#1 – The Whole Love by Wilco

Label:  dBpm

Released:  27-Sep-2011

Artist’s Website:  www.wilcoworld.net

America’s most influential rock band returns to form with a master class in the possibilities of modern popular music.

Chicago-based band Wilco has built a cottage industry out of confounding people’s expectations.  Wilco was born out of the ashes of alt-country pioneers Uncle Tupelo in the mid-1990s.  Principal songwriter Jeff Tweedy stuck with the alt-country script just long enough for Wilco’s 1995 debut album A.M., but he’s been throwing curveballs and knuckleballs at his rabid fanbase ever since.

The first foray into something weirder and exciting came with the 1996 release of twin album Being There.  Across two discs, Tweedy and his band mates cross-pollinated the alt-country template with elements of power-pop, psychedelia, and even Stax-style soul music.  Wilco amped up the power-pop angle with their 1999 album Summerteeth, which sounded something like an acid rock Beach Boys record with impeccable tunes.  The fan base continued to grow with every gig and every album.

Much has been made of Wilco’s trials and tribulations during the making of their Yankee Hotel Foxtrot album.  Finally released in 2002, YHF is a landmark American rock album.  The band intentionally set out to make a record that deconstructed the conventions of modern rock & roll songs.  Disagreements with their record label over the commercial viability of the recordings forever changed Wilco’s approach to the business.  This tumultuous period convinced Tweedy that the only thing that mattered was making records that he was proud of – clueless A&R reps and tone-deaf record company suits could go screw themselves.  To this day, Wilco works by the principle of trusting their instincts to make great records, and trusting that their fans will find them.

2004’s A Ghost Is Born explored the darker, more dissonant elements of YHF.  The current incarnation of Wilco first came together on 2007’s Sky Blue Sky album.  Nels Cline and Pat Sansone, having participated in previous Wilco tours, had their first chances to contribute to the studio recordings.  Sky Blue Sky and the next album, 2009’s cheekily self-titled Wilco (The Album), were less experimental than previous works.  While both albums have their moments of beauty, some fans were left wondering where the brash, risk-taking, genre-destroying band they had fallen in love with had gone.

They needn’t have worried.

Wilco’s first release on their own label, The Whole Love, is a master class in finding the perfect balance between classic songwriting and sonic experimentation.  While Wilco still reportedly operates as a benevolent dictatorship with Tweedy at the helm, on The Whole Love the other band members are more prominent than ever.  “I Might” is underpinned by Glenn Kotche’s stomping drums and John Stirratt’s flatulent bass, while Sansone has apparently found the ‘Elvis Costello & the Attractions circa 1978’ settings on his keyboard.  The band sounds like they are having so much fun, you might not notice the splashes of noise and dissonance that give the track its magic X-factor.

“Sunloathe” comes across like a throwback to the Summerteeth era, with backing vocals and instrumentation that cherry-pick from The Beatles’ Rubber Soul and Revolver“Dawned on Me” is a four-on-the-floor rocker in the grandest Wilco tradition.  “Black Moon” and “Open Mind” sound like cousins to the kinds of songs Wilco contributed to the Mermaid Avenue collaborations with Billy Bragg on Woody Guthrie lyrics in the 1990s.  Gorgeous acoustic and electric guitars play in perfect harmony with strings, pedal steel, and keyboards.  Meanwhile, “Black Moon” and “Rising Red Lung” are the sort of wide-screen, four-minute epics that made fans pile on the Wilco bandwagon in the first place.

“Born Alone” is another mid-tempo rocker that would fit seamlessly on any Wilco record, but the presence of Cline’s unmistakably frantic guitar work establishes it as a recent addition to the canon.  Stirratt’s bass lines and Kotche’s drums provide the rhythm that glues the various guitar tracks together into a glorious, unified whole.  The Whole Love’s title track is similar in tempo but different in sonic structure, riding its own groove.

Meanwhile, “Standing O” is probably the most over-the-top rock-out-with-your-cock-out song that Wilco has recorded since A.M. and Being There.  Crisp guitars and a fluid bass line are set off by yet more Costello keyboards.  This song seems like a natural set-closer that will bring the house down on Wilco’s upcoming tour.

