2011: One Man’s Take On the Year In Music

Acknowledging that we live an age of excess but also an age of brevity, I have this to say about the 2,000+ word article that lies ahead: it is too short. Alas that time has not been given to me to write a 10,000 word article concerning the intimate details of a dozen different albums. Still, we press on (in no particular order)…

Balance and Composure‘s Separation and Let Me Run‘s Let Me Run are what I can only describe as modern-throwback albums. Separation hearkens back to the post-grunge era of Bush and (wait for it) Collective Soul (bam!) but also has the full throttle production and scream-singing that marks the current era1; meanwhile Let Me Run reeks (in a good way) of that early 2000s era pop-punk-with-an-edge feel while also having learned a good deal from that era about how to sound unique in a crowded field2. Be sure to download Let Me Run here, as it’s only a buck.

Speaking of early 2000s era pop punk, who knew that New Found Glory was still a band? Sadly, I can’t say much for their most recent album (Radiosurgery) just like I can’t say much for the reunion efforts of fellow emo-legends Taking Back Sunday (yes, their new self-titled was recorded by a reunion of the original lineup, but sadly, it wasn’t a very good album) and Blink-182 (it’s fun to have them back, and Neighborhoods isn’t bad, but it’s not at all memorable). And while it hasn’t been that long since Death Cab for Cutie put out a record3, their Codes and Keys was a big disappointment for me as it suffered from what I’ve come to call The Radiohead Effect4: essentially that the entire album appears to be flatlining and lacking in either motion or direction. Successfully – and somewhat surprisingly – blazing the comeback trail, though, was Saves the Day whose Daybreak5 was probably the album that most unexpectedly earned my listening hours in 2011. It’s a strange album6 but one that has a very distinct feel and, ultimately, some hugely catchy hooks7 (I’m looking at you “E” and “Chameleon”) that led to it being one my most listened to albums of the year.8

The King Is Dead
The King Is Dead

On the other hand, an album that did jump right out at me was The DecemberistsThe King Is Dead, whose opening track, “Don’t Carry It All” is one of the finer songs of the year. The King Is Dead is a much simpler effort than the last few releases from Meloy and Co. but it works. The simplicity of the record allows for a much earthier feel and gives Meloy freedom to explore more accessible melodies (see “Rox In the Box” and “This Is Why We Fight”) as well as less esoteric lyrical topics.9 Meloy also gets huge bonus points for authoring and publishing what turned out to be a pretty solid children’s book this year: Wildwood.10

Much like The King is Dead, Thrice‘s Major/Minor saw a usually progressive act simplify things quite a bit. While I have come to really enjoy Major/Minor, my first reaction to it was that it was the release of a band that was, quite simply, tired. Thrice have been writing, recording, and touring extensively over the last few years11, so it should come as no surprise that they don’t quite seem to have the same desire to stay up into the later hours of the night creating new tunings and fighting the young man’s fight that is experimentation.12 That Thrice’s members are all committed family men with growing family units explains the understandable yet sad announcement that they would be taking an indefinite hiatus after their next tour.

Deas Vail
Deas Vail

Much as Thrice has been able to explore diverse sounds while always remaining Thrice-like, each Deas Vail album has been distinctly different and yet distinctly Deas Vail. Their self-titled third album (Deas Vail) continues to impress as the band continues to grow. Deas Vail is much more brooding and malcontent than previous releases, with “Desire” excellently opening the album and claiming, “I don’t know what love is, the truth is that I don’t know to be honest” – a far cry from their typically transparent Christian-themed lyrics. Even if you haven’t enjoyed their saccharine sounds before, it’s harder to ignore the band Deas Vail in light of the album Deas Vail, one of my favorite records of the year.

