2011 was truly an exceptional year for music. It just took me the better part of the year to realize it. Most years, I’m lucky to stumble across at least four albums deserving of the five-star rating that I seem to award more and more rarely these days. But this year, in addition to the four or five that I knew I had to give instant A’s, there were several more albums that persuaded me to bump them up from a carefully considered B at the last minute as I reviewed them and realized how well thought-out even some of their lesser songs were. Now almost my entire Top 10 is comprised of A-grade material. I’m stoked about that. What has been a year full of personal turmoil, possible the most emotionally difficult of my life so far, will at least contain a lot of beauty and grace when I look back upon it years from now, and a lot of that will be due to the music I fondly remember for helping me to make my way through it all.
1. Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues
Robin Pecknold claimed that this album would be more ragged and less poppy than the Foxes’ phenomenal debut (my favorite record of 2008), and in some places it’s certainly more ambitious and less accessible, but I can honestly see no sign of raw mistakes left in, or obvious attempts to subvert the delicious acoustics and vocal layering that worked so well for them the first time around. If anything, this album has more of a restless, wandering tone to it, which makes good sense for the sophomore phase in a growing indie band’s career. Once again they’ve turned out a highly consistent and compelling set of songs, with melodies that twist and meander through the woods, calling out to something familiar that I feel like I should remember from decades ago, yet I can’t quite place my finger on it.
Music Video: “The Shrine / An Argument”
2. MuteMath – Odd Soul
After a difficult second record and the departure of guitarist Greg Hill, MuteMath bounced back in style, adding a little funk influence and a general “if it feels good, go with it” attitude on a record that seems a lot more freewheeling thanArmistice, unafraid to embrace its own inner weirdness and the stones that an audience short on understanding might throw at them. Odd Soul is all about having belief and faith and love and hope and yet not quite fitting into the subculture that you supposedly share these things with. Oh, and it rocks in MuteMath’s usual unorthodox fashion. For these reasons, it’s right up my alley.
Music Video: “Blood Pressure”
3. Burlap to Cashmere – Burlap to Cashmere
Most bands attempting a comeback after a thirteen-year absence would probably re-emerge to find that they’re quite noticeably irrelevent in the current landscape of music. But then, Burlap was kind of a misfit to begin with, easily turning heads in Christian music with their delicious blend of Greek and Latin folk sounds with driving acoustic rock, but then finding that the subculture didn’t quite know how to take them at face value. An extended vacation, a solo career for their lead singer, and a freak near-death altercation for their lead guitarist caused them to re-prioritize a bit, and they’ve hatched from their cocoon with an even better gift for words and an even crazier commitment to strange, otherworldly rhythms and esoteric storytelling. It’s an intoxicating blend, and I hope I won’t have to wait another thirteen years for a third installment.
Live in Studio: “Orchestrated Love Song”
4. DeVotchKa – 100 Lovers
Ironically, the aforementioned Burlap to Cashmere was the first comparison I thought of when I first gave an ear to DeVotchKa’s cool, detached, yet strangely cinematic take on indie rock as filtered through several different traditional European influences. It’s a superficial comparison, for the most part – Nick Urata and co. often have more devious things on their mind, with songs that at times border on political uprisings and yet at other times seem bent on making every hopeless romantic in the audience swoon. The film Little Miss Sunshine may have gotten them discovered, but this incredibly varied yet highly consistent set of songs demonstrates that they’re far from ready to rest on their laurels.
Music Video: “All the Sand in All the Sea”
5. The Civil Wars – Barton Hollow
What I assumed was just a humble little side project for CCM singer Joy Williams (who I knew tangentially from her teen-oriented CCM pop days) turned out to be an unexpected mainstream breakthrough, as the unlikely pairing of her sweet, perky voice with the moodier stylings of country singer/songwriter John Paul White turned out to be the catalyst for one of the year’s quietest yet most emotionally impactful records. Plenty of delicate and sometimes twangy acoustic instruments, and very little in the way of percussion or other sonic enhancements, allows the lyrics to stand front and center as they examine strained relationships from an uncomfortably close distance. It’s the conflict that fuels the creative partnership, and you’d be forgiven for assuming that these two were just a married couple being catty – they’ve just both been married to other people long enough to understand the ups and downs, I guess.
Music Video: “Barton Hollow”
6. Blindside – With Shivering Hearts We Wait
2011 felt like it was the year that several of the bands I used to listen to came back from an extended hiatus, and Blindside was no exception, six years out from their last full-length effort (and seven years from About a Burning Fire, the last record of theirs that really moved me). These Swedish hard rockers usually take several tries before I can get into their music, so it was surprising to hear that this new disc was their most accessible by a long shot, bringing in electronic rhythmic and other sonic trickery without losing focus on the strong melodies and the uncanny ability of lead singer Christian Lindskog to go from a whisper to a scream and back again without it sounding unnatural. This one certainly isn’t for hard rock purists – they’ll probably claim Blindside has sold out and gone “pop”. But it created my very favorite song of the year (the epic finale, “There Must Be Something in the Wind”), as well as several others that rank high on my list, and all in all it’s a delightful experience without losing the band’s knack for experimentation or their ability to be just as heavy and downright unsettling as they could be in the old days.
Music Video: “Our Love Saves Us”
7. Katie Herzig – The Waking Sleep
Katie’s music is like cuteness personified. It’s humble enough to work in just a “girl and her guitar” setting, yet she knows how to glam it up and give her chirpy melodies the celebratory setting that they deserve. It’s a pop record that embraces youthfulness and flirtation just as much as it hints at more mature, spiritually-minded depths hidden deeper within. It’s catchy music for smart people.
Live in Concert: “Way to the Future”
8. Kathryn Calder – Bright and Vivid
I’ve only had the last month or so to get fully acquainted with this new solo album from the youngest member of The New Pornographers. I’ve said for a while that she’s the band’s secret weapon, and songs like “Adventures in Solitude” and “Sweet Talk, Sweet Talk” have proven to me that she’s there to be more than just an understudy forNeko Case. Her second solo album (I still need to go back and check out her first) is a veritable playground of youthfully curious sounds and open-to-interpretation rhymes, throwing baroque pop and electronica and the power pop tendencies of the New Pornos into a blender and letting it all bleed together in fascinating ways. There simply isn’t a dud track in the mix – each of its ten songs is exquisitely crafted and joyfully puzzling.
