Top Ten Albums of 2011

While my predilection for movie-related lists is all over this corner of the Interweb, it’s been a long, long time since I’ve tried to craft a ranking of the best albums of any given year. Part of the reason is that I think those sorts of music preferences are a little more slippery, with opinions subject to change as albums age. Songs that sounded fresh and amazing become tired, even hackneyed and annoying as repeated plays mercilessly erode their charm. The reverse is equally true, as there have been plenty of albums that I initially dismissed, only to have them insinuate themselves into my psyche as time wore on.

My duties as a music reviewer for Spectrum Culture mandated that I make a list this year and I spent more time than I care to consider agonizing over which releases belonged in which order. My list became just one of many votes for our collective Top 20 Albums of 2011, but, in the interests of being upfront about my attempt (and also, you know, filling a few digital column inches on a day that’s especially well-suited to looking back at the past year), here’s the Top Ten that I came up with.

1. PJ Harvey, Let England Shake — Polly Jean creates a set of songs that hit with a great novel’s depth and thoroughness. She writes about her home country’s rueful, imperialist past and the shadow it all still casts over current politics. And she does so by bending her magnificent voice in striking new ways that call to mind fellow pop eccentrics such as Kate Bush and Björk without every losing her own sharp identity. It’s a remarkable statement of fresh purpose from one of the most vital artists to emerge in the past twenty years.

2. Wild Flag, Wild Flag — Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss from Sleater-Kinney finally move on together from the dissolution of that great rock band, uniting with Mary Timony from Helium and Rebecca Cole from the Minders to create a fiery, tuneful quartet that showcases a keen understanding with every note of the inherent thrill in making music. There’s no gags or other silliness on the record, yet it conveys pure fun at every turn. I can also happily report that the infectious joy is fully present in their live shows.

3. Wye Oak, Civilian — The third album from the Baltimore duo Wye Oak paid off on all the handsome promise of their earlier releases. Songwriter, guitarist and lead singer Jenn Wasner worked with drummer Andy Stack to create songs of surging urgency that continually transformed in moving, inventive ways midstream. The whole album is richly evocative, capturing moods in the thick wash of sound that are softly bolstered by Wasner’s perfectly understated lyrics.

4. Cut Copy, Zonoscope — I think some people saw Zonoscope as a let-down compared to Cut Copy’s breakthrough release, 2008’s In Ghost Colours. For me, the bright, breezy disco insolence never sounded better. The band builds the whole album around the simple premise that there’s no tremendous pop hook that can’t be exhausted into happy submission, even as the mirrored ball at the center of the room keeps on spinning into eternity.

5. Lykke Li, Wounded Rhymes — The sophomore effort from the Swedish songstress is full of rhymes that bear some scars, all right. It’s also characterized by an abundance of surprisingly jagged rhythms and songs that swirl like punchdrunk dervishes. Li’s vocals bend and soar appropriately, drawing the songs ever deeper into the whirlpool of cracked glass beauty. It’s startling indie pop with bright, bawdy beats that seemingly strive to resyncopate the heartbeats of anyone listening in.

6. Black Keys, El Camino — After a couple of albums that tried to take their sound in new directions, The Black Keys have settled back into nothing more ambitious than cranking out blistering modern blues rock that could make a grown man break down weeping at the charcoal beauty of it all. Working again with Danger Mouse as a producer, the fearsome duo has proven that they still know how to rattle the rafters with the pointed force of their music.

7. The Decemberists, The King is Dead — I’ll admit that I’d about given up on The Decemberists, finding their grandly literate pining of diminishing interest with each new release. Turns out what they really needed was a sharp swerve into the fast lane of commercial aspiration. The King is Dead sounds like Colin Meloy and his cohorts were going to bound and determined to have a true hit album and they were going to lean on every one of their influences to do it, going so far as to recruit Peter Buck from R.E.M. to play on some tracks. Rather than being a crass sell-out, the approach brings a welcome focus, leading to their best record since they first set indie kids’ hearts aflutter.

