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.

Favorite 90s Albums: #1 – PJ Harvey – “Rid of Me”

Writing this list of 90’s albums has forced me to spend a lot of time thinking about what I value in music.  Looking over the final list, I think there’s a few traits that have popped up repeatedly:  Originality, emotion, charisma, ambition, and a little bit of weirdness, to name a few.

It’s fitting, then, that the top album would be by PJ Harvey, who I think has come to exemplify all of those traits with her music over the years.  I consider her the best artist of the 90’s and one of the best singer-songwriters of all time, male or female.  And when deciding which album should be number one on the list, I couldn’t bring myself to pick an album besides Rid of Me.  To me, it’s an album that has everything:  It’s largely unlike anything that came before it (or since), it has more emotion and angst than anything else I’ve ever heard, it’s the creation of an incredibly distinct artist, and in its own way it’s a work of great ambition and scope.

More than anything else though, Rid of Me is just plain crazy.  It is and will always be the definitive “crazy ex-girlfriend” album.  I don’t know what happened to PJ Harvey while she was living on a farm in England that inspired this, but few albums have the sense of catharsis and emotional release that Rid of Me does.  It wants to shock you, and it does so immediately with its haunting cover art of a topless PJ thrown against a wall with her medusa-like hair coiled around her.

There’s lyrics like “I’ll make you lick my injuries and “I’m gonna twist your head off” from the title track.  There’s a song about the hand-job from hell (“Rub ‘Til it Bleeds”), another about Tarzan’s poor girlfriend Jane (“Me-Jane”), and at one point a poor ex-boyfriend has his legs severed by PJ in one of the album’s most harrowing moments.

The lyrics are just part of Rid of Me‘s groundbreaking madness.  For the album, PJ brought in Steve Albini, who gives the album his distinctive raw production, full of the kind of noise he helped to pioneer as a member of Big Black and an engineer of the Pixies and Breeders.  With its lyrics combined with the production, everything about Rid of Me is taken to the extreme. Many were turned off by Albini’s production, and PJ later released the demo versions of some of the songs on 4-Track Demos for fans put off by all the noise and abrasiveness.  There’s also remixes of the album floating around on youtube that put PJ’s vocals higher in the mix.

It might just be that I’m a Steve Albini fanboy, but I’ve always found his production integral to Rid of Me‘s greatness.  It’s just another way that the album is completely uncompromising, almost to the point that it seems to be actively antagonizing listeners that aren’t prepared for its full-on assault of the senses.  The sound of the live instruments gives the album more life, and as a result makes its contents terrifyingly real.

At the center of all of the carnage and noise is PJ herself.  While Rid of Me is extremely conflicted, it’s clearly the work of an artist who is incredibly sure of herself.  The way the album forsakes all taboos and conventions, particularly for a female artist, only adds to the its considerable power.  On “50 ft Queenie” she flaunts her cocksure bravado and badassery: “hey I’m the king of the world/you wanna hear my song?”  While Rid of Me is an album that had potential to alienate a lot of people, it’s as if she knew deep down that people wanted to hear her crazy songs anyways.

In the final track, PJ wails “I’m in ecstasy.”  After nearly 45 minutes of blood and guts being spilled everywhere, it’s an incredibly fitting conclusion that represents the album’s unique catharsis.

Rid of Me was released during grunge, the female singer-songwriter boom, and riot grrrl, and at times it’s been lumped in as a part of each of those genres.  However, it separates itself clearly from that large pack based on how intense and brutal it is and how fearless its creator was.  Much like Loveless, I see Rid of Me as the perfection of an idea.  While radio-friendly artists like Alanis Morissette and others gathered more buzz for their anti-boyfriend screeds, none of them compare to Rid of Me‘s artistry and flat-out insanity.  In the 18 years since it was made, I still don’t think anything has topped it in terms of sheer intensity and emotion.

Rid of Me was the last album made by the original PJ Harvey trio, as PJ went on to a more artsy solo career with other 90’s classics likeTo Bring You My Love and Is This Desire?  She changes her sound and image on every album, and her work is always interesting.  But I don’t think she’s ever topped the thought-provoking, ugly descent into madness that is Rid of Me.  It’s one of the boldest rock albums of all time, and in my opinion the best of its decade.

