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.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

The Year in Music 2011: The Not Top Ten

So over the course of the year, I counted up about 45 or so 2011 releases that I bought this year, in addition to a handful of albums that were released last year or earlier.  They can't all be in the top ten, so here's how the rest stacked up.

Albums that came out in 2010 (or earlier) that I discovered or appreciated this year:

  • Crocodiles - Sleep Forever
  • the 1900s - Return of the Century: Would have been higher on last year's list had I run across it earlier
  • Tame Impala - Innerspeaker
  • Gold Motel - Summer House
  • Army Navy - Army Navy (2008): Also released a new album this year
  • Superchunk - Majesty Shredding: Bought this last year, but didn't pay attention to it much before the Pitchfork Festival this year.  This a really terrific album.  May have been a top 10 last year under different circumstances.
Incompletes - Albums that I bought this year, but for whatever reason barely listened to.  Also known as albums that could show up in the category above next year:
  • Panda Bear - Tomboy: PB released my favorite album of 2008, and Animal Collective released my second favorite album of 2009, yet I couldn't seem to make time for this one.
  • Los Campesinos! - Hello Sadness: Just released recently.  Will get around to it eventually.
  • Ivy - All Hours: A band whose albums I will still buy, but need a reason to listen to.  Haven't found that reason just yet.
  • Hooray for Earth - True Loves: Bought on the basis of their EP from a year or two ago.  Didn't strike me after the first lesson.  Need to head back to it.
  • Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues: Just can't seem to get into this group.
  • The Black Keys - El Camino: I'm half tempted to not even include this album in this year's list.  Released much too close to the end of the year for a proper evaluation, though it's pretty good so far.
Releases that I liked a lot, but don't feel right including because they were EPs:
  • My My My - Wishing You Whatever's Best:  Local Chicago band.  Opened for Nicole Atkins.  Put on a great show and gave out free copies of their EP.
  • Superhumanoids - Parasite Paradise:  LA act that opened for Cults and Magic Kids.  Were better than Magic Kids.
The rest of the not top 10:

36) Art Brut - Brilliant Tragic:  Loved the last album.  Was underwhelmed here.  And the antics at their live show this year were a real turn off.

35) Yuck - Yuck:   Everybody seems to love these guys, but I didn't care that much for Dinosaur Jr. the first time around.  Or apparently the second time around.  They're alright, but this album bored me.

34) Radiohead - the King of Limbs: This could also have gone into the "Incomplete" section.

33) The Pains of Being Pure at Heart - Belong:  See #36.  While I loved the first album, this was just OK, with a lot of forgettable songs, and nothing as good as the singles on the first album.  Very underwhelming live show as well.

32) the Strokes - Angles:  A couple really good songs, but a lot of meh as well.

31) the Drums - Portamento:  Another in the line of underwhelming second (or third, or fouth) efforts.  Maybe I placed the expectations too high.  Their debut was my ninth favorite album of 2010.

30) Au Ras Au Ras - Au Ras Au Ras:  The brainchild of Tess Brunet.  This is actually pretty decent, but not truly grabbing.  Donated some cash on Kickstarter for this one.  Tess seems pretty cool.

29) Cut Off Your Hands - Hollow:  Finally a sophomore effort I preferred to the debut.  Really late '80s vibe on this one.  Nothing really mind blowing, but fun to listen to.

28) The Raveonettes - Recharge and Revolt:  Kind of a by the numbers release from a band whose baseline is still pretty good.  While I liked the album, it's one that I really didn't go back to after their Lincoln Hall show in April.

27) the War on Drugs - Slave Ambient: Saw these guys three times this year, and this album has some songs that translate really well live.  Still, half of it's great, half of it is forgettable.

26) YAWN - Open Season:  Local Chicago band that was a bit of revelation. Saw them open for Tame Impala and they really impressed me.  Debut album sounds like a cross between White Rabbits and Animal Collective.

25) Nicole Atkins - Mondo Amore:  I liked this one better than her first album.  Sort of skirts "adult contemporary".  Kind of surprised she's not a bigger mainstream act.  She's beautiful and has a great voice, and this album has some really fun songs on it.

