Tuesday, December 13, 2011

So Beautiful or So What? My Favorite Music of 2011

Layered harmonies, rich yet experimental orchestration, and sounds that range from sparkling and jangly to deep gothy vibrations are the qualities that characterize my favorite music this year. Bonus: over half of my selections feature female vocalists.

If I could only pick one album from the whole year, no question it would be Wilco's brilliant The Whole Love. OK, I may be biased because I'm a big Wilco fan.

As I said in a post early this year, I adored The Decemberists The King is Dead. It's a return to everything I love about the band, and the album makes me happy every time I put it on.

The Fleet Foxes' second album Helplessness Blues is full of exquisitely layered harmonies that call to mind Graham Nash's first album, and that's not a bad thing.

Speaking of layers, Paul Simon at his best makes music that manages to be cheesy and deeply profound at the same time. I remember the first time I heard "Call Me Al" - I thought it was the stupidest song I'd ever heard. But of course repeated listenings revealed a master songwriter at work. So Beautiful or So What is Simon's best album in two decades, full of irreverence, beauty, and moments that seem to both crystalize and challenge one's whole life in a simple refrain.

For some bands, the transition from bedroom recordings to a budget and studio time can be a disaster. For tUnE-yArDs, it was a revelation. Whokill, Merrill Garbus's second album, takes everything that was interesting and new and exciting about her first endeavor and turns it up to 11, with fantastic results.

My enthusiasm for Whokill is certainly an influence on my attraction to Thao & Mirah's eponymous album, produced by Garbus. I like Thao Nguyen ok on her own, and wasn't familiar with Mirah, but the two of them together with Garbus's sonic experimentation make for a compelling listen.

I was late to the New Pornographers' party, but now I've got my hat on, noisemakers in hand, and I couldn't be happier. I love Together, plain and simple. Is it their best album? I honestly don't know. But I went back to it over and over during 2011 (and even featured it here earlier this year), and that's enough for now.

I get a number of "song of the day" podcasts and downloads. Many are fine. Some I dislike, mostly because of genre. Only a few make me stop what I'm doing and pay attention. Laura Marling's single "Sophia" was one of the latter, and it made me immediately buy her previous album and, in an unprecedented move, pre-order her 2011 offering, A Creature I Don't Know. There's something about her that calls to mind Joni Mitchell. Not in her sound or lyrics or songwriting style exactly. It's more in the quality of her voice, and her approach to singing.

King Creosote & Jon Hopkins' Diamond Mine sounds like it's come into this moment through a time portal from long ago and far away, and yet somehow the album's production couldn't be more fresh. Lush and a bit haunting, it's the perfect listen for a misty, cool day.

EMA's Past Life Martyred Saints and Zola Jesus's Conatus both feature young women with big, powerful voices. Whereas the latter sets a gothy mood and sticks with it, the former careens from a 7+ minute dark and fantastic epic to a shorter, sunnier, brattier, but no less industrial ode to the Golden State.

These two acts were joined by other booming women's voices this year. Anna Calvi (Anna Calvi), Austra (Feel it Break), and Alison Mosshart (The KillsBlood Pressures) all wowed me with their power, while My Brightest Diamond (All Things Will Unwind) and St. Vincent (Strange Mercy) brought their swirling and swooping oddities to the mix. Supergroup Wild Flag (Wild Flag) rose from the ashes of some of my most beloved bands and succeeded in exceeding nostalgia, while Cults (Cults) provided some continuity to last year's neo-60s sound with a dark center at the heart of their fluffy confection.

My last two favorites of the year both include interesting collaborations. The Tuareg trance-rock band Tinariwen collaborates with some of my favorite challenging rock musicians, including Nels Cline, Kyp Malone, and Tunde Adebimpe on their latest, Tassili. 

Son Lux made We Are Rising as part of the RPM Challenge to make an album, start to finish, in the month of February. NPR Music covered the Son Lux project, and you can read more about it here. Listen to a song from the album here; scroll down to find the Son Lux song.

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