The Best of 2011 – Music Edition

By Alan Mattli

Out with the old, in with the new! But where would we be in the new year when we couldn’t hold on to a few cherished relics of the past 365 days? So for everyone who is fond of lists, I have compiled my End of Year rankings for 2011 – movies and albums. But we’ll tackle those lists in two separate posts. So let’s start our 2012 by looking back at the musical highlights of the past year. And please: feel free to disagree and discuss!


Heirlooms of August: Forever the Moon

This is a project by Jerry Vessel, a musician best known for having been in Mark Kozelek’s first band, the Red House Painters, which practically invented its own special brand of sadcore folk rock. Vessel’s approach on Forever the Moon is a little different, though. His music celebrates the country and bluegrass side of folk music – think Townes Van Zandt and Lucinda Williams. As one reviewer put it, Heirlooms of August perfectly capture that feeling of beautiful terror that is central California’s boiling summers. Forever the Moon contains some first-rate ballads – my favourite being “Anyway, Sweetness” – delivered by Vessel, whose sad solemn voice, accompanied by a crooning pedal steel guitar, is a treat to hear.


Miraculous Mule: Miraculous Mule

Miraculous Mule is a psychedelic blues combo created by the underappreciated Anglo-Irish singer-songwriter Michael J. Sheehy. The group’s debut album is, at 26 minutes, although more than an EP, a very short ride indeed. In this short time, however, Miraculous Mule deliver six standout songs that sound dirty, scary, and ever so slightly rickety, thus matching the cover-adorning train bound for hell. The album’s highlights are a gorgeous rendition of the classic “Wayfaring Stranger” and a punchy “Run on”, a song better known nowadays – thanks to Johnny Cash’s version on American V: A Hundred Highways – as “God’s Gonna Cut You Down”.


The Felice Brothers: Celebration, Florida

In 2011, several artists took a step away from their previous work, or they decided to develop the more obscure aspects of their music. Feist did it on Metals, Iron & Wine on Kiss Each Other Clean, and Bon Iver on their self-titled second album. But the most successful step in this regard was taken by the New Yorker Americana band The Felice Brothers. Hitherto, their sound has been comparable to the one of Phosphorescent or Deer Tick. On Celebration, Florida, they tweaked their style towards the psychedelic and the more overtly produced, which makes for an often distorted, wild sound. The album tries – and succeeds – to capture the chaos of contemporary America. Nowhere is this more apparent than in “Ponzi”, my favourite song of 2011, where sharp political writing, poignant instrumentation and splendid dramaturgy form a fantastic story of Wall Street failing and spinning out of control.


The Vaccines: What Did You Expect from The Vaccines?

As essential as hyping new artists is to modern music, there is an inherent danger to this practice. More often than not, the hyped band is mediocre at best, or, with good bands, the hyping ends before they’ve had a chance to establish themselves. This year, the latter scenario applied to British indie rock band The Vaccines. Their debut was released in March and the initial hype has pretty much died down by now, which is a shame because they are among the more exciting new artists of the last two years. They play basic garage rock mixed with distinct post punk elements, which sounds not entirely unlike The Jesus and Mary Chain. Barely any song is over three minutes long and the lyrics are hilariously jumbled in places. For instance, the album’s opener, “Wreckin’ Bar (Ra Ra Ra)” is an unapologetically simple, enthusiastic rock number with the opening lines being “Pretty girl, wreckin’ bar, ra ra ra ra ra!”. If you are one of the people mourning the disappearance of good guitar-based rock, What Did You Expect from The Vaccines? is perfect for you.


Erland & the Carnival: Nightingale

It’s dangerous to classify a group’s sound as “unique”, as there’s almost certainly someone who will have heard something similar on a B-side once. So when I call Erland & the Carnival unique, I know that a lot of people would disagree. Nevertheless, their sound is pretty special. Erland & the Carnival, led by Orcadian folk musician Erland Gawain Cooper and featuring former The Verve guitarist Simon Tong, definitely have a folksy edge to them but they also experiment with lesser known instruments and lots of atmospheric sound effects. Nightingale is a haunting listening experience as well as a great example of innovation within the genre of alternative folk rock.


Baxter Dury: Happy Soup

After 2010’s Teen Dream by Beach House, 2011’s big dream pop release was M83’s Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming. Although it certainly is a good album, I prefer Baxter Dury’s more obscure release. Dury, son of New Wave figurehead Ian Dury, tells dreamy stories of lost loves and vaguely weird situations on Happy Soup, an album filled with dry, unmistakably British humour. Musically, there is a hint of electronica in practically every song but it’s persistently understated and thus unobtrusive. Baxter Dury should be lauded for trying to find his own sound instead of profiting from his father’s fame.