Favorite 90s Albums: #2 – My Bloody Valentine – “Loveless”

One of the elements of music I find most interesting is the idea of building on the past, the way that bands take in certain influences and hallmark albums and try to build on them or improve them in some way.  But a recurring theme in this series has been the idea that the very best albums simply can’t be replicated.  Albums like In the Aeroplane over the Sea, Homogenic, and pretty much all the others are too much a product of the genius of their creators and the specific time and place that they were made.  They’re also such perfect distillations of the genre or sound that they’re trying to accomplish that there’s no point in even trying.

Perhaps no album exemplifies that idea more than My Bloody Valentine’s 1991 masterpiece Loveless.  By pretty much any measure, this is one of the most influential albums there is in indie music.  In fact, it’s one of those albums that seems to be a building block of what “indie music” even is, given how vague and all-encompassing the term is.  Bands have tried to replicate it in the 20 years since its first release and none have come even remotely close. The most successful have been ones that merely borrowed bits and pieces of Loveless instead of trying to capture its entire aesthetic.

Much of that is due to its creator, Kevin Shields.  Shields had the idea for Loveless in his head and paired it with a relentless commitment to bring it to fruition.  As a result, the recording sessions for Loveless have become somewhat legendary, as Shields spent two years cycling through various engineers, meticulously recording the sound of the album in various studios, and nearly bankrupting Creation Records (who promptly released My Bloody Valentine from their label following the release of the album).

Of course, all of the craziness by Shields is what makes Loveless what it is.  Despite having few coherent lyrics, it’s a uniquely powerful album, one that is difficult to explain and simply has to be experienced.  It finds beauty in the previously ugly realm of noise in music and for the most part was unlike anything that came before it.  And its songs also show surprising pop craftsmanship but are also nearly impossible to pinpoint due to the abstract sounds and lyrics.

One thing I sort of miss about the current state of music is that feeling of throwing an album into a record or CD player and just letting it spin, without really knowing what you’re about to hear.  That sense of nostalgia for an era that I didn’t even really experience that much comes up a lot when listening to Loveless, mostly because of the opening track “Only Shallow.”  Has there been a better two seconds in music than the beginning of this song?  It starts out with a drum beat that sounds fairly normal, but a second later the walls of guitar come in and it’s unlike anything I’ve heard before.

Loveless not only perfects its aesthetic (primarily known as “shoegazing”, another unnecessary musical genre term that I could live without), but also takes it in many different areasThere’s more traditional rock songs (“Only Shallow), but also lush, dreamy pieces featuring Bilinda Butcher’s vocals (“Loomer”) and more abstract, sonic dirges (“Sometimes”). There’s also “Soon”, which takes the style and puts a dance beat to it, which caused Brian Eno to call it the vaguest music ever to be a hit in the charts.

20 years later, My Bloody Valentine still hasn’t followed up on Loveless.  Shields has only sparingly been involved in music publicly, collaborating with various bands but doing little in the way of his own music outside of a My Bloody Valentine reunion in 2007.  He’s thrown out music that he doesn’t deem good enough for release, and sounds like he simply refuses to make an album that isn’t as good as this one.  Given that, I wouldn’t get my hopes up for another My Bloody Valentine album, because Loveless simply can’t be improved upon.

Favorite 90s Albums: #3 – Sleater-Kinney – “Dig Me Out”

At this point, I’m sure people are aware of my deep, abiding love of Sleater-Kinney.  They’re my musical religion, the band that, to me, represents everything that music should be about. All of the elements that make them a definitive rock band to me are present on their 1997 album Dig Me Out, which many fans would argue is their high point as a group.

Admittedly, I’m a big dork about rock music.  For me, it isn’t for blasting in the radio or playing at a party.  Rather, I like to take the term literally:  It should “rock” you, make you think, and wake you up from the constant doldrums of life and humanity.  Alleged “rock” bands that don’t do these things are frequently the target of my ire and it’s a constant disagreement I have with other people.

Dig Me Out is one of my all-time favorite rock albums because it has such a sense of purpose.  It isn’t just trying to sound cool or to be a fun soundtrack to a dance party (although some of the songs are quite danceable).  It wants to jolt the listener, to move them and inspire them.  And for a certain group of people, the types that are disenfranchised with the status quo in both the real world and music world, it does just that, which might explain why the band has such a rabid (but relatively small) following.

For Dig Me Out, Sleater-Kinney brought in a new drummer, Janet Weiss, to go along with Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein’s two-pronged guitar and vocals assault.  Weiss immediately gave the band a new-found sense of confidence and swagger, and as a result Dig Me Out sounds like their first album in which they’re aspiring to be a great all-around rock band rather than just a punk outfit.  Her presence was immediately felt in the opening title track, which I consider one of the band’s signature songs.

