2011 proved to be the year of the solo musician. Eight of my top ten picks are solo artists, as well as fourteen of my top twenty overall. Granted, several of these musicians simply release music under their own name but work with a band, but the statistic is still striking. In keeping with that trend, I found myself liking less and less of this year's rock offerings and discovering more rewards in the broad realms of folk and ambient. Interestingly, the year's overarching cinematic themes of nostalgia, memory, and history (Hugo, The Tree of Life, The Artist, Midnight in Paris, etc.) are also mirrored in the musical offerings, whether reflected in their cyclical structure and forms (Josh T. Pearson, The Caretaker, Tim Hecker) or in their lyrical content (Matana Roberts, PJ Harvey, Iron & Wine). It's funny, because there is always talk of the year at hand being "wretched" or "worst than last year," and in some ways these albums - in an echo of Woody Allen's Golden Age fallacy lesson - seem to argue against that path of thinking. Below is a comprehensive list of the best music I heard this year.
1. Josh T Pearson: Last of the Country Gentlemen
Too often when describing folk music catch phrases like “emotional honesty” and “raw power” are tossed around hastily, as if the mere presence of an acoustic guitar guarantees a special pact between singer and listener. So rarely are we greeted with real, tough, unguarded honesty, the kind that’s unsupported by lush arrangements and miniature, consistent relief, and that’s exactly what Josh T. Pearson’s Last of the Country Gentlemen accomplishes. The album is spine-tinglingly personal, a venture so deep into the bearded Texas believer’s head-space that it’s uncomfortable and off-putting at first. But repeated listens marry indelibly to the subconscious. Guitar motifs recur and scrape at the memory, creating a flowing document that shifts organically from climactic swells of violin and voice to barely audible whispers. Perhaps it’s because parts of Pearson’s lyrical content mirrors my own emotional trajectory this year, but ultimately there’s nothing more moving and cathartic as this.
2. Bill Callahan: Apocalypse
In a positive review of Bill Callahan’s Apocalypse, Pitchfork critic Mike Powell wrote that the 45 year-old Austin-based musician has “nothing to add to the general conversation about music in 2011.” Horseshit. Callahan’s particular brand of Americana – simultaneously dry, intimate, sardonic, casual, poetic, merciless, jagged, warm – is unparalleled in the 2011 musical landscape. The aforementioned stream of adjectives may represent a bundle of contradictions, but Callahan’s music thrives in tension with itself, the more the disparate elements converse with each other. Single “America!” is a lethargic pulse of gargled guitar distortion beneath Callahan’s witty celebration/indictment/elegy of/to his home country, “Free’s” is eccentric swing jazz laced with flutes and a bouncy bass line that questions the nature of freedom, and “One Fine Morning” is a soft acoustic waltz that fittingly sounds like waking up in the morning but is obliquely about leaving society, people, potentially even life itself. A mere seven songs possess more lyrical complexity and unexpected, seemingly improvisational musical energy than other singer/songwriter record this year. If that’s not adding to the general conversation, I don’t know what is.
3. Tim Hecker: Ravedeath 1972 / Dropped Pianos
Tim Hecker’s Ravedeath, 1972 is the most complete, immersive statement in the ambient genre since Jonsi and Alex’s 2009 album Riceboy Sleeps. It’s dense, riveting sound, stemming from cathedral organ and guitar recordings but transforming into something else entirely through the layering and processing of post-production. The organ can sound anywhere from grinding and oppressive to somber and elusive, slipping through the cracks of the surrounding textures and hovering behind snatches of piano melody. Ravedeath, 1972 is the desperate, unintelligible cry of laborers dehumanized amidst a brooding industrial landscape, eerily reminiscent of both 1984 and Damnation. Only recently did I discover Hecker’s subsequent record, Dropped Pianos, released only eight months after Ravedeath, and it’s almost equally fantastic, if lighter in tone and sparser in execution. Together the albums form one of the most impressive bodies of work in 2011.
4. Julianna Barwick: The Magic Place
This is a holy listening experience, as close to church as I get. It’s in the way Barwick’s voice pricks against the ceiling of her register in “Keep Up the Good Work”, the way that elongated, ethereal falsetto becomes inextricable from whatever instrument is creating the supplementary ambience (especially in “White Flag”), and the way layers gradually creep up in the mix. There’s no posing here, just a powerful wielding of the human voice without the weight of lyrics, supported lightly by the occasional bass movement or detached piano melody. Capable of recalling Hildegard Von Bingen, tribal chants, and children’s choirs all at once, this is timelessly soothing music that is somehow also distinctly contemporary. We can only hope this doesn’t get consigned to a pseudo-enlightening moment in the next Danny Boyle film.