Music Video: “Who Are You?”
9. Jeremy Larson – They Reappear
Jeremy Larson is apparently one of those control freaks who has to do absolutely everything on his records. (Except play drums. Not content to settle for anything but the best, he recruited Darren King from MuteMath for that job.) What could have been a simple collection of somber piano ballads comes to life as a brightly-painted canvas with Jeremy occupying every seat in the string section while simultaneously conducting, and if there’s ever a case to be made for the wonders of overdubbing and the wall of sound, this is probably it. A lot of artists might inadvisably fill space on their records with unfocused instrumental interludes that most people will probably skip, but on this record, they are integral to the overall flow, often grabbing just as much attention as the songs that they bridge together. Sometimes it’s dreamy, sometimes it’s an eerily accurate nightmare, but it keeps me riveted throughout.
10. Elbow – Build a Rocket Boys!
Elbow’s fifth record was designed as a sort of happy medium between the more subtle, proggy explorations of their early work and the more direct, hook-laden material on The Seldom Seen Kid that brought a lot of new fans on board (me included). At times it seems to flip-flop between the two sides at every other song, which means the listening experience can yank your mood up and back down and then up again. But there’s a genuine strength in Elbow’s quiet lushness that reveals a lot more than what might iniitally meet the ear. From the eight-minute epic opener “The Birds” to the relaxed beauty found in the conflicting rhythms of “Dear Friends”, it’s hard to deny that Elbow pulls off everything from moody, electrified modern rock to quietly soulful folk music with genuine class.
Live in Concert: “With Love”
11. Gungor – Ghosts Upon the Earth
I have a friend who, like me, is a Christian but tends to be very critical towards Christian music. Especially worship music. He summed up his opinion of this album by saying: “Did no one tell these guys that worship albums are supposed to sound crappy?” Sure enough, Ghosts feels like a very personal and intimate expression of worship that was crafted in a bubble somewhere far, far away where nobody had ever heard of the notion that contemporary worship songs are supposed to shamelessly rip off U2, Coldplay, and anything Hillsongs has already done fifteen times, while never doing anything that might be remotely tricky for a congregation to follow. Gungor throws out the rulebook, even to the extent of avoiding the tricks that made some of their best songs work in the past, and creates a very classically-minded concept album (with occasional left turns into bluegrass territory) that takes us through the story of creation, the fall, the sinful and rebellious state of the human soul, and ultimately redemption. It’s a strange and often subtle piece of work with only a few upbeat tracks that could be considered “catchy” and almost nothing remotely resembling the work of a rock band. And I sort of love it for that.
Live in Studio: “When Death Dies”
12. Cool Hand Luke – Of Man
CHL’s lone member Mark Nicks just couldn’t stand to retire from the music biz without completing his most personal project. It’s a character study about the final days Jesus spent on Earth, from Palm Sunday through the Crucifixion and ultimately the Ascension, told through the eyes of the people who lived and breathed in His midst. Occasionally the music approaches the harsh, angry tones of CHL’s old days, but more frequently, downbeat piano ballads lead the way, brilliantly textured to make sure that the songs all flow together well yet no two sound alike. It’s quite moving on several occasions – there aren’t many things that make this cynical listener get all teary-eyed, but this is the rare record that accomplished it several times. It’s perhaps easy to do that cheaply in Christian music, but it’s really difficult to do it artfully. It’s a love letter to Jesus, and by extension, to anyone who seeks to follow Him.
Listen: “Goodbye, for Now”
13. Falling Up – Your Sparkling Death Cometh
Reuniting after a breakup that lasted for roughly the same amount of time that other bands take a mere coffee break, Falling Up’s fifth record seeks to unite the expansive sci-fi story tendencies that made Fangs! such a delightfully bizarre record with the more accessible considerations that made their earlier records a bit more accessible to most of their fans. It’s got the fewest tracks of any of their albums, and yet it’s their longest, with several barreling right past the five-minute mark and all of them bridging together in strange ways (with hidden interludes and instrumental reprises and the like), all of it hinting at a whole more meaningful than the sum of its parts. At the moment, there’s no telling whether this will relaunch a full-time career for Falling Up, whether it will be sufficient to fund that second River Empires record that I’m still waiting for, or even whether a lot of people really “got it” with this record. But I was glad to be a part of the group of fans who made this record even possible. (Kickstarter is awesome, BTW.)
14. Bon Iver – Bon Iver, Bon Iver
Justin Vernon likes to do interesting and oddball things with instruments and sonic textures. Also with words, which he often seems to choose because they roll off the tongue nicely, even if they don’t make a lick of sense or even fully parse in a grammatical sense. Strangely, what he seems to be feeling in any particular song still comes across loud and clear. Purists who were won over by the one-man-holed-up-in-the-backwoods lore that fueled a lot of the exposure granted to For Emma, Forever Ago may have been put off by this sudden expansion of sound, replete with electric guitars and synth pads and friggin’ saxophones, and it’s true that there comes a point at which we have to question whether this even counts as folk music any more. To me, it’s a moot point. Like Sufjan Stevensand Iron & Wine before him, sometimes a guy with a guitar wants to challenge his own boundaries and preconceived notions. Vernon might have hit that threshold sooner than most, but this collection of esoteric odes to scattered places (some of which don’t even really exist) came out a whole lot stronger for it.
Live in Studio: “Calgary”
15. Coldplay – Mylo Xyloto
Coldplay’s pretty much always had their sights set on dominating the pop charts. Yet one could argue that this is their first pure pop record. There’s an understandable amout of derision that comes along with that, but to my ears it’s more consistently interesting than some of their past albums which could take a nosedive from Britpop greatness to dour, too-subtle repetition within the span of five minutes. Glamming it up with dance beats and synthesizers and all manner of bright colors may not have produced as strong a record as the highly inventive Viva la Vida, and there are times when Chris Martin is trying too darn hard to cheer me up that I wonder if he’s seriously immune to the idea of a cliche. But then I have to admit that it actually works. And for the most part, it does so without leaning too hard on Coldplay’s once-coveted and now too often-imitated sound. Then can reinvent themselves on every album as far as I’m concerned. I don’t think I’ll get bored.