After their own brief hiatus13, Eisley returned to action with The Valley. The haunting “Ambulance”, already released on 2009’s The Fire Kite EP, is an excellent track while the brilliantly written and arranged “Mr. Moon” is one of the best songs of the year14, while the rest of the record offers an assortment of quirky pop tunes.15 Meanwhile Moving Mountains attempted to follow up their 2008 masterwork Foreword with Waves which, for all its thunderous guitar and bone rattling punch, is simply not a very compelling album – it’s a good fix if you want something loud and rocktastic (let’s just pretend that’s a word), but it doesn’t do a particularly good job of bringing you back for more. In the same vein, if you want an album to temporarily fill a pop-rock void in your life16, check out The Dangerous Summer‘s War Paint, whose title track, at least, is just what you need in the summer months.

Manchester Orchestra‘s Simple Math might not actually be any simpler than their last release17 (2009’s fantastic Mean Everything to Nothing), but it does lack some of the soul of its predecessor. That said, it’s still an album that has some great moments, from the serene melancholy of its opening track (“Deer”) to the climactic, orchestral conclusion of its title track and the raucous party chant in “Pensacola”. And all told, “Apprehension” remains one of my favorite tracks of the year (as I’ve said before) with one of the great lyrics of the year.18 And, while the finale (“Leaky Breaks”) suffers from the aforementioned Radiohead Effect, it’s still a solid album and a good entry point for prospective Manchester Orchestra fans.

New Blood
New Blood

Peter Gabriel followed 2010’s disastrous Scratch My Back with the similarly composed New Blood only this time, instead of covering other artists’ songs, he’s revisiting his own. And what a difference that turns out to be. Several of his classic tracks are beautifully reborn in their orchestra-only presentation and the New Blood live performances only add to the power and beauty of the experience.

Speaking of experiences: in 2006 Nic Newsham sang “I gotta write these songs so that you remember that you believe in music”19, but at that time, I didn’t need that type of reminder. But when my faith in music was waning (for a variety of reasons) who should save the day but that very same Nic Newsham and his Gatsbys American Dream whose brief reunion at the Forgive Durden farewell concert in Seattle (fall 2010) reaffirmed my faith and lit a fire that led to a Gatsbys comeback. Since that day, Gatsbys has not yet released an album but they have released two tracks, the incredible “Untitled” and the absolutely phenomenal “Modern Man“. In some capacity, Gatsbys is back; I would have been remiss to not have mentioned them here.

Most recent in the long line of bands that friend of the blog Matt Kemper has introduced me to20 is the work of Pete Davis, whose solo album The Pottsville Conglomerate21 has the potential to be one of the better progressive albums of the last few years but which may in fact be too progressive. It seems to me that a little bit of editing, just cutting some excess material and tightening up some of the compositions, would have made this one of the best albums of the year. That said, while it’s not one of the year’s absolute finest, it’s still a very, very good album. I’m very much looking forward to whatever comes next from Pete Davis, who is very clearly an incredibly talented performer and composer.

My happiest musical accident of the year occurred when I stumbled across a review of Charlie Simpson‘s Young Pilgrim and subsequently picked up the album which, in turn, puts on a clinic for how to write great pop songs.22 It seems likely to me that, should Simpson choose to focus on his solo efforts rather than his role as frontman for the British alt-rock group Fightstar he could very well be The Next Big Thing.23 Without a doubt, one of my top three albums of the year.

The Sun Will Rise and Lead Me Home
The Sun Will Rise and Lead Me Home

Because of my personal bias, I won’t say too much in praise of GatesThe Sun Will Rise and Lead Me Home for fear that my overbearing praise will destroy its own credibility. Suffice to say that this six song EP is phenomenal and unique – “In the Morning” is very likely the single best song of the year – and yet, as great as this album is, I think that it is very likely that Gates has not yet scratched the surface of their immense capabilities. Do yourself a favor – or, at the very least, do me one – and check out their album (up for free download) here.

Lastly, in the position of highest honor, we have The Dear Hunter. Did you really think I would omit Casey and Co.? I can’t even make any comparisons for what The Dear Hunter’s newest adventure, The Color Spectrum accomplishes. Depending on how you break it down, The Color Spectrum is either a massive single album, an eleven song sampler, a triple album, or a nontuple album made of nine EPs – it is a project of staggering scale and quality. It would have been unfair to judge any album against Casey Crescenzo’s 36-song magnum opus in the way that you wouldn’t judge the merits of a Polaroid picture against a sixty-foot mural – they are, fundamentally, different creatures. While there is so much to say about this record, there is almost nothing that I could say that would benefit you more than actually listening to it. And if you haven’t done that yet, you really should. Because The Dear Hunter’s The Color Spectrum is my vote for Album of the Year.

