Saturday, December 17, 2011

My Top Albums of 2011 - MUSIC MEGAPOST

Confession:  I’ve been looking forward to this post all year.  Pretty much since I wrote the Top Albums of 2010, I’ve been itching to do it again.  I might have gone overboard, as this post is well over 4,000 words.

With only a couple weeks left in the year, every publication in the US will soon be flooded with ridiculous Top 10 lists.  The unquantifiable shall be judged and sequenced.  We love reading these lists, even if it’s just so we can quarrel over them and express our outrage at the brainlessness of reviewers.  I couldn’t have much less respect for the business of reviewing music—it’s an irritating, pompous industry.  I have pretty strong feelings and opinions when it comes to music, and I can be vocal about expressing them, so the problem is not that people say what they think about music.  My issue is the pretension involved in the reviewing business—as if a review is anything more than some individual’s subjective reaction.  Far too often, that individual believes that his own artistic assumptions and expectations are actual, universal standards.  Prejudice is treated as precept.

That said, there’s no denying the appeal of Top 10 lists.  The difference between Thought Porridge and Rolling Stone Magazine is that here at TP, we try not to bullshit our readers.  The ensuing list is entirely subjective and shall adhere to explicitly stated rules of our own making. 

The Framework

Despite having numbers, this list is not necessarily in order of ranking.  My criteria for choosing these albums are the following:

a.  The albums could have been produced in any year, not just 2011.  I must have first heard the album in 2011 or listened to it primarily in 2011.

b.  No albums that have appeared on any previous lists (real, imagined, or retroactively created) of mine may appear on this list.  This music must be “new” to me.

c.  This isn’t a ranking of the artistic merit.  Inclusion in the list means the album was among the most important and/or meaningful new music that I listened to in the last year.  I’m playing favorites.  It’s personal and subjective.

d.  In the last year I’ve listened to around sixty new albums, in addition to countless albums that I already knew, yet that is an insignificant fraction of the new music that comes out every year.  I’m not qualified to say this music is any better or worse than all the other new music.  It just happens to be what I heard.


These albums aren't ranked in order, but the first two are definitely my top two.  Hence, they get mini-essays unto themselves.

1. Sufjan Stevens - The Age of Adz (2010)

Sufan Stevens is a genius.  I didn’t know this before listening to The Age of Adz, which I first heard in 2010.  I listened to the dazzling first track, “Futile Devices”, and I was aflutter with anticipation for the rest of the album.  An hour later, when the damned thing was finished, I had to admit it…this went over my head.  I put the album on the proverbial shelf for almost a year before picking it up again in late August or early September of this year.   Around that time I felt like I was ready for a real challenge.  The problem was the complexity.  There are an incredible number of sounds in most of the songs—symphonic, orchestral, choral, synthetic, echoing, reverberating, and bizarre.  At any one moment in most of the songs, there are too many sounds to hear everything that’s going on.  There are themes introduced at the beginning of songs that you don’t even hear until they become dominant towards the end, because they’re just one part of a massively complicated harmony of harmonies.  At 25 minutes, the last track, “Impossible Soul”, is an opus unto itself.  Writing this, it occurs to me that it can sound rather like several albums sitting on top of each other.  And I get the distinct feeling that Sufjan put “Futile Devices” first as a reminder to the listeners:

No matter what comes next, I want you to know that I know how to make a simple, beautiful song.  Keep that in mind, lest you think the ensuing madness has no method.

There’s more to this.  It’s hard to explain why I like love it so much.  It’s not about the pleasure of hearing.  When I listen to it, my heart tells me that it is important music.  Whether you enjoy it or not, it represents an artistic effort that demands respect.  The album is fearless, dances unselfconsciously on the line between magnificence and grandiosity.  And of this I’m sure: no one sounds like Sufjan except Sufjan.  Listening to his music, especially The Age of Adz, it is not possible to confuse him with any other artist.  What he’s doing is bold and original.  It’s clear that The Age of Adz was made without regard for general appeal.  The music requires deep attention, and for large portions of the album it is very challenging.  You have to focus through layers and layers of harmonies, some brash and some beautiful, and you have to choose some sequence of sounds to focus on.  You have listen to it several times to get your ears used to the noises.  But those challenging spells are worthwhile—you can come to enjoy them, and they greatly enhance the pleasure you take in the simple, melodic stretches that are so easy to digest.  And when you’re no longer blinded by the glare of intricacy and eccentricity, you can see that you’ve entered the resplendent musical palace that is the brain of Sufjan Stevens.

