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Top Music of 2011

January 19, 2012

Nick’s Musical Top Ten List of the Year

This year’s (or last year’s) top ten music list was a little delayed due to college. I feel like I didn’t buy quite as many CDs as I usually do this year, (although I downloaded a ton of noisetrade stuff), and I definitely did not go to enough shows. (You can never go to enough shows.) Still, the year had its share of great albums from many different artists, the number one spot going to…

    1. Helplessness Blues by Fleet Foxes. Decent bands follow trends. Great bands rise above them. In the history of rock music, the truly great and memorable bands are not of their age, but of all time. They cannot be classified by genre or time period. A band like The Dave Clark Five, ABBA or Depeche Mode is music of its time; bands like The Beatles, Pink Floyd and U2 are timeless. With this record, Fleet Foxes has taken its place among the legends of pop/rock music. I heard a story that lead singer/songwriter Robin Pecknold’s girlfriend broke up with him while he was recording the album because it was putting so much pressure on their relationship. After the album finally came out and she listened to it, she got back together again. In this record, Fleet Foxes becomes even more diverse, blending in Celtic, Jazz, Middle Eastern and American Folk influences with their own unique style. This is the defining album of my time. It also made a great soundtrack to waking up early in the morning and driving out into the country to do yardwork.
    2. Fleet Foxes by Fleet Foxes. Technically I received this CD as a gift in 2010, but it quickly became such a favorite that I listened to it almost every morning of my last semester of high school. Though not as diverse as Helplessness Blues, Fleet Foxes’ first record was a masterpiece in its own right, placing the band as a worthy successor to Simon and Garfunkel. It’s a very ambient, atmospheric recording, almost like a soundtrack to a movie that should exist, but doesn’t.
    3. OK Computer by Radiohead. My introduction to the legendary band came a little late, but they were still as mindblowing as ever. OK Computer shows what pop music should be in an ideal world. The band takes unusual rhythms, chord progressions, song structures and lyrics and blends them into something that’s both weird and accessible. OK Computer is mindblowing, and it’s not even Radiohead’s most avante-garde record. Where has this band been all my life.
    4. Greatest Hits by Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers. Tom Petty defines coolness. He combines the folk-rock of Dylan with punk-rock aggressiveness. And he has so many good songs. The most important thing about being a musician is having good songs, and Tom Petty delivers. The Heartbreakers are the quintessential American Rock ‘n’ Roll band. There is nothing more to say.
    5. Dark Side Of The Moon by Pink Floyd. Another great band that I came across late. While it’s not quite on the level of complexity that Brother, Sister or OK Computer are, Dark Side Of The Moon was one of the defining “concept” albums, and one of the first albums to have a unifying sound, like the band had recorded one giant song instead of 9 separate tracks. Pink Floyd is remembered as a “classic rock” band, but their music is surprisingly chilled out and spacey. The solos rock, the songwriting is great, and the overall atmosphere created by the album is like nothing else. It’s a classic for very good reasons.
