Best Albums of 2011 part 3: 2 & 1

1. The Damnwells – No One Listens To the Band Anymore
(Pledge Music)

An incredible, incredible record. One that hits immediately, and never lets up. The best songs I’ve heard, roaring impassionately from my mp3 player, breaking your heart, making you dance, stealing your breath and opening your mind – sometimes all in one song.

And what an origin. Three albums in with no deal, the band went onto crowd sourcing site PledgeMusic, and put a call out to their fans directly. The fans funded the album, and gave the band the freedom to do what they wanted. What they wanted was to make a straight, thrilling, rock ‘n’ roll record.

The way I feel about this record is the same way I feel about some of my favourite albums ever. I’ve been walking around the streets of Sydney with these songs swirling in my head. I’ve been listening to tales of sad eyed girls and big scary cities. And how it’s us against them, and we have the music and the smarts. We are talking rock ‘n’ roll fundamentals here.

For a self funded recording, it sounds like a million bucks. It never gets too clever, but it’s never dumb and easy. Contemporary trickery is thrown out for the timelss wonder of a great chrous, a sweet lyric, and a killer singer in main Damnwell Alex Dezen.

At this point, I can just list songs, because there’s no better way to describe this feeling. If you want a place to start, I recommend “Werewolves”, “The Great Unknown”, “Feast Of Hearts” and, well, all of them.

Look, I know no one knows this band. I was afraid of putting this number one for fear of looking-like-a-cock reasons. But it’s pretty undeniable that I kept returning to this album all year. And when I saw the bloggers at Popdose pour their love into this album, it made me feel like I wasn’t alone.

What else can be said. There’s no way that a number one album of the year is not just tied in with personal feelings and events in the year that no amount of explaining can make sense of. That’s what’s this album does, so I’ll leave it there.

Except! That being self funded, all the film clips are shit. Here are two, both terrible, for great songs.

She Goes Around

The Great Unknown

Werewolves acoustic

 

2. Fountains of Wayne – Sky Full Of Holes
(Yep Roc)

Two little snippets before I start.

One. Around the “Born To Run” era, Springsteen said he put behind childish notions of love behind for something more rounded and sophisticated. It set him onto a path to write 10 or so albums filled with character studies.

The other. In Barney Hoskin’s authorative biography on the Band, he makes a strange case in the beginning that goes something like this – pop music and all that is fine when you’re young. But it’s natural to grow out of it, like growing out of junk food, and lean towards a musical diet of more timeless nutrition. Meals like the Band, Hoskyns would claim.

I’ve known a lot of older music fans/snobs. For them, it had to be a little country, or a little soul, to be a little timeless. Pop music has always been throwaway – a snack. They don’t write about adult things. And when you look at bands who are stuck in their youth (hello Smithereens), they still cover the same old grils, cars, blah and blah.

It’s very slow, but pop music is finally growing up. I point to people like Aimee Mann, the production work of Jon Brion, and people who are making excellent pop music, without being simplistic. And that’s a very, very long trip to get to this Fountains Of Wayne record, their 6th since 1996.

Sky Full Of Holes is number 2 on this list (in fact, last week it was number 1). I have been living in this album and wearing it out. It’s a perfect pop record – finely recorded, but not pro-tooled to death. The choruses, the sounds, the feel – all top notch.

But it’s the songs – they unwrap over each listen. I guess any chance of commercial radio play at this point, so the guys are just writing what they want. Stories of amazing characters – the scamsters in “Richie And Ruben”, the poor middle age woman in “The Summer Place” – mix with some straight ahead sentiment done right – the holiday freedom feeling of “A Dip In the Ocean”, the lonely tour ballad “A Road Song”.

Importantly, the wit is still there, but no huge jokes. No “Stacy’s Mum”. No note perfect country pastiches. Just perfect, refined songwriting.

It probably isn’t for everyone. Not everyone loves lyrics, or story-telling, in their music (especially, say, Australian radio). But at some point you have to put away childish notions, and eat a decent meal.

Here’s “A Road Song”, a wry smile on the lonely highway.

..and The Summer Place.

Best Albums of 2011 part 2: 5-3

3. Noah And the Whale – Last Night On Earth
(Mercury)

I didn’t expect much from this album. I picked up N&TW’s first two albums, listened to them a few times, and dumped them. And isn’t it lovely about music, and the world of music, that the only reason I gave this band another chance was I thought the album cover was kick-ass. Just look at it. Looks so cool. (It looks like Jim Jarmusch’s “Night On Earth” actually) It’s metropolitan. It’s modern. It’s exciting. That’s just the album cover.