The Color Spectrum (Sampler Edition)
The Color Spectrum (Sampler Edition)

All the best, everyone. Ars longa, vita brevis.

—–

Footnotes

1. Friend of the blog Kevin Dye adequately described the album’s sounds as “a blend of early 90’s grunge and early 2000’s post-hardcore“.

2. Lesson 1: You don’t  have to write trite love/breakup songs if you want to write something catchy and upbeat (amen). Lesson 2: You don’t have to be a gimmick band to be very, very fun.

3. Their last full-length record was Narrow Stairs, released in May 2008.

4. What I’m referring to here is the propensity for some acts to gravitate towards a sound that is essentially monotonous with no climax or progression, i.e. music that does not ‘go’ anywhere. Since Radiohead seemed to start this trend with some of their material from Kid A and since their In Rainbows is basically the poster child for this attitude (and let’s not leave this year’s The King of Limbs without mention) I’ve decided to call this sonic deadening The Radiohead Effect.

5. Daybreak was released almost exactly four years after Saves the Day’s last album, 2007’s Under the Boards. Sidenote: How terrifying is it that it’s been ten years – ten! – since the release of Stay What You Are? I feel so old.

6. Not a surprise given Saves the Day’s lineup changes over the last few years.

7. If you’re a Saves the Day fan it’s hard not to love the lyrics scattered throughout the album that make reference to older Saves the Day songs. The song “Daybreak”, for instance, makes reference to both “Delusional” (from Sound the Alarm) and “Get Fucked Up” (from Under the Boards).

8. Again: I cannot reiterate how much this surprised even me, especially given that I did not much care for this record after my first listen or two.

9. The song “Rise to Me”, for example, is far more explicitly personal than many Decemberists songs and makes reference to Meloy’s difficulties in connecting with his son, Hank: “Hey Henry, can you hear me? Let me see those eyes. This distance between us can seem a mountain size.”

10. It’s not an all-time favorite, but I did quite enjoy my time in Wildwood – read here and here for more on the story and here to get a taste for yourself.

11. Major/Minor is their fourth album in the last five years and eighth full-length release since their debut, Identity Crisis in 2000.

12. Despite being rather simplistic, “Words In the Water” is one of the prettiest songs in the Thrice canon; a great, if somewhat predictable, remix of it can be heard here.

13. An exile caused by equal parts record label strife and personal issues.

14. If I ever have the time to get around to finishing it, an article on the workings of this particular song may someday appear on this blog.

15. I am incredibly excited for the February release of Eisley’s Deep Space EP, inspired by the writings of Ray Bradbury.

16. Particularly if that void is the size and shape of Lux Courageous’ 2005 release, Reasons That Keep the Ground Near, which War Paint always brings to my mind.

17. Wow. That was an unfortunately terrible play on words. My apologies to you all.

18. “God has never been afraid to fill our cups with more than they can hold, until they all overflow and we drown once and for all.”

19. Lyric from “Margaritas and Cock” from Gatsbys American Dream’s self-titled album (Gatsbys American Dream, 2006).

20. Oceana, The Rise of Science, TheTitanCourageous, and Wax on Radio come to mind, though I’m sure that there are others that I’ve missed.

21. And, in this case, when I say ‘progressive’ I really mean ‘progressive’ – almost the entire 95 minute album (yes, you read that correctly: 95 minutes) is through-composed and the whole thing is a story about a mining colony – it’s all available for the reasonable price-tag of $8.

22. Simpson’s harmonies are particularly exceptional (see “Down, Down, Down” for example).

23. I should note that I mean “in America” – Simpson seems to be doing just fine for himself in the UK.

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