Live in Concert: “Major Minus”
16. R.E.M. – Collapse into Now
I don’t even know if R.E.M. fully realized that they were creating their final record when they were in the thick of it. I noted at the time that it was one heck of a walk down memory lane, with several of the songs echoing career-spanning highlights without ever directly ripping them off. For me most of those memories were relatively fresh, since I finally got around to doing an archive binge of R.E.M.’s past material in mid-2010 (and I’m only just now finishing it up). If Accelerate‘s quick-and-dirty approach was an apology for overthinking things on Around the Sun, then Collapse felt a lot like an apology for not giving us enough meat to chew on when they made Accelerate. The whole record (minus one or two middling tracks, I guess) rings out with a confidence that suggests alternative rock’s elder statesmen have found a sort of giddy joy in the act of rediscovering themselves. I’m glad that I didn’t have to wait to find out it would be the end of R.E.M. as we know it before getting on board with this record and with the storied past that it confidently reflected upon.
Music Video: “Discoverer”
17. Death Cab For Cutie – Codes and Keys
I’m brand new to Death Cab, and almost afraid to admit it lest I get eviscerated by old fans who claim their past stuff was way better. Consider it a testing of the waters that gave me a favorable first impression. A lot of these songs embrace solid, interlocking rhythms and even a trance-like nature on a few occasions, giving it a great vibe even if it’s not a big “rock record”. I’m not really sure what it means to play rock music straight in the 2010’s anyway, since it seems I like my bands more moody and experimental like this. While darker ruminations still exist here and there, it sounds like Ben Gibbard is a man rejuvenated by his recent marriage to Zooey Deschanel, since the balance of this record, even while cautiously posing questions that it doesn’t know the answers to, feels like it’s happy just to explore the confusion, climb to the top of that mountain of riddles, and admire the expansive view.
Live Music Video: “You Are a Tourist”
18. Over the Rhine – The Long Surrender
They’re still playing quiet music loud after all these years. And I still find great delight in their love of dusky, jazz-inflected folk music and the dark-meets-light contradictions that permeate the life of two married square pegs who never even came close into fitting the round hole known as “Christian music”. I’ll admit that I have a bit of a hometown bias here, as Karin Bergquist and Linford Detwiler recorded this disc in the homegrown studio of Joe Henry, in South Pasadena, California, mere walking distance from neighborhoods I’ve called home since childhood. Henry is one of those producers who knows how to invite a few old friends over, turn a tape on, and then just get the hell out of the way, giving these live takes that were recorded in his basement a great “lived-in” sort of feel. Being broken has never felt so good for the soul.
Live in Concert: “Rave On”
19. Iron & Wine – Kiss Each Other Clean
If The Shepherd’s Dog marked Sam Beam‘s transition from simple solo folk music to complex, layered indie rock that intentionally bucks the conventions he started out following, then Kiss Each Other Clean is… I don’t know. Something that I still haven’t figured out what to do with. When it’s not mining the melodies and textures of 70’s soft rock and picking up a bit of sweat and grime from jazz and R&B influences, it’s just off in its own universe altogether, playing around with slide whistles and intentionally dated rhythm tracks and record scratches and God only knows what else. Only one or two tracks here could even remotely be referred to as “folksy”. Beam’s hushed whisper can be as creepy as it is reassuring, depending on the context, and when he ends the record with a long-running fiery rocker that nearly runs itself straight off the rails, I’m left convinced that I’ll never try to pigeonhole him ever again.
Live in Concert: “Your Fake Name Is Good Enough for Me”
20. Eleanor Friedberger – Last Summer
After a series of misfires on The Fiery Furnaces‘ last few records, I was pretty sure that neither of the Friedberger siblings would ever do anything together that even remotely approached my yeard-end best list. I liked a lot of the ADHD tomfoolery of their first few discs, don’t get me wrong. But the chaos needed a little reigning in, and that’s exactly what Eleanor chose to do on her solo debut, which is still quirky as all get-out but still manages to remember that it’s a pop record at its heart. That means she can do her fair share of rambling that sounds like talking that only threatens to turn into singing, describing disconnected places and people and vintage years that don’t seem to pull together in any meaningful way at first, but then she arrives at that chorus and somehow you manage to feel her pain or her elation. Once you’ve gotten into the weird headspace of a song, at least you can guarantee that you’ll be on board for the rest of that one track, and probably at least a good half of the record, which is definitely something I could never promise you on a Furnaces album. Not to knock the Furnaces – they have their own commitment to musical audacity that I sort of have to admire even when I dread actually listening to it. But Eleanor’s new take on deliberately anachornistic pop music is much more my speed.
Music Video: “My Mistakes”
EPs AND OTHER MISCELLANY:
Stuff that is excellent, but that I couldn’t let bump something else out of the Top 20 list, because it’s either too short to qualify as a full album, or too freakin’ long for the competition to even be remotely fair.
Sleeping at Last – Yearbook
If you’ve been following my reviews over the last year or so, you’re probably sick of this band’s name popping up. Twelve EPs released in the space of a year meant twelve opportunities for me to gush about the often quiet, but sometimes gorgeously layered, baroque-pop beauty of this ambitious project, which I’m still a bit surprised thatRyan O’Neal managed to complete and deliver on time each month (with one week’s grace period for the final installment) despite SAL being reduced from a duo to a solo project partway through. Writing three songs a month reflecting on his feelings and philosophies as the pages of the calendar are turned marks an achievement not only in quantity (essentially doubling their existing output), but also in quality, with the songs on average easily rivaling the best work on their past full-length albums. Yearbook is now available as a 3-disc set collecting all 36 songs, for those who find EPs that only exist in Internet space to be a hassle, so if you’ve waited until now to check SAL out, now’s the time for a good old-fashioned archive binge.
Live in Concert: “Aperture”
The Hawk in Paris – His & Hers EP
Dan Haseltine, a voice I’ve become incredibly familiar with over his nearly twenty years as lead singer of Jars of Clay, finally steps out of his expected role as a CCM frontman and offers something much more electronic and melancholy on the 80’s-throwback debut of his little side project with former Jars member Matt Bronleewe and producer/synthesizer wizard Jeremy Bose. Here nothing’s expected to be wrapped up in a neat little bow, and the songs are often vulnerable on the subject of deteriorating relationships, while also having a fun, danceable, even self-consciously silly side on a few tracks. It’s not for everyone, but it definitely hits my sweet spot.