    6. Saved and Slow Train Coming by Bob Dylan. Two Dylan albums that I had heard in the background before, but really listened to this year. Dylan’s Christian phase is interesting because he actually wrote good songs. The music is theologically sound and it rocks. It’s the Gospel cranked up to 11. If only all Christian Music was as good as this. Also, the 3-disk Essential Bob Dylan was another great that I listened to often last year.
    7. Larry Norman Trilogy: Only Visiting This Planet, So Long Ago The Garden, In Another Land. Speaking of rockin’ Christian music, Larry Norman is often heralded as the inventor of Christian rock. (This is not accurate. The first Christian rock band was David and the Five Smooth Stones.) Instead of sappy worship ballads, Larry had stinging indictments of journalism, promiscuous lifestyles, and the commercialism of Christmas, among many other things. I don’t always agree with him politically and theologically, but he pulled no punches. Musically, he had a diversity that most “secular” artists don’t have, much less Christian artists.
    8. She Must and Shall Go Free by Derek Webb. This album is a rarity in the Christian market—a concept album about the church. Derek Webb covers the subject from a variety of different angles, with his trademark thought-producing lyrics. Webb takes the gospel and puts it into language that speaks to modern man without dumbing it down or changing the meaning. I’ll share you one example, from the song “Lover,” which tells the story of Jesus from His perspective, but set in a more modern context.Because I am My beloved’s
      And My beloved’s Mine;
      So, you bring all your history,
      I’ll bring the bread and wine.
      Then we’ll have us a party
      Where all the drinks are on Me
      And as surely as the rising sun
      Oh, you will be set free,
      That’s Webb in a nutshell—theological truth mixed with cheeky wit. This record also has the wonderful song “Wedding Dress,” which freaked a bunch of people out because of the strong language it used. What those people failed to notice is the truthful (and biblical) message of the song put into Webb’s poetic lyrics. In conclusion, this album is both musically good and spiritually uplifting.
    9. Rubber Soul by The Beatles. This one’s currently in a three-way tie with Sgt. Pepper’s and Revolver for best Beatles album. Recorded at the very beginning of the Beatle’s experimental stage, it shows the Beatles stretching the format of bass/drums/guitar/vocals to their limit. The amount of diversity that could come from the same four guys with the same four instruments is impressive; this album ranges from folk to rockabilly to country. A great album.
    10. Jar of Flies by Alice in Chains. Pretty much the greatest EP ever done. This record finally changed my opinion on Alice in Chains and convinced me that they were a truly great and defining band. Not a great record to listen to if you’re struggling with depression, but a record that shows diversity of Seattle’s greatest 90s band. (Take that, Nirvana!)
    11. Caedmon’s Call by Caedmon’s Call. The debut record by one of my favorite groups. At this point Caedmon’s Call was still trying to find their sound—witness the oddly rocking “Not The Land” and the weird, carnival/circus sound of “Stupid Kid.” Even though it doesn’t quite measure up to Back Home or 40 Acres, Caedmon’s Call still had great songs, a great sound, and, most importantly, Derek Webb. Webb’s thoughtful ballad “Center Aisle” is the highlight of the album. Don’t listen to it lightly.