8. The Roots, Undun — This album should arguably be higher and I wouldn’t be surprised if this is the 2011 release that ages best. The Roots demonstrate without a doubt that their day job in late night television isn’t going to get in the way of them making great music and challenging themselves to reach new heights. A concept album with all of the cohesion but none of the pretension that the designation implies, Undun is an elegant hip hop symphony that feels as piercingly true as a street corner testimonial from someone whose hope just took its deathblow.

9. Vetiver, The Errant Charm — A lush and lucid offering from Andy Cabic, recording his fifth album under the Vetiver name. The Errant Charm is in-line with the folk-influenced albums that came before, but has different sonic undercurrents to the songs, giving the whole thing a fresh sense of discovery, of plains untraveled. It’s an album that’s quietly, movingly adrift.

10. St. Vincent, Strange Mercy — The third album from Annie Clark zooms all over the sonic landscape like an loopy cloud on an indiscernible mission. Nothing that happens here is expected and yet nothing feels out of place. This is what it sounds like when someone decides to bend the laws of physics just because it hasn’t occurred to her that she shouldn’t.

One for Friday: Stealin’ Horses, “Turnaround”

I wish I could claim to be one of those kids who was wisely immersing myself in the jagged, angsty splendor of the likes of Joy Division and Jesus and Mary Chain. I wasn’t, though. Most of my record collection was taken up by the same touchstones of regrettable pop conformity that were on a lot of teenage bedroom shelves in the mid-eighties, or so the sales figures and MTV airplay assured me. These records were so resoundingly mediocre that I can’t even impose a retroactive, post-ironic coolness on them. I had the capacity for a more sophisticated musical palette, but I needed to pass through several different progressive gateways to get there.

In that journey, I was lucky to have WMAD-FM in Madison, at least as it stood in its mid-eighties derivation. At some point, the station adopted an odd hybrid of a format that would eventually be known as Adult Album Alternative. They played the familiar hits of classic rock mainstays like Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones while also digging a little deeper into the archive to incorporate relatively obscurities from groups like the Five Man Electric Band. Into that mix they added the sort of college rock that was least likely to scare the hippie faithful: R.E.M., U2, The Smithereens, maybe the occasional Camper van Beethoven song. Real wild stuff like The Replacements and The Smiths could maybe get trotted out real late at night. The WMAD programmers combed the new releases with a very particular ear. There was a clear craving to bring new and different material to local listeners, but nothing so challenging that it would send the more skittish scurrying up the dial to the safety of the musty mimeographed playlist of the classic rock station.

I’m fairly certain I first heard Stealin’ Horses on WMAD. Formed in Kentucky, the band released their self-titled debut on Arista Records. I can’t comment with any authority on the entirety of the album, but the lead single was one of those earthy, heartland burners that was very much in vogue in the days when John Mellencamp was one of the biggest rock stars around. Importantly, “Turnaround” also had a damn nice hook. As I recall, they played it plenty on WMAD, and I sought it out at the college radio station I eventually settled into. There was always a touch of pride in having a track that came out of the C Stacks–where the largely unknown artists resided–that only I seemed to know, certainly that I’m the only one who could claim to play it. The handwriting on the tracking sheet taped to the album jacket told me that much. As time passed and I discovered more new music, I played it less and less. Still, without it and song like it I may never have found my way to the songs that inspired my obsession later.

Stealin’ Horses, “Turnaround”

(Disclaimer: The tale of Stealin’ Horses is a sad and typical one: snapped up by a major label and then discarded quickly when the first album failed to become a blockbuster. While they eventually managed to put out a second album that’s notably stil available, it looks to me like the Arista effort is decidedly out of print. The song is posted here with the understanding and belief that it can’t be purchased in a way that provides due compensation to both the artists and the proprietor of your favorite independently-owned, local record store. If I hear from somewhere with due authority to request its removal making such a request, I will quickly and dutifully comply.)

