Friday, December 30, 2011

The Best Albums of 2011

Four years is a long time. High school lasts four years. College allegedly lasts four years, although that’s rare these days. Most people go through at least three cell phones over a four year period. Emile Hirsch’s career lasted about four years before he disappeared. And I can only hope my first marriage lasts four years.

With that said, this is the fourth year I have written my Top 10 Albums list, and it’s back again for two reasons: it is always one of my most highly read and circulated posts every year (which I appreciate), and more importantly, I enjoy writing it. If anything, it gives me an opportunity and excuse to listen to and ponder over all of my favorite music from the past 12 months before heading back to school and starting classes again. Oh, and the chicks totally dig it.

As I’ve said every year: this list is simply my favorite albums of the year – not necessarily the most popular or most musically accomplished. By no means am I an elite music critic or anything like that, but I listen to a lot of music and feel I have a decent enough taste to select a list of albums that, at the very least, is acceptable. Maybe you’ll even discover a new band or artist that you hadn’t checked out before. Maybe you’ll have some suggestions to send my way (I welcome them). Nevertheless, it is simply my arbitrary judgment. (JUSTIN BIEBER!!!!!)

Without further ado, here are my Top Ten Albums of 2011 (with a few extras), courtesy of a 22-year-old with no real music education and little love for the country music genre (I’ve tried, I promise). Let the accolades begin.

  • Close Only Counts in Horse Shoes and Hand Grenades
Slow Club – Paradise; The Head and the Heart – The Head and the Heart; Drake – Take Care; Augustana – Augustana; Blind Pilot – We Are the Tide; Wild  Flag – Wild Flag; Bon Iver – Bon Iver

  • The Honor Roll
Foo Fighters – Wasting  Light
The most recent release by Dave Grohl and the boys was a strong one, but this makes my Honor Roll list largely because “Walk” was my favorite song of the year. I’m always a sucker for rock stars getting nostalgic and recognizing their own mortality, and on this song (and album), Grohl does it as well as anyone.

The Weeknd – House of Balloons/Thursday/Echoes of Silence
Abel Tesfaye – AKA: The Weeknd – dropped a trilogy of albums/mixtapes this year, all of which were released online for free…which was probably a mistake, because all of them are worth paying for. The sound is creative yet simplified for R&B, but also falls nicely into the new trend of smooth and melodic trumping flow and power.

  • The Top 10
10. St. Vincent – Strange Mercy
Probably not the best listen if you are trying to cheer yourself up, but Annie Clark puts her heart and soul into this album, embracing her inner darkness. The intensity and honesty is refreshing, and you’ll come away assuming that Clark is simultaneously crazier and more brilliant than you could ever hope to be. Kind of like Claire Danes’ character in Homeland. And yes, that’s a compliment.

9. White Denim – D
Like a jam band on speed, White Denim plays around with blues, prog and punk on their fourth album. They sound somewhat like a hipster, indie-pop manifestation of Buffalo Springfield. Or maybe it’s a southern rock, Tex-Mex evolution of Phoenix. Either way, they made the leap on this release from versatile, innovative garage rockers to…professionally versatile, successfully innovative garage rockers.

8. The Joy Formidable – The Big Roar
For some reason I will more than likely never be able to explain, I’m always intrigued by indie/alternative bands that feature females on lead vocals. More often than not, I really enjoy the layer or stratification that I naturally assume is attached to it, and The Joy Formidable definitely fit into that category. I probably hyperbolize the true impact that these front-women have, but that doesn’t take away from the edgy, on-the-verge sound that this band displays on its first LP. I constantly feel like they are on the cusp of something bigger while listening, and I wouldn’t be surprised at all if that eventually proves to be the case.

7. Telekinesis – 12 Desperate Straight Lines
This is one of those albums where you will discover a new song you like best with each listen, before finally settling on the fact that they are all great, all complement each other well, and all sound similar-but-just-dissimilar enough to fit perfectly into one cohesive piece of work. I’m fascinated when bands can articulate an event or emotion (in this case, a break-up) with a sound, rhythm, or identity different than what you would typically expect, and yet still have it make perfect sense. On this album, Telekinesis did that a heck of a lot better than most.

6. Deer Tick – Divine Providence
Deer Tick cranked up the volume and pumped up the urgency compared to 2009’s Born on Flag Day, but it works just as well. It kind of sounds like the whole band just got hammered and started churning out a bunch of killer songs about living young, wild and free (as Wiz Khalifa might say). If you go to college anywhere in the Midwest (or America, really), I suggest putting this album in heavy rotation. “We’re full grown men, but we act like kids / We’ll face the music, next time we roll in.

5. Wilco – The Whole Love
Jeff Tweedy and Company’s newest work of art sounds very much like an album I will be listening to for years to come. Tweedy finally seems to be at peace with himself and his music, something quite far removed from the band’s efforts in the ‘90s and early ‘00s. They can still oscillate from down-home saloon/pick-up truck cruising to backyard strumming and jamming, but their overall focus seems to be just that – focused. The band is clearly at ease, and while it might not be their best or most accomplished album (Yankee Hotel Foxtrot), I often find myself wondering if it’s the album Tweedy is most proud of.

