The lists are here, folks. There are so many great albums this year that we need to split each one up into sections. Wee-ow, was there some good music in 2011.
This is our second year doing music lists, and the second with our very own RtM Hall of Fame. Since there was literally no thought put into the formation of our little musical cooperstown, there are a few weaknesses I’ve noticed. Such as, what about adding old bands, those of whom don’t release albums anymore? We aren’t fixing said problems this year, just thought I’d point them out.
Anyway, last year saw the induction of: The New Pornographers, The National, Spoon, Josh Ritter, and Menomena. We changed the criteria for picking HoF acts, so Menomena wouldn’t have made it in, but the Hall is sacred. Once you’re in, you’re in.
This year, there will be at least fourteen new additions into the Hall. That’s quite a few, but I assure you they are all deserving. Here are the first five!!
1. Kanye West
Scott: How is one man responsible for the best Hip Hop album of the year, two years in a row?!? That’s uncanny. And not like, the resemblance between that old man and my Aunt Petunia is uncanny… like, X-Men uncanny. Yup, Kanye West is a mutant, and his power is making remarkable albums. Jay-Z returns to form for the first time in forever, and Kanye continues building on the victory of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. This album doesn’t have the epic, genre changing, staggering beauty of that album. What it does have is enough swagger and commentary on the black experience in America to be, hands down, the best Hip Hop album of the year. **Although, since writing this, I’ve heard The Roots new album, which immediately made this race a tie. Sorry to be indecisive like that, but that’s how I roll.**
Brian: Did you say “wee-ow”? Well, Imma ’bout to say it, too. Wee-ow!! “Watch the Throne” is good. GOOD. It does at least two things: reminds us that Jay-Z’s talent hasn’t completely left the building (a lot of us had written him off completely), and it places Kanye as the best producer/MC on the planet. Unless I am forgetting someone, who else combines this kind of producing talent with this kind of MC talent? Sure, there are better MCs out there, but, can any of them claim to also be the best producer in the genre? … sit down, Lil’ Wayne … just because Nicki Minaj said you’re the best rapper alive (http://youtu.be/M3Rno4fxCjw — you can skip ahead to 1:35 to hear the quote, but if you watch the whole thing: 1) sorry for the stupid bullshit skit at the beginning, and 2) connoissours will notice Tyler, the Creator as the award giver) doesn’t make it true. Put it this way: ‘Ye’s samples include everything from the late, great Otis Redding (on “Otis”, obviously) to some of the most recent and popular (in Europe) dubstep beats (as heard on “Who Gon Stop Me”). I love the variety. Also loved? The way ‘Ye and Jay hand the mic back and forth on most of these tracks. They play off of each other nicely. And you can tell they had fun making this album together. All I’m waiting for now is for someone to make a “Watch the Throne”/”Game of Thrones” mash-up video.
S: Any argument you make for Radiohead being in a Hall of Fame will wind up being redundant. There’s simply nobody else like them. As I’ve said before, this album isn’t as brilliant as In Rainbows before it, but it’s still Radiohead, and their lesser work is better than 97% of everything else. Let’s hope there are still decades to come of the band who continues to reinvent their sound and yet still winds up being amazing all over again.
B: Radiohead. What more can be said? At the mere mention of the name, people achieve orgasm. While I agree with Scott that “In Rainbows” outshines “King of Limbs”, it is a HoF album, because they are a HoF band. They are in the territory where they could release an album of animal sounds with some synths and drums thrown in, and people would call it brilliant. And it wouldn’t be in that way that some naive chucker would hear or see art he doesn’t understand and say it’s brilliant. The album WOULD BE brilliant. Rarefied air.
3. Tom Waits
S: It’s hard to even begin writing about Tom Waits. He’s just too damned close to my heart to know how to articulate it to all of you. He’s a genius: a master storyteller, a trickster, a prophet, a joker, a preacher, and a liar. There’s no way to ever know where his act ends and he begins. His songs are filled with, and usually narrated by, a cast of characters that get under the skin and live there. Bad as Me is more of the same. It’s certainly not accessible, pop, radio music. That’s ok, because it’s brilliant, instead.
