Saturday, December 24, 2011

A Year in Review: 2011's Biggest Disappointments

2011 yielded a lot of records that will probably achieve borderline classic status for me within the next decade or so, but as always, there were a few records that just didn't do it for me. You know the type: the kind of records that you put on your "most anticipated" list at the start of a year, but ones that end up just missing the mark entirely. Whether it was because the artists in question had previously made records that hit me in such an emotional place that the follow-ups couldn't live up to them, or because I've moved passed the point where I found the artist's music relevant in my life, these five records will probably get very little attention from me after the sun sets on this year. Perhaps there's a classic here that will unveil itself once enough time has passed, but I personally think each of these records failed in such a way that I'm no longer sure what place these artists have in my soundtrack. Only time will tell.

1. City & Colour - Little Hell

It's a bit weird that this one sits at the top of this list, since I really don't think it's a bad record at all, and a bunch of people even called it his best. It's all personal here though, since Dallas Greene (the singer-songwriter behind his project) made one of the most emotional, heartbreaking records I've ever heard back in 2005 with Sometimes. That record was just Dallas with his acoustic guitar and his unbelievable voice, and when I finally discovered it 3 years after it's release, I formed such an emotional connection with it that I don't honestly know if I love the record because the music is great or because it seemed to describe perfectly how I was feeling. The follow-up, 2008's Bring Me Your Love, brought a more fleshed-out, full-band sound with it, but I still felt a connection to what Dallas was singing about. I feel nothing at all when I listen to this record though. Everything sounds as beautiful as ever, but that palpable emotion that made Sometimes something special for me is no longer present in Dallas' lyrics or vocals, and that's a bit heartbreaking for me. Perhaps I'm in the minority, but I didn't find much to come back to on Little Hell, even though I tried time and time again.

2. Bright Eyes - The People's Key

The only reason this record isn't number one on this list is because the only album Conor Oberst has ever made that I loved completely was 2005's I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning. That album's folky, Americana beauty had Oberst writing some of the best lyrics I've ever heard, and the last three tracks ("Land Locked Blues," "Poison Oak," "Road to Joy") are on my list for the best ways to ever end an album. The People's Key, to put it lightly, is a horrible record. It's a concept album about...aliens? Scientology? I'm not really sure, but the creepy spoken-word interludes mar songs that are already far less inspired than what Oberst is capable of. There's one moment of glory, near the end, with the piano based "Ladder Song," a gorgeous lament that finds a lot in common with Oberst's best work. It's a brilliant song, but it's four minutes of an album that seems to last far, far longer than it actually does, and the record's overall failure has kept me from coming back to the song as much as I should have. Considering that this is possibly the last record under the Bright Eyes moniker, it just seems even worse.

3. Red Hot Chili Peppers - I'm With You

I'm With You isn't a bad record, it's just a pretty damn boring one. It's hard to blame John Klinghoffer, who has to fill the immense shoes of former guitarist John Frusciante, and does it reasonably well when the band lets him. Unfortunately, they don't let him show off much, and instead opt to turn up the bass and let Flea take center stage, which also isn't a wholly bad thing, but which results in a record that is pretty redundant overall. Then again, maybe I've just outgrown the Peppers and Anthony Kiedis' nonsense lyrics. To put things in perspective, the last time these guys released a record, I was finishing up my freshman year of high school. I'm With You dropped on the day that I headed back to college for my junior year, over five years later. Five years is a long time in the music industry in general, but it's been a lifetime for my music tastes, which seem to have left this group behind a bit, not only judging by my lukewarm reaction to this record, but also to how little I've revisited any of their older records in the past four years. Still, I'm With You is almost unquestionably their weakest record since before Californication, even if there are a few songs I enjoy quite a bit ("Brendan's Death Song" being the highlight).

4. Lydia - Paint it Golden

This band came out of nowhere in 2008 with Illuminate, a record that I found haunting and enchanting, and one that I placed in my top five for that year, alongside the likes of Butch Walker, Jack's Mannequin, Safetysuit and Augustana. After the departure of co-lead vocalist Mindy White (she now leads the group States, who also released a record this year), Lydia supposedly ended, but that break-up was short lived, apparently. Here's another record that isn't really bad in any way, but which just feels a bit dull after the incredible record that Illuminate was. It's clear that White was the band's secret weapon, as without her, what could have been as haunting and emotionally resonant as the songs on Illuminate were, just fall flat. Leighton Antelman, the frontman behind this project, also made a record under the guise of The Cinema this year. It was a collection of catchy, electronic based pop songs that drew obvious influence from the likes of Ben Gibbard's Postal Service project, and ended up being a record I enjoyed a lot more than this one. It could just be that it's a better album (which I think it is), but it also has a lot to do with Antelman's use of the Lydia moniker, which just feels dishonest at this point.

5. I Can Make a Mess Like Nobody's Business - Gold Rush

Ace Enders, the ultra-prolific mind behind the Early November and the Million Different People solo project a few years back, has recently settled into making music under this moniker. Last year, he released an album called The World We Know, and while it wasn't one of my favorites due to what I found to be a lack of consistency, there were undoubtedly a handful of unbelievably great songs on there, and they earned it a spot on my honorable mentions list. Gold Rush seeks to be a summer pop record, but weird production techniques (especially on Enders' vocal lines) and a handful of strangely uninspired songs left this record as one that I half liked and half hated. Even the best songs don't soar like they did on The World We Know, and although I ultimately ended up giving this an honorable mention as well, it still feels to me like a strangely incomplete effort.  

*Bonus points for Lydia, for one of the weirdest album covers of the year.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Short Takes/Albums Revisited: Ryan Bingham - Mescalito

Ryan Bingham - Mescalito
Lost Highway Records, 2007

The past few years, spurred on by my interest in the music of Ryan Adams and Will Hoge and by the increasing level of influence the genre seems to have on Butch Walker's recent music, have seen me really getting into alt-country. Indeed, rootsy-rock and folk music dominated my best-of list this year, and the aforementioned artists continue to be some of my favorites making music today. Ryan Bingham fits right in with Hoge, especially. He had a break-out year in 2010, when he won the Best Original Song Oscar for "The Weary Kind," a fantastic tune he contributed to the soundtrack of the Jeff Bridges Best Actor vehicle Crazy Heart. That song pretty much gave the film it's heartbeat, and I made sure to check out Bingham immediately after seeing the film.

His 2010 full length, entitled Junky Star and made with a group of musicians he called the Dead Horses, actually closed out with "The Weary Kind" as a bonus track. It was a solid set of songs that made it into my honorable mentions and just missed my top 20 or so last year. Similarly, Roadhouse Sun, his more rock-oriented sophomore record from the year before, was something I liked but never loved. The first one I listened to, though, was his solo debut from 2007, called Mescalito, and revisiting the album yesterday (during the lengthy process of wrapping Christmas presents), reminded me of what a terrific record it was, and what a great songwriter this guy can be. Bingham has one of the most distinctive voices out there, a whiskey-drenched growl that lands somewhere between Will Hoge and Tom Waits, and on this record, he uses it to perfect effect. You can hear the nuances and subtleties of the stories he tells in that voice, and while it's not technically an amazing instrument, it's so distinctive and so perfectly suited to these songs that I can't imagine anyone else singing them.