Shiver and say the words of every lie you’ve heard

war horse

Throughout his lengthy career, Steven Spielberg has consistently been dogged by criticism that his films are overly manipulative, as if appealing to the audience’s emotions wasn’t a wholly relevant goal in making a movie. Considering he’s almost certainly the most methodically precise director among his contemporaries when it comes to construction of his films, it may seem odd to assert that Spielberg seems to build his narrative by feel, almost as though he had an instinctual sense of what viewers need at any given moment. I’ve had countless arguments, for example, about the moments of catharsis at the end of Schindler’s List. While I’ll admit these scenes–led by Liam Neeson’s Oskar Schindler experiencing a grief-fueled breakdown as he flees his factory at the end of the war–are at odds with the grave restraint that characterizes the rest of the film, they provided exactly the sort of grand release that the film required after hours of Holocaust bleakness. Spielberg’s very best films are rife with moments that would be pure shams in the hands of lesser creators.

That quality noted, it’s becoming increasingly clear that it’s a part of his history rather than something that still informs his work. His latest outing (well, depending on how you choose to chronologically slot it against The Adventures of Tintin) should be exactly the sort of project that lets him flex those cinematic muscles. Based on a novel for kids that gained greater fame when it was adapted into a widely acclaimed stage play, War Horse tells the story of a fine colt named Joey. Purchased at auction by an English farmer in an act of boozy, petty competition, the horse is raised and trained by the man’s son, Albert, played by Jeremy Irvine. When heavy rains wipe out their crops, the horse is sold to British army to serve the troops heading into World War I. From there, Joey goes through a parade of experiences so episodic that it sometimes seems as if the plot was strung together from a batch of individual installments of a History Channel anthology series. The quest of the boy to reunite with his horse is ostensibly the emotional through line of the film, but realistically it’s just the bookends to the work.

Instead, Spielberg seems most intent on making his own epic in the style of John Ford with broad vistas and scenes when the shifting daylight turns the whole world a painterly gold. The actors and their performances barely register; more than any other Spielberg film I can think of, they are merely part of the landscape, speaking lines without appearing to feel them. The same lack of distinctiveness is true of the horse, which is both a strength and weakness of the film. With one admittedly egregious exception, Spielberg and credited screenwriters Lee Hall and Richard Curtis resist the urge to anthropomorphize Joey. He is a creature moving through history, not some noble soul pining for his former owner and the end of this brutal folly of war. He seems quite content to be anywhere that has some spare hay lying around. A director with a more subversive bent might use this as a way to comment on the way humans project their own messy emotions onto animals that have far plainer needs and desires. Spielberg doesn’t show the slightest interest in that level of commentary and the result is that Joey’s emptiness does nothing more than leave a void at the center of the film.

War Horse doesn’t lack for sincerity. If anything, it’s overburdened with it, atrophied into a dispiriting morass by the stalwart intentions of all involved. If anything, it could have used a dose of Spielberg the showman, the guy who knew how to reach right in and tinker with viewers’ hearts. To me, that component of his approach never felt crass. Instead, it was his version of openness, connecting with the audience with the same well-worn beats of Hollywood melodrama that had swayed him as an impressionable youth. Replacing that with the stiff rigor of War Horse is no way to win the battle against creative decline.

Top Fifty Films of the 80s — Number One


#1 — Raging Bull (Martin Scorsese, 1980)
By his own account, Martin Scorsese thought Raging Bull could be his final film. His previous fiction feature, 1977’s New York, New York, was widely considered a disaster. A costly “film noir musical,” as Scorsese called it, the picture failed to connect with either critics or general audiences. Exhausting to pull together, the film engendered responses that were completely vitriolic, and Scorsese became disillusioned with the whole process of creating movies, a sense undoubtedly fueled further by the brewing hangover as the bacchanalia of nineteen-seventies American cinema began to collapse under its own weight. Scorsese entered the business at a time of unprecedented freedom for creative personnel and the self-destruction propagated by many of the surging, youthful wonders of the age combined with the fresh discovery of new avenues for making money–thanks primarily to the unexpected marketing prowess of George Lucas with his Star Wars films–meant that the clampdown was coming. So the skilled filmmaker had something to prove and a sense of valedictory urgency. As he put it, “I used Raging Bull as a kind of rehabilitation, thinking all the time that it was pretty much my last picture in L.A., or America.”