After the release of their 2000 album “All Hands on the Bad One”, music critic Robert Christgau said of the band: “locked into a visceral style and sound that always maximizes their considerable and highly specific gifts, they could no more make a bad album than the Rolling Stones in 1967.”  It’s a bold statement, but one I find completely true:  Not only can I not imagine Sleater-Kinney making a bad album, it’s hard for me to picture them making a bad song.  Corin Tucker’s attention-demanding vocals, Brownstein’s complex riffwork and vocal chemistry with Tucker along with Weiss’s drumming made Sleater-Kinney into a machine.  It’s apparent on Dig Me Out, which comes storming out of the gate with three of the band’s best songs and never lets up from there, providing an exhilarating 36 minutes of rock and roll.

The oddball song on the album is “One More Hour,” a more personal song that (apparently) details the break-up between Tucker and Brownstein that happened in the early days of the band.  Sleater-Kinney’s style makes the song work perfectly, as the ping-ponging guitars and vocals also play into the idea of the two having had a relationship.  I think it’s one of the all-time great indie break-up songs and it foreshadows the shift Sleater-Kinney would make on their next album (“The Hot Rock”) into more personal territory instead of rousing, occasionally feminist anthems.

I’ve always thought that all-female bands occupied a strange place in music, which might be why I’m so fascinated by them.  The female listeners they’re often trying to inspire often just listen to sensitive guys strumming on guitar, while a lot of male listeners look up to male rock idols in order to seem “manly.”  The band seemed to channel a lot of those concepts into meta songs about being in a band, like the infectious “Words and Guitar.”

The band’s greatness has eventually caused me to dub something called “The Sleater-Kinney Effect”, based on how lame the band is able to make other artists (especially their male counterparts) sound after listening to them.  The effect becomes even more pronounced through time, as 90’s guitar rock went by the wayside and Sleater-Kinney towered over unoriginal post-punk bands and wimpy indie pop in the first half of the 2000s.  In 1997 things probably felt the same way, as Dig Me Out provided a jolt of legitimate female empowerment at the height of the Spice Girls “girl power” movement, and surely inspired many women (including one of my favorite current artists, Marnie Stern) to pick up a guitar.

Despite how convinced I am that they’re one of the best bands ever, I’ve come to accept that Sleater-Kinney is a love-it or hate-it proposition.  Tucker’s vocals are difficult on the ears a lot of listeners and a lot of people are put off by the band’s apparent feminist sloganeering.  At the same time, the idea of listening to Dig Me Out and not being inspired by the passion put into each song is foreign to me, even as a guy who isn’t really the target audience.  More than any other band, I feel like people that love Sleater-Kinney “get it” on a level beyond typical music listeners.

Favorite 90s Albums: #4 – Radiohead – “OK Computer”

I’ve been sort of dreading this one.  What is there left to be written about OK Computer?  By now, I imagine anyone who remotely cares about music has listened to it and formed their opinion on it.  Just about any list of top 90’s albums that is worth anything will have it at or near the top, with most praising it as a landmark album that has come to define the 90’s and everything that came after it.  It’s a prescient album that in some ways predicts how the internet would make music extremely fractured today in 2011.  It’s hard for me to imagine another album being made that unifies as many people as this one, that is celebrated by both the indie sect and more casual music fans.

Since enough has been said about it, I don’t really feel like giving my own inferior analysis of the music.  If you haven’t heard OK Computer, do it.  Now.  Close your door, stop reading this crappy blog, put on your headphones and spend the better part of the next hour listening intently.  Meanwhile, I can at least share what this album means to me personally.

I’m somewhat unique among the musically obsessed in that I didn’t really listen to music at all growing up.  My parents both played some classical stuff on guitar or piano, but there was very little in the ways of contemporary music.  When people asked me favorite bands or songs, I just kind of shrugged and said I didn’t listen to music.  Pretty much all of my musical memories from this time are things I was exposed to unwillingly:  Awful Smash Mouth songs, the collected works of pretty much every late 90’s boy band (thanks to my sister), and most of the other ubiquitous 90’s hits.  There was nothing that I ever sought out myself.

It wasn’t until high school that I began to take at least a casual interest in music.  It probably had something to do with the transition going on in my life, from a previously happy and well-adjusted elementary and middle schooler into an alienated high schooler.  After living a mostly sheltered existence, high school was the first time I saw what the real world was, and for the most part recognized how terrible it is.  I had always been considered funny, witty, and smart by people who knew me, but in high school none of those traits seemed to be valued. Eventually I basically gave up on trying to relate to my peers and became incredibly shy and withdrawn (problems I still struggle with today).  For the most part, I had no real friends that I was seeing regularly and just a handful of acquaintances who I would occasionally talk to.