The two subsequent records saw a more fleshed out, full-band approach to Bingham's sound, but he has some truly terrific moments here, as a lone-troubadour with his acoustic guitar, a harmonica, and a notebook full of songs and stories. There are still plenty of full-band traces though, like on the fantastic, absorbing opener, "Southside of Heaven," where percussion and bass keep the song driving, and electric and steel guitar flourishes (and even a bit of mandolin and banjo) turn it into a five-star opener. "Bread and Water" gives Bingham and co. the chance for a honky-tonk breakdown, and "Hard Times" is a more rock-driven number that wouldn't have been out of place on this record's follow up. Meanwhile, the band is mostly dismissed to let Bingham do his thing on songs like "Don't Wait For Me," "Ever Wonder Why" and "Sunrise," which opens with an instantly nostalgic duet between an acoustic guitar and a fiddle. But Bingham saves the best for last in the form of the gorgeous "For What It's Worth," a summer-night campfire song if there ever was one, where Bingham pushes his voice to the limit. It's a song so good that it's often led me to overlook much of the record that preceeds it, which is shame, because there are a lot of terrific things going on here. Perhaps it's time to revisit the rest of Bingham's catalog as well.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

A Year in Review: The Best Music of 2011

It has been one hell of a year, in all ways, but especially musically. The unbelievable slate of releases contained work from many of my top artists, follow-ups to a few stellar debut records that could help earn the artists in question a place on that list, and plenty of brand new discoveries. That slate of releases combined into a perfect storm of albums and songs that made this my favorite music year in recent memory. It seemed like every morning when I signed onto my computer, there was a new album waiting to be heard, or an old one that I was dying to revisit. This list represents the twenty-five records that I lived, loved and listened to the most throughout the past year, but those qualifications didn't make the ordering or the inevitable cuts I had to made any easier. The top ten especially was a battle for me, as there were 11 records I desperately wanted to include but only ten slots to do so. The casualty is no less fantastic than any of the records that come before it, though, and in my eyes, they're all winners. The order is, of course, rather arbitrary: it has changed dozens of times since I started compiling this list a solid month ago, and I'm sure it will continue to do so as these records go on providing the soundtrack to my life in the coming months and years. The top five is pretty set, but beyond that, the order is a mere formality to catalog the musical moments that meant the most to me this year.

1. The Dangerous Summer – War Paint

Not since 2004’s one-two punch of personal soundtrack moments (Butch Walker’s Letters and Jimmy Eat World’s Futures) has a new album so thoroughly defined my life or intertwined itself so thoroughly in my day to day experiences. That’s high praise, as those two albums both sit now (and probably forevermore) in my all time top 3, but after spending this past summer with this album almost literally in constant rotation, I don’t think it’s any stretch to say that this thing has cracked my top ten, if not my top five. Every single moment of this album, every line of every song, every vocal melody, every massive wall of guitar chords, engraved themselves into countless moments from this summer that I will never forget and, in doing so, have become a part of who I am. There can be no higher praise for a set of songs than that, and this album, from the first chord to the very last note, is something I will treasure for the rest of my life. It’s been an incredible year for music, but really, this one is a no-brainer. (Full review here).
Key tracks: “No One’s Gonna Need You More,” “Siren,” “Waves,” everything else....

2. Butch Walker – The Spade


For those who haven’t read his book (Drinking With Strangers, which is a terrific read), Butch Walker has had quite the career in the music business, full of ups and downs, record deals gone bad, stolen songs, big hits, botched tours and everything in between. But nowadays, Walker has settled into one of the most consistently great solo careers anyone has had in ages, releasing great album after great album, always morphing his sound, and his latest continues that trend. Ever since the wildfire that took his home and everything he owned in 2007, Walker has seemed like a man reborn, a different artist than he was in the Letters or Lets-Go-Out-Tonites! days. The rise-from-the-ashes folk-rock glory of Sycamore Meadows gave way to the experimental alt-country and Beatles pop of I Liked it Better When You Had No Heart. The Spade is, again, a different beast entirely: a spontaneous, raucous rock n’ roll record that Walker and his Black Widows recorded in less than a week. The result is the most fun record of the year, one that shaped one of the best concerts I’ve ever seen, one that has provided me with plenty of sing or shout-along moments in the car, and one which, surprisingly, hit me just at the right time. At first, I thought The Spade was a perfect summer record that dropped at the wrong time, but looking back, I’m not sure I would have it any other way. The Spade released on the day I returned to school for the fall, and hearing the album’s dusky alt-country ballad (“Closest Thing to You I’m Gonna Find”), the gorgeous chorus of goodbyes on “Day Drunk,” or a grand invocation to a perfect summer (“Summer of ’89”), as a drove away from my hometown and yet another glorious season felt strangely fitting. Then again, Butch’s music has always come to my aid, even when I least expect it to, and this record is no different. It’s something that has caused me to reevaluate this record since its release as something I didn’t think it would ever be: one of his best. (Full review here).
Key tracks: “Summer of ’89,” “Day Drunk,” The last four tracks...

3.  Damnwells – No One Listen to the Band Anymore


Two and a half years ago, the Damnwells offered their fourth record, the stellar acoustic-based folk of One Last Century, for free download on their site. This record came into my life at the beginning of the summer, and right from the first listen, I was hooked. No One Listens to the Band Anymore takes the folk of One Last Century and adds a little bit of rock and roll and a little bit of pop, leading to the band's best record to date and one of the best sets of songs I heard this year. The album somehow manages to contain what might be the most gorgeously perfect pop song of the year (“Last Day of the New Age”), a pair of instantly nostalgic acoustic ballads (“The Monster” and “The Same Way”), and the glorious summer night classic rock of “Werewolves,” a beautiful, mystifying piece of balladry that came alive for me on late night drives at the end of the hottest days of the year. Those are the standouts, but in between is plenty of roots-rock goodness that amounts to one of the best albums of the year; there’s not a less than great song in the set.
Key tracks: “Werewolves,” “Last Day of the New Age,” “The Same Way,” “The Monster”

4. Bon Iver – Bon Iver, Bon Iver


The story of Bon Iver’s first album has been recited so many times, in so many different reviews, that it’s become the stuff of myth, a story so open to hyperbolic retellings that it’s hard to know what actually happened. The story goes that Justin Vernon disappeared into the Wisconsin woods to mend his broken heart, lived in a log cabin by himself, and came back with For Emma, Forever Ago. Four years later, a bunch of Kanye West guest features and a few eclectic (read: weird) side projects later, and Bon Iver is back. His latest is a significantly more fleshed out effort, more suited for late summer nights than the winter afternoons and evenings that Emma soundtracked perfectly (as evidenced from the muggy opening of the record on the near-perfect “Perth”). This album is all about atmosphere: Vernon seems to fill every corner of each arrangement, and the flow is hypnotic, sometimes feeling like its all one song, but never coming across as redundant or dull. The gorgeous acoustics of “Holocene” fly the closest to the sound that defined Emma, and the ethereal piano loops on "Wash." make that song a highlight, but the finest hour is the keyboard and synth heavy closer Beth/Rest, an 80’s inspired piece of power balladry that owes a lot to the likes of Peter Gabriel and Bonnie Raitt. For some, it will sound unspeakably cheesy, but for me, on late summer night drives, it sounded immaculate. When the guitar solo comes in during the final minutes of the record, it almost feels like Vernon has transported you to another world.
Key tracks: “Perth,” “Holocene,” “Beth/Rest”