4. Jay-Z and Kanye West – Watch the Throne
It’s brash. It’s loud. It’s powerful. It’s arrogant. It’s ridiculous. And it’s brilliant. Somehow, “ball so hard” and “that shit cray” have become regular and acceptable phrases in our culture’s vocabulary. Sound clips from a very average Will Ferrell movie make sudden and yet seamless appearances. Kanye somehow makes himself more likeable and understandable, simply by being a narcissistic douche. Jay-Z makes himself even cooler and more endearing by constantly reminding us that he is a former-drug-dealer-turned-mogul/icon who also happens to be married to Beyonce. It is an album that every hip-hop artist wishes they could make, despite the fact that none of them would even consider trying. I can’t explain it. You are now watching the throne.

3. Black Keys – El Camino
The Black Keys – right now, in their prime – are the best band in the world. No, that’s not a bold statement.  And no, I don’t care if you disagree, because you’d be wrong. El Camino is so good that it actually made me reconsider the extent to which I was impressed by the equally-impressive-if-not-better releases of Brothers (my #1 in 2010) and Attack & Release (my #2 in 2008). I had become almost numb to their prowess until realizing they were competing largely with themselves, as all three albums were better than the vast majority of their competition. The album is a musical recognition of how far the band has come, how accomplished they have proven to be, while still showing off all the skill, passion and fervent it took to reach this very point. For what it’s worth (and it ain’t worth much), as long as the Black Keys keep making albums, I’ll keep putting them in my Top 10 lists. And when everyone else finally recognizes just how freaking good the fusion of Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney is, I hope they all enjoy their heaping plate of crow.

2. Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues
Sophomore slump be damned, the Fleet Foxes take a turn for beautiful, soulful, folky nostalgia on their second full-length release. They embody Americana, embrace maturity and transform the spirit of Bob Dylan’s “My Back Pages” into an entire album’s worth of smooth, psychedelic reflection and contemplation. If Simon & Garfunkel had ever decided to hole up out in the country somewhere with the Beach Boys, smoke a bunch of narcotics, and then collaborate on an album, they would have ultimately been striving for the sound and splendor of Helplessness Blues.

1. The Decemberists – The King Is Dead
I often struggle over which album I will choose for the top spot on this list each year. Even after selecting it, I will usually look back after a few weeks or months and question whether or not I made the right decision. I don’t exactly lose any sleep over it, but I think about it. That will not be the case for 2011. The Decemberists released their sixth album on January 14, some 50 weeks ago, and yet even then a part of me knew that I was listening to what would not only be my favorite record of the year, but one that would enter my pantheon and impact me for years to come. “Walk” by the Foo Fighters was the song I enjoyed most in 2011, but “January Hymn” from The King is Dead is one of those pieces that will have a lasting and noticeable influence on me as an individual, up there with Dylan’s “Simple Twist of Fate” and The Bright Eyes’ “Bowl of Oranges.” The album is a masterpiece from beginning to end, a poppier and punkier change of pace from the folkier narratives of The Crane Wife or Hazards of Love, but leaving the listener with that same feeling of fully realized fruition. I’m certainly not one for sentimental self-reflection or tear filled moments of recognized enlightenment, but this album puts me as close as I’ve ever been to knocking on those doors. Every damn time.

Big things on the horizon in 2012. Screw the Mayans.

PS – For whatever reason, December 2011 was a record-breaking month in terms of visitors and page views for Arbitrary JudgEment (something in the ballpark of 145 million). I more or less write the blog for my own personal journalistic expression, but that it no way diminishes how appreciative I am of the friends, family and readers at-large that check in with the blog a few times each month. Your loyalty does not go unnoticed, and I am genuinely grateful. So for the last time in 2011…

Thanks for reading

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Ignoring Ignorance

My omniscience is boundless. My premonitions are endless. I am a pop culture god. And, more than likely, so are you.

Ask me about David Fincher’s upcoming blockbuster film, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. It hasn't been released in theaters yet, but I already know it’s great. No, I haven’t seen it. But it currently sits at a 94% rating on Rotten Tomatoes’ website. Entertainment Weekly gave it an “A.” The Guardian gave it 4 out of 5 stars. It’s not too surprising either; Fincher is a great director, and the book was very, very good. And no, I haven’t read it.

Ask me about El Camino, the new album by the Black Keys. It came out on December 6th, but I knew around Thanksgiving that it sounded amazing. Metacritic gave it 85 out of 100. Rolling Stone gave it 4 out of 5 stars. Spin gave it an 8 out 10. It didn’t really matter that I thoroughly enjoyed listening to it once it was released. I already knew how I was going to feel.

