2011 has turned out to be the year in music where I found myself resting, and drinking deeply. If you look at the three major music festivals I went to in 2011 (other than SXSW, which is always a debaucherous 1000-mph wonderful mess) they were all of the scenic, restorative type: camping at Sasquatch at Washington’s Columbia River Gorge, Telluride Bluegrass where I pitched my tent right by a rushing river, and Doe Bay Fest on isolated Orcas Island in the San Juans. The ethos of these music festivals, more than anything, is a sturdy summation of the music I enjoyed this year – music that sounds good by rivers, with friends, or under the stars.
Speaking of rivers, I kept finding myself near them this year, and being drawn to songs that either spoke explicitly of them (ref: autumn mix) or artists whose overall sound evoked that for me over and over (see: Vandaveer, below). Not only just rivers; this year I dreamt of swimming pools. Two years ago I remember a dream where I was forcing my way through choking growth, gnarled and thick in a jungle, somewhere unrelentingly humid. I broke through into a clearing where there was an abandoned swimming pool, which, really, if you think about it, is one of the saddest spaces imaginable. It sat there, cracked and empty, dirty in the middle of the place you need it most. A swim would have felt so good. And it wasn’t able to hold any water. It would have run out the cracks in the bottom.
And then one night not too long ago, after I returned from a fairly transformative trip back through Europe, I dreamt I was with the best kind of old friend, again on foreign shores; we slipped down clean white subway tiles into the sparkling water of that gigantic pool. My hair was getting wet, I remember I kept thinking about that. The tiles were so flawless. The water was so perfect. Refreshment. Saturation.
Reconstitution. This was a year for that kind of music.
2011 was also the year we got the Fuel/Friends Chapel Sessions rolling, after years of wanting to try something like it. The pieces all fell into place with the generous help of Conor and Ian from Blank Tape Records, and the somewhat fleeting discussion we had one night over beers: “you know, how about, like — in Shove Chapel? It’s so gorgeous in there.” We’ve now captured the acoustic songs of over a dozen magnificent bands and solo artists as they made their way through this gorgeous Rocky Mountain State, and each hour spent recording was humming with magic. We hope to welcome as many next year. The very first session we did, with The Head and The Heart, was even released this year as the UK bonus tracks on their self-titled debut album (via Heavenly Recordings). Yep, that felt pretty good, to share that sparkly sort of magic afternoon with so many people.
So: favorite albums that soundtracked my year? Here are the ten that I’ve listened to the most during the journey this year with deep enjoyment, from musicians that I am excited about. These are all bands that shimmered and exploded for me this year. All are worth some of your Christmas (or Hanukkah) money that’s burning a hole in your pocket. I continue to be grateful for albums like this.
FUEL/FRIENDS 10 FAVORITES OF 2011
(alphabetical, by band)
THE DECEMBERISTS - THE KING IS DEAD
I’ve long had a thing for Colin Meloy’s mellifluous and flawlessly incisive vocabulary (it’s the way to my heart, you know) but haven’t really dove deeply into being a comprehensive fan of The Decemberists’ uber-literate chamber-rock for geeks. This year’s The King Is Dead bust down the last of my resistances and made me a full-fledged fan, blending rootsy gorgeousness and bluegrass twang throughout (recorded on Pendarvis Farm in Oregon) on this big and bursting album.
Joining the band on this effort was the marvelous propulsion by Peter Buck (R.E.M.) on jangly guitar, and Gillian Welch also makes her first of two appearances here on my year-end list with the flawless combination of her voice and Colin’s voices twining together throughout. In addition to the bright and jaunty jangle, there are moments of quiet, introspective beauty as well on songs like “June Hymn” and the closer “Dear Avery,” which I just love. This album has so many elements that pierce through perfectly: the wheezing of harmonica, a little banjo and the pierce of the fiddle, but also the acoustic fingerpicking on guitar and whiz-bang wordplay. Seeing The Decemberists at Telluride was one of the highlights this year, a simply perfect setting in which to experience this gem of an album.
Down By The Water – The Decemberists
DOLOREAN - THE UNFAZED
Not to be confused with the danceable Spanish band from Ibiza named after 1985′s most bitchin time machine, Dolorean is from Portland, has at times served as Damien Jurado’s backing band, and released four records in their own right. I keep track of which band is which by remembering the Spanish word for sadness, dolor, and then listening to the record — and all things flow accordingly. The Unfazed is not a sad record, per se, but it is deeply wistful and bittersweet, and in that richness there is a healthy wash of beauty.
This is a complex, richly gorgeous album of melancholy and ache. Al James’s voice soars with this vulnerable, incisive timbre that cuts right into me. I’ve played it on the stereo for friends when they come over, and the comments I get are often equal parts Ryan Adams/Heartbreaker and Blind Pilot’s smoky, multi-hued, string-laden beauty. This is a marvelous record, front to back. Like the album cover marries “high art” with the impassioned graffiti scrawls of our most base desires, this album sings to me about knowing better, but doing anyways.
