PJ Harvey is Mortal

PJ Harvey is a genius musician whose songs often provide keen insight into human nature, but she isn’t a journalist. She tries to be one on her new album, The Hope Six Demolition Project, which focuses on modern politics and her experiences traveling to Washington D.C., Kosovo, and Afghanistan. In the process, she proves that even the most gifted, well-intentioned and insightful artists aren’t immune to the lapses in judgment that happen when you stumble out of your comfort zone.

Part of Let England Shake‘s greatness was that it pulled off a delicate balancing act: Harvey was using stories she wasn’t a witness to and interpreting history to make observations about modern society, which can be a heavy feat to try to pull off in a series of short songs and comes at the risk of the artist not knowing what they’re talking about. It worked because there was the personal connection Harvey had to England, and because it was telling stories from the more distant past that weren’t fresh in most people’s minds and were thus more ripe for interpretation.

The Hope Six Demolition Project struggles because it is focused on the present, which makes the issues more controversial and well-known. When Harvey describes an area of Washington D.C. as “a shithole” with drug-using “zombies” in “The Community of Hope,” she is talking about a place where people currently live — and many of them aren’t too happy about the portrayal. Harvey toured the area with a reporter, and in his description of the encounter, she comes across as an outsider who floated in, jotted down some notes, and confirmed her pre-existing conclusion about the area without actually talking to any of its residents. Much of this album has that similar cursory feel, like it is only scratching the surface of its themes without having all the information or nuance. She is like a reporter who didn’t do all of her homework before submitting a story.

It sounds silly to talk about these sorts of journalistic standards in music, as if I would expect Flea from Red Hot Chili Peppers to thoroughly research the effects of “Californication” before playing a song about it. But Harvey has established a different standard for herself, and if an artist of her caliber is going to try something of this scope, my expectations are going to be high. And it is Harvey herself who is missing from this album: without the personal connection to the subject matter, like she had on Let England Shake, the lyrics are just the kind of political commentary that everyone who is on the internet is tired of hearing about. The perspectives she is offering aren’t fresh or thought-provoking, and the focus on distant observations about foreign cities makes her seem like an intruder into other people’s stories.

This criticism probably makes the album sound like a disaster, but it’s fine musically and most artists would be happy to ever make something that sounds like this. After a couple albums of ghostly songs that used her higher register, Harvey sings more forcefully on this album and brings back some of the noise and chaos of her early albums in the form of honking saxophone parts and some distorted guitar. However, the sound also doesn’t feel all that new for Harvey, since it’s a lot of parts and ideas she’s used in her previous music, as opposed to one of her customary skin-sheddings like on White Chalk. Combined with the lyrics (which admittedly are hard to separate from the music for me), it is part of why this album is flat and uninspired for her standards.

The Hope Six Demolition Project will likely go down as one of my least favorite PJ Harvey albums, but it is a fascinating project that makes me think a lot about the limitations of music. In the span of 3-5 minutes, musicians can do incredible things and make us feel inspired, sad, or amazed. But in terms of portraying complex political issues and communities, subjects that demand a certain amount of nuance and space, maybe it isn’t possible to accomplish what Harvey is trying to do here. Certainly, if she can’t do it, I’m skeptical that anyone else can.

PJ Harvey – “The Wheel”

Five years after Let England Shake — which some reputable music bloggers consider to be one of the best albums of recent memory — PJ Harvey is back with a new song, “The Wheel,” from her upcoming album, The Hope Six Demolition Project. While Harvey is known for dramatically changing her sound and persona from album to album, this song feels like it’s on the same path that Let England Shake was, as it maintains the folk-inspired music and lyrics drawing on war and conflict. However, it’s clear that this isn’t going to be a rehash of that album, and the song feels like the the logical next step from it.

On “The Wheel,” Harvey is broadening some of the themes from Let England Shake, turning her focus to more global politics rather than only her homeland and also touching on more contemporary subject matter instead of drawing entirely from the more distant past. But the main theme — the cyclical nature of war and terrible things done in its name — is fittingly still here, illustrated by the metaphor of the titular “revolving wheel” that keeps spinning as children disappear. The video shows Harvey in Kosovo, which she visited while working on the album, but the lyrics themselves don’t specify the conflict she is referring to.

Harvey is known for not repeating herself on her albums, which is why it’s ironic that “The Wheel” is book-ended by two very noticeable repetitions. First, there’s the intro, a burst of chaotic noise with handclaps and a recurring saxophone part that lasts over 1:20 in the unedited version. Then there’s the outro, where Harvey repeats the phrase “and watch them fade out” over 20 times, which lasts 1:25 and is reminiscent of one of her most famous songs.