So far, so great.  But what really sets The Whole Love apart from anything else released in 2011 are the two songs that bookend the album.  The last track, “One Sunday Morning (Song For Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend)” does indeed sound like the perfect song to cue up on your iPod the next morning after a particularly eventful Saturday night.  Over twelve minutes of repeating guitar lines and Mikael Jorgensen’s piano motifs, Tweedy sings ten pitch-perfect, heartbreaking verses about the emotional distance between fathers and sons.

The first, and best, track on the album is “Art of Almost”.  It’s here where the perfect balance of the recognizable and the experimental really pays off.  The polyrhythms are mesmerizing and haunting, sounding like Memphis soul by way of Can and Kraftwerk.  It’s a seven-minute spectacle of texture and melody and groove.  Everything explodes in a glorious maelstrom of hair-trigger guitars and snappy snares, simultaneously celebrating and reinventing everything that rock ‘n’ roll has to offer.  If Wilco doesn’t play this song on their upcoming tours, their fans will riot.  “Art of Almost” should be a staple in the band’s repertoire for years to come.

Some journalists have tagged Wilco with the label “The American Radiohead”.  Presumably they are referencing both bands’ obsessive attention to detail, experimental nature, and complete investment in making music for themselves and for their fans, regardless of commercial viability.  Like Wilco, Radiohead has recently released a few reasonably well-received but ultimately unfulfilling records.  In Rainbows and The King of Limbs certainly have their moments, but much like Sky Blue Sky or Wilco (The Album), they left their most vociferous fans wanting more.  Wilco has thrown down the gauntlet with The Whole Love, especially with “Art of Almost”, seemingly daring Radiohead to recapture the modern-rock throne by releasing a masterpiece.  We shall see how their cousins from across the sea choose to respond in 2012, but Thom Yorke’s crew have a very steep hill to climb.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uz6UrYvacQk

Oh, The Drama!

Aside

So we’ve counted down 9 of the top 10 albums so far, and we’re rapidly approaching the Grand Reveal on New Year’s Eve.  This blog has 2 regular readers, if you include the spammers that keep trying to use my site to sell boner pills on the Internet (god bless ’em, but I don’t need your product – just trust me on this one).

The anticipation for what will be my #1 record continues to build.  The Internet waits with baited breath to see what the Craven Hermit deems as his favourite for 2011.  He hasn’t mentioned modern rock linchpins like R.E.M. or Radiohead or even popular favourite Coldplay yet.  Could they be #1?  Or will he go off-the-board and pick something underground?

Stay tuned, dear readers… and don’t forget to post a comment if you wish to register a dissenting opinion.

#2 – Bon Iver by Bon Iver

Label:  Jagjaguwar

Released:  20-Jun-2011

Artist’s Website:  www.boniver.org

Wisconsin musician rewrites the contemporary folk template.  Again.

Justin Vernon likely prefers that you just forget any stories you may have heard about the genesis of the first Bon Iver album, because they are about 90% bullshit.

The media created a mythology around For Emma, Forever Ago that goes something like this.  A man is dumped by his girlfriend, he retreats to a cabin in the wilds of Wisconsin to lick his wounds, shoots a deer, butchers his own venison, and over the course of a good winter (a bon hiver, if you will), all alone in the woods, he records a therapeutic folk album of stark, ethereal beauty on a simple tape recorder.  It’s too bad that the creation myth is rife with errors, despite looking good in print.  Truth be known, For Emma connected with listeners not because it’s a triumph of joy over sadness or any other synthetic sentiment, it connected because it’s a good record.

Vernon has spent most of the past three years touring to promote For Emma and toying with ideas for a new musical direction.  2009’s Blood Bank EP wasn’t a huge step-out from his cabin songs, aside from some production twists.  His side-project Gayngs is more of a soft-rock busman’s holiday than a serious endeavor, a chance to blow off some steam in the vein of Neil Young with his Shocking Pinks.  Last year’s two-song collaboration with Kanye West could be filed under “bizarro-world ideas that didn’t work”.  But hey, when Kanye calls you up and asks you to fly out to Hawaii to jam, you get on a plane, right?

Finally, Vernon has returned to his muse with a new self-titled album.  Bon Iver includes some of the underpinnings of his previous work, primarily the falsetto vocals and introspective subject matter.  That said, the overall sound has grown to become a chamber-pop riff on folk music.  A group of additional musicians have been enlisted to create a fuller, more lush sound.  The ‘woodsman with a tape recorder’ approach has been put away for now, yet the results are equally breathtaking.  If the first record was a series of charcoal sketches, the follow-up is an explosion of acrylic brushstrokes.

