Sunday, November 27, 2011

Top 10 CDs of 2011

2012 is finally upon us. Finally may not be the correct word. For me 2011 was a flash of light, but I am thrilled to have a good selection of music to help me remember the year. Now, I have the difficult task of picking my Top Ten Albums of 2011.

Before I get into it, a few caveats:

Like last year, I am only ranking albums that I actually purchased. As you get into this list, you may see some names that you do not recognize. It is important to remember that I go to A LOT of concerts, as a result I have the opportunity to see some bands that are just starting out, doing regional touring, playing Thursday sets to 25 people, and struggling to get to the next destination. If the band is good, I always buy the CD. Also, as much as I want to be completely objective, I know I am not. Where I struggle the most is when an artist has multiple CDs. It seems somewhat impossible for me to judge the recent one without reflecting on the older CDs. In some cases that hurt an artist’s place in the Top Ten, in some cases it prevented them from even making the Top Ten, but in the case of my top pick, it helped them secure the Best Album of 2011.

To be honest this list was somewhat of a surprise to me and seemed to be ever changing as the year progressed. Unlike last year, when I got into December and started trying to remember all the CDs I bought, this year I kept a spreadsheet that I added CDs to as I purchased them, and after a week in the car, I would loosely assign a rank. What surprised me is how some CDs that I thought were going to be top contenders in January or February ended up not even making the list. A few things that were significant factors were how much play time an album got, what I would have done differently if I had recorded the CD, standout songs, vocals, lyrics, did I get to see them live, and how did they do. I understand the last should absolutely not be a factor when ranking Albums, but damn it if you cannot do it live, then your CD means less to me. Also, I did not rank EPs. EPs tend to piss me off because they leave me feeling unfulfilled. That being said, if you are going to buy one from 2011, it should be Far From the Tree by Peach. It was refreshingly raw and powerful. Lastly, I am confident that had I been able to see the Pistol Annies live, Hell on Heels would have made this list.

#10 Old Soul – Stevie & the Hi-StaXX

Of all the CDs on this list, I feel I was the most unfair to Old Soul by Stevie & the Hi-StaXX. Had it been from any other artist it could have been a top 5 contender. The lyrics are intelligent and powerful. Stevie’s voice is clear, controlled, and emotive, and while definitely paying homage to the soul of old, musically, the CD sounds like a modern interpretation, as opposed to a copy cat. So why did it end up at #10? My favorite CD of all time is Armaghetto which is from Stevie Harris’ first band, Conglomerate. I know I shouldn’t be comparing his first band to his current project, but I cannot help it. Conglomerate was Stevie. This CD is Stevie. I cannot separate the two. Where “Old Soul” falls short for me is Stevie’s reliance on falsetto. I know where the influences are coming from, and why he made the stylist change, but that doesn’t mean I have to embrace it. The reality is Steve Harris has the biggest voice I have ever heard, and I feel shortchanged when he takes a line to falsetto as opposed to powering it up there. I know this makes it seem like I am placing him in a box, that I am not respecting his artistic freedom, but Armaghetto had such a profound effect on me. It was the first CD that made me realize there was amazing music outside of the confines of the shit radio had been spoon feeding me, and that is hard to escape. “Where” is the closest Stevie comes to the in-your-face Heavy Soul that changed my life.

#9 When You Grow Up – Priscilla Ahn

When looking at this list Priscilla Ahn must seem the most out of place. Everything else appears to be so dark, and even in her darkest moments, her beautiful round tone and playful instrumentation ends up making the song seem light and hopeful, and this album is definitely more sunshine and roses than her debut release, A Good Day. Although there is more love than longing on When You Grow Up, the CD is well produced, the lyrics are thoughtful and sincere, and Priscilla’s voice is the perfection of purity. What helped Priscilla fight her way into the top ten was an absolutely incredible performance during a disgustingly under-attended show at the Old Rock House and possibly my second favorite song of the year, “I Don’t Have Time to be In Love.” As someone that spends way too much time at work, has a really robust social life, and is still chasing the dream of music, I definitely relate to this song. It is so easy to deny love because we are too busy for it, but when it is real, we will make the time.

