2011: The Year in Music

I am angry and have a cane!

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2011 may well be the year our music tastes stopped evolving. Chances are we’ll look back on this year from some future vantage point and see the transformation of our musical tastes from still-somewhat-adventurous-middle-age to full-curmudgeon, distrustful of the new, always pining for the old and familiar. In other words: We shook our cane at James Blake and told him to get off our porch.

None of the music we loved this year could be called especially new or groundbreaking. It was all our usual comfort food. We gobbled up albums by Wilco, Iron & Wine and Fleet Foxes; shed a tear as we hummed along to R.E.M.’s career-spanning anthology; welcomed the return of “old” Ryan Adams even as we wished he wrote better lyrics. We were happy sticking with the familiar.

When we did order something new off the menu, we were almost always disappointed. Florence + The Machine? One of us (Ben) liked, one (Erin) wasn’t so sure. The aforementioned James Blake? Dubstep, shmubstep. We wanted to like Cults and Cut Copy and The War on Drugs  and The Weeknd more than we actually did.

The boldest step (if you can call it bold) we took this year in the realm of music was embracing Spotify. We like Spotify. (We wish a pox on Spotify + Facebook, however. A pox!) It did nothing to curb our musical purchasing (except, perhaps, to ward us off what otherwise would have been ill-advised, sight-unseen purchases). What it mostly did was allow us to indulge in a little game we called Shameful Guilty Pleasures From Our Youth, in which we tried to surprise the other with an even more shameful guilty pleasure from the 80s or 90s that we once embraced with every angsty fiber of our teenage bodies. (See: Soul Asylum; Everclear; Crash Test Dummies; Sloan; P.M. Dawn; Screaming Trees; and Butthole Surfers.)

Before we get to the list, we’ll start with what was certainly the musical highlight of the year: Seeing U2 in Nashville on July 2. The picture below (courtesy of Flickr) is of Vanderbilt Stadium, where “The Claw” descended to serve as the stage for the evening.

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It was the first time U2 had played Nashville in thirty years. The last time Bono and the gang swung through Music City was to play Underwood Auditorium on the campus of Vanderbilt in 1981. This time they brought with them a monstrosity of a set which, according to U2’s website, featured “a cylindrical video system of interlocking LED panels and a steel structure rising 150 feet from the floor over a massive stage with rotating bridges.” Ben texted a picture to his brother, who texted back, “What is that, and where are you?”

U2’s unabashed grandiosity has always been its charm, and occasionally its overreach. But there’s something to be said for a band that aims as high as U2. For two people who don’t usually do big, stadium-sized shows, we were giddy during the whole thing. And it wasn’t just because we were hanging out with Seth and Miriam Swihart (though that never hurts).

Honorable mentions for albums this year include the Buddy Holly tribute Rave On; Mr. Adams and his Ashes & Fire; Strange Negotiations, David Bazan; and The Black Keys’ El Camino.

Now, on to the list. (Previously, 2008, 2009 and 2010.)

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10. Iron & Wine, Kiss Each Other Clean. Like Justin Vernon (#9), Sam Beam opened up his trademark sound to incorporate some poppier elements — in Kiss Each Other Clean’s case, that meant some sweet saxomophone.

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9. Bon Iver, Bon Iver.  It was no For Emma, Forever Ago, but Bon Iver’s self-titled follow-up staked out new territory for Justin Vernon and featured the should-have-been-cringeworthy-but-somehow-he-pulls-it-off closer “Beth/Rest,” what Rolling Stone calls “an unlikely sweet spot between Nick Drake and Peter Cetera.”

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8. Over The Rhine, The Long Surrender. Erin’s favorite OTR album since Ohio, and Ben’s favorite with the exception of Snow Angels. The fact Karin and Linford played a free show, at Ben’s place of employment (a bookstore, not a record store), on the day the album released, may have had something to do with it cracking the Top 10. They’re good folks.

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7. Josh Garrels, Love & War & The Sea In Between. It’d be a misnomer to call Josh Garrels “praise” music, and yet no album this year was more of a worship album for us than this one. Before we scare you off it completely, Garrels’ musicianship merits inclusion on this list. Everyone we recommended it to loved it as well. You can check it out yourself (for free!) at Garrels’ website.

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6. Raphael Saadiq, Stone Rollin‘. The hip-shakingest pick of our Top #10, and the only one with any real soul. Props to Mr. Saadiq for casting Cutty from “The Wire” in his video for “Good Man.”

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5. Wilco, The Whole Love. It is not our favorite Wilco album, but even a just-OK Wilco album has enough moments of pure rock-out joy to crack #5 on our list. The Whole Love may be a bit scattered, musically, so think of it as a Wilco smorgasbord and chow down on the good stuff (“Born Alone,” “I Might,” “One Sunday Morning (Song For Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend)”).

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4. Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues. Nature make-out music. But it says something about this year’s list that we still don’t consider Helplessness Blues to be the prettiest album we heard all year. (Wait for #1. Wait for it.)

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3. The Decemberists, The King Is Dead.  A little folk rock gem that borrows heavily from early R.E.M. (perhaps because Peter Buck turns up on three songs here), The King Is Dead is a beautifully concise set of ten songs that range from country to Americana to rock. It’s the first Decemberists’ album we actually wanted to listen to from start to finish.

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2. Girl Talk, All DayTheoretically, anyone could sit in front of a computer and create these Frankenstein mash-ups. What Gregg Gillis does is provide just the right jolt of electricity to bring them to life, repurposing anything and everything that’s ever hit the Top 40 over the last five decades and providing a sort of Cliff’s Notes education in pop music while simultaneously creating great party music. When the current is flowing, as on the latter half of All Day, it makes for mesmerizing listening, especially if you’re ADD or running long distances. (Yes, we know this is technically a 2010 release, but we listened to it as much as any other album in 2011. And it was late 2010.)

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1. Gillian Welch, The Harrow & The Harvest. Coming eight years after Soul Journey, The Harrow & The Harvest is intimate, lovely, often haunting. It veers into darker territory lyrically but never loses its gentle, easy grace. The ten songs compiled here sound timeless: simple, spare and evocative. The term “slow music” sounds a bit insulting, but we mean it in the best sense when we say that Welch writes some of the finest slow music out there.

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TOP FIVE SONGS OF THE YEAR!

“Born Alone,” Wilco. Boom goes the dynamite.

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“Second Song,” TV On The Radio. We were underwhelmed by Nine Types of Light, but not this track (even though “You” is the song off this album appearing on most critics’ lists).

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“Go To Hell,” Raphael Saadiq. What starts as a confessional (“Here’s the situation, yes, the devil knows me well/See I’m trying to do my best not to go to hell”) turns into a soaring, full chorus refrain to “let love bring us together.”

“I Can’t Make You Love Me,” Bon Iver (covering Bonnie Raitt). From his appearance on “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon.”

“Oh My God,” Cults. Though we didn’t warm to the whole album, this track is instantly likable. Is it just us, or is there a creepy resemblance between Madeline Follin’s balloons exploding and the scene in Aliens where the Queen Alien’s body is shellacked with Lt. Ellen Ripley’s pulse rifle grenade blasts?

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