5. Jack’s Mannequin – People & Things

Much like Butch Walker, Andrew McMahon, the mastermind behind piano-rock groups Jack’s Mannequin and Something Corporate, has never been the type to make the same record twice. Though his work with both of his bands has followed an eerily similar arc, where the first and second Jack’s records seem to be perfect companion pieces to the same respective SoCo albums, in mood, theme and flow, each album has arrived with its own unique approach to McMahon's sound. He never made it to record number 3 with Something Corporate though, and from the sound of this album, won’t make it to record number 4 with Jack’s either. People & Things, for all of it’s pop and folk music tribute-paying, is most notable for how strikingly final it feels. Andrew’s perfect pop songs are as good as ever (and there are plenty on display here: “Racing Thoughts,” “Television,” “Amelia Jean,” “Hostage”…the list goes on and on), but it’s in the album’s final two cuts (and on repeat listens) that the album becomes a revelation. The slow acoustic based lullaby of “Restless Dream” is different from anything Andrew has ever done before, and “Casting Lines” is a rousing finale, one about endings and homecomings that hits incredibly close to home, no matter where life has taken you. For Andrew, it feels like the conclusion and realization of a story that began with him taking off to California for a whirlwind summer on Everything in Transit, and if he is to be believed, that’s how he intended it to be. If this is the last Jack’s album though, then it’s a damn fine way to go out. It’s not Andrew’s best or his most immediate, but it’s an album full of meaning and life, and even if it will never displace Transit as a favorite album of mine, it’s one I can see myself returning to in search of answers for years to come. (Full review here).
Key tracks: "Television," "Amelia Jean," "Hostage," "Casting Lines"

 6. The Horrible Crowes - Elsie

I’ve never quite bought into the endless stream of Springsteen comparisons thrown towards Brian Fallon, the frontman for punk-rock outfit the Gaslight Anthem (whose last album, American Slang, rounded out my top five last year). On this album though, a side project made with Gaslight guitar tech Ian Perkins, I’ve finally begun to understand what that comparison is all about. My brother asked me if I thought this record was Brian Fallon’s Nebraska, and that’s certainly a fitting comparison, as this album’s darker, more stripped down material echoes the contrast between Springsteen’s early records and the huge departure Nebraska was. And really, Fallon might be this era’s Boss (though The Killers, Will Hoge and The Hold Steady have all made records that sound more definitively Springsteen-ian than any of Fallon’s), but it’s more about the charisma he exudes and about the lyrical content of his songs than it is about that patent E-Street sound. He certainly sounds like a rock star here, whether the songs could have been on Gaslight records (“Behold the Hurricane,” “Go Tell Everybody”) or not (the glorious closing trio or the evocative "Cherry Blossoms"). I still think Fallon has got his masterpiece(s) ahead of him, and the Gaslight album on it’s way for next year might be prime time for him to make good on that promise, but for now, I’m tempted to call this his crowning achievement.
Key tracks: “Crush,” “Black Betty & the Moon,” “Blood Loss”

7. Charlie Simpson – Young Pilgrim
Since it made it’s way onto my computer in mid August, Young Pilgrim has wandered around my list quite a bit, but a recent revisiting has reminded me how utterly splendid it is. This album didn’t get an official release in America, which is a shame, because it’s one of the most gorgeous singer/songwriter records I’ve heard in a long time. I found so much I could relate to in these songs on nights in the late summer, and I continue to find more every time I listen. From the glorious pop/rock hooks that pervade most of it’s first half, to the quieter, folkier and less immediate (but no less terrific) second half, Simpson has created a truly beautiful set of songs. “I get dressed up in my autumn clothes and step outside to look at the leaves/I cannot believe a whole year has gone/I open my arms to embrace you/It’s time to go right back to the start,” he sings on “Thorns.” As the days got shorter and the summer began to fade away, that song, that verse especially, was one I revisited time and time again, like I was trying to hold onto the feeling of the season, even as it slipped away from me. That the record has continued to grow on me through the seasons that have followed is a testament to it’s greatness.
Key tracks: "Down, Down, Down," "Thorns," "Riverbanks"

8. Mat KearneyYoung Love

Kearney’s previous two records are both favorites of mine for different reasons: City of Black and White became the soundtrack to my summer in 2009, with it’s soaring hooks and gorgeous singer/songwriter mentality, while Nothing Left to Lose was a record I revisited over and over again for the emotional, genre-blending rap verses Kearney employed on many of the record’s best songs. Young Love tries to blend the two and, while it comes out as the weakest of the three, it’s still a great record and one that came to be extremely important to me during the summer. Kearney has said he sought to write from a more naïve, innocent point of view on this record, and the resulting set of songs is as thrilling and euphoric as its title suggests. The songs here are among the poppiest stuff Kearney has written, with a few faux-rap sections thrown in for the old fans and a lot of beat-heavy production to convert a new audience (the production is among the best of the year). The album thrives on it’s unique pop sound, and songs like “Ships in the Night” and “Sooner or Later” perfectly transition Kearney’s old sound to this new template. That said, though most of the album is loud, fun and catchy, the few sparse acoustic moments are among the most effective on the album, like the flowing “Learning to Love Again,” a callback to the ballads from the last two records, or “Rochester,” a homage to Nebraska-era Springsteen that sounds a bit too similar to one of that album's songs for comfort. The album’s biggest flaw is relegating it’s natural closer, the gorgeous “Seventeen,” to bonus track status. Without it, the album feels incomplete, but with it, it’s one of my favorite records of the year. (Full review here).
Key tracks: "Ships in the Night," "Sooner or Later," "Learning to Love Again," "Seventeen"

9. Matt Nathanson – Modern Love

At no point this year have I been able to mention Kearney’s record without also mentioning Nathanson’s (or vice versa), and I’m not about to start now. Despite the ironic similarity in the album’s titles (and the artist’s names), Nathanson’s record develops its own theme. Where Kearney explored the innocence of first love, Nathanson’s examines love in a world that has lost its innocence, and the two sit together as perfect companions for one another: two terrific summer pop albums that had similar effects on me, and two records that I simply could not bring myself to separate on this list. Nathanson plays pretty close to the sound that made his last album (2007s Some Mad Hope) one of my favorites of that year. The ballads don’t hit quite as hard this time around, but Nathanson has clearly gained some prowess elsewhere, as he delivers some of the finest hooks I’ve heard anywhere this year. The first four tracks are all big pop songs, culminating with “Room at the End of the World,” the album’s best song, and one that should have been a hit on every radio station in the country this summer. 
Key tracks: "Room At the End of the World," "Drop to Hold You," "Run"

10. Mansions – Dig Up the Dead

The brainchild of singer/songwriter Christopher Browder, Dig Up The Dead is the most heartbreaking album I heard all year: a staggeringly desolate set of songs full of loneliness and pain. From the striking opening of the title track, to the grungy guitar distortion that cuts across the hopeless resignation of “Call Me When It’s Over,” all the way to the shattering conclusion of “Yer Voice,” which takes the album out in truly climactic fashion, there hasn’t been a more atmospheric break up album in ages. “I don’t want your life, where everything’s easy,” Browder sings on “Yer Voice.” “That Midas touch will unwind, that gold has no meaning.” It’s the perfect ending to the heartbreak, a resignation that things have to change, even though it’s so hard to let go. You can hear every ounce of pain and regret in Browder’s voice, and that’s what makes this album special.
Key  tracks: “Call Me When It’s Over,” “Seven Years,” “Yer Voice”

