Comedy legend Mitch Hedberg once cracked that Pringles’ original intention, given the weird tubes the snack comes in, was to sell tennis balls. But when trucks filled with potatoes showed up at the factory, the people in charge of the operation cried, “Fuck it, cut ’em up!” Boulder Weekly’s attitude toward our annual “Best Albums of the Year” column has been pretty similar, considering the opening paragraph the first three years was pretty much devoted to debunking the idea that any art can be rated.
Thus, this year we’re going with a “Great Albums” theme instead. And honestly, putting the 2011 edition of this column together was more fun than previous years because of readers’ participation. A few readers’ pointers — posted online recently in response to a call for suggestions — ended up on my list, and the rampant downloading and latenight cramming on headphones I happily endure each year was made a lot more pleasurable knowing which albums had already made friends with my friends.
Still, as 2012 beckons, we return to the fact that music criticism (which is at its best the painstaking, lifelong search for moving sounds) is an intensely personal, hopelessly geeky, and — more than anything else — subjective experience. So we hope this list spurs conversation, laughter and even anger. Fuck it, cut ’em up … in no particular order.
Deer Tick Divine Providence (Partisan)
He’s got “a lust for life and a dangerous mind.” Yes, Virginia, rock ’n’ roll still exists, and that’s largely due to John McCauley, guitarist-singer-mastermind of Rhode Island dirt-rockers Deer Tick, a band whose raw sound makes the Black Keys’ sheen-covered El Camino sound like the Jonas Brothers. “Let’s All Go the Bar” — with hilarious lines such as “I don’t care if you puke in my ride” — sounds like the Ramones jamming with the New Bomb Turks. And the mixture of hard rock, electric-piano balladry and literate, dust-covered midtempo workouts like “Chevy Express” truly bring together everything Deer Tick excels at on one record for the first time. But for the love of God, learn a lesson from Broken Social Scene for the next go ’round, boys: Not everyone in the band deserves a song on the record.
Tom Waits Bad As Me (ANTI-)
Perhaps I’ve gone soft, but it irked me that, while the music was deep and fascinating, Tom Waits went almost exclusively with his most gravelly, abrasive voice on Glitter and Doom, his 2009 live album. Three of the first four tracks on Bad As Me, his first studio album in seven years, utilize that growl as well — and, though it’s usually tough for me to see it, there is surely beauty somewhere in that hellish whine — but the half dozen or so dark lullabies included here, and sung in a gentle, haunting croon, are unmistakable, accessible genius. To boot, floating above quiet-nightmare horns, devilish piano and twinkling guitar, lines like “We bailed out all the millionaires / they’ve got the fruit / we’ve got the rind” make me recall why I was so disappointed in the Fleet Foxes’ too-happy sophomore release, which also dropped in 2011: These times just ain’t right for singing, Nero-like, about how you’re as happy as an apple on a tree.
Paul Simon So Beautiful or So What (Hear Music)
Another old-timer — at 70, Paul Simon is eight years Tom Waits’ senior — released a keeper in 2011. Though his voice is now an old-timer too, the irreverent bounce Paul Simon made famous on Graceland is still very present in the delivery of his brightly flavored lyrics and zydeco-blues-pop-gospel tunes. Like a danceable companion to Bob Dylan’s classic Time Out of Mind, this is a sweet mortality suite. “After you climb up the ladder of time / the Lord God is near / face to face in the vastness of space / your words disappear … all that remains when you try to explain is a fragment of song.” Enough said.
WU LYF Go Tell Fire to the Mountain (LYF)
According to the Italian edition of Rolling Stone, this ecstatic post-rock quartet is “the cult band of the moment.” Sign me up. Go Tell Fire, WU LYF’s debut, was recorded in an abandoned church, and the LP’s cathartic, echo-laden bursts of violent joy fall somewhere between Avey Tare and Explosions in the Sky. Self-described as “heavy pop,” WU LYF’s remarkable sound is drums and cymbals wildly quaking, tasteful guitars and organ building together until they burst like fireworks in the musicians’ hands, and cathartic vocals that are easy to understand … if energy, not comprehensible words, is what you look for in rock ’n’ roll.
