2011 saw some stupendous debut albums, with rookies that have us drooling for what comes next.
1. Fitz and the Tantrums – Pickin’ Up the Pieces
Scott: There is some confusion as to when this album actually came out. I’m pretty sure the actual release date is August of 2010, instead of January of 2011, but we missed it last year, so we are throwing it up on this year’s lists. It’s kind of cheating, but I’m ok with that.
Fitz and the Tantrums, aside from having an awesome name, are also a rookie band that is certain to be in the Hall if they can keep up the good work. Retro is so in right now. As this list makes clear, bands are looking backward with quite a lot of energy; whether bands are hearkening back to 1960/70’s folk, 1950’s pop, or in The Tantrums’ case: sexy, sexy soul music. Fitz and the Tantrums make music that is fun and infectious. They probably win the award this year for music that gets stuck in my head the most. It’s a normal event in the Small household for Emily or me to be dancing around, absentmindedly singing / don’t come back, any time / i’ve already had your kind / this is your payback / moneygrabber / I hope this is a group of people who will be making music, dressing to the nines, and inspiring me to shake my ass for a long, long time.
Brian: This album is fun and soulful. It will put you in a good mood. The songs take notes from and have elements that hearken back to classic R & B and soul music from the 1960s. The album was purposely made without guitars. In an interview, leader singer Michael Fitzpatrick stated that he wanted “to try and make a big sounding record without guitars … For me, I just feel like in any music that has a band, the guitar is always there, it’s always featured, it’s always prevalent. I’m just sick of hearing it.” Leaving the guitars out, the album is keyboard and synth heavy, and much like the soul of the 60s, relies heavily on a tight and talented rhythm section. I have only heard good things about their live shows, and after being called one of the hardest working bands in the industry, the future is big and bright for Fitz and the Tantrums.
2. The Head and the Heart – The Head and the Heart
Scott: The children of a proud Seattle, The Head and the Heart have had quite the year. They’ve launched out of local fame into moderate national fame with no end to their ascent in sight. Among other honors, they’re #21 on Amazon’s best 100 albums of the year, and #5 on Paste’s best new artists list. With music and vocals that are sweet and honest, it’s easy to see why The Head and the Heart continue to endear themselves to those who hear them, and Seattle will continue to look on with love as TH&TH’s audience continues to grow.
I love them with my head and my heart.
Brian: Another Seattle band. Another BRILLIANT Seattle band. Sunny, folky goodness. They have drawn obvious comparisons to Mumford & Sons because of the way both bands feature tight, vocal harmonies. Being compared to Mumford is not at all a bad thing. When it really comes down to it, the bands are not as similar as Pitchfork would have you believe. Those bastards. The album is musical sunshine. The band has put together an album of songs that begs to be sung along with.
3. Gardens & Villa – Gardens & Villa
Brian: Funky and sometimes shoegazey, Gardens and Villas hail from Santa Barbara (Brahbrah?), CA. Their music is fun and eclectic, drawing from a wide array of influences. This is album is … I mean, did I mention it was eclectic? I listen and I hear shades of Beach House (“Chemtrails”), the Beatles (“Sunday Morning”), and even Ennio Morricone (“Carrizo Plain”)! Yet, for all it’s variety (I haven’t even mentioned the flute, yet), Gardens and Villa’s sound is surprisingly consistent, held together by the amazing vocals of Chris Lynch (he plays live shows with a quiver of flutes slung over his shoulder!) and the presence of spacey and funky synths. Having read what I’ve just written about this album, it sounds like it wouldn’t work, but, let me tell you … it does. Very much so. I liked this album way more with every listen.
Scott: It’s funny that Brian would make a Flight of the Conchords reference above (can you find it?). The reason it’s funny is because I discovered this band because of my Kiwi friend Gabrielle, whose interview with the band can be read here.
In line with what Brian was saying above, so much comes together in this album that it would be easy for it to become muddled and fall apart. Instead, it all comes together and makes for an album that I, like Brian, fall more in love with every time I hear it. I guess I’m a sucker for synthesizers and falsetto harmonies.
I love them with my gardens and my villa.
4. Cults – Cults
Scott: This band converged on my summer and sunk its claws deep into my heart. It was everywhere. Playing on KEXP, performing at The Capitol Hill Block Party, and finally taking over my iTunes. Old school pop music that somehow really works, They also seem like sweet kids from my brief experience watching them live this year.
