I have heard a lot of new music (that wasn’t released this year) in 2011; more than normal in fact. That’s courtesy the Hamilton Public Library. As a result, though I managed to listen to as much (or perhaps more) new music this year, I haven’t had time to revisit any of it. As a result, the majority of these comments were made when I last listened to the albums, not any time recently. It’s entirely possible I will change my mind about many of these the next time I listen to them. I have added notes where appropriate.
1. PJ Harvey: Let England Shake (9/10)
Harvey continues her new chamber direction, this time with help from Mick Harvey, which is exciting.
2. Dave Douglas and Brass Ecstasy: United Front: Brass Ecstasy Live at Newport (9/10)
This is what a live album should be. The playing is way more out there and way more intense than the studio stuff this band has made, and it’s the better for it in many ways. It’s too bad the set isn’t any longer because I could listen to this all day.
3. Original Broadway Cast Recording: The Book of Mormon by Matt Stone, Robert Lopez and Trey Parker (8/10)
4. Peter Gabriel: New Blood (8/10)
I have always struggled with getting into post-Genesis Gabriel because his music has often struck me as over-produced.
5. Tom Waits: Bad as Me (8/10)
In 2011 I wrote this horrible “review”:
I can’t really think of anything negative to say about this. It certainly lacks the unity or cohesiveness and / or adventurousness of his very best stuff but the songs are pretty strong and the arrangements are outstanding as always.
6. Bill Frisell’s 858 Quartet: Sign of Life (8/10)
This is one of those albums that convinces me Frisell is more than just a guitarist.
7. Man Man: Life Fantastic (8/10)
I wrote the following in 2011:
Not nearly as zany as the last time out, but I like it. I like it more with alcohol (what does that mean?) but I still like it.
Dec 31 2011: I absolutely loved their last album, so this is actually fairly high praise.
This is definitely less inventive and more dancy than their previous effort bur this band has strong melodies paired with idiosyncrasy and they do that very well so that even when they are a little less eccentric they are still eccentric enough to make this enjoyable. I feel like in other hands some of these songs might be annoying or insufferable.
8. Erik Friedlander: Bonebridge (8/10)
This is solid and consistently interesting jazz of a type I can’t exactly categorize – instrumentation is cello, dobro, bass and drums. There is a vaguely western / Hawaiian feel from the dobro and the plucked cello as a lead melodic instrument doesn’t really fit in any tradition that I know of.
The performances themselves are rooted in relatively conventional jazz, even if the instrumentation is not. The whole thing is pleasant and fairly unique.
9. Esmerine: La Lechuza (8/10)
10. Weasel Walter, Mary Halvorson, Peter Evans: Electric Fruit (8/10)
Having heard their last one first, I am so tempted to like that one better, but this thing, recorded earlier, is just as impressive, if not more so, as I think they might reach some greater peaks. (Though it’s a little more inaccessible, as there are only six tracks here.)
11. Steve Earle: I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive (7/10)
12. Braids: Native Speaker (7/10)
There is a lot here that reminds me of Animal Collective, even though there is a chick singing, they are making much of the noise with guitars instead of keyboards, and there is a live drummer. At times the singer sounds a little too much like Bjork (on the title track particularly). But on the whole I think I like this. I may change my mind. Who knows?
Dec 31 2011: Though I never imagined it at the time, this was the best Canadian album I heard all year (many of the albums below are Canadian).
13. Causing a Tiger: How We Held Our Post (7/10)
Causing a Tiger is two fifths of Sleepytime Gorilla Museum (or, if you prefer, 100% of Rabbit Rabbit) plus Secret Chiefs 3 bassists/Ceramic Dog guitarist Shahzad Ismaily (who, here, plays a guitar somewhere between a regular guitar and a bass). This is their second album, apparently.
14. TV on the Radio: Nine Types of Light (7/10)
So I think I like it more than Dear Science,. I’m pretty sure I like it more than Dear Science,. But it isn’t making me want to listen to it more. So I think we’ll have to stick with this for the moment. I was worried it would be too mellow. It’s not. But it certainly lacks many of the elements that drew me to the band. That being said, I think it’s fine music. It just isn’t doing anything exceptional for me on this day.
15. Badbadnotgood: BBNGLive (7/10)
Before I get into it, I will say first off that I like this music. I generally like fusion (the idea that this is “instrumental hip hop” is more than a little hilarious; if this isn’t jazz then I don’t know what it is) that stays away from “cool jazz” clichés, as this does. But (and it’s a big but):
18. J Mascis: Several Shades of Why (7/10)
It’s very enjoyable but I think it would be improved if he took some of the extraneous instruments and replaced them with electric guitars which sort of sound like those but sort of don’t.
