The end of every year is a pleasant time for me as I love reminiscing and making lists of things. In that spirit, then, here are some of my favorite records from this year. They’re in no particular order (though I will note which was my favorite overall) but these are the discs that spent the most time in my player this year.
The Decemberists–The King Is Dead
On some level, I think this record was only released so a bunch of uncreative journalists could call it the best R.E.M. record that came out this year (the venerable, departed Athens college rockers’ record Collapse into Now was a little underrated in my opinion but the Decemberists album is much better). Peter Buck guests on three of the songs, including lead single “Down By The Water” and the album does owe something of a debt to R.E.M., amongst others. It’s nice to hear that kind of variety and absorption of influences nearly a decade into a very strange career of making a really specific kind of literary indie rock. If someone were looking for an entry point to the band’s catalogue, The King Is Dead would make a great primer. The big knock against The Decemberists is their penchant for writing long, theatrical songs about history and literature. This reached its apotheosis on their previous record, The Hazards of Love, which was something of a heavy metal/folk opera/concept album heavily influenced by British folk. Given the obvious excesses of that undertaking, King is a much more stripped-down affair that eschews the band’s usual theatricality in favor of a much looser sound that’s influenced by country and classic American rock. There’s still the inevitable dash of pretension–second single “Calamity Song” references Infinite Jest, but if your objection to The Decemberists was based on their love of writing fifteen-minute epics about Confederate wives, you still might find a lot to enjoy on this disc. It spent most of January in heavy rotation in my listening diet. Pay special attention to “January Hymn” and “June Hymn,” the emotional centerpieces of the album that showcase frontman Colin Meloy’s gift for weaving small details into a narrative that perfectly captures the fleet of passing time.
My favorite thing about art is the chance you get to see the world through the lens of another person, a sort of guided tour of another person’s consciousness. One of my favorite guides is Destroyer’s Dan Bejar, an affable lunatic who makes the kind of pop records Alfred Jarry would probably have liked. His release this year was an interesting departure from his earlier work, heavily influenced by Roxy Music’s Avalon and lite-pop from the 80’s and early 90’s. With the sort of hushed sonics that would soundtrack a visit to Shoney’s as a backdrop, Bejar croons typically occluded lyrics in his unmistakable tone. A sample line: “I want you to love me/you send me a coffin of roses.” While he claims to have no real idea what the songs on this record are about, I read them as confronting loneliness and imperialism in both private life and the world at large. But maybe that’s just because I see that everywhere.
Wire–Red Barked Tree
I will never understand how Wire has managed to stay so fucking cool for 30 years but they’ve done it without breaking a sweat. Released in January, Red Barked Tree is another in a career full of staggering achievements. While most of the best songs are voiced by Colin Newman, album highlight Graham Lewis sings album highlight “Bad Worn Thing.” Lead single “Please Take” is among the coldest songs the band has ever written in a career full of cold songs. Name another band that could work the lines “fuck off out of my face” into a four-minute pop song. It’s nice to know that it’s possible to keep making reliably great records into your sixties.
Okkervil River–I Am Very Far
Okkervil River is one of my three or four favorite working bands in the entire world and their 2011 album was probably my overall favorite of the year. Will Sheff is an incredibly literary songwriter who manages not to be too ostentatiously wordy in his writing. Who else could write a song about a girl finding her father dead that references a segment of Beowulf? Sheff creates entire worlds that he populates with characters who all seem as unhinged as his singing. Helping the teetering-on-the-brink-of-oblivion aesthetic is the fact that the band sounds like they’re seconds from coming unglued in every performance. While Okkervil’s last two records explored themes of fame and celebrity in the modern era, I Am Very Far focuses on more personal and esoteric matters. Most of the songs address mortality (the most commonly repeated word on the record is “throat”) but the track sequencing leaves the listener with a hopeful note. They were also the best concert I saw this year.
Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks–Mirror Traffic
Stephen Malkmus doesn’t reinvent the wheel on any of his records–he perfects it. Liberally tipping his hat to influences from the Velvet Underground to Dylan to Todd Rundgren, Malkmus cranked out another album of unmistakably nuanced guitar rock. Although Beck’s production was unremarkably formless for such a big name, the record holds up as the best of Malkmus’s post-Pavement output. In interviews given around the record’s release, Malkmus commented that the lyrics were mostly tossed off in the studio as the group recorded. While this meant that it lacked a bit of the narrative cohesion that you might get in a Pavement album (if you’re the kind of person like I am who believes there’s more to those lyrics than meets the ear at first) there’s still a fair amount of nicely constructed “””poetry””‘ for any Deconstructionist.
Wild Flag–Wild Flag
And straight from one former Portlander to another, here’s Carrie Brownstein’s post-Sleater-Kinney guitar rock quartet! A quasi-supergroup featuring fellow Sleater-Kinney alumna Janet Weiss (incidentally, my favorite drummer), Mary Timony from Helium, and Rebecca Cole from the Minders, Wild Flag’s debut is probably the best straight-ahead guitar album of the year. Brownstein and Timony trade vocal duties but the Brownstein numbers stand out as being tighter and more rocking than Timony’s smokier numbers. Look no further than this for all your six-string needs.
Girls–Father, Son, and Holy Ghost
I was convinced that Girls were a one-hit wonder after their 2009 debut Album. They made a fool of me this year, though, with a much tighter sophomore effort. While Father, Son, and Holy Ghost lacks a standout track as good as “Hellhole Ratrace,” the album also doesn’t suffer from the same weak back-end of their previous record. The album isn’t necessarily any darker than its predecessor, though songwriter Christopher Owens does seem to explore his dysfunction with more care and self-pity (not in a bad way, totally) than before. Musically, this record finds the group stretching their sonic palate to include surf-rock, rockabilly, heavy metal, and 60’s soul. Highlight “Love Like a River” proves that Owens may indeed achieve his stated goal of becoming a songwriter for a pop starlet.
So that was the year. A decent year for music after the embarrassment of riches that was 2010. It was, as the AV Club noted, a year devoid of Important Records. Hopefully, the new year will see at least one of those.