Listen: “Put Your Arms Around Me”
David Crowder Band – Oh For Joy
I have once again failed you, Epinions readers, by not covering a quality holiday release in time for you to actually hear it before Christmas. The penultimate release from my favorite soon-to-be-retired worship band puts the same spin on several classic carols that the DCB is known for putting on the old hymns that they tend to dust off for each record, whether it be delay-heavy rock guitar glory (“Joy to the World”), a celebratory hoedown (“Angels We Have Heard on High”), or hushed but gorgeous live renditions (“O Holy Night” and “Silent Night” bridged by a snippet ofLeonard Cohen‘s “Hallelujah”, of all things). If that wasn’t enough, they embrace their inner progressive metal geeks by covering the Trans-Siberian Orchestra as a victory lap. At 8 songs, this isn’t a complete album, but it’s still a delicious stocking stuffer and I’m glad they found the time to squeeze it in between what I’m assuming was a rather demanding and imposing schedule for their final double-disc magnum opus due in January.
Live in Concert: “Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24)”
Thankfully, the list of stuff that I want to smack myself on the forehead for missing out on when it was new has been surprisingly short and sweet this year.
Belle & Sebastian – Write About Love
A few tracks from 2006’s The Life Pursuit briefly piqued my interest in this Scottish band, but then they fell off the map for several years and I didn’t see their new album coming until midway through the following year. Write About Love is a fabulously fun slice of indie pop which gleefully throws itself back to the sounds of the 60s and 70s, resolving the two main complaints I had about The Life Pursuit by easing up on the language (about the harshest insult you’ll find here is “bimbo”) and varying the tempos a bit more, making the more playful and upbeat numbers feel like the main draw rather than bizarre sideshows. Stuart Murdoch‘s ongoing fascination with religion really fascinates me here, and with Sarah Martin‘s more prominent vocal presence and unlikely guest vocal spots from the likes of Norah Jones and actress Carey Mulligan, the group takes on a vibe that reminds me a bit of The New Pornographers, minus the intentionally obscure lyrics. (Of course they’ve been around for longer than the New Pornos, but that’s neither here nor there.)
Music Video: “I Didn’t See It Coming”
Gungor – Beautiful Things
A more conventional worship disc than Ghosts Upon the Earth in some ways, this was my introduction to Michael and Lisa Gungor‘s more artistic take on modern worship. Uncovnentional instruments like the banjo and glockenspiel help to highlight several of the more contemplative tracks here, and even though some of the more rock-oriented stuff feels a bit rooted in the youth-groupy modern worship sound that has become sort of passe in resent years, the title track serves as a reminder that even more conventional radio singles can be a thing of creative beauty in this group’s hands. This is a good place for curious new listeners to start before taking on Ghosts.
Live in Studio: “You Have Me”
Dream Theater – A Dramatic Turn of Events
I’d ask you to read between the lines in reference to the title, but then Dream Theater has never been known for subtlety. The big news in 2010 was the departure of Mike Portnoy, a drummer who had attained a sort of godlike status in the metal community, and certainly a man whose talents wouldn’t be easy to replace. This being Dream Theater, they auditioned the crap out of some of the world’s best and found Mike Mangini, a man whose skill seems to match Portnoy’s at least in terms of sheer speed and accuracy. His creative influence on the band has yet to be seen, and without Portnoy, the band’s tendency to indulge their most ridiculous lyrical whims seems to be completely unaffected, with epic-length rockers going on about supernatural events in the corniest of terms while soul-baring “look at me, I’m a vulnerable songwriter too” power ballads do almost nothing to play to DT’s strong suits. As always, there’s plenty of instrumental talent on display, though increasingly, the really good solos and groovy bits seem almost disconnected from the songs that contain them, making it impossible for me to accept any one track as a whole entity without grimacing at some point during the proceedings. If nothing else, the lack of Portnoy’s ill-advised growling makes this album better in the vocal department than their last few. of course, when the group has the gall to include such ridiculous sound snippets as a throat singer croaking a syllable several times at the beginning and end of a track that sounds an awful lot to my ears like, “WHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAT??!?!?!”, then I can’t help but offer snarky responses like, “Yeah, my sentiments exactly.”
Incubus – If Not Now, When?
I’m genuinely disappointed to put Incubus on my dishonorable list this year, because their long-awaited comeback after a five-year absence was one of my most highly anticipated in 2011. Light Grenades was when I last heard from the group, and it walked the line deliciously between mainstream alt-rock and unconventional experiments, making for a largely unpredictable and enjoyable set. 2001’s Morning View, once known as their most easygoing album, is actually what I consider to be the band’s high water-mark, so I wasn’t initially fazed by reports of this new record’s inherent mellowness. The problem here is that this is a thoroughly lazy rock record and it doesn’t even play interestingly as a pop record, focusing almost exclusively on dull, mid-tempo ballads that fail time after time to make much of an impression. Only late in the album does the band begin to find their groove with “Switchblade” and the misleading single “Adolescents”, before settling into an experimental finale, “Tomorrow’s Food”, that feels dropped in from an alternate universe in which Incubus still cared about thinking outside the box. I’m not one of those fans who whines about their long-forgotten funk/rap-influenced sound that they’ve largely abandoned since the late 90’s… I just want them to demonstrate a little fire in the belly regardless of their chosen mash-up of genres, instead of this bland set that barely seems interested in turning listeners’ heads in any genre whatsoever.
Drive-By Truckers – Go-Go Boots
I’ve come to expect a fair amount of unsavory subject matter from this alternative country act. Brighter than Creation’s Dark, an expansive record which I largely enjoyed, didn’t shy away from the social ills of life in the American South, touching on war and murder and drunkenness and divorce and so forth. But after that came the inadvisable one-two punch of The Big To-Do (not a horrible record, but not a terribly memorable one either) and this set of “murder ballads” largely culled from the same sessions. Hearing song after song about death, sometimes described in grizzly detail, is just too much for this listener, and musically, the group is largely coasting on this set, leaving little to distract me from the inherent putridness of its character studies, hitting its nadir in the interminable, horrific story “The Fireplace Poker”. I know that the group is intentionally focusing on irredeemable good ol’ boys and their heinous actions, and that I probably should have known what to expect going into this set, but at least it’s good to know there’s a limit on how dark my musical tastes can go in terms of subject matter. “I Do Believe”, which opens the record, is at least a bit of a silver lining with its multiple key changes and its fond memories of a deceased mother, but it is all way downhill from there.
