Sunday, December 25, 2011

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10. Kate Bush - 50 Words for Snow
Kate Bush is an artist who was made for these times. How in the hell did she survive without the internet?? Never touring. No radio airplay. And her new album, 50 Words is completely unlike anything she's ever done in her 30-plus-year career. Haunting yet unrelentingly gorgeous, this record balances high-concept storytelling with beautiful songwriting and thus the investment of listening to a FULL ALBUM is rewarded! Kate has spawned some pretty poor imitators (hello, Tori Amos!) with her long absences, as well as given creative freedom to the birth of amazing new artists (ahhh… Joanna Newsom). 50 Words signals her return to releasing new music, but this time with an even greater ability to reach fans old and new, thanks to the internets. Oh, and did I mention that there is a song about Kate making love to a snowman? Yes...

9. Wye Oak - Civilian
Massive heatseeking guitarscapes that seem almost impossible since they come from just TWO PEOPLE! Jenn Wasner's shredding is like Bruce Lee's Kung Fu. I like to listen and to watch it, but I somehow don't understand it. Just wow! And her voice is like an angry, yet soft pleading. This record came out so early in 2011, that some may have forgotten about it. But I have played this album so many times and it still sounds fresh and alive every time. "Holy Holy" just kills me, from the first off kilter/weird notes to the beautiful harmonies on the final chorus. Oh, and they kill it live. See for yourself.

8. tUnE-yArDs - WHOKILL
What? Original post-pop? Original music?
Intimate. Boisterous. Tribal. Commanding vocals. Catchy. Abrasive. Noisy. Synchronised drums, loop pedals. And Merrill Garbus. Merrill Garbus. Merrill Garbus.  Experimental yet utterly accessible. A new star in the musical underground has been born with this 2nd album by tUnE-yArDs. 

7. Wilco - The Whole Love
Wilco's is the thinking-man's jam band and that's a good thing. Their last two albums Wilco (The Album) and Sky Blue Sky seemed more like an extension of the songwriting of Jeff Tweedy. The Whole Love is jam-packed with instruments, restless creative ideas and a whole love infusion from what has grown to be an incredible band who have all of the weapons, but had been hesitant to use them until they were able to season them through years on the road. And seasoned they are. This is a band growing to becoming a trusting, real band that is even-keeled with a steady pulse. Venturing out on their own label, surrounded by their own world and filled with trust in what they do. And um... TWO more things… NELS CLINE!!! GLENN KOTCHE!!

6. Tom Waits - Bad As Me
This record is like a love letter to the Waits un-initiated. And "Bad As Me" could not be any better. These days were made for Tom Waits. Here's another artist who benefits from reaching an audience without the help of significant airplay. In response to Jagger's "Satisfaction, Waits screeches: "Roll my vertebrae out like dice/Let my skull be a home for the mice/Let me bleach like the bones on a beach/I'll be hard like a pit from a peach,". 

Bad As Me is a tour de force of swagger, sweat and spit. Grabbing all types of American music by the balls and dragging it along for the 120 mph ride. David Lynch has got to love this! Waits mugs Tex-Mex, R&B, Mississippi to Chicago blues, garage-rockabilly and yes, a very pissed-off Glenn Miller in my favorite song on the record, "Hell Broke Luce", a song that blows a gaping hole into the reality of the Iraq war and what it has left all who served in it: "I had a good home but I left, right, left/ That big fucking bomb made me deaf, deaf/How is it that the only ones responsible for making this mess/Got their sorry asses stapled to a goddamn desk/What the hell was it that the president said?/Give him a beautiful parade instead, Left, right, left./When I was over here I never got to vote./I left my arm in my coat./My mom she died and never wrote!/We sat by the fire and ate a goat./Just before he died he had a toke./Now I’m home and I’m blind./And I’m broke… What is next". The song was written about Iraqi war veteran Jeff Lucey who had PTSD and committed suicide after returning home from Iraq.

5. Cults - S/T
Who are they and where did they come from? They are two. They are from Brooklyn. They are a little bit Motown and a little bit Phil Spector. They have created happy, pop music to laugh, dance and groove with while the world around burns into a chaotic mess. Every time that I play this record, I cannot believe how good every song on it is. Yes, there are giant hits that become buzz-like in everyone's ears. But song after song, this is a great record. Equally parts eerie, poppy, fun and creepy. 

4. Kurt Vile - Smoke Ring for My Halo
Sacred, strung-out slacker songs that are a soundtrack for the pains of life, instead of being a distraction from them. I like the intimate, lo-fi feel of this record. It has the ability to get better the more that you listen to it. Vile's don’t-give-a-shit, outsider attitude and relaxed vibe is a melancholy accompaniment to the tough times. And we all need that.

3. Ryan Adams - Ashes & Fire
The final days of the Cardinals were like those of a heavy metal, jam band. Kind of like Grateful Maiden. Still the songs retained their beauty, the melody and those amazing harmonies, while being realllllly loud! Coming back from his short retirement, Ryan Adams leans on the thing that separates him from almost everyone of his generation, his staggeringly brilliant songwriting. That skill is on display loud and proud on this subtle, quiet recording. I can't believe that I am saying this, but this is the sound of a peaceful mind. And as you have come to expect, the artists who influence Ryan (Bob Dylan & Neil Young), linger around the edges of these songs. But these songs are pure Ryan Adams. And this is another essential album that you should own. Man, is he loaded or what?

2. James Blake - S/T
Just as the tUnE-yArDs album showed, James Blake is an amazing example of pop music's still fantastic ability to grow, change and evolve. These fragile, beautiful songs float like an alien dream with formless musical structure that give to me the same feeling that I get from a Terrence Malick film. More beauty and poetry than verse, chorus, verse. NOTHING sounded like this album to me, this year. James Blake occupied a very special place and he remained true to that in the touring and live performances of it. I can't wait to watch him grow and of course greedily, I cannot wait for him to perform in Milwaukee. 

1. Bon Iver/Bon Iver
Who else would be so brave by following up such a critically accepted and successful record as For Emma by releasing records and touring with Volcano Choir and Gayngs? What kind of a business decision is that? I'll tell you that it's the kind of decision that the record business of old would not have allowed (and that is just another reason why we celebrate the death of those old guys in suits with big expense accounts who did not listen to or love music). But maybe, just maybe, the freedom and experimentation of Volcano Choir and Gayngs is what gave Justin Vernon the ability to create and release what I feel is the best album of 2011. Majestic and gentle, Bon Iver/Bon Iver is confident and unafraid, taking in all of the influences of the past couple of years and revealing that this guy was bubbling over with creativity. Bon Iver/Bon Iver transcends For Emma. Like it's cover, it is a sound painting. And while it is a much bigger sound, it still contains the same intimacy. It's just as complex as it is accessible. And it establishes this artist. Such risk, beauty and grace from Justin Vernon.


10.4. James Vincent McMorrow
10.3. The War on Drugs
10.2. Laura Marling 
10.1. Girls

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