I’d lamented the apparent shelving of the Boston-based combo Age Rings a few years back – which was tempered by frontman Ted Billings’ follow-up project, Hot Protestants – so I was obviously psyched when, about a year go, an Age Rings Kickstarter project appeared out of nowhere to fund a double-album that was “four years in the making”. I gladly pitched in some cash, helped ’em make their goal, and totally dug the results. While that lengthy collection of songs probably would have ended up on this list, the leaner, meaner, pared-down version (officially released a few months back by ace area label Midriff) is a shoe-in. Billings is one of the best songwriters and singing voices this town has, and we should consider ourselves lucky that he and his Age Rings bandmates saw these songs through, and that Midriff stepped up to shine a light on them.
I was a fan of singer/songwriter Ross Flournoy’s previous band, The Broken West, but was for some reason not prepared for how blown away I’d be by his debut as Apex Manor. This follow-up project (which includes Broken Westerner Brian Whelan) is full of snappy, shimmering pop songs – catchy as hell and great from beginning to end. I couldn’t make the band’s first Boston-area appearance, and was psyched to see them return until Flournoy shared news of a trip to rehab last August (subtitled “THE YEAR OF MAGICAL DRINKING HAS ENDED“). Here’s hoping that 2012 brings the guy both health and happiness (and, selfishly, brings us some more of his songs). Keep an eye on his Facebook page for updates.
Yeah, it’s almost embarrassing… David has ended up on my faves list three years running. But I’m not gonna lie just to prevent myself from being predictable. What’s surprising is that he followed up 2009’s “Curse Your Branches” (and 2010’s “Live at Electrical Audio” full-band album) so quickly with another cracking collection of confessional songs. Rather than sounding rushed, it sounds energetic and immediate – the lead off track rocks more than he’s allowed himself to in awhile. As I said above, sitting on my couch and seeing Dave play in front of me was a personal highlight of last year, and getting a preview of a couple new tracks was a big part of that. Wonder if he’ll play anything new at his next Boston house show in March? I’ll find out soon enough. (and, um, if he cranks another album out… well, yeah, I’ll save a spot on next year’s list)
Former Stand GT frontman Chris Page put out his best-ever solo effort in 2010 (yes, it’s on the list) then follows it up with another top-notch collection of full-band songs with his Canadian compadres in Camp Radio. This is power-pop of the highest order, catchy as all-get-out, a record that compels you to see them live. Sadly, it’s been way too damn long since I’ve seen Chris pogo-ing on a stage in front of me, and I really need to change that. Come south, my friend. I’ll be giving away a vinyl copy of this fantastic record (with a bonus 7-inch) on the Almanac shortly, so keep an eye out.
Will Johnson puts out a lot of music. I’d never go so far as to say too much music (because, when it comes to Will, there’s no such thing), but it can be hard to keep up. Solo songs, collaborations, full band stuff, he’s a prolific gent. Somehow, he’s able to give each project its own identity, and it was immeasurably gratifying to see 2011 give us Centro-matic‘s strongest, most cohesive collection of songs in awhile. It showed sonic growth while staying unmistakably them, and was bolstered by a live show that mixed the best of the new with choice cuts from their immense back catalog. If Will’s involved, I’m in. The latest: Woody Guthrie tribute project New Multitudes, with Will, Jay Farrar (Son Volt, Gob Iron, Uncle Tupelo), Anders Parker (Varnaline, Gob Iron) and Yim Yames (My Morning Jacket, Monsters of Folk). The album hits next month, and the all-star band plays Boston on March 16th at the Paradise.
Yes, Archers of Loaf reunited last year. As amazing as that simple fact still feels, it’s not like frontman Eric Bachmann needed the creative outlet. I mean, the guy has been regularly releasing brilliant records since the Archers broke up, and the latest CF album ranks high among them. You’d think he’d be spinning up his old rock band during a lull in his solo career, but instead he has ’em both going at once, alternating the sonic assault with the softer side. We’re richer for it. “The Counterfeiter“, track 4 on “Breaks In The Armor”, was easily one of my favorite songs of the year. Listen to their newly-shared World Cafe session right here (and note that during interview, Eric mentions they’re about to record another album).
Oh, and Boston-area Archers fans, get ready… they’re coming.
Dan Bejar, the mad genius. The man makes a total stylistic shift, throws in a heaping helping of smoooooth saxophone, and completely pulls it off. Whatever guise he takes on stage – full band frontman, solo acoustic performer, or part-time New Pornographer – he leaves me walking away a bigger fan than when I walked in. Can’t even guess what he’s going to try next, and I love that.