Rebecca St. James – I Will Praise You
It’s been over 10 years since I last considered myself a huge RSJ fan. She’s only released three new albums in that long span of time, and two of them have been lackluster worship albums – honestly not a necessity for an artist like RSJ whose original songs are largely focused on praising God anyway (just with more interesting production values). This being her first disc released after a long hiatus that led to her engagement, it’s profoundly disappointing to not hear some form of more personal musical closure from a singer who has practically become the poster child for saving it for marriage and whose best-known song is “Wait for Me”. Not that we need to hear any intimate details, but it would have been nice to hear her take on what finally finding love has done for her. (I’ll set aside the irony that she married the bassist from Foster the People, a band responsible for one of 2011’s most incessantly irritating hit singles.) Instead we get a largely dull set of retreads of worship songs that were mostly played out years ago, combined with some wholly uninspired “originals”, making the album a definite challenge to get through in one sitting. Even the middling worshipGOD feels inspired compared to this.
BEST SONGS OF 2011:
My usual rules apply here: These are the songs that meant the most to me in 2011, whether they were released this year or in 2010 at the very earliest, and it just took me until now to hear them or to fully appreciate them. Beyond the first 10 or 20, the order’s not all that significant, so just consider it a huge chunk of songs that I loved and don’t nitpick the hierarchy too much, ‘K?
1. “There Must Be Something in the Wind”, Blindside (from With Shivering Hearts We Wait)
2. “Blood Pressure”, MuteMath (from Odd Soul)
3. “Way to the Future”, Katie Herzig (from The Waking Sleep)
4. “Flowers by the Moon”, The Reign of Kindo (from This Is What Happens)
5. “Atlantic, the Sea of Atlas”, Sleeping at Last (from Yearbook – June EP)
6. “Alligator Sky”, Owl City feat. Shawn Chrystopher (from All Things Bright and Beautiful)
7. “Want You Gone”, Jonathan Coulton feat. Ellen McLain (from Portal 2 OST)
8. “The Magic Hour”, Andrew Peterson (from Counting Stars)
9. “You Have Me”, Gungor (from Beautiful Things)
10. “Let Your Glory Fall”, Iona (from Another Realm)
11. “Barton Hollow”, The Civil Wars (from Barton Hollow)
12. “With Love”, Elbow (from Build a Rocket Boys!)
13. “Land or Sea”, Sleeping at Last (from Yearbook – February EP)
14. “Orchestrated Love Song”, Burlap to Cashmere (from Burlap to Cashmere)
15. “Everybody Breaks a Glass”, Lights feat. Shad (from Siberia)
16. “The Birds”, Elbow (from Build a Rocket Boys!)
17. “There Must Be Something in the Water”, Blindside (from With Shivering Hearts We Wait)
18. “Major Minus”, Coldplay (from Mylo Xyloto)
19. “Bad Luck Heels”, DeVotchKa (from 100 Lovers)
20. “Goodbye, for Now”, Cool Hand Luke (from Of Man)
21. “Love Reclaims the Atmosphere”, Burlap to Cashmere (from Burlap to Cashmere)
22. “Every Teardrop Is a Waterfall”, Coldplay (from Mylo Xyloto)
23. “Bloom”, Radiohead (from The King of Limbs)
24. “Dear Friends”, Elbow (from Build a Rocket Boys!)
25. “Wilderness”, Sleeping at Last (from Yearbook – July EP)
26. “Our Love Saves Us”, Blindside (from With Shivering Hearts We Wait)
27. “Curse the Love Songs”, The Hawk in Paris (from His & Hers EP)
28. “Uummannaq Song”, KT Tunstall (from Tiger Suit)
29. “Perth”, Bon Iver (from Bon Iver, Bon Iver)
30. “Bedouin Dress”, Fleet Foxes (from Helplessness Blues)
31. “Lost”, KT Tunstall (from Tiger Suit)
32. “Give Up the Ghost”, Radiohead (from The King of Limbs)
33. “And the Angels Dance”, Iona (from Another Realm)
34. “Impossible Soul”, Sufjan Stevens (from The Age of Adz)
35. “Put Your Arms Around Me”, The Hawk in Paris (from His & Hers EP)
36. “Calgary”, Bon Iver (from Bon Iver, Bon Iver)
37. “Circadian”, Falling Up (from Your Sparkling Death Cometh)
38. “Waiting for the End”, Linkin Park (from A Thousand Suns)
39. “Ghost of Days Gone By”, Alter Bridge (from AB III)
40. “Monster on the Radio”, Blindside (from With Shivering Hearts We Wait)
41. “The Violet Hour”, The Civil Wars (from Barton Hollow)
42. “The Shrine / An Argument”, Fleet Foxes (from Helplessness Blues)
43. “You Are the Beauty”, Gungor (from Ghosts Upon the Earth)
44. “Build a Wall”, Burlap to Cashmere (from Burlap to Cashmere)
45. “Falling”, The Civil Wars (from Barton Hollow)
46. “Codex”, Radiohead (from The King of Limbs)
47. “Tree by the River”, Iron & Wine (from Kiss Each Other Clean)
48. “Discoverer”, R.E.M. (from Collapse into Now)
49. “I Didn’t See It Coming”, Belle & Sebastian (from Write About Love)
50. “All the Sand in All the Sea”, DeVotchKa (from 100 Lovers)
51. “Beautiful Things”, Gungor (from Beautiful Things)
52. “Minnesota, WI”, Bon Iver (from Bon Iver, Bon Iver)
53. “Second Song”, TV on the Radio (from Nine Types of Light)
54. “January White”, Sleeping at Last (from Yearbook – January EP)
55. “Gracefully”, Court Yard Hounds (from Court Yard Hounds)
56. “Aperture”, Sleeping at Last (from Yearbook – July EP)
57. “Empire/Provoke”, Jeremy Larson (from They Reappear)
58. “Out of Sight, Out of Mind”, The Reign of Kindo (from This Is What Happens)
59. “Noble Aim”, Sleeping at Last feat. Katie Herzig (from Yearbook – September EP)
60. “Separate”, Meg & Dia (from Cocoon)
61. “Art of Almost”, Wilco (from The Whole Love)
62. “Who Are You?”, Kathryn Calder (from Bright and Vivid)
63. “The Transfiguration”, David Crowder Band (from Seven Swans Reimagined)
64. “When Death Dies”, Gungor (from Ghosts Upon the Earth)
65. “Desire”, Deas Vail (from Deas Vail)
