I feel like a broken record, but man, what a great year. I just saw a comment on a Facebook thread this morning where somebody said that there hasn’t been any good music since 1990 and I can’t help feeling sorry for people who think that way. I know, radio has abandoned us. And I know it’s hard to put as much time into finding the good stuff as maybe we’d like. But trust me, there’s fantastic music being made and in this series (this post will be followed by the Gold LP, Platinum LP and CD of the Year awards) I’ll do what I can to point readers at the best of what I heard last year.
One caveat, based on something I’m becoming more aware of lately. I’m not a record reviewer. I’ve done that from time to time, but I never liked the nuts and bolts of being a pure critic and I never thought I was very good at it. Still, this list, through the years, has worked to be as critically honest as possible. But dammit, I have reached the point where I care less about the technical process of arguing artistic merit (in my year-end CD review, anyway) and more about promoting music that I like and respect. If this weren’t true, I’d devote more time in my S&R music ramblings to things I don’t especially care for, wouldn’t I?
Maybe I’ve reached the point where I should just say up front, before I get started, that each of the bands I have included here has passed a test in my mind, and I could, if I had the time and inclination, justify their inclusion in mind-numbing detail. However, I don’t want to write all that and you probably don’t want to read it. So instead of reading the list as a hard-fought intellectual process, maybe treat it as “here’s this guy who knows a lot about music, listens to hundreds of records each year and has been doing so since way back when they were called “records,” owns thousands of CDs and has been writing about music, sometimes for money, since the late 1980s, and these are the albums he really thought highly of last year – let’s listen and see if we like them, too!”
Up first, a hybrid category that includes honorable mentions as well as CDs that I liked after a listen or two, but just didn’t have time to consider in depth. This is in part due to a wonderful development, Spotify. I can now listen to, in its entirety, just about everything. Which is great for Sam the listener, but overwhelming for Sam the guy who feels an obligation to include everything worthy in his year-end list.
Peter Murphy: Ninth
I was never, oddly enough, a big Bauhaus fan. I loved PM’s early solo work, but I kinda signed off after Cascade, though. This may not be fair, but somewhere along the line it felt like he’d gotten too happy for the music to quite work for me. I couldn’t really get my ears around the happy family goth approach, although I acknowledge that any number of astute critics disagree with me emphatically.
I came across Ninth late in the year and have only had a chance to spin it two or three times. I think I like it. It is, in places, both energetic and direct while being mature and reflective in others. I look forward to getting to know it better.
Eilen Jewell: Queen of the Minor Key
Another late-in-the-year discovery, Eilen Jewell was recommended to me by Tony Hamera of The Blueflowers as a possible entrant in Tournament of Rock 3. AMG describes her music as a “country-flavored and blues-infused version of contemporary folk (which also can include healthy doses of rockabilly and surf),” and that’s about right. She seems to be getting a lot of well-deserved praise for Queen of the Minor Key, which I think I’m going to like a lot once I’ve had a chance to listen to it a few more times.
The Amends: The Amends
As I noted in a piece back in October, Boulder is mainly known as America’s Mecca of hippie music. Pure rock, garage rock, indie, not so much. But there are exceptions, and I really like the debut release from The Amends (one of two Boulder bands who feature in this year’s Best of series). The Amends are young and raw, but they’re already demonstrating a knack for penning a compelling rock song and the ability to play the hell out of it once it’s written. I think fans of bands like The Strokes and The Nines are going to appreciate this disc, especially if they also dig The Gaslight Anthem.
And their new video for “Hotel Lobby” is a lot of fun, too.
Portugal. The Man: In the Mountain in the Cloud
More than any disc I encountered this year, In the Mountain in the Cloud illustrates the double-edged sword that is Spotify. Without Spotify I’d never have heard it. Then again, it was all the other stuff on Spotify that had to be checked out that kept me from investing more ear-time in this one. I can say this, though. A lot of bands dig into Bowie and T Rex for inspiration, but very few do it as unselfconsciously as P.TM.
Esben and the Witch: Violet Cries
This was one of the most critically anticipated CDs of the year. Based on the video for “Marching Song,” which was released in late 2010 (shown below), I was pretty jacked to hear it, too. Dark, drenched in distortion, it had me expecting a throwback to Haight-era psychedelia, like Grace Slick on ‘roids. In the end, though, I felt like the product was low on the signal-to-noise ratio. Yeah, there was lots of distortion and noise, but I just couldn’t find enough song in there to justify the hype. In the final analysis, I felt like it was okay. An interesting and worthy experiment, to be sure, but one that could have used a little more there there.
Viva Voce: The Future Will Destroy You
Hmmm. They don’t sound like they’re from Muscle Shoals. Another very late discovery (found them in the Tournament of Rock process, along with Eilen Jewell), so I’m still trying to catch up with their atmospheric and deceptively inventive sound. AMG puts is better than I can:
The Future Will Destroy You is an expansive and somewhat slow-burning mix of the indie rock, psych rock, and pop sounds they’ve delved into over the years.Viva Voce have always evinced an interest in the kind of garage rock meets baroque pop aesthetic of such acts as Yo La Tengo and Sparklehorse, and fans will be happy to know that not much has changed here.
Like a couple of the others mentioned above, I like what I have heard of this disc but have not yet had a chance to give it a fair listen.