Best Albums of 2011

I know it’s 2012 and all, but my laptop threw a hissy fit and decided to delete my almost completed list. So better late than never, right?

2011 saw the class of 2009 return with new albums, dubstep becoming inexplicably popular and Adele causing mass crying amongst all the single ladies.

On the local front, Gotye finally got the recognition his music deserves (although the album was something of a let down), Triple J Unearthed became a radio station and Boy & Bear proved that you can still win an ARIA if you use instragram to create your cover art.

Since this is a personal music blog, this list is more about what I enjoyed the most, rather than the objective best albums of the year. But I hope you enjoy it anyway


19. Los Campesinos!- Hello Sadness

Los Campesinos! have always walked the thin line between total sincerity and irony and with each passing album they seem to be heading into darker territory. Like previous releases Hello Sadness combines Gareth Campensino’s desperate vocals and witty song writing backed by frantic indie pop.

With the departure of violinist Harriett Campesinos, this is a much darker and more masculine album. If you’re looking for the angsty party tunes from their debut you will be disappointed. But if you enjoyed Romance is Boring, chances are you’ll love this album just as much.

18.Ball Park Music- Happiness and Surrounding Suburbs

It would be easy to write off Ball Park music as yet another sunny Brisbane indie band. And inmany ways there is very little separating them from the likes of Hungry Kids of Hungary or whoever else Triple J is flogging this week. However there is something a shambolic about them, as thought it could all fall apart at any second.

This aspect of the band has yet to be shown properly on record, but their debut album is still a solid one.

17.Yae!Tiger- Casualty of the Avalanche

Yae!Tiger could be on this list for the pop-up cover art alone. However the music on their debut album is also worthy, featuring the kind of lo-fi indie pop that The Pains of Being Pure At Heart should have released this year.  A whole lot of fun, a little bit serious and a perfect summer album.

16.Mountain Goats- All Eternal’s Deck

Their relative obscurity is both the best and worst thing about the Mountain Goats. The worst because that kind of talent should be admired by even the most casual of folk fans, yet the idea of 16 year-olds writing the lyrics to No Children on their Facebook walls is downright scary.

Despite their high album count, every Mountain Goats album is all about the lyrics and All Eternal’s Deck does not disappoint. John Darnielle could write about what he ate for breakfast and make it sound poetic and while not as personal as 2005’s The Sunset Tree, the lyrical content is both raw and memorable. Even if the music comes second.

15.The Decemberists- The King Is Dead

2009’s The Hazards of Love was ambitious to say the least. Even for a band known for its literary influences and unusual instrument choices a fairy tale rock opera is hard to pull off. While they managed it in style, it’s not hard to see why they wanted ot turn back of their folk roots.

The King Is Dead is not the best Decemberists album and nor is it close. With guest appearances from Gillian Welsh and REM guitarist Peter Buck it wears its influences on its sleeve. And while the lyrics at times boarder on old English instead of content territory, there’s something so charming about this album that makes it worth repeated listens.

14.Cults-Cults

Cults seemed to come out of nowhere this year, but they caused a massive splash. Their sound is half 60’s girl group and half modern indie band, with just enough lo-fi buzz to stop their songs becoming saccharine.

Singles Go Outside and Abducted are by far the best tracks, but the album as a whole is still excellent.

13.Mogwai- Earth Division EP

While Mogwai released Hardcore Will Never Die But You Will this year, it’s their Earth Division EP that really grabbed my attention. Mogwai have never been a very melodic band, with the quieter moments in their music usually met with loud crescendos only moments later.  On this EP however, we get to hear them in strings mode and while it’s not their best work, it’s an interesting change from what we expect from them. The songs are pretty and delicate (never thought I’d say that about Mogwai) and it’s interesting to say the least.

12.Geoffery O’Conner-Vanity is Forever

This is not the first time Crayon Fields front man Geoffrey O’Conner has released a solo album, however it is the first under his own name. His previous solo work as Sly Hats had an adolescent quality to it, with bedroom style production and a certain sense of insecurity. Not this time.

Above everything, Vanity is Forever sounds good. An 80’s sheen covers all of the album’s tracks which suits the laid-back songs perfectly. And it isn’t too heavy on the synths, something that more bands last year really needed to take notice of.

