Well, here they are – a list of my favorite songs of the year.
(The order is based more on mood, not necessarily on preference.)
“Wavlngth” – Headless Horseman, “HDLSS” compilation
Wild, exuberant, and infectious, this song jumped out at me as I was researching the hundreds of unknown bands descending on the city for CMJ in October.
“Whale” – Yellow Ostrich, The Mistress
Listen to the slowly unfolding beat as layers upon layers are piled on top of each other to create an earnest, upbeat diddy that is far more complex than it appears.
“Let England Shake” – PJ Harvey, Let England Shake
A strong intro to a strong album. Harvey proves she’s still got it.
“Lose It” – Austra, Feel It Break
Operatic, buoyant, and so much better than Zola Jesus, this is the song that sold me at SXSW. The bit at the end by the Lightman twins (of Tasseomancy) seals the deal.
“Cheerleader” – St. Vincent, Strange Mercy
I know, I know. “Cruel” was the song with the awesome music video. But can I help it? I love the slowly mounting tension this song holds before it erupts into a pounding, staccato chorus.
Det haster! – Casiokids, Aabenbaringen over aaskammen
This song is just a blast. Easy as that. (Now if I could just understand the Norwegian…)
“Heart in Your Heartache” – The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, Belong
The album was a disappointment, but this song’s got everything that first made me fall in love with the band in 2009. A peppy, poppy masterpiece.
“I’ll Drown” – Sóley, We Sink
A veteran of fellow Icelandic artists Seabear, Múm, and Sin Fang, Sóley steps into the spotlight, herself, and the result is charming and magical, even though the lyrics depict heartache.
“Carve a Peach” – His Clancyness
Despite the artist’s cringe-worth name, I can’t get enough of this song – shimmering, laid back, and lovely.
“Bunhill Fields” – Amor de Días, Street of the Love of Days
Short and sweet, I could listen to this song on repeat for hours.
“Mona Lisa” – Atlas Sound, Parallax
Bradford Cox at his poppy, pitch-perfect best.
“Harsh Realm” – Widowspeak, s/t
Hazy, mesmerizing, and simple.
“Night After Night” – Laura Marling, A Creature I Don’t Know
This song consistently makes me cry. Beautiful, tragic, and haunting.
“Holocene” – Bon Iver, Bon Iver, Bon Iver Another one for weeping – honest and breathtaking, a downer that somehow manages to simultaneously exude strength.
2011 may technically be a thing of the past, but what’s a few more lists, right? I’ll begin the trio with my favorite shows of the year. This list is always the most fun to put together because unlike the best songs or best albums, the list of contenders is limited to the shows that I managed to catch.
There are so many factors that go into a good show: the crowd, the venue, the sound, the music, and even the stage banter and my mood. All too often, concerts leave me rather indifferent. Here are a handful of the shows that I won’t soon forget.
13. Timber Timbre + Angel Olsen – Glasslands, April 14th* Of course, we’ve already established that Angel Olsen is a delight, so seeing her open for Timber Timbre was a nice treat – especially on such a small stage! For the late night show, Glasslands underwent a dramatic transformation. Usually whimsical and cozy, for Timber Timbre’s set, the venue transformed into an eerie, lantern-bedecked cavern, which mirrored the Canadian group’s spooky blues sound perfectly.
12. Lykke Li + Grimes – Webster Hall, May 18th* Maybe it was the sheer spectacle of Lykke Li dancing and prancing on stage or her amazing charisma – whatever the case, this was a solid show (even if Li’s album, Wounded Rhymes, didn’t hold up for me). Of course it didn’t hurt that Grimes, “the sound of the future” according to one music fan I spoke to, held the opening slot. These women will challenge even the most aloof hipster to get down.
Lykke Li (Photo Chris Jobling)
11. M83 + Active Child – Music Hall of Williamsburg, November 23rd* From Anthony Gonzalez’s introductory yelp (“Carry on! Carry on!”), M83 was an unstoppable force. They exuded confidence and competence in equal measure – a rare feat these days.
10. Bon Iver + The Rosebuds – United Palace Theatre, August 9th* I don’t expect Bon Iver’s 2011 release to make the cut for best albums, but there’s no denying it – that man’s voice could cure a cripple, enough so that I was even willing to give that ridiculous saxophone solo a pass.
Justin Vernon of Bon Iver (Photo Renee)
9. Mount Eerie + Wyrd Visions – St. Cecilia’s Roman Catholic Church, June 19th* (Northside Fest)
Northside Fest brought some great artists to town in June, Mount Eerie, and this show was the highlight for me. Given the reverence lavished upon Phil Elverum by his fans (I turned into a giggling mess at the merch booth myself when I finally got my hands on The Glow, pt. 2 on vinyl), it only seemed right to watch the show from church pews. (Much love for Wyrd Visions, too!)
8. St. Vincent with Cate le Bon – Webster Hall, November 3rd* Perhaps one of the most flawless and powerful performances I saw all year – Annie Clark brings it.
