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Saturday, December 31, 2011

My Top 40 Albums of the Year (1-5)

The long awaited final installment of the countdown is here! For the previous parts go here: 6-10, 11-20, 21-40.

I didn't put too much thought into the groups that these were divided into other than breaking things into manageable parts to write about each day. However, the top five do break away really nicely because I love all 5 of these albums. So with that said, onto the countdown...

5) Mates of State - Mountaintops
For those that don't know, Mates of State are a husband and wife indie pop duo. Both sing while Kori plays keyboards/synthesizer and Jason plays drums. I used to be a pretty big fan back in the day, but I haven't listen to the band too much in the last couple years. Because of that, I didn't really have any sort of expectation when I listened to the album. Thankfully I did actually listen though because I was hooked almost immediately. The first track, "Palomino," is really the band at its best. If this had been the only stand out track, I would have been more than satisfied, but "Sway" and "Mistakes" are two other favorites that along with solid tracks all around them make Mountaintops one of the best albums of 2011. This is the band's 7th full length that I own, and in my opinion it is absolutely their best album to date. Consider me fully back on the Mates of State bandwagon and eagerly awaiting anything they choose to record in the future. I really wanted this Mates of State album to be higher for all of the reasons described above, but the four albums above it are great too, so it ended up at a very respectable number 5.

4) The Decemberists - The King Is Dead
While I hadn't strayed from The Decemberists quite like I had for Mates of State, their last album, an ambitious attempt at an indie rock opera, was my least favorite of their releases to date. However, as I discussed on the blog right after "The King Is Dead" came out, this year's album was a wonderful return to an indie folk style that is much more akin to my liking. I've actually already written posts about "Don't Carry It All," "Calamity Song," and seeing the band in concert in April, so I don't have too much more to add. I loved the album in January when I picked it up, and it has remained one of my favorite albums throughout all of 2011.

Since I've already written about "Don't Carry It All" and "Calamity Song," check out "June Hymn" below.

3) Tom Waits - Bad As Me
Obviously, the blog name alone can assure you that I'm a pretty big Tom Waits fan. When this album was first announced I had a post expressing my excitement. After the album was released, I outlined a post that would have been titled "Tom Waits On Life" or something of that sort and that would have used lyrics from the album to give life lessons, but unfortunately school and life (but mostly school) got in the way. Maybe I can still write it at some point, but for now I can just say that even a 62 year old Tom Waits can still write phenomenal music. Most of the songs are short and characterized by his gravely voice and experimental instrumentation that fans have grown to love over the years. The impetus to do a wisdom of Tom Waits type post was lines like "Everybody knows umbrellas will cost more in the rain" (a good description of supply and demand) and "Heavens to murkatroid, miners to coal. A good woman can make a diamond out of a measly lump of coal." If his voice turns you off, you obviously won't enjoy the album. On the other hand, if you like a unique sound from a legend with witty lyrics this will be an album for you, and it is an excellent addition to the over 20+ albums that Tom Waits has recorded in the past almost 40 years.

The song below, "Bad As Me" is my favorite song off the album. Also check out the song "Satisfied," which features Keith Richards on guitar.

2) Bon Iver - Bon Iver, Bon Iver
It seems like Justin Vernon of Bon Iver has been everywhere since his 2008 album "For Emma, Forever Ago" burst onto the scene. Since then, he formed Volcano Choir with members of Collections of Colonies of Bees (also from Wisconsin) and recorded an album with them. He also recorded a Bon Iver EP, recorded an album with a collection of 20+ musicians called GAYNGS, guested on a couple tracks of Kanye West's 2010 album that saw rave reviews all over, and guested on various other albums and songs. Also during that time, Justin Vernon joined his old high school jazz band for a concert to help raise money for a trip the band was taking to New York for a jazz competition. I actually had the pleasure of attending that concert at Eau Claire Memorial High School, and it might just be the best concert I've ever attended. The uniqueness of having a well-known artist sing his own songs with a jazz arrangement and covering old jazz classics was truly a unique experience that I'm so glad to have experienced. It was really cool seeing an artist that had gained fame so quickly return to his roots and come across as so humble and grateful for everything he had achieved. Thankfully the concert was recorded and released as an album called "A Decade With Duke" that can be purchased from Amazon or various other music vendors.

I imagine there are few things tougher for an artist than following up a well-received debut album. Some artists will try to duplicate what made their first album successful only to fail to catch lightning in a bottle twice. Rather than trying to replicate his previous album, Justin Vernon took some chances, and came up with another brilliant album. The music is beautiful, and it is great hearing a hard working artist evolve and get noticed for it (although The Grammys listing him in the "Best New Artist" category is kind of a joke). Anyhow, the music speaks for itself. The songs are sort of ambient too and this is another great headphones album.

I could have sworn that I had posted the video for "Holocene" previously, but I don't see it, so here it is (again?).

And now...

The dramatic reveal...


the number one album of 2011...

1) Middle Brother - Middle Brother
Middle Brother is an alt country/indie folk collaboration of one member each from the bands Deer Tick, Dawes, and Delta Spirit. "Super groups" can be a risky endeavor and often don't live up to the sum of their parts, but Middle Brother appears to be the exception. (Side note: I really like the Monsters of Folk collaboration too, but probably not as much as I liked M. Ward or Bright Eyes individually). I wasn't too familiar with any of the originating bands when I first heard the album back in March. Usually I will wait until I can find an album on sale to buy it if I'm not already a fan of the artist, but after listening to two tracks from a free stream I stopped and immediately purchased the album because I was already sold. Since then, I've listened to the album at least a couple dozen times, and the luster has hardly worn off at all. Many of the songs are played loose and fast, having the sound of a band already a few drinks in during their set.

It was close for me between Bon Iver and Middle Brother for album of the year, but when it comes down to it, I think I've returned to this Middle Brother album more often. That coupled with the initial thrill when I first discovered them, and the persistent joy the album has brought me throughout the year make Middle Brother's debut album my album of the year for 2011.

Here is the track "Middle Brother" from the album Middle Brother by the band Middle Brother. Got that straight?

I hope everyone enjoyed the countdown! I'll have a post with some other miscellaneous favorites in the next day or two and then it is on to 2012. I'd love to hear from others what albums (or anything else) they enjoyed from 2011 and what they are looking forward to in 2012.

Thanks to anyone who read this blog over the past year, and I hope everyone starts 2012 off with a bang.

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