Country Clutter – Dolorean
FRANK TURNER - ENGLAND KEEP MY BONES
Frank Turner came blazing into my ears this summer through the persistent rallying cry from my friends at The Ruckus. From the first listen in the heat of this summer, I was knocked flat on my musical ass by several of my favorite things in music coming together in his anthemic, thoughtful, urgent bar rock that makes me feel alive. Above all, Frank sings like he’s staying hungry, with an undiluted joy in his music for me and unvarnished exuberance, even when he is singing of more heady subject matter.
The Springsteen comparisons are incontrovertible, and he crafts some whoppers of lyrics: “Life is about love, last minutes and lost evenings / about fire in our bellies and about furtive little feelings, and the aching amplitudes that set our needles all a-flickering…” YES. Or this rallying cry: ”And who’d have thought that after all, something as simple as rock and roll would save us all?” A humble sentiment, but listening to Frank Turner, much like when I first heard Gaslight Anthem or Lucero, yes – it seems obvious that something as simple as that, well — it just might.
I Am Disappeared – Frank Turner
FEIST - METALS
(Arts & Crafts)
I continue to appreciate Leslie Feist’s bottomless reservoirs of imaginative musical creativity, led by that voice steeped in a warm, classical throaty beauty that magnetizes every song that it is a part of. Feist is an artist of brilliant imagination, and I think we need more imagination in our lives, more of those unclassifiable moments and unclassifiable records like this one. We need the ability to look at one person standing in a warehouse and picture dozens of rainbow-clad dancers falling out in an arc of motion, or picture that just maybe this morning our toast will fly out the window on tiny pink wings.
That imagination also soaks Metals, her fourth album, and I really appreciate how no two Feist albums or even two songs on the same album are similar. You can have orchestral jazziness one moment, trip-hop the next, playful pop classics with stomping and snapping, and finally these mournful sparse melodies to round it all out. On this album I hear a darker weight to the songs, a level of maturity in the music. The record was recorded partly in Big Sur, California, which is near where I’m from, and if you’ve been there you know that the two things which might leave a lingering impression are the immense redwood trees and the blanketing fog. It’s an atmosphere you can see in her video for “How Come You Never Go There,” and that spirit pervades a lot of this record. A gorgeous record, this one — Metals shows the continuing regenesis and reinvention of Feist.
The Bad In Each Other – Feist
GILLIAN WELCH - THE HARROW & THE HARVEST
Together with her longtime musical partner David Rawlings, this is the first Gillian Welch record since 2003, and it’s a moody, often-dark, languid album of subtle beauty that was totally worth the wait. These two have an incredible songwriting partnership, with their intricate guitar and banjo work, their harmonies that sound birthed from the very same celestial vein. This one also feels like a chronicle of a journey, with the triplet of songs “The Way It Will Be,” “The Way It Goes,” and “The Way The Whole Thing Ends” arcing a tense thread throughout their sparse Americana, and punctuated by stunners like “Dark Turn of Mind.”
This is a smart record, loaded with lines that whap you across the face in their sly perfection. “Now I’ve tried drinking rye and gamblin, dancing with damnation is a ball / but of all the little ways I’ve found to hurt myself, well you might be my favorite one of all,” Gillian sings in a drawl, but with the precision of a scalpel. There is a spacious pensiveness in this record, and I keep listening over and over, going deeper and my toes haven’t scraped the rocky bottom yet.
Tennessee – Gillian Welch
PICKWICK - MYTHS EP
Pickwick is a band out of Seattle of six white guys who sound, when they make music, quite convincingly like a soul & blues band from a generation ago, but in a refreshing way, without any posturing. This was the year that Pickwick quite literally found their voice and have shot off into my stratosphere with what they’ve hit upon together. They used to be an ambient folk band, but shockingly found it hard to rise above the din in Seattle with that sound. So one day, frontman Galen Disston was in a cubicle at work and heard “A Change Is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke “jump out of the speakers” — it hit him powerfully, as Sam is wont to do, and totally changed his perspective about what kind of effect he wanted his music to strive for. So, at the next band practice, they tried something completely new, and oh my does it absolutely work.
Galen seems an unlikely frontman, with his wild curly brown hair, thick-rimmed glasses, and hands that knead each other while he kinesthetically works all the songs out of his lungs. One of my favorite observations about him this year was the person who commented on a friend’s Facebook how unexpected Galen’s voice was, writing: “In a million years you wouldn’t pin that voice coming from him. He’s like, ‘Hello, I’m here to fix your Internet,’ then, BOOM. Voice.” Precisely.
There’s that ambush acapella performance in the gorgeous gothic-style reading room at the University of Washington library. Watching it, Galen is absolutely, without a doubt, is in his element when he sings — he nearly vibrates an easy tidal wave of vocal power, inhabiting and swimming free inside the song. You can see the confidence and the difference, even from the recorded songs on the album, or their KEXP performance from earlier this year, and it is electrifying. They are recording their full-length debut album right now, and will be touring in the Spring (including SXSW). I predict pretty massive and wonderful things for these fellows, and for everyone who hears them in 2012.