24) Those Darlins - Screws Get Loose:  One of the "girl-group retro-pop" outfits that were all over 2011.  Their schtick is GG-RP with a honkey-tonk twinge.

23) Fool's Gold - Leave No Trace:   I need to spend a bit more time with this album, but they've moved from an Israeli-African sound to something that sounds more like Foreign Born, which isn't surprising since most of the guys in Foreign Born are also in Fool's Gold.  Still, since Foreign Born hasn't released an album since 2009's fantastic 'Person to Person', this will have to do. 

22) The Ladybug Transistor - Clutching Stems:  Elephant Six connected act that's been around for 15 years or so.  This album has a bit of Burt Bacharach feel to it.  Great melodies and hooks.  

21) The Features - Wilderness:  Another album that was released pretty recently.  Like their last album, this is one that I won't need to listen to all the time, but it's something I could listen to all the time.

20) Army Navy - the Last Place:  Great power pop hooks.  Nothing too substantial, but fun to listen to.

19) Tennis - Cape Dory:  Girl-group retro-pop - the nautical version.  Sugary melodied songs from a husband and wife about their adventure sailing up and down the East Coast.  

18) Dum Dum Girls - Only In Dreams:  Girl-group retro-pop - the shoegazer version.  Lots of fun to listen to, and Kristen Gundred's voice sounds really nice in comparison the yelling vocals she employed in her last act 'Grand Ole Party'.  

17) Handsome Furs - Sound Kapital:  Another husband and wife act, this time writing the whole album on keyboards.  Still, the guitar heavy tracks, like "Bury Me Standing" are the stand out tracks.  Great live energy.

16) Girls - Father, Son, Holy Ghost:  And now we start to get into the albums that were probably in my top ten at some point in the year.  Great follow up to last year's 'Album', this has a similar mix of somewhat forgettable down tempo numbers, and really fun up tempo numbers.  Another great mix of melodies.

15) Atlas Sound - Parallax:  Hurt by it's recent release, Bradford Cox moves slightly further away from the ambient waviness of his first Atlas Sound record, and closer to the sound he's perfected with Deerhunter.  As I tend to prefer Deerhunter, it's a move I'm happy with.  "Te Amo" is to Parallax as "Helicopter" is to Halcyon Digest.

14) Destroyer - Kaputt:  I'm never quite sure what to expect from Dan Bejar.  It's safe to say that I didn't expect his latest album to be a foray in Smooth Jazz.  But Bejar pulls it off.  It's not Streethawk, but neither is anything else he's done since Streethawk.

13) Generationals - Actor Caster:  Boy-group retro-pop.  These guys really do it right.  Though I didn't like this as much as 2009's Con-Law, it's still loaded with great pure pop songs.

12) Viva Voce - The Future Will Destroy You:  Third husband and wife duo.  This Portland act took a side trip last year with their Blue Giant project, and released a great country tinged pop album.  Their back in their original format, but this felt more like a melding of Blue Giant and Viva Voce.  

11) the Joy Formidable - The Big Roar:  Pixieish Welsh vocalist Ritzy Bryan delivers some booming energy on this swirling rock and roll debut.  Big, anthemic songs delivered by a power trio that really lives up to the power aspect.  

Tomorrow we start with the top ten.  

Pujols and Wilson and Hawkins, oh my !

Here are some quick thoughts on the Angels' flurry of activity in the last 48 hours.

