Good practice, kids. Now it’s time for the easiest part of any coach’s job. The cuts. Although I wasn’t able to cut everyone I wanted to, I have cut a lot of you. Wendell is cut. Rudy is cut. Janey, you’re gone. Steven, I like your hustle. That’s why it was so hard to cut you. Congratulations, the rest of you made the team! Except you, you and you.
– Homer Simpson, pre-eminent football coach (“Bart Star” episode 5F03).
Here’s a few more albums that I really liked in 2011 but didn’t make the final cut:
Elbow – Build A Rocket Boys!
The band Elbow has become a UK rock institution. Their previous album, The Seldom Seen Kid, won the Mercury Prize as critic’s choice for album of the year in Britain. This year, Build A Rocket Boys! was released to similar levels of acclaim. Elbow has leveraged their talent for crafting ‘everyman’ anthems to maximum effect. Lead-off track “The Birds” chugs along with electronic precision, while “Lippy Kids” wistfully gives the album its title. “With Love” is the most engaging single here, using multi-layered vocals to carry the gorgeous melody. The only problem with Build A Rocket Boys! is that it never quite captures the epic widescreen grandeur of previous works like The Seldom Seen Kid or Cast of Thousands. One or two more memorable tunes would have helped.
Fountains of Wayne – Sky Full of Holes
New England band Fountains of Wayne (the normally reliable power-popsters who creepily brought you the “Stacy’s Mom” video in which 12-year-old boys wanted to get busy with MILF Rachel Hunter) returned in 2011 with a new album of modern life pastiches. The songs are enjoyable enough, particularly on the first half of the record. “Richie and Ruben” is a clever mini-documentary about a duo of entrepreneurs without a clue, while “Action Hero” is a wonderful pencil sketch of a prototypical suburban father that’s come face-to-face with the inevitable before his time. Unfortunately, Sky Full of Holes runs out of steam on Side ‘B’ and the songs become a little too power-pop-by-numbers.
Peter Gabriel – New Blood
The only thing keeping this album off of my Top 10 list was the caveat that the songs had to be new. New Blood is a contemporary reworking of classic Peter Gabriel songs; this time instead of relying on traditional instrumentation (bass, guitars, keyboards and drum kit) the presentation is symphonic. Recast in this new environment, “San Jacinto” feels re-inspired, and the lost classic “Wallflower” is injected with new life. “Mercy Street”, already a tender ballad in its original form, fares well with the orchestral treatment, as does “Red Rain” and Gabriel’s biggest hit, “Solsbury Hill”. The best re-working here is “In Your Eyes”, which cleverly substitutes cellos for guitar and bass to carry the melody and rhythm. This album is yet more evidence that great songs will always be great songs regardless of sonic presentation.
M83 – Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming
This album re-interprets all the best bits of 1980’s synth rock in a modern alternative rock context. Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming is chock full of musical ideas, splashed over two discs. Thankfully the album is more about looking forward than reveling in nostalgia, and the tunes have more hooks than a tackle box. Singles like “Midnight City” and “Steve McQueen” are synth-pop masterpieces. The only thing holding it back is its length; one gets the sense that it would have made a brilliant seventy-minute single album, rather than an overly optimistic double-album. Mind you, that’s what cranky critics always say about double albums.
My Morning Jacket – Circuital
After going over-the-top urban with previous release Evil Urges, Jim James and co. return with a more groove-oriented album. Circuital features epic, widescreen rock songs (notably the title track), balanced by pretty acoustic ballads like “Wonderful (The Way I Feel)”. “Victory Dance” gamely balances the constraints of modern alternative music with the conventions of 20th century Neil Young inspired country rock. But overall, Circuital seems like a step back from the deliberate, tightly-wound claustrophobia of Evil Urges and the brilliant melodicism of Z. But at least we were spared the indignity of another song like “Highly Suspicious”.