5. Radiohead: The King of Limbs
If Radiohead doesn’t provide some earth-shattering sonic evolution these days (as they have done so many times before), there’s widespread skepticism, even backlash. But I see The King of Limbs as a remarkable refinement of their talent, a paring down and purifying, that seems to suggest a conscious denial of the radical leaps they’re expected to take. I’m tempted to declare this an even more cohesive, free-flowing album than In Rainbows despite the fact that it doesn’t approach some of that record’s grandiose high points. These tracks are compulsively groovy, favoring headlong immersion in rhythm (and in subtle changes in rhythm) over dramatic songwriting maneuvers. Yorke’s plaintive voice and Greenwood’s spare, sneaky contributions float gloriously over the album’s busy, frantic percussion. Pastoral field recordings compete for attention with the colorful digital atmosphere. For all the internal tension here, King of Limbs winds up sounding remarkably unified.
6. David Thomas Broughton: Outbreeding
As a contrasting case, the music of David Thomas Broughton is all the more striking for its intentional disunity, the way in which it feels like the music is being ripped apart at the seams as it’s performed. Broughton is a distinctive British artist working in the singer/songwriter arena who has continued to explore across six releases the discomfort aroused when jarring, often atonal textures are introduced to cozy folk music. Whereas the contrast was more pronounced in Broughton’s early, looped recordings (his debut, The Complete Guide to Insufficiency, was indeed a complete guide to the sound), Outbreeding seems to have stumbled upon a cranky way to meld the two, resulting in music that perches itself somewhere between pastoral folk and experimental, often resembling electroacoustic improvisation revved up to fit into traditional song structures. Admittedly, I was turned off to Outbreeding after a first listen, but upon returning (once, twice, now countless times) the album reveals lively, unhinged beauty tethered to Broughton’s deep, portentous, and deliberately whimsical bellow.
7. James Blake: S/T
James Blake’s a gifted songsmith, and a hell of a pianist (see “Why Don’t You Call Me” and “Give Me My Month”), who has discovered brilliant ways of implementing imposing, grimy dance-floor sub-bass and lo-fi keyboard patches into introspective ballads. His self-titled, full-length debut is an elegant catalogue of this approach, its lilting melodies gliding atop a jittery, cantankerous foundation. “The Wilhelm Scream,” a four-a-half minute layering of dark, ominous motifs and recurring lyrics culminating in a sublime throb of heavily compressed fuzz, is one of the best songs of the year, and “Lindesfarne” is a touching ballad about leaving an old friend that bathes its acoustic guitar and keyboard in nostalgic haze. Although a bit front-loaded, James Blake expresses melancholy, heartache, and frustration in striking, unusual ways.
8. Wilco: The Whole Love
Upon first hearing the nervous groove of “Art of Almost,” the opening track of Wilco’s latest, at low volume in a car, I interrupted conversation to turn and ask my friend if Radiohead had just released new music that I wasn’t aware of. (After all, one of the last lines on The King of Limbs is “If you think this is over, then you’re wrong.”) But when Jeff Tweedy’s familiar croon emerged, I knew I was in Wilco territory, albeit within a decidedly new and exciting avenue for their sound. The Whole Love strays quickly from the subdued funk of “Art of Almost” and into more recognizable fare, but it never quite settles into any one specific style, pitting raucous fist-pumpers (“I Might”), brooding folk songs (“Black Moon”), barbershop blues ditties (“Capitol City”), and lovely, pastoral shuffles (“One Sunday Morning”) aside one another without so much as a shrug. It’s that diversity and sonic adventurousness that is the album’s greatest feature, a reassuring testament that the aging band is far from withering out.
9. Kurt Vile: Smoke Rings for My Halo
Kurt Vile possesses a special, highly coveted gift that most songwriters yearn for: the ability to make a song feel totally tossed-off and organic. The Philadelphian records deliciously wistful tunes that sound like they were written while half asleep with a joint perched precariously against the lips. Despite his music’s accessibility and relative conventionality, it’s hard for me to find a truly satisfactory point of comparison here. Bob Dylan and R.E.M come to mind, but ultimately they’re inadequate. Vile’s carefree, catchy odes to inaction, restlessness, and the future rest comfortably outside of time.