St. Vincent (Photo Guus Krol)
7. Feist + Mountain Men – Church of the Intercession, October 3rd*
This show was certainly a surprise – for me and the hundred or so others in attendance. It’s not often you find yourself at a crypt in Harlem – especially with an orchestra, Leslie Feist, and the lovely women of Mountain Man. Definitely a treat.
Feist (Photo Jill Mapes)
6. Sea of Bees – Rockwood Music Hall (stage 2), October 21st(CMJ)
Good God, Jules Baeziger left me breathless with this one. In the midst of all the prefab beats, glitz, glitch, and hype that comes with CMJ, an intimate Sea of Bees set was just what I needed. I think I cried at this one. Multiple times. So good.
5. PJ Harvey – Terminal 5, April 19th* Yes, it was Terminal 5, but come on. We’re talking PJ Harvey here. I could hardly believe I was in the same room as her, let alone listening to her play from my perch in the VIP balcony. Cat Power may have been a bust last year, but PJ Harvey? Untouchable.
PJ Harvey (Photo Il Fatto Quotidiano)
4. Austra – Emo’s, March 17th (SXSW) I definitely didn’t know when I was getting into when I stepped into the Domino showcase at Emo’s last spring. With SXSW, it’s always a temptation to dart from show to show, but Austra definitely caught my eye, and I think you’ll see why…
3. Sufjan Stevens + Diamond Rings – Prospect Park, August 3rd*
Despite the fact that rain poured down on us for upwards of three hours, the mood at the park was ecstatic. Swirling neons, giant blow-up men, quick choreography, ridiculous costume changes, Kat Martino’s solo, and beach balls were just a few of the things that made this show pop. Epic in every sense of the word – and worth every drop of rain.
Sufjan Stevens (Photo Jon Uleis)
2. John Maus – 285 Kent, October 19th* (CMJ) Stepping into this show (another Domino showcase) felt like stepping back in time when music still mattered enough to make you forget everything else and embrace the moment in all its sweaty, smokey glory. Like a cult leader, Maus writhed and shook on stage with fervor as the music swept over the room of his unquestioning followers. Magic.
John Maus (Photo Stephan CK)
1. Laura Marling – Audio Visual Arts Gallery, September 28th*
A private song with Laura Marling? Hands down my favorite music moment of the year.
Picture me and Laura sitting in this room (Photo RK)
I have an oddly ambivalent relationship with female singer-songwriters.
Of course, there are a handful that I absolutely adore: Moon Pix era Cat Power, Laura Marling, Scout Niblett, Julie Doiron, Hope Sandoval, and Sea of Bees come to mind. And there are some that I have passing flings with – the Charlotte Gainsbourgs and Lykke Lis of the world. But more times than not, I just can’t muster any excitement.
Is it my gender that leaves me largely indifferent or downright turned off when it comes to artists like Wye Oak, My Brightest Diamond, or Joanna Newsom? Does some part of me feel threatened by a pretty girl with a guitar?
Heck, I’m not even really into Sharon Van Etten, the indie rock darling of Brooklyn. Or at least, I didn’t think I was until this week when a couple of her songs popped into my head unexpectedly, prompting me to go back and give Epic another shot.
Then there are still other female artists that I simply never gave a shot. So when I saw that NPR Music was streaming the new St. Vincent album, Strange Mercy, I knew I had to give it a shot. I confess to being embarrassingly ignorant when it comes to Annie Clark’s discography. Sure, I’ve seen her collaborate with other musicians a few times, but somehow, I had never listened to either of her albums.
Strange Mercy opens with a warped organ, some Bjðrk-esque vocals, some potent guitar riffs, and a hip beat. Not what I was expecting. I confess that in my mind, Annie Clark and Miranda July had converged into one person due to their quirky personas, similar hair styles, doe eyes, and ability to steal my male friends’ hearts. But far from being an awkward, twee parody, Annie Clark delivers cool precision.
Here’s “Cruel,” the first video from the new album:
Following a surprisingly upbeat couple of songs, “Cheerleader” sees Clark dipping into a darker, more vulnerable side that more closely matches the tone of her lyrics. (I can’t help but think back to Grizzly Bear’s song by the same title – also excellent.)
Pretty in pink Annie Clark, aka St. Vincent (photo Annabel Mehran)
The album is polished in a way that will surely cause some to balk, but a gritty rawness still permeates the songs and prevents them from turning into eerie exercises in perfection. “Come cut me open,” Clark sings in “Surgeon.”
“[A]n unsparing examination of personal catharsis cloaked in some of the most sublime music of Annie Clark’s career,” boasts 4AD. A pretty piece of copy, indeed. Take a listen for yourself, and let me know if you agree.
"He considered music a liberating force: it liberated him from loneliness, introversion, the dust of the library; it opened the door of his body and allowed his soul to step out into the world to make friends."
- Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being