January Music Round-Up

January is typically a slow month for new music releases, but a few in the last month piqued my interest. I’d say it’s a pretty good start, mostly since I can’t remember any albums released last January and at least a couple from this month will probably be in my rotation throughout the year. I’ll go alphabetically, so as not to disorient any readers.

Cate Le Bon – Cyrk
The Welsh singer’s second album comes after a tour with St. Vincent, and it’s easy to see why the two hit the road together: Le Bon covers similar territory to Annie Clark, playing songs that sound somewhat coy but have a dark sense of humor and are prone to exploding into blasts of noisy guitar. Le Bon doesn’t quite have the ambitious arrangements that St. Vincent does, but her songs are more personal and allow her to develop a distinct and quirky persona throughout the album. Le Bon’s voice garners fairly obvious comparisons to Nico and it gives Cyrk more of a throwback feel that reminds me a lot of self-titled era Velvet Underground (if Nico had stayed with the band and provided all the vocals).  Despite the comparisons, I think Le Bon is a unique voice and talent, with a knack for clever lyrics and finding just the right place in a song to add some spice to the arrangement with guitar. Cyrk was the album I listened to the most in January and I anticipate listening to it throughout the rest of the year.

Track you should legally obtain: “Fold the Cloth”

Chairlift – Something

This New York duo, comprising singer Carolyn Polachek and instrumentalist and producer Patrick Wimberly broke out slightly a few years ago when their song “Bruises” was featured on an iPod commercial. Being featured on an iPod commercial usually isn’t usually a good sign for me, but I’m surprisingly enjoying their sophomore effort Something. The band’s sound is defined by their love of cheesy 80’s synthesizer and electronic sounds, along with Polachek’s vocals which tend to hover and remain detached from her musical surroundings. The band is at their best when making goofy, off-beat pop songs like “Amanaemonesia,” which is apparently about a made-up disease and “Sidewalk Safari” which fronts its corny instrumentation with a humorously disturbing story of running down someone with a car. For the most part, Something accomplishes what it sets out to do: It’s an odd and catchy indie-pop album that has gotten multiple songs stuck in my head constantly.

Track you should legally obtain: “Amanaemonesia”

Cloud Nothings – Attack on Memory

Cloud Nothings started as more of an indie pop outfit, but frontman Dylan Baldi decided to take things in a different direction for their second album Attack on Memory. In this case, the album title is literal, as the band sounds completely different thanks to a new aggressive approach inspired by bands like Wipers. The album was produced by Steve Albini, whose production I am a notable sucker for, and its sound is refreshingly straight-forward rock, with none of the annoying affectations that are so present in indie music today. Unfortunately, Cloud Nothings is held back by Baldi himself: His adolescent singing style is grating to me and his attempts at sounding “aggressive” come off more as a kid playing dress-up than an artist who is experiencing legitimate angst. My favorite parts of Attack on Memory are when he’s singing pop songs with a bit of rock edge (“Stay Useless”) or when he fades into the background a bit, like the 9-minute “Wasted Days” which features an extended instrumental section, becoming this album’s “Youth of America.” Despite my issues with some of the singing, I respect Attack on Memory for being something different, both for the band and current indie music as a whole.

Track you should legally obtain: “Wasted Days”

First Aid Kit – The Lion’s Roar

The Swedish sister pair of Johanna and Clara Söderberg plays a familiar brand of rustic folk that is obviously indebted to bands like Fleet Foxes (they initially got attention through a Fleet Foxes cover posted on youtube). They have a phenomenal gift for vocal harmonies and for the most part it’s hard (even for me) not to like them a little bit, given their obvious skills and youth. Most of The Lion’s Roar follows the formula they do well, with folk songs with sweet harmonies that rise into climactic choruses. At times I think the songs can linger a bit too long, and, even though they’re not signed to the label, they sometimes fall into the trap of sounding like a generic over-serious Saddle Creek band, right down to the obligatory Conor Oberst cameo in the final track. I imagine for a lot of people that love this kind of heart-on-your-sleeve folk, The Lion’s Roar will be one of their favorites of the year, but for me it’s a well-crafted but ultimately forgettable collection of songs.

Track you should legally obtain: “Emmylou”

Lana Del Rey – Born to Die

Lana Del Rey sparked a billion think-pieces when she exploded last year with the viral hit “Video Games.” The way with which Del Rey, formerly Lizzie Grant, transformed herself into a 50’s-type character irked a lot of people apparently, and it culminated in a Saturday Night Live performance that was the subject of a vast amount of media scrutiny. Personally, I don’t really have anything against her (a musician changing her identity to gain pop stardom? THE HORROR!) but I generally enjoyed following all the inevitable hype/backlash media cycles for the last few months. Now her debut album finally drops, and while it contains the still-excellent “Video Games”, nothing else approaches that level. The title track comes closest (mostly because it’s basically the same song), but the rest of Born to Die contains forgettable tracks in a similar vein or even worse, disastrous attempts at more up-tempo pop tracks like the trainwreck “Off to the Races,” which sounds almost like self-parody. For the most part, the biggest question Born to Die raises is how something this dull and uninteresting created so much passionate discussion from either side.