PJ Harvey: Let England Shake

If there was one 2011 album reviewers could unanimously get behind, it was PJ Harvey’s tenth major release. It peaked 13 end-of-year-lists, and was listed among the Top 10 in 26 other publications. Simply put, Let England Shake seems to have struck a nerve. It is closely linked to British, and particularly English history – the post-rock band iLiKETRAiNS comes to mind –, which is used as a means to reflect Britain’s role in Europe’s current political turmoil. Harvey chronicles the history of conflict, armed and otherwise, switching between World War I and Afghanistan/Iraq motifs. Her lyrics, allegedly influenced by T.S. Eliot and Harold Pinter, are delivered with a thin, hazy voice. Her sound, heavily influenced by the autoharp, comes off as experimental folk rock harking back, at some points at least, to The Velvet Underground and Pentangle. There is no denying that Let England Shale is, in its way, a monumental record.


Butcher Boy: Helping Hands

While England is usually the place from where indie rock bands emerge, Scotland is now a haven for indie pop, mostly due to the success of Belle and Sebastian. One band that was heavily influenced by Stuart Murdoch’s twee combo is John Blain Hunt’s Butcher Boy. Formed in 1998, they released their first album, Profit in Your Poetry, only in 2007 and have since become a veritable insiders’ tip. Helping Hands is their third album and it contains everything you’ve come to love about them. The pacing is unhurried, Hunt’s vocals are soft and sweet, and the lyrics are expressive, literary and sensitive. As The Guardian‘s Dave Simpson put it, Butcher Boy’s new album is the auditory equivalent to curling up with a good book.


The Black Keys: El Camino

2010 was a great year for Ohioans Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney, better known as The Black Keys. They made it big with Brothers, their sixth studio album, which won three Grammys. So why change a winning concept? El Camino takes its predecessor’s cue and indulges in Auerbach and Carney’s distinctive gritty garage blues rock. However, their new album is more to the point than Brothers, which, although a great album, threatened to overflow at times given its rich arrangements and interspersed instrumental tracks. El Camino feels less polished than its precursor and sports an exciting, more dynamic rhythm. It’s a thrilling, concise album, which has the potential to appeal to a wide array of music fans.


The Pains of Being Pure at Heart: Belong

You could put a picture of these New Yorker noise pop shoegazers next to the “hipster” article in Webster’s, so liking The Pains of Being Pure at Heart during the current anti-hipster mentality that’s going round the Internet doesn’t exactly boost your image. But on the other hand, it’s also rewarding liking them because after their terrific first album, which came out in 2009, they delivered a great follow-up in 2011, not quite on a par – there is no hypnotically gorgeous track like “Stay Alive” on it – but very, very close. Belong sounds smoother and more tweaked than their self-titled debut, but The Pains of Being Pure at Heart stayed true to their dreamy, beautifully hazy yet energetic and rocky style. To say this album sounds more grown-up than the last one would be an overstatement. If anything, the group’s teenager-like dreaminess, their sense for puppy love is more pronounced on Belong, making it an album for people who love movies like (500) Days of Summer or Gus Van Sant’s Restless.


Tom Waits: Bad As Me

When the news broke that Tom Waits was about to release his first album of entirely new songs since 2004’s brilliant Real Gone, fans were ecstatic. After all, Waits is among the few “classic” artists still working today that have turned out invariably great records over the last ten years. And Bad As Me didn’t break the spell. Waits delved deep into his pool of ideas, stories, and oddities, and put together a riveting platter of versatile songs. On his seventeenth studio release, he tries out a few new styles – such as a rockabilly – with the underlying genre still being good old-fashioned blues, he gorgeously experiments with a falsetto voice, and he recalls his first few albums when he puts on his sensitive persona and croons a gentle ballad. Bu there is still the hint of insanity, be it jolly and jumbled as in the titular track, or be it dark, punchy, and sardonic as in the jet black anti-war piece “Hell Broke Luce”. And when he sends you off with a tenderly mumbled “Auld Lang Syne” in “New Year’s Eve”, you rightly feel you have just experienced an example of pure musical mastery.