The album starts off in brilliant fashion with “Perth”, a song that unfolds in layers from an initial hush of guitar and vocals.  The next four minutes see the introduction of martial drums, melodic bursts of distorted guitars and horns to Bon Iver’s arsenal.  The quiet/loud dynamics are stunningly emotional.

Most of the songs on the album are named after place names, either real or imagined.  The names likely aren’t meant to be literal – Minnesota, WI isn’t a real place but the name and the music probably reminds Vernon of northern lake country.  The song “Minnesota, WI” is notable for featuring a blend of falsetto and soulful tenor vocals.  Falsetto is reportedly a style that Vernon fell into when he searched for his own voice, but discovering he can sing just fine in his lower registers is a minor revelation.

The song that has received the most satellite radio airplay of late is “Holocene”.  A wistful lyric about autumn bleeding into winter unfolds over a repeating, chiming guitar melody and brushed drums.  The words can be interpreted a million different ways, but you get the feeling that the protagonist has been confronted by something so profound that he’s been humbled to his core.

“Towers” is a bit of a departure.  The twang of the guitars and the upbeat pace relocate it closer to country music territory.  “Michicant” brings the album back to the insular chamber-pop zone with a waltz time signature.  “Hinnom, TX” relies on very heavy reverb to convey a sense of disorientation.  Likewise, “Wash.” is something of a one-trick pony.  It’s constructed around a very simple piano melody and seems like an underdeveloped idea.  Perhaps it’s simply meant to be a rest stop on the road less travelled.

First single “Calgary” finally appears in the last quarter of the record.  It’s likely the most commercial song on Bon Iver, but doesn’t sound anything like a typical radio hit except for the vaguely Death Cab For Cutie beat.  Walls of guitars and waves of vocals wrap in and out of each other like the strands of a wire rope.

The most polarizing track on the album is the last one.  You will either love or hate “Beth / Rest”, depending on how you feel about 1980s AOR synth piano tones (think Steve Winwood’s “The Finer Things” or Bruce Hornsby’s “Fields of Gray”).  Vernon has hinted that the song is about how part of someone’s individualism dies when they take a leap of faith to fall in love, and it’s his favourite thing on Bon Iver.  Perhaps his intent was for the listener to revel in the familiar production and heart-felt sentiment instead of being distracted by it.  On that level, it’s a fine album closer.

There’s no way to say where Bon Iver goes from here.  But with two very different and highly rewarding albums to their credit, the sky’s the limit for Justin Vernon and his expanding troupe of bandmates.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0KrmxavLIRM

#3 – Slave Ambient by The War On Drugs

Label:  Secretly Canadian

Released:  15-Aug-2011

Artist’s Website:  www.thewarondrugs.net

The best album released this year by a band you’ve never heard of.

Unless you’re a fanatical indie music nerd, it’s very likely that you have never heard of a Philadelphia band named The War On Drugs.  If you read a few ‘best new music’ retrospectives this year, expect to get a crash course.  Their second full-length album (not counting last year’s release Future Weather, which has largely been reworked for inclusion in this new recording) has received near unanimous praise in 2011 from tastemakers and bloggers alike.

The sonic stew cooked up by The War On Drugs sounds like it could be a disaster, but somehow it works.  Imagine some of the more laconic songs by roots-rock Americana artists (Tom Petty, Bob Dylan) infused with the propulsive rhythms of 70s Teutonic touchstones (Can, Neu!, Kraftwerk) and the widescreen walls of dream-pop mastered by My Bloody Valentine or Spiritualized and you’ll be getting close.  But magically and alchemically, these diverse influences come together into something much greater than the sum of the parts.  It’s a wonder why nobody has thought to combine them before.

Opening track “Best Night” features warbling guitars and an atmospheric vocal that recalls Bruce Springsteen’s recent albums, all underpinned by a hypnotic drumbeat.  Acoustic and electric guitars cordially wrestle for space on the psychedelic “Brothers”, which breezes by in four and a half minutes.  The song is so entrancing that you’ll barely notice that there’s no chorus.