11. Will Hoge - Number Seven

Will Hoge’s records sound like they come out of a different era, and this one is no different. His mix of classic rock and alt-country recalls rock and roll and country music legends, from Springsteen to to Petty to Muddy Waters to Hank Williams, and his latest record finds him in familiar but welcome territory. From storytelling acoustics ("American Dream," "Trying to Be a Man," "The Illegal Line") to gospel infused sermons (the fiery album closer, “When I Get My Wings”) to Hoge’s trademark rock n’ roll (the killer opening trio), there’s nothing Hoge doesn’t do well here, and he’s pretty much at the top of the list for must-see live artists at this point for that reason. Number Seven, though it dips a bit in quality when it reaches its mid-section (how could it not, with five straight classics as an opening?), but regains all of it’s power on its final numbers, and ends up being one of the most satisfying and altogether best albums of the year. Not as strong as Hoge’s career best (Draw the Curtains), but from the first moment his voice entered on the first track, I felt like I was listening to an old friend, and that’s always a good sign.
Key tracks: “Fool’s Gonna Fly,” “Goddam California,” “When I Get My Wings”

12. Yellowcard - When You're Through Thinking, Say Yes


For how much I played this record last spring and for how much I loved it, it actually makes me a little bit sad to place it this far back on the list, but I honestly can’t listen to it in the same way anymore. It definitely found me at the right time in my life: I was stuck in a seemingly perpetual winter, nearing the end of the worst semester of my life and wanting nothing more than to escape all of this bullshit and get back to the carefree glory of warm summer nights, of being home and in love with my girlfriend and doing shows three times a week for my job. This record came along and seemed to bring a piece of summer with it. Even though it seemed so out of reach in the April snows, that feeling I was looking for came pouring out of songs like “With You Around” and “Soundtrack” in spades, and when I was finally done with school, I ran to my car and got the hell out of that town as quickly as I could, with this record providing soundtrack for my freedom and for a great summer to come. When I hear songs like “The Sound of You and Me,” I hear the end of a year that I’m not at all eager to go back to, and as a result, this record hasn’t gotten much play since that drive, but it’s still Yellowcard’s best set of songs yet, and one of the most well executed pop-rock albums of the year. Perhaps after I’ve put a little more distance between myself and that semester, I’ll be able to look back a little more fondly on this record.
Key tracks: “The Sound of You and Me,” “With You Around,” “Be the Young” 

13. Florence + the Machine - Ceremonials


U2's most recent openers made a name for themselves last year with the song "Dog Days Are Over," a rousing pop single that caught my ear immediately. Their first album, Lungs, never quite had the same magnetism for me as that particular single, but the follow-up is a realization of everything Florence Welch's voice was ever meant to do. The darkness closes in quickly and heavily on this record, bringing pounding tribal drums, far-off chants and baroque instrumentation with it, and the resulting set of songs is both atmospheric and deeply emotional. Most of that is owed to Welch's rocker charisma and her willingness to give herself entirely to every song she sings in a way that even the album's weak moments resonate. Whether she's embracing the darkness ("Never Let Me Go," "No Light, No Light") or reaching for the clouds and coming up with one of the year's finest pop songs ("All This and Heaven Too"), the resulting record is one that I've come back to over and over again, even if it's one I never imagined loving half as much. (Full review here).
 Key tracks: "Shake it Out," "Never Let Me Go," "All This and Heaven Too"
14. Switchfoot - Vice Verses

Switchfoot has been one of my favorite bands since The Beautiful Letdown played a big part in making me fall in love with music, and this record is just another solid release from them. The grunge inspired rock n' roll that dominates many of the album's cuts ("Afterlife," "The Original," "Dark Horses") eventually gives way to the kind of earnest balladry the band has made their name on, like on the gorgeous "Souvenirs" or the acoustic based title track, which recalls the music lead singer Jonathan Foreman was writing for his Seasonal EP project. They save the best for last in the form of "Where I Belong," a huge, climactic anthem that recalls U2 and Springsteen, and sits as one of my favorite songs of the year. With this record, Switchfoot continue their streak of solid releases that are just shy of great, but there are a handful of perfect songs in this collection, and just like with the two records that preceeded it, those will keep me coming back, again and again. (Full review here).
Key tracks: "Where I Belong," "Souvenirs," "The Original

15. Adele - 21

The last time the year’s top selling record made my personal best of list…well, that’s never actually happened, but I’d have to go all the way back to 1987 and Born in the U.S.A. to find one of my favorite records on that list. That just goes to show that sometimes, out of the wreckage that pop music has become, a true artist can emerge. Adele is certainly a shining example of this, a true talent, both as a singer and a songwriter, and this album could very well go down as her magnum opus. It’s a break-up record, in the tradition of Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love or Will Hoge’s Draw the Curtains, and its songs run the range from soulful rave-ups (massive single “Rolling in the Deep”) jazzed-out pop (“Rumor Has It”), or gospel catharsis (“Take It All” or “One And Only”, whose building bridge section is one of the year’s best musical moments). The dark pop of “Set Fire to the Rain,” is especially striking, but the best moment here is the final one, the stripped down piano ballad that is “Someone Like You.” It’s as simple as pop songs get, just Adele’s voice over a piano line of arpeggiated triads, but the lyrics and how Adele delivers them make it one of the best songs of the year: a stunning rumination on heartbreak that reminded me of the very best that pop music can achieve. And Adele’s vocal? It’s a revelation.
Key tracks: “Rolling In The Deep,” “Set Fire To The Rain,” “Someone Like You”

16. The Civil Wars - Barton Hollow

The Civil Wars at once recall the best moments of both Damien Rice and the Swell Season (and the film Once, whose soundtrack has to be among my favorite albums). Their mix of folk and alt-country sits perfectly on each of this album’s 12 tracks, and creates an evocative, entrancing listen that sounds like it came out of a different era. The best moments come when dual singers John Paul White and Joy Williams let their vocal performances carry the arrangements, like on the gorgeous swell of “Poison & Wine,” a remarkably simple song that is elevated to an emotional tour de force by their voices, or on the heartbreaking “Falling,” a rumination on a break-up where Williams has her definitive moment. I’d listen to either of these artists’ solo efforts, but together, they become the kind of musical force that was clearly meant to be; it’s not hard to see why these songs have become TV and movie soundtrack gold.
Key tracks: “Poison & Wine,” “Falling,” “To Whom It May Concern”

17. Ryan Adams - Ashes & Fire
One of the industry's most prolific musical chameleons, Adams' music has ranged from alt-country to rock and roll to folk to metal (true story), but has recently fallen a bit silent. His last full length of new material, 2008's Cardinology, was a decent if somewhat underwhelming collection that epitomized every problem I'd ever had with his work with the Cardinals. On his first solo album since 2007's Easy Tiger, Adams rediscovers the magic he's been missing. The set is sparse, simple and relatively quick, but recalls great moments from every stage of Adams' career, from the alt-country of Whiskeytown to the folkiest moments of the his work with the Cardinals, and the result is probably my favorite front-to-back record he's made since Gold. Ashes & Fire is made up of the kind of gorgeous folk tunes Adams has always excelled at, from the 90s inspired folk rock of "Dirty Rain" (think Counting Crows or the Wallflowers at their best) to the piano led gospel-tinged finale of "I Love You But I Don't Know What to Say." In between, Adams doesn't use much but his own acoustic guitar, but every time there's a piano lick, an organ flourish or a steel guitar moan, it feels like I've been transported back to the music of my childhood.
 Key tracks: "Dirty Rain," "Come Home," "I Love You But I Don't Know What to Say"