Track you should legally obtain: “Video Games” if for some reason you haven’t already.

Thanks for reading, and stay tuned as I attempt to keep up to date with new music throughout the year.

YAMANTAKA // SONIC TITAN is Really Cool

Sometimes I can’t really describe what exactly makes a band awesome, except that it’s instinctively “cool.” That’s the case for the YAMANTAKA // SONIC TITAN, a Canadian group fronted by drummer Alaska B and signer Ruby Kato Attwood that combines many disparate elements to create music that seems to be an attempt to redefine exactly what “music” is.

On their bandcamp page, where you can stream or buy their debut album YT//ST, they describe themselves as a “psychedelic noh-wave opera group fusing noise, metal, pop and folk music into a multidisciplinary hyper-orientalist cesspool of ‘east’ meets ‘west’ culture clash in giant monochrome paper sets.” It’s a more apt description than anything I could come up with. One thing is basically guaranteed: This band is unlike anything you’ve heard before. And in 2012, that’s quite an accomplishment.

The fact that I had never heard anything quite like the band is what really blew me away, and their 7-song, 30-minute album has become probably my favorite of the last couple of months. After seeing the description I expected them to fall into a trap of sounding like a different band on every song, but they’re able to take all of those influences and turn it into something that is extremely cohesive.  I never get the sense that the band is experimenting with a genre or that their influences are fighting to be heard; they just naturally sound like a band that is dabbling in several different genres, often in the space of a single song. Most of the tracks also bleed into each other, which makes YT//ST seem more like one 30 minute piece of music rather than an album in a traditional sense.

YAMANTAKA // SONIC TITAN seems almost like a band from a future where no music genres or labels exist. As someone who has always been a bit annoyed with how we as listeners feel the need to pigeonhole bands into certain segments of music, the way they completely ignore such meaningless labels is refreshing.

Of course, none of this would matter if the songs weren’t good. Their debut starts with the minute-long “Raccoon Song,” a ritualistic chant that serves as prelude to the album and bleeds into the second track “Queens,” which is probably the closest the album comes to a pop single, with a soaring melody followed by a proggy instrumental section in the center.

The delicate folk song “Oak of Guernica” follows, after which the band kicks it into high gear with the two part “Reverse Crystal // Murder of a Spider” which resembles a 7-minute progressive rock jam with almost operatic vocals. The album’s other poppiest moment, “Hoshi Neko” comes next, and its propulsive beat reminds me a bit of Stereolab if they were suddenly imbued with pan-asian sensibilities.

The album closes with a pair of primarily instrumental tracks, “A Star Over Pureland” and “Crystal Fortress Over the Sea of Trees.” They’re probably the two heaviest songs on the album, drifting more into metal and noise while still retaining the band’s “Noh-Wave” ideas.

While their debut album is relatively brief, it’s full of twists and turns and journeys into the unexpected. Sort of like a tiny musical rollercoaster. I haven’t really analyzed the lyrics at all (a lot of them are in Japanese), but just the pure sound and the cryptic nature of the album has grabbed me and made me want to listen to it over and over. In addition to the music, the band also puts on theatrical, operatic live shows, complete with costumes and special effects.

It’s bands like this that really make me excited about music. With so many bands looking back to find their sound, YAMANTAKA // SONIC TITAN only looks forward, refusing to fall into genre trappings and confounding expectations at every turn. Hopefully “YT//ST” is just the tip of the iceberg, because I think this band has tons of potential (I’m hoping for an epic 75 minute album and corresponding live performance eventually).

SubRosa: The Metal Band of My Dreams

I’m sure it’s fairly evident by now that I’m not a metalhead. Most metal I’ve heard doesn’t do much for me, but it’s for different reasons then usual: For me, it’s never been about the noise and abrasiveness, it’s been about how all metal, while advertised as being this rebellious genre, seems very formulaic. It always has the loud, precise guitars, the lyrics about blood and killing and other “shocking” topics, and of course it always has to have the awful grunting male vocals that drive me up the wall.

Basically, metal is very masculine and always has been. The music is pretty much a dick-waving contest to see who can outshock others and the entire genre seems to live in some prehistoric world where women are completely unseen and unheard, unless they’re approximating the aforementioned male vocal style of grunting incomprehensibly instead of actually, you know, singing. I love loud and abrasive music, but it has to have a purpose to really be effective. Metal is too often loud just for the sake of it.

These are just my opinions of the genre as an outsider, since I obviously have no concept of just how many different kinds of metal there are (according to Wikipedia, about 4.5 billion). Part of why I’m repulsed a bit by the genre is that it comes so close to being something I could really embrace, but bands keep indulging in the same clichés all the time. There seems to be very little growth in metal compared to other genres, as most bands are going by the same formula that it’s always had. It’s hard to blame them: Metal has a rabid fan base that will support you if you give them what they want, and what they want is the loud, fast-paced guitars, bro-tastic vocals, and songs about skinning cats for the devil.