I’m really excited to hear what comes next, because, like Phantogram last year, this was an album meant more to be a demo which took off faster than anticipated. Will all of their albums be cult themed? If it is, with Jim Jones out of the way, my hope is that next up is Waco. Or, better yet, those people who thought the spaceship was going to come take them to heaven.
If this is what Cults are like, consider me initiated.
Brian: This album feels familiar. Not the “This sounds like everything else out there” or “Nothing new” familiar, but the melodies feel like a warm bed. The trend these days, as far as bands go, seems to be the boy/girl duo, so as these types of bands increase, it is going to take more talent for separation from the rest. Cults have made a statement with this debut album. Every song is like a warm bed you don’t want to leave. The melodies are like that old baseball glove that is so perfectly broken in. Infectious and catchy from the first to the last song, Cults should have no problem standing above water in a sea of boy/girl duos.
5. The Civil Wars
Scott: If either Joy Williams or John Paul White had released this album as a solo release, it still would have been one of the best albums of the year. Instead, it’s the result of the duo joining forces, creating an album of vocal harmonies that are breathtaking. I’m sure glad these two eventually found each other, because this collaboration makes it sound like they were born to sing together. The songwriting is also deeply moving. The perfect creative storm.
Brian: There are very few voices out there that mix more perfectly than the voices of Joy WIlliams and John Paul White. This album deserved all the acclaim and attention it received. This duo has made an album that is so rich melodically and in harmony. There are songs that burst forth joyfully from mouths and guitars, and there are songs that seep melancholy out of every pore. It is this balance that makes this album so real and true to life. To make music that perfectly captures the rapture and the rupture that is joy and sorrow. You’d be hard pressed to find an album to equal the cover to cover beauty of The Civil Wars’ Barton Hollow.
In 2010, many artists worked on side projects. Some were most certainly something to write home about, or in this case, write a post about. Now that the internet makes it so easy for one to get her/his music heard, more and more artists are working on projects that give them another outlet for all that creative energy that makes them so awesome. As listeners and music lovers, we all get to reap the benefits!
Here are our favorite side projects this year. Some were brand new, some were work in ongoing projects, all are work we hope will continue well into the future.
1. Jonsí – Go (Jonsí of Sigur Rós)
Scott: It seems that Jonsí is simply incapable of creating music that isn’t beautiful, moving and in turns haunting and inspiring. Whether it is with Sigur Rós, with his boyfriend Alex in Jonsí and Alex (formerly known as Riceboy Sleeps), or in his solo work, everything this man touches turns into awesome.
Brian: What more can be said of Jonsí’s talent and ability to create breathtakingly beautiful music that not only can be heard and felt, but seen. Each song conjures images in my mind’s eye that try to match the beauty in the music. As Scott mentioned, now that Jonsí has three outlets for his talent, it looks like we can only try to prepare ourselves for an onslaught of aural genius.
S: If there is anyone who knows how to produce a song, it’s Danger Mouse. The man has been behind so many great projects, from hip hop to indie rock. His work with artists like MF Doom, Beck and The Black Keys has been fantastic. Plus, now he is working with U2, an album that is supposedly coming along swimmingly. There have even been rumors he may eventually collaborate with Black Thought (which would be filed under: ‘news that would make my head explode’).
His work here with James Mercer, while not his best work, is certainly enjoyable. Danger Mouse appears to be a born collaborator, and the combination of Mercer’s lyrics and vocals with DM’s sensibilities is more than worth the price of admission.
B: I love The Shins. I love all of what I’ve heard of Danger Mouse’s production credits. So it should come as no surprise that when the creative force behind The Shins collaborates with one of the most talented producers in the industry, a brilliant record is the end result. James Mercer can write a melody in his sleep. Danger Mouse doesn’t seem to sleep … he only produces great albums. Scott mentioned the U2 project DM is working on. It is something to look forward to, indeed. Though, DM has shown he can cross genres without breaking a sweat and without a drop on the awesomeness scale, so I am excited to see who else (even an artist from this list, maybe?) DM will collaborate with next. I will also patiently wait for the next full length Shins record as well.
Lots of Broken Bells music videos at Vevo.
Remarkably bizarre, hilarious/disturbing music video for “Heathen Child.” (NSFW)
B: First of all, is there a better album cover from this year?