Hacienda Motel (live on KEXP) – Pickwick
RURAL ALBERTA ADVANTAGE - DEPARTING
(Saddle Creek Records)
Rural Alberta Advantage is an elemental band of just three people, with a chemistry that has produced this potent record of push and pull and tension — both in the juxtaposition of the prominent percussion and the distinctive melodies, and also in the vocals of Nils Edenloff and Amy Cole. I went through a phase this summer where I was falling asleep to this record on a regular basis, which is completely weird because it’s heavily drum-based and rough, with almost a punk-rock feel, but to me the percussion literally works with a narcotic effect, helping shut down my brain. Drummer Paul Banwatt is my hero on this record, the star of every single song.
RAA is another band I crossed paths with at SXSW this past March, for a midnight show in a church. The echo and clang were riveting, but they simply took my breath away with the final song of their set, and converted me immediately to this entire record. Like the feeling of the fog-blanketed desolation in the cover art, this is a record chronicling the holding tight and the letting go in nearly every song, every line. Departing is their sophomore album, and is out on Saddle Creek Records (Bright Eyes, Rilo Kiley, Two Gallants), a label I tend to associate with urgent, percussive, melodic music.
Muscle Relaxants – Rural Alberta Advantage
TYLER LYLE – THE GOLDEN AGE & THE SILVER GIRL
This is a record from a young songwriter originally from Atlanta, a dozen songs about the ending of one relationship, told with honesty and effervescence. Tyler recorded it in one day, just two days before he moved away from Atlanta and off to the golden coasts of Southern California. He told me he spent $250 total mastering this record, and enlisted some friends to fill in the wonderful instrumentation on this record, the flutes and the cello and the banjo, to technicolor effect. Because it all came pouring out in one day, more than anything this album feels like one exceedingly honest and humble snapshot to me, without artifice, in the best possible way.
I remember when David Gray’s first record came out, the one he wrote and recorded all in his bedroom and arrived out of nowhere, there was a little sticker on the front of that record from Dave Matthews that said something like “…David Gray is beautiful in the purest and most honest way.” No one really knew of David Gray at that time, but the same way that record pierced me reminds me a lot of why I can’t stop listening to Tyler Lyle also, especially on songs like “Sorrow” or “When I Say That I Love You.” People haven’t heard of Tyler, but they will. He’s a young wordsmith who says precisely what he means, with immense talent and a beautifully open heart. The first song muses, ”I think it’s enough to feel the fire” — and this album makes me do that.
The Golden Age & The Silver Girl – Tyler Lyle
TYPHOON - A NEW KIND OF HOUSE EP
(Tender Loving Empire Records)
I first saw this band in a live video performance from SXSW, where eleven of them crammed into an elegant ballroom in the classy Driskill Hotel and launched into a song medley together that just simmered and exploded cathartically, with all their instruments and their heads thrown back and the voices raising together. Every time I watch that video, even now, it makes me wonder where the hell else nearby I was and why I hadn’t seen them for this.
With a name that suggests a warm wet tropical cyclone, you better deliver something worthy of the moniker, and this band of early-20-somethings from Portland certainly does that, in spades, with their dozen-ish members on stage. There’s an innocence to their music, this brilliant shimmering springtime feel — but also the weight of experience with some of the more difficult parts of life, also. Kyle Morton, the lead singer and primary songwriter, was bitten by a tick when he was young and struggled for years with an initially undiagnosed Lyme disease infection, which stunted his growth some, and isolated him with health issues throughout childhood. A lot of his songs wrestle with themes of that lost innocence — the threat of death — God and suffering. But it’s not maudlin; it’s authentic, and it’s beautiful.
I love the cavalcade of sound and voices that is truly overwhelming. There’s some of the shimmering, redemptive waves of orchestral joy and colossal thumping force that we find to love in Fanfarlo. When they all throw their heads back and sing “alleluia, it will be gone soon,” I get chills, every time.
The Honest Truth – Typhoon
VANDAVEER - DIG DOWN DEEP
(Supply & Demand Records)
So I’ve been magnetically drawn to rivers for some reason this year, as I mentioned earlier, and they’ve played an important part in several pivotal memories in 2011. This record reminds me entirely and completely of a powerful river, and I’ve been stupid in-love with it from first listen in late July.
Vandaveer’s music has all kinds of wonderful nods in it to old, rich music: spirituals, dirges, and songs of rejoicing. It often feels primal and organic in the percussion (lots of handclaps), elegant in the wending warmth of the cello. The lyrics are also dang smart; one just needs to listen to a rich allegory on songs like “Spite” to know that. But the real currents that pull me throughout this record comes from the vocal pairings of Rose Guerin’s icy deep low harmonies and Mark Charles Heidinger’s wending ripples and currents that tug us around the rocks. Heidinger’s voice has this vinegar of sadness around it that actually reminds me of Nina Simone (something I would never expect); they both have that slight metallic tang and bitter aftertaste that sounds regretful all the way through. Absolutely terrific, this one.
Dig Down Deep – Vandaveer
So, there you have it — my personal ten favorites from this year, although I could have of course rambled on with twenty or thirty. Let’s do it again in 2012?
[header image by the wonderful Ryan Hollingsworth]