This was a horrible year in music. As in 1992 and 1993 when every other band sounded exactly like Nirvana, this year brought upon us bands who felt that Vampire Weekend sound was the zenith for which to strive. And no band did VW better than Foster The People. I say it here, now, with utmost conviction, their SNL performance this fall was the most embarrassing musical event of the year. They make VW look like, well, almost a rock band by comparison. So freakin’ lame.
And of course they weren’t the only ones. Lame is the new creed for rock bands. Wimpy is the new balls.
But instead of focusing on the pathetic, let’s look at the few great albums released this year:
The best record of 2011, hands down, nothing came close, was “Past Lives, Martyred Saints” by EMA. It was raw, damaged, out of tune. The songs could rock you one minute, then haunt you for the rest of your life the next. Layers of vocals, upon almost Archers Of Loaf-like guitars. Lyrically you were left to wonder how she made it through recording the album alive. And if when she sings “I wished that every time you touched me left a mark” doesn’t send shivers down your spine, then check the old pulse. This album certainly left a mark on me. (In this iTunes generation, I’m going to list the one song for each record. This is where you should start. A song that will tell you all you need to know. With EMA, start with “Marked.”)
Speaking of Archers. The masterful reissue of their brilliant debut “Icky Mettle” was another highlight (and I know it doesn’t count as a new album, but I don’t care). Quite simply, it’s the best album of the 90s (with “Versus the Greatest of All Time,” the best rock EP of all time on the second disc). And “Web In Front” is probably the greatest song ever written. Yes, I love this band. And yes, if you don’t know them, you’re life is empty and meaningless. (There isn’t a bad track, and “Web” is too obvious, so start with “Bacteria,” which is so mind-numbingly brilliant, it might make your head explode, especially if you like shit like Foster the People.)
You’ve got to love the original Web video:
Then came Wilco’s “The Whole Love.” Their best since “Yankee,” an amazing collection of songs from one of the best songwriters of our time. Some of it was sprawling, much of it was poppy and beautiful, and then there was the fuzz bass, and that noise guitar at the end of “Art of Almost”— I get chills thinking about it! A great record! (Speaking of sprawling, start with “One Sunday Morning.”)
Crooked Fingers’ “Breaks In The Armor” was Eric Bachmann’s best songwriting since this band’s eponymously titled debut. He sounds energized, his word-play as sharp as ever, and the album’s sparse production makes every note ring true. (Pop on “Bad Blood,” and let it sink its teeth into you.)
The “Kitchen Tapes” version of Lucinda William’s “Blessed.” It sounds as if she’s singing for you…privately…in your freakin’ kitchen. The over-production of the actual album is gone, and we’re left with that voice and some off-kilter guitar playing. But really, Lucinda Williams singing to you in your kitchen!!! What the fuck more do you need? (Start with “I Don’t Know How You’re Livin’.” – it will break your heart.)
Sleeper Agent’s “Celabrasion” was my guilty pleasure for 2011. Sort of Blondie meets T- Rex, but then there ain’t nothing wrong with that. It’s about as poppy as I get. A lot of fun! (Start with “Get Burned.”)
Deer Tick’s “Divine Providence” is a great record in which they channel the spirit of The Replacements, right down to Bob Stinson’s “wrong note at the right time” way of soloing. It’s the perfect album for long drives on a summer night. Probably their best. And it makes me can’t wait for what’s coming next. (Start with “Funny Word.”)
Another great rock record from another great under-appreciated rock band is “Unpersons” from Vancouver’s The Pack A.D. Even if you’re sick of Black Keys/White Stripes schtick, give these gals a shot. To me they play with a genuine love for what they’re doing. No pretense. No ego. They’re having fun. (Start with “Haunt You.”)
Wild Flag’s eponymously titled debut like-wise rocked. And I truly loved about half of it. Probably would have made one of the best EPs we’ve heard in years. (Start with “Romance.”)
Ryan Adam’s “Ashes and Fire” – I’ll admit it took me a while to get into this album, it took me seeing him live at a church in Eugene, Oregon. But then the songs came alive. And it became the CD I’d play in my hotel room when I was along, on the road. It made me think of home. It made me miss my wife and dogs. It just worked…beautifully. (Start with “Dirty Rain.”)
Matthew Ryan’s “I Recall Standing As Though Nothing Could Fall” is another beautiful collection of song writing. Ryan’s voice always kills me. And it was nice to hear him end the album with one of his most rocking tracks in years. (Start with “Summer in the South.”)
And lastly Dark Mean’s eponymously titled album. Really dig this guy’s voice, and the banjo! Another fun record that just keeps growing on you with every spin. The hints of Ryan Bingham popping through in the sound don’t hurt. (Start with “Happy Banjo.”)
That’s it. Hopefully there’s something new here you can enjoy. And likewise, hopefully I’ll never have to fucking hear “Pumped Up Kicks” again for as long as I live.
I leave you with this gift from Mr. Bachmann…