Music Box Report Card: My Favorite CDs of 2011

(Hey, I’m my own worst editor, so beware my pontificating. If you wanna edit me pro bono, I’m all ears. Call me.)

Though my lack of writing of late has more to do with my ADD than it does with any laziness to share my opinion (something I rarely have any problem with), it’s hard writing about music sometimes. I’ve been writing my Musical Report Card for decades in some capacity – every year, I write a Best and Worst list, something I’ve been doing for all those years. I used to post reviews on Amazon; during the early Aughts, I would send out my Musical Report Card to a distribution list with hundreds of names on it; I would post the MRC on my now-defunct Myspace blog too, and during the prehistoric, pre-Internet years, I had little outlet other than to print the occasional article in my school newspaper. Yet, lately, my thoughts are stunted. I’ll listen to a CD I love, yet words and thoughts sometimes fail to converge with the actual pen and paper. I do jot down thoughts randomly, but more often than not, they’re within the limits of a 140 character tweet or a Facebook post. And I don’t have an explanation for such.

What’s the point of writing if you’re not going to share, no matter how often you set those thoughts to text or how short the scroll? And, if you have your own blog you apparently love, why squander your opines by allowing  your words to sit on your desktop as a word document?

So, what better way to divulge my tastes than to join the countless other “Best & Worst of the Year” chicaneries that the rest of the blogosphere and printed world do? I’m always loath to use the term “best” and/or “worst”, though I do it often. Taste is subjective, and my tastes buds are no more or less superior to yours (I mean, unless you like Katy Perry. Than mine are more superior, clearly). So, let’s just call this list what it really is – my favorite CDs of these past twelve months.

However, I won’t limit myself to a ‘ten’ or a ‘dozen’ or even a ‘baker’s dozen’ (as I usually do). And these are in no real particular order, really. Perhaps the first three or four are in preference (they are my most listened to albums on my iTunes chart), but as the list progresses, I just relish the incandescent moments that 2011 has nourished my soul with. Beware my pontification.

Perusing the lyrics of fellow Odd Future members’ solo works, one has to wonder how Tyler, The Creator and Frank Ocean coalesce in the same universe, let alone that Rap collective. “I’m stabbing any blogging faggot hipster with a pitchfork” Tyler sermonizes on “Yonkers”, from his latest CD, GOBLIN, whose title cut assures, “I’m not homophobic, faggot”. (there are plenty more “fags”, “faggots” and “dykes” polluting the CD). Ocean, on the other end of the musical, well, ocean, muses, “I believe that marriage isn’t between a man and woman but between love and love…” The apparent incongruent beliefs between two members of the same group are astounding – but while I’m completely oblivious to Odd Future’s artistic output, with what I’ve heard of their solo works, Tyler is Jackie Collins to Ocean’s Ernest Hemingway. Pissed at Def Jam’s obvious lack of interest (fear?) in releasing nostalgia/ULTRA, Ocean took to his Tumblr account last February and posted this exhilarating opus himself. Amazing word of mouth tempted Def Jam to announce an “official” release for this past summer, but thankfully that didn’t happen, because – from the apocalyptic Coldplay revision that’ll make you weep, to his improving the Eagles classic (albeit, intolerable) “Hotel California” as the most profound dissection of marriage and divorce I’ve heard in years (the next time I actually hear the guitar refrain on classic Rock radio, I’ll think of Ocean) to invoking Stanley Kubrik (Nicole Kidman via EYES WIDE SHUT)  and writing the best dentist/sex song since Lonnie Johnson’s “Toothache Blues”, from his reworking  MGMT’s “Electric Feel” as a tearful ode to his father, to cryptic lyrics about sexuality in “Songs For Women” – this “unofficial” work of art cements the uncleared samples intact and his genius lyricism blooms under his own terms.

Getting soft as I slowly sludge toward middle age, my natural aversion to ‘quirk’ seems to – on a whim of its own – dissipate most randomly. I realized this months ago while absorbing the tUnE-yArDs’ w h o k i l l,  an outré of anomalous sounds, Afro-Pop rhythms, and Merrill Garbus’ remarkable vox voicing daftly brilliant, sometimes cryptic lyrics in dexterous wordplay, juxtaposed and intertwined within unwonted rhythmic cadences. What appears an overwhelming fragmentation of various soundscapes on initial listen morphs into a deeply and beautifully cacophonous yet cohesive whole. Gargus is a true heteroclite in the best sense of the word and what separates her opus from the typical hipster oeuvre is, for all its seeming chichi-ness, there’s no preconceived pretentiousness about this collection – it’s pure congenital joy. True, I might have no idea what it all means, but I had a helluva time trying to figure it all out. And will continue to do so.