2. Bright Eyes – The People’s Key (2011)

This and The Age of Adz were clearly, definitely the two most important albums of 2011 for me, and for completely different reasons.  Conor Oberst is a musician that I’ve come to trust.  Every album by Bright Eyes sounds really different, reflecting Oberst's development as a musician and human being.  The earliest album was a lo-fi hodgepodge of musical styles.  Then there was the dark, cheerless, cohesive Fevers and Mirrors, a favorite of angsty teens nationwide.  Follow that with Lifted, which is the most ambitious album both musically and lyrically, wherein the songs have shifted from self-absorbed fantasies to serious, mature reflections about an inexperienced young man’s place in the world.  In 2005, Oberst is 24, and out come Digital Ash and I’m Wide Awake, released simultaneously, displaying very different sides of the musician and the human being, but both more focused and internally cohesive than Lifted.  The lyrics are serious, sometimes dark, but not angsty, and they show a much greater range of thought and experience—very clearly the meditations of someone with real experience in the world, not just someone who knows it through books and music and movies and conjecture.  A couple years later, Cassadaga is released, more ambitious, lush arrangements, sort of Americana, with surprisingly impersonal lyrics.  And finally, The People’s Key, another departure in style and content.  (There were also a handful of other albums released by Conor Oberst in different bands or under different monikers).

I know, I know, why is it necessary to give a whole discography of Bright Eyes?  Because I want to emphasize that all of these albums sound very different.  They use different sets of instruments and draw on different influences.  The lyrical content is different in every single one.  Unlike 99% of songwriters today, Conor Oberst doesn’t just write love songs.  On The People’s Key, none of the 11 songs have romantic relationships as a primary theme.  On Cassadaga (2007), there are one or two romantic songs, depending how you define it, out of 12 tracks.  What Conor writes about is much more complex, much more interesting.  And the real point is this:  After all this time and all those albums, I trust Conor to make good music.  If I don’t enjoy it the first time listening, the problem is likely not the music.  The problem is my own thick head, which needs to be softened up.  I want to learn from the musicians that I trust.  If they do things I’m not used to, then I’m probably the one that needs to change.  It’s the height of arrogance to dismiss something out of hand when it’s coming from an admittedly superior artist.

So, the album itself.  The People’s Key.  The music is harder than previous albums—it seems Bright Eyes was scratching an itch to rock out after years exploring the folk-country-Americana galaxy.  After a couple listens for acclimation and adjustment, I got really into the rocking-ness of the album.  Same with the melodies.  Listen to the pounding of “Jejune Stars” a few times at high volume and you’ll get into it too.  The lyrics are both abstract and substantive.  It’s a mixture of storytelling and elaborate imagery.  It’s a more spiritually-themed album than previous stuff—there are allusions to Eastern wisdom, shamanism, Rastafarianism, Christianity, and Celtic paganism (as far as I can make out).  Science fiction is important in the album.  The whole thing is preoccupied with the meaning of life and death and the nature of the divine.  Really, it’s hard to sum it up.  The songs are so carefully crafted that it becomes hard to boil them down to simple themes.  And there’s the simple fact that even I can listen to a song dozens of times before the light bulb flicks on and I fully comprehend the lyrics.  Years later, I can still be surprised by the lyrics.

Last thing: I will always associate this album with Andrea La Fevers, my friend and fellow Bright Eyes enthusiast in Boca Raton for several months before leaving for Peace Corps.  Especially “Jejune Stars” and its curlicue. 

3. The Strokes – Angles (2011)

I got this album from Carlos at the tail end of the East Coast Road Trip.  He warned me, “The first few tracks are good, but then it gets weird and kinda eh.”  I was excited.  The first time listening wasn’t through a good system, so I wasn’t sure what to think of it.  When I had the chance to sit down and listen to it later, it really grew on me.  It retains some classic Strokes characteristics: extremely precise, almost symmetrical sounding songs with sharp breaks between the sections, and crisp solos.  Unlike classic Strokes, the vocals don’t just sound bored/world-weary.  They also experiment with a far greater range of moods and emotions—not to mention effects—than they did in the early stuff.  The album as a whole isn’t as weird as First Impressions of Earth, which was good but marred by the presence of bullshit filler songs like “Killing Lies”, “Fear of Sleep”, and “Evening Sun”.  But what I really like about the Strokes, other than the way their music interests and delights me, is that their sound evolves over time.  It keeps it interesting.  Like Bright Eyes, they’ve lost plenty of fans who “like the old stuff better”, but who cares?  You’re a musician, artist, and living creature—you’ve got to mature.  They’re keeping it honest.  This album has been especially useful in situations where I need music with both energy and substance, e.g. blocking out the morning call to prayer or riding a death bus through the mountains at high speed.

