Friday, December 09, 2011

The Year in Music: My 10th, 9th, and 8th Favorite Albums of 2011

On to the top 10.  A quick note that I make every year: My favorite ten albums are exactly that.  I'm not a music critic, and I can't comment on the art, necessarily.  I can only really rank albums in terms of how much enjoyment I took from them.  I see a lot of live shows, and I spend a lot of time listening to bands that I'm going to see, because I like going to shows when I'm familiar with the material, so who's touring in Chicago has a big impact on what I listen to.  I saw nine of the ten bands on this list at least once this year.  The albums that tend to make this list are the albums that I spent a lot of time listening to not only before their shows, but after as well.  A lot of the music I listen to goes back on to the proverbial shelf when a band leaves town.  These are albums that I wanted to listen to a lot regardless of who was playing in town at any given time.

#10 - Smith Westerns - Dye it Blonde
The kids from Chicago, barely old enough to drink at their own shows (legally) followed up their debut album with more polished production and better songwriting.  Beach Boys style melodies and some terrific guitar work from Max Kakacek are over this January release that was actually the perfect album for summer.  In a live setting, the lead guitar can get lost a bit.  Kakacec's sound is pretty thin, though it really complements the music well.  They can also be slightly off-putting on stage, but I'm not sure that's unexpected from a band that has drawn so much interest from the indie world at a such young ages.  Still, it's music that really translates well to a live show, and for the time being, you can still check them out in really intimate settings.  Their first single "Weekend" was one of my favorite tracks of the year.

#9 - Peter Bjorn and John - Gimme Some

There's a local Chicago band called the 1900s that I took a liking to last year, and I try to see them whenever they play in town.  They posted a message to Facebook that they'd be opening a show for PB&J, who were playing four shows in the course of a handful of days.  They'd been on my radar, but I'd never paid much attention.  I bought a ticket to see the 1900s, and figured I'd stick around for the headliner.  I liked the album and the show so much that I bought another ticket for their Schuba's show a few nights later, and this became one of my favorite albums of the year.  It's power pop, though perhaps a bit more on the pop edge.  It's up tempo stuff that I can't really describe other than by saying it's just a lot of fun to listen to, and their live shows were really terrific.  Great audience rapport, a lot of interaction, and music that plays really well in an intimate setting.  The album is full of good tracks, but the one below, "I Know You Don't Love Me" is probably my favorite.

#8 Eleanor Friedberger - Last Summer
When the Fiery Furnaces released Blueberry Boat back in 2004, it was my first foray into the artier side of indie rock.  It was definitely acquired taste, but given enough time, it grew on me.  The Fiery Furnaces (Eleanor and her brother Matt), went deeper and deeper into quirk and oddity, mostly it seems at Matt's direction. They started the road back toward the beaten path on 2007's Widow City, and 2009's I'm Going Away, arguably the most accessible of all of their releases.

You're kind of never sure what you're going to get from this pair.  I saw them for the first time last year at the Empty Bottle, and their performance, while quirky, blew me away.  They played an hour straight, without pause for applause, or an instrument change, or anything.  Just a solid hour and about a 25 song medley, switching key signatures and time signatures at the drop of a hat, all while never missing a beat. They played two shows in May this year, this time as a duo, Matt on keyboards and Eleanor on the microphone, calling them their "recital shows" (the Oak Park natives were playing to friends and family).  

Based on the momentum of their last couple albums and the increased accessibility of their live material, I was really looking forward to Eleanor's solo debut.  It's about as radio friendly as a Friedberger album is going to get.  She shows a lot of pop sensibility, but retains the quirky lyrics and instrumentation that are are prevalent on Fiery Furnaces records.  And that's apparent from the opening track (and lead single) "My Mistakes" embedded below.  I should also note that she's a super nice person if you ever get the chance to meet her.  Following just about all of her shows, she hits the merch table faster than the customers, and is always a very pleasant person to chat with.  It makes her music that much easier to like.  There's also a great cameo in this video by Spoon's Britt Daniel, which she mentioned before covering Spoon's "Trouble Comes Running" in her solo show this year at the Hideout.

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