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. Harvey (Mic) helps to add a new dimension on this record that was missing from the last – this is, I guess, a little more closer to rock than that last record, though that could be a decision PJ and Parish made themselves. She’s still singing in this new range mostly though, which definitely makes this a piece with the previous record.
There’s a far more coherent concept here, this time – at least to my ears, upon only three listens. And the recording is a little less obviously “difficult” – that’s not really the word I want, but the hooks are more evident.
So musically I think this is a little more in line with her past than White Chalk, but the set of songs is stronger, more coherent, and so I at least initially like it even more. It’s obviously not as daring, but just as good.
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)
The songs are really great, I really enjoy all aspects of it – though I must say, having seen the touring cast, I was a little thrown off by the voices of the Broadway cast – and I will likely be posting lyrics to Facebook every time I listen to it.
But some of the layers of the musical are contained in the sets and even more in the brilliant choreography. Both of those things are obviously missing from the soundtrack and it just isn’t the same. The Book of Mormon works best as a show. The soundtrack is great fun, but it isn’t something that is transcendent as a standalone work.
Worth getting if you’re a fan, but you must see the show first.
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. But here I finally feel like his songwriting has received the the proper, appropriate arranging and production.
This is a great way at looking back at one’s career: Some of the new versions are really radical – some of them not so much – and almost all are interesting, many improving greatly on the originals. (“Solsbury Hill” is probably the only one I’m ‘meh’ on at the moment)
It’s a shame more of the artists who insist on reviving old music don’t do so in such an interesting way. (It’s not like he’s Scott Walker or anything, but these arrangements are still really strong for pop music.)
This album transcends Gabriel’s career; you don’t have to be a fan of him or a fan of these songs to like this. He has finally found a setting in which his music doesn’t carry a gigantic sign on it “This was recorded in…” and that’s a great thing.
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. This album, for me, is much more about his compositional abilities. To call it jazz is probably a bit of a misnomer. Rather it exists in that undefined space that has come to exist between jazz and “classical” ever since “classical” composers started writing pieces which incorporating improvisation – or sounds derived from improvisation – and jazz musicians started trying to write out everyone’s parts ahead of time. This is music that draws knowledge from American folk, Romantic and modernist string quartets, and many different strains of jazz. And it is fairly remarkable amalgam. It’s the kind of thing that makes me happy genres are dying. It’s certainly not a “guitar” record by any stretch, but lamenting that would be missing a very peasant and interesting set by a man who has to be counted among the most interesting guitarist-composers of the last 50 years.
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)
At this point in my life I have a real soft-spot for minimalism and another real soft-spot for whatever the sub-genre of post-rock is that many of the Constellation acts specialize in. So I am having a really hard time being critical about this record. It is certainly much tamer than most of their label-mates I have heard, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing; difference is good. And it’s definitely more indebted to Glass et al.
This makes for something that I guess sticks out enough to warrant attention and interest and, perhaps more importantly, I don’t want to stop listening to it.
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.)
Everyone is just so on, Evans is fantastic and honestly, not knowing enough about the modern state of the trumpet, is there a more radical trumpet player out there?
Halvorson is Goddess. (Our language is so funny that you can say ‘Clapton is God’ and it sounds good, but try to say ‘Halvorson is Goddess’ and it sounds like it isn’t even English.)
And Walter does what he needs to to keep things (relatively) together. Great.
11. Steve Earle: I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive (7/10)
Earle is apparently reaching farther back here than he has on some other records. It suits him, I think. I found his earlier alternative country stuff just not that convincing – in the sense of it being “alternative” to anything. Here Earle feels part of something bigger, and the songs he has written are more poignant than others of his I’ve heard.
It’s affecting and well arranged.
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.
The tracks were “improvised” though to my ears it sounds more like un- or under-rehearsed rather than completely improvised. This reminds me a lot of other “jazz musicians playing rock music” stuff that has been coming out in the last decade (like Ceramic Dog) only
- two of these people aren’t really jazz musicians and
- this is a lot rawer.
That rawness is extremely refreshing and distinguishes this record from a lot of other avant rock projects I have encountered recently.
The only thing that weakens it for me is the unrelated Prologue and Epilogue, recorded for a performance piece or something, and utterly at odds with the rest of the music (not to mention, pretentious, no fun, ridiculous and so forth).
Otherwise this is pretty great stuff. It’s nice to hear talented people taking things a little less seriously and working with less polish and precision.
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)
This second collection of stage music by members of Sleepytime Gorilla Museum (this time without Dan Rathburn) is considerably more consistent than the last, in part, I guess, because it was all written for one production.
I like this better for another reason: here Kihlstedt and Bossi really stretch themselves – they don’t sound like SGM, they don’t sound like the-yet-to-be-launched Rabbit Rabbit, they don’t sound like themselves. It’s clear they’re trying different things here, which is neat. I suspect the relatively poor rating is because of this; the music is unexpected.
