Strangely enough, I remember when a year ago when I swore I would never do a Best Of list. At least not in the way that some blogs do there. Rehashing old reviews and offering nothing new - that might work for some but it's not my style. And yet, Best Of lists are a great way to discover some great music you might've missed throughout the year or might've forgotten about. So my hope is that by throwing my own hat into the Best Of ring I can help do one of those things for you. Enjoy my first Best Of list or more aptly put, my favorite 15 tracks of 2011.
15) The Deloreans - "Buffalo", "American Craze"
Before Sam at MiddleClassWhiteNoise introduced me to The Deloreans, I wasn't aware there was anything of note in Kentucky. Let alone the three stellar bands I was later introduced to from Louisville. An ode to old-fashioned American decadence and a hodge-podge of different styles, practically any song on the album is worthy of a slot and definitely necessary listening but what set "Buffalo" apart is its multi-faceted nature. Fun and frenetic for the choruses but subtle and restrained for the verses, the track utilizes the intense energy of "American Craze" without sacrificing any of the thematic content.
14) North Highlands - "Roundhouse", Wild One
For an album named Wild One, there's actually a shortage of songs that are actually all that unchained and yet that works for North Highlands. Brenda Malvini's soft, delicate vocals are inviting and the band, broad and sweeping around her, pull you in like ocean waves. Malvini quiet coo in "Roundhouse" "If I was wild, if I was brave..." explains a bit, and ends up far more effective than a roar. The track pulses with an infectious energy while maintaining an almost stoic control before there's an unexpected rush, the opening of the floodgates and you're smacked with feeling. The track tells a story but is also intensely danceable. The best of both worlds.
13) The Dodos - "Good", No Color
When I first read that Neko Case would be contributing vocals to the new Dodos album I regarded it with a great deal of surprise and confusion. Meric Long's voice somehow fits the percussion-heavy folk realm the two inhabit but how would Neko Case's translate? Incredibly well. And yet, the tracks where she was barely there- a mostly quiet spectre in the background were the tracks I enjoyed most. When she shouts and harmonizes on "Good" it's almost too much good to bear. "Good" is great because it's driving, hard-hitting, with an astonishing amount of simplicity but effortless precise and no doubt memorable. It's 6 minutes long but far from monotonous - something always catching your ear to keep you from just drifting off.
Good by The Dodos by Mute-Song
12) Hello MTN - "Suitcase Song", Tour EP
Portland folk duo Hello MTN have been working on an album for better part of the year, taking breaks pretty much solely to tour. Luckily, the duo decided to make a four song EP so concertgoers would have something tangible to hold onto and things just kind of spiraled from there. "Suitcase Song" might seem like a bit of a novelty (being that the song features an actual suitcase as the percussion) but the song is positively awash with emotion. The song makes use of the duo's seemingly endless array of talents and features remarkable musical interludes between verses.
11) Joe Hertler & The Rainbow Seekers - "We Are Everything", On Being
It's hard to fathom the possibility of not seeing Joe Hertler and his band in that small mostly empty bar at the start of my CMJ but I did and for that I'm exceedingly glad. On Being shows off Joe Hertler's deft songwriting chops and a wisdom far beyond his years with "We Are Everything" functioning as a delightfully enjoyable cog in Joe Hertler's conceptualized vision. While songs on On Being wrestles with bigger picture ideas and pseudo-religious themes, "We Are Everything" notes how tiny humans are in the grand scheme of things when compared to the limitless wonders of the universe and yet, does so with nary a heavy-hand. Instead with his rich imagery and patience, Joe Hertler creates something truly soul-stirring.
10) Left With Pictures, "June", In Time
Last year, British chamber pop quintet Left With Pictures challenged themselves to the great songwriting feat of writing a song a month as part of their In Time project. Not only did they have to have a fully developed song that would be premiered by Gideon Coe on BBC 6Music on the last Monday of each month but they also had to have a finished video which they would post the next day. For 2010, I had no greater joy than when a brand new Left With Pictures track was revealed as each month their songwriting seemed to get better and better especially when they reached months without an obvious inspiration. One of my favorite tracks from this was "June", inspired in part by the advent of summer but with no obvious references to it. Instead "June", the month it was composed for, is personified as a beautiful girl whom has utterly enchanted the narrator. The song is as big as it's claims that a thousand battle ships would launch for her - the band pulling out all their songwriting chops to brilliant effect to create an upbeat romp full of positively delightful musical moments.