Then the music. It’s basically Springsteen mixed with LCD Soundsystem. And yes, that sounds like high praise, but it’s true. The Springsteen thing is that rock ‘n’ roll escapism. “Tonight’s the kind of night where everything could change”. The idea that your dream is in reach, it’s just around the corner, and lets sing anthemic rock songs until we get there.

Then there’s the samples, the bubbles of synths and clatter of beats that gives the songs such urgency and excitement. It’s a long way from the folk rock of their first album. At 10 songs, it’s a short sharp adrenaline hit. The kind of album that would make a pop fan leave their home town and start a band.

And then an extra special mention to “Just Before We Met“. Every line is killer. The best song on this fine, fine album. You should hear it.

So these guys might still be second rate. Good records happen to bad bands all the time. But maybe not. I feel like the world needs more records like these. I know I do. If there’s one thing I need music for, it’s to remind me about the the greatness that is life if you’re brave enough to grab it.

 

4. Nick Lowe – The Old Magic
(Yep Roc)

For those not paying attention, Nick Lowe has been making some of the best music in the world for the last twenty years. Feeling his age, and not wanting to be an old man with long punk rock hair and reliving past glories, he decided to use his age to advantage. With silver hair, nice suits and classy, jazzy, dramatic songs – it is about as hip as music ever gets.

It is all about the songs. Gorgeous torch ballads about broken characters, shuffling through the rain, falling out of love, dealing with loneliness and joy in equal measure. Lowe has always been a great wit, and his lyrics continue to amaze. The stunning opener, “Stoplight Roses”, is a masterwork in paired down lyrics. It’s a vivid character study in 3 minute pop – and maybe the best song all year.

Like Gillian Welch, he’s found a sound and does it better than anyone else. It’s at once familiar and new. It’s retro, but hip. It’s old, but new. It’s all part of a reinvention that started with 1994’s “The Impossible Bird”, and Yep Roc saw it and reissued three albums from this period into a box set. I will even say that when the dust is settled, Lowe will be mainly remembered for his work in the last decade, not his 70s stuff. That’s how good this album is.

 

5. Laura Marling A Creature I Don’t Know
(Virgin)

My favourite album of 2010 was Laura Marling’s “I Speak Because I Can”. Another single (the far out cover of Jackson C Frank’s “Blues Run the Game”, produced by Jack White) and a whole new album came in 2011. It’s quite a pace, but maybe that’s right. Laura (or as I call her, Lozza), seems like the kind of artist that should have 20 albums under her belt.

This certainly feels like a “late-era” kind of album. Everyone compares her to Joni Micthell, but it took Mitchell til about album album number 8 (“Hejira”) before she gave up on writing pop hits in favour of following who restless muse. Marling has done it in three.

Sure, it’s weird. But wonderful. That muted organ, trumpet and cello that opens “I Was Just A Card” leads into a beautiful, jazzy place. Its one of many songs that occasionally stops dead. I hate reviews that talk about scales and keys and deep musicology – but if you like that stuff, this album is a banquet.

And she is still singing songs as if she is at the end of her life. She sings of children, old ladies and life’s biggest questions. And I guess that’s what makes her an important artist. But more interesting is how intimate these songs are. If you’ve not jumped on the Marling bandwagon, I suggest you start with “I Speak Because I Can”, and I’ll meet you at album 4 some time next year.

Best Albums of 2011 part 1: 6-10

6. Frank Turner – England Keep My Bones
(Xtra Mile)

This, and the next 5, all swapped and changed for number one. As I re-listen to this album to write this, I just feel like this is a perfect record by an artist at the very top of his game. I started my year watching him at the Annandale. He’s finishing it playing Wembley Arena. That’s quite a year Frank Turner has had.

It’s part Clash, parts Bragg, but all brought up to date. He is the only musician today who has anything interesting to say about the themes of punk (ok, maybe Craig Finn) – but he long ago left the shackles of punk behind. This record is his most eclectic – mixing up folk, gospel, power pop and more.

Line after amazing line, idea after amazing idea. The straight-to-the-point-ness of ‘I Still Believe’ contrasts ‘Glory Hallelujah’, a gospel song celebrating the lack of God. It’s all about believing in the right things.