66. “Bedside Manner/Night Terrors”, Jeremy Larson (from They Reappear)
67. “Überlin”, R.E.M. (from Collapse into Now)
68. “Ready to Start”, Arcade Fire (from The Suburbs)
69. “Deer in the Headlights”, Owl City (from All Things Bright and Beautiful)
70. “Blackout”, Linkin Park (from A Thousand Suns)
71. “Constant”, House of Heroes (from Suburba)
72. “Slip to the Void”, Alter Bridge (from AB III)
73. “You Are a Tourist”, Death Cab for Cutie (from Codes and Keys)
74. “Crystalline”, Björk (from Biophilia)
75. “Alligator_Aviator_Autopilot_Antimatter”, R.E.M. feat. Peaches (from Collapse into Now)
76. “The Day Is Coming”, My Morning Jacket (from Circuital)
77. “Montezuma”, Fleet Foxes (from Helplessness Blues)
78. “My Mistakes”, Eleanor Friedberger (from Last Summer)
79. “To Whom It May Concern”, The Civil Wars (from Barton Hollow)
80. “Are You Coming?”, Cool Hand Luke (from Of Man)
81. “Foreign Soil”, Iona (from Another Realm)
82. “Santorini”, Burlap to Cashmere (from Burlap to Cashmere)
83. “Holocene”, Bon Iver (from Bon Iver, Bon Iver)
84. “Clifton Springs”, Steven Page (from Page One)
85. “Blue Ghost”, Falling Up (from Your Sparkling Death Cometh)
86. “Party in the CIA”, Weird Al Yankovic (from Alpocalypse)
87. “The Earth is Yours”, Gungor (from Beautiful Things)
88. “Neat Little Rows”, Elbow (from Build a Rocket Boys!)
89. “All or Nothing”, MuteMath (from Odd Soul)
90. “The Reckoning (How Long)”, Andrew Peterson (from Counting Stars)
91. “Rave On”, Over the Rhine (from The Long Surrender)
92. “Your Fake Name Is Good Enough for Me”, Iron & Wine (from Kiss Each Other Clean)
93. “Half Light I & II”, Arcade Fire (from The Suburbs)
94. “She”, Caedmon’s Call (from Raising Up the Dead)
95. “Come On Sister”, Belle & Sebastian (from Write About Love)
96. “Lotus Flower”, Radiohead (from The King of Limbs)
97. “Silhouettes”, Sleeping at Last (from Yearbook – May EP)
98. “Love Out of Lust”, Lykke Li (from Wounded Rhymes)
99. “Poison & Wine”, The Civil Wars (from Barton Hollow)
100. “Diamnds”, Falling Up (from Your Sparkling Death Cometh)
BEST LIVE PERFORMANCES OF 2011:
1. David Crowder Band w/ Gungor @ The Palladium, Hollywood, CA, 10/8/11
The DCB always puts on a phenomenal live show, and having missed out on the tours for their two most intriguing albums (A Collision and Church Music), I decided there was no way in… um, Heaven that I was going to miss their final “7 tour”. The largely greatest-hits setlist, with a few of the band’s personal favorites thrown in for good measure, a sneak preview of their upcoming final album, and even their bluegrassy take on “Go, Tell It on the Mountain”, as a preview of their upcoming Christmas EP, was a total crowd-pleaser. Personally, my favorite moment was finally getting to hear the rock epic “God Almighty, None Compares”, my favorite Crowder track, live in its full seven-minute glory. But the group attracts a diverse group of fans, and for every one of them, there was probably a different moment that held that special spotlight. The opening acts were chosen as a sort of “passing of the torch”, from what I could gather. John Mark McMillan, best known as the writer of “How He Loves”, opened the evening before returning to sing his signature song with Crowder, while singer-songwriter Chris August entertained the crowd in between acts. But for me the real highlight was Gungor, who quite nearly stole the spotlight from Crowder with their intimate yet spirited acoustic set, enlisting the help of a beatboxing cellist (!) to liven up folksy, bluegrassy arrangements of highlights from their last few albums. I cannot wait to see what creative arrangements Gungor will spring on us during their proper tour for Ghosts Upon the Earth this coming spring.
2. Jars of Clay @ First Church of the Nazarene, Pasadena, CA, 10/28/11
I’ve seen Jars of Clay live more times than I can count on two hands, and when you’re like me and you love a band more for the variety expressed between the many albums they have to their credit and get a bit bored with the typical “latest album highlights and greatest hits” setlists that most bands trot out on their tours, seeing a band too many times can turn old favorite tracks into dreaded redundancies that you wish the crowd would stop screaming for. Jars of Clay wisely averted this by listening to the incessant questions of fans who would pester them about long-lost deep album tracks whenever they’d do an impromptu acoustic set after a show or host a Q&A on the now-defunct Jarchives boards, and they managed to construct a generously long setlist out of songs they hadn’t played in years (with a few of their greatest hits sprinkled in). They went back to the basics – just the four band members and a cellist, no bassist and no drums other than the occasional percussion and programming that Dan Haseltine added to a few songs. From old standbys like the opening “Liquid” and the closing “Worlds Apart” to old chestnuts like “River Constantine” and “Scarlet” that I had assumed would never see the light of day in their live shows, the band took me on a thrilling walk down memory lane, even challenging my memory of a few songs that this usually devoted fan had overlooked when they were brand now. Excluding Redemption Songs and Christmas Songs, the band managed to hit at least one track from every single one of their studio albums, stopping to tell stories and reminisce and occasionally make corny jokes in the middle of their awkward, unscripted stage banter. (“Octopi Wall Street”, anyone? Yikes.) It will go down as one of the greatest setlists I’ve ever had the privilege of seeing them perform, largely just by virtue of being one of the most unorthodox.