Nick Cave & Warren Ellis make music that feels like a night in a dirty, divey, bar. You’re sitting at the bar surrounded by a cast of odd characters. There’s the ironic hipster, skinny jeans, too cool for the trendier places, and then there’s everyone else. They’ve been coming here for years. As far as they are concerned, there are no other bars. So they come. Not because it’s cool, but probably because they get more love and attention from the bartender on a nightly basis than they did from their parents during an entire childhood. They’re all forgetting the past with cheap whiskey and chasing it with Pall Malls. This bar only serves two drinks: Cheap beer and cheap whiskey. Don’t think about ordering a microbrew or cocktail. Just make sure you keep the whiskey comin’. You don’t want to be sober in this place. It’d be too scary. It’s dark and loud and claustrophobic. All at once aloof and all up in your grill.
S: I agree with Brian, in that I love this album cover.
I also experience the tones he’s describing in his little bar scene describing this music. Yet, there is one overarching feeling, or perhaps it’s more undergirding, that I think he missed.
In addition to all Brian mentioned, I experience a tremendous deal of dark humor in the music. I think, like Tom Waits, most of the scariness of this bar’s motley lot is meant to amuse more than truly frighten. Like an uncle or a grandfather who shouts and cusses, but does so affectionately, Grinderman is dark and brooding, but always with a smirk.
I think a pretty good example of that is the music video we linked to above. The imagery and artwork in the video is often pretty arresting and captivating, and I think the band took that seriously. Yet, the band refused to take themselves seriously, thus they are ridiculous whenever on screen. Perhaps it’s that love and acceptance Brian mentioned about the allegorical bar, the place is loud and frightening at first glance, but in reality there is no true danger. It is actually a safe place to play and yell and cuss and jump up and down, which is exactly what this Grinderman album is.
S: Ray LaMontagne is so wonderful. His music is folk and soul and country and rock all wrapped up in a lovely bearded package.
It’s more of the same with the Pariah Dogs, continuing Ray’s track record of immensely listenable albums.
B: Has Mr. LaMontagne ever made a bad record? Has he ever not had a beard? I am starting to wonder if these things are mutually exclusive. Let’s hope that Ray never shaves his beard. I’m beginning to think it holds great power.
On this record, we find Ray, brilliant and dusty voiced as usual, but with the Pariah Dogs (Dawgs?) he seems to have found his musical soulmates. I don’t know, but I feel as though this is Ray’s most cohesive album yet. Everything comes together perfectly. His brand of folkbluesoulcountry is brilliantly showcased on God Willin’ & The Creek Don’t Rise. Do yourself a favor and listen to “This Love is Over”.
B: Here we have José’s distinctive voice and classical guitar dressed up with the addition of keyboards, bass, and drums. No surprises. It’s good. Really good.
S: Whenever I am listening to this album, I always wonder whether or not this is a one time “side project,” or José Gonzalez’s new gig. I really hope it is the latter. There will always be time for him to sit in the studio on an off day and record a song alone. We’ll never truly lose that familiar José. So, my hope is that we get more of this fuller sound from him, because the other instrumentation adds to the beauty of his music, rather than diminishing it at all.
I hope there is plenty more Junip in our future!
B: I was going to start by saying that “Maximum Balloon is a really great TV on the Radio record”, but thought that it would only come off as sounding like somewhat of a negative thing. It is hard to imagine the record sounding much different from a TotR record when the man behind the production of their catalog, and the man contributing to songwriting, is the brains/talent/performer behind Maximum Balloon. David Sitek, otherwise known as “that white guy in TV on the Radio”, brings the same genius of TotR to his solo record. Sure, most of the time it sounds identical stylistically to TotR, but what else should be expected? Just because it sounds like his band doesn’t make it bad, right? Of course not! Kyp Malone, the other guitar player from TotR, released his solo record last year (Rain Machine) and it sounded like a mellower version of TotR, and it was a good record.
On Maximum Balloon, each track introduces us to a different vocalist, including bandmates Tunde Apebimpe and the aforementioned Kyp Malone, as well as Karen O (of Yeah Yeah Yeahs fame) and even David Byrne! The music, of course, is awesome, and I really love how Sitek deviates by using guest vocalists. The album is funky, danceable, and full of bassy synths, programmed beats, and Sitek’s unique guitar playing. In other words, it’s a great TV on the Radio record … and that’s not a bad thing at all.
S: Nothing to add. My favorite thing about this album is the vocal guest stars Brian already mentioned. Hooray for collaboration!
I know the lists aren’t started yet, but I thought it’d be fun to post music videos from a bunch of the bands we’ll be talking about. For starters, here is Beach House with “Used to Be.”