4. Clint Mansell – The Fountain OST (2006)

Oh man, intensity.  At some point very early in the year—around January—I acquired this album.  I had seen the movie a couple of times.  The first time I saw this movie was with Craig and Jessica, and none of us spoke for at least a quarter hour after the credits rolled.  As in every movie Clint Mansell gets involved with, the music in The Fountain is crucial to its power.  And what power it has!  The music is so achingly beautiful.  Woven into the classical arrangements are screechy post-rock guitars.  No other album this year had the same raw emotional punch as this one.  It moves from golden wintry beauty to ominous tension to epic buildup to heartbreaking denial to rumination to mourning to a staggering climax.  And it ends with my favorite track, “Together We Will Live Forever”, which is a gorgeous and gentle—yet emphatic—post-climax comedown.  I love this album.  I love that there are no words and that the music generates such deep and clear emotions.  I listened to it a lot in the first couple months of the year, especially in the process of accepting a lot of the things I was about to leave behind.

5. Minus the Bear – Omni (2010)

This one is something of a guilty pleasure.  Minus the Bear is a band I had to get used to over a long time.  If my roommates Karl and Adam hadn’t been forced me to listen to the album Menos el Oso for hours on end every single time we drove between Boca Raton and Gainesville, the band may never have grown on me.  Anyway, this album has some pretty glaring weaknesses.  For one, the lyrics are mostly embarrassing.  I’m pretty sure that every single song is about sex.  They mostly depict steamy or seedy sexual encounters in a variety of settings, and you can tell the singer wants it to be sort of poetic, but it’s kind of creepy and lame. 

But what I really like about this album is just how smooth it is.  Most of the songs have a really pleasing layering of instruments.  Time signatures vary within songs, and there is a gratifying juxtaposition of hard and soft sounds.  Some of the melodies are really catchy.  It’s an album I can put on and sort of melt into the harmonies.  I listened to it quite a lot just after arriving in Indonesia.  With its hard yet smooth sounds, it was excellent for drowning out the morning call to prayer.  It was also good for just spacing out, helping set me into a calm mood that was necessary for digesting and processing the ridiculous load of new experiences.

6. Radiohead – The King of Limbs (2011)

A lot of people didn’t like this album.  It seemed like the universal reaction was…this is all?  Eight songs, not any huge stylistic departure from previous work, at least half of the stuff not really listenable.   There’s not much to disagree with there.  But I liked it nonetheless.  I like that it’s unapologetic.  I like the tension of euphony and cacophony.  I like the obsessiveness of the album.  I tend to think that when albums make you struggle through discord and complexity for several songs, you appreciate the simple and the beautiful far more when it comes along (see: Adz, the Age of).  I love the way the horns come in three minutes into “Bloom”.  Once you’re half way through the album and thinking to yourself, Okay, what the hell is wrong with Radiohead?, the song “Lotus Flower” comes in with its beautiful melody and little claps and stripped-down simplicity, and you just want to sing along in that Thom Yorke falsetto.  And then that electronic piano-organ thing makes the chorus ever so pretty.  The second half of the album is much more listenable, and in my opinion it’s even more enjoyable because you had to persist through interesting but difficult discord to get there.  I like that it’s short.  Radiohead has put out so many albums now—who cares if they don’t want to do the mega-works anymore?  I just want to see what they come up with.  And I love those gorgeous trumpets flanking the vocals in “Codex”.

I listened to this album a lot in the month or so before leaving for Indonesia, and then often enough after arrival.  I associate it with aloneness—not loneliness.  I suppose that was a pretty dominant emotion during the time I was listening to it.