9) tUnE-yArDs - "Bizness", W H O K I L L
My introduction to "Bizness" happened live at tUnE-yArDs' concert in Central Park about a year and a half ago. There she performed almost all the sounds that weren't created by bassist Nate Brenner or with her own drums sticks with her own mouth (besides the brass band she had join her for a couple songs). It was exceptionally impressive. So when I heard the new version where those vocal effects were replaced with studio-processed machine sounds I was a little disappointed. And yet, even with that little let down, the infectiously catch nature of "Bizness" won out. It takes some of the best moments of her 2009 debut and amplifies them about tenfold. Garbus' decision to studio record affords the track with increased accessibility but also allowed her to throw some great things onto it (like the aforementioned brass band).
tUnE-yArDs - Bizness (4AD) by Ragged Words
8) The Head and the Heart - "Rivers and Roads", The Head and the Heart
During an intimately live show at Pianos in September, I had an epiphany: Spunky Seattle folk sextet The Head and the Heart write some pretty sad songs. This might seem like a no-brainer or even downright wrong to you but underneath their fun, poppy arrangements are lyrics about feeling out of place and alone whether you're far from from or stuck in your hometown. And yet there's a shortage songs on the album where this emotion is just left to its own devices - not played with by the groups various band members and their skilled arrangements. "Rivers and Road" is one of those rare songs that's not upbeat and makes no attempts to be. You don't get rapped up in the feel of the song and think it's about something else entirely - no, instead you get this wonderful moment of heart-on-your-sleeve confession carried from a purely vocal standpoint. Guitarist/vocalist Josiah Johnson gets his moment to shine while the rest of the band helpfully keep tempo and Jonathan Russell and Charity Rose Thielen add backup harmonies. And it's all quite lovely and good and makes for a nice song and then in an utterly unexpected moment Charity takes the helm with powerhouse vocals radiating with soul and you're a puddle on the floor. It elevates the already good song to an absolutely other plane of greatness and tugs at each and every one of your heartstrings.
Rivers and Roads by ImpressYourPeers
7) Carter Tanton - "Murderous Joy", Freeclouds
It strangely alright that, like a lot of my musical discoveries, Carter Tanton was a case of being at the right place at the right time. Because Tanton's "Murderous Joy" might just be one of the best songs I've heard in awhile and especially was about a month ago when I was introduced to it. It's catchy in an excitedly nonchalant way - a brilliant masterpiece of a song that single-handedly proved Carter Tanton and an able songwriter to me. There's an ineffable greatness about it - it ebbs and flows at precisely the right moments; its simple with unassumingly intelligent turns of phrase and a pervading sense of calm nostalgia.
01 MURDEROUS JOY by NYLONmag
6) Tallest Man on Earth - "Weather of A Killing Kind", Adult Swim Singles Program 2011
After the release of The Tallest Man on Earth's sophomore album The Wild Hunt and subsequent Sometimes The Blues Is Just A Passing Bird EP just a couple months after last year I figured we'd be done with any new Tallest Man for awhile. So when Adult Swim released a brand new Tallest Man track as part of its Single Program this summer I was incredibly surprised and equally as appreciative. It's quintessential Tallest Man with his trademark rasp and complex fingerpicking but also with beautiful melodies.
The Tallest Man on Earth - Weather of a Killing Kind by All Around Sound Blog
5) St. Vincent - "Cruel", Strange Mercy
When I first heard St. Vincent's music, I remember being strangely neutral about it. Albeit my first foray was at a live show that Annie Clark herself was disappointed in. But earlier this year when Annie Clark teased Strange Mercy via Twitter-fueled Youtube videos, color me intrigued. I revisted her older stuff and found myself actually really liking it. When "Surgeon" dropped, I ate it up and asked immediately for more. Then "Cruel" came out. This track took the big rock licks that were my favorite part of "Surgeon" and made a whole song of it. It's big, bold, and strangely enough not in your face. Annie Clark knows subtlety. She's made a career of wink-wink nudge-nudge moments and yet, "Cruel" is subtle in a brand new way. It's vunerable and open with a shouted from the mountaintops vibe that she tones down into something far more marvelous. It's catchy without trading in any of the necessary emotion and virtuosic without being overly showy.