I mention all of this because, as I’m sure most readers know by now, I’ve been increasingly frustrated with how soft and non-threatening most indie music is today. And eventually that feeling has led to me dipping my toes into the metal pool, albeit in a very cautious way with a look of disgust on my face.

Of course, the problem now was I had to find metal bands I actually liked, which avoided all of the issues I raised with the genre earlier. I’ve become a pretty big fan of the Japanese band Boris, who play loud, crushing rock music but also relentlessly experiment in other genres and resist falling into the staid clichés that I’ve come to associate with metal. Then, after some more searching, I was finally able to find my perfect metal band: SubRosa.

SubRosa are a band based in Salt Lake City, of all places, and they play the slower-paced, doom-laden metal that I’ve found myself gravitating to more than the hyper-aggressive thrash stuff. But what really makes the band unique, and what drew them to my attention, is that it’s a female-fronted group, with three different women that provide vocals. Even better, they actually sing instead of buying into this idea that all metal needs to have the same vocal style.

Two of the women also play violin, which adds an otherworldly element to the band’s sound, which is characterized by loud, sludgy riffs and slow tempos. There is a small amount of the growling vocals (usually relegated to the background), but for the most part the women sing in normal voices. The lyrics are focused on medieval, fantasy themes that remind me of Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings, but the basic themes can be applied more universally. Overall, I find the band oddly reminiscent of the Breeders or the Raincoats, if one of those bands had randomly done a bunch of drugs, gotten obsessed with fantasy, and decided to record a metal album.

SubRosa is a textbook example of how women can really bring an effortlessly unique sound and perspective to a genre that sorely needs it. In the world of metal, just the fact that it’s women singing instead of a face-painted dude makes the band already sound completely different from their peers. Along with the violins, that turned their album No Help for the Mighty Ones into my go-to “heavy” album of 2011. It’s all the skull-crushing rock awesomeness that metal has always potentially provided, but without any of the annoying elements.

It also has a surprising amount of versatility. At times I find myself getting lost a bit in all the noise, almost like I do when listening to shoegaze. There’s even a medieval folky number, “House Carpenter,” at the end of the album, which is the kind of song that I doubt very many other metal bands could pull off.

I don’t know much about how SubRosa is received in the metal world, but they seem to be gaining popularity there, which is refreshing to see. As evidenced by a lame indie dork like me enjoying them, the band also has obvious crossover potential to indie listeners who are frustrated with the current state of music or just want to hear something different. I’m pretty sure no other band on earth sounds like SubRosa right now.

Unheard Classics: The Beatles – “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”

As mentioned in my OK Computer post, I’m someone who is still relatively new to being obsessed with music. It wasn’t really part of my family growing up and it’s not something that was ingrained in me from a young age. I see this as both a blessing and a curse: On one hand, I feel like having a “blank slate” helped me form unique tastes that aren’t influenced by too many outside sources. I was able to identify what I liked and why I liked it all by myself.

The downside is that I feel like I’m constantly in a state of catch-up, particularly when it comes to past music that, for most music lovers, is just common knowledge. In particular, I have a rather shameful and embarrassing ignorance of most 60’s music.

Admittedly, part of that is my own doing. I’ve listened to plenty of older music from the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s, but I’ve sort of consciously avoided the 60’s for a few reasons. One of them is that I’m more of a punk fan at heart — my tastes veer more towards the aggressive and I’m drawn to the punk ethos and the fact that the music is naturally making a statement. The 60’s had the seeds of punk in some places, but at least the kind I enjoy didn’t really pick up until the 70’s.

A bigger problem that I have with 60’s music doesn’t so much have to do with the music itself, but more with the way certain things get canonized and romanticized until there’s no room for any sort of reasonable discussion anymore. At a certain point it seems like a lot of the music from the 60’s has just become immune to any criticism and is only mentioned in slobbering articles, with massive statements about how “revolutionary” and “groundbreaking” it is. I feel like there’s a common perception among some music fans and reviewers that music is automatically better because it came from the 60’s.

Personally, I don’t think anything should be above criticism, especially something as subjective as music. So I thought this series, which is inspired a lot by NPR’s “You’ve Never Heard…” and the AV Club’s Better Late Than Never features, would be a good way to not only fill my embarrassing gaps in 60’s music knowledge but also to honestly evaluate and critique this music without being bound by nostalgia.

My mental image of Beatles fans.
My mental image of Beatles fans.

There was only one place to start with this experiment: The Beatles. Now obviously I’ve heard a lot of Beatles songs, because I’m a human being living on planet earth, but I had never really gotten the urge to just sit down and listen to their albums. Partly because, for me, a lot of the joy in music is the discovery: I love finding great music that has been overlooked or only has a small following. It makes me feel like I know something other people don’t, and it’s easier for music to emotionally connect with me that way.  (I realize this makes me sound like one of those hipster douchebags who hates anything that’s popular, but I can’t help it.)