These Brooklyn boys walk a very fine homage/derivative line very well, and while I was a bit put-off by the slightly-irritating first single (“Money“), the rest of the album was strong enough to recover and ultimately win me over. It didn’t have the immediate impact their first full-length did, but instead revealed its charms over time. Seeing them on stage has eluded me so far, and I’d like to see this year change that.
With criminally little fanfare, Jeff Martin finally gave us a collection of new Idaho songs last summer, 6 long years after his previous LP. His musical output mostly consists of soundtrack work, so anytime we get a proper album we should consider ourselves very lucky. The record’s title is a pretty incongruous to the beauty within – gorgeous mood-pieces Martin conjures with his guitar, keyboards, and singular voice. It’s at once fragile and powerful stuff, perfect rainy-day music, and my only complaint is that we don’t get enough of it.
The vinyl version was meticulously put together (180 gram cut directly from a hi-res 24-bit master), and includes not just download codes, but a bonus data-DVD with higher fidelity digital audio and a bunch Jeff’s beautiful soundtrack work. Keep an eye here here on the ‘Nac in the next week or so, as I’ve got an extra copy of the vinyl package to give away.
It was the video above that got me, almost exactly a year ago. Hook, line, sinker, the whole tackle box. The song, that performance, the self-contained energy that didn’t even need an audience to feed off. Grabbed the album shortly after, found even better songs to love, and my fandom was sealed last March when they blew away a packed house at Boston’s Brighton Music Hall. Sure, some of the end-of-song, instrument-destroying theatrics might fall a little flat, but damned if they don’t earn the right.
A slow-burner from Swedish son Emil Svanängen and his friends, more understated and less immediately gripping than 2009’s “Dear John”, but ultimately more moving. I eagerly await his live return to the Boston area, either solo or with a backing band. Both are stunning experiences.
A half-decade after 2007’s relatively unsettling “Drums and Guns”, Low reemerges with their best long-players in ages. They took just a tiny bit of the disquieting distance of that previous album and blended it with their long-familiar warmth and subtle hooks, coming up with one of their strongest-ever sets of songs. And hey, that album cover kinda rules, too.
I’m in awe of how Frenchman Anthony Gonzalez can keep mining the same keyboard-swell, 80s-style caves and continue to come up with pure audio gold. He’s found a formula, he’s sticking to it, and I’m totally good with that. Even a double-album’s worth sustains the synthy satisfaction. As much as I’m bothered when guitar-based bands try to go all electro (I’m looking at you, Bloc Party & Editors), I’m truly hoping M83 never decides to go all guitary. Don’t go changin’, Anthony. Keep on digging.
2011 was a rough year for us Mogwai fans, despite the release of this ridiculously good new record. I’m talking about the live show tease that still has no payoff. Here in Boston, we were promised a springtime, post-album performance at the Paradise, which was postponed and replaced with an autumn appearance at the far-larger (and far-inferior) House of Blues… which was then canceled altogether. All I really want is to see them rock out “George Square Thatcher Death Party” while I watch, thank you very much. Is that so much to ask?
After a couple albums on Matador, JO’C delivers what is far and away her strongest-ever collection of songs. Bummer for her former label, but such great news for us fans who were hoping she’d keep on releasing records without their support. Here in Boston, we’re lucky that she comes our way regularly, and she’ll be back on March 1st to kick off a three-week tour at Church. And what a stacked lineup – she’ll be playing with Thalia Zedek (Come/Live Skull), Kiam Records labelmates Choo Choo La Rouge, and local duo Cotton Candy (Unrest/Teenbeat Records impresario Mark Robinson and Blast Off Country Style‘s Evelyn Hurley).
It should be noted – while “I Want What You Want” was released digitally a few months back, the physical release on vinyl and compact disc is happening in early March, just as her tour kicks off. Order direct from Kiam Records, or just pick one up at the merch table when you see her.
A full-length, full-band rock record from (former Jawbox frontman) J. Robbins, complete with cello accompaniment? Um… sold!! This sucker was pre-destined to find itself in my faves, and so here it sits. If you’re a Jawbox fan and don’t have this, well, you need to take care of that. Hit up Dischord toot sweet.
It took a single listen through this, Real Estate‘s second full-length, to call it an undisputed fave, but I sure as hell didn’t stop there. Along with the next album in this list, it dominated my ear-time last autumn. As I write this, I’m only a couple days removed from seeing them play a very-sold-out show, and that performance made me an ever bigger booster. Wasn’t sure that was possible, but so it is.
