Saturday, January 28, 2012

Top Ten of 2011

Welcome back to the Nevstar Music Guide. Am planning back to back instalments over the next couple of weeks. First up is my Top Ten for 2011 and will follow with my review of the recent Laneways Music Festival. Over the course of the two posts, I will review material from about twenty of the best bands making music right now which may hopefully assist in your acquisition of music to soundtrack your summer. So without further ado; let’s get this party started.

Top Ten 2011

The major theme for my top ten in 2011 is the number of acts who are making their second or third appearances in a Top Ten list. Remarkably, eight of the top ten this year are from artists that have previously featured in Top Tens from previous years. This is no doubt partially selection bias (you are more likely to buy a second album from an artist if you like the first), but also reflects that I came across very few new artists or debut albums that blew me away this year. Having said that, the quality of the Top 10 is the best for several years with the top four in particular being outstanding albums which I will be playing for a long time to come.

So, here is the Nevstar Top Ten Albums of 2011.

10. The Adults : The Adults

At number ten was the debut album from our very own local supergroup with Shayne Carter, Jon Toogood and the lovely Julia Deans combining to form The Adults. Crafting together a range of songs written by themselves and others (notably Ladi 6 on the stand-out track “Nothing To Lose”), The Adults album is a memorable romp through a wide variety of musical material. There are no songs that are unmistakably Shihadesque or Fur Patrol influenced. Instead, given a blank canvas, they have generated a set of songs which have a distinct DNA of their own. In fact, given their quite disparate musical backgrounds, the ease with which they subsume into ‘The Adults’ persona is to be commended highly. In particular their remarkable melodies and their high level of musicianship are clearly in evidence. It would be a shame if this is their only record as the chemistry of the three is unmistakable.

Best track : Nothing To Lose

9. The Black Keys : El Camino

Coming in at number 9 is the seventh album from Messers Auerbach Carney aka The Black Keys. They return to the Nevstar Top Ten for the first time since their 2003 effort Rubber Factory. The Black Keys have a simple recipe of blues infused guitar rock complemented by some maniacal drumming. They have barely deviated from this approach over the course of their seven albums demonstrating an assured consistency befitting their musical talent. In 2011, they teamed up with the legendary producer Danger Mouse and produced the rocking and rollicking El Camino which stands well alongside the rest of their work. It differs from their historical back catalog primarily through being a little more accessible to non-blues aficionados. The songs are more open and singable infused with a youthful spirit and verve. Rather than gazing inwards, The Black Keys seemingly decided to invite the world over to their place for a party. From the cracking opener “Lonely Boy” through until the eleventh and final track “Mind Eraser”, the pace, energy and songsmanship rarely, if ever, lets up. In contrast to earlier recording efforts, for El Camino they turned up without any new material and simply wrote and recorded tracks on the spot. As such, there is a real immediacy permeating through the material. Amidst a lot of recorded music these days which is over-dubbed, over-laid and over-produced (Lady Gaga springs to mind), The Black Keys offer a seductive alternative of stripped down, earnest, simple rock music.

Best track : Dead and Gone

8. Black Joe Lewis : Scandalous

The one man soul revival force named Black Joe Lewis returned in 2011 with the follow-up to his highly acclaimed and much loved debut album Tell Em What Your Name Is. Scandalous continues where the first album left off as Black Joe Lewis continues to wreak mayhem and havoc with an abundance of charm, humour and a whole lot of sass. Scandalous is packed full of tracks showcasing the best of soul, blues, and rhythm n’ blues. It is not, however, the slightest bit subtle and is rather more ribald than his first effort. Tracks like Booty City, She’s So Scandalous and Mustang Ranch are not remotely subtle but exactly who wants a rock star to merely allude towards the pursuit of carnal pleasures? Indeed, the latter track involves multiple trips to a rather famous brothel they pass on band road trips. Scandalous indeed, but terrific fun. The Nevstar was lucky enough to see Black Joe Lewis and his travelling band The Honeybears live at the Powerstation in the latter part of 2011 and it was a hellishly good time. It was absolutely terrific to see a brass section in a band again giving the entire sound a richness and fullness that drums and guitar can never offer. If you missed them live, then make sure you at least sample what you missed by buying/downloading Scandalous.