  • Albert's contract is an overpayment that will look pretty bad in four or five years.  And that being the case, who the hell cares?  It's not my money, and Arte has pretty clearly shown that the worst contract in baseball (Vernon Wells) is not going to keep him from spending money on excellent players who want to come to Southern California.  If he delivers a championship somewhere over the course of this contract, it's worth it.
  • CJ Wilson would make serviceable #1 starter, but he'll be a pretty terrific #4 starter on the Angels.  And while he's 30 years old, he's only been starting in the majors for two years, so he doesn't have a tremendous amount of innings on his arm.  
  • Latroy Hawkins is going to feel really out of place at that press conference.  
  • How would you like to be Jerry DiPoto?  You finally get your first real GM job, and take over a relatively solid team with some holes to fill, a team with a pretty decent farm system, arguably the best prospect in all of baseball, and oh yeah, the owner also has given $40 plus million to spend in the off-season.  
  • I have a lot of friends who are Cardinals fans, and so far I haven't sensed much animosity towards Pujols.  My friend Dayn says that Albert will continue to be one of his favorite players.  And while I understand that they're disappointed right now, they are just coming off a World Series Championship.  Given the option of losing the WS, or winning it and being forced to give up my team's best player, I'd probably choose the latter.  Flags fly forever.  
  • These are pretty great moves to make right before you sign a new television contract.
  • If there was ever a question about whether Arte Moreno cared about winning, I think it has been answered. Talk about a breath of fresh air, this is a guy that absolutely could not handle missing the playoffs two years in a row.  Long time Angels fans have been conditioned to survive at least 16 consecutive years with no post-season baseball. 
  • I love it when teams add to their strengths.  Everyone talks about balance, and sure it's important, but the Wilson signing reminds me a lot of the Braves in the 1992 off-season.  Everybody expected the Braves, coming off two straight WS losses, to go after free agent Barry Bonds.  He was a perfect fit, and would have given them an outfield of Bonds, Otis Nixon, and David Justice.  Instead, the team with the best pitching staff in baseball at the time signed reigning Cy Young Award winner Greg Maddux.  They took their best part and made it better.  All that did was get them into the playoffs for the next decade.  
  • Really fun day to be an Angels fan coming off the disappointments of the Teixeira and Crawford misses.  

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

The Year in Music: The Year in Live Shows

Exactly one year ago, I posted about the year in live shows, 2010. Following the same format, here's the rundown on 2011, keeping in mind that I still have tickets for two upcoming shows: the War on Drugs @ Lincoln Hall (12/7), and Joy Formidable @ the Metro (12/15).

  •  Shows attended: 54 (plus two remaining), which means I'll beat last year by about 10. 
  •  Sets witnessed: 97 (plus about four remaining). Again, besting last year by about 10.
Shows by venue:
  • Lincoln Hall - 20
  • Schuba's - 12
  • Empty Bottle - 5
  • the Metro - 3
  • The Vic - 2
  • Subterranean - 2
  • the Bottom Lounge - 2
  • the Double Door - 2
  • The Hideout - 1
  • Beat Kitchen - 1
  • Fireside Bowl - 1
  • Silverlake Lounge - 1
  • Plus a number of Festival shows
Bands Seen Multiple Times (including festival shows):
  • tUnE-yArDs - 4
  • the 1900s - 3
  • the War on Drugs - 3
  • Smith Westerns - 3
  • Besnard Lakes - 2
  • Cults - 2
  • Destroyer - 2
  • Eleanor Friedberger - 2
  • the Fiery Furnaces - 2
  • Handsome Furs - 2
  • Joy Formidable - 2
  • Peter Bjorn and John - 2
  • Team Band - 2
  • Ted Leo - 2 (once solo, once with the Pharmacists)
  • the Thermals - 2
  • Wild Flag - 2
  • YAWN - 2
Biggest Months
  • July - 9
  • May - 7
  • October - 7
  • June - 6
  • August - 6
This year seemed more evenly spread out than last year.  

Biggest Letdowns:

Can't say I really had too many letdowns this year.  Most of the shows I went to provided a pretty good value, and I can't say there was anyone I was really psyched to see who didn't deliver.  I suppose I was not well positioned for either St. Vincent or Lykke Li, but that's really my own fault.  I was a bit let down by Pitchfork's overall lineup, particularly Saturday, a day on which Destroyer was the only band I really wanted to see.  I was also a bit let down by the fact that PJ Harvey didn't play any Chicago dates.

Biggest Surprise of the Year:

Actually, this year's biggest surprise was a band who was one of last year's biggest letdowns.  Girls gave what I thought was a pretty awful performance at the Pitchfork Festival, but they redeemed themselves this year with a really phenomenal show at Lincoln Hall.  I'd imagine the venue played no small role in that, but beyond the hot sun last year, I just thought their set and the tempo at which it was played didn't translate well to a live show.  No such problems this year.  I was also somewhat surprised by how much I really enjoyed the two Peter, Bjorn, & John shows I attended, particularly because those shows weren't on my radar until I learned that the 1900s would be opening one of them.  the 1900s are the reason I bought a ticket, and I ended up really being glad that I got a chance to see PB&J.