Ok, I’m technically cheating on this one (it just came out in the UK, with no U.S. date yet), but there was no single record I listened to more in the past few months than this hard-to-pigeonhole pop-rock gem. I got a crash course in Standard Fare‘s second full-length in the Fall when I was lucky enough to see them play new songs several nights in a row in the UK, then snag a promo copy of the album for my journey back home to Boston. It hasn’t much left my headphones since. I absolutely adored their first record (see last year’s list), so much so that playing shows with them (hell, even meeting them) made me tangibly nervous… but their kindness squashed that silliness, and their new stuff deepened my obsession. The album deserves a proper write-up, in fact, and I may just do that when it sees a U.S. release (speaking of which, get on that Bar/None, willya? if you don’t someone else surely will).
And yes, this already has a guaranteed spot on next year’s favorites list. So there.
Avoiding the sophomore slump with another collection of whip-smart songs, Michael Lerner & co. continue to keep the catchiness coming. Bummed I didn’t get to see them live again in 2011, but I’ll be up front when he comes around again.
Delivering strongly on the promise of 2009’s “Sunshower” EP and their subsequent live shows, Austin’s Ume finally gave us a full-length last year, and it ruled. The trio will spend the first part of 2012 touring the western part of the U.S., but I’m optimistic they’ll head East once the temperatures out here start warming up.
Ume singer/guitarist Lauren just recorded a song in honor of Austin’s Esme Barrera (read about her here), with all proceeds going to her family. Please download and donate when you can.
The decade spent between his solo releases was a long one, as TW’s output was funneled through Pedro the Lion and his (too) short-lived combo The Soft Drugs, but it served him (and us) well – this album distills his songwriting and production skills into their purest form and rewards us with the most solid, cohesive batch of songs he’s ever made. So many steps above your traditional singer/songwriter vanity project, this is more like a full-band album that happened to be made by one talented dude. Hope all his mixing and mastering projects leave him enough time to start thinking about playing live again.
This was kind of a given, yeah? Expectations were pretty damn high, and they crushed ’em. Considering the parts (Timony/Helium, Cole/Minders, Brownstein/Sleater-Kinney, & Weiss/S-K/Quasi), who would’ve thought that the sum would be somehow greater? It’s a living tribute to classic rock that never comes across as stale or ironic, just plain rockin’. And even though the album’s great, the live show still trumps it. They’ll be back in Boston on Saturday, March 31st at the Paradise, and you’d best be getting tickets before it gets too close.
Another silver lining on the already-golden-colored cloud that was my UK getaway was learning of the one-man-band that is Withered Hand. Dan Willson is a Scotsman with a knack for melody and a tendency to over-share, delivering brutally confessional songs a unique singing voice that some might consider an acquired taste – though it took me just 3 songs to not just acquire it, but embrace it. I’ve woken up many mornings with the melody from “Religious Songs” stuck in my head, and that’s not a complaint… in fact, it’s back in my brain right now, and it’ll probably be in yours when you stream it above. Do not resist.
Criminally under-appreciated this year was The Wooden Birds‘ second record, “Two Matchsticks”. Main-man (and former American Analog Set frontguy) Andrew Kenny made this one a more collaborative affair, with increased contributions from singer/guitarist Leslie Sisson and Mr. Matt Pond (on break from his own excellent band), along with guest appearances from DCFC‘s Ben Gibbard and Ola Podrida‘s David Wingo. It gave the record a more fleshed-out feel than the debut, while still retaining that certain sparseness Kenny has been cultivating since AmAnSet’s demise. In my alternate-universe utopia, The Wooden Birds are dominating the airwaves and playing sold-out shows all around. Do your part to make that happen, willya?
Would it sound silly if I said how proud I was of Wye Oak? Yeah, probably would. But I am, just the same. Jenn & Andy started out making an album I really liked, followed it up with a record I totally loved, then made one that pretty much blew me away… and the media attention and crowd sizes have increased proportionately. It’s sort of crazy how things are working the way they’re supposed to with this duo… organic growth based on actual quality and effort? In an age of fickle fandom and hype-backlash-burnout, they’re doing things just right. Not sure how album four can keep it going, but I’m pretty damn excited to find out. Read a great year-end interview with J&A at the Village Voice, and check out Jenn’s solo project, “Flock of Dimes”.