18. Foo Fighters - Wasting Light

When Nirvana's Nevermind celebrated its 20th birthday this year, Dave Grohl was immediately dragged back under the shadow of a record he's been trying to escape ever since that band imploded. He's done well finding a second career as part of the Foo Fighters, who have evolved from the one-man-band project of their first record into one of the most successful and most respected outfits in modern rock music. The band has switched the sound around with each record, going as far as to close their last record with a piano ballad and populate other parts of it with a folk or heavily classic rock influenced sound. Here though, they're back to their roots: Grohl and co. called up Butch Vig, who produced that legendary Nirvana album so many years ago and made a record in their garage. The result is their most consistent work in over a decade. The hooks on Wasting Light pile high and rock hard right from the get go, recalling that 90s sound without ever taking a step back from the evolution they've gone through since. That's evident on some of the album's darker moments, like the Zeppelin-flavored "I Should Have Known," or the rousing "Miss the Misery," from which the album takes its title. But right from my first listen, the album went from good to great when that epic guitar riff heralded the arrival of "Walk," the album's closer and its shining moment. "Walk" builds into the kind of anthemic rock and roll this band has made their name on, like "Everlong" or "Learn to Fly" or "Best of You," and as a result it feels both nostalgic and remarkably fresh. That the guitar riff pretty much rang in my summer just earns it bonus points; even more bonus points for Grohl's cameo in The Muppets.
Key tracks: "Walk," "Dear Rosemary," "I Should Have Known"

19. Iron & Wine - Kiss Each Other Clean

Sam Beam has made a career out of writing the kind of gorgeous acoustic lullabies that so many artists try and fail to pull off, and his profound lyrics and soothing voice have made songs like “The Trapeze Swinger,” “Fever Dream,” and “Flightless Bird, American Mouth” some of my favorite songs ever. He went a different direction on his last record (2007’s The Shepherd’s Dog), enlisting a full band and inspiring mixed reactions, from fans saying he sold out to many publications calling it his best and most fully realized effort yet. On his latest, Beam continues in that direction, and the results are mixed. Of course, the ballads are typically good: lead single and opening track, “Walking Far From Home, while the gorgeous “Godless Brother in Love” established itself early as my favorite song of the year and will probably still claim the title, all these months later. The full band material runs more of a range, but when it’s good, it’s great, like on the funky “Big Burned Hand,” or the gloriously strange closer “Your Fake Name is Good Enough for Me.”
Key tracks: “Godless Brother in Love,” “Walking Far From Home,” “Big Burned Hand”

20. Dawes - Nothing is Wrong

Yet another great album of roots rock and folk music, Dawes' second album was one of my favorite new discoveries of the summer. Gorgeous guitar solos, vocal melodies and fantastic lyrics are the cornerstones of these songs, and much like Will Hoge's records, they feel like they come to us from a different time. Comparisons to Tom Petty, Jackson Browne and The Eagles are all justified, and that Southern California rock and roll sound permeates every single song on the disc, from the wake-up call on "Time Spent in Los Angeles" to a pair of sweetly mournful ballads ("Moon on the Water" and "Million Dollar Bill"), and a titanic guitar showcase on "My Way Back Home." The lyrics remain strong throughout, but they hit their peak on the album's finale, the piano based "A Little Bit of Everything," which paints numerous portraits of men down on their luck, but finds meaning in them and manages to do so without coming across as heavy handed or cheesy. "It's not some message written in the dark, or some truth that no one's seen," frontman Taylor Goldsmith sings in the album's final moments. "It's a little bit of everything."
Key tracks: "Time Spent in Los Angeles," "Million Dollar Bill," "A Little Bit of Everything"

21. The Decemberists - The King is Dead

It feels a bit strange for me to consider this record alongside others from 2011, as it came into my life almost exactly a year ago, serving as soundtrack for the first leg of my drive home for Christmas break. That was a leak though, and since the release date fell in January, this record is still fully eligible to be here. What a great record it is, too. I've never listened to the Decemberists much, but after this record (and an equally good EP, also from this year), I hope to change that. The King is Dead is a straightforward 70s/80s inspired folk record, drawing influence from the likes of R.E.M. (whose guitarist, Peter Buck, even makes a few appearances), Springsteen, Richard and Linda Thompson and a little bit of Dylan thrown in for good measure. The resulting set of songs ranges from rousing (opener "Don't Carry It All") to gorgeous ("June Hymn," "Dear Avery") and demands to be heard, especially with the season that's just around the corner.
Key tracks: "Don't Carry it All," "Dear Avery," "This is Why We Fight"

22. Augustana - Self-Titled

Augustana made one of my favorite records back in 2008 with Can't Love, Can't Hurt, and even though their latest doesn't come close to that one, it's still one of the best pop-rock records I heard all year. Some members of the band went their separate ways shortly after the album dropped (though lead singer Dan Layus and the other remaining members have decided to keep the Augustana moniker), so this record is the final portrait of the band as they once were, and it's a good one. This record got a bit overshadowed by a torrent of great releases last spring and summer, but it's still as solid a record as I've come to expect from this band. They had a lot of competition in the roots-rock genre this year, from the likes of the Damnwells, Ryan Adams and Dawes, but the album's finest songs stand easily with the best of those, and the band's albums continue to remind me of the golden age of radio rock that was happening when I was a kid. It's a shame that these guys never got beyond "Boston" as far as radio airplay went, but this album is full of great songs that would have made worthy hits.
Key tracks: "Just Stay Here Tonight," "The Wrong Side of Love," "You Were Made For Me"

23. Death Cab For Cutie - Codes and Keys

Despite the fact that it lacks the emotional force of their best work (which, to me, remains the one-two punch of Transatlanticism and Plans), Codes and Keys is an intriguing piece of work from a band that I've always liked but rarely loved. Sonically, it sounds as great as anything they've ever done, with the production and the instrumentation immediately creating a musical landscape that proves to be simply rapturous. The songwriting rarely reaches the height of their best material, but when it does, like on the thrillingly beautiful ride of "Unobstructed Views" (which recalls "Passenger Seat") or the bright acoustic finale of "Stay Young, Go Dancing," the record truly soars. Both of those are among the purest love songs frontman Ben Gibbard has ever written, and even though they take on a heartwrenching edge now that the relationship that inspired them has come to an end, they're still among my favorite songs of the year. One of the year's many great nighttime records.
Key tracks: "Home is a Fire," "Unobstructed Views," "Stay Young, Go Dancing"

24. Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues

Three years ago, Fleet Foxes' debut self-titled album was the last piece of the puzzle for a top ten that I still regard pretty highly. The order may have switched around, but every record that I placed on my list that year has stood the test of time, and the exquisite, atmospheric vocal harmonies of Fleet Foxes' appalachian folk music were no different. The highly anticipated follow up doesn't quite reach the level of its predecessor as a whole, but the finest moments find the band nearing perfection: I couldn't stop listening to the vocal splendor of the title track when this album came out, and I still think it's one of the year's best songs. "Someone You'd Admire" is a sparse acoustic number that feels both fresh and classic, while "The Shrine/An Argument" has a tumultuous build that allows the anger in frontman Robin Pecknold's voice to really stand out. And "Grown Ocean" is one of the year's most driving and epic closers. Those four songs overshadow the rest of the record a bit, but the first half is exceptional as well, with "Montezuma" picking off where the last record left off; it's not much a departure, but the second the vocal harmonies kick in, you'll be hard pressed to care.
Key tracks: "Helplessness Blues," "The Shrine/An Argument," "Grown Ocean"

25. Transit - Listen & Forgive

Transit spends much of their excellent third full length record recounting nostalgic experiences and basking in the power of music to move the soul. It's perhaps appropriate that I begin and end my list with two records that have a lot in common, as Listen & Forgive is an emotional pop-punk album that reminds me in a lot of ways of both Dangerous Summer records.  It's probably the third or fourth obvious "break-up record" on this list, and while that type of album in this genre can easily come across as whiny and one-dimensional, the songwriting skills on display here escape that fate with ease: see the emotive, wistful chorus of the album's first single, "Long Lost Friends," the instantly infectious hook of "All Your Heart" or the acoustic swell of "Skipping Stone," whose tour-de-force vocal harmonies actually result in some legit overtones (who ever heard of that in pop-punk music?) And even though slot 25 is a precarious position for any record to be in, since plenty of records contended and plenty more could still grow on me enough to take its place, every time the shout along chorus comes in on "The Answer Comes in Time," the album's climactic moment, I can't help but feel like putting it at the end of this list just feels right.
Key tracks: "Skipping Stone," "Long Lost Friends," "The Answer Comes in Time"

The Honorable Mentions

Those 25 records represent a lot of what defined 2011 for me, but of course, there were countless more songs and albums that earned special places in my heart this year, and it hurt to cut a few of them from this ultimate list. Out of the 150 some new albums I listened to this year, here are some of the exclusions I had the hardest time making:

Snow Patrol and The Script made terrific pop-rock albums that I would have been absolutely crazy about 5 or 6 years ago, but that I still enjoyed immensely today for their big, earnest, soundtrack-ready sound. I could not find a way to include either of them.
Peter Bradley Adams and Mree both released gorgeous, moving and incredibly calming records that I found myself returning to over and over again. I still think both deserve more time than I gave them though, and as a result, I could not find room for them either.

The Swellers and The Wonder Years both wrote records that, much like Transit and The Dangerous Summer, took the often formulaic pop-punk genre to another level. Each hit me hard, mostly for nostalgic reasons, but both had individual songs that were greater than the whole, and as a result, I felt inclined to leave them off when all was said and done.

Blink-182 delivered a comeback record that featured some of the most addicting pop rock songs of the year, a set of songs that amounted to one of their finest records, but one that left my regular rotation too quickly to make my top 25.

Sleeping At Last and Jim Ivins both released incredible EPs (in the former's case, a whole set of them), with songs that were easily among my favorites of the year, but I've never felt comfortable putting EPs on a list of full length albums, and the task of getting through 12 EPs of material was simply too daunting for me to get a full grasp on the Sleeping At Last Material.

Chad Perrone, the guy who took my album of the year title last year, released a home-recorded, stripped down project that was half new material, half acoustic reinventions of old stuff. The presence of pre-released stuff made me more inclined to consider it a live album, and as a result, it was ineligible for my list, but it's something I can fully recommend.

The Horrors made a record of retro, 80s-esque rock and roll that reminded me on first listen of how I felt when I first heard the Killers' debut record. It also never got enough listens, though the album's centerpiece cut, "Still Life," hasn't left my rotation.

M83 put together a double album of U2-sized atmospherics that I'm only just getting into. It's far too early for me to judge it as a whole, but suffice to say that Pitchfork might not be too far off in naming "Midnight City" the best song of the year.

Go Radio and I Can Make a Mess Like Nobody's Business both made inconsistent albums whose finest moments resonated with me in astounding ways on summer nights. Those moments will appear on my song list, even though both albums fall a bit short of this one.

Lydia, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and City & Colour all released records that I would classify as disappointments due to the high level of quality achieved on previous records in their careers, but all three records had shining moments that made me really want to love them as a whole. Sadly, I never did.

Matthew Ryan and Jon McLaughlin both released new records, but I believe both deserve more time before I judge them fully, and as a result, I had to leave them behind.

This Love released a moving, inspirational collection of pop-rock songs by interpolating famous presidential speeches into their music. It was a close one, but I ultimately couldn't quite justify its presence on the list. The same can be said for The Cinema, a pop side project (the lead singer of Lydia) that I liked right away, but never delved far enough into to truly love.

Manchester Orchestra created a disjointed, heavily flawed record that I still found myself coming back to repeatedly, for reasons that I still can't explain completely. 

The Summer Set put out an album of catchy power pop that was mostly disposable, but which spawned a few staples for my summer soundtrack.

Frank Ocean made an innovative R&B mixtape that featured originals and clever re-imaginings of other artists' songs. This style has never been my thing, but Ocean's voice is fantastic, and his unique approach to this type of music caught my ear. It deserves a mention.

Meg & Dia made a ridiculously fun summer pop album that I never gave the time it deserved. It's a record I expect will grow on me in the year to come, but for now, it misses the list.
And R.E.M. said their goodbyes to the music industry with Collapse Into Now, where they referenced every one of their eras before closing the book on their illustrious career with the album's coda, "Blue." It's a record I always admired more than I loved, especially since their break-up, but even though it didn't make my list of favorites, it deserves the most honorable of mentions.
Number of Springsteen mentions: 7
The real best song of the year: "Hot, Hot, Hot (Hot On My Body)"

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Butch Walker - Drinking With Strangers (Book Review)

"Your youth is the most important thing you will ever have. It's when you will connect to music like a primal urge, and the memories attached to the songs will never leave you. Please, hold on to everything. Keep every note, mix tape, concert ticket stub and memory you have of music from your youth. It'll be the one that might keep you young, even if you aren't anymore. Let the music play..."

The above words sound something like the thoughts that have shot through my mind on thousands of occasions, listening to my favorite songs or albums, or to songs that have become so connected to a time of my life that they become an actual part of me. I didn't write those words though, they come from the final moments of Butch Walker's brand new memoir, entitled Drinking With Strangers. I've written a lot about Butch already on this blog: he's probably at the top of the list of those artists mentioned above, the artists who make music that becomes a part of me, and I've been a huge fan of his since that day nearly seven years ago when I stumbled upon a live version of "Mixtape" on Limewire. Since then, his songs and albums have not only become favorites of mine, but they've become soundtracks for so many important (and not-so-important) moments of my life that it's impossible for me to imagine where I'd be without them. Butch's music formed my foundation: it took me from loving music to being absolutely insane about music, it inspired me, countless times, to pursue music myself, and is pretty much the reason that I'm where I am today. Obviously, I've read a lot about Butch and about his story over the years, but reading it all in one place, from his youth all the way up to his 2008 masterpiece Sycamore Meadows (and even a hair after), proved itself to be one of the most enjoyable reading experiences of my life.