That must have weighed heavily on him, especially considering this was a guy who was creating storyboards for imagined epics before he’d even entered his teenage years. He’d grown up his whole life with movies as the transforming escape from every disappointment he faced, every personal inadequacy he suffered. Then he’d lived his dream, made great art, basked in acclaim, romanced the daughters of his favorite filmmakers and stood certain it was all going to slip away. He wasn’t yet forty-years-old. Operating as a man with nothing left to lose, Scorsese poured every bit of his roiling emotional stew into the story of boxer Jake LaMotta, a New York-born, Italian-American boxer in the nineteen-forties and fifties whose minor fame allowed him to publish a memoir in 1970. It was that book that Scorsese’s regular collaborator Robert De Niro brought to him, insisting there was a movie there.

Shot in black-and-white by the masterful cinematographer Michael Chapman, Raging Bull is a riveting saga of the soul, depicting the ways that ambition and confidence corrode into paranoia and wretched destructiveness as easy as ringing a bell. De Niro’s bravura performance as LaMotta was famed at the time for the drastic physical changes he underwent for the role, but that’s the least of his accomplishment. De Niro picks at LaMotta’s failings like a restless child working a scab. He examines the way that the professional brutishness of a man who punches and gets punched for a living creeps into every interaction he has. There is no moment–with his wife, with his brother, with the gangsters that surround like fight game like sharks around potential prey trailing blood–that doesn’t involve him instinctually erecting some level of defense. And that defense often involves throwing his own blistering hooks, even if the only strikes against him have been phantom blows. De Niro compellingly portrays a man incapable of resting, a man totally uneasy in his own spirit.

Scorsese is always a fiercely physical filmmaker, but there is perhaps no other work of his that is so visceral. Relying of the peerless craft of editor Thelma Schoonmaker, Scorsese makes the fight sequences into reeling mosaics of human punishment. The black-and-white turns the blood as dark as ink, making everything else into ashen remains. That sensation follows into the blaring New York streets and dumpy tenement apartments that the characters move through. It’s an existence built of unyielding stone and Scorsese makes it so forbidding and real that it seems that the screen would feel like the sandpaper roughness of the city sidewalk if fingertips were brushed against it. There is no retreat, no forgiveness. There is just the harsh truth of the now, when impulsive decisions swing a sledgehammer at promise.

Of course, this wasn’t Scorsese’s last film, not by a long shot. Though he remained a director without the easy means to draw audiences into theaters–with qualified exceptions, he wouldn’t start generating consistently respectable box office receipts until a couple of decades later–the film delivered its intended redemption. It received eight Oscar nominations, including the very first Best Director nod for Scorsese (amazingly, he was denied that honor when Taxi Driver was a Best Picture nominee four years earlier). He’d won his cinematic honor back, established himself as someone who needed to remain in the conversation when considering the great artists of his generation. The remainder of the eighties would be a mixed bag for him and a time when he toiled valiantly to get funding to support his ongoing vision of what movies could be, should be. It wouldn’t always be easy–hell, it would rarely be easy–but with Raging Bull he proved to everyone, maybe most importantly himself, that the struggle to keep creating would always be worth it.

She has eyes that men adore so, and a torso, even more so

girl tattoo

Though I’m far less enamored with the bulk of his filmography than most, I completely understand the logic in choosing David Fincher to preside over the American studio film adaption of Stieg Larsson’s stunningly successful novel The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The director has previously shown a facility, even a fascination with the darkest dredges of human souls and with Zodiac, which I maintain is the finest films he’s ever made, he crisply, perfectly handled the sort of barrage of information required to convey the story of two investigators, somewhat unlikely collaborators, who try to unearth the most shadowy secrets of a Swedish family with a tragically tangled history. To be effective, the film arguably needs to be equal parts grim and chilly, qualities Fincher brings to his work with the same level of second-nature comfort Spielberg has when he slices some dazzling, dancing light across the screen.