11.Slow Club-Paradise

Much like Los Campesinos! Slow Club’s sound has matured greatly in-between releases. Their debut Yeah So felt a bit like reading a diary from your teen years to a quirky indie-folk soundtrack, and while some of their angst is still there, Paradise presents a much different sound.

Instead of focusing on the harmonies between Charles Watson and Rebecca Taylor, Paradise sees Taylor taking lead vocals for most of the tracks and the result is a much cleaner, more darker and much more timeless record.

10.Kurt Vile- Smoke Ring for My Halo

No matter what he’s singing Kurt Vile sounds somewhat detached  on Smoke Ring For My Halo.  Given the way folk music has started to cross over into over-earnest territory, it’s just the thing the genre needs right now.

There are no gimmicks on this record, just fuzzy Americana which is precisely why I rate it as one of the best released this year.

9.Wilco- The Whole Love

The Whole Love could almost be a best of with the amount of ground it covers. From the 70’s rock of I Might to the sweeping 12 minute One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend) it combines all of the things there are to love about Wilco. It’s no Yankee Hotel Foxtrot but it’s the sound of a band who could play it safe, yet still push forward.

This is how you do an eighth album.

8.Laura Marling

Taylor Swift is 22. And she’s still singing about being the unpopular girl at school. Laura Marling is 21 and she’s released three albums that would rival anything someone twice her age can create.

On A Creature I Don’t Know she follows three separate characters and if you didn’t know anything about the record, it would be hard to pinpoint when it was released. There’s a depth to her voice that sounds like 300 heartbreaks. While it may not have the hype behind it that other female songwriters enjoyed it is nothing short of excellent.

7.Beirut- The Rip Tide

The Rip Tide is Beirut’s most accessible album to date, and his first that focuses on his own town rather than globetrotting through his influences.

The horns are still there, and so is Zach Condon’s unique voice, but this time the songs themselves seem more important than influences. Goshen is a beautiful piano driven ballad, while Santa Fe ventures into electro-pop territory.

6.Girls- Father Son Holy Ghost

Forget logcabins and broken hearts, Christopher Owens has the most interesting back-story of any current indie artist. Growing up in a religious cult, forming a band with Ariel Pink and indulging in a plethora of illicit substances has lead to the creation of some interesting and excellent music.

The album maintains a retro feel but jumps from style to style. Honey Bunny has a garage twinge while the shoegazey Vomit is an album highlight. But what makes the album so great is that Owens’ personality is visible on every track. At times its uncomfortable listening, but more often than not it’s familiar and universal.

5.Okkervil River- I Am Very Far

I Am Very Far is Okkervil River’s first non-concept album in eight years. In the past each of their releases have had similar themes running through them, making their albums a cohesive package that fans can easily spend months obsessing over.

Will Sheff’s lyricism is as strong as ever and the rock and roll lifestyle, broken relationships and metaphors about sailing still manage to find a way in. The sound however is very, very different. With many of the instruments layered in post-production it’s the biggest the band has ever sounded and for once the music is just as important as the words. The only fault of the album is that Mermaid, easily one of the year’s best songs, was cut.

It’s no Black Sheep Boy but with repeated listens it is a very rewarding album.

 

4.The Antlers- Burst Apart

2009’s Hospice was a concept album about cancer, death and strained relationships. It’s was a haunting, sad and beautiful listen that seemed to come out of nowhere.

Burst Apart is the follow-up and while there is no theme, The Antlers show they are just as capable of making brilliant music without one. There may not be as many heart-wrenching tracks and Peter Silberman’s voice sounds a lot stronger, but there is plenty to love. I Don’t Want Love and Putting The Dog to Sleep are must-listens.

3.Fleet Foxes- Helplessness Blues

So you’ve released a highly acclaimed, near flawless debut that almost single-handedly sparked a folk revival. What now?

For The Fleet Foxes the answer was to expand on their sound and take a few risks. And it’s certainly paid off. Helplessness Blues sounds like a band in transition. All of the glorious harmonies and gentle folk that made everyone fall in love the band are still there. Montezuma echoes the insecurities of being young perfectly and Helplessness Blues is the best first single you could hope for. On the other hand, Shrine/An Argument uses aggressive horns and Battery Kinzie sudden end would be out of place on their debut.

