Wednesday, June 22

2011 Music: The Year so Far

With the year half over, here is a quick breakdown of the 10 best albums of the first six months of 2011.

A few notes: This list comes from a dude who has stopped listening and consuming music at the breakneck pace he once maintained. A lot of things have slipped through the cracks, and even more things just haven’t had the proper time to be processes. By the end of the year a much more comprehensive, trustworthy and meaningful list will exist. Likely, some albums that appear here will no longer be on the list in any capacity, while other albums will come roaring out of the night to take the top spots.

Albums still being processed: Fucked Up’s David Comes to Life, Okkervil River’s I am Very Far, DJ Quik’s The Book of David

Albums to be listened to:
Bon Iver’s Bon Iver, Cults’s Cults, Death Cab for Cutie’s Codes and Keys, My Morning Jacket’s Circuital, Tyler, the Creator’s Goblin, any number of punk releases that I’ve been missing.

Albums that didn’t make the list but still deserve to be mentioned: The Stroke’s Angles, Cut Copy’s Zonoscope.

The 10 Best Albums of the First Half of the Year:

10) PJ Harvey – Let England Shake
Harvey has long been one of my musical blind spots: this is her first release that I’ve ever owned and listened to with any kind of consistency. I can’t say exactly how this album stacks up in her catalog, but it’s weird charms and off-center take on pop music and classic rock make it more than worth a listen.

9) Frank Ocean – Nostalgia Ultra
Considering all the buzz around Tyler, The Creator, there is a certain poetic justice in this less-heralded member of the Odd Future collective finding crossover success with “Novicane,” a song that is seemingly about how it’s not good to have cocaine for breakfast. Ocean’s samples are either refreshing or annoying in their modern nature and minimal alteration, and while some may focus on his tendency to be like an emotional dude at karaoke, his open lyrics are a refreshing change from the alpha-lover bravado usually found in modern R&B.

8) The Mountain Goats – All Eternals Deck
On the one hand, the Mountain Goats have failed for two albums to reach the near-rock heights of 2008’s eternally great Heretic Pride. On the other hand, when mellow songs come as fully-formed and well-written as “Damn these Vampires” and “Outer Scorpion Squadron,” who gives a shit?

7) Lupe Fiasco – Lazers
I was initially down on Lazers upon its release due to the turmoil surrounding its release and the obvious grabs for crossover success in the album’s beat selection and collaborators list. Upon repeat listens, all these flaws are forgiven thanks to Fiasco’s personality and dexterity as a rapper, coming off like a more even-tempered, more thoughtful, more vocally accomplished Kanye West. Even at his worst, rap is a better genre with him in it.

6) Parts and Labor – Constant Future
For a minute, I tried to convince myself that Parts and Labor was my favorite band: one part keyboard-rock group that didn’t forget to maintain the second half of that equation and one part Big Country. I’m off that kick now, though, and just happy to have an album of experimental punk that can achieve innovation without sounding like a soupy pile of hippy noise.

Incidentally, I didn’t care much for Panda Bear’s latest album.

5) Monument – Goes Canoeing
Monument is the latest band to reach for Cap n’ Jazz’s spazzy emo throne, and the first band to come within spitting distance since Algernon Cadwalader. Goes Canoeing borrows a little more from the punk side of the cocktail, rocking a little harder and noodleing a little less while still maintaining the wide-eyed optimism and “it could mean anything or everything” lyric style of CnJ.

4) Restorations – Restorations
The older I get, the harder it is for me to justify my love of really stupid pop-punk. Thankfully, Restorations are here to inject a little dignity and maturity to my favorite genre. Part Constantines, part National and part Gaslight Anthem, the band’s first full-length is an absolute joy for the punk rock kids who are still just a little too young to grow old.

3) Tv on the Radio – Nine Types of Light
10 years in and this NYC-based band keeps brining the hits. Originally penned as a rock and roll band hiding under Radiohead-like production, Nine Types of Light finds the band more fully embracing its doo-wop roots while still turning out smart, well-written pop songs. Someday, this band will stop sneaking up on me and I will just be outright impressed with them instead of going “holy shit, this album is wonderful” after five listens.

2) Drive-By Truckers – Go-Go Boots
America’s last great southern rock band slowed things down on its 2011 release, dialing back the endless anthemic guitar solos of 2010’s The Big To-Do for more a more stripped-down country sound and a focus on building tiny worlds of small-town crime and painful lives. The shift works, especially on Patterson Hood’s calm masterpiece “The Fireplace Poker.” However, the song of the year probably goes to “Cartoon Gold,” a simple Chris Cooley number than can stand toe-to-toe with the genre’s best love songs.

1) Kurt Vile – Smoke Ring for my Halo
Vile is done fucking around. After doing his best Velvet Underground impression with his band, the Violators, the Philadelphia songwriter scales everything down to a dude with his guitar and a head full of thoughts he can’t understand. Simple songs with a haunting quality and an innocent lyrical focus that could come off as amateurish in someone else’s hands sound like words of a new folk-rock icon coming from Vile, who finally fulfills the promise of all those magazine articles a few years back. There is a lesson to be learned here: talent and skill will always stand out, even if it’s just from a dude and his notebook.

Saturday, January 8

You Guys Just Sit Around Doing SuperCool All Day

Artist: Sisters
Album: Ghost Fits
Year: 2010

Short Review: Like a better, more accessible No Age. This could totally be two dudes you know making fun, fuzzy, punky dirt-pop.

Long Review: At its worst, Sisters do nothing more than ride the current fuzz-rock trend of rehashing the best parts of the underground from the 80s and 90s. At its best, the duo’s debut album, Ghost Fits is a fun, easy blast of accessible guitar crunch, not unlike a low-fi, no-impact version of Superchunck, or a less bullshit-y Sonic Youth.

Recalling the straightforward thump of Japanther, the band get by more on its charms and taste for melody than it does on originality. Opening track and album highlight “The Curse,” which starts with some chunky strumming, wouldn’t be much more than a mid-tempo basement punk song if not for a killer second guitar part that highlights just how much can be down with few chords.

And so the album goes. Every song is held together by a simple beat, a straightforward guitar part and some kind of additional keyboard or guitar melody (see “Glue,” “Sky”). On a track-by-track level, not every song works. Overall, however, the album is a fun diversion for people who think the underground has gotten too artsy.

Perhaps Sister’s biggest strength is its charm. The album is refreshingly free of any subtext or deeper meaning beyond “Hey, how cool does this guitar solo sound? How fun is that drum beat?” This is not a homework project or a great artistic gambit: it is two guys from Brooklyn who probably fell in love with Dinosaur Jr. and Japandroids at some point and decided to make rock music in their basement. The real secret triumph of Ghost Fits then, is how good a job these two amateurs did imitating giants.

Key Tracks:
The Curse, Sky, Glue, Highway Scratch

Buy, Steal, Skip: Buy, for sure.