St. Vincent - Cruel by Posh Magazine
4) Fleet Foxes - "Grown Ocean", Helplessness Blues
Fleet Foxes' Helplessness Blues is arguably one of the best things to come out of this year. Especially when you realize it almost didn't. But Robin Pecknold's musical perfectionism ended up creating one of the greatest albums of the year - one that tackles an important theme of growing up. One of the best songs on Helplessness Blues is no doubt "Grown Ocean", with it's driving drums and bass, not to mention it's place as the cathartic end to an album with heaps to say and even more questions to ask. Everything you love about Fleet Foxes spills out in this track - Robin Pecknold and the band's lovely songcraft, everpresent nature imagery, soul-gripping vocal harmonies. The whole thing is utterly magical, even the wonderfully little ellipses that ends the track (and album).
Fleet Foxes - Grown Ocean by subpop
3) Marissa Nadler - "In Your Lair, Bear", Marissa Nadler
If I had made this list about a week ago, this track wouldn't be here. But since sitting down with Marissa Nadler's self-titled I've found this song has completely taken over my life. Since I heard the opening strains of the album's opening track, I've hardly been able to listen to much else. It's slowly but surely consuming me. And yet, isn't that exactly what our favorite songs do? With her slow, lilting siren song Marissa Nadler has charmed her way not only onto the list but also pretty high on my favorites list. "In Your Lair, Bear", with it's supple melodic lines and yawny unraveling narrative is bewilderingly beautiful. Not a bad song to have utterly take over your life, actually.
2) Laura Marling - "Flicker and Fail", A Creature I Don't Know (Bonus Version)
I was first introduced to the live version of this song which Laura Marling debuted at the Radio 2 Folk Awards early this year and I was struck by how good it is. When describing Laura Marling's music calling it "good" seems kind of like kind of a moot point but considering that half the song is an old song her father wrote and the rest is just things she fixed around it, I was surprised by how well it all seemed to go together. Laura Marling has always been described as being a mature songwriter but this song left me completely floored. Still does. For all the conceptualizing on I Speak Because I Can and A Creature I Don't Know, this track hit me square in the heart. Not only did it sound amazing, like all of Marling songs, but it captured all the elements I loved about Marling and elevated them to the next level - her witty turns of phrase? Present. Her intricate guitar melodies? Present. It contains the emotional side-stepping Marling has started to make her songwriting staple and yet, does in a manner that doesn't make you question it. "Flicker and Fail" shows a decidedly better Laura Marling that was hinted at in some of the best tracks on A Creature I Don't Know and her decision to include it (albeit as a bonus track) shows that she knows this too.
1) ARMS - "Heat & Hot Water", Summer Skills
"Heat & Hot Water" might not have been the first song I heard from ARMS (that slot is reserved for "Emily Sue, Cont'd") but it was the song that launched my year-long obsession with all things ARMS related. So much storytelling is packed into 4 minutes of vibrant, visceral songwriting not to mention so many delicate musical ornaments and intricate textural strokes. While practically any song from Summer Skills could've made it on this list, "Heat & Hot Water" is my definitive ARMS song. The moment on their 2010 EP where I realized I needed to know more, and probably my most listened to track of the whole entire year of 2011. Not to mention a surefire contender for one of my favorite songs ever written ever.
Conveyor - Sun Ray, Sun Ray EP
The Middle East - "Hunger Song", I Want That You Are Always Happy
Laura Marling - "Don't Ask Me Why"/"Salinas" A Creature I Don't Know
Sondre Lerche - "When the River", Sondre Lerche
The Voluntary Butler Scheme - "Don't Rely On It, Don't Count on It", The Grandad Galaxy