One last year-end post before we move on to 2012, this one comes from new Mbird contributor Carl Laamanen, who also blogs over at Losing Sight of Land:
I’m going to highlight some albums that didn’t get press from some of the bigger outlets this year, even though I could have made some “trendier” picks if I had so desired. Also, there were some notable artists (Bon Iver, Fleet Foxes, etc.) whose albums I didn’t get around to this year, which explains their absence from this list. I hope this list inspires you to check out some new music, or to revisit some of these albums, my favorites from 2011.
I had the pleasure of seeing David Bazan live this summer at a small intimate venue in Boston. He is exactly like his music: simple and direct. His music has always been refreshingly honest, and Strange Negotiations is no exception. Bazan appears to have put his struggles with faith behind him; as a result, Strange Negotiations is a less personal, but more peaceful album. Of course, it wouldn’t be a Bazan album without biting sarcasm and scathing criticism, and everyone gets their fair share here. He criticizes religious people (Level with Yourself), the government (Wolves at the Door), hypocrites in general (Messes) and a host of others during the album’s running time. In typical Bazan fashion, this criticism reveals as much about his and our own shortcomings as those of others. Musically it’s much of the same as Curse Your Branches, although songs like People and Wolves at the Door provide a jolt normally missing from Bazan’s despondent rock.
9. Major/Minor — Thrice
Major/Minor was one of my most anticipated releases of the year, as I am an unabashed Thrice fanboy. Thrice recently announced they were taking a break from music, and Major/Minor is a good way for them to go out. Lacking the thematic continuity of The Alchemy Index or the biting lyricism of The Artist in the Ambulance, Major/Minor nonetheless is trademark Thrice: hard-hitting, energetic and introspective. Tracks like Promises, Cataracts and Treading Paper soar, carried by Dustin Kensrue’s perfect vocals and the band’s synergy. The softer side of Thrice comes through on this album as well, with beautiful tracks like Words in the Water and Disarmed. My one criticism of the album is that Kensrue’s lyrics, normally oblique and metaphorical regarding his Christianity, come off as preachy at times especially on Listen Through Me. For a band that’s been going as long as Thrice, Major/Minor represents their ever-present penchant for innovation and originality, and I hope they will return to making music again.
8. Codes and Keys — Death Cab for Cutie
Like most of Death Cab’s music, Codes and Keys is relentlessly pleasant. In fact, other than the album opener, there is no song on this album that I dislike, and a few of them are excellent. You Are a Tourist and Monday Morning lilt along, buoyed by bouncy guitar riffs and precise drumming. There is a carpe diem attitude throughout the album, summed up by the title of the final song Stay Young, Go Dancing. Gibbard’s assertion on St. Peter’s Cathedral, “When our hearts stop ticking/ This is the end, there’s nothing past this,” affirms this mentality, even as its musical backdrop hints at transcendence. While I don’t entirely agree with the worldview expressed here and elsewhere on the album, the music is consistently good throughout, and Gibbard’s call to live life to the fullest deserves to be heard. Ultimately, Codes and Keys is relatable and joyous, but lacks the emotional punch of some of the other albums on this list that deal with bigger and deeper issues.
7. Past Life Martyred Saints — EMA
Past Life Martyred Saints is almost the opposite of Codes and Keys: fiercely emotional and bursting with pain. Erika M. Anderson’s music bleeds emotion, and her candor is disturbing at times, especially when she sings about suicide or cutting on California and Butterfly Knife. She confronts this torment head on as her music smolders, a slow burn that erupts into flame every once in a while. The album begins and ends with songs (The Grey Ship and Red Star) that build to a shuddering climax before ending with a whisper. There is beauty in the whispers, in her breathy voice just barely hanging on to hope. It is this bold splinter of hope in the face of a sorrowful reality that keeps me coming back to this collection of brash, broken songs.
6. Cinematropolis — Blue Scholars
The Blue Scholars have been a mainstay in the Seattle hip-hop scene for a few years now, and Cinematropolis finds the group taking a huge step forward, with electronics and synthesizers dominating the beats, as MC Geologic continues to rap about social injustice. The bouncy, sunny beats belie the serious issues that Geologic brings up throughout the album, creating an interesting contrast of music and content. Throughout the album, he tackles our addiction to media (Cinematropolis), crooked cops (Oskar Barnack ∞ Oscar Grant), the economy (Hussein) and other, equally controversial topics. When Geologic raps on the album closer, “Ain’t no America left/ It’s all fragments,” I take a look around and see the truth emanating from that statement. While the Blue Scholars don’t offer many suggestions for how to reunify the country, at least they don’t shy away from the truth.