Best Track : Mustang Ranch

7. British Sea Power : Valhalla Dance

One of the most consistently under-rated yet interesting bands of the last decade return to the Top Ten for the first time since their sophomore effort Open Season. British Sea Power are an indie alternative guitar band with equal measures intelligence and wit. Here they return to the form of their debut album combining interesting musical arrangements with soaring anthemic choruses. At their finest, BSP soar the heavens amidst orchestral accompaniment belonging on the stairways to enlightened worlds. Georgie Ray is a particularly fine example and one of their best tracks of the year. It seems that they are destined never to break into the big league, but I’m sure they will always treasure being included on the Nevstar Top Ten list three times in seven years!

Best Track : Georgie Ray

6. The Vaccines : What Did You Expect From The Vaccines?

I respected quite a few other albums a lot more this year, but there were very few that I enjoyed as much as this trashy debut effort from The Vaccines. I wrote at length about them in an earlier Nevstar Music Guide but simply put, this record is the most fun you will have standing up this year. Chock full of instantly catchy hooks, this in indie guitar music at its most carefree and effervescent. It is clearly reminiscent of the first Strokes album (right down to sarcastic questioning title), but you get the impression that The Vaccines don’t take themselves nearly so seriously. Reportedly, the unexpected hit of the recent Big Day Out with a blistering set. . If you haven’t come across them yet, do yourself a favour and check out “Post Break-Up Sex” below.

Best Track : Post Break Up Sex

5. The Nightwatchmen : Worldwide Rebel Songs

The Nightwatchmen is the side project of Rage Against The Machine bassist Tom Morello and he has produced one of the albums of the year in Worldwide Rebel Songs. In keeping with the freedom that a side project allows, Morello ditches the rage harder modus operandi of RATM and adopts a freewheeling, party time soundtrack reminiscent of early Springsteen crossed with the energy of George Thorogood. We find Morello in rare voice alternating between imitating a throaty Nick Caveish growl and a Berlin era Lou Reed. Lyrically, he is the long lost love child of Dylan and Joan Baez speaking out as the modern day poet on a range of political issues. Stray Bullets is a remarkable song about serving in the US Army when none of the generals seems to understand what they are doing on the ground in Iraq while Union Town was a single written to help fund raise for the union protests in Wisconsin recently. All in all, the whole album could be a disaster if it wasn’t infused with so much passion, and damned fine songs. You don’t have to agree with the politics to enjoy this extraordinary collection of music.

Best Track : Stray Bullets

Now, before we continue, it is perhaps important to note at that point that I changed the order of the Top 4 albums about ten times before posting this. They really, quite easily, could’ve been 1A, 1B, 1C and 1D as all are fantastic albums and worthy of being Number 1. I had immense difficulty separating them but with that in mind, here is the latest rankings which will last roughly until I hear albums 2, 3 or 4 again and anoint them as my 2011 favourite.

4. My Morning Jacket : Circuital

Have you ever had that experience of buying an album by one of your favourite bands but being a little disappointed the first time through? Often we buy albums from an artist wanting or perhaps sub-consciously expecting to hear the same material we already know. As a result, the latest album is often initially a bit of a disappointment. Until you decide to give it another go and realise that the band are, in fact, smarter than you. Indeed, it is not the same as their previous material, the new album is better. A lot better. This was my experience with Circuital from My Morning Jacket. I have been a fan of My Morning Jacket for a long time and Circuital is now my favourite of their entire collection. It is quite simply an amazing album. The two part opener of “Victory Dance” and “Circuital” are freakishly good. MMJ make a living out of making “Everest” tracks. This is my particular moniker for songs which start awfully slowly, rise gently, then steeply to a soaring, thrilling cathartic peak, before descending again leaving you short of oxygen but looking at the world in a whole new way. MMJ are extremely talented and equally adept at taking you higher and lower, often in the same song. Highly recommended.

Best Track : Victory Dance

3. Feist: Metals

leapt into the consciousness of most music fans due to the ubiquitous use by Apple of the gorgeous track “1234” in its marketing of the iPod. She returned in 2011 after an eighteen month hiatus with her fourth album Metals. In contrast to the commercial popularity of her previous effort The Reminder, Feist has seemingly made a concerted effort to ensure the recorded material was not suitable as a commercial jingle. This seems like creative suicide given that the success of most music stems from people inherently liking the tunes. On Metals, the entire tracklist contains very little pop and very few catchy hooks. But, as with a lot of great art, true character and depth is revealed on multiple listenings. Metals passes you by the first time and you barely notice it. But the second, third, fourth and thirtieth listens (and yes, I would’ve listened to it thirty times already) reveal the immaculate songwriting talents of Leslie Feist. There are indolent melodies, whimsical woodwinds, cherished choruses and revealing rhapsodies. It effortlessly and simultaneously soothes your anger while shining a light on your soul. Metals is a treasure. It suffices equally as background music operating as a slow ebbing tide subtly washing over you or as an intense listening experience reminiscent of riding a big wave carrying you to a different place. It might be too late for New Year’s resolutions, but one of your goals for the year should be to own this album. I cannot imagine how anyone could not like it.