Obviously, no such feeling exists with the Beatles. They’re everywhere. If you want to “discover” the Beatles, you just have to go to a local shopping mall or turn on the TV. The fact that the band is so widely and unanimously adored is a lot of the reason why I’ve never gone too far out of my way to listen to them. On some level, the band’s music doesn’t feel like it belongs to me. It belongs to the massive, crazy Beatles fans who were there during the 60’s or the people that know the words to every Beatles song and completely worship them.

I should clarify that I like the Beatles, at least most of the songs I’d heard going into this. I just have a negative reaction to the way they’re so endlessly mythologized, this attitude that the Beatles invented everything and it’s all been downhill since the Beatles and if you don’t listen to the Beatles you must be an idiot who knows nothing about music. I’m sick of stuff like Across the Universe and the like that is all about putting the Beatles onto this golden pedestal to the point that, if you say anything even remotely negative about them, you risk being shunned by society.

I could have picked pretty much any Beatles album (I might still do more in the future), but I chose Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band to start this. It was named the best album of all time by Rolling Stone a few years ago and has an overwhelming consensus as one of the all-time great albums. It’s generally recognized as being part of the band’s creative peak.

One of the main things I knew about the album before hitting play is that it’s been recognized as one of the first concept albums, as The Beatles, tired of touring, created a fictional band which presents the opening title track. That segues into the Ringo-sung “With a Little Help From My Friends,” which is a pretty classic Beatles tune with a great melody. After that, the concept is mostly dropped, which apparently bothers me more than anyone else, so I won’t make a big deal of it.

From there it moves to “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds”, John Lennon’s ode to a girl named Lucy that was in the sky with diamonds and totally not LSD. That song’s combination of pop and psychedelia pretty much sums up the first chunk of Sgt. Pepper’s, which is a bunch of irresistible, catchy pop songs that also have a lot more to them than it might appear on the surface.

It’s in the middle part where Sgt. Pepper’s kind of lost me. “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” has the pop craft that the Beatles are known for, but the lyrics are pretty silly which made it disposable for me. After that was George Harrison’s “Within You Without You.” It’s a good song and I generally like Harrison’s sitar experiments with the Beatles, but it also feels disconnected from the rest of the album, like a George Harrison solo effort that just got plunked in there (which it basically is — none of the other Beatles played on the track).

After that is “When I’m Sixty-Four.” I said I’d be honest so here goes: I think this is a terrible song that comes pretty close to derailing the whole album. It’s just so maudlin and goofy sounding, it has no connection to the rest of the album’s sound, and in general it just sounds like McCartney making a song for a crappy children’s cartoon. I wish it didn’t exist. While a lot of the sounds the Beatles used on this album have been influential, I’m thankful that this one hasn’t.

Fortunately, things pick up from there with “Lovely Rita,” which is more in line with the first part of the album as a great pop song with some excellent harmonies and an infectious piano part. “Good Morning Good Morning” combines psychedelic guitar and horns into another tight pop package. It’s the kind of combination of accessibility and experimentation that has defined the Beatles.

After that there’s a reprise of the title track, just to remind people that what you just listened to was a concept album (even though it totally wasn’t — okay, I’ll drop it). That’s followed by “A Day in the Life,” which is one of my favorite Beatles songs and definitely one of their classics that I won’t argue with anyone about. Both the McCartney and Lennon parts are excellent, and they’re glued together in a way that makes perfect sense and helped redefine what a song could be in this era of music.

Overall, I obviously didn’t come out of my first serious listen to this album instantly going “THIS IS THE BEST ALBUM EVER EVERYONE WAS RIGHT,” because music doesn’t work like that. However, I can clearly see why it’s considered so amazing: On the surface it’s a great, listenable pop album, but beneath that you realize that the Beatles were experimenting and doing things that no other band had done before in the studio. That sense of experimentation, for me, led to a couple of dud tracks, but those duds were the result of the same artistic risk-taking that created “A Day in the Life” and the other parts that made it work.

Still, when listening, I can’t help but feel like I’m in a stuffy museum, observing it from afar rather than really experiencing it. I enjoyed most of the tracks but rarely felt that vital emotional connection, that spark I get when I find something I really love for the first time. I have a feeling that this isn’t the fault of the Beatles, it’s just what happens when art becomes so inescapable and influential. So many of the Beatles innovations have become commonplace that it’s likely that I simply can’t appreciate them the way people did at the time when there was no real precedent.

A lot of what music you really love comes down to timing: At a certain age a band might really make an impact that wouldn’t be felt if you listened to them even a couple years later. In that regard, I think I’ve either missed the boat on loving the Beatles or it simply hasn’t arrived yet. But listening did help me gain a respect for the band’s ability to play to the top of the pop charts while simultaneously experimenting with what music could be.

2011: A Retrospective and Look at the Future

As the year comes to an end, I thought it’d be fitting to take a look back at some of the events and debates that stood out for me in the last year.