17. Radiohead: the King of Limbs (7/10)
This is mellow, shockingly mellow. I don’t know what has happened except that they have gotten older. As others have observed, it’s like the mellow parts of Kid A / Amnesiac, only it’s less weird this time because we’ve had a decade to get used to Kid A and Amnesiac. My big question is where is the energy of Hail to the Thief, In Rainbows and the other pieces of Kid A and Amnesiac? There was earnestness and urgency there for a long time, a big part of their sound, and suddenly it’s gone. This is like a relaxing, background noise-ish type of record, which I never thought Radiohead would make. I’m not saying it’s bad; it’s quite pleasant. But Hail to the Thief, for example, is hardly pleasant. I don’t want pleasant, personally. I can get pleasant from lots of other bands. I would rather have something with a little more spark to it. By mellowing out this much they are definitely headed off in a different (though not entirely new) artistic direction, but it is not one that I particularly like. I can’t really bash it since, as I said, it’s not bad. I like a number of the songs. But I’m let down, definitely. I was so excited when I found out they were finally releasing another record. And instead it’s their shortest and calmest album to date. Boo.
18. Carla Kihlstedt, Matthias Bossi: Still You Lay Dreaming – Tales for the Stage II (7/10)
19. Anna Atkinson: Mooniture (7/10)
Atkinson is like a less-quirky, far more accessible, Canadian Joanna Newsom, at least the early Joanna Newsom. Read the review.
20. John Hiatt: Dirty Jeans and Mudslide Hymns (6/10)
21. The Dodos: No Color (6/10)
Well this is all very pleasant, but I can’t shake that I’ve heard it somewhere before. Because, well, I have. This indie folk pop thing is kind of done to death at this point. This is better than a lot of it I must say, I enjoy it well enough. But it’s still just more indie folk pop.
One other thing: you’d think that if you have two drummers, you might make use of that. I can’t really figure out how an indie folk pop band emerged from a trio with two drummers – well, I guess one really isn’t a drummer. Looking at the liner notes, I would have expected a very different kind of music than what’s on offer, just from the presence of multiple “percussion” credits.
22. Fucked Up: David Comes to Life (6/10)
The punk rock opera thing has become a bit of a trend, now, I guess. That’s pretty fucking hilarious. Punks used to hate that stuff. Oh well, times have changed.
It is hard to approach this band without bias as they are a little overhyped (did I say a little?). What is most surprising is the utter lack of diversity in the songs (and the repetition of themes that occurs in the beginning – which one would expect in a rock opera – dies out pretty quickly despite this). And many other bands have done the “aggressive music” mixed with melody thing a lot better.
Just sort of meh. Still better than what’s on the radio. But really, music critics, this is what you consider a great album? I am not impressed.
Dec 31: The idea that this is the best album of the year – or right up among them – just goes to show the laughably low standards the independent music press embrace in order to declare a masterpiece (or two) each and every week. Stand this up against the great rock operas of all time and convince me this belongs among them. It’s not possible.
23. Ox: tUCo (6/10)
Well this is okay I guess.
It reminds me of Granfaloon Bus without their sense of melody, or of Virgil Shaw’s solo stuff without the quirkiness and world music.
I hear many other things in it: Nick Cave and Pearl Jam intros are almost – but not quite – copied for two songs.
The Young cover does nothing for me. If you are going to cover something, add something to it. Does this add anything? No.
There is almost something to this. And because I am overly fond of alt-country, I don’t mind it.
24. Elliott Brood: Days into Years (6/10)
Though there are various Broodian hallmarks on this album – the banjo in particular – it sounds to my ears like a clear effort to make themselves a little more accessible, a little more mainstream “rock”. Read the review.
25. Kurt Elling: the Gate (6/10)
Full disclosure: I do not like vocal jazz. I don’t think most of it qualifies as “jazz” – or at least doesn’t have enough jazz elements to qualify as jazz – to really warrant serious attention. But I have heard Kurt Elling is different.
26. Sandro Perri: Impossible Spaces (6/10)
Like so many people labeled “indie,” Perri is full of ideas. And like so many people labeled “indie” Perri could use a producer to get him to keep the right ideas and cut the less good ones. Read the review.
27. Portugal. The Man: In the Mountain in the Crowd (6/10)
The first song sounds like indie rock Elton John. No, that is not a compliment. It does get better from there. But there’re a whole lot of wussy “soul” approximations underneath the indie veneer.
28. Dixie’s Death Pool: the Man with Flowering Hands (5/10)
Yet another “I have heard this before” indie rock / post rock fusion thing. With fewer actual songs this time around. I can’t get into this stuff and frankly aren’t we inundated with it? Do we need more and more? Why can’t I listen to something trend-busting on Exclaim! for once?!
29. Find the Others (5/10)
Though, like many soundtracks and pseudo-soundtracks, it is tough to judge this without the accompanying pictures / film, I will do so anyway. Read the review.
30. North Lakes: Grand Prix (5/10)
I have heard a lot of music like this in my life and so I can’t get altogether moved by it.
It’s certainly well done, if very derivative of: the Velvets, Dream Syndicate and other ’80s alternative bands, indie rock in general.
But I just can’t bring myself to care. I don’t think the songs are strong enough and the sound is just too reminiscent of too many other bands.
