I’m back! Seeing as is the list about, y’know, 2011, I had to make sure to get this posted before the year is out. Also, I’ve made an executive decision and increased the number of albums on my list to 20. (There was a late-breaking addition.) This means that this post will be even longer (11 albums, 4 EPs, and some end-of-the-year words…whew!), but we’ll make it work. (In other news, by the end of this paragraph, the number will increase to 25, and by the end of this post, it will be so large you can’t even count it.) Now, on to the rest of my favorite albums list…these fine records, I consider the best of 2011.
Rachael Yamagata — Chesapeake
(Full disclosure: This is the late-breaking addition that pushed my list to 20.) What is “Chespeake”? It’s an understated, very unassuming album, full of songs that grab on first listen, certainly, but don’t show all their different textures until after repeated listens. Rachael has really opened herself on “Chesapeake,” and the result is a warm, honest collection of songs that showcase her at her very best. Her songs in the past have often been introspective and haunting, and they certainly are here, but there’s a certain underlying uplift to the proceedings that really helps her songwriting come to life. And when she does hark back to her previous work with raw ballads like “Full On,” she ends up creating exquisite, devastating works of art. “Chesapeake” is without question Rachael Yamagata’s finest work yet, and it’s a fascinating, engrossing glimpse into her artistic vision.
Amos Lee — Mission Bell
“Mission Bell” is in some ways a convergence of influences. You can see touches of jazz, folk, soul, country, Americana…a little bit of everything, really…within its songs, and Amos Lee is the kind of songwriter and performer that knows just how to tie all of it together. The album is fearlessly intimate but wonderfully expansive, and it has a world-weary quality that gives it great depth and texture. It also doesn’t hurt that Amos has a fine roster of guests (including country icon Willie Nelson, on an album-closing reprise of the opening track). His singular voice is used to great effect, and overall, it’s a beautiful musical portrait that stays with you long after the first listen.
k.d. lang & the Siss Boom Bang — Sing It Loud
It’s no hyperbole to make the statement that k.d. lang is one of the most incredible vocalists of all time…her instrument is rich, gorgeous, expressive, soaring, heartbreaking, and uplifting, all in one. This record is one truly worthy of that incomparable voice. Paired with a full-time backing band for the first time in quite a while, she delivers her best album in years, arguably the best of her career. “Sing It Loud” is an intoxicating, breathtaking recording, and k.d. and the band unite beautifully to create a collection that feels timeless. It’s raw and organic, but at the same mysterious, refined, and elegant. It’s a new direction for her in some ways, going back further to her country roots than any of her recent work has…but it’s a direction that if there’s any justice in the world, she should definitely keep exploring, because if it results in albums like this, as a listener I want to be there exploring with her.
Ben Sollee — Inclusions
You don’t get many artists like Ben Sollee, and I mean that literally…he’s a singer/cellist. (I don’t think you’d even need all of one hand to count how many of those there are out there in the music world.) Artistically, though, he’s even more unique…he’s unclassifiable genre-wise, but his songs work. They work wonderfully. They’re dynamic and fresh, and soaring in a very rare, understated way. There’s a lovely quality to his music that’s kind of hard to define, but it makes perfect sense once you take a listen. They’re the kind of songs that just get better and better as time goes on, and that’s the sign of an album that truly endures.
Florence + The Machine — Ceremonials
The rare album that feels both unendingly grand and ambitious, yet at the same time incredibly authentic and introspective, “Ceremonials” is a towering achievement. It’s a record you have to really dive into to get the full experience, but it’s a dive that’s definitely worth taking. Kicking off with a rousing opening track (followed by the gloriously anthemic “Shake It Out”), song after song after song, it hits hard and deep, with Florence’s booming voice lifting up to the heavens, the lyrics setting the mood, and the instrumentation going in all kinds of fascinating directions. Only at a few points does she let the music run away from her…while “Ceremonials” is wild and experimental, it’s a very organized type of chaos at work here. Florence and her band know exactly what they’re doing, and the result of their efforts is a singular, spectacular kind of album that’s unlike anything else out there.
Elbow — Build A Rocket Boys!
How exactly does a rock band expand on huge success? After bursting into prominence with their last album, the revelatory “The Seldom Seen Kid” (which even garnered them a prestigious Mercury Prize in the UK), Elbow went exactly where they needed to with their next record…they went home. It’s not as if they ever left, but on “Build A Rocket Boys!”, they feel truly at home. The songs are warm, straightforward, and above all, absolutely beautiful. A prime example: “Lippy Kids,” in many ways one of the emotional centerpieces of the album, feels like frontman Guy Garvey’s love letter to what being a teenager is, and he delivers it with such nuance and tenderness that it very nearly breaks your heart. The use of the Halle Youth Choir on a few tracks is an inspired choice…they help the songs soar even more than they already do on their own, adding beautifully to the mix. There are countless moments of musical brilliance throughout, and it’s even further proof that Elbow is a band constantly creating incredibly well-crafted music that’s genuine, honest, and full of emotion.
Ximena Sariñana – Ximena Sariñana
This self-titled album is Ximena Sariñana’s second, and her first in English (only one track, “Tu y Yo,” is in her native language, Spanish)…and it shines. Taking a new approach with sonically adventurous, forward-thinking producer Dave Sitek, it’s a different vibe than her debut record in some respects, but the marriage of the acoustic and the electronic is a happy one, and her powerful yet delicate voice is a perfect fit. From the sunny opening track, “Different,” to the gorgeous ballad “Tomorrow,” to the light/dark exercise that is “Wrong Miracle,” the album’s closer, this is a highly enjoyable, top-notch record through and through.
