Yeah, yeah, yeah…it’s 2011, the time for “best of” lists has passed. Well I’ve been too busy to throw mine together and because this year was important for music, and because it’s become a kind of past time for me, I still wanted to throw it up. I make no claims to comprehension nor to authority, just to the fact that these are some of the albums that really grabbed me this year. Because the year was so rich I’m going to group roughly by genre rather than hierarchically. If you have the time, do go see these other lists – David Congdon’s, NPR’s and Pitchfork’s.
The Tallest Man on Earth is what happens when a scrawny Swedish boy authoritatively channels Bob Dylan. In The Wild Hunt, Kristian Matsson, relying almost exclusively on a ruddy acoustic guitar, has no need of a band; instead, he delivers to us an album of minimalistic beauty. The songs tend to move along at a peppy 4/4 with mostly a lighting quick finger plucking keeping the pace. His whiny tenor voice growls out picturesque pastoral and personal scenes. Also worth mentioning, his EP, also released this last year, Sometimes the Blues is Just A Passing Bird, where a slower pace is generally kept and a clean electric guitar paints a different aesthetic picture.
Who would’ve thought that a former punk band from Duluth Minnesota would craft probably the best neo-bluegrass albums of the year? We all have the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? to thank for initiating this revival of interest in American roots music, but it’s bands like TBT who have taken the style and reinterpreted it, making it at once modern and fresh, yet also respectfully true to the tradition from which it springs. The break out single Wait So Long shows just how the frenzy of punk can sound when put through a fiddle. It and other songs like It’s a War, Help You, Sounds Like a Movie and Feet and Bones move at blistering speed. The album is not reducible to this, though – it is filled with just great songwriting with addictive mandolin and fiddle parts. This said, I’d really like to see them work on their ballads and vocal harmonies which could really take them to the next level artistically.
Here I depart from the indie police. While I readily concede that the album suffers from a general dearth of lyrical depth and from periodic musical “childishness”, I am convinced that the unique combination of bluegrass, indie folk-rock and pop vocal licks has actually coalesced to create a total singularity, a sound greater than the sum of it’s random parts. If you would’ve asked me if a band could have produced a sound with this kind of “power” without a drum kit and thundering electric bass I would have been skeptical. But the producer used horns and organs to great affect, and aided by the raspy voice of Marcus Mumford as well as the spacious melodies that seem to have no end, Sigh No More deserves a place in this list.
Hadestown is nothing less than what it has styled itself as, a “folk opera” – Hadestown traces the story of Orpheus and Eurydice in song and succeeds wildly. Mitchell assembled a perfect cast too. Orpheus is played by Justin Vernon of Bon Iver fame, Ani DiFranco as Persephone – “Our Lady of the Underground”, Greg Brown’s booming baritone is Hades himself, The Haden Triplets play the Fates and Mitchell stars as Eurydice. Songs vary from quick hymns backed by a lone violin to riotous jazz numbers. A highlight is definitely Why We Build the Walls, a painfully slow and erie number dominated by Brown, a song just as much about immigration policy as about the Underworld. This lyrical complexity and musical diversity truly combine to make this a spectacular record and has singlehandedly kept the album concept from dying this year.
It is surprising perhaps that a Minnesota band would write one of the best bluegrass records of the year (see Trampled By Turtles above) but it is a sign of the greatness of the Minnesota scene that two of the best come from the Frozen Chosen. Charlie Parr has a long history in American music and he has not failed to deliver another stellar record. Glory in the Meeting House is a downright bluegrass Gospel album chalk full of Parr’s famous and aggressive slide guitar and yearning slurred vocals. The Black Twig Pickers add layers to this sound but never intrude. The songs feel like they belong in a period piece, or a revival tent, or both. These “spirituals” are shot through with soul and life and include such standards as What a Friend We Have [in Jesus].
What do you get when you marry a rapper and a classically trained violinist? A spectacular folk and soul record, of course. This Minnesota (!) band has taken a risk incorporating a whole band into their previously unaccompanied sound but it has payed off. Always subtle and subdued but sexy too, Then The Morning Came is genuinely beautiful and moving, never audacious or pompous – it makes the world around you slow down as the husband and wife play off each other to create a groovy and earthy sound.