5. The Reckoning — NeedToBreathe
I only started listening to Needtobreathe this year, and their brand of Southern-flavored rock has won me over. The Reckoning might not be the most complex album of the year, musically or lyrically, but this album has everything a great rock album needs to have: soaring guitar riffs, big hooks and a fantastic vocal performance from lead singer Bear Rinehart. Songs like Drive All Night, Slumber and Wanted Man have kept me coming back to this album time and time again over the past few months, while other releases have been abandoned to the depths of the iTunes library. Considering the amount of music I have at my fingertips, any album that makes me want to listen to it on repeat is deserving of a place on this list.
Say what you want about Jay-Z and Kanye West, but their influence on hip-hop and popular culture is undeniable. While Watch the Throne may lack some of the substance of the other hip-hop albums on my list, it makes up for that lack with signature Kanye and Jay-Z style. Similarly to Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Watch the Throne provides insight into the minds of two of hip-hop’s biggest figures, revealing more than just the size of their egos and estates. While the braggadocio is clearly evident on tracks like Otis, Who Gon Stop Me and Why I Love You, some of the other tracks here are startlingly personal. In particular, New Day finds the duo musing about advice they would give to their firstborn son, and Kanye’s verse shows surprising maturity, unmasking the real person behind the fame and fortune. Musically, Watch the Throne has Kanye’s fingerprints all over it, bursting with samples and layers of music that add to the opulence of the album. Simply put, Watch the Throne is fun, and an interesting look into some of hip-hop’s most intriguing celebrities.
3. Undun — The Roots
The Roots keep churning out music, and, if they keep making music of this high quality, I’m certainly not going to stop them. Undun is a concept album, focusing on the story of Redford Stephens, a young black male, and his death. The album begins with his passing (Sleep) and moves backward, as Black Thought and numerous guest artists give a first-person account of the rise and fall of Stephens. It’s an interesting concept and gives the group the opportunity to ruminate on death and life, looking through the eyes of man as he dies. On the silky smooth Make My, the song directly proceeding Stephens death, the hook hints at the problems that come from pursuing wealth and fame, “They told me that the ends would justify the means/ They told me at the end, it would justify the dreams.” Of course, as we learn from listening to the rest of the album, it becomes apparent that the ends have not justified the means, and at the end Stephens is filled with regret for many of his actions. Along with the fascinating concept, Undun shines musically, sparkling with excellent production and emotion.
2. Oneirology — CunninLynguists
Oneirology means “the study of dreams” and CunninLynguists use the concept of sleep and dreams as an opportunity to explore and unmask the darkness that resides inside everyone’s heart. The music and production are outstanding, creating a dreamscape of sound that captures the album’s concept. Couple that music with lyrics that constantly reference dreams and sleep and Oneirology feels unified around a central concept. This concept allows the group to focus on taking the listener on a journey that delves into the darkest sections of the human mind, making us come to terms with our own dark impulses. However, the album doesn’t stay in the darkness, but begins to make its way to the light during the second half and completes this turn with the fantastic Dreams. Oneirology is the best hip-hop album I heard all year, thanks to its bold musical and lyrical vision.
From my perspective, the newest album from The Mountain Goats captures the struggles of life better than any other album this year without becoming fatalistic. Lead singer John Darnielle’s oblique lyrics paint pictures of pain and sorrow, yet in a hopeful, cathartic manner. Musically, the album doesn’t stray far from The Mountain Goats’ indie-folk sound, but the songs here are much livelier and varied than on the last Mountain Goats release, The Life of the World to Come. All Eternals Deck is a challenging, but rewarding album. For those who want a straightforward message in their music, this album may be frustrating, but for those who invest careful attention it will reveal a deeper message, spoken through metaphor and imagery. By wrestling with his past in an open and vulnerable way, Darnielle encourages us to take a second look at our own past and how we can find healing in our circumstances. I can’t recommend this album enough for both its honesty and artistry.