The other big thread in this album is England. The idea of home, and writing about England, is all over this record. “Wessex Boy”, the a capella “English Curse” and “Rivers” do for England what Springsteen did for Jersey. “If I Stray” seems to sum up both halfs of the record quite nicely.

7. Gillian Welch – Harrow & Harvest
(Acony)

8 years? For this? That’s almost a year a song. It probably says more about how amazing their sounds and songs are that in 8 years away, they are still the top of their game, despite many duos popping up and trying to fill the gap. It helps that they always sounded out of time.

It really is business as usual. Even the nice left turn of drums found on 2003’s ‘Soul Journey’ has gone. Rawlings is still one the best guitarists of his generation. The songs are dark and spooky. Their voices still sound great.

So yeah – more of the same, but that same is still pretty special. “Dark Turn Of Mind” is a highlight. ‘Hard Times’ is perhaps the sweetest thing they’ve ever done. Let’s hope it doesn’t take another 8 years for more.

8. Leader Cheetah – Lotus Skies
(Spunk)

Only one Australian album made my top ten this year. Probably my fault – I wasn’t really paying attention. (And I don’t put mate’s records on these lists, so that discounts a couple….) And amazingly – it’s from Adelaide!

They fit quite clearly in the world that My Morning Jacket, Wilco, Beachwood Sparks and the more experimental rootsy stuff lives. A long, lonesome voice out front recalls Neil Young. But this is far from retro postering. The record is amazingly modern.

And it’s epic. Huge guitars. Big choruses. Clever arrangements. All tied down by that slide guitar. I don’t know why everyone makes a fuss over bands like Boy & Bear, who sound like wannabes, when we have great original country indie rock right here. Oh well.

One of my faves – “Our Lives

9. Arctic Monkeys – Suck It And See
(Domino)

I just like this band. According to Last.fm, out of all the albums from 2011, I’ve listened to this one the most. So they’ve lost none of the magic for me, although I am aware that people have kind of written them off.

In parts it’s almost fun. It’s pretty much the most pop the Arctic Monkeys have ever been. There’s nothing to prove now, and they are just kicking out tunes that interest them.

The first five tracks are just back to back radio hits (in another world). I’m guessing Turner just craps out 3 minute rockers this good all the time. Clever riffs, great lyrics – it’s all there, and never boring. As usual, there are a couple of pretty ballads on here – Piledriver Waltz is the best amongst them.

It might not have the highs of a ‘Crying Lightning’ or something as straightly gorgeous as ‘Cornerstone’, but it’s a sharp consistent record throughout.

10. Paul Simon – So Beautiful Or So What
(Decca)

Every year a really old guy seems to sneak into my top 10. The Dylans and Youngs and the like. 5 years ago it was Simon again – with his fantastic, Eno-produced, ‘Surprise’. That 2006 album was a lively return from his worst record to date (2000’s ‘You’re the One’), and that reinvention continues. Interesting sonics, electric instruments, but a return to songs over rhythm.

On ‘Surprise’, Simon made a concious decision to abandon love songs (no one wants to hear about an old guy having sex, he said), and write about bigger things. God has returned to his song writing in a big way. Big meaning-of-life songs that recall ‘America’, or ‘Sound Of Silence’.

The best song of the lot, the one that has been getting quite a bit of attention, is “Questions For the Angels”. Just a beautifully plucked guitar, and the amazing image of a pilgrim walking over the Brooklyn bridge, and pondering at Jay-Z on a billboard.

At times funny, at times beautiful, we now have a roadmap for the fourth phase of Simon’s career, and the return of a great songwriter.

The Best Albums of 2011 (so far): 1-5

So part two of our two part round up of the year’s best albums so far.

Some other things to note about the year. I am sticking to the album format for these lists, even though my favourite song this year is by far (BY FAR) Think You Can Wait by the National, from the soundtrack to Win, Win. Also the EP by the UK band the Mummers, Mink Hollow Road, which found the strange meeting place of Todd Rundgren and Judy Garland.

But this list is about album, and a couple have really let me down. Voluntary Butler Scheme followed up their charming debut with an album that sounds like a tape player getting stuck. Nonsense, sampled drivel. The Danger Mouse led project ROME was similar. When did albums become about space to meander nowhere? The glow of a new REM album evaporates faster than ever. Bell X1 and Beady Eye both made average albums. Panic At the Disco is right back to being shit.

But lots didn’t make this list. Wagons. Those Darlins. Miles Kane. The Del McCoury Band. Elbow. Yuck.

Anyway – here’s five more that did.