Bon Iver – Bon Iver
Unfolding in quiet, explosive bursts, Bon Iver’s eponymous second album (there seems to a be a pattern here…hmmm) is, quite simply, beautiful. The band burst onto the scene with little more than singer Justin Vernon’s heartstoppingly fragile voice and his guitar on “For Emma, Forever Ago”…this time around, the sonic palette has exponentially grown, and the many new instruments are weaved into the album like a stunning tapestry. There’s absolutely no one genre you can pin “Bon Iver” to…all that can be said is that it is, without question, wonderful, wonderful music.
Company of Thieves — Running From A Gamble
On “Running From A Gamble,” Genevieve Schatz has her day. Lead vocalist of Company of Thieves, she tears into the songs with reckless abandon, singing with fire and spirit when the chorus swells, and bringing her powerful pipes down to a whisper when things get quieter. It’s a masterful set of vocals, but that would mean little if the band she’s a part of…and the songs she sings…weren’t up to scratch. They are, and then some. Company of Thieves has created a tour-de-force of lyric, melody, and sound. “Running From A Gamble” is gorgeously thought-provoking, engagingly fierce, and an enjoyable, breathless musical ride. You really can’t get much better than this.
Sondre Lerche — Sondre Lerche
Usually when artists title an album after their own name, it signals a debut or an early work (see the two albums above…I didn’t even realize until just now doing this post that I had three eponymous albums on it). For Sondre Lerche, however, this is his sixth studio release. What it most likely is meant to mean in this case is a rebirth…on this record, Sondre doesn’t do a complete 180, but his music is in some aspects filtered through a different lens. It’s more acoustically driven, more organic, a little more stripped down. At his essence, Sondre is a skillful, innovative songwriter, and it shows through brightly here. His songs are haunting, lovely, and lyrically inventive, even playful at times. Which is the way they’ve always been (Sondre’s music is remarkably consistent)…but here, the listener gets a front-row seat.
Feist — Metals
Let’s put it out there right now: “Metals” is a triumph. A hands-down, no-holds-barred triumph. It’s a very different album than “The Reminder” (Feist’s previous album that spawned the joyfully ubiquitous “1234″). In fact, it’s a bit unlike anything Feist has ever done. It’s revelatory and quietly sweeping in a way that most artists only dream of. Feist’s voice is in peak form, and her writing on this disc is absolutely stunning, plus the production is striking and unique in a way that enhances the songs in absolutely all the right ways. “Metals” is a tale of heartbreak, of acceptance, of everything in between…but above all, it’s a tale of humanity. So many moments in the album stand out. The a cappella chorus of Feist’s vocals at the end of “A Commotion”…the way “Graveyard” explodes into a cathartic sing-along…the slow, steady, breathless build of “The Circle Married The Line”…the underlying fierceness behind “Undiscovered First”…all that and more. Without question, this is pure, unadulterated musical magic.
But wait, there’s more! Four fine EPs I’d like to briefly highlight this year.
Courtney Cotter — Home I Roam
Courtney is a friend of mine, so it’s possible anything I write about her music is somewhat biased. That said, this is a terrific collection of songs. She’s grown since her last album (her debut full-length, “My Happy”) in wonderful ways, and all 6 of these songs (plus one from “My Happy,” the amazing “Unsaid”) are strikingly mature, beautifully warm, and impeccably crafted, and Courtney’s beautiful voice is the icing on the cake. The only downside to “Home I Roam”? It ends too soon.
Christopher Miller — Hair and The Hell
I was introduced to this album by a Facebook post by a friend, and I’m very grateful for the recommendation. This EP may be only 4 songs long, but what it lacks in quantity, it makes up for in quality. The songs are evocative and lively, and Christopher has a very developed writing voice that shines through very well. My personal favorite on the EP is “Ben Just Shy,” which boasts a terrific, infectious hook.
Alyse Black — The Honesty EP
Honesty is in the title, and it’s in the music as well, as Alyse Black goes back to basics and gives us 7 cozy, beautifully spare songs that are both confessional and uplifting. Her music really draws you in, and this EP is a fine display of her gorgeous vocals and outstanding songwriting skills. It’s well-crafted, incredibly genuine, and a celebratory act of pure expression.
Lucy Schwartz — Keep Me
Moving forward without losing any of what makes her so terrific in the first place, Lucy Schwartz delivers a fine EP with “Keep Me.” Between the stop-you-in-your-tracks piano ballad “You Are You Are,” the quietly sweeping title track, and the moody, atmospheric “Domino,” Lucy has outdone herself once again, creating rich, engaging songs that, while small in number this time around, provide countless hours of highly enjoyable listening.
Now I’m done. That kind of took a while…I guess that’s what happens when you add 1 or 2 albums at the last minute, eh? It’s been an absolutely wonderful 2011 blogging here at Harmony Avenue. This year, this blog went farther than I ever imagined it could, and I’m happy to actually have at least a few regular readers (I think), and lots of visitors, and the response to my “Sing-Off” recapping was terrific. Thanks to all you who commented, read, enjoyed, and especially those of you who shared, my posts this year. (Any compliments received have been MUCH appreciated.:)) Now, to a piece of news I don’t think I’ve announced here formally yet, mostly because any regular readers I have probably know it already: I’ll be leaving on a full-time mission for my church in May (to Peru!). That means in 2012, I’ll only be having a few months of posting. My plans for Harmony Avenue after that are a bit up in the air right now, but there are a few options I’m considering while I’m gone for two years and obviously can’t keep this blog up whatsoever, so I’ll keep you posted on those. For now, thank you all so much for helping make my blogging-related activities in 2011 an absolute blast. Happy New Year!