How bizarre then that Fincher practically gets lost in the film, bringing the most anonymous approach I’ve seen in any of his films, good or bad, outside of Panic Room, and that at least had enough annoying trick shots to offer reminders of exactly who was giving orders about how the camera should move through the scene. To be fair, Fincher still knows how to compose a shot, but there’s no passion to the filmmaking, nothing probing about his efforts. He directs like a man who lost interest in the project almost as soon as he accepted it. Larsson’s story is covered in a heavy quilt of lurid complexities, but surprisingly little force of that comes through in this new film version, surely less than director Niels Arden Oplev brought to bear in the earlier Swedish adaptation. Considering how frank Fincher and screenwriter Steven Zaillian are in their presentation of the harshest material, it’s almost mysterious how tepid the sense of dread is in the film.

Instead, it’s merely perfunctory, treading through the various plot points with a notable efficiency. It could even be called brisk given that its runtime of over two-and-a-half hours never feels especially burdensome. It doesn’t feel long, it just is long, and “just is” remains the operative term in almost every respect. The casting is well-chosen, the settings properly considered, every one of the technical aspects of the film presents with sterling assurance. It simply doesn’t add up to anything. Moving the setting from Sweden would have been considered heresy to the legions that love the original book, but the resulting film is so arid and plain that it might as well be taking place in the middle of some bare Arizona desert.

Part of the problem is that the film’s central relationship has no heft to it, no discernible chemistry between the actors in those roles. Daniel Craig has the glower, intensity and aggravated intelligence to play journalist Mikael Blomkvist, but he never properly captures the sense of danger and desperation that gives the character a sense of consequence to the endeavors he’s taken on. More troubling is the lack of connection he has with Rooney Mara as wild child investigative genius Lisbeth Salander, all the more regrettable because she is flatly sensational in the role. Mara develops tremendous personality in the character by paradoxically stripping away any vestiges of outward character. She delves into the character’s freakish nature and precisely show the ways in which burdensome armor is thrown up against a society that she views with the sort of rage that can only come from a lifetime of betrayal. Mara is deeply insular in her performance, finding crafty ways to open up throughout.

Lisbeth is a daunting puzzle that begs to be solved through the promise that such a task is all but impossible to achieve. The chief problem is that neither the man who calls her a partner onscreen or the one that takes her as his subject while he sits in the director’s chair seems to believe that. They’re baffled but not intrigued, and that addled disinterest washes over the entirety of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

They climbed off their pedestals and then they sang this song

As I noted recently, I’m charged with contributing to various year-end assessments over at Spectrum Culture, including the list we came up with of the Top 25 Songs of 2011. Last year, my preferences were solitary enough that some of my personal picks for the best single songs didn’t make the final tally, so I made a point of highlighting a few of them in a separate post in this space. As I sat down to revive the tradition, I realized that I had far more in common with my colleagues this year and eight of my top ten made our final list, including my top six picks. Indeed, all of the songs I absolutely felt most strongly about were represented. So, with a little less fervor than last year, here’s a handful of songs from my list that stayed only on my list.

Wye Oak, “Holy Holy”

Without getting too deep into our process, there were several different songs from Wye Oak’s excellent Civilian that were nominated for consideration, which I suspect wind up effectively cancelling each other out. I would have gladly thrown my support behind any of them (Wye Oak was the only artist I included more than once on the list of twenty songs that I submitted for the last round), but this was my clear favorite. All the strengths of the band’s latest are evident in this track, from the guitars that are fuzzy and yet crystal clear and the propensity to suddenly pivot the song in the most unexpected way.

The Rural Alberta Advantage, “Muscle Relaxants”

I like this band a lot, but I much confess I often let them slip my mind. One of the other writers submitted this song for consideration and I was immediately remind of the effective merging of twang and yearning, churning rock ‘n’ roll drive. The punchy beat is especially terrific.

Mike Adams At His Honest Weight, “Bad Weather”

This has got some of that shoegaze muddiness but underpinned with a sly pop sense that really sneaks up. The vocals have the soft urgency of Jesus and Mary Chain in those moments when the Reid brothers are trying their hardest to convince the world that they don’t actually care.

