5. The Whole Love by Wilco
First listen was at a Starbucks in Boston. I was so excited I tweeted about it.
I point out both of these things because I think they probably both support New York magazine’s indictment of Wilco and similar acts as the new “adult contemporary.” This was intended as a knock because, the logic went, the music is no longer new or interesting enough to bother with.
The main criticism you hear about this kind of record—even outweighing references to Starbucks and/or the bourgeoisie—is that it is just too dull to even bother producing any more complex indictment of it. These acts, intentionally or not, have won; they’ve taken a lower-sales, lower-budget version of the type of trip Sting once took, from a post-punk upstart to an adult staple.
There’s something to that: if exploring new sonic space and witnessing bold new artistic direction in music is how you get all your kicks then yes, you should probably pass on The Whole Love. The critic seemed to grant that Wilco had already done this in their career. He was just disappointed to see that it appears they’ve stopped.
It’s a fair point, and I agree with it, generally. I disagree, though, with the subtext: that I should feel self-conscious about enjoying the new album. That’s the key distinction, I suppose, between the meaningfulness of a criticism like this to a music critic and the meaningfulness of it to a… well, human. It’s a great example of why one should not put too much stock in music criticism. It’s fun to talk about music. It provides a useful framework and let’s us better understand where we’re all coming from when we talk about how it makes us feel. But it ain’t rocket science, folks. A clever observation is just that. It most often won’t change how someone reacts to the music itself. And, as my adult contemporary Starbucks-jitters-induced tweet indicated, I reacted well to The Whole Love.
4. El Camino by The Black Keys
This is two years running on my top albums list for these guys. What’s interesting about that is that I don’t think of heavy, guttural guitar rock like this as something I’m particularly into. But the songs are so good! And the sound is so incredible! The Black Keys do what they do so well. I find them totally undeniable. This album made me pick up my guitar, find the three chords in the chorus of “Gold on the Ceiling” and rock out in my living room by myself. I hadn’t done that in a while.
3. The King of Limbs by Radiohead
Am I allowed to nominate the second half of an album if that second half is so good that it outweighs the terrifying fuzzed out blippiness of something like “Feral?” This is my goddamn list, so the answer is Yes. (Actually, I should say that the first half of The King of Limbs has grown on me somewhat, only because I trust Radiohead enough to give them the benefit of multiple listens. But really, this one starts at “Lotus Flower.”)
2. The Harrow and the Harvest by Gillian Welch
Gillian and Dave do it again. They are such incredible musicians that I think even their treatment of terrible songs would still sound better than a lot of what’s out there. I was lucky enough to see them again this year. When you see two people with acoustic instruments standing on a bare stage cutting straight through the guts of everyone in the audience, you rethink every other form of music out there. It’s like listening to Otis Redding after going a few months without. You say, “Damn. Why do I ever waste my time listening to any music other than this??”
1. The Rip Tide by Beirut
My love affair with Beirut continues to grow. With each successive album, I like them more and more. I remembering listening to Gulag Orkestar and just not getting it. But The Rip Tide is more accessible and emotive. Its percussiveness and horns and Eastern European influence are things that are all entirely new to me, and make me feel like I’m occupying some great movie involving coffee shops in Prague. This is the most consistently fun album of the year from where I sit.
Bon Iver by Bon Iver, Ashes & Fire by Ryan Adams, Within and Without by Washed Out
10. “Black” by Danger Mouse, Daniele Luppi & Norah Jones
9. “Holdin’ on to Black Metal” by My Morning Jacket – O-whoa-whoa-awhoa-yeahayeahyeahyeeeeeeeeaaaaah!
8. “Gold on the Ceiling” by The Black Keys
7. “One Sunday Morning” by Wilco
6. “Give Up the Ghost” by Radiohead
5. “Hard Times” by Gillian Welch
4. “East Harlem” by Beirut – “Payne’s Bay” deserves an honorable mention, as well. But this is the best song on the album, no question.
3. “Ashes & Fire” by Ryan Adams
2. “Rise to Me” by The Decemberists – I still goddamn hate this band. But this song is just great. The whole album is actually pretty great. The things about The Decemberists that grate on me are largely absent from it. Except for when Colin Meloy sings lines like “a panoply of song,” which bring out that old wanna-punch-the-wall feeling.
1. “Helplessness Blues” by Fleet Foxes – The Fleet Foxes generally don’t do much for me. They make beautiful sounds but for the most part I just don’t find it that interesting. But HOLY SHIT THIS SONG. It is gut-wrenchingly beautiful.
… and other good stuff from 2011
SHOW Radiohead at Roseland Ballroom. When I talked to my friend Jonny about it the next day, he asked, “You had seen them before, right?” “No,” I said. “Oh. Then, welcome.”
ACADEMIC FIELD OF STUDY Behavioral Economics. Reading up on this stuff is fascinating. It’s like that Simpsons line about standup comedy– “It’s funny cuz it’s true!” All of these observations about human behavior and about how we make the decisions we do make sense because you immediately recognize your own foolishness and bad habits in them. I am really looking forward to reading Daniel Kahneman’s book “Thinking, Fast and Slow.”
IPHONE APP Instagram. How fun is Instagram? It made it OK to leave my point-and-shoot at home. Every single shot in my Flickr stream in 2011 was an Instagram. Check it out. Sure, someday we may look back on it as a silly fad of the times like Disco, but for now it’s great fun.
TRAVEL LOYALTY PROGRAM Amtrak Guest Rewards. What a luxury it is to be able to zip up and down between DC and New York and Vermont. And these points make it possible financially.
CITY New York. For the second year running. I knew there was a possibility I may grow to like this place, but there’s just no preparing yourself for the experience of living here. It is rich and complex and beautiful in an incomparable way. It’s no place for me to stay for the long haul, but it’s a great thing to experience. I was an asshole, way back when, for saying it wasn’t for me. It’s for everyone, and that’s part of what makes it so incredible.
2011′s most disappointing albums
5. Rome by Danger Mouse and Daniele Luppi
4. Codes & Keys by Death Cab for Cutie
3. Mondo Amore by Nicole Atkins
2. Mylo Xyloto by Coldplay
1. Angles by The Strokes