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)
When I woke up and realized it was Saturday, my last full day in Austin, I couldn’t believe time had passed by so quickly. Though I had managed to assemble rough plans for the previous days, I had run out of time to make an itinerary for Saturday, so I hastily jotted down some addresses and set times and set out. (Man this would all be so much easier with a smart phone.)
After ducking into the BV day party for a little while, I decided to leave for a while to check out the band Mutual Affection, but when I arrived at the park where they were scheduled to play, I quickly realized that it probably wouldn’t be happening. The scene resembled a photo shoot more than anything else. The band members were climbing an old, knobby tree and hoisting up their guitars/bass. Though it looked pretty awesome to see a group of guys playing from a tree, back on the ground, the music back barely even audible, so I left somewhat disappointed.
But on the way back to the Swan Dive, something odd happened. I spotted a band unpacking gear from their van. A small piece of paper in the window notified me that it was the group Typhoon, a group that Bob Boilen at NPR Music had just recommended to me the day before. Convinced that it was meant to be, I followed the large group into a venue and caught their lively 12-person set.
Typhoon - RIYL Lost in the Trees (photo courtesy of artist)
Following this pleasant happenstance, I headed back over to Swan Dive and caught Austra for a second time (yes, totally worth it), Malajube, and Little Scream before darting out once again to see the High Highs. It was a fast-paced 90 minutes, running back and forth between venues, but I’m glad I had the chance to see the High Highs, one of the few bands that I had awarded the highly selective 5-star rating in iTunes. Though their music wasn’t terribly memorable in the grand scheme of the week, I remember being fairly impressed by what I heard – especially for a band that hasn’t even released an EP yet.
High Highs RIYL Smith Westerns, Surfer Blood (photo courtesy of artist)
High Highs clip:
Though I would have liked to stick around Fado’s to see ARMS play, the timing wasn’t right, so I headed back to Swan Dive to see two more acts: Mount Kimbie (how much of that was live and how much, samples?) and the consistently impressive Owen Pallett. After stumbling into Bob Boilen again at Owen Pallett, I decided to pall around with him for a while and saw Fang Island, The Felice Brothers, and Bright Eyes (in addition to briefly meeting Wild Flag’s Carrie Brownstein, which was pretty sweet.)
Though I was tempted to go see the captivating Norwegian singer-songwriter Silje Nes, I decided I should close out the week with a handful of new artists, which led me to The Parish Underground for a pleasant, low-key line-up with The Deer Tracks, Indigo Tree, Foxes in Fiction and His Clancyness. More on the Swedish group Deer Tracks soon. (I actually got to hang out with them for a while after their set, which was pretty fun.)
The Deer Tracks RIYL Cold Cave (photo Petra Salmi)
The Deer Tracks clip:
Though I was intrigued by the rumors circulating about a late-late night show with Bon Iver and Jay-Z, I decided to call it a night.
I’ve come a long way for this week, and it’s hard to believe it all passed by so quickly – especially considering the fact that I was up about 20 hours a day. While CMJ seems to stretch on and on, my first SXSW flew by. (Maybe it had something to do with the fact that ‘home base’ was a hotel room shared with friends and not my own familiar apartment.)
One-and-a-half hours of sleep is not a solid foundation to build your SXSW week on, but somehow, it worked. The rush of the week and the promise of abundant (free) tacos, music, and beer kept me going.
I had intended to post an update at the end of each night, but my plans quickly fell through when I realized that I needed that time to plan out the next day’s activities.
walking down 6th Street (photo H. Michael Karshis)
Allow me to catch you up now.
My computer clock’s preference for Eastern Standard Time meant I accidentally ended up downtown an hour earlier than necessary (precious sleeping time!), but it also meant I had time for some free food courtesy of Brooklyn Vegan and a quick set from the adorable Savoir Adore. As is often the case at SXSW, the band had to compete with overflowing music from neighboring venues, but they still managed to engage the audience with their fun hand motions and polished sound.
Savoir Adore RIYL The Love Language (photo courtesy of artist)
Savoir Adore clip:
I fell in love with the outdoor space at the French Legation Museum my first day in Austin, so I decided to go back to catch at least a couple of acts: Papercuts and Hanni el Khatib. Though I found the latter to be intriguing recorded, I can’t say I was really feeling them live, so I headed over to one of the NPR Music showcases and saw Khaira Arby, Wild Flag, The Joy Formidable, and The Antlers.
Even if it wasn’t really my bag, it was fun to see Carrie Brownstein’s new project: you guessed it – an all-girl garage band. Then there was The Joy Formidable. All I can say is wow. Chick has the crazy eyes. Photographic evidence:
The Joy Formidable (photo courtesy of artist)
The Joy Formidable clip:
By far the highlight of the show (besides chatting with the Jon Pareles, the chief pop music of the NYT) was the set by The Antlers. They performed the entirety of their upcoming album, Burst Apart, in sequence for the first time in a live setting. (You can stream the show here.) Apparently, the band had been practicing it like crazy with back-to-back sessions. A lot of the task was finding out how to build all of the layers included in the studio recordings. I’m not convinced that their new material is nearly as cinematic in scope as Hospice, but of course it’s hard to tell what direction the new songs will ultimately take in a live setting.
Like Hospice, much of the new album seems to project a dark kind of resignation to pain, sickness, and heartbreak. But in addition to the darker songs, it ended in a surprisingly hopeful, (albeit bleak) vein. “I’m not going to die alone. I stitched the stuff up to close up the hole,” sang Pete Silberman in a particularly Hospice-like song.
The Antlers (photo Ben Ritter)
As the last strains of The Antlers were dying out, I quickly left the building and headed back to the French Legation Museum with just enough time to see two songs from Low, a band I had been meaning to see for a while.
Up next was quite a change of pace from the big-name headliners in the dimly lit upstairs room at The Parish – a lesser-known crop of musicians, playing on a rooftop bar. In quick succession, I saw Herman Düne, Bobby Long, and briefly for a second time, the captivating act Sea of Bees before attempting to get into the Pitchfork showcase at Central Presbyterian Church to see Juliana Barwick. Upon learning the show as a mean $30, I declined (but not before asking the SXSW staffer, “Is this Pitchfork just being a jerk?”).
Sea of Bees (photo Amanda Hatfield)
To fill in the gained time, I checked out a couple of new acts: goofy, ironic mustached garage rockers Gospel Claws and the pleasant uptempo Scotish artist King Creosote. Neither were particularly memorable, or at least not in comparison to what I saw next: Austra.
Zola Jesus may drive me a bit crazy due to Nika Roza Danilova’s overly dramatic performance, but Austra seemed to strike exactly the right balance – theatrical and eye-catching without coming across as disingenuous or over-the-top. Their beat was addictive, their appearance and dance moves, arresting. Austra is the project of three women: Katie Stelmanis (front and center) and Maya Postepski and Dorian Wolf (who contribute both backing vocals and synchronized dance moves).
Austra RIYL Zola Jesus, CocoRosie (photo Simon Gentillier Reelsgaard)
Throughout the week, I had either an Austra or Sea of Bees song stuck in my head – not that I was complaining about it on either count.
I finished off the evening with Lord Huron and The Heligoats before calling it a night and jumping back on my bike to take the late-night uphill ride back to the hotel room.
band count of the day: 15.
"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