The rootsy piano and harmonica of “I Was There” sets up the dramatic shift into one of the stand-out tracks, “Your Love Is Calling My Name”.  Driven by an up-tempo E-Street Band (by way of Dusseldorf) beat, the lyric echoes Springsteen’s fascination with lost lovers on freeways and byways while the song builds to a glorious climax of chiming guitars and shimmering walls of synthesizers.

The band repeats the trick by using the instrumental “The Animator” to set up the arena-rock-ready glory of album centerpiece “Come to the City”.  It’s a song that sounds deliriously out of space and time; the beat is motorik, the vocals recall U2’s Unforgettable Fire era, and the guitars and keyboards are straight out of ‘90s shoegaze.  It all incredibly comes together with modern indie rock sensibilities and warm & cozy production values.

“City Reprise #12” and the effervescent “Baby Missiles” take it one step further by emulating Arcade Fire’s fascination with Nebraska-era Springsteen.  The anxious, insistent, reverb-laden vocals are illuminated by thick keyboard textures and tasteful harmonica.  Closing track “Black Water Falls” updates Blood On The Tracks-era Dylan for the 21st century, finally incorporating a brilliant chorus to resolve the hypnotic rhythms constructed by the verses.  The song is a delicious slice of dessert to those who persevere until the end of the record.  And make no mistake – Slave Ambient has clearly been designed as a contiguous suite of songs, meant to be enjoyed in sequence from start to finish in the finest vinyl-era tradition.

Enjoy The War On Drugs as your little secret for now, but if there’s any justice these gentlemen won’t be unknown for very long.  The band simply has too many inspired ideas and has captured too much lightning in a bottle to remain underground.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rMToQg0vSds

#4 – Helplessness Blues by Fleet Foxes

Label:  Sub Pop

Released:  2-May-2011

Artist’s Website:  www.fleetfoxes.com

Seattle indie folksters return to the studio with new sounds and renewed confidence.

Fleet Foxes burst onto the music scene in 2008 with an EP that perked up the ears of indie music aficionados (Sun Giant) and a full-length self-titled album that opened many doors for the band.  The glorious ensemble sound of Fleet Foxes is decidedly contrary to most of modern rock music.  The band pinches elements of harmony from the Beach Boys, folky rhythms from Simon & Garfunkel, and baroque song structure from the Zombies, but infuse them with a modern pop sensibility like Band of Horses or their Sub Pop label-mates The Shins.  It sounds at once both familiar and completely unique.

This year saw the release of the long-awaited follow-up record, and Helplessness Blues was certainly worth the wait.  If the previous releases tended to be sun-kissed and bright, then the new record prefers to play in the skewed golden hues of sunrise and sunset.  Fleet Foxes have also returned with a few new instruments to play and new ideas to try.

“Montezuma” sets the new tone early, by looking wistfully to the past while also musing about the concerns of today and tomorrow.  On the lead-off track, and throughout the record, it’s Robin Pecknold’s lead vocal line that primarily carries the melody while the band harmonizes in the background.  This frees up space for other instruments to contribute to the melody.  “Bedouin Dress” and “Sim Sala Bim” introduce new influences to Fleet Foxes’ verdant British wellspring, the former with a North African melody line and the latter with a slow-building acoustic guitar raga.

The band really lets rip with the title track, channeling the best of Paul Simon’s 1960s work into a lament by someone who’s old enough to be self-aware but young enough to not understand his place in the world at large.  It’s a jaw-dropping example of a band that has unlocked the power of the recording studio, and should prove to be a crowd-pleaser for years to come.

Perhaps the bravest song on the record is “The Shrine / An Argument”.  Epic in scope and confident in delivery, the song flows through at least four distinct movements – the first is reflective, the second is defiant, the third is a distended sort of melancholy, and the closing section is a disturbed and twisted skronk that sounds not unlike Radiohead’s soundtrack for a balloon animal convention.  It’s very weird, and who knows how it will be arranged for live concerts, but it’s certainly a brilliant step out from anything the band has released to date.

Over the course of two full-length albums and an EP, Fleet Foxes have managed to carve out a niche for themselves while kick-starting a folk renaissance in indie rock circles.  Helplessness Blues is the sort of instant classic that one imagines will still be enjoyed ten or twenty years from now by music fans, very likely on vinyl while seated next to a glowing fireplace.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7HHgedNNQco