3. Fleet Foxes @ The Greek Theater, Hollywood, CA, 9/14/11
I was pretty sure I knew what to expect from this vocal-heavy ensemble that still stands as one of the few things Pitchfork Music and I can seem to agree upon. I just didn’t know what to expect from the audience. Turns out their neither obvious hippies nor cloying hipsters – just folks from a wide cross-section of ages and classes who enjoy beautiful music. What’s strange about Fleet Foxes is that they play off their music as if they’re just careless rock stars with an ironic sense of humor in between songs – Robin Pecknold‘s got quite the dirty mouth and humorously jaded attitude when he’s not singing, and you just don’t see it coming from the beautiful music that he and his bandmates create. But it also signifies a lack of pretentiousness or self-importance about the role of their music in the grand scheme of things – they just play their songs and let it all be what it naturally is, not stopping to preach or grandstand or even really explain what any of it means. For a band whose lyrics are often abstract, invoking emotions more than they concretely explain the situations behind them, I think this is a good thing. The chosen outdoor venue, in the heart of Griffith Park, really emphasized the ornate acoustics and stacked harmonies of a band who could easily fool you into thinking they live deep in the woods rather than in suburban Seattle. hearing those voices echoing off into the night with the chirping of crickets as a peaceful reply was just about enough to make this fan’s year. The fact that their setlist generously hit all the highlights from Helplessness Blues plus a solid representation of the best from their self-titled debut and its companion Sun Giant EP certainly didn’t hurt anything.
4. Burlap to Cashmere @ The Hotel Cafe, Hollywood CA, 6/27/11
It’s hard to do justice to the elation that I felt upon seeing one of my favorite bands from my college days, a one-album wonder who all but disappeared at around the turn of the century, reunited and playing just about the most lively acoustic set conceivable on just about the tiniest stage that could possibly hold them. Tempered by time, experience, and the knowledge that the indie rock world would probably receive them better than the CCM audience that just expected endless iterations of “Basic Instructions”, this five-piece folk/rock act dominated a tiny but appreciate venue with their ridiculous acoustic guitar antics, lively and complex rhythms, and harmonies that rang out sweeter than I ever remembered them. It’s typically their upbeat, frenetic songs that hook audiences, and there were plenty of those, to the point where I thought Johnny Phillippidis with his jerky guitar motions was likely to whack the keyboard player in the face a few times. But their softer, lusher side wasn’t to be underestimated, with the group bravely pulling off the delicate “Love Reclaims the Atmosphere” as their opening number, telling us that B2C had definitively changed over the years and yet still possessed the ridiculous amount of talent that had gotten them noticed in the first place. Old favorite “Anybody Out There?” was the only hint at their former glory, but since their current glory includes such insane workouts as the hard-driving “Build a Wall”, the rhythmically lopsided “Orchestral Love Song”, and a lovely remake of Steven Delopoulos‘s solo song “Seasons”, I really couldn’t complain. My only regret was that my wife, only days away from returning after a month-long trip to visit her folks in Hawaii, couldn’t be there with me to witness this glorious rebirth.
5. Switchfoot w/ Anberlin @ The Wiltern, Hollywood, CA, 10/11/11
I didn’t think that either of these bands released their strongest material with Dark Is the Way, Light Is a Place andVice Verses, but the news that they were touring together made the two-for-one offer difficult to resist. The show was certainly worth putting up with the stress of navigating Hollywood on a weekday evening (and with my wife due for a ridiculously early shift at her first day on a new job the next morning), as both bands were fully dedicated to putting on a high-energy show that zeroed in on a lot of their best material. Anberlin managed to edge out the band they were opening for, having strengthened their live show considerably over the years by adding backing vocals (desperately needed due to how often Stephen Christian overlaps himself in studio recordings and a short acoustic set as a breather in the middle, which may have actually demonstrated their instrumental talent more clearly than the energetic but somewhat muffled sound of their high-intensity rockers. Cities was actually the dominant album in their setlist, with a few non-single tracks from that record making surprising and welcome experiences. Switchfoot, for their part, knows how to make a show a visual feast, and Jon Foreman is a born entertainer, knowing how to connect with the crowd in a genuine way. This and a commitment to rethinking the arrangements of a few otherwise played-out classics helped to keep their setlist fresh – even the relatively lackluster ballad “Restless” felt like it had new life when he sang it standing on a railing between sections of the crowd that they had helped to lift him up on to. Switchfoot is the kind of band that I’d recommend seeing live even within the cycle of a weaker album, especially if you’ve never seen them before, because they never seem to just phone it in. My only real complaint here was the surprising absence of anything from 2006’s Oh! Gravity, which I know isn’t the fanbase’s favorite album, but come on, “Dirty Second Hands” is one of their all-time best live songs. To be fair, I saw them perform it twice when the album was new, so the thrill of hearing them pull of newer rockers like “Afterlife”, “Mess of Me”, “The War Inside”, and “The Sound” more than made up for it.
MOST ANTICIPATED RECORDINGS OF 2012:
What I’m looking forward to hearing most in the new year.
1. David Crowder Band – Give Us Rest or (A Requiem Mass in C [The Happiest of All Keys])
If my favorite worship band has to go their separate ways, at least they’ve taken the time to plan out a final album. By all reports, it’ll be a doozy, with over 30 tracks spread between two discs, likely rivaling the complexity of A Collision and Church Music while also providing the church with straightforward but powerful anthems in the vein of some of their best loved classics. And probably lots of theologically geeky little Easter eggs as well.
2. Paper Route – The Peace of Wild Things
These electronic rockers impressed me in a major way with their 2009 debut, Absence. I have no idea what to expect from their follow-up, especially since Andy Smith, a key ingredient in the recipe that made Absence so delicious, has been gone from the band for over a year now. But reports of a new female vocalist to team up with J. T. Daly and a commitment to crafting infectious pop music in an artful way have my hopes set high for a new chapter in what will hopefully be a long history.
3. Future of Forestry
The three Travel EPs comprised one of my favorite listening experiences of the last few years. FoF’s lush, baroque-pop approach to worshipful rock music helped to open my mind to the concept of a unified, thematic statement being made by an artist who didn’t want to work within the confines of a conventional album release. It’ll be interesting to see how the lessons learned translate to a second full-length album, which will technically be the true follow up to 2007’s Twilight even though Eric Owyoung has reconfigured the band several times since then.