I’ve become obsessed with the outro in particular. In the context of the song, it is referring to the 28,000 missing children, but it’s easy to start thinking of other meanings it could have as she keeps repeating the phrase. And the fact that she says “and watch them fade out” so many times, over and over, speaks volumes in and of itself — just like the wheel keeps turning, we keep watching children fade out, and Harvey keeps singing it, shifting between a sense of accusation and resignation. In the world of art about war, “watch them fade out” is a worthy successor to a similar refrain: “so it goes.”

Four Years Later, “Let England Shake” is Still Great

Let England Shake was probably my most anticipated album ever when it was released in February 2011. But when I heard it was an album about war, I was scared, because my experience with anti-war media has often been negative. Too frequently, it has this obvious “stop the fighting maaaaaannnnnn” tone, and the only emotion it creates is embarrassment on behalf of the artist, who had the audacity to think their whimpery songs could actually make a real difference in how people view international relations.

In retrospect, I should have had more faith in PJ Harvey, who is my favorite artist in large part because she never takes the obvious, easy route. On her solo albums, she has constantly done the unexpected, adopting new personas and sounds so that each album she makes is a very pure, stand-alone vision. Her last album before Let England Shake was White Chalk, a haunting, piano-driven album that shared literally no resemblance to any of her previous music and confounded many of her fans. I figured if any artist could handle the subject of war, it would be her, but it was hard to imagine someone doing justice to the topic within the confines of a 40-minute album.

On first listen, Let England Shake could be mistaken for one of those embarrassing anti-war albums. The lyrics that jump out are the violent or polemic ones, like on “The Glorious Land” when she says “what is the glorious fruit of our land?/the fruit is deformed children” while out-of-place war trumpets play in the background, or when soldiers fall “like lumps of meat” in “The Words That Maketh Murder.” Certainly, in some respects, Let England Shake fits the mold of conventional war art, with the horrifying “war is hell” imagery and generally defiant stance. But the more I’ve listened to this album over the last few years and thought about it, the more I’ve realized that it is so much deeper than it may first appear — anyone who writes it off as a shrill political album is not giving PJ Harvey enough credit and is misconstruing her intentions.

Let England Shake is primarily concerned with history and place. It is about how the past is always with us, even if we weren’t there to see it ourselves, and how a nation’s previous decisions can continue to haunt those who are still living there today. These themes are there in the lyrics, but are also cleverly present in the music itself, in particular through the use of sampling — “The Words That Maketh Murder” borrows the lyrics “I’m gonna take my problem to the United Nations” from Eddie Cochrane’s “Summertime Blues,” while “Written on the Forehead” samples “Blood and Fire” by Niney the Observer. These samples create an effect where ghosts from the history of music are present in her songs, mirroring the album’s stories of past wars and fallen soldiers that are still, in a sense, with us today.

Harvey plays an interesting role on Let England Shake, as a woman describing the theater of war, which has historically been created and populated by men. Singing in her upper register, similar to White Chalk, she mostly acts as a narrator, describing the atrocities she sees in vivid detail — in my mind, I imagine her floating around the battlefield like a ghost. The lyrics often seem inspired by World War I poets like Siegfried Sassoon, or other classic poems from Britain’s past (the story of “All and Everyone” is reminiscent of “The Charge of the Light Brigade”), and they have the same power as the stories from people who lived these wars. But while Let England Shake is heavily steeped in the past, it never forgets to relate it to the present, and it asks real questions about how people have to live with their nation’s histories.

These themes come through most clearly on “England,” where Harvey drops her role of narrator and sings directly from the current-day first-person perspective.

I live and die through England
Through England
It leaves a sadness
Remedies never were within my reach
I cannot go on as I am
Withered vine reaching from the country
That I love
You leave a taste
A bitter one
I have searched for your springs
But people, they stagnate with time
Like water, like air
To you, England, I cling
Undaunted, never failing love for you

This is obviously the song where the album’s sense of place is most apparent, and it captures this very specific, ambivalent feeling that is also common among Americans. I often feel a connection to my country and sometimes even a level of pride in it, but it is so frequently matched by disgust for the things done in America’s name, either presently or in the past. So much of Let England Shake is about this uncertain attachment, and it’s part of why I think it goes beyond just being an anti-war album: while it is criticizing moments in England’s past, it is coming from a place of deep love and connection, which is what “England” really articulates. It’s the song that really ties together the album’s themes and helps push it beyond being a stodgy history lesson.

