I promised you my Top 5 Albums of 2011 list, so here we go! My favourite records last year were:
1. St. Vincent, Strange Mercy (4AD): Read my review from back in October.
2. Mastodon, The Hunter (Reprise Records)
I’m not sure why Mastodon aren’t one of the biggest bands on the planet right now. I swear on my ’56 Les Paul you don’t have to be a hard-core metalhead to appreciate what’s going on here. Pop music fans can hum along to the “whoa oh” chorus in “Curl of the Burl.” Classic rock guys and girls will adore the searing solos. Technical nerds will dork out to Brann Dailor’s insanely complex drum fills. Teenage boys will find that lyrics like, “I burned out my eyes/I cut off my tongue” are suitably grotesque. Everyone wins!
I marvel at this band’s ability to put crushing riffs, shifting time signatures, dark subject matter and delicate melodies into their musical mortar, grind it all up and produce something tasty, tuneful and awesomely bizarre.
Their previous album, Crack the Skye was beautiful, but byzantine in its construction, with a closing track that pushed past the 13:00 mark. Let’s be honest – that’s a daunting listen for the uninitiated. But on The Hunter, the songs are noticeably more succinct and insistent; it doesn’t feel like a big commitment to sit down and take it all in from start to finish.
The band lost some people close to them around the time of the recording and one of them was Brent Hinds’ brother. The album is dedicated to him and the title track is a mournful elegy that will tug at the tear ducts of even the hardest dude out there. Though the lyrics aren’t explicitly about grief, but there’s no mistaking the emotion in the guitar playing. Then there’s “The Sparrow”, a poignant tribute to a close friend of the band who died of cancer. The sole lyrics of the song, “pursue happiness with diligence”, are a reference to that friend’s motto.
There’s so much to love on this record, I’m even willing to overlook oddball experiments like “The Creature Lives”, the only track that didn’t really work for me. Can’t wait to see where this band goes next.
3. Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues (Sub Pop Records): Read my album and concert review from May.
4. Wild Flag, Wild Flag (Merge Records)
It’s getting so pathetic/I’m so restrained/I need it to be hectic/and rearranged. (“Boom”)
One of the reasons I responded so strongly to the Wild Flag album is that you can hear Carrie Brownstein rediscovering her love of music. She yelps and attacks her guitar as though her life depends on it, lets melodies wobble and wander off the rails, before steering everything back on course. In a recent New Yorker profile, Brownstein opens up about the post Sleater-Kinney years, describing how she was too sad to play guitar because it “felt like trying on an old wedding ring.” Even though I didn’t play in one of the biggest indie rock bands of the 90’s, I can relate to this feeling. After my own band broke up after university, I didn’t have any desire to pick up my instrument. Playing guitar only reminded me that those days were long gone and it was time to focus on my career and being a grown-up. (Or so, I thought.) Now more than six years later, I’m in the process of learning a new instrument (drums) and reconnecting with the joy of making noise. It’s slow going, but I’m inspired to see the women of Wild Flag prove that rock isn’t just for the young. Us 30-somethings can still shake off the pressures of the day-to-day by making “things go boom.”
5. The Weeknd, House of Balloons (Independent): This buzzed about Toronto singer is getting a lot of high-profile mentions, including a piece in the Guardian last month.