It would be easy to proclaim that the neophyte chanteuse of 2008s 19 had “passed the audition” if that collection were even merely subpar – it wasn’t; despite its Brit-soul clichés, it was her supernal instrument that elevated it beyond mediocrity. But what a difference a few years makes. I’m loath to use an overused cliché like “concept”, but Adele’s 21 is the break-up album of this century, an astonishing collection with a musical and lyrical depth that seems to gainsay her youth. The wisdom of the content alone sears the soul, from the guttural gospel stomp of the nouveau-classic “Rolling In The Deep” to the shattering “Someone Like You”, which laser-beams straight into your heart and decimates it on contact (dole out a little extra for the deluxe edition – the live version will scorch your heart apart until you’re weeping in the dark), the emotional range of “Turning Tables” and “Take It All” to the country-tinged heartbreak of “Don’t You Remember”. That she’s able to transcend genres – from gospel to country to rock to soul – is testament to her power, and because of that soaring gift (the “voice of God”, according to Beyonce), very little sounds like filler or fodder, even the loungey arrangement on the Cure’s “Lovesong”. A revelation.

Van Hunt’s excellent Grammy-nominated debut was released during the over-saturation of neo-soul releases that defined the early aughts, but he refused to be shackled into that wheelhouse for too long. With each sequential release, he announces that he’s infinitely more than meets the eye – or ears. WHAT WERE YOU HOPIN FOR? explodes with a concoction of shimmery sounds, punk overtures, sweet psychedelic soul melodies, and hard rock conventions, resulting in a non-conformist artist finally finding his own id. His anonymity is a crime.

Not so committed that I take real-life couple Chuck Cleaver and Lisa Walker’s lyrics as autobiography, but reading lines from Wussy’s STRAWBERRY like “You removed the ampersand from in between your name and mine…” and “Does he cross all your T’s, does he dot all your I’s, does he tell you more believable lies?” conjure enough guttural devastation that I can’t help but think of the two greatest couples-in-turmoil albums of all time, Richard and Linda Thompson’s SHOOT OUT THE LIGHTS and Fleetwood Mac’s RUMOURS. Am I totally being selfish if I’m thrilled at the prospective art if they’re soon-to-be-exes? This is Wussy’s fifth great album in a row. How often can any band stake that claim?

The music’s harder than on the triumphant THE WAY I SEE IT, and like that neo-classic, Raphael Saadiq’s STONE ROLLIN’ is never hook-deficient. Once again stitching together indelible grooves, Philly Soul, Motown, Stax, rockabilly, rhythm and blues, nothing sounds or feels pastiche.  And if it’s less the traditionalist archetype than the predecessor, as one friend suggested, well, that’s the problem with a preceding musical piece of heaven-on-earth: duplication anticipation. Either/or, it’s not for Saadiq’s lack of intestinal fortitude or his one-man-band aesthetic but rather maybe a more precluded notion of song in lieu of musical fluidity. But, hey, for what that’s worth, I’ve danced to no other music harder this year.

If anyone tells you that there’s anything derivative about Foster the People’s debut album, tell them to get over their highfalutin selves. Foster – and TORCHES – isn’t out to change the world, and only the tin-eared would deny the delicious, significant sing along melodies and contagious choruses.  Teetering on the edge between dance music and experimentation, they craft the hookiest treat for the ears in recent memory.

Will we ever know (or fully comprehend) the impetus behind Eef Barzelay’s bizarre spelunking of the Journey catalog? I mean, fucking JOURNEY?!?! Weren’t they, like, the worst band of the 1980s? Okay, so not really (hello, Whitesnake!) But it makes sense in this GLEE realm we live in – it is GLEE, after all (and to some extent, THE SOPRANOS), that is to “blame” for their resurrection. Bizarre as it might appear to be, it not only works, CLEM SNIDE’S JOURNEY is awe-inspiring. This gorgeous EP provides a case-by-case testimony that, under all the histrionic vocal sonics and musical bombast, perhaps Steve Perry and company were tunesmiths of the highest caliber.  And they prove it all under 30 minutes. Hey, I never doubted Eef for a minute. Okay, for a minute. Or two.

You can keep Ne-Yo. You can have Usher and Trey Songz. And for all I care, you can throw Chris Brown in the garbage deposit he no doubt bathes in (I wouldn’t wish him on my enemies.) When I want to hear valid R&B, I throw on Anthony Hamilton. That voice, a hot-and-bothered potion of sex-god masculinity and romantic vulnerability, has never been creamier than on his exemplary latest, BACK TO LOVE, with a voice still as rich as marshmallows dipped in honey. Far and away, this is the best Soul release of this year. And last. Hell, probably next.