1. Noah And the Whale – Last Night On Earth

This came out of nowhere. I own both previous N&TW records, and spent some time with them. The last one was a bit boring, and I figured that would be it for me and this band. Then I saw that brilliant album cover. It’s the best album cover of the year. Cool, urban, hip, stylish, modern and classic.

And the record is something special. It’s like a dancier version of the Velvets. Every track is fun and goes somewhere. Huge hooks and sounds great. And that thing I love most – that sense that music can save us, our lives can be better, that life is to be lived. The Clash had it, You Am I have it, the Replacements have it, etc. And they’ve tapped into it here.

It is a real step up from their last one, which was a depressing drag. This album is about stepping up and enjoying every moment.

 

2. Frank Turner – England Keep My Bones

(Epitaph)

I have loved Frank Turner’s music for the last few years. It’s right up my alley – Joe Strummer, Billy Bragg, Springsteen. But he is also my age and around now. Singing about hipsters and Thatcher and not knowing anyone who plays slide guitar – made it mean a lot more to me than ghosts of protest singers past.

His new album is as good as anything he’s ever done. Hugely anthemic and all about believing in music and us. There is absolutely no irony here. Take the single “I Still Believe”, which under lesser hands would seems cringeworthy.

Frank Turner is fucking awesome. Punk rock for now people. It seems I keep going back to this stuff, and when it comes to this stuff, Frank Turner is pretty much the best there is.

 

3. Arctic Monkeys – Suck It And See

(Domino)

Another band I already loved. The press have been calling this album a mix between their last two Humbug and Favourite Worse Nightmare. It’s kind of true. There is the stoner rock riffing of their last album, with a bit more of the pop hooks that made them chart toppers in the first place.

But it’s a RAGGED record. It’s loose. Some of the tight, sudden arrangements from the last two records are gone. It’s their most throwaway pop album. Maybe it’s because Alex Turner has turned into a more conventional songwriter. Maybe they are just having fun (I mean, with that title and cover…)

So, I miss some of those jagged corners. But what is there is brilliant. And once again, there is a lot of sex on this record. And Turner has not lost his way with words.

And in the end, the slow songs are best. Love Is A Laserquest, Reckless Serenade and the re-recorded Piledriver Waltz (originally on the Submarine Soundtrack) shine brightest. Some really pop moments. It’s what pot will do to you. I wish they would try and piss people off again, but they are allowed some fun.

 

4. Eddie Vedder – Ukulele Songs

(Universal)

It’s no small feat to make a 16 track album with barely anything but a ukulele and Eddie Vedder’s singular voice and not make it sound samey. Instead it sounds really lovely. Who knew you could do this with just a ukulele?

In the right hands the ukulele is a very pretty instrument. Seems like Vedder has the right hands. Songs like You’re True, Without You and Satellite a touching ballads. His songs tend towards the torch song tradition, using interesting and dramatic chords to break things up.

Then there are a couple of belters. How do those strings not break? Can’t Keep never lets up. Some well chosen covers – Sleepless Nights, Dream A Little Dream – add to the casual air. And though it’s 16 tracks, it’s less than 35 minutes all up.

It’s a dreamy, nostalgic record. I imagine festival campfire singalongs will go mad for this stuff (unfortunately). But I’ve just kept going back to it over and over again this year. And I give him credit for doing something low key and left field rather than a shit, chart topping solo album.

 

5. The Damnwells – No One Listens To the Band

(Pledge Music)

If this was 1999, the Damnwells would be friggin huge. OK, not huge, but they would have a couple of huge singles and probably fall away like the Gin Blossoms, Buffalo Tom or Semisonic. It’s the space they fill – earnest, straight and slightly needy college American rock.

It’s almost retro their sound. But it’s great – if you loved that stuff. And I did. Something very sad sack about it, inevitably about or directed at pretty women with broken hearts, dashed off with that Springsteen escapism I love so much.

So much rock fun to be had (with a lilting sadness, or course). The single Werewolves. I can’t even type the title She Goes Around without that wonderful chorus echoing through my brain. Most beautiful of all is the Great Unknown with the obligatory ballad side getting a go. Another most excellent, solid record adding to a solid discography.

The Best Albums of 2011 (so far): 6-10

I’ll be honest. My time for new music this year has not been great. Between going back to lots of old stuff (Loudon Wainwright III, R.E.M. and Cold Chisel mainly) and catching up on a lot of TV, time for music has not been what it once was.