10. The Caretaker: An Empty Bliss Beyond This World
In subtly lifting the melodic shapes of the Big Band era music he regularly excavates just a bit more out of crackling murkiness, James Kirby (aka The Caretaker) has energized the profound sense of melancholy and loss he so routinely conjures up. What’s closer paradoxically feels further away. “An Empty Bliss Beyond This World,” the follow-up to 2008’s “Persistent Repetition of Phrases,” covers very similar ground as its predecessor – that is, vinyl recordings of the 1920’s and 30’s delicately manipulated with the technological luxuries afforded by the 21st century - but it strikes me as a more fully realized piece of work, utterly entrancing in its repetitiousness and more varied in its emotional spectrum. Generally, Kirby has shortened the track lengths too, which emphasizes the notion of these pieces being fleeting artifacts of a bygone past, slipping out of consciousness right when they start to make a warm, fuzzy impact.
11. PJ Harvey: Let England Shake
I hadn’t listened to PJ Harvey before hearing Let England Shake, but I’ll certainly be exploring her catalogue after this gem. It’s a remarkably crafted and insistently paced album on which Harvey sounds fully and comfortably submerged in the worlds created by her songs, never forcing anything beyond her range but not limiting her approach either. Her lyrical content is often reminiscent of politically engaged punk rock, but she’s self-aware enough to acknowledge the inevitability that music cannot simplistically change the world of violence and war-torn political relationships. In repeatedly asking the question “what if I take my problems to the United Nations?,” the answer never comes, only receding into the forward gallop of the music. Harvey has crafted gorgeous, melodramatic rock’n’roll that swims in a pool of unsettling imagery and sly bravado.
12. Kreng: Grimoire
Grimoire, the latest album by Belgian avant-garde composer Pepijn Caudron, who goes by the moniker Kreng, expands upon the pitch-dark menace of his debut L’Autopsie Phénoménale De Dieu with more nuanced compositions and assured pacing. Caudron, no stranger to using a vast array of tools to induce a trance-like state of stasis and creaking hesitance, calls upon clarinets, pianos, somber strings, shrieking opera howls, unrecognizable electronic textures, and sparse percussion to flesh out his orchestral doom here, seducing the consciousness through a terrifying strip tease wherein some sounds tickle your ears with uncomfortable intimacy (the pitter-patter of snare drum in “Satyriasis”), and others act as wispy phantoms in the night (the devilish repeating violin line in the song of the year, “Wrak”). It’s the best and most unrelenting horror film I’ve witnessed in quite a while, and there’s not a single image.
13. Christian Fennesz + Ryuichi Sakamoto: Flumina
Christian Fennesz has repeatedly displayed a knack for collaboration, bouncing his distinctive atmospheres off the respective talents of other bold performers (David Sylvian, Sparklehorse, Jim O’Rourke). For the second time, he has teamed up with Japanese pianist Ryuichi Sakamoto to create a double album that luxuriates in a cool, pensive ambiance. Flumina doesn’t push beyond its strict and stripped-down formula – twinkling piano melodies over beds of rich guitar drone – but it’s gorgeous and evocative music nonetheless, defined by a supreme understanding between two musicians feeding off each other.
14. Matana Roberts: Coin Coin Chapter One: Gens de Couleur Libres
Opening with the single shriek of a saxophone and expanding limitlessly from there, Matana Roberts Coin Coin Chapter One: Gens de Couleur Libres instantly feels like a major statement, yet there’s also something intriguingly incomplete about it, a notion hinted at by the title’s use of “Chapter One.” Roberts casts herself as an early slave struggling for freedom during Civil War-era America, and it’s exactly as fearless and disturbing as such a description would suggest. The music follows suit, alternating between quiet, ominous free jazz to primal explosions of messy noise. Roberts, never hiding behind her band, rambles unflinchingly about her fictional (but utterly convincing) life and roars desperately as the instruments swell up around her. With its narrative and emotion cresting and falling, this is an album to be experienced in one go.