The Felice Brothers, “Fire at the Pageant”

In a review, I described the whole album from The Felice Brothers as a “happy slop bucket of song.” This track illustrates that perfectly. At times, it’s admittedly sort of a mess, deliberately so, I think. That’s why I love it.

Eleanor Friedberger, “My Mistakes”

I have a feeling that both this song and the album it comes from are going to keep growing on me as time passes. Every time I listen to it anew, it sounds freshly inventive all over again. Friedberger has an especially nice earthy tone to her voice that cuts nicely against the buoyant, studio slick instrumentation.

College Countdown, The Trouser Press Top 10 of 1981, 1

elvis trust

1. Elvis Costello and the Attractions, Trust

Trouser Press wrote: “A confident show from Mr. Reliable before plunging into Nashville terra incognita.”

Trust was the first of two albums Elvis Costello released in 1981, and, as the review implies, the latter offering was considered problematic, at best. Entitled Almost Blue, it’s a covers album feature nothing but country songs, many of them penned by seminal figures of the genre: Hank Williams, Merle Haggard, George Jones. It was reviewed in the very same issue of Trouser Press that lauded Trust as the best album of the year. The writer conveys guarded respect and confusion more than pure ire (“Almost Blue demonstrates Costello’s affection for the genre — three cheers for that! — but keeps the clinical distance of an observor”), but the sense of fan agitation is clear in the single sentence used to cite Trust‘s excellence. After an early career that seemed to redefine the level of cerebral wherewithal that could be brought to rock songwriting, could the guy with the blocky black glasses finally be slipping?

Realistically — and I court accusations of alternative rock heresy for saying this — but the possibility that Costello wasn’t going to be an endless font of classic records was creeping in already on Trust. Before I get myself in too deep, let’s acknowledge that Trust had the burden of following up an quartet of records — My Aim is True, This Year’s Model, Armed Forces, and Get Happy! — that’s as good as any rock ‘n’ roll opening statement ever made. There’s only one directional arrow at the end of that roadway, and it points straight down. A guy can only be slagged so much for making music that’s a let-down from material like that.

Trust reminds me of any number of latter-day Costello records, the sort that are sturdy, admirable, and clearly penned by a guy with a sterling vocabulary. It’s also oddly passionless. Songs like “Watch Your Step” and “New Lace Sleeves” may be early indications of Costello’s abiding desire to be a crooner (a desire he would later take to blissfully ridiculous extremes) but they’re also songs that just kind of lie there on the album. Costello later noted that Trust was “the most drug-influenced” album he ever created as he and his bandmates were using their studio time to perform undocumented experiments on excessive consumption levels and that embrace of boozy, druggy hedonism could certainly help explain the flagging energy.

There are surely plenty of exceptions on the record: “Clubland” is sharp and inventive, “White Knuckles” is fierce and harrowing, and “From a Whisper to a Scream” is terrifically lively, perhaps inspired somewhat Costello’s need to properly keep up with Glenn Tilbrook of Squeeze who turns up to offer guest vocals. Like Costello’s previous outings, the album was produced by Nick Lowe, and he provides his steady, distinctive touch. The string of consecutive collaborations ended here, although Lowe would serve in that capacity one more time in the future, shepherding the album that can arguably be considered Costello’s last truly great one. I’ll leave it to others to determine if that’s a telling fact or merely coincidence.

Trust is a respectable record, but it almost seems that Trouser Press selected it to make a statement, communicating to Costello that a foray into covering country songs may be a fun time for him, but — by god! — this was the sort of record he was supposed to be making. In comparison, the Trouser Press writers and editors may have been right, but Costello’s wheels had started losing traction a little earlier than they supposed.

10. The Dictators, Fuck ‘Em if They Can’t Take a Joke
8. (tie) The Undertones, Positive Touch
8. (tie) The dB’s, Stands for Decibels
7. The Pretenders, II
6. Holly and the Italians, The Right to Be Italian
5. Squeeze, East Side Story
3. (tie) The Go-Go’s, Beauty and the Beat
3. (tie) The Clash, Sandinista!
2. U2, Boy