Best Track : Graveyard

2. Elbow : Build A Rocket Boys

Another band who have featured on the Nevstar Top Ten before, Elbow returned with this astonishing effort maintaining the ridiculously high standard they set for themselves in Cast of Thousands (2003), Leaders of the Free World (2005) and Seldom Seen Kid (2008). They have carved out a very select and special niche as purveyors of the finest shoe-gazing, melancholy pop/art music while their contemporaries have fallen by the wayside. Build A Rocket Boys, like Circuital above, is a bit of a slow-burner. There are no songs which are inherently catchy. What you do find though is a set list which meanders from the sublime to the extraordinary. Opener “The Birds” is so good that they partially reprise it later in the setlist. Lippy Kids is an achingly beautiful song, starting with a beyond simple organ coda and slowly building throughout to include the album title. The album perhaps peaks mid set with the brilliant "The Night Will Always Win” with a barely audible soundtrack just giving sufficient support to the ghostly vocals. And make sure you stay to the end as the final track “Dear Friends” feels like an offering to the gods before they depart from these mere earthly bonds. I have been a fan of Elbow for a while, but none of their albums touches the sheer unadulterated beauty and class of Build A Rocket Boys.

Best Track : The Night Will Always Win

And the Nevstar's Number One album of 2011 is (drum roll please):

1. Girls : Father, Son, Holy Ghost

As a badged member of the Y chromosome community, the Nevstar is the first to admit that he doesn’t really understand girls. It seems that sometimes they are all joyous and joviality, sweetness and light, only to change, for seemingly no reason, to dark, moody, morose creatures. Perhaps this sentiment is not uncommon and may explain the rather strange choice of band name by Christopher Owens for his band known simply as Girls. Because, quite simply, the band are impossible to live with and impossible to live without! One moment they are singing sunny, gay irresistibly catchy pop songs and the next, they have switched into singing about tormented souls, demented minds and dark visions of fomenting rebellions against the whole tyranny of love. It is like listening to an album alternatively combining tracks from the Beach Boys and Joy Division. Oh, and just like the other girls in my life, it is impossible to walk away from liking them. The contrast in the nature of the songs is clearly demonstrated by listening to the first two that YouTube offers you on searching for the album. The first is the rather ill-fittingingly titled ‘Vomit’ which is a slow burning delight and reminds this listener of the impeccable Radiohead track Street Spirit (last track on The Bends). The next listed is the album opener “Honey Bunny” where the title probably tells you everything you need to know about what sort of song it is (annoyingly sweet, happy, G-rated and a dead certainty to have you singing along to it). And thats how the whole album plays out. One moment sunshine; the next a hailstorm. Am pretty sure the album won’t aid your understanding of the fairer sex, but it will certainly enlighten your days (and nights). A worthy selection for the number one album (alongside Circuital, Metals and Build A Rocket Boys!).

Best Track : Vomit

Thats it for this post. Agree or disagree with any of the sentiments? Leave a comment or send me an email.

Back soon with a Laneways review.



Anj Atkins said...

Hey Nevstar, excellent list!. Of course I hadn't heard of any of the bands so can't comment on your esteemed selection - the only great album I got this year was Adele! But I have now listened & really liked My Black Keys, Fiest, My Morning Jacket & Girls (whose vid looked like an out-take from 'Drive'). Shall be visiting record store pronto. I'm sure all the bands will be proud to have made the most prestigious top album list on the web. Pity Bon Jovi didn't do a new album this year or that would have been #1 without competition :)

Anonymous said...

Welcome back Nevstar, with an outstanding post. Your turn of phrase is exquisite here (an Everest song!) - it sounds to me like you've got your musical mojo back in spades! Thanks to your previous posts I do actually know most of those artists, and will definitely investigate further on your recommendations. No doubt you heard about the upcoming Elbow gig? Looking forward to your Laneways post soon! Dee

Anonymous said...

Outstanding writing Nev - and lots to go and check out. Hmmm...guess I should give Feist (another!) go but we've got Elbow and Girls locked and loaded for the long drive to Dunedin. Interesting you referenced Strokes and Radiohead as we surprisingly hammered both their 2011 albums believing each had returned to the form of way back - never seen that coming...Radiohead also a slow burner (Codex or Lotus Flower for tune of the year) but SBTRKT was our album of the year for sure.