#8 Barton Hollow – The Civil Wars

There is no question that I love soulful music, the more I want to cry when focusing on your words, the tone of your voice, the pain in your chord structure, the more I love your song. It is also no secret that I am a sucker for harmonies. As a choir kid, it is something I will never escape. When I hear them my ears perk-up like a cat stalking the scratching sounds of a mouse from 2 rooms away. Barton Hollow offers both in a stripped down recording that has become the friend I turn to when I am wallowing in a dark funk. That being said, I feel like I need to apologize to the John Paul White and Joy Williams for this placement. Had I made this list when the CD first came out, it probably would have been in the Top 5, but I overplayed it. That, coupled with my complete obsession with their 2009 release, Live at Eddie’s Attic, caused this CD to lose some position in my Top 10 list. Barton Hollow does feature my favorite song of 2011, “Poison and Wine.” What I loved about this recording is they didn’t over produce it. Studio albums are always going to have more layers than a live album, but they stayed pretty true to the live version on this recording, and I respect that, that they understand how powerful the song is, that they realize that adding to can often detract. I’d also like to say that the Civil Wars were probably my second favorite show of the year, and I will be seeing them again in January.

#7 Strange Negotiations – David Bazan

As a longtime fan of Pedro the Lion I was elated that David Bazan put out a new CD. Of my top ten, Strange Negotiations is, instrumentally, the most exciting to my ears. That probably just confused some of you, as it is possibly the least complex, but I love the tension that sparseness manifests. I love the tones David and company create throughout the recording, the thick fuzzed bass, the droning guitars with natural tube overdrive, the well placed atmospherics, and, in general, I am more drawn to down-tempo tunes than up-tempo rockers. This CD is full of thinkers. You put it in on a nice long drive and lose yourself in the stories. Lyrically, it is raw, honest, reflective, and personal. He opens his mind to us, allows us to witness his creation, feel his pains, and attempt to understand his existential dilemma. If there was a fault to this CD it might be that it is so personal, as a result some may struggle to internalize the connection to it. As for a standout track, I am going to go with “Wolves at the Door.” They are all really strong, but this is just such a great introduction to the CD. You instantly know that Bazan is back and going to treat you to an amazing recording.

#6 Wilderness – The Features

I had the pleasure of opening for the Features this year at Cicero’s, and it was one of the highlights of my musical career. They are amazing, and they proved it on 2011’s Wilderness. Some Kind of Salvation was the kind of disc that you wear out which made me kind of worried about Wilderness. How could it be that good? It is that good by being that different. While Matt Pelham’s vocals are still a focal point for me, this CD is rougher around the edges. It is like that seedy little hole in the wall that you cannot help but love. It forces you to move rather than just listen. It takes music from being purely auditory and cerebral and makes you have a physical relationship with it. I am actually listening to the CD right now and struggling to find something critical to say. The only thing I came up with was the keys. At times their voicing is a little too churchy or 80’s for me. I think I would have preferred a more dirty Rhodes or thick B-3 sound. Standout track, “Big Mama Gonna Whip Us Good.” How do you not love a song with a title like that?

#5 Death and Other Forms of Relaxation – Union Tree Review

Of the Top 10 this may be the hardest for me to write because of my connection to them. After all we shared a band member for two years which ultimately broke-up my band. I have seen UTR so many times that I really wasn’t sure what to expect from this CD. They have a history of becoming too liberal with their consumption before a gig which can lead to clusterfuck of sorts, but when they are on, they are incredible. So which Union Tree Review was going to show up on the disc…the disc that they self-produced and recorded in an apartment? The incredible one. It is important to note that had Tawaine Noah (lead singer and songwriter) dropped a solo disc with just him and the guitar, it probably would have made the Top 10. He is an old soul with a modern pen. His lyrics are personal yet accessible, heartfelt and hopeful. That being said, the more I listened to this CD the more my ears were drawn to Jordan’s guitar and Matt’s well placed drumming. I am also obsessed with Patrick’s harmonies. That being said this CD is not free from fault, none are really, and this is more a matter of taste then error, but I feel like the viola, trumpet, and two guitars end up crowding the middle. Rather than having tonal and pitch differentiation they tend to sit in the same register which muddies the builds. I am torn between three songs as my top pick, “Interstate” and “Parties” both mesmerize me, but for the opening line “Your coffee is bitter like I, at least it’s got an excuse. Like you it’s cold and taste like scotch,” my pick goes to “Facing Fools.”

