the scope of things compared to classical music or even blues or whatever,” says Spaghetti. “I don’t know when you consider the start date of rock and roll. Sometime in the ’50s I guess. As the art form itself becomes older, it’s gonna become more common to see older guys up there rockin’.”

The Supersuckers began with pure rock and punk roots, but have since garnered recognition for adding country stylings into the mix. What was meant to be an Eddie Spaghetti solo record, 1997’s Must’ve Been High, turned out to be a Supersuckers alt-country album by virtue of Spaghetti not knowing anyone to play with but the guys in his band. The success of that record led the band to collaborate with the likes of Steve Earle and Willie Nelson.

While combining styles has opened many doors, Spaghetti thinks anyone who sees the Supersuckers as an act striving for genre cross-pollination is way overthinking it.

“Rock, country, punk; I think they’re all kind of the same. It’s basically the same three chords and you try and put some words over it that sound fresh or interesting to you,” he says. “I think anybody who spends any amount of time listening to rock and roll or punk rock — eventually it’s going to lead them down the road to the country music.

“I think that Hank Williams is the same as the Ramones. All his songs sort of sound the same, but they’re all totally awesome; just like the Ramones.” Continue reading

Now, Now Feature From The Inlander

Land of 10,000 Licks

Now, Now continue the surprisingly strong lineage of music from the North Star State.

If Minnesota ever comes to mind, it’s likely because of lakes, the Vikings, or maybe Judy Garland. But for decades, the state has gone unnoticed for putting out loads of great music. The ’80s saw the rise of Prince and the iconoclastic underground sounds of Husker Du and the Replacements. In more recent years, some of the best hip-hop around has poured out of the Twin Cities (P.O.S., MF Doom, Atmosphere, Brother Ali) along with some choice indie (Tapes n’ Tapes, Low) and pop-punk (Motion City Soundtrack).

And that’s not even mentioning the Minnesota boys who went to the big city to showcase their songwriting chops: the Hold Steady’s Craig Finn and the artist formerly known as Robert Zimmerman.

It’s weird how quietly Minnesota music has flown under the national radar. But Cacie Dalager, the lead vocalist and guitarist of the excellent Minneapolis indie-pop trio Now, Now, sees one clear reason for the loads of talent coming from the Land of 10,000 Lakes — the notoriously brutal snow and cold that forces artists to feed their creative fires.

“It’s pretty much winter at least half the year,” says Dalager. “From October to, sometimes, May, it just looks like winter all the time. That kind of puts me in the right mindset to be writing, because usually what I end up writing about isn’t anything particularly cheerful.”

“Being forced to be inside and be creative helps; as opposed to living somewhere really sunny, where you want to live outside all the time.”

Now, Now (formerly Now, Now Every Children) started playing a blizzard of indie rock in 2003 when Dalager and drummer Brad Hale began writing songs after high school marching band practice in Blaine, Minn. After toiling away for years, the duo gained a modicum of national buzz with their first LP, Cars. Dalager eventually connected with guitarist Jess Abbott via MySpace. Continue reading

2011 Christmas Tracks From The Inlander

A Very [ _______ ] Christmas

Another holiday season brings another set of holiday singles. Here they are: the good, the bad and the Bieber.

The bitter chill in the air and the ornamentation adorning more and more households each day can only mean one thing — it’s time, once again, for our favorite pop stars to churn out some easy Christmas cash-ins! Venture if you will on this bountiful sleigh ride of Christmas tracks that 2011 has brought.

Justin Bieber – “Mistletoe”

The Canadian money-making automaton now has a Christmas album, Under the Mistletoe, ripe for pre-tween consumption. The album’s single, “Mistletoe,” is an original by production team the Messengers. Surprisingly, it’s not Bieber’s traditional brand of highly produced dance-pop. Instead, it’s in the vein of Jason Mraz (ahem, rip-off), accompanied by a sparse combo of sleigh bells and acoustic guitar. The lyrics are somewhat confounding. There’s definitely a parallel made between the “miracle” of kissing his “shorty” and the birth of Jesus. Additionally, there are “chestnuts roasting like a hot July” (because that’s a thing we do in July?) and the “word on the street, Santa’s coming tonight” (your street informants suck, Justin). While Bieber gets more vitriol than he deserves, “Mistletoe” only has the potential to spawn more haters.

Scott Weiland – “Winter Wonderland”

Scott Weiland has a Christmas album (The Most Wonderful Time of the Year). There’s a 40- to 95-percent chance that Scott Weiland is unaware of this. The notoriously drug-addled frontman of Stone Temple Pilots and Velvet Revolver sounds positively sloshed on this version of “Winter Wonderland.” There’s nothing rock ’n’ roll about the arrangement. Instead, it attempts a more classic, lounge-singer vibe. It falls flat. The track’s lifelessness makes it seem like Weiland rolled into the studio and somebody handed him a sheet of lyrics and told him “Here, sing this.” Any Spokanite found listening to this over the Bing Crosby rendition should be jailed. Continue reading