But there’s no use comparing really. This is an album that stands up on its own and shows that second albums can be worth the hype.

2.Bon Iver- Bon Iver

In 2009 Justin Vernon’s trip into the woods would become the stuff of legend. For Emma Forever Ago helped nurse countless broken hearts and all of a sudden he became a sensation. He appeared everywhere from a Kanye West album to David Letterman and there was no way his follow-up record could sound anything like For Emma.

Bon Iver has a much fuller sound but Vernon’s falsetto is as haunting as ever. The tracks are less wispy than those on the debut and all of them are sound-outs, even the heavily eighties sounding Beth/Rest. It’s an album that’s as enjoyable on the 50th listen as it is on the first.

1.Sigur Ros

Am I allowed to include live albums on this list? Who knows? But as a release, nothing else from 2011 could match Inni, both in terms of how often it graced my stereo and sheer musical brilliance.

Taken from a film that focuses on a live performance from 2008, all of the songs except one have already been released. In fact for the most part, the track list reads like a best of that spans across most of the band’s albums. The songs lose none of their warmth live and it’s almost unbelievable they can pull a sound like theirs off without studio trickery.

Inni is my album of the year purely because nothing else released was going to be able to sound better than this.

Best gigs of 2011

Here’s a totally subjective list of the top five gigs I went to in 2011. Enjoy

5. Ball Park Music @ The Gaelic Club

In July I went to Sydney for two weeks of PR work experience, Thai food and gigs. I spent most of my trip realising just how much of a stereotypical Melburnian I am (wearing black, eating from lane ways and being obsessed with decent coffee don’t bode so well in Sydney) and sizing up our rival city’s live music scene.

Towards the end of my trip I got sick, but luckily one of the friends I made convinced me to see Ball Park Music launch It’s Nice to be Alive. Having written them off as just another sunny Brisbane band, I was completely blown away by their shambolic and fun live show. I’ve seen them since and  was not disappointed.

4. Harvest Festival @ Werribee Mansion 

Life Music Media

With the cancellation of Soundwave Counter Revolution many were expecting Harvest The Gathering to fail. However with a killer line-up and a relaxed atmosphere it showed how one day festivals should be done. Unless you wanted to eat, drink or use the bathrooms that is.

Much has been said about the queuing situation and the lack of beer and it did put a dampener on what would have been an amazing festival. But with bands like The National, The Flaming Lips, Mogwai and Portishead on the bill, the music made up for the terrible organisation.

3. Will Sheff @ The Toff

It’s no secret that I’m a massive fan of both Okkervil River and The Toff and Will Sheff’s solo show totally exceeded my expectations. With excellent support from Mike Noga and Jimmy Stewart there wasn’t a fault the entire night. Except for perhaps Mike Noga’s hangover.

The songs from I Am Very Far really shone without the layered instrumentation that bogs down the entire album, revealing the great tracks that lie underneath. We were also treated to some older tracks such as Happy Hearts and The President’s Dead, which has seem largely forgotton since its muse left the White House.

2. Pulp @ Festival Hall

The Vine

Reunion shows are often quick cash-grabs that leave the audience unsatisfied. But there was none of this to be had when Pulp played Festival Hall after almost fifteen years since their last Australia visit.

Their intelligent brand of britpop is just as relevant as ever and despite the lack of new material, the band played as though they still had something to prove.The set was largely made of their greatest hits with surprises such as Like a Friend and Party Hard thrown in for good measure and it was perfect. In fact this would have been the best gig of the year if it wasn’t for a certain festival in country Victoria.

1.Meredith Music Festival

Meredith Music Festival combines all the things a festival should have: no clashes, acts that play in a mixtape-esque order and a very, very relaxed BYO policy.

With bands ranging from the hilarious Viking hair metal of Barbarion to the 1920’s stylings of Frank Fairfield there was literally something for everyone provided their tastes extended beyond the top 40. The lack of clashes meant that there were no difficult decisions in picking bands to see and most importantly we got to see Grinderman go out on a high. While the secret act turned out to be DJs it was the only downer in an otherwise perfect weekend.