Maybe it’s not just me. Seems like previous years, the year always kicked off with some big records – Vampire Weekend, Spoon, etc. Maybe it’s work too. Having not really worked on any new music that has excited me has sent me packing to my old collection mostly.

And finally, a couple of really terrible records have let me down. More about that in part 2, coming soon.

Anyway – here’s a list – parts 6-10.

6. Jonny – Jonny

(Merge)

This is fun. Take somewhat wacky wordsmith Euros Child from Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci and match him with Norman Blake, the elder statesman of popcraft from Teenage Fanclub. What you get is Jonny, both band and album. Both band and album are lighthearted, silly, lovely, charming and so British.

You can hear the joy on every track. Garage rock-lite (in a good way) of Wich Is Wich and Candyfloss. Crazy psych fun of Goldmines and Cave Dance. And the truly touching English Lady.

 

7. D Rogers – Natural Disasters

(popboomerang)

Dave Rogers is the former guitar player for Melbourne pop group Klinger. His new album is a lovely low key look at modern living. My friend Paul once described the type of song that was like a good pair of tailored trousers. Something to wear out every day. That’s what this album is. Every day songs.

It’s all about the songs. The slight country twinge and the piano twinkles add texture but don’t get in the way. Rogers sings about stuff like  unpaid bills and dishes. There’s a theme of money going through the album – Pay To Pay, Buyer’s Remorse. There’s even a song called Food & Electricty.

Not to say that this is some stylised study of urban living. It’s really just a great bunch of songs with no pretentions. It’s all wrapped up in some killer choruses (Breaking Bones is a highlight) and tasteful production. If you like the Pernice Brothers, et al, you’d probably love this.

 

8. Emmy the Great – Virtue

(Close Harbour Records)

Emmy the Great makes lovely, full bodied indie pop. Sort of Regina-ry, sort of Laura Marling-ish, all mixed together. Virtue is a major step up. It’s gotten remarkable reviews. If any of the many radio courting songs on here actually gets away, we have a hit on our hands.

So the big story of this record is that young Emmy was engaged, until her fiance discovered God and the relationship broke down. According to articles and interviews, it’s all over this album. I guess it’s there, but it’s more about her and dealing with a new life, and transcending something. It’s probably best heard on A Woman, A Woman, A Century Of Sleep.

There’s some digs at religion (I think). Lovely plays on words throughout, and some killer tunes. I just keep thinking this is a major record, and I hope people hear it.

 

9. Paul Simon – So Beautiful So What

(Hear Music)

The opening couplet of Questions For the Angels, one of the new tracks on here, is as brilliant as anything Paul Simon has done.

A pilgrim on a pilgrimage

Walked along the Brooklyn Bridge

Like America, or dozens of others of his masterpieces, Simon taps into something eternal, and puts it in a modern context. Sure, it’s been decades since he has been relevant – his career sidelined to that place that oldies go when they don’t get played on radio or make the cover of magazines anymore. But he can still mention Jay-Z and crossing rivers in one song and make it all work.

So Beautiful Or So What is actually the first album of a new record deal. His last, Eno-produced, album was a reinvention and a reinvigoration. It continues here. A renewed sense of song, and his own mandate of not writing about love anymore (claiming it’s creepy to hear from someone his age) leads to him playing on bigger themes. The Love he talks about on this record is more spiritual.

There’s a bit of that restless experimenting he is so good at. His sense of a smooth rhythm is still there, as is his guitar work (the lovely Dazzling Blue is filled with tasteful electric guitar). Hopefully another step into a lovely late career renaissance.

 

10. Gillian Welch – The Harrow & The Harvest

(Acony)

8 years? Has it been so long? I love the first 4 Gillian Welch albums. Obsessed over them. And 8 years later, we finally have a fifth. The entire world has changed, and Gillian and partner David Rawlings haven’t.

This record only just came out and after many frantic listens though, it’s as good as I hoped. It is slightly disappointing that the loose band sound of Soul Journey has been forgotten for a straighter, acoustic affair. They’ve somehow gone backwards in their sound. But that’s what they’re about, I guess.

There’s that unsaid spookiness of their early records that are back in force here. Just what is it about Scarlet Town that isn’t right? Or who is that person in The Way It Will Be that deserves such hate? As usual, weird shit is going down.

Maybe it’s just the joy of having new music that has propped this album up. Let’s see what time will bring. But this album is not short on all the things I look for in a Gillian Welch record.

The below is from 2004, and the song has not changed. Waited 7 years for this! Crazy.