The death of Trish Keenan

Most of the year-end “in memoriams” will be focused on Amy Winehouse, but no musician death affected me this year like Trish Keenan’s, who died on January 14th of pneumonia at age 42. Keenan fronted the UK dream pop group Broadcast, who, while consistently admired, never really got the level of popularity and acclaim that I felt they deserved. They quietly made some of the most beautiful and original music of the last decade, drawing from their 60’s inspirations like the United States of America and obscure foreign soundtracks to create something completely new.  At the center of their sometimes dark, psychedelic sounds was Trish and her warm vocals, which ensured that there was always a heart at the core of their music.

Trish’s death struck me because of how unfair it was for such an amazing singer to die of something like pneumonia, and because her death seemed to be met with relative shrugs or lack of acknowledgement from a lot of places. Considering her band was responsible for some of my favorite music ever, it was depressing to see it all get glanced over, or to see the band’s plays spike on last.fm before settling back down to normal just a couple weeks later. Her death didn’t just remind me of how life can seemingly end at any moment, but also the inherent sadness that comes with loving a band that nobody else seems to care about.

I named my blog after their debut album in tribute (and because it’s a great name for a music blog anyways), and I’ll continue to preach the greatness of Broadcast everywhere, even if I just get met with shrugs.

The year of “boring”

The biggest ongoing debate in music this year seemed to surround one word: “boring.” Is music today boring? What music is boring? What does boring actually mean in the context of music?

For me, this has been a subject of my attention for a couple years, when I noticed that local indie radio station The Current was playing a lot of music that bored the hell out of me (typically mopey folk). But the issue really came to a head this year when widely celebrated albums by the likes of Bon Iver, James Blake, and Fleet Foxes were branded as “boring” by many people (including me).

One of my favorite music writers, Steven Hyden, wrote an essay about the topic for The AV Club, where he criticized those that lazily use the word “boring” to describe music. I agree with some of what he says, but disagree with some of it as well. For one thing, I don’t think people that call music “boring” are wearing it with a badge of honor, but instead are simply disappointed at the direction music has taken.

But I agree that the word “boring” is dumb to use for music, which is why I’ve struggled a lot with this issue in 2011. Because, as much as I hate saying it, a lot of music this year really was boring. It’s not just that the sound of a lot of these artists is so low-key and passive, but there’s also the sense that it’s all been done before.  More than ever before, a lot of the most acclaimed music this year seemed to be stuck in the past, either fixated on reviving some trend (like the whole 80’s easy listening revival done by artists like Bon Iver and Destroyer that still completely baffles me) or recalling a specific sound and era. Even as I enjoyed some of the music by these revivalists, I still found it frustrating that so many seemed to be swimming in their own influences instead of making something we haven’t heard before.

Lame indie kids schooled by female veterans

While the whole boring music thing was happening, with most of it propagated by the same types of male artists that have always dominated indie music, an interesting trend for me emerged this year: A whole bunch of female artists returned from long layoffs and made some of the best, most original music of 2011.

It started in February when PJ Harvey released Let England Shake, her first solo album since 2007’s White Chalk and likely her best in over a decade. Like all PJ Harvey albums, it was an original, literate piece of work, but it also benefited from a broader scope as her look at war and her homeland felt bold and provocative when so much music this year felt lifeless and limp.  Her contemporary in original female songwriting, Björk, also returned with her first new music since 2007 with the dazzling multimedia Biophilia project. Arguably Biophilia’s music didn’t live up to its ambitious iPad app packaging, gravity-based instruments, science classes, and all the other crazy stuff Björk was up to this year, but it reminded me of how refreshing it is to see an artist actually try something new and attempt to take music somewhere it hasn’t been before.

Elsewhere, all-female supergroup Wild Flag, which included Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss of the dearly departed Sleater-Kinney, released what I thought was the year’s best rock album in September. For Brownstein, who has spent the last few years blogging for NPR and appearing on Portlandia,  it was her first recorded music since that band’s 2005 album The Woods. Wild Flag also included Mary Timony who had been relatively under the radar since her mid-90’s work with Helium.  For members with such pedigrees, their debut album was wonderfully unpretentious, a celebration of the greatness of rock music coming at a time when we need it most.

The reclusive Kate Bush even came back with 50 Words for Snow, her first new music since 2005’s Aerial. With its seven songs clocking in at a whopping 65 minutes, Bush’s album was an ambitious work that was remarkably distant from any sort of current indie trends.  Its lengthy songs never wear out their welcome and showcase Bush’s knack for quirky storytelling. The song lengths became an issue for me as a couple songs I didn’t like as much took up about 1/3 of the album, but it also had some of my favorite songs of the year, especially the 13 minute “Misty” about Bush falling in love with a snowman and “Wild Man,” her ode to the yeti.

So what does it say about music that the most ambitious, thought-provoking music this year was made by females in their late 30-50’s?  I’m not really sure, but I do think today’s entitled indie youngsters could learn a thing or two from the artists that helped make indie music what it is.