Youth Lagoon The Year of Hibernation (Fat Possum)
Maybe it’s the childlike reverie of the holiday season, but when I heard the cheesy techno-indie-pop goodness of Trevor Powers’ (aka Youth Lagoon) endearing bedroom masterpiece The Year of Hibernation earlier this month, I was hooked. No more than a squeaky-voiced college kid’s obsessive bedroom recordings, most of which regale listeners with tales of geeky love and lament, Hibernation only takes a minute or two to conjure dreams of a before-the-breakdown Daniel Johnston discovering Pro Tools. Powers had me at “I have more dreams than you have posters of your favorite teams.”
How many MCs from the ’80s are still relevant? These grey-haired New York legends are at the top of that very short list, and what’s possibly most impressive — aside from the trio’s ability to make excellent hardcore punk, instrumental jazz-funk and hip-hop — is its 25-year evolution from “I grabbed two girlies and a beer that’s cold” to more enlightened fare. Hot Sauce Committee’s two stellar collaborations — with rapper Nas and singer Santigold — are arguably its highlights, along with the addictive instrumental techno-funk of “Multilateral Nuclear Disarmament.” But mostly I just revel in the musical Rapper’s Delight the Beastie Boys have been forced to conjure up, with help from Mixmaster Mike, now that sampling isn’t really an option.
Tennis Cape Dory (Fat Possum)
“Should every couple that thinks they want to get married take a trip in a small boat together?” NPR’s Scott Simon asked of Denver husband-and-wife duo Tennis earlier this year. From all the pleasant, poignant sounds of Tennis’ debut, one can only hope all newlyweds have this much fun. When “Take Me Somewhere” opens Cape Dory, it’s as if you’re on a boat with the couple, listening to their romantic, maritime-themed rock ’n’ roll as the waves gently rock their boat. Singer-keyboardist Alaina Moore, a sailing enthusiast, told KEXP in February, “All of our songs are about being alone in nature;” Cape Dory’s mixture of antiquated recording techniques and pared-down instrumentation, not to mention Moore’s Madonna-meets-the-Ronettes-on-a-surfboard elegance, make it easy to close your eyes and feel far away from landlocked Colorado.
M83 Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming (Nave)
Epic. That’s about the only word necessary to describe the sixth album by France’s M83, a band that’s quickly becoming a household name. But here’s a few more: ambitious, mesmerizing, synthy and cinematic. Utilizing the most exhilarating aspects of ’80s heavies like New Order and Depeche Mode to create great towers of spirited, liberating orchestral indie rock, Anthony Gonzalez and Co. go all frenzied and anthemic like Arcade Fire on Hurry Up but replace AF’s Springsteen-esque suburban poetry with a thoroughly European psychedelia that juxtaposes “Echoes” and XTC. If you’re a student heading somewhere remote for Christmas break, pack this sprawling, dynamic double album and you’re all set.
Deerhoof Deerhoof vs Evil (Kill Rockstars)
Deerhoof vs. Evil presents perhaps the bombastic and quirky Oakland quartet’s most surprising experiment thus far: an LP chock full of pop music. Here and there on previous albums, the group has taken detours into soft-hearted passages of lovely strangeness — between bursts of fuzzed-out dementia — but Deerhoof vs. Evil tracks such as “Behold a Marvel in the Darkness” (with its “What is this thing called love?” refrain) and the wholesome classical-guitar-driven “No One Asked to Dance” are unambiguously adorable. Even more startling, drummer Greg Saunier — who has struggled with Tourette’s syndrome and is known for his unpredictable Keith Moon-esque rhythms — spends much of Deerhoof vs. Evil doing his best impression of Roots drummer ?uestlove. “Lots of rhythmic variations, layers of colorful sounds and danceable album!” frontwoman Satomi Matzusaki told me for a February Boulder Weekly interview. “You can play it at home party.” So true.
My Morning Jacket Circuital (ATO)
Whatever “best” means, this was it for me in 2011, and — as someone living the dual life of touring rock drummer and father — “Outta My System” is my new theme song. Never even a casual fan of MMJ, I was struck by Circuital from the opening bars of “Mystery Dance,” a haunting death march that asks, “Should I wet the ground with my own tears / crying over what’s been done?” Sure, Metallica’s recent collaboration with Lou Reed was laughable at best, but if the late-’80s version of Metallica had been fronted by Bob Dylan, it just might’ve sounded like the most extraordinary moments of Circuital. Entirely recorded in a church gymnasium in MMJ’s native Kentucky, the meat of the group’s sixth album brilliantly pits country-rock against metal, and instead of fighting they make tortured love. As Jim James sings on “Holdin’ On to Black Metal,” “It’s a darkness you can’t deny.”