Still rather listen to this than what’s on the radio.
31. Cuff the Duke: Morning Comes (5/10)
More of the same. The band is in a holding pattern and frankly that doesn’t motivate me to continue listening to them. Their earliest stuff certainly sounded like we should expect big things but the end result is a middle of the road alt-country band 15 years after the style was supposedly about to break into the mainstream. Disappointing.
32. Emmylou Harris: Hard Bargain (5/10)
I am familiar with Harris the interpretive singer, not the songwriter. Frankly, I didn’t know she wrote so much (this is apparently not the first time she has released an album full of mostly originals).
33. Library Voices: Summer of Lust (5/10)
I gave this my customary three listens and honestly it made very little impression on me. I have heard a lot of bands like this. The one distinguishing thing about them appears to be their song titles.
34. Bill Frisell: All We Are Saying (5/10)
As Thom Jurek says, this is an exploration of Lennon the composer, not Lennon the performer, and not Lennon’s songs as launchpads for new things. Read the rest of the review.
35. The Horrible Crowes: Elsie (5/10)
I don’t like the bands these guys like and so I think it’s safe to say I don’t like them. Read the rest of the review.
36. Grizzly Bear et al.: Blue Valentine Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (4/10)
This is a soundtrack mostly by Grizzly Bear, but featuring one performance from the movie and some random “lost nugget” from some band you’ve never heard of (and you’re not missing anything). Read the rest of the review.
37. Cody Allen: All is Not Lost (4/10)
On the first track, at least, Allen seems to be going for some kind of slightly more country, slightly more commercial version of Elliott Brood’s take on alt country (horribly named, by them, “death country”), with a little less energy. Read the rest of the review.
38. Thursday: No Devolucion (4/10)
At the Drive-in without the passion, intensity, grit or sense of dynamics. That slander doesn’t describe everything here, as there are moments when the band goes all screamo and / or metal and briefly sounds like they might actually know what “rock” means. But most of the time they sound pretty radio friendly and pretty safe. And some of these lyrics (like the counting ones) are brutal. This band is the perfect example of how “post-hardcore” is becoming what post-grunge was. Yuck.
Not Ranked: London Haydn Quartet: String Quartets Op. 20 ‘Sun’ by Joseph Haydn (10/10)
As with his symphonies and some of his other works, Haydn wrote a ton of String Quartets. Just an absolute ton. This set collects the 23rd through 28th, all of which were written at the same time, as one cycle or collection. They are considered by most people to be the birth of the modern String Quartet and wikipedia tells me that the form established here didn’t really change for 200 years, which is insane.
Not Ranked: Tafelmusik: Messiah by Georg Friedrich Handel (9/10)
For something so unbelievably famous, I am shocked at how little of this (I believe) I have heard over the years. Read the rest of the review.
Not Ranked: Philharmonic Baroque: Symphonies Nos. 88, 101, 104 by Joseph Haydn (9/10)
The so-called “London” symphony starts off with such a modern opening I almost thought I was listening to the wrong work – it’s practically Romantic. Read the full review.
Not Ranked: Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester Berlin, Marek Janowski: Symphonies 3-5 by H.W. Henze (9/10)
This is an excellent set of three of Henze’s symphonies, showing him at perhaps his most radical stage. This is the kind of modernist “classical” that I just love; bonkers writing and bonkers arrangements.
Not Ranked: Goldner Quartet, Piers Lane: Piano Quintet; String Quartet by Edward Elgar (8/10)
This is an odd combination: we get a string quartet, piano pieces seemingly picked at random from two separate eras of his career, and the piano quintet. I guess they wanted to give us our money’s worth or something.
Not Ranked: Vilde Frang: Violin Sonatas: Bartok / Strauss / Grieg (8/10)
This is a strong collection of mid-to-late Romantic (and early modern) violin sonatas.
Not Ranked: The Jimi Hendrix Experience: Winterland [1968, Highlights] (8/10)
This is the “highlights” disc taken from the Box Set documenting 3 Experience shows at the Winterland in October of 1968.
B.B. King: The Best of RPM and Kent Recordings (8/10)
This disc compiles some of King’s A-sides for both the RPM and Kent labels throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s. Read the review.
Not Ranked: Jose Serebrier, Russian National Orchestra, et al.: Complete Concertos by Alexander Glazunov (7/10)
I can be quite picky about compilations, especially when there is a supposed theme to them, such as “violin concertos.” I generally want my music to be at least of the same era – and performed by the same people – rather than a hodgepodge that some record exec thought was a good idea.
Not Ranked: Various Artists: Essential Delius (7/10)
In retrospect, the review of the disc feels kind given my feelings for the music. Read the review.
Not Ranked: The National Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Charles Gerhardt: Citizen Kane – the Classic Film Scores of Bernard Hermann (6/10)
I am always skeptical of compilations and this one is no different. This takes music from five of Hermann’s scores – only one of which is for a truly notable film – and combines them into what is essentially the most cursory survey of his work.