A theme I’ve found to be present in nearly all of PJ Harvey’s work is the tension between ugliness and beauty. Her early music, in particular 1993’s Rid of Me, was self-consciously ugly and intended to shock, with abrasive production, noisy guitars, and the austere cover art showing her naked in a bathtub with her hair coiled like Medusa. 2000’s Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea was intentionally the opposite, an attempt to make a beautiful album with lush guitar reverb and actual love songs — music videos from the album like “Good Fortune” showed Harvey looking more glamorous, confidently strutting around New York City. Let England Shake is the synthesis of these two extremes: it has a graceful, beautiful folk sound, but the lyrics and themes are ugly, violent, and ambiguous, much in the way her early music was. This is why Let England Shake often feels to me like a culmination of all her previous work, and proof that while she sounds different, her music still hits incredibly hard.

The same year Let England Shake came out, I ended up taking an English course in War literature. My final paper for the class was about Slaughterhouse-Five and used one of my favorite quotes from the novel: when Kurt Vonnegut says he is writing an anti-war novel, a filmmaker replies “Why don’t you write an anti-glacier book instead?” The strength of that book and Let England Shake is that they don’t fall into the trap of merely being anti-war and thus anti-glaciers. Instead, they study the impact it has on the people who lived it and those who came after. I try not to say albums are “literary” since they’re their own thing, but Let England Shake has a level of nuance and depth that is exceedingly rare in music, and it holds up even when compared to authentic war literature. I consider it to be the most impressive musical accomplishment of the last several years, and one that I think is legitimately important to listen to.

Old People Make Good Music Too

It’s no secret that music culture is obsessed with youth: blogs and review sites often center around “break-out” or “rising” artists and are usually targeting a young, often college-aged demographic of hip listeners. Music is often linked to image and coolness, and young people are decidedly better-looking and cooler than old people. This is accompanied by a similar mini-backlash against older artists, who are frequently dismissed as something like “dad rock” or have their current work ignored in favor of their classics from when they were the young people being covered by the press and listened to by the cool kids.

When I made my albums of the decade list a few weeks ago, I noticed that the top of the list was dominated by older, more experienced artists. PJ Harvey is 45, Fiona Apple is 37 and has been releasing music since she was 19, Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine is 52, Björk is 49, Kristin Hersh of Throwing Muses is 48, Kate Bush is 56, Mary Timony of Ex Hex and Wild Flag is 44. This wasn’t a conscious attempt to zig while everyone else zags — they were just the albums I liked the most from the last five years.

The common theme with all these artists is that they’ve been around for awhile. Most of them have released several albums worth of material, often fading in and out of popularity as they continued to follow their various muses. There is also a general perception with all of them that they’ve already “peaked” with albums they made when they were younger. Their albums on my list all were well-reviewed, but they weren’t appearing on the cover of magazines or whatever the equivalent of that is now in 2015. The statement my list ends up making (largely unintentionally) is that these artists still have something to say in their work, and it’s often overlooked in favor of less interesting bands that either drive more traffic to a website or can be built by whoever is hyping them.

A lot of this feeling comes from my own background as a self-proclaimed “wannabe writer.” At age 25 now, I’ve yet to feel like I have any sort of deep perspective or statement to make in anything I write, because I just haven’t lived enough — I’m still trying to figure everything out. When I write, it’s in an effort to improve my craft, and I feel with each essay or story (regardless of quality) I learn something and get better. I don’t think writing random blog posts is directly comparable to making music, but the general concept of honing the craft and constantly improving is something I think often holds.

Nearly all the albums at the top of my list had that feeling in them: they were works that the artists had been working towards for several years, and often synthesized elements of their earlier work in a satisfying way. Let England Shake tied together so much of PJ Harvey’s music, and felt like something only an experienced artist who knows exactly what she’s doing could make. The Idler Wheel… was Fiona Apple’s most confident album, a distillation of what has made her such a popular musician. M B V  was the result of an over 20 year odyssey, and drew on both My Bloody Valentine’s past while also hinting at their potential future. I’ve written enough about Vulnicura, but it goes without saying that a much younger artist couldn’t have made an album that was drawing from years of love and heartbreak.

Purgatory/Paradise is an album that was almost entirely ignored, but was really ambitious, taking Throwing Muses’ classic sound, smashing it up, and re-imagining it. Kate Bush’s 50 Words for Snow had incredibly deep storytelling, and was a vastly uncool piano-based album with songs that stretched past 10 minutes in length. It was a real crafted work made by someone who takes their art seriously and is good at it. Maybe the most interesting example is Mary Timony/Ex Hex: it was my favorite album of 2014, in part because I felt it sounded young, even though Timony is in her mid-40s. It was an energetic, fun rock album, made by someone who simply knows how to write a great song, a case of an older artist beating the youngsters at their own game.