(These veterans were joined by up-and-comers like St. Vincent, EMA, Tune-Yards, Eleanor Friedberger, etc.  Overall, I think this was probably the strongest year for female artists in a long time.)

Looking forward to 2012

When I started this blog because I was bored over the summer, I figured it would be a fun challenge for myself, but one that few other people would care about.  For the most part I think that’s still true, but I’ve had more activity than I was expecting on it and have already learned a lot (such as that putting pictures of Björk in your posts is a great way to get a lot of google images hits).  I’ve gained a lot of respect for websites I used to make fun of all the time now that I know how difficult it is to write about something so subjective.

For the next year, my goal is to listen and write fairly prolifically, with more focus on new music than I had in the past year.  Hopefully that will lead to more people reading and taking an interest in the blog, and who knows what happens from there.  I’m thankful to anyone who read or took an interest in my writing this last year, and hope you stay on board through 2012.  This blog wouldn’t be possible without you.  Well, actually it would be, but it’d be a lot sadder than it already is.

Confessions of a Bon Iver Hater

The old cliché about music is that it brings people together. It’s a unifying force in our lives, something we can often discuss with people we have little else in common with. However, I sometimes find that music is just the opposite for me. A lot of the time, music is alienating: It’s the band you love that nobody else seems to know or the band you hate that everyone else seems to love. Both seem to happen to me all the time.

In 2011, no artist represented that idea more than Bon Iver. The band, led by Eau Claire native Justin Vernon, released their self-titled second album this year to rave reviews from the music press and fans, topping many year end music lists in the process. He was the subject of countless magazine covers and articles, Facebook posts, and was even nominated for the Grammy for best album, signifying his breakthrough into the mainstream consciousness. Living in St. Paul, which is right in the heart of Vernon’s midwest stomping grounds, it seems like everyone loves Bon Iver.

Except for me, of course. In the months since his last album came out, I’ve been carrying around a horrible secret:  I kind of hate Bon Iver. I haven’t told anyone because I’ve been afraid of possible retribution (Bon Iver’s fans are an intimidating bunch) and, in general, it’s hard to tell someone that you think one of their favorite artists sucks. Especially when it seems to be the favorite artist of  half the campus where you spend most of your time.

It wasn’t always this way. Bon Iver’s first album, 2008’s For Emma, Forever Ago wasn’t my cup of tea, but I at least respected what went into it. The story of Vernon secluding into a cabin after having his heart broken and just writing music in isolation appealed to me, even if it was a tad corny. I didn’t like it, but I saw the appeal because it came from such an honest, genuine place.

I can’t say the same for his self-titled second album, which has baffled and frustrated me pretty much all year. It’s a long way from the spare, “cabin” arrangements of his first album, instead opting to bury his voice under layers and layers of glossy 80’s style sheen. For the most part, you can barely understand what Vernon is singing about through the album. This works for me if you’re a musical genius like Kevin Shields or Radiohead; it doesn’t when your album sounds like it was produced on a synthesizer made in 1983.

Most of all though, though, Bon Iver is just so… dull. Nothing about it grabs my attention. This is incredibly subjective, of course, because different things are interesting to different people. But I have an incredibly hard time picturing anyone getting pumped up to listen to Bon Iver. The same could be said about a lot of folk music, but at least most folk singers have concrete lyrics that I can grab on to so there’s an actual meaning to their songs. Any emotional connection I could make to Bon Iver was typically buried under a synthesizer, a guitar, a saxophone solo, autotune, and the washed-out production.

It’s rare that I outright dislike an album that is so widely acclaimed, so I thought a lot this year about why I had such an intensely negative reaction to Bon Iver. For awhile, I looked at it as sort of a character flaw. Maybe I’m just biased against Vernon and his bearded white male folky brethren, or just wanted to hate the album because it was popular. Perhaps I’m just too stupid to understand the album’s complexity, similar to how I don’t get Animal Collective.

These are all still valid possibilities, but I also think Bon Iver just lacks pretty much everything I look for in music. To illustrate this point, and to try to figure out why I hated this damn album so much, I thought it would be interesting to compare it to my favorite albums of this year.

At the very top is PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake, which is probably the most sensible comparison to Bon Iver. These are the two most acclaimed albums of the year and both are primarily folk-influenced. Both have been called boring by a lot of people, yet I found Let England Shake incredibly powerful and moving while finding Bon Iver tedious. It’s really in the conception where PJ blows Bon Iver out of the water: She made a searing portrait of war in her homeland.  Bon Iver made… what exactly? Another folk album where a white guy sings about how sad he is?  Where Bon Iver’s lyrics were either cliche or impossible to understand, PJ’s grabbed me and jolted me and had a visceral impact. Let England Shake was my favorite album this year because of its ambition and literary depth.  Bon Iver had neither of those things.