15. Fleet Foxes: Helplessness Blues
Despite the often silly pseudo-cosmic, coming-of-age, Malick-lite lyrical content of Helplessness Blues (which routinely sounds like a heavily praised indie rocker trying to prove he has some philosophical aspirations to go along with his musical chops, and frankly I prefer the guileless poeticism of the band’s debut), Fleet Foxes are such gifted musicians that the irresistible progression of the songs renders obsolete the negligible meaning of it all. Helplessness Blues exceeds Fleet Foxes in ambition and scope (if not always songwriting) and introduces faint gestures towards potential new directions for the band: freak-out saxophone and ominous strings in “The Shrine/An Argument”, wistful flute on “The Plains, Bitter Dancer”, and no reverb (!) in “Blue Spotted Tail.” Ultimately, Fleet Foxes have a tremendous sense of how to pace and order an album.
16. Nicolas Jaar: Space is Only Noise
Space is Only Noise, the debut album by Nicolas Jaar, is often subject to the kinds of issues that commonly plague debut efforts: uneven pacing, lack of focus, etc. But despite these small problems that can hinder the experience of listening to the album straight through, Jaar has devised 14 tracks that really stand on their own as exciting, unpredictable minimalist electronica tunes. He has a tremendous grasp on effectively compiling disparate and unique sounds, recalling both Books in the sheer diversity and the more restrained work of Hot Chip in the propulsive catchiness. When Jaar starts singing in his goofy deep voice, the album loses a bit of its low-key moodiness, but fortunately that’s not frequent.
17. Tom Waits: Bad As Me
I feel comfortable saying that no one sounds quite like Tom Waits, and Bad As Me’s sporadic, even schizophrenic nature only further exemplifies the man’s enigmatic singularity. Seriously, this album is all over the place, leaping from a lo-fi, reflective lounge ballad like “Kiss Me” to the loud, embittered stomp of “Satisfied,” or from an in-your-face militant march like “Hell Broke Luce” to the boozy, vaguely patriotic waltz “New Year’s Eve.” But it’s Waits’ energy and swagger that sends it galloping along; the album holds you by the throat and threatens to kick your teeth in if you turn it off.
18. Iron and Wine: Kiss Each Other Clean
One of the best voices to hear harmonizing with itself on several layers of audio track (besides Julianna Barwick, of course) is Sam Beam’s, and luckily Kiss Each Other Clean, more than any of his other records, is built around that idea (see “Godless Brother In Love” for a really great sampling). Iron & Wine’s most adventurous album, Kiss Each Other Clean plays with funk, soul, and R & B, and is for the most part successful. Beam’s lyrics are at their most evocative, traversing imagery both beautiful and saddening. It’s not necessarily their finest work, but it’s further proof that the group can openly explore their sound without falling off the deep end.
19. Bon Iver: Bon Iver, Bon Iver
So much of the hype surrounding Justin Vernon really grates on my nerves (He recorded in a log cabin in seclusion? Woah, really? He must be the first! Now he’s working with Kanye, huh?), but beneath all that the dude’s a rather talented songwriter. Bon Iver, Bon Iver (which is a pretty dumb name for an album) definitely expands upon For Emma, Forever Ago with some better hooks, more ambitious instrumentation and song structures, and tighter performances. It’s mostly the warm, cozy pop atmospheres that appeal to me here; lyrics are out of the picture.
20. Bright Eyes: The People’s Key
Part of me wants to think the concept of The People’s Key is all a big wink-wink, that it’s not as sincerely mystical as it seems, but the other part insists that Conor Oberst long ago lost his bearings. Integrating goofy poetic monologues by Denny Brewer of Refried Ice Cream and covering topics such as the cosmos, the future, and “the essence, the basis of life,” Bright Eyes have thrown out all the down-to-earth introspection (with the exception of the truly affecting “Ladder Song”) for what is proposed to be their final album and the results can be both exhilarating and laughable. Some critics and fans have likened the album’s electronic sound to the band’s superior Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, but ultimately this is unlike anything Bright Eyes have ever done: poppy, bombastic, ecstatic, and demented.
Some Honorable Mentions and Recent Listens:
Bonnie “Prince” Billy: Wolfroy Goes to Town
Okkervil River: I Am Very Far
The Dogs: Camping
David Lynch: Crazy Clown Time
Eleanor Friedberger: Last Summer
Death Cab for Cutie: Codes and Keys
Kaboom Karavan: Barra Barra