Will Sheff @ The Toff 16/10/11

Okkervil River has always been about Will Sheff. Even on their latest release I Am Very Far, the biggest sound record of their career, the music seems to exist only to frame Sheff’s detailed and often dark lyrics. His solo show at The Toff on Saturday gave fans the chance to hear stripped back versions of the band’s songs and the result was absolutely incredible.

A few people turned up early to watch Jimmy Stewart. Although he may not be household name he has toured relentlessly (he once played 51 gigs in two months). Beginning with a cover of Charlie Chaplin’s Smile, his gravelly voice and songs that boarder the country end of the spectrum were a hit with the growing crowd, who remained silent for the entire set, a rare occurrence for a support band. Despite not being familiar with his work before the gig, I left it as a fan.

Mike Noga had the difficult task of opening for Sheff and like the last time I saw him the set came with its own unique charm in the form of a nasty hangover. He greeted the crowd by asking if anyone else was disappointed with the new Gillian Welsh album before launching into a set of dark indie folk. After three nights of playing drums for The Drones at The Corner he was visibly wrecked at spent most of the time in-between tracks rambling about various topics and telling the crowd how nervous he was because of their silence.

The crowd were silent for a reason though, with everyone paying him the attention of a headline act. The wager to guess all four acts referenced in  Piss On a Butterfly went down well, even though nobody could guess correctly. One of the biggest highlights of the set was Irish murder ballad Eileen, its dark subject matter unexpected after hearing Noga talk about his cats for the last five minutes. Not only did Mike Noga make the wait for Will Sheff bearable, he made it thoroughly enjoyable.

Launching straight into Rider , Will Sheff left little time for formalities. Using little more than an acoustic guitar and harmonica, the acoustic setting allowed for the songs’ strength to really shine through. The clever Plus Ones was a highlight of the set, as was B-side I Guess We Lost which I prefer to some of the tracks that eventually made it onto I Am Very Far.

The best part of acoustic gigs like this one is hearing fan favourites that are rarely played during fell-band sets. Happy Hearts was a surprise inclusion and sounded great despite the lack of Daniel Johnson. Nobody expected to hear The President’s Dead or Red live, the latter causing audible gasps among the audience.

Sheff switched to keyboard for a few songs which gave a different take on some of the songs. For Real lost none of its intensity without the full band, while his performance of Your Past Life Was A Blast improved on the studio version by removing all of the noise the plagues the album it comes from.

The biggest highlight of the set for me was A Stone. I discovered Black Sheep Boy as an angsty 16 year old that song in particular sound tracked many of my teenage years. Live it was incredible. Will Sheff has always sung like he is on the verge of a mental breakdown and thanks to the excellent sound of The Toff and the appriciative crowd, it was perfect.

That said, there were a few missteps. Using an iPhone to create a backing for The Valley was out of place, and seemed too much of a contrast to the rest of the set. Anyone else but Sheff would not have been able to pull it off. It was the final song, Our Life Is Not A Move Or Maybe that provided the set’s low point. Having heard some amazing acoustic version floating around the internet, I was particularly excited about hearing it. Instead Will Sheff played it on an electric guitar which didn’t quite mix with the rest of the set. That said, Will Sheff’s average is more than some musicians will achieve in a lifetime.

Overall it was an amazing gig that I am sure I’ll remember for years to come. The combination of the respectful crowd, intimacy of The Toff and the talents of all of the musicians involved made it something truly special.

Okkervil River announce more shows

Okkervil River have announced dates in Perth, Sydney and Brisbane to join their Melbourne Festival shows.

It will the band’s fifth tour to Australia and follows the release of their latest album ‘I Am Very Far.’

The dates are:

Wednesday 12th October – Capitol, Perth
Tuesday 18th October – Metro Theatre, Sydney
Wednesday 19th October – The Hi Fi, Brisbane
Friday 14th October – The Forum Theatre, Melbourne
Saturday 15th October – Meeniyan Town Hall, Meeniyan

Sunday 16th October – Toff In Town, Melbourne (Will Sheff solo show)

Okkervil River Are Coming To Melbourne

I’ve spent just over a week in Sydney and I’m already missing Melbourne. On the first night I arrived, I walked around the city thinking I was in another suburb, mostly because of the lack of laneways, public art and anything that vaguely resembles decent coffee.