Best Single Night of Music:

Sunday at the Pitchfork Festival probably had the best overall lineup of music that I saw this year, starting off with Superchunk, leading into Deerhunter, followed by Cut Copy, and closed out with TV on the Radio.  Deerhunter put on the best performance of the weekend, and Cut Copy was better than I expected.  It was a nice way to end the Festival after a solid Friday (tUnE-yArDs, Guided by Voices, Animal Collective), and a crappy Saturday.

Biggest Screw-Job of the Year:

On June 15th at the Double Door, Team Band got totally hosed by Art Brut, a band they had been friendly with in the past.  The show was supposed to start at 9:00, with Team Band as the first opener.  Art Brut made them go on at 8:30.  Fortunately, I had checked the venue's website, which had been updated, but all of the information for the show had originally listed the start time as 9:00.  Other people who actually wanted to see Team Band, a really fun local act (and by local, I mean like my neighborhood) weren't so lucky.  The surprising thing about this is that the two bands have played together quite a few times, and the guys in Art Brut were kinda dicks about the whole thing, which really makes me want to not like Art Brut.  Fortunately, their album this year kind of sucked, so the situation kind of took care of itself.  

Top Five Shows of the Year:  

This was kind of a weird year in that there were a lot of really good shows, but very few, if any, really stood out and blew me away like the Fiery Furnaces, Titus Andronicus, and Deerhunter last year.  That said, these are the five that made the largest impression.

5) Gruff Rhys@ Schuba's - June 9th: It's been a couple years since Gruff Rhys has been to town with his main act, the Super Furry Animals, but he's been to town twice in the last few years promoting his solo stuff.  A couple years ago, he brought an extra vocalist, a bunch of props, and that was pretty much it.  He created a swirl of loops and percussion to fill in for the lack of backing musicians, and it nicely complemented his album Candylion.  This time, the Welsh surf rock band Y Niwl acted as both Gruff's opening band, and his back-up band.  The set up was well suited for his most recent album Hotel Shampoo, which is a bit more pop/rock forward than Candylion was.  His self deprecation played well to the smallish crowd in an intimate setting (Schuba's holds fewer than 200 people even when sold out).  It was among the best shows I've seen him do, with or without SFA. 

4) Wild Flag @ the Empty Bottle - October 9th: These ladies come to rock.  With Janet Weiss pounding away on drums while lead guitar duties switched back and forth between Mary Timony and Carrie Brownstein, they brought a lot of energy to the packed crowd at the Empty Bottle.  

3) tUnE-yArDs @ Lincoln Hall - May 10th: The first of the three shows she played at Lincoln Hall this year, I actually made it over the venue in plenty of time after having seen the Fiery Furnaces play their "recital show" at Schuba's earlier in the evening.  

2) the Thermals @ the Green Music Festival - June 26th: It's almost impossible for the Thermals to put together a set list that won't translate well to a live show.  They tried at the Onion AV Fest show in September, but even that show turned out pretty good.  At the Green Music Festival in Wicker Park, they were as close to perfect as possible.  They broke out all of their best stuff from across their entire catalog, and they hit every note.  They're also a band who clearly has a good time playing live.  Drummer Westin Glass may be the most enthusiastic musician I've ever seen.  It was also the only show I've ever seen with a stage set up right in front of a retirement home, and they even had those residents interested.

1) Ted Leo and the Pharmacist @ the Fireside Bowl - July 26th:  TL/Rx can sell out a venue like the Metro that holds over a thousand people.  So if you have the opportunity to see them in front of about a hundred people at an old bowling alley, you have to take advantage.  No big speaker system, no fancy light show.  Just a couple of big PA speakers and a punk band playing the kind of stuff they played back when bowling alley style gigs were all they could get.  The sound wasn't terrific, but the set was long and the setting was perfect.