I wish more of my favorite artists would do something like this. Hearing Butch tell his own story makes it funnier, more honest and more heartfelt than it possibly could be if it were written by anyone else, and even though there are plenty of biographies for the likes of Springsteen, I would kill to read him tell his own story like Butch has here. The stories behind his songs and albums are only the beginning: it's his experience in the music industry in general, both with his own bands and with others, that provides the meat of the story. Butch was screwed over by the major label system not once, but twice (with a few more stumbles along the way), so it's no surprise that a cynicism towards the industry pervades most of the book. At it's heart though, Drinking With Strangers is about one man's struggle to overcome countless obstacles in an unforgiving industry, and that he somehow manages to battle through everything thrown his way and create both a successful career as a producer/songwriter for hire and as a true-life artist with one of the most fiercely loyal fan bases on the planet is nothing short of triumphant.

Butch has encountered a lot of people throughout his years in the industry, and unfamiliar readers will be especially surprised at just how many big music names make an appearance in his story. Many of my favorite artists have their names turn up somewhere in this book, from Springsteen to U2 to Sister Hazel (and even Andrew McMahon), while many of pop's biggest stars play even bigger roles, since Butch has produced and/or written for the likes of Pink, Avril Lavigne, Weezer, Dashboard Confessional and Katy Perry, and even played at the Grammys with Taylor Swift and Stevie Nicks. Butch tells all these stories with a comedic slant that makes them not only entertaining but, in many cases, laugh out loud hilarious. There are actually quite a few funny moments in this book, from nightmare studio sessions, to adventures with a few of Butch's childhood idols, to anecdotes about just how clueless the recording industry has become, all the way to the stories that give the book it's title, while his tendency to be quite blunt about his views on some of popular music's worst trends and bands make the book feel that much more honest and real. Butch covers a lot of emotional ground here, describing perfectly the fear that comes with following your dreams to unfamiliar territory, the strange euphoria of hearing yourself on the radio for the first time, or the betrayal and rage he felt when a song he wrote got stolen by the guy who's become the biggest songwriter in pop.

However, perhaps the most striking moments of the memoir hit with the tragic loss of Walker's home and all of material possessions in a late 2008 California Wildfire. Fans will be familiar with the story: how his house burned to the ground, taking with it everything he'd ever owned, from master tapes to his home studio to his collection of guitars, but the way he writes about how he first heard about the fire and about everything that happened in the days following is both moving and heartbreaking. The fire functions as the book's climax, with the album it inspired, Sycamore Meadows, named for the street on which he lived, painted as a true rise-from-the-ashes moment. It's a confessional chapter, one where Butch ponders the devastation as a transformative and life-affirming experience, and reading it made me tear up a bit. Meadows has always been an album that I've loved, but reading Walker's story adds a new personal depth to those songs: it's not hard to see why he still plays them regularly.

Overall, it was pretty much a given that I was going to love this book. Butch Walker is my favorite guy in the music industry. He's someone who I've always thought of in terms of his songs and his ridiculous live shows, but not one I ever expected to write a book. The fact that he actually sat down and got his entire story down on paper makes me respect him even more. Drinking With Strangers has a few grammatical missteps every now and then, but I almost think that's how it was supposed to be. It's unpolished and raw, ridiculously honest and so instantly enjoyable and accessible that it feels (probably intentionally) more like a conversation with him at a bar than it feels like a book. Butch writes with a great voice, alternating between raucous humor and genuine heart and offering a ton of advice and insight on one of the most challenging industries out there. It goes without saying that this is a must read (probably multiple times) for all Butch fans, hardcore and casual, but I'd also recommend it to all music fans in general, or to any musician who's thinking about trying their hand in the music industry. Once again, I wish more of my favorite artists would do something like this, but if I had to choose one, Butch would probably be at the top of the list, so I'm absolutely thrilled to have this book: I'm sure it's one I will revisit, time and time again. 

Monday, November 14, 2011

"I remember when we could sleep on stones:" U2's Achtung Baby, Twenty Years Later

 U2 - Achtung Baby
Island Records, 1991
Five stars

In 1991, a year and a day after I was born, U2 released their long-awaited follow-up to The Joshua Tree, an album that was (and still is) considered as one of the greatest masterpieces in rock and roll. People seem to forget that on their first few albums, U2 were a band dwelling firmly in the genre of post-punk, far from the arena-filling sound they're known for now. The Joshua Tree completed a metamorphosis (which had begun on War and continued on The Unforgettable Fire), and turned them into a larger-than-life arena rock band. Within that album's first three songs (still arguably the strongest opening to any record I've ever heard), they had created a sound that countless of bands are still trying to emulate and which they are still, in many ways, trying to live down. The songs on Joshua were big, bombastic, glorious and inspirational: it was their American record, full of cinematic, expansive and spiritually yearning songs, all led by Bono's incredible vocal performance, still one of the best ever put to record. Rolling Stone wrote that the record catapulted the Irish quartet "from stars to superstars," and it's easy to see why.

A couple years later, after the dust of the disastrous Rattle and Hum project had started to clear, U2 holed up at Hansa Studios in Berlin. The Berlin wall had just fallen, and the band was seeking inspiration from a city reunited, but the atmosphere proved stifling, and the band seemed fresh out of ideas. Conflict over musical direction rendered the early sessions almost useless, and nearly resulted in the break-up of a band that had only so recently seemed like they were on top of the world. Then, out of a skeletal guitar riff composed by the Edge, Achtung Baby began to emerge. That guitar riff would go on to become "One," the album's centerpiece ballad, a song still regarded not only as the band's greatest gift to the world, but one of the greatest songs of all time, period. Bono's lyrics, which painted a picture of a relationship coming to a painful end, reflected the atmosphere of the early sessions, but the song was a transition, and would ultimately re-inspire the band to create what would become this album. While I would personally put a couple of The Joshua Tree's tracks ahead of it ("Where the Streets Have No Name" is top five, all time for me), "One" is the kind of song that only comes along a few times in a lifetime. Everything about the song, from the Edge's guitar intro to the emotion in Bono's voice as the song hits it's climax, still sounds as fresh today as it ever did. It's been covered countless times, in different styles, contexts and environments, but it still sounds best as it was 20 years ago, on this record. And it's only just the beginning.

When it was released, on November 19th, 1991, Achtung Baby was heralded as a triumphant return for one of the greatest bands in rock and roll, and as a darker, more introspective record. Now, it's considered one of the most successful reinventions in the history of rock music, a record that blurs the lines between pop, rock, and dance music, and one that brought U2 into a new decade on top of their game; it's all of those things in one. It's pop music at it's most glorious (singles "Even Better Than the Real Thing" and "Mysterious Ways"), it's heartbreak (the aforementioned "One," the piano based "So Cruel" or the sweeping power balladry of "Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses"), it's the sound of, as Bono put it, "four men chopping down the Joshua Tree" (the shimmering beats and falsetto chorus of "The Fly"). It touches upon wistful, lovelorn nostalgia (the nighttime anthem and album highlight "Ultraviolet (Light My Way)"), Biblical rewrites (the conversation between Jesus and Judas that Bono imagines on "Until the End of the World"), the band's time in Berlin (rousing opener "Zoo Station") and even stumbling home drunk ("Tryin' to Throw Your Arms Around the World"), before it descends into complete darkness on the album's final two cuts ("Acrobat" and "Love is Blindness").