EPs of the year: Tie: Heaven Come My Way EP by Abandon Kansas and His+Hers EP by The Hawk in Paris. Abandon Kansas is pretty much the only Christian guitar band. Their sound is new, yet classic, and they deserve much more attention than they have got. Their four-song EP has been a staple of my listening, and their guitar licks have no equal among Christian artists today. The Hawk In Paris is a side project of Dan Haseltine (That guy from Jars of Clay) and his college friends, and sounds like 80s New Wave with brains. Think of it as pop music that sat down in a chair and became very thoughtful. Their songs range from driving and anthemic to slow and haunting.

Runner-up Albums: Let The Woman by Andy Davis, Country Music by Willie Nelson (you can’t put Willie in a list. He’s in a class of his own.) All Together Separate by All Together Separate, Drowning With Land in Sight by The 77s, Hope by Blackball, Hardest Hits by Precious Death

Songs of the Year: In this case, many of the songs were came from sources other than the top albums, thanks to the many [legitimate] free downloads offered by the internet, which will soon all be subject to government regulation. Enjoy this list…or else.

    1. “Glorify” by Ivan and Alyosha. Not just one of the great songs of the year, but one of the great songs of all time. If Ivan and Alyosha had done just this song, they would still be classic. The sparse arrangment highlights the amazing lyrics. Download it now.
    2. “Blue Spotted Tail” by Fleet Foxes. All the songs on this album are great, but this one stands alone. It’s just Robin and his guitar, singing a depressing lullaby. This song certifies Robin Pecknold as the successor to Paul Simon as folk-rock’s contemplative atheist. Nihilism was never so beautiful.
    3. “Dear God” by Avenged Sevenfold. Knowing how uncool it is to like A7X, I still put this one on top of the list, simply because it has a very personal meaning to me. When I first got to college in the great Midwest, I listened to this song over and over. Proof that even bands I don’t care for can come up with game-changing songs.
    4. “Help, I’m Alive.” by Metric Proof that indie-music is awesome. This song is now a staple of my exercise routine. The song itself is simple, with pointed, clever lyrics (“it’s hard to be soft/tough to be tender”), but it’s delightfully minimalistic. And the repeating crescendo whenever the singer sings “My heart keeps beating like a hammer.”–Oh man! It has to be heard to be believed.
    5. “Helena Beat” by Foster The People. My mom said it sounded like 80s music but worse. (is that even possible?) The first time I heard it it gave me the feeling that I was trapped in an Old Navy. But I kept coming back to this song over and over again. There’s something incredibly catchy about this tune that I can’t quite figure out. It’s like musical Doritos—just try to listen to it once.
    6. “Buy This Town” by Lori McKenna. Lori McKenna is the best new thing in country music. Her music diverges from the current Nashville pop-with-a-fiddle sound, and her lyrics, rather than being bombastic and ridiculous like most modern country, are subdued, heartfelt and wholesome. I would feel safe with Ms. McKenna as a neighbor.
    7. “Gravedigger” by Dave Matthews. I know that I’m horribly behind my time, but I listened to this song for the first time this year and fell in love. Dave Matthews is a bit of an acquired taste, but he’s a true stylist and he writes some great songs.
    8. “Desperately Wanting” by Better Than Ezra. I got on a Better Than Ezra kick at the end of the first semester, when all the sane people were listening to Christmas music. This song rocks hard. End of story.
    9. “Furr” by Blitzen Trapper. Only this year did I appreciate Blitzen Trapper as the indie-rock descendents of Tom Petty. This song is a little bit Dylan, a little bit Jack London and a little bit who-knows-what, and would make a great soundtrack to a camping or canoe trip. (Note to self: listen to this when driving to river on next canoe trip.)
    10. “I Won’t Back Down” by Tom Petty. Pretty much any Tom Petty song could go here, but as far as personal inspiration goes, this song tops the rest. No one, but no one, could be more defiant than Tom Petty. In an age where “inspiring” songs turn out to be syrupy pop with politically correct greeting-card lyrics or worse, this song is truly inspiring.
    11. “Redemption Song” by either Bob Marley or Johnny Cash and Joe Strummer. Another example of a classic recently re-discovered. Despite being unfortunately advertised by millions of potheads, Bob Marley was a truly great singer and songwriter. The Cash/Strummer version has two legends singing a legendary song by another legend. Jam on!

Runners-up songs: “Funk For Breakfast” by Blackball, “(What’s the Name of) This Song?” by Precious Death, “Bambi” by Tokyo Police Club, “Heaven Come My Way” by Abandon Kansas, “Truth” by Alexander, “Pork and Beans” by Weezer, “See Who I Am” by Within Temptation, “Rise Above This” by Seether, “Landslide” by Smashing Pumpkins, “Between The World and You” by the Hawk in Paris, “Wedding Dress” by Derek Webb, “The Color Green” by Rich Mullins

Artist of the Year: Fleet Foxes. What can I say? They are the best band of our time.

New Artist of the Year: Ivan and Alyosha. The fact that they’re named after characters in my favorite novel of all time biases me. Fortunately, they live up to their namesakes. Ivan and Alyosha’s lyrics are creative, exploratory, and lead me to think upon better things. “Glorify” should be taught in schools, and the rest of their songs are not far behind.