That might have been an unfair comparison, since Let England Shake is an amazing album by one of my favorite artists. Perhaps a more fair comparison would be EMA, whose debut album Past Life Martyred Saints was third on my list and was also somewhat folk-influenced. I don’t think any song this year jolted me and made me say “who the hell is this?” the way EMA’s “California” did when I first heard it. It was raw, bold, and confrontational, lyrically and musically. It pulled no punches, which is something I really love in music.

Bon Iver is a far cry from that idea. To say Bon Iver pulls punches would be an understatement. It doesn’t even punch at all. It just kind of sits there. There is no attempt at standing out, no hint of challenging listeners, none of the sense of emotional catharsis that I thought Past Life Martyred Saints had. It has absolutely no boldness or originality. It’s just another in a long line of indie folk albums, the type that we hear seemingly thousands of every single year.

In the end, I’m left wondering what it says about the state of indie music today that something like Bon Iver is so widely adored. Is this really what we want from music? Is this what we’re willing to accept from artists? I don’t doubt that for many people the album had a profound emotional impact. Personally, I expect more. I want music that challenges me, excites me, is bold and original. In other words, I don’t want Bon Iver.

Favorite Albums of 2011

At this point, most sites and magazines are releasing their 2011 music lists (even though there’s still some time left) so I figured I’d join in the party.  Rather than over-analyze which albums are “important” my list is basically the albums I listened to the most and felt the strongest about.  I think, based on previous posts, the stuff I like is pretty clear.  First and foremost, I enjoy albums that at least try to accomplish something unique and have some sort of ambition, and I felt like 2011 had a good supply of those.

The list, unsurprisingly, is also quite female-heavy.  Admittedly, this is largely due to my bias towards female singers and those are the types of artists seek out and listen to the most. But let it be known that I did listen to many of the acclaimed albums released by male singers, and I found most of them oppressively dull.  The shift in the last few years away from guitar rock and into folk, bedroom pop, and other genres largely populated by bearded wan guys has done nothing but reinforce my female-biased perspective.

So, in 2011 particularly, I felt that female artists gave music something it was missing in most aspects.  If you have a problem with it, make your own list, or just yell at me in the comments or on Facebook.  I’ll be happy to argue with you.

10. Eleanor Friedberger – Last Summer

I don’t think any album this year was as pleasant of a surprise to me as Last Summer, the solo debut of the Fiery Furnaces’ Eleanor Friedberger.  I’ve only been a casual fan of the Furnaces (particularly their zany 2004 epic Blueberry Boat), but at times their overstuffed, wildly imaginative music could become frustrating to listen to.  Last Summer solves most of those flaws, building songs around simple instrumental configurations, with an emphasis on bass, piano, and occasionally saxophone.  What really elevates the album beyond the typical indie pop fare is Friedberger’s idiosyncratic charm as a vocalist and lyricist, which helps it strike the perfect balance between accessibility and experimentation.  High points like “My Mistakes” and “Roosevelt Island” are beautiful, nostalgic pieces of summery pop and prove that Eleanor is capable of succeeding just fine without her brother.

9. Radiohead – The King of Limbs

It’s a good thing Radiohead released The King of Limbs in February.  After purchasing it in advance with massive expectations, I was incredibly let down by my first two listens and frustrated by the lack of guitar, the mere eight songs, and its general obliqueness.  Of course, like most Radiohead albums, King of Limbs is a grower, and after revisiting it a few months later I began to appreciate the underrated rhythm section’s contributions to the album, plus the back half which has some of the band’s most beautiful work to date like “Codex” and “Give up the Ghost.”  While The King of Limbs may not be an essential, ambitious Radiohead album like Kid A or OK Computer, it’s still a Radiohead album, and it shows the band settling into a comfortable groove rather than trying to change the world.

8. Widowspeak – Widowspeak

First thing’s first: Yes, Widowspeak singer Molly Hamilton sounds a lot like Mazzy Star’s Hope Sandoval.  Despite that obvious influence, the band is able to bring something unique to the table, combining Mazzy Star’s hazy aesthetic with the sounds of Ennio Morricone’s spaghetti western soundtracks.  What’s most impressive is how well-crafted and self-assured the band’s songs are on their debut album, full of catchy melodies and memorable guitar riffs like on the knockout track “Gun Shy.”  Widowspeak is nothing groundbreaking, but it’s one of the most fully-formed albums of the year and one that I found myself listening to repeatedly.

7. Yuck – Yuck

Much like Widowspeak, Yuck has obvious 90’s influences: Dinosaur Jr., Sonic Youth, and My Bloody Valentine among them.  Those are some of my favorite bands, so the group of age 20ish youngsters had big shoes to fill, and for the first couple listens I couldn’t help but be annoyed as they pillaged basically every element from those bands in creating their sound. What separates Yuck from the rest of the bands that knock off these indie rock heroes is that their music never feels cynical or calculated.  Rather, it’s the sound of young people playing the kind of music they like to listen to (and doing it quite well to boot, such as on noisy, melodic guitar tracks like “Get Away” and “Holing Out” and the sweet male/female “Georgia”). Besides, is sounding kind of like Dinosaur Jr. and Sonic Youth really a bad thing?