While the Sydney Festival always attracts massive names, Melbourne is starting to catch up and tonight’s announcement of the musical program at the Melbourne Festival is quite impressive.

MONO, Kimya Dawson, Aseop Rock and Jello Biafra will all be down here for the festival, however the most exciting act is Okkervil River who’s most recent album I Am Very Far showcased a bigger sound for the band. Will Sheff will also be playing an acoustic set at The Toff which only has a capacity of 300.

Melbourne Festival shows at The Forum:
Friday 7th October – MONO (Japan), Wintercoats (Australia)
Saturday 8 October – Black Dice (USA), Lucky Dragons (USA)
Friday 14 October – Okkervil River (USA), Roller One (Australia)
Saturday 15 October – Aesop Rock, Kimya Dawson ft Rob Sonic & DJ Big Wiz (USA), The Narcicyst (Iraq), Omar Offendum (Syria)
Friday 21 October – Konono No.1 (Democratic Republic of the Congo), Bachelorette (New Zealand)
Saturday 22 October – Jello Biafra (USA)

Melbourne Festival shows at The Toff in Town:
Sunday 9 October – Sulumi (China), Qua (Australia)
Wednesday 12 October – Lucky Dragons (USA), Geoffrey O’Connor (Australia)
Sunday 16 October – Will Sheff (USA), Jimmy Stewart (Australia), Mike Noga (Australia)
Wednesday 19 October – Bachelorette (New Zealand), Rat Vs Possum (Australia)

Melbourne Festival shows at Meeniyan Town Hall:
Saturday 15 October – Okkervil River (USA)

Okkervil River- I Am Very Far

Okkervil River’s music has always been on the darker side of the indie rock spectrum and their sixth album I Am Very Far is their least accessible to date. Recorded in short bursts and then produced, mixed and tweaked obsessively by frontman Will Sheff, the result is bigger sound that comes at the expense of the catchy hooks that made the band indie favourites.

That said, the album features some of Will Sheff’s best songwriting and although this is not a concept album like the past four releases from the band, he still paints intriguing pictures of desperate characters.

Album opener The Valley is the biggest sounding song they’ve released, with layered drums and keys creating the perfect backdrop to the ‘rock & roll dead’ he has spent over the last decade singing about.Wake and be Fine is the closest the album comes to their previous effort The Stand-Ins and contains just the right amount of swagger but pales in comparison to the wall of sound contained on the previous tracks.

Rider is the catchiest song on the album and has a stadium like quality and is a brief glimpse of optimism in an otherwise dense release. The desperate staccato of White Summer Waltz on the other hand, echos the Arcade Fire yet it’s intensity is lost when heard within the album.

The gentle waltz of Hanging From a Hit provides a welcome relief from the album’s big production and allows greater focus on the lyrics. The added touch of a trumpet solo among the tinkling keys shows the band are most effective when they’re not hiding behind theatrics. Your Past Life Was A Blast is the poppiest track on the record and is one of the few times it doesn’t sound like Will Sheff is in the middle of a mental breakdown.

Overall, I Am Very Far is a draining listen. While Okkervil River were never a carefree band, the album is almost drowned in its own heaviness. The lyrics are fantastic as always and many of the songs are sure to please fans,  but there’s a certain spark that seems to be missing from the record. Here’s hoping it comes back on the next release.

7.5/10

Okkervil River Annouce New Album

Texan band Okkervil River have annouced that they will be releasing a new album titled I Am Very Far on May 10th, their first solo release since 2008’s The Stage Names. Very little is known about the album other than the title, and Will Schaff’s artwork, however a new single Mermaid will be released in Febuary.

The band performed new track Wake And Be Fine on Jimmy Fallon recently, with A.C Newman, and thankfully, Will Sheff and the band are at their literate and deranged best.

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I know it’s only January, but I have a feeling 2011 is going to be an awesome year for music.