Runner-up new artists of the year: Andy Davis, Needle, The Hawk in Paris, Blitzen Trapper

Best Live Show of The Year: Tie: Abandon Kansas and The Wedding/George Jones. Abandon Kansas puts on a killer live show. The Wedding puts on a killer live show. Put together, they’re quite amazing. The Wedding, though not an incredibly technically skilled band, are great entertainers. A show by the Wedding is something you won’t forget. Abandon Kansas, who headlined the show, played their entire set in synchronization with two TVs behind them which played their music videos while the band was playing the actual song. Everything was perfectly synchronized and it was awesome.

However, nothing beats George Jones. Jones is one of my favorite singers of all time, and getting to see him in concert made me feel like a 14 year-old girl getting to see Justin Bieber (or whoever is popular now.) Even with laryngitis, Jones was still an amazing performer. So many of his songs are raw classics that probe the depths of human nature. Wordsworth talks about writing poetry that uses the language of ordinary men—he was anticipating the music of George Jones. Jones’ live show is a commentary on his life: he doesn’t shy away from portraying his dark past, but neither does he glorify it. Many of his songs he sang glorify marriage and family life, either directly or through litotes. When he sang “Whose Gonna Fill Their Shoes?,” the slideshow behind him showed pictures of country music legends. When Tammy’s picture came on, I don’t think anyone was unmoved. Jones ended his performance with a rousing performance of “I Don’t Need No Rockin’ Chair,” proving that even in his 80s he can still rock the stage.

Worst Album Of The Year Of All Time: Lulu by Lou Reed and Metallica. Lou Reed is a cult figure in rock music, best known as the man behind The Velvet Underground, a little-known 60s band that sounded like a 90s band way before the 90s. Metallica, of course, is the only metal band. You would think that such a collaboration, if not great, would at least be listenable. This record is a travesty. Imagine Bob Dylan forming a metal band, and this is about a thousand times worse. The music has none of the brilliance that characterizes Metallica, instead sounding like a B-rate alt-rock band sort of trying to sound like Metallica. This could be forgiven in another context, but Lou Reed speaks some of the dumbest lyrics ever written above the droning, boring music. Reed makes William Shatner look like a great vocalist. Heck, at least Shatner has some emotion when he sings. Metallica should be intricate, brutal and mind-blowing; this record is dull, dull, and dull. It’s so bad that I can’t even put it in words. If you want to hear how bad it is, listen to “Iced Honey” on YouTube or somewhere. Better yet, just go back and listen to “One” from And Justice For All, the best metal song ever written.

This year had too much good music to be real. I can only imagine what next year will be like—and with House of Heroes and mewithoutYou working on new albums, plus Nightwish’s Imaginaerum, plus the fact that this might be the year that Justin Bieber ceases to be popular, makes me very hopeful. Have a blessed 2012.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. January 20, 2012 5:31 am

    What a great post. Add to the greatest concerts, the one you did a few weeks back here in Texarkana.

  2. Katy permalink
    January 30, 2012 3:57 pm

    Had credit for a couple downloads from Amazon, so I came back to this post to get some song recommendations. Got Furr and Help I’m Alive. Glorify was already free! Love them all! Thanks for the great post. I always appreciate your music pov. I’m a bit jealous of yours and your dad’s recent concert attendances! Glad y’all got to attend some great shows.

    • January 30, 2012 10:26 pm

      I got most of the songs off of Noisetrade.com, which is a site for free and legal downloads by mostly up-and-coming musicians. It’s where I get most of my music…and is actually a bit addicting.
      Just out of curiosity, what’s “pov?” Is that a typo or is it an abbreviation?

  3. Katy permalink
    January 31, 2012 4:07 am

    Sorry…point of view. 🙂 Thanks for the Noisetrade.com mention. I’ll check it out!

  4. Katy permalink
    April 19, 2012 2:30 pm

    Nick, just wanted to brag to someone who would appreciate the fact that I’m going to see Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers this weekend! He’s playing with Regina Spektor in Little Rock and my brother got my sister and me tickets. I’m super excited! Okay, thanks for listening. 🙂

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