Beirut: The Rip Tide

Imitating another country’s musical folklore has become a popular stylistic device among younger artists. This is nowhere as apparent as on the albums of New Mexican Zach Condon’s band Beirut. On Gulag Orkestar, their debut released in 2006, they were inspired by the sounds of southeast Europe; on 2007’s follow-up, The Flying Club Cup, those styles were intermingled with the classic French chanson. The Rip Tide falls somewhere in between its precursors. The instrumentation is unmistakably arranged to evoke Eastern Europe while the lyrics tell stories reminiscent of 1960s’ French pop music. It’s less excessive than The Flying Club Cup, more consistent than Gulag Orkestar, and overall extremely restrained yet still very expressive. And right in the thick of it is Condon’s fantastic voice, which in one single song can be jubilant, sad and hopeful. Beirut have found their happy medium on The Rip Ride, their most mature release yet.


R.E.M.: Collapse Into Now

When R.E.M. announced that they were disbanding, a big chapter of modern rock music came to an end. One of the band that influenced grunge and alternative rock the most called it quits after 31 years, 15 studio albums, and countless hits. How adequate that their last album should be such a magnificent one. Collapse Into Now is, musically, a subtle cross-section of the group’s styles since 1980. However, the songs, which evoke an atmosphere of both melancholy and departure, still feel fresh, new and stringent. The album draws you in with the triumphant, booming “Discoverer”, excites you with inspiring tracks like “Überlin” or “Oh My Heart”, and it eases you out with the distant and foggy “Blue” with an at first vaguely vocalising, but later on fully audible Patti Smith as a guest vocalist. Collapse Into Now is a brilliant swan song for a brilliant band.


Cults: Cults

With the return of shoegaze, other subgenres are sure to follow. It’s particularly noise pop that’s made a comeback in recent years, considering the success of bands like Sleigh Bells, Dum Dum Girls or Best Coast. And now we can put another name on this list: Cults, formed in 2010, consisting of two New Yorker college students, released their self-titled debut this June, and it’s a glorious one. Unlike Best Coast’s standout 2010 album Crazy for You, Brian Oblivion and Madeline Follin created something more than a melancholic summer album. Cults, although certainly retaining a wonderful summery sound and dealing with the same universal teenage sentiments, is a little more complex, a tad more layered, but, thanks to its dreamy, basic noise pop sound, still appropriately simplistic. Of the eleven songs, some are exceptionally catchy, such as “Never Saw the Point”, “Go Outside”, and, most notably, “Abducted”. As usual for this kind of record, it isn’t a long one; it zips by in about 30 minutes but it’ll stick with you for much, much longer.


Stahlberger: Abghenkt

Switzerland still has good bands. One tends to forget that. Abghenkt is a really strong piece of indie pop with quirky songs you may well hear on something by Element of Crime. Stahlberger’s lyrics are always fascinating and sometimes even hilarious. They tell unique stories of disbanded music groups contemplating a comeback, cities sunk by dams, men waking up in new bodies, and people seeing themselves left behind by common social mores. The band’s head, comedian and writer Manuel Stahlberger from St. Gallen, delivers these songs in a slightly monotonous, very laconic tone that perfectly contrasts the songs’ remarkable peculiarity. Abghenkt, Stahlberger’s second album, is a collection of absorbing songs you’ll want to hear over and over again.


Trevor Moss & Hannah-Lou: Quality First, Last & Forever!

If I made a list counting down my favourite newcomers of 2011, this husband-and-wife-duo would undoubtedly be at its top. Originally, the two were a part of the folk rock and bluegrass group Indigo Moss, which released its only album in 2007 and disbanded one year later. This year, the two released their debut on their own. Quality First, Last & Forever! is a loveably understated, humble album packed with beautiful tracks, some sad, some happy, some adorably twee. Both have great singing voices, which they show off equally, as they take turns singing the songs. You’ll be especially baffled by Trevor Moss’ voice since you’ll mistake him for a woman almost certainly at first listening. Harking back to the music of Sarah Records figureheads The Field Mice and Another Sunny Day, Trevor Moss & Hannah-Lou play folksy indie pop at its best.


Thea Gilmore: John Wesley Harding

Granted, covering an iconic album which is arguably among the best of the last 50 years, is not the most original thing to do in music. But British singer-songwriter Thea Gilmore has an impeccable knack for doing excellent covers. Celebrating Bob Dylan’s 70th birthday, Gilmore recorded the whole of his 1967 album John Wesley Harding. The result of this bold experiment is a stunning set of outstanding covers, which feel neither forced nor contrived but mint and personal. Probably her most applaudable feat is that she rediscovers some of Dylan’s forgotten masterpieces of songwriting, such as “Drifter’s Escape”, “I Am a Lonesome Hobo” or the arcanely fascinating “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest”. Thea Gilmore’s John Wesley Harding easily earns the title of being 2011’s best Dylan-related release.