7. Explosions in the Sky – The Earth Is Not a Cold, Dead Place (2003)

Woah, how did I get so into post-rock and never listen to Explosions in the Sky before?  The first time I ever heard them was watching the first episode of Friday Night Lights, and that convinced me I should get my hands on some of their music.  I started listening to this album sometime in July, and it was a staple for several months thereafter.  At first I found it somewhat dry and a little bit too pretty compared to bands like Sigur Rós and Godspeed You! Black Emperor, who have many more challenging moments to their music.  But that crankiness wore off.  Listening to this album is like hearing a story with no words.  The first track is called “First Breath after Coma”, and the first sound you hear is a high-pitched guitar note, soon joined by a heart-beat thumping from a bass drum.  Then that single guitar note repeats and speeds up, and more layers come in.  And in your mind’s eye it’s clear that the thumping is a heartbeat and the guitar notes are the beeping of that hospital machine with the jagged green line.  It’s like somebody waking up out of a coma into a beautiful new world and resolving to live the honest, passionate life they’ve always wanted.  Every song tells a tale.

8. Hans Zimmer – Inception OST (2010)

Much like the movie, powerful and badass.  Some tracks are all thunderous booms and tempestuous trumpet bursts, and others are anxious synthetic landscapes with disquieting string melodies.  There’s taking-care-of-business music, feeling music, brooding music, buildup music, and ass-kicking music (e.g. “Mombassa”, word to Craig Hill), and it all fits together in one cohesive album.  This being the second of two movie soundtracks on this list, I should give credit to the abovementioned Mr. Hill for turning me on to movie soundtracks as independent listening experiences.  They are definitely worthwhile.  My favorite memory connected to Inception:  The first time I saw it was On Demand at my house with my brother, Jesse.  The second time I saw was the next day, still On Demand, with Jesse again.  For the second viewing, we paused the movie at every single point where one of us was unclear about what was going on or how it fit into the logic of the movie’s world.  This was very satisfying, even if it took us an extra 45 minutes to watch the whole thing.

9. Bon Iver – Bon Iver (2011)

My heart sank a little bit when I saw that this album is up for a handful of Grammy awards.  Ruins my indie cred.   Why can’t they just stop giving that crap out?  It’s a foul thing altogether. 

I got this album in July.  I remember listening to it several times in the dark under my mosquito net and being really impressed with a handful of tracks, especially “Perth” and “Holocene” at the beginning.  This album is in no way lo-fi like its predecessor, but it does retain the ultra-personal ambience, like you’ve just opened up a sonic diary.  The sounds are so expertly, beautifully layered.  The real power is in the melodies.  It has to be, because the lyrics are as close to gibberish as one can get.  I think I’m going to associate this album forever with the “settling in” phase of Peace Corps—that time just after training where you’re adjusting to life at your permanent site.  One kind of funny thing.   The last track, “Beth/Rest”, actually made me laugh out loud the first time I heard it.  It sounds so eighties.  Then I felt bad for laughing, because it really sounds like a labor of love, and I never want to giggle at a man’s soulpouring.  Still, anytime I hear it, my brain smirks.

10. Exitmusic – From Silence (2011) [aka The Coming Insurrection]

This is a four-song EP thing by a band that pretty much no one has ever heard of.  They might have re-released it under a different name, but when I got it for free off their website, it was called The Coming Insurrection, so I’m sticking with that.  Story of discovery:  Last year I was watching the first season of Boardwalk Empire, and I got a big fat crush on Aleksa Palladino, who plays the character of Jimmy’s underappreciated baby-mama.  So I looked her up on the internet, and Wiki told me that she was in a band called Exitmusic—with her husband.  One of everyone’s favorite Radiohead songs is called “Exit Music (For a Film)”, so I thought if they were influenced by that song, it’d be worth a listen.  I downloaded the EP and listened to really late one night in January.  And then I listened to it again about five times.  I was blown away.  It’s moody, alternately dark and uplifting, dreamy, it builds up and slows down, and the melodies go straight into your heart.  It’s a bit like Beach House, but way better.  Through the first song (“The Night”), you can’t really tell if it’s a boy or girl singing, which I love.  I found them on Facebook, where they had about a hundred fans.  Pretty much everyone I introduced them to in the few months before leaving for Indo agreed they were excellent, and I developed a semi-irrational fear that the song “The Hours” would be discovered by some hip, bloodless junior executive at Lexus and stuffed into an awful car commercial.  I just missed seeing them live in New York during the East Coast Road Trip and expressed my regret on the Facebook page.  To my delight, Aleksa wrote back and wished me luck in Indonesia.  Be still, my racing heart! 

Honorable Mentions:

Mogwai – Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will (2011)
·      Awesome title.
·      Mostly for the first track, “White Noise”.

Villagers – Becoming a Jackal (2010)
·      Amazing first two tracks, “I Saw the Dead” and “Becoming a Jackal”.