With the way pop culture is covered today, in terms of music, movies and television, it is nearly impossible to consume or experience anything without entering into it with very strong and pre-determined opinions. Everything is reviewed and judged by critics and professionals before the general public has access to it. Everything is already digested for me before it even reaches my plate. It’s one thing to assume that I will like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo because I’ve liked Fincher’s past productions, or to get excited for the new Black Keys album because I was such a big fan of their previous releases. Nowadays, my own preconceived notions are essentially worthless. I might as well just adopt those of someone else, smarter and more informed than I am. What I think is no longer as important as what I know.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not condemning critics or journalists or reporters of that ilk. They are simply doing their job. Heck, I might even be doing that job someday. But it’s all just indicative of a culture in which people seem to react to things based more on what they are told than on what they actually experience for themselves, if only because being told happens faster. I’m just as much a product of this as anyone. I could avoid reviews and reactions to all of these mediums fairly easily if I wanted to. I could remain skeptical to any word-of-mouth or advising from others until I saw the movie or television show or listened to the album for myself. I could relish in my own ignorance and rely solely on my own responses, and it wouldn’t be all that difficult. I just choose not to.

It is often said in the “internet/social media/24-hour news cycle” of today that things are chewed up and spit out the moment they occur. But with things like movies, TV and music, it might be more accurate to say that things are chewed up and spit out before they even occur. My level of excitement toward an upcoming episode of “Modern Family” is contingent to some extent on what the TV critics I follow on Twitter are saying about it during the days leading up to air. My anticipation for a new album is influenced not just by my musical affinities, but by what the reviews are saying about it. Two months ago, I would have openly admitted that seeing the upcoming Sherlock Holmes movie was far more enticing than checking out the impending Mission Impossible chapter, based purely on my own feelings toward the previous installments I had seen. But after checking out the critics’ takes? I think my feelings have changed. It’s oddly fascinating, in a twisted, Orwell-ian sort of way.

I’m not just a vessel – some empty, vapid, pop culture consumer that can only recite or communicate what others have told me.  I’m not the pony-tailed, sweater wearing chump from Good Will Hunting that Matt Damon verbally undresses in the Harvard bar (pronounced “Aahhhvaahhd baaahhh”) because all I do is adopt and regurgitate the opinions of respected voices. I have my own thoughts and outlooks and reactions to the culture I consume…but I can’t help but wonder how much I’m influenced by media and critical responses. Yes, I really like the new Black Keys album, and I would happily share my thoughts and offer it as a recommendation to peers and colleagues. But would I feel differently about it if the exact same record had received mixed or negative reviews? And yes, I actually found Friends with Benefits to be one of the more enjoyable and entertaining romantic comedies of recent years. But did I think that because it was more witty and funny than mushy and idealistic (while also allowing me to stare at Mila Kunis for two hours), or was it because I knew going in that Rotten Tomatoes had given it a 71% rating, when most movies from that genre are lucky to break 20%? It is undoubtedly a combination of the two, I’m just not entirely sure which is weighted more heavily. True, it’s idiotic to base your opinions only on what those “in the know” have bestowed upon us, but it’s na├»ve to pretend the impact is insignificant.

I suppose all of this is part of the reason why I (and countless others) find sports to be so intriguing. No matter how much we analyze or predict what will happen in each game, tournament, or event, the outcome happens live for everyone at the exact same time. There is no way to know for sure what will occur until it actually takes place, consumable to everyone in a solitary moment. The smartest college basketball analyst in the world was just as shocked as I was that Butler made two NCAA Championship games in a row. My mom and Lee Corso were more or less equals when Michigan State upset Wisconsin in football this season on a last-second Hail Mary. No one predicted the Packers to go undefeated this year, but it could very well end up that way. (Ed's Note: Guess not...) In sports, the element of surprise is always possible. Ignorance is a constant. Few other things within today’s entertainment culture can make that claim.

Critical reception within pop culture is not all bad. I would have never watched the new show Homeland on Showtime (which I really enjoy) without the hype that was surrounding it in the critical community. And I can even stomach sitting through something like the movie Greenberg (which sucked) simply because it received good reviews. But what’s missing is that feeling of uncertainty, of judging something based solely on my reaction as opposed to how I think I should react, or how I’ve been told I should react. That independence is both enlightening and captivating, and yet I strive to attain it far too rarely.

Case in point: the movie Drive, starring Ryan Gosling. Released in September, critics were raving about it from the start. Its score on Rotten Tomatoes was hovering close to 95% and people like Peter Travers of Rolling Stone were pegging it as a possibility for “best movie of the year” (a status which Travers just recently bequeathed upon it). I was very much looking forward to seeing it at the time, until a few of my friends and family had a chance to check it out. People that I considered to be smart, pragmatic movie watchers (including my father, who I generally trust in situations such as these) were telling me how awful and terrible the movie was. I was hearing two very different interpretations of the film. I had no idea what to think. So I had to decide for myself.

Upon going to see the movie, I had no assumptions or preconceived notions, as everything I had heard previously was too disjointed to take a stance on. And after seeing the movie, I realized that how I felt was more or less entirely separate and unique from what I had been told. I liked it a lot better than my dad, but certainly not as much as Peter Travers. I thought it was smart and understated, but a tad too artsy-fartsy to deem “great.”

And what made it different was the fact that my feelings toward the film were entirely my own. It was a singular feeling that I rather enjoyed – unencumbered by outside authorities – and one I hope to encounter far more frequently in the future.

Unless, of course, somebody suggests otherwise.

Thanks for reading