There's not a less-than-stellar song on the set, and U2's recent reissue, complete with a disc of early versions of these songs and a disc of b-sides (as well as the album's follow-up, the disjointed pop record, Zooropa, which is never really thought of as anything but a footnote on the U2 legacy, but which contains some truly great songs), show that U2 are remarkably good at editing their own material. Achtung Baby is about as perfect an album as artists who aren't Bruce Springsteen can make, and sits as one of my personal favorites. These songs have an ability to grow and change as time passes, and they remain not only relevant, but truly powerful long after much of the music released around the same time has begun to sound dated. And while The Joshua Tree will always be my favorite U2 album, every time I listen to Achtung Baby, there's a moment, usually somewhere around the chilling bridge of "Ultraviolet," where I think the band might have peaked here. It's a truly stunning set of songs, wonderfully written and performed, richly produced and flawlessly sequenced, and the result is one of the greatest albums of the 90's, and of all time.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

"Echoes of a city that's long overgrown"

Florence + the Machine - Ceremonials
 Island Records, 2011
Four stars

Florence + the Machine have always seemed like a pretty minor pop diversion to me. Maybe it was the fact that the first version of their massive pop single "Dog Days Are Over" that I heard was the one on Glee, a show that has the strange effect of making me like songs less than I otherwise would have. Their debut album, entitled Lungs, never really caught on with me either either. Lead singer and brainforce Florence Welch had an interesting voice, and her songs were far from the usual pop music fare, but aside from a few moments of glory ("Dog Days" being one of them), I guess I never really gave it the attention that it probably deserved, not even after I saw them open for U2 on the final leg of their 360 degree tour. However, it was obvious from that show that Florence had charisma: she paraded around the stage, and held the attention of ten thousand audience members fairly easily, but even then, I was so set on the main event that, as tight a musical outfit as the opening band obviously was, they were still just that: an opening band.

That's all about to change, as Florence + the Machine move up to headliner status with their sophomore album, called Ceremonials. The time spent with U2 on the highest grossing tour in history obviously had a big impact on them, as ghosts of that band's early 90's records pop up in nearly every track, and Welch takes to making the kind of larger than life gestures that would make Bono proud. Ceremonials is bigger, brasher, darker and better than it's predecessor, filled to the brim with massive choruses, explosive tribal drums and gothic flourishes, all of which revolve around the core of the band's sound: Welch's unique and powerful voice. She sings like a woman possessed from the get-go, and while the fact that the emotional intensity really never dips below a certain point may result in some finding the disc (which clocks in at a lengthy 56 minutes) feel exhausting or repetitive, repeat listens yield rewarding discoveries and emotional textures that are hard to catch on the first time through. The more I listen, the more I think that Ceremonials is one of the finest albums in a great year, and that's not something I expected at all when I dove in for my first listen.

Ceremonials opens with the rather subdued "Only If For a Night," which presents the album's flair for dark, orchestral chamber pop. The drums pound heavy and high in the mix on the chorus, and Welch's vocals, multi-tracked and surrounded in reverb, sound eerie and massive. Distant pianos and backing vocals ring in the background throughout, and immediately, the album's mood and sonic template are established. Speaking of the latter, listening to this thing on a good pair of headphones is one hell of an experience, and kudos must be paid to producer Paul Epworth, who did some work on Adele's 21 (the biggest selling record of the year), and who gives the album an otherworldly quality.

Second single, "Shake it Out," is an album highlight, due mostly to the desperation Welch pours into her vocal performance. The chorus is huge, but it's the verse and the bridge that hit home the hardest, thanks to what might be the year's biggest powerhouse vocal; this is an anthem in the making, and if there's any justice, it will be an even bigger success than "Dog Days" was; I'd certainly call it the better song. First single "What the Water Gave Me" is a darker, more bass driven track, and is a less obvious single-choice, though it's probably more representative of the album's overall sound. Like many of the songs on the album, the song is based around a propulsive build; once the instrumentation fills out and Welch lets loose, the song explodes, and the result is stunning.
"Never Let Me Go" is another favorite of mine, a gospel-tinged catharsis built around a refrain of back-up voices and a cathedral-filling chorus that sits easily among the album's best. It's damn-near flawless on record, but it's also the kind of song that could end up being a real religious experience live: U2 had a bunch of those on The Joshua Tree, and it's not too surprising that Welch wanted one of her own after seeing Bono belt out "Where the Streets Have No Name" near the end of the show every night on tour.

After three heavyweights, Ceremonials takes a bit of a respite on "Breaking Down," a more straightforward, relaxed pop song, and "Lover to Lover," which wouldn't have sounded out of place on Adele's record (indeed, Welch seems to be channeling her, vocally). Here, it feels a bit out of place and ends up being the album's weakest moment, an inconsequential piece of filler that would be better if the album weren't already a bit long to begin with. "No Light, No Light" plunges us back into darkness though, and that's where this album sounds the most comfortable. Heralded by an organ intro, the song explodes, with a harp accent and a quick crescendo, into a sky-scraping chorus and some of the most personal lyrics on the record. "Would you leave me if told you what I'd become?" she asks on the bridge, where harp flourishes add a nice subtlety to the musical palette. Her voice soars, breaking into falsetto at points, and it's one of the most chilling moments of the record. "Seven Devils" is the perfect companion, a haunting slow-burner that wouldn't be successful in any other hands, but Welch's lilting voice gives it a pulse.

The massive "Heartlines," which opens with tribal drums and gang vocals, builds into one of the album's highlights, a crescendo enforced by Florence's mountainous vocals and a truly bombastic arrangement, all leading to in infectious chorus. It feels like it could be the closer, but we're not quite there yet. "Spectrum" opens in darkness but transitions to pure pop glory, while the anthemic and gorgeously melodic penultimate track, "All This & Heaven Too" might be the album's biggest triumph, as well as it's most instantly rewarding one.

U2's career reinventing classic Achtung Baby turns twenty this week (more on that later), but it's influence is still being felt today. Coldplay's latest has drawn many comparisons to that record, what with it's synth-heavy hooks and titanic production value, but Ceremonials hits far closer to the spirit of U2's second masterpiece than just about any album since. L.A. Times critic Robert Hilburn once called Achtung Baby "U2's daring descent into darkness," and just as that album ended amid turmoil and shadow on the transcendent "Love is Blindness," so does Florence end her record. "Leave My Body" finds the singer aiming for heaven, but she sounds significantly closer to hell in the song's swirling piano/acoustic foundation and it's pounding drums or far off backing vocals. "I'm gonna leave my body, I'm gonna lose my mind," she claims on the song's chorus. It's a resounding declaration amid a dark album's darkest hour, a climactic symphony of sound that serves as one of the most chilling and consuming climaxes of any album this year. It caps off a record that feels like a rebirth; a near-masterpiece that should catapult Florence + the Machine into the ranks of the most premiere artists in the business. No matter what, Welch is undoubtedly one of the most captivating personas in pop music. Most artists with a hit like "Dog Days" up their sleeve would aim to write a full album of pop hits on the follow up, but Ceremonials is anything but safe. It's an honest-to-God album in an age of singles, a strikingly left-of-the-mainstream work of art where Welch airs her demons, sings her heart out, and comes out sounding like a true rock and roll star. And you can't beat that.