Top Five Albums of 2011—Electronica Need Not Apply
Pitchfork has come out with its top 50 albums of 2011, and yet again their year-end list proves them to be at the forefront of alternative-music journalism. Hell, I wouldn't be exposed to half of this stuff without them. But my problem with their list this year, however, is the fact that their the top ten is weighted heavily toward electronica, or, as I like to call that genre of music, "guilty until proven innocent." One band guilty, and perhaps in need of a death sentence, is the Brooklyn-based Oneohtrix Point Never, which epitomizes nonsensical background non-music (and epitomizes the preposterous band name). Nonetheless, they've been the media's darlings, with the New Yorker’s excellent critic Sasha Frere-Jones gushing over them (note: Sasha is an editor for whom I've worked at the Daily). Pitchfork placed that cacophonous jumble as the sixth best record of the year, a serious WTF moment. Not surprisingly, my own top five will not include electronica; about the closest thing to that genre that I liked this year was the heavily hyped M83 record, Hurry Up We're Dreaming, which is better than most electronica; M83 is more along the lines of the legendary My Bloody Valentine, which nicely melded buzz-saw guitar and doink-doink-doink electronica.
Forthwith, here's my top five.
5. Smoke Rings for My Halo, Kurt Vile. A mellow guitarist-songwriter from Philadelphia who eschews the hip trappings of the alternative-music scene—though you wouldn't think so by looking at him. In fact, a guy who looks like Kurt Vile just served me a coffee in Brooklyn.
4. Several Shades of Why, J Mascis. One of two instances where Pitchfork completely blew it; J's record didn't even make their "Honorable Mention" category. Mascis, founder and lead singer of the seminal band Dinosaur Jr., proves over and over that not only is he an incredible guitarist (perhaps one of the best living today), but he's a thought-provoking songwriter and lyricist. One track I can't stop listening to: "Too Deep." Here's the official video for "Is It Done."
3. Past Life Martyred Saints, EMA. I began listening to this record in August, and it never gets boring. EMA, the moniker of Erika M. Anderson, formerly of the band the Gowns, has put out a blistering, haunting, guitar-driven gem, featuring such lyrical bon mots as, "Fuck California / You made me boring," from the track "California." Here's the hardscrabble video for it.
2. Bon Iver, Bon Iver. Yeah, all the hype surrounding Eau Claire, Wisconsin, native Justin Vernon is legit and deserved. I've been a huge Bon Iver fan since I heard his first record For Emma Forever Ago. As a fellow Wisconsinite, it's hard to not be supportive of his well-earned success (ugh, except the Bushmills ad). Vernon's falsetto and song arrangement alone make this a phenomenal record, and Pitchfork christened it as the year's best. I'm almost in agreement; every track on the record serves in its own folk-operatic milieu and is a sheer joy to listen to. Here's the video for the excellent "Holocene", which I gotta say reminds me a lot of the beautiful Sigur Rós video, Glósóli.
1. Bad as Me, Tom Waits. Just when you thought Tom Waits was settling down in the sunset years of his life, he comes out with a near-perfect record that both harkens back to his drunken-troubadour days and blazes a new trail of alternative music (and I'm using alternative here as it's defined in the dictionary, not the genre). Simply put, Bad as Me just might be the best Tom Waits record ever, which is saying a fuckload, since he's put out amazing record after amazing record. Here's a video for "Satisfied," one my favorites from the record. (Oh yeah, Pitchfork blew this one too. They gave it a middlingly positive review and omitted it from their best-of list.)