Ry Cooder: Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down

2011 was the year of protest. If anyone was still in doubt, TIME‘s choice for “Person of the Year” made it clear to everyone. We experienced the Arab Spring, European unrest, and Occupy Wall Street. None of these was given a proper soundtrack, but 64-year-old guitarist extradordinaire Ry Cooder delivered an unofficial one for the Occupy movement. His new album was a blazing concept record against the excesses of Wall Street and the private industry. Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down is, at its core, a furious one-hour-long bill of indictment against the people who caused the financial crisis four years ago and who now profit from it. Cooder’s own, unique Americana sound retains an atmosphere of 1930s’ Depression era folk, but lyrically, he directly attacks his targets with songs that are either painfully funny or dark and sardonic. He mocks his adversaries in “No Banker Left Behind”, he spits out his rage in “Christmas Time This Year” and “I Want My Crown”, he incriminates the Republicans in “If There’s a God”, and he fantasises about a utopian United States of Blues in “John Lee Hooker for President”. But in the end, Cooder puts everything in perspective, shrugs and tells Wall Street something along the lines of “Now you know what you’ve done wrong, so wallow in it, I won’t bother you anymore”. Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down, despite expressing dissatisfaction with both major American parties, is an undeniably, and openly, left album that won’t please many people on the right. But Cooder doesn’t aim to please, he aims to voice his opinion, whether you like it or not. I myself love it.


The Decemberists: The King Is Dead

In 2009, The Decemberists released their controversial rock opera piece The Hazards of Love. Some reviewers couldn’t find enough words of praise, others made no secret of their disdain for it. But this year, both sides of the argument could, more or less at least, unite behind the band’s follow-up. The King Is Dead doesn’t mark an extreme strep in their development; it is rather a celebration of what makes Colin Meloy’s group such a fantastic outfit. Their new album features superb folk rock, whose primary influences include Irish folklore, Neil Young’s Harvest, the more folksy tracks of Bruce Springsteen, and modern Americana by the likes of Gillian Welch, who appears as a guest vocalist on The King Is Dead. Insofar, The Decemberists have created not only a quintessential folk but also a quintessentially American record, their sixth album being the proverbial melting pot of different styles and influences.


Fleet Foxes: Helplessness Blues

In 2008, the world of folk fans was abuzz with praise for the eponymous debut of a group of young Seattleites. The Fleet Foxes took anyone listening to their first album on a journey into a mysterious, maybe even fictional America created by several generations of folk musicians. Songs like “Mykonos” or “White Winter Hymnal” quickly became underground favourites. Naturally, the second album of Robin Pecknold’s band was eagerly awaited. But it just didn’t come out. Not in late 2009 as was initially reported, not in mid-2010, not in late 2010, as Pecknold expected. The reasons for these delays were varied; the band wasn’t happy with the first few recordings, they didn’t find the right sound, tapes got lost. This May, it was finally released, and it is nothing if not a staggering masterpiece, a bona fide opus magnum. They say suffering is the prime inspiration for any art, and Helplessness Blues is fueled by suffering. It’s as if the whole strain of the recording process, which even cost Pecknold his girlfriend, is being handled and dealt with in the album’s songs. Fleet Foxes felt gorgeously arcane and distant, the follow-up is eerily close and realistic. The voices are the same, the vocal harmonies are still reminiscent of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, the arrangements remain mystical and continue to exhibit instrumental mastery, but the songs’ subjects are more precisely pronounced. There is a reflective, philosophical component to them, never too overt, though, making this a multi-leveled work of art. Pecknold ponders whether he might not find more contentment in being part of a big, anonymous mass than in being celebrated as a unique individual, thus questioning the last ten year’s movement towards extreme individualism – championed, not least, by his own generation. But despite all the angst that flows in Helplessness Blues, it ends not on a defeatist but on a hopeful note. In “Grown Ocean”, the closing track of this fabulous musical and spiritual journey, we are faced with the conclusion “Well, there are things that make me unhappy but they make me who I am, and they make an arresting story”. And it seems this silver lining has transcended into reality, at least for Pecknold; his girlfriend thought the finished album was worth the struggle and they are working it out. Such is the power of Helplessness Blues, my favourite album of 2011.


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