He’s one of my favorite storytellers. I’m not qualifying that within songwriting storytellers, just storytellers, period.
B: Thomas Alan Waits. I love Scott’s words about him so much. He is master story and character crafter. He’s HoF because of this, and many other facets of his music. As with most things, people want to copy and emulate the best. Despite what ScarJo has done to ruin Tom Waits for some, Mr. Waits continues to be praised and covered by his peers; to be honored for his genius. If I can compare him to Ron Burgundy: He is a God among mere mortals.
4. David Bazan
S: The voice of a generation of discontented evangelical young folks, Bazan was once the paragon of struggling faith. Now, having lost that faith, he continues to write deeply poignant songs. Strange Negotiations lacks the power of his last album, Curse Your Branches, which is the memoir of a man losing his ability to believe in God. That being said, Bazan is still doing what he does best: writing stories, some true, some not, that capture one’s heart and imagination alike. It almost feels at times like Strange Negotiations is an appendix to Curse Your Branches, instead of a stand-alone album. Yet, don’t get me wrong, I love Strange Negotiations more with every listen.
As for his HoF credentials, Bazan’s voice articulates the pain and vulnerability of his lyrics in a way that I find both haunting and oddly inspiring. Wearing his proverbial heart on his sleeve; his anger, frustration, humiliation, and angst are exposed for the world to see, yet his songwriting is so literate and intelligent that it keeps his work from ever moving into the realm of whiny, emo bullshit.
He is a no doubt Hall of Famer in my book.
B: What strikes me most about Bazan is his honesty. In the Pedro the Lion days, when he was more apt to write concept type records full of worldly characters, it was his honesty about people and the world that was so in your face and raw. He wasn’t afraid to tell the truth about the human condition, and this rock we inhabit, even when the truth was filled with murder, and affairs. Then, on “Curse Your Branches”, Bazan brought an honesty about himself and his struggles that was so disarming, you felt as though you were sitting at a bar with him throwing back shots of whiskey, while he poured himself out on the counter. It was powerful, and real, and raw … and as Scott said, not emo at all! His music is improving in every way, as well. His voice has improved from the Pedro days, and the man just knows how to craft a song.
5. Okkervil River
S: While formed in 1998, Okkervil River is perhaps earlier in their career than most acts being inducted into the hall. I still stand by their worth with all my heart. In large part, the band’s 2005 release Black Sheep Boy is, in my opinion, one of the finest albums released in the last decade. Thus, everything else the band does is just adding on to that achievement.
This year’s I Am Very Far is immensely listenable. One music writer, Jim Scott, says “I Am Very Far makes a strong case for Sheff to be considered one of the very best writers in music today.” I’d have to agree. That songwriting, combined with dynamic musicianship and strong production, not to mention Will Sheff’s unique vocals, make for yet another Okkervil River release that finds itself in my five favorite albums of the year.
“I Am Very Far” is a tight, paradoxical album. It feels focused and taut, yet chaotic and experimental. Sheff and Co. have put together a collection of songs that, in many ways, is a departure from previous albums. For one, this was Will Sheff’s first time producing an Okkervil River album. Sheff’s willingness to follow his creative energy as producer and lead singer and songwriter of the band led to new methods in the studio:
the band experimented with various recording methods in each session, including fastforwarding and rewinding a cassette tape and then doubling the noises on electric guitar, tearing off strips of duct tape for percussion, singing while strolling around the room, and hurling file-cabinets across the studio. Some songs had input from a vast number of session musicians playing in the same room (‘Rider’, ‘We Need a Myth’), the latter of which opens with the strumming of 45 classical guitars.
Yet, for all these apparent differences, this is still very much an Okkervil River album. Sheff’s vocals constantly remind us of that. Furthermore, as Scott mentioned, the album is really easy to listen to, and terribly catchy, cementing Okkervil River as a RtM HoF band.