Miranda Lambert didn’t need the Pistol Annies. As the greatest country artist to emerge from any reality-based TV show (she came in as second runner up on the now-defunct NASHVILLE STAR), she’s released four albums of dynamite, and one certified country classic (her second release, 2007s CRAZY EX-GIRLFRIEND) and has become a megastar. But with HELL ON HEELS, Lambert, Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley combine their collective talents to form a semi-supergroup, with an emphasis on luxurious and taut harmonies with an emphasis on smart lyricism.

Of course Mary Black’s STORIES FROM THE STEEPLES is magical – that’s par for the course. But how is it that her voice is actually richer than it was when I first fell in total love with her back in 1985? Is it wisdom with age? Perhaps. But it’s also an artist with a new appreciation of her art. After six long years away, I’m infatuated once again by the stories she embodies and delighted to revel in her sumptuousness. Welcome back, Mary.

Sadly, Poly Styrene’s solo album, GENERATION INDIGO, was released a day after her death back on April 25th, nearly three decades after her only other solo debut TRANSLUCENCE, and we suddenly realize what we have when it’s no longer here. Dosed in dub-step, reggae, lite-punk, dance-pop, synth-rock, her vocals tinge between effusive and determined (the album was recorded before her breast cancer was diagnosed), coalescing with her political leanings, her naive musings, and undaunted humanity.

Perhaps too ambitious, Fucked Up’s DAVID COMES TO LIFE (David being David Eliade, the “quasi-full time manager/promoter” of the band, and also their inspiration. Sweet.) goes beyond mere punk opera or concept album. While their fan base is hard at work, I’m sure, at  making a concrete correlation between David-as-man man and David-as-concept-album, what matters to the Fucked Up novice (read: me)  is the stunning benchmark of striking, melodic steadfastness of lead singer Damian Abraham with the dense, layered, and also beautiful songcraft.  Because, let’s face it, without the harmonious overflow, Abraham would be indistinguishable from many a hardcore howler.  Though, what a howler he is.

I won’t be a revisionist – I’ve had fun mocking Lady Gaga at every whim over the years, and while my admiration grew from jovial disdain to admiration back in 2010 (I wrote about it earlier this year), musically I still wasn’t satisfied. Until BORN THIS WAY. I’m happy that the pre-proclaimed promise of the “Greatest album of this decade!” (oh, Stephanie…) wasn’t even close. What it was was – and is – an anthology of rousing mini-pop operas – fast, furious, funny, heartfelt – from a colossally famous performance artist devoted not only to humanitarian causes and equality, but adjoins that uber stardom, humility and earthiness with a heretofore unseen allegiance to her fans (proving she’s the antithesis of the artist she’s often compared to, Madonna). That the songcraft is finally top tier is merely icing. Plus, it contains the best  HONKY CHATEAU B-side (“You And I”) that Elton John never wrote.

The tales on Fountain Of Wayne’s SKY FULL OF HOLES aren’t necessarily archetypal – whether the one about the father who escapes his routine life, and racing his own mortality, by imagining himself an action hero, or the fallen soldier saying goodbye to his love from beyond the grave, or two childhood friends who fail again and again at business adventures, or a guy writing his gal a road song even though he doesn’t sound like Steve Perry. But they are deeply resonant. “Stacey’s Mom” wasn’t a one-shot, folks – they’ve got nothing to prove, two excellent albums later.

Duncan Sheik morphed from 1990’s one-hit-wonder (the ubiquitous “Barely Breathing”) into a Tony/Grammy-winning Broadway darling (the groundbreaking SPRING AWAKENING), but with COVER 80s, Sheik personalizes his synth-pop 45rpm collection to deliver a strangely alluring and unlikely intriguing experience. Some monster hits (e.g. Thompson Twins’ “Hold Me Now”, Tears For Fears’ “Shout”), some obscure enough (The Blue Nile’s “Stay”, Japan’s “Gentlemen Take Poloroids”), he renders these tracks not as unrecognizable (too often the bane of covers) but strips them sparingly and imbues many with a peculiar dichotomy of breezy gloom, almost a sweet darkness, sometimes altering their distinct melodies to showcase that at the core of the heavily polished, synthesized exteriors of the superficially upbeat ditties often lie lyrics that belie such arrangements. None of this isn’t to imply that COVERS 80’s is a dank experience – it’s not – it’s a starkly lovely summation from a long-underrated artist.  Helping out with vocal flourishes are Holly Brook (AKA Skylar Gray) and Rachael Yamagata, who add to the ethereality as a whole.