LCD Soundsystem – This Is Happening (2010)
·      I’ve still never listened to this whole album, but the first and last tracks (“Dance Yrself Clean” and “Home”) are golden.

Iron & Wine – Kiss Each Other Clean (2011)
·      First heard this and thought it would end up making the top 10.  It didn’t, but that was more about my mood.  Really good album.  Love the track “Godless Brother in Love”.

OutKast – Aquemini (1998)
·      Some amazing tracks on this album.  The more of OutKast I hear, the more I love Andre 3000.
·      Particular favorites would be “SpottieOttieDopaliscious” and “Da Art of Storytellin’ (Part 1)”.

Random songs/music I loved this from this year:
·      “Jamelia” by Caribou
·      “Enchanting Ghost” by Sufjan Stevens
·      “Lost in the World” by Kanye West ft. Bon Iver
·      “The Wilhelm Scream” by James Blake
·      “Mi Maamakim” by Idan Raichel
·      The first five songs of the album Discovery by Daft Punk, which were crucial for getting down with the PCVs.
·      “Doing the Wrong Thing” by Kaki King
·      A Perfect Circle’s cover of “When the Levee Breaks”
·      “Chain of Missing Links” and “All You Need Is a Wall” by the Books
·      “A Nervous Tic Motion of the Head to the Left” by Andrew Bird
·      The album Ravedeath, 1972 by Tim Hecker, which is pretty much an hour-long sound experiment
·      Chopin’s Nocturnes
·      Some of that stuff by Fleet Foxes, who are good but can be sort of corny.


A piece of music that I recorded in my room in Indonesia.  Did it in Garageband on my Macbook Pro with the built-in microphone behind the keyboard and my acoustic guitar.  All the sounds/effects are mine, minus two percussion tracks that come in about half way through.

Just want to draw your attention to the fact that there is not a single cockadoodle or adzan or roaring of a motorcycle in that entire thing.  That might seem like nothing to you, but it took a buttload of patience to make a recording without tons of background noise.

“Good Music”

Some years ago, I put on some music for a person whose taste and sensibilities I highly respect, and he hated it.  He said the music made him angry—there was something either dishonest or sinister or rotten at the heart of it.  I was shocked and kind of mad at the dismissal, which I thought to be arrogant and myopic.  But it did cause me to question my own musical taste and why people could have such radically different ideas about what constitutes “good” music.  I’ve thought about it ever since, really.  There’s good music and there’s good music.  There’s music that you like and there’s music that’s artistically significant or genuine, and they’re not always the same.  We’ve all got guilty pleasures. 

It seems to me that music can be good for many different reasons.  What makes Keith Jarrett great is completely different from what makes Sufjan Stevens or Conor Oberst great.  Purists would shudder that those latter names even share a sentence with Keith Jarrett.  They’re all musicians, but they have so little in common.  Some musicians are great because of their virtuosity, some because of spontaneity, some because of originality, some because of their genuineness.  It’s all got something to do with what is revealed and transmitted.  Some musicians reveal their heart, some their soul, some their mind, some their wit, some their obsessions.  We all have some idea of “good music”, but it’s so incredibly difficult to define. 

What I find is that a lot of the new music I like has less to do with virtuosity and musicianship, and much more to do with mood.  It often feels like the artist  has created a landscape that I can walk through and explore and fill with my own forms, rather than letting me look into a fully finished world.  I’m not sure how to put it, and of course this is in no way a rejection of those masterpieces of musicianship or creativity.  I guess I struggle with some guilt over this.  Mood music simpler and doesn’t really require great skill in instruments.  It makes up a significant portion of what I listen to.  I just don’t know whether to call it “good” or not.  Is it artistically inferior?  Or is it a different kind of art?  And if it’s a different kind of art, is it a low art, rather than a high art? 

As an example:  Sigur Rós and Explosions in the Sky are both “post-rock” bands.  I like them both, and I might prefer for long stretches to listen to Explosions in the Sky, but I would never classify them as the artistic equals of Sigur Rós.  They create beautiful soundscapes that I enjoy wandering, but what they do isn’t nearly as original or bold or challenging as what Sigur Rós has done.  So how to judge it?

I guess the core of the trouble is what a person means when they say something is “good music” or so-and-so is a “good band”.  Maybe good, but good isn’t the same as good.


  1. hi there, i actually found your Youtube first but after reading this post YOU HAVE FREAKING GREAT TASTE IN MUSIC! and the piece of music you created is really good!

  2. Thanks for reading! and listening! and the compliment!