After each day of high school, I would usually take a nap, but then I’d have nothing to do for the next 7-8 hours (since I rarely did my homework).  And that’s when I began to start seeking out music, partly out of boredom but also because there was this whole world that I had really not explored at all.  For the first year or so (I’m guessing), I latched on to just a handful of bands:  Oasis, Muse, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and The Verve.  And those bands, and pretty much just those bands, became music for me.  I listened to them constantly and didn’t bother finding anything else for a weirdly long amount of time.  (Sidenote:  I still listen to Oasis and The Verve occasionally, but now just hearing one note of Muse and RHCP is enough to almost make me gag.)

Eventually I began to look for more bands, and I decided to try to find bands similar to Muse. When searching, I found a lot of people saying that Muse was simply a worse version of Radiohead (“how could Muse be a worse version of anything?” I thought to myself).  So, I looked up Radiohead, saw that OK Computer was their most acclaimed and recognized album, and decided to give it a shot.

Now this will sound really corny, but it’s true:  OK Computer changed me.  It wasn’t just that it was so beyond anything I had ever heard musically, but it was also the first music that I really felt spoke to me and my situation.  It wasn’t poppy the way the Britpop bands were and wasn’t focused purely on histrionics like Muse.  It was all emotion, and it was all the emotions that I was feeling and felt weren’t being articulated anywhere else.  And it almost instantly sent me down the path from being someone who just listened to some music to being someone that really cared about music.  In a sense, Radiohead (and other bands I grew attached to) replaced the friends I didn’t really have, which might be why I’m so passionate about my favorite artists.

Now, 4-5 years later, I don’t find myself listening to OK Computer as much, possibly because it’s inextricably linked to a time in my life that I’d rather forget.  But I’ll always be indebted to it, and whenever I listen to it again I’m reminded of how powerful it is.  When I hear someone complain that Radiohead is too sad or mopey for them, I just kind of shake my head and chuckle, because I know that they don’t get it and probably never will.  And it reconfirms that, despite their massive popularity, Radiohead is a band that seems like they made music just for me.

Favorite 90s Albums: #5 – Björk – “Homogenic”

At this point, it seems like Björk is one of those artists that is known for everything but the music she makes.  Instead, we primarily hear about how weird she is, the swan dress, the music videos, and the various multimedia work she does.  Talking to people my age, I sometimes feel like Björk is more of an abstract idea than an actual person:  She represents the dreaded “weird music,” the type that just “isn’t for me” or is “too out there” for them to enjoy.

Now certainly, a lot of this is because Björk is, in fact, weird.  But why is weirdness considered such a bad thing by so many people?  Personally, I’ve always thought weirdness was one of the most crucial attributes for a musician — I frankly have very little interest in hearing some normal guy or girl playing music.  I want to hear weirdos, the weirdest weirdos imaginable, the kind that make music because they’re so damn weird that music is the only thing they can do to keep what little shred of sanity they are still holding to.  I want weirdos that are so weird that even other weirdo musicians find them weird.

I love Björk because she is a special kind of weirdo, gifted with an incredible voice that is one of the wonders of the modern world, but also with a knack for the avant garde and a relentless creative ambition.  Obviously, her music won’t be everyone, but I think it’s far more accessible than most would think given all the second-hand things they often hear about her.

This brings me to Homogenic, which I consider to be the highlight of Björk’s magical career, and one that also represents one of the many changes in style for her.  After her first two solo albums, “Debut” and “Post”, played up her quirky pixie image, Homogenic departed from that, instead focusing on cool strings and beats to create a much more ominous and grandiose sound.  While “Post” was noted for being a hodge-podge of influences and styles, Homogenic was, as the title would suggest, a study of one sound.

That doesn’t mean the album is samey, but rather that it is incredibly consistent and cohesive while still having a lot of variety.  When it was released in 1997, Homogenic was on the cutting edge of pop, electronic, dance, and avant-garde music, and nearly 15 years later it still feels that way to me.  There are no dud tracks, and the album flows perfectly from each to the next, covering many different moods, from the looming opener “Hunter” to the magestic final track “All is Full of Love” (which, with its amazing robots-in-love music video, seems to be a precursor to just about all Pixar films).