#4 Running from a Gamble – Company of the Thieves

Where do I begin with Company of Thieves? I am about to be accused of blaspheme, just remember when I explained that this blog is about my opinion and though I try to be objective, I cannot always be. To me the pairing of Walloch and Schatz is up there with Page and Plant or DeLeo and Weiland. Yes. I just said that. Marc Walloch is an amazing guitarist. He understands the roots of the instrument, but rather than show up with a slew of vintage gear in an attempt to recreate what once was, tonally he pushes the boundaries of what the guitar can be without sacrificing its guitarness. If you do not know that name, it is probably because Genevieve Schatz has such a powerful presence that she kind of becomes the band. Her voice is unmatched, soaring and soulful. I have seen them four times in the last 18 months, and have always left feeling inspired. Let’s talk Running from a Gamble. We are getting into the territory where the current album is not only equal to previous releases, it surpasses them. I absolutely love Ordinary Riches, but I do not think it did justice to the songwriting duo that is Walloch and Schatz. It was kind of the Genevieve show, which is a great show; however, on Running from a Gamble Marc’s guitar grabs you by the jaw, spins your ear towards his amp, and demands that you listen to him. If you do, you will be glad you did. Similarly, I think the band as a whole showed themselves as a powerful force of rock, soul, and groove. Eitan Bernstein’s keys are thick and tasteful, and the rhythm section of drummer Chris Faller and bassist Marcin Sulewski, is one of the best you will find in any band, tight, prominent but not overpowering. This was the first CD where I knew, immediately, what my favorite track was. Sonically “Gorgeous/Grotesque” strums every chord of this rockers heart. Its dynamic shifts give it breath and energy, and the builds make we want to kick shit over, turn my amp to 11, light it on fire, and watch it burn while I play my guitar with a ferocity that would frighten children.

#3 Ashes and Fire – Ryan Adams

Ryan Adams is back. I should probably just stop there. I mean how do I write about one of my biggest influences? If you are a fan of Ryan Adams, you probably know he is amazingly prolific and has never confined himself to a particular genre. If you are a fan, you also probably have a favorite period of Ryan Adams, whether it was with Whiskeytown, his first 3 solo CDs, the meanderings through rock and indie rock with Rock-N-Roll and Love is Hell, or his work with the Cardinals. Well, for me, his first 3 CDs are untouchable, and Ashes and Fire, takes a circular move back to the beginning. The lyrics are sensitive and sincere. They paint breathtaking images and impel you to feel, if only for the 3 minutes that they wash over you. The instrumentation is sparse but layered with enough variance to keep the ears excited during a first to last listen. His voice is tender and pure. It is the kind of CD that when you put it on you immediately want to pop a cork, light a candle, and hold someone you love. It was really hard for me to pick a favorite song, so I’ll claim the bookends. “Dirty Rain” and “I Love You But I Don’t Know What To Say.” Both will melt you.

#2 Beekeepers – My Molly

Unless you have never read any of my Blogs, my Twitter, or my Facebook, you should have seen this coming. I have been gushing about My Molly for three years now, and when they released Beekeepers, I dropped a review. Rather than rehashing the blog, I’ll just let you read it, remind you that I love this CD and tell you to do yourself a favor and purchase it. By total plays, production, vocals, lyrics, and ability to do it live, this CD definitely deserved placement in the Top Ten, and the back to back heart melting combination of “Fission and Fusion” and “Tie Me to the Mast (a Sirens Song)” helped secure it as the 2nd best CD of 2011.

#1 Little Hell – City and Colour

Where to start with this album…where to start? First I should say I love everything Dallas Green has done under the guise of City and Colour, and while having multiple albums may have negatively impacted others, it helped this CD. In truth, if I were completely objective, this CD would have still been my #1 regardless of past work, but, for me, City and Colour keeps getting better. The rich instrumentation and layers on this CD create the tension and release that I love in music. The well placed pedal steel on various tracks makes my ears happy, Dallas has the most amazing voice since Jeff Buckley, and more importantly, he proves it during his live performances. City and Colours’ show at the Pageant this year, was definitely my #1 concert going experience of 2011. Yeah. I said that. I meant that, and I stand by that. There are so many breathtaking songs on this CD, it is next to impossible to pick a favorite, but I am going to go with “Sorrowing Man.” The lyrics are powerful and speak to me. I love the dirty resonance and controlled drive of the rhythm section, not over powering or fighting for dominance but definitely driving the song. Please do yourself a favor and buy this CD. You will be glad you did. Your lover will be glad you did. Your neighbors will be glad you did. Your co-workers will thank you.

And there we have MY Top Ten of 2011. I am sure for many of you there are CDs that you feel deserved a spot on this list, and I would love to hear about them, so please feel free to comment with your Top Ten of 2011.

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