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)
This is a stronger set of a songs from Hiatt than the earlier record of his I’ve heard. The production’s a little cleaner – or the band is – but that isn’t to the detriment this time, because the songs are (mostly) better.
Hiatt is still yet to convince me that he’s a great songwriter. The greater variety of roots styles is refreshing, as well.
A couple of the songs are major missteps though, so that keeps me from ranking it higher.
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.” And I think that’s a rather odd thing to do for a band that has described themselves, somewhat hilariously, as “death country.” The production is cleaner and more of the songwriting tropes belong in traditional rock, rather than alt country.
I find this just a little disappointing, even though the set of songs is reasonably strong.
I think the most obvious attempt to sell more records is “Their Will,” which appears to be very vaguely influenced by the bands that embraced post punk to the point where those of us who were never huge fans of the genre in the first place just wanted them to stop. I have no idea why a band like this is doing that. (I must say, though, that this influence is way more obvious in the live version I saw, than on record.)
The whole thing just feels less “country,” less “folk” and more “alternative rock” and I can’t say that I like that.
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.
Things appear to get off to a good start – so I think – with the King Crimson cover. Unfortunately, it sounds pretty much exactly what I would think a “pop jazz” cover of early ’80s King Crimson would sound like, which is not a good thing. But the record definitely improves from there: Elling shows some willingness to do different or at least a willingness to let some of his sidemen to somewhat different things than so many “jazz pop” horror-shows, but I still don’t hear enough radical edge to get the praise that is poured upon him.
The one exception to this I think is his cover of “Norwegian Wood” which, jazz or not, may be the best cover of that song that I have ever heard.
But the record is still just vocal jazz, and even decent vocal jazz is still not really anything to get excited about.
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.)
There are two problems with this record: the songs and the production. Harris is not a great songwriter. There are a few songs which work reasonably well, but, as someone else on RYM has already pointed out, a couple are brutal. The rest aren’t worth talking about.
I am usually okay with middling songwriter if the aesthetic is right. But this is a relatively typical modern country album – well it’s not that typical, it’s not pretending its pop or arena rock, which is great. But it’s still clearly “modernist” and these songs would benefit from a more traditional approach: less rock backing, some folk instruments, etc.
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.
With a few notable exceptions, these performances are pretty straight up. Yes, the musicianship is of a high quality, keeping this album from a total disappointment, but these are some very capable musicians; this is the best thing they could come up with? Certainly when something is presented to me as jazz – by one of the foremost guitarists in jazz – I expect – I want – to be wowed.
I feel like a bunch of far less musicians could have pulled off most of this. These are, for the most part, obvious covers that do not deviate from the originals in any significant way. Yes, as has been said before, sometimes they even almost approach muzak versions of these songs. (That being said, no muzak “band” is this good.)
I’m so disappointed.
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).
The opening of the first Grizzly Bear track sounds like they have suddenly discovered Flying Saucer Attack and so I guess it’s kind of interesting to hear their “post rock” side. But most of the album is just alternative versions of Grizzly Bear songs from their most famous record (I believe).
And, having not seen the movie, I find that this doesn’t resonate with me like some soundtracks do – it’s certainly not a standalone work. It also doesn’t work (as some other soundtracks do) as the filmmaker’s personal mix-tape.
So I figure it is for two sets of people: Grizzly Bear obsessives and people who absolutely loved the movie and want to aurally relive it. Aside from that, there is no reason to ever listen to this.
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. (Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it?) And the album proceeds like that, where you can tick off various bands the tracks seem to aspire to. (Though some of the other tracks are less rootsy, and only sound rootsy because they are played by acoustic instruments.)
Allen’s voice has been labeled “distinctive” by the Canadian music press, but it isn’t any more gravelly than any number of artists in the indie roots scene, many of them who manage a bit more convincing country or folk set of clothes.
All of this is to say that it’s not my thing: everything’s very competent, the songs are meh but the performances are all relatively impassioned. The entire thing is too clean for me, especially given Allen’s voice, which you would think would suit a little rawer vibe, but what else is new? Riley not like clean production!?!? You’re shocked.
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. There is a lot of music from Citizen Kane, Beneath the Twelve Mile Reef and White Witch Doctor, and snippets from On Dangerous Ground and Hanover Square. The advantage of something like this is that film scores are often repetitive, and if you are not interested in hearing that, I guess compilations are useful. The disadvantage is that this is an incredibly arbitrary selection – none of Hermann’s most famous scores are here – sure, Citizen Kane is incredibly famous, but his score to it is hardly as famous as some of his other scores – which is a good thing for someone like me, but hardly great if you’re actually looking for a compilation of Hermann’s most notable and influential music.
But everything sounds good.