My appreciation for these albums is part of a type of fandom that I fear is getting less common, which is being a huge fan of an individual artist and following them on their journey from album to album. I always see their careers as being like a story, and albums like these as compelling chapters in them. As the internet bombards listeners with seemingly infinite music and new artists keep being recycled to feed the hype machine, this context starts to get lost — it stops being about the artists and starts being more about whatever sells day-to-day. Each album is just used to feed discussion for a day or a week (if it’s good) and then is forgotten about because something else comes along so quickly.

It is hard to make this sort of argument without sounding jaded at “the kids these days,” and taken too far it can get into the absurd Rolling Stone territory where dinosaur rockers consistently crap out “five star albums” into their 90s. But I can’t even count how many times I’ve seen a young band get talked up, only to instantly recognize that it has nearly nothing to do with the music — it’s either because they look like a cool band or they fit whatever story a site is trying to sell. They make the “albums of the year” list once, then are forgotten about two albums later, because some other young band has taken their place.

All of this has instilled me with a lot of skepticism for any young hyped-up band, and an appreciation for artists who have proven they make music that can endure. Youth is often exciting, but in terms of actual artistic statements or expression, it’s hard to buy that so many people my age are actually making worthwhile, memorable work. Sure, there’s prodigies like PJ Harvey, who made Rid of Me when she was 24, but that’s not normal. There’s something to be said for the artists who have been honing their craft for years or even decades, like PJ Harvey now, and are still creating music that has real thought and feeling in it.

Favorite 2000s Albums: #8 – PJ Harvey – “White Chalk”

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In 2004, PJ Harvey released Uh Huh Her, the one album in her catalog that I don’t consider myself a fan of. It’s not a bad album, but its lo-fi guitar tunes felt like a retread coming from an artist who I’ve always loved because of how she defies expectations. While some always wish that PJ would keep making music that has a certain sound, I think she’s at her best when experimenting and doing something that nobody expects her to do.

This is why I think 2007’s White Chalk is probably her most underrated, and possibly the album by her I respect the most. After being known early on for her aggressive bluesy guitar songs (and even being acclaimed earlier in the decade for the straight-forward rock of Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea), PJ chose to set down the guitar entirely, instead writing a set of songs for the piano — an instrument she admittedly barely knew how to play. She also traded in her deep roar of a voice, singing the songs on White Chalk in a high, ethereal voice that is at the very top of her range.

The resulting sound is ghostly, eerie, creepy, but also beautiful. It creates a unique distillation of moods that only PJ Harvey ever seems to be able to conjure out of me. It blows my mind that the same artist who made this album also made Rid of Me, which topped my 90s list and was pure anarchy, chaos, and rage. On White Chalk, everything is extremely delicate, including PJ’s personality which has gone from larger than life (like on “50 ft Queenie”) to someone who seems unsure of herself at every turn. Meanwhile, Rid of Me‘s swaggering rock has been replaced by songs that rarely feature much more than the piano or a broken harp.

White Chalk ends up pulling off something that very few modern albums do: it sounds completely unlike anything else that came before it. It is an incredibly self-contained work that manages to create its own little universe in the span of 34 minutes. PJ takes everything that makes her unique and identifiable as an artist and reduces all of it to the bare essentials.

Despite the new sound and a completely different persona, White Chalk is still identifiable as a PJ Harvey album. The one constant in her work over the years has been her lyrics, and on White Chalk they hit harder than ever with the spare instrumentation. A recurring theme throughout the album seems to be childbirth or abortions: on “When Under Ether” she sings “something’s inside me/unborn and unblessed/disappears in the ether/one world to the next,” joined by an ominous, repeating piano line. The title track is one of my favorite songs by her, a lovely meditation on her homeland of Dorset that also references an unborn child at the end.

Most of White Chalk is about a feeling of being solitary and lonely, but it’s also a more hopeful album than some give it credit for. “Before Departure” sounds like a funeral song of sorts, but I think it’s more about a choice to live a simpler life. “Silence” has similar themes, with PJ singing “I freed myself and remained alone.” Of course, there’s plenty of darker material on the album too, which is par for the course for PJ.

While critics usually lap up anything that PJ throws their way, the response to White Chalk was more muted, understandably so. It’s an extremely hard album to pin down from an artist who is the same way. It’s also not the type of album that ever makes these silly end-of-decade lists — it was perhaps self-contained to a fault, containing little in the way of broader statements about modern culture or life. With some patience, though, White Chalk proves itself to be maybe the most daring album in PJ’s catalog, an album that is completely unlike anything else and reveals its greatness slowly, in a different way than its predecessors.

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.

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.