There were so many other tasty treats my ears feasted on this year, any one of which I could have written in fuller detail in lieu of any of the above. Some examples: Brad Paisley’s THIS IS COUNTRY MUSIC is the follow-up to his masterpiece, AMERICAN SATURDAY NIGHT and “suffers” the same “problem” as the aforementioned Raphael Saadiq – you can’t always repeat a magnum opus. And Paisley, like Saadiq, doesn’t even care to try, which doesn’t discount the man’s talent for hooks and a new-traditionalist voice for the ages; Fleet Foxes HELPLESSNESS BLUES procures the title as angelic folk rock anti-heroes and all the iridescent harmonious beauty that entails – be forewarned, though – the text nearly promises to weigh it (way) down; Chris Cornell’s live/acoustic SONGBOOK proves that, besides being my first Rock N Roll love/crush, he remains one of the great singers of the Rock N Roll era, a voice that can not be denied, an underrated force of nature parallelled by few; in a succession of great releases since her late 90s comeback, Marianne Faithfull’s HORSES AND HIGH HEELS, demonstrates the wondrous actress behind the songs – always immersing herself within the lyrics, embodying the soul of each; Garland Jeffreys THE KING OF IN BETWEEN,  a great comeback where he exhibits, miraculously at 67, the best album of his long, criminally overlooked career; Tom Waits’ BAD AS ME doesn’t coast on his métier but rather embellishes an already artistic resurrection with his most rocking – and confident – set of  tunes since signing to Anti- over a decade ago; and who would’ve thought that, at 70, Paul Simon, would gift us with SO BEAUTIFUL OR SO WHAT his most contemplative and important work since GRACELAND? The star of the show on The Civil Wars’ BARTON HOLLOW is the intricate delicacy of John Paul White and Joy Williams’ harmonies, never flourishing the personal lyrics unnecessarily with overt twang or pomposity. It’ll leave you breathless.

And an honorable mention has to go to the following, which I’m sure will illicit snickers, laughs and derision. Bring it on, because how serious (or not) you take William Shatner’s SEEKING MAJOR TOM is how serious (or not) you take William Shatner. And I take him as serious (or not) as any Beat Poet from the 60s of Def Poetry Jam of recent times. His spoken word performance art has gathered a cult following since his TRANSFORMED MAN was unearthed thanks to the great/awful GOLDEN THROATS series back in the early 90s, and further into the hipster hierarchy thanks to Ben Folds, who recorded an album with him called HAS BEEN almost a decade ago. SEEKING MAJOR TOM, is indeed bloated by its own excesses – at twenty tracks, it could benefit a trimming (e.g. cutting the inexcusably awful “Iron Man” and out-of-place campy “Bohemian Rhapsody”, which almost reduces Shatner’s objective to a too-easy farce). And remaking his own remake of Elton John’s “Rocket Man” (the genesis of Shatner’s cultism) as low-key lament, reclining his own original blustering approach, negates (perhaps intentionally) that cult. But by the time Sheryl Crow’s haunting cover of K.I.A.’s “Mrs. Major Tom” midway, which imbues David Bowie’s fictional title character with an unexpected humanity and stops you in your emotional tracks, you’re not only rooting for his safe return, you’re doing so with a tear in your eye and cheer a silent cheer when he finally makes it home.

What do Bon Iver, David Cook, Owl City and Limp Bizkit have in common? They’re not on this list. There on that  other one I’ll write this week (or next). You know, the Pretty Shitty list, AKA, the “Worst”. I’ll be posting it in the coming days or so. If I feel up to task revisiting the horrors.

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5 thoughts on “Music Box Report Card: My Favorite CDs of 2011

  1. Yeah, point taken. It’s just that the guy isn’t what anybody would call a roaring success or a famewhore (is he even a celebrity?) so he seems like a weird target. I follow you on twitter and it was borderlng on bullying for a minute, so I assumed you loathed HIM. Sorry. And now I need to go examine why I’m taking up arms for some failed, never-was “rockstar”. Maybe it’s the dead brother thing? Leftover goodwill from his admittedly good run on AI?IDK, IDK… Peace!

    1. Oh, Mary McCulley – there’s not a “hate vendetta” you silly woman, you! Why is it that nutjob fans can’t respect others opinions? Just because I loathe Cook’s CD, mock his hair plugs, scoff at his videos…oh, wait. D’oh!

      1. I’ll admit that David Cook has a fine, fine voice, though I don’t care for his brand of angsty, overblown, pretentious “rock” music, at all. But still, I really dont get your hate on for the guy either. He seems like a nice guy, and I gotta say, I do respect his charity work. It’s not like he’s overexposed (Katy Perry), loathsome (Nickleback) or pimped beyond merit (Adam Lambert). He’s just a dude cursed with REALLY shitty hair.

      2. Oy, I do NOT hate Cook. I loved him on Idol (see my American Idol Report Card blog) – I merely hated his 2 CDs. And as a pop culture commentator, it’s fun to poke at people, especially for the obvious (e.g. Cook’s hair plugs). Come on! You don’t look at TV and make fun of celebrities? Of course you do. Everyone does.

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