 

In between, there are many other highlights that perfectly toe the line between accessibility and avant-garde.  “Jóga” is one of the career highlights for Björk, a stately dedication to a friend and her homeland of Iceland.  It’s likely the album’s most breathtaking moment and one of the most beautiful songs of the 90’s.

The most epic moment on the album is “Bachelorette,” which was conceived as a sequel of sorts to Post’s “Isobel.”  It has a huge, foreboding sound with its thudding beats and Björk’s voice soars even more than usual.  The music video, directed by Michel Gondry, is also one of the all-time greats (in general, the music videos of this album are fantastic and a testament to Björk’s appeal as an artist).

There are also quieter moments on Homogenic, including the lovely “Unravel”, as well as some of her more up-beat dance numbers like “Alarm Call”, which, like the rest of the album, also has great lyrics.  Although hearing Björk say “I’m no fucking buddhist” is always jarring, as she doesn’t seem like she should be capable of swearing.

Overall, this is one of my favorite electronic and pop albums and I find it to be a perfect summation of Björk’s strengths as an artist.  When people say they’re not sure if they’d like something like Björk, I usually tell them to listen to this album.  I don’t think they ever do, but if they did, they may be surprised at how beautiful the music is, and how authentic Björk is compared to some of today’s musicians who just put on a weird costume and are considered artists because of it.  Björk is the real deal, and I’ll always be a fan of her for that, even if others find her (and me) strange.

(Note: #6 in this series was Helium’s The Magic City.  Read all about it here: https://thenoisemadebypeople.wordpress.com/2011/06/15/helium-the-magic-city/)

Favorite 90s Albums: #7 – Spiritualized – “Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space”

“Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space” is a colossal, heartbreaking album that came out of one of the most classic rock music traditions.  Before the album, Spiritualized frontman Jason Pierce had his heart broken by band member Kate Radley, who secretly married The Verve’s Richard Ashcroft.  Two of the best albums of the decade, The Verve’s “Urban Hymns” and this one were very likely written about Radley, who became like a britpop version of Pattie Boyd.

After enduring that experience, a lot of musicians would make a mute, plaintive record, baring their emotions that way.  What makes “Ladies and Gentlemen…” so great is that Pierce does just the opposite:  He brings in strings, horns, a gospel choir, and clearly does a whole lot of drugs in an attempt to drift as far away from his problems as possible.  In other words, he floats in space,  and he brings the listener with him.

Despite all those indulgences, everything about “Ladies and Gentlemen…” feels earned, in part because Pierce’s emotional core is always there in the songs.  It’s not an exercise in masturbatory excess the way some of the similar 70+ minute albums of the time period were.   For Pierce, who since his days in Spacemen 3 had specialized in drony, spaced out music, “Ladies and Gentlemen…” is his most triumphant artistic statement because, despite it’s space-rock sound, it is firmly grounded in reality.

The album has one of the greatest openers ever with the title track.  Kate Radley, who is still in the band at this point, says the opening words “ladies and gentlemen we are floating in space” for full ironic effect before the orchestral strings and Pierce’s echoing vocals come in.  The song borrows lyrics from the Elvis Presley song “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” which created some legal problems when the album was first released, but now the song can be experienced in its full glory thanks to a recent reissue and some changes in songwriting credit.

That song segues into the second track, “Come Together”, which is one of the most straight-forward rock songs Spiritualized have recorded.  In general, the album offers an ideal mix of Spiritualized’s drone and space rock tendencies with more straight-forward numbers, which is what helps make it the band’s masterpiece.  “All of My Thoughts” is one of the saddest songs on an already sad album, with Pierce lamenting “I don’t know what to do on my own/because all of my thoughts are with you,” after which the song explodes into spaced-out noise with squealing horns and guitar.

The centerpiece of the album is “Broken Heart,” which represents the peak of the album’s sadness.  Along with The Verve’s “The Drugs Don’t Work”, it’s one of the most relentlessly bleak songs of this era, thanks a beautiful seven minute string arrangement and Pierce’s rock bottom lyrics:  “I have a broken heart/but I’m too busy to be heartbroken.”  If anyone ever asks me what the saddest song ever is, this is usually one of my answers.

The album closes out with the 17 minute “Cop Shoot Cop…” and I can only hope that Pierce was able to exercise some of his demons with this record.  “Ladies and Gentlemen…” falls into what I like to call “experience albums.”  Listening to it takes you to a different place, which is one of the best things that music can do.  Spiritualized has never really reached this level of greatness before or since, but on this album everything clicked, and the result was one of the best heartbreak albums ever, as well as one of the finest arguments for using mind-altering substances to make music.