6. Fucked Up – David Comes to Life

This is another album I wasn’t expecting to like, probably because of the silly band name and the lead singer’s growling, roaring vocals. Most of the time I’d lament what could have been had the band picked a cool female singer instead of a questionably talented guy, but it’s hard to imagine another singer capturing Fucked Up’s anarchic spirit.  David Comes to Life is an 18 track, 77 minute rock opera, clearly indebted to the ambitious punk albums of bands like Husker Du.  Like most concept albums, the storyline isn’t anything special and the album is fairly monochromatic and arguably about 25 minutes too long, but it’s also full of some of the most exciting rock music of the year with one fist-pumping anthem after another and many layers of arena-ready guitar.  David Comes to Life filled a void for me in 2011 as an ambitious, epic rock album.

5. Björk – Biophilia

In typical Björk fashion, most of the build-up to Biophilia focused on everything but the music. People talked about the made-up instruments, the iPad apps, and all of its other multimedia connections.  Perhaps that’s why critics were surprised at Biophilia‘s sparse sonic landscapes and immediately complained about the lack of “songs” on the album.  (Could there be a lazier criticism of music?)  In the end, it seems like critics didn’t really grasp what Björk was doing: For example, many complained that a song called “Dark Matter” was too formless and lacked pop hooks (see what she did there?). Every song on Biophilia  ties into science and nature in a clever, uniquely Björky way, like the quirky love song “Virus” which compares lovers to being a “host”  or “Mutual Core” which begins contemplatively before exploding into noise and beats.  Biophilia is unlikely to convert any non-believers, but it’s a completely unique album full of wonder and awe at the natural world.  And there’s songs too, if you give it some time.

4. St. Vincent – Strange Mercy

Fully entrenched in her status as an indie goddess, Annie Clark easily could have settled into a zone and kept making quirky, whimsical pop songs like on her second album Actor. Fortunately she didn’t, and Strange Mercy represents a quantum leap forward for her as an artist.  Her music retains its quirks and charms, but Strange Mercy is more aggressive and strange than any of her previous work, from the ominous “Surgeon” to the creepy-but-catchy “Cruel” (with its disturbingly funny music video).  It also has some of her most personal songs (particularly “Cheerleader”) and she allows her guitar skills to be at the forefront far more than she has previously.  Strange Mercy is another step forward for St. Vincent, who has staked a claim as one of the most unique and interesting artists in music today.

3. EMA – Past Life Martyred Saints

Erika M. Anderson, formerly of Gowns, put a lifetime’s worth of pain and anguish into her debut solo album Past Life Martyred Saints, and we’re all better off for it.  EMA not only establishes herself as a fearless singer-songwriter on Past Life Martyred Saints, but also a unique one, as she channels her emotions into a pair of epic folk-noise suites (“The Grey Ship” and “Red Star”) which bookend the album.  In the middle is some of the most cathartic, raw music of 2011, including the apocalyptic, Kim Gordon-meets-Patti Smith tale of alienation “California” and the horrifying “Butterfly Knife” which is about body mutilation.  All of it is held together by EMA’s strong, versatile singing voice and guitar playing.  Past Life Martyred Saints might be too much gloom for some people to take, but for me it was one of the most powerful albums of 2011 and an astonishing debut.

2. Wild Flag – Wild Flag

All-female supergroup Wild Flag were burdened with massive expectations for their debut album. The band, consisting of Janet Weiss and Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney, Mary Timony of Helium, and Rebecca Cole of The Minders were simultaneously supposed to be saviors for women in rock and appeal to die-hard Sleater-Kinney fans who had waited for 6 years since their final album The Woods.  While saving rock music may be a stretch, Wild Flag is able to move beyond the supergroup label and sound like a legitimate band, one with skilled members who know their way around a great rock song.  More than anything else, Wild Flag is just plain fun, which can be refreshing in this era of self-serious navel-gazing.  And with songs like “Romance” the band celebrates the joy of rock music while simultaneously sharing it with starving Sleater-Kinney fans.

1. PJ Harvey – Let England Shake

There’s not much left for me to say about PJ Harvey at this point.  Her 10th album marked yet another departure in a career that has been full of them, presenting a study of her homeland of England and how it has been affected by war through time.  Let England Shake unfolds like a great World War I memoir as Harvey acts as a narrator through some of the country’s greatest atrocities, singing about the inevitable sense of war with a grim sense of resignation rather than shrill protests.  In many ways, Let England Shake is a culmination of PJ Harvey’s 20 year career:  It has the visceral, occasionally gory lyrics of Rid of Me, the higher-register singing of White Chalk, and the beauty and sense of place of Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea.  While this version of PJ Harvey may be quieter, her songs still hit with incredible weight emotionally, and it’s arguably her best work lyrically (I got chills reading the lyrics after I bought my copy of it).  Let England Shake is catchy, horrifying, and beautiful, often at the same time, and it stands tall above any other album this year for me.  It’s my favorite album of this year, the last few years, and probably the next few.