A new Muse album is always a huge event – this’ll just be the first time I’m actually on board for it on the day that the album drops (since it took until 2009’s The Resistance for them to fully win me over). Their constant artistic restlessness and need to change up styles ensures that I have no idea what to expect from the British power trio, except that it will be intentionally bombastic and over-the-top in unexpectedly fascinating ways.
5. Sixpence None the Richer – Strange Conversation
This one’s been stuck in development hell since mid-2010. It seems that Sixpence can never shake that particular curse, which is unfortunate, because Leigh Nash and Matt Slocum are two of the most thoughtful, literate songwriters who have managed to break through from the “Christian music” ghetto and grace the world of mainstream music (however briefly). It’s been cruel to get teased with rumors of their triumphant return since 2008, but to only get an EP and a Christmas album to show for it. Hopefully 2012 will see their new full-length album dusted off and finally released for public consumption.
U2 is always rumored to be working on something new for a good three to five years before another album drops, so 2012 might be a bit early to expect a follow-up to 2009’s No Line on the Horizon. Still, the group has expressed some disappointment with that album not taking off as massively as they had hoped, so maybe there will be a bit of a Pop effect in terms of the band rebounding relatively quickly from an underappreciated record. What’s interesting is that they’ve alluded to having several irons in the fire, ranging from the atrociously inadvisable (A remix project? Collaborating with hip-hop producers? Pretending anyone still cares about the Spider-Man musical?) to the intriguing (the Songs of Ascent project intended as a companion to No Line, which unfortunately never saw the light of day). Knowing it could go just about anywhere from here is part of the intrigue.
7. Five Iron Frenzy
A lot of defunct bands that I used to be into quite unexpectedly announced their reunions in 2010 and 2011, which perhaps suggests that maybe they should have been more cautious about announcing their breakups in the first place. But when FIF called it quits in 2003, there were legitimate reasons for this cult favorite ska-punk act to end things on a high note, and they did it with just about the best love letter to their fans that I could imagine. They were so adamant about being done for good and moving on to other projects or getting out of music altogether that the announcement of a new album funded by Kickstarter was a complete shocker. Fans responded with a massive outpouring of love, funding the album in no time flat. FIF may have never been “big” on a conventional scale, but they earned a lot of respect in places where “Christian” bands generally don’t find much support, so here’s hoping for a zany, silly, horn-laden blast of an album that steps on our toes in the best possible ways.
The band we named our cat after may not be recognized as huge and glamorous, but they’re nothing if not hard-working, and their output tends to be satisfying, no-nonsense, high-octane modern rock that can easily fit in with the myriad of different big-name bands that they’ve toured with. Cities is still their high-water mark, and tracks from that album quite nearly dominated their setlist despite being two albums old when they toured with Switchfoot this year, so that plus the inclusion of a mini acoustic set makes me think they’re starting to re-focus on the things they know how to do best.
I don’t hear much buzz about this band since they’re on the more lush, sensitive end of indie rock (much like the departed Copeland) and I didn’t discover their 2009 album QU until it was nearly a year old and well out of the press cycle. There were rumors of a breakup earlier this year, though that might have been due to a lack of updates more than anything else. They’ve assured us that they’re not breaking up and are working on new material, but I’ve found absolutely no news since then, so I can only hope they’re hiding away in a studio somewhere being secretly productive.
10. Matchbox Twenty
We’re ten years out from More than You Think You Are now, which wasn’t as commercially well-received as MB20’s previous hit-factory albums were, but which resonated with me the most strongly out of their three discs so far, both in terms of Rob Thomas‘s gift for keen relationship analysis and because it was stronger in the rock department. I feel like this band gets unfairly slagged for churning out middle-of-the-road radio fodder when in fact, the singles don’t tell the entire story. Unfortunately Thomas’s middling solo career has taken the front seat for most of the past few years, with only an EP’s worth of new material surfacing on the 2007 collection Exile in Mainstream to hold us over. These guys need to come back strong with a record that emphasizes the band over the lead singer’s sex appeal, before they run the risk of being relegated to a has-been joke from a decade gone by.
ARTISTS I’ll MISS:
I’ve already mentioned the swan songs of David Crowder Band and Cool Hand Luke above, and I think both artists did a great deal to merge art and theology for discerning Christian audiences who had perhaps had enough of the typical “God is love songs” stuff that most of the CCM industry tends to throw at us. DCB’s exposure was comparatively more mainstream, at least within church sub-culture, and they’ll leave behind several classic praise songs and a few highly acclaimed and highly singable records as a legacy, while CHL was only known by the few and the proud before Mark Nicks shifted gears and headed off to seminary, his final work on Of Man clearly revealed a passion for knowing Jesus as those who lived and ate with Him and learned at His feet knew Him.
Also becoming more outspoken on the subject of the Christian faith was Thrice, whose upcoming hiatus I could sort of see coming in the subtle revisiting of past themes in their “return to rock” album, Major/Minor. It wasn’t one of my favorites from the band, but I still respect them a lot for merging art and faith in a genre where fans of mainstream rock can tend to be quite critical of both, and maintaining a solid and dedicated following throughout. I hope they keep their promise that this is only a hiatus and re-emerge someday with a victorious new record that rocks as hard as it makes us think.
Possibly the biggest and most lamented breakup in mainstream rock music this year was that of R.E.M. I’m not sure any of us saw it coming, and the timing is especially cruel for me since I had only just finally started to “get” the group as I explored their extensive back catalogue. Being more of a latter-day fan, records like Reveal, Monster, andAutomatic for the People tend to speak to me more than their largely classic 80’s material, which I’m still trying to fully digest. Regardless, I admire the group for rolling with the numerous punches thrown at them over the years, rebounding from poorly-received records like Up (which I didn’t think was all that bad) and Around the Sun (which most definitely was) with grace and with newfound joy in the art of making good music. Michael Stipe, Mike Mills, and Peter Buck went out on a high note with Collapse into Now, and perhaps most importantly, they agreed to call it a day while they were all still good friends, ensuring that no part of their legacy will be one of those sordid catfights that gets revisited endlessly by music documentaries with a morbid sense of curiosity. At least I have the joy of still getting to know them ahead – it could be a few years still before this newly-minted R.E.M. fan fully realizes it’s genuinely over.
Dear 2012: Just look at this list. I think you don’t stand a chance of beating it. You’re welcome to try and prove me wrong.