Preface: I don’t write too much about music on here, unless it intersects with stuff about girls, as writing about music = work. Nevertheless, making a list is one of the greatest joys of music criticism. So while I wasn’t called upon to write one of these doohickeys for my place of employment, I still couldn’t help myself with this mid-year list. And thus …
The Top-10 Albums of 2011 (so far):
No. 1. Le Butcherettes, “Sin Sin Sin” (Sargent House). Rare is a band leader like Teri Suaréz. She entertains by throwing down a gauntlet, enthusiastically challenging audiences to keep pace with her obsession with dead authors, her frustration with U.S./Mexico border relations, her anger toward men and her snarl at feminism. She’s pissed off, and few do anger this well — or as tuneful. With the bravado of Joe Strummer, the howl of Karen O and a fearlessness that’s absolutely gripping, Suaréz vamps, scats, growls and then teases (dares?) the listener to get closer by flashing a wink of humor and a hint of sweetness. Yet it isn’t long before this Los Angeles-via-Mexico trio roars back up, and unleashes a fury of punk rock that disregards borders. But whether Suaréz is strutting to Eastern Europe cabaret or skipping over nothing more than a tense drum beat, everything about this multi-cultural, socially-aware panic attack screams now.
No. 2. Anna Calvi, “Anna Calvi” (Domino Records). A flair for the dramatic and an approach to rock that’s widescreen, Anna Calvi flirts with Gothicism, flamenco and the blues, the latter as filtered via PJ Harvey. It’s an album with big arrangements, a theatrical singer and biting guitar work that puts a premium on atmospheres over riffs.
No. 3. Raphael Saadiq, “Stone Rollin’” (Columbia). A fast-moving, groove-filled stroll through R&B’s past, but nothing here ever feels dated. It’s all given a modern sheen courteous of contemporary lyrics and stylish production. The album’s high-point is the dust-bowl rumble of “Day Dreams,” a stealthy number for recessionary times.
No. 4. Fucked Up, “David Comes to Life” (Matador Records). The lyrics are delivered with a gnarl, the album is broken into acts and guitars layer melody upon melody, resulting in one of the most agile, textured hard rock albums in recent memory. The 18-tracks stitch together a theme of lost-love and triumph-over-tragedy, but this is a hard rock opera in which moments of grandeur are reached with sleeves-upped intensity rather than silly Broadway trappings.
No. 5. Danger Mouse & Daniele Luppi, “Rome” (Capitol). A mood piece largely inspired by soundtrack work from Italian composers of the ’60s, specifically those by Ennio Morricone. The classical-inspired pop arrangements straddle the line between twilight romanticism and a refined sense of despair.
No. 6. EMA, “Past Life, Martyred Saints” (Souterrain Transmissions). “Fuck California, you made me boring,” Erika M. Anderson sings on the second track of her solo debut. In lesser hands this would be confessional folk rock with the occasional curse word, as Anderson is searching for an identity on many of the tracks. Yet it’s dissected and then tortured with a multitude of sounds, be it a scraping fiddle, background tape hiss, sharp and minimalist guitar strikes or a sampling of electronics. The level of tension here is high.
No. 7. Shabazz Palaces, “Black Up” (Sub Pop). An other-worldly trip of a hip-hop album, with each cut experimenting equally with sonic frontiers and vocal finesse. Voices interlope and run down tangents, and the musical frames are spacious, approaching the computer like an experimental jazz act. It’s technology at its most free-form.
No. 8. Bodies of Water, “Twist Again” (Thousand Tongues). The act’s earlier fascinations with church organs, choirs and prog-rock are largely downplayed or out-and-out replaced. Bodies of Water has re-emerged after three years a more versatile act, with touches of vintage soul, mariachi and colorful orchestral pop.
No. 9. Lykke Li, “Wounded Rhymes” (Atlantic). A dance album that at times feels like a score to conceptual art project. On her sophomore effort, Sweden’s Lykke Li dispenses with the tweeness and niceties and instead offers plenty of ice-cold sarcasm. Even when the sentiments get friendly, the glacial backdrops make it clear the Lykke Li has moved beyond the frothy pop of her debut.
No. 10. The Feelies, “Here Before” (Bar None). ”Is it too late to do it again?” singer Glenn Mercer asks to open the album, and then he proceeds to answer his own question. His monotone is greeted time and time again by the comforting sounds of a jangly a pop tune. The Feelies stay on track, and though the tempo never strays too far from the middle of the spectrum, consider the act a study in doing more with less.
Disclaimer: Never trust a critic who doesn’t change his/her mind with regularity, and the end-of-the-year list will likely look much different. In fact, the Drive by Truckers should probably up there, or Sean Rowe, or the Head & the Heart, or the Fleet Foxes, or Smith Westerns, or TV On the Radio, or the Decemberists, or Tune-Yards, or Bewitched Hands (thanks for the tip and hanging on a bench in an Austin bar, Jim), or Screeching Weasel, or Radiohead, or Oh Land, or Low, or Eleventh Dream Day or ……
Photo: Teri “Gender Bender” Suaréz, courtesy of Sargent House.