A Year in Review, 2011
At the end of last year I thought it would be fun to write up a top 5 list (a la High Fidelity) of the artists and albums that I discovered that year. I had a fun time writing it and people seemed to like reading it, so I’m going to do it again this year. Again, since there’s SO MUCH good music coming out each year, I limit myself to the artists that I’ve discovered this past year and their albums that were also released this year.
I swear I don’t get paid by them, but if you haven’t already, I highly suggest you get on Spotify so you can listen to these jams too, and ring in the new year with some rad tunes. In fact, I’ll make it easy on you. Spotify Playlist: http://spoti.fi/tzxbrU
5. Gungor – Ghosts Upon the Earth
I feel obligated to cite a disclaimer that Gungor is definitely a Christian band. But, as I said when I introduced them to a friend, they don’t suck. It’s pretty rare these days to find a Christian band that is musically and lyrically creative. Most fall into a sad, marketable little mold of writing songs that appeal to people’s emotions but somehow also can be re-purposed into creepy romantic love songs. You know what I’m talking about. Anyways, commentary on contemporary Christian music aside, Gungor is none of those things. They do feature a harmonium at times, so they automatically get points in my book. I also have to say that I like this album a lot more than their previous. Even if you don’t dig Christian music, I think you can appreciate this album for its musicianship and inspiring-without-being-saccharine lyrics.
Key Tracks: Let There Be, The Fall, You are the Beauty
Favorite Lyric: “Breath and sex and sight/ All things made for good in love divine” (You Are the Beauty) ..I mean, c’mon what Christian artist sings about that stuff??
Fun Fact: The group gets their name from the last name of their leader, Michael Gungor, but this particular album features both Michael and his wife Lisa. I’ve read also that the album samples audio from the first heartbeats that they ever heard of their child. If I ever sit down and try to find it, I’ll let you know what track it’s on. Also @Kevin Woodward introduced me to them via Spotify. Thanks Kev!
4. The Naked and Famous – Passive Me, Aggressive You
I was lucky enough to catch this NZ five-some when they opened for Freelance Whales before they blew up. (They played two nights at the Independent this month. Two!! And I had to miss both because I was in MD. Boohoo.) Awesome opening bands—they do exist! I’ll admit they’re a bit of a departure of my typical (as of late) indie-folk-acoustic-banjo tunes, but they’re worth the exception! So much fun to jam out to or even work out to (yea! They’re on my running mix! What?) but not just nonsensical ear candy. They sing about disappointments in life, losing one’s youth and beauty, and, of course, break ups, all on top of infectiously catchy synth and piano heavy beats. I think what cinches it for me musically is the driving percussive nature of each track, building and building the song up gradually and then—BAM!! Hitting you with a turbo-charged hook or instrumental section. Yea!
Key Tracks: No Way, Young Blood, Girls Like You
Favorite Lyric: “When the night descends, I sleep in/ All the things you’ve done come to haunt me/ All that we can do is smile/ It will be like this for a while” (No Way) ..also, the keys on this track get me every time.
Fun Fact: Ok this isn’t so much about the band, but I played their album during class one day and one of my students totally took to them. Young Blood is on the trailer for the movie Prom, so he may have heard them there first. But for about a week whenever that class came in, he’d yell “Ay Ms. Chew put on that Famous Naked song or whatever!”
3. Noah and the Whale – Last Night On Earth
This album is a latecomer to the list. While I’d heard of NATW before, I hadn’t given them a good listen until their Tiny Desk Concert on NPR (http://youtu.be/efiBs11W1Ps) and even then didn’t really pay much attention until they came to play at the Great American last month. I literally bought the tickets on Saturday, boned up on their albums on Spotify, and saw them on Monday. And I’m really, really glad I did. While I can’t say that this particular album is my favorite of theirs, it is really solid. Their live band features a violin and a slide guitar, so I can’t complain. Keep your ears open for some skillful story-telling and a little bit of self-deprecating. And if you get a chance, go look up a picture/video of the band and check out Charlie and Tom’s sweet bouffants.
Key Tracks: Life is Life, L.I.F.E.G.O.E.S.O.N., The Line
Favorite Lyric: “Well I’ve always had a wild imagination and a see-through heart/ Which I know can be a wild combination/ Like a flame forms from a spark” (Me Before We Met)
Fun Fact: Lead singer Charlie Fink’s brother Doug was their original drummer until he left to pursue a career as a doctor. Laura Marling was also part of the band, singing back-up on their first album. There is no one named Noah in the band. Nor is there a whale.
2. Bon Iver – Bon Iver
I’ll admit that I was woefully late to join the Bon Iver bandwagon. Again they were a band that I’d heard plenty about through indie blogs, articles, and probably friends, but it took me until this year to finally check them out. Thankfully, I can still pride myself on the fact that I discovered them before this album dropped. Y’know, so I’m still somewhat on the vanguard. I do have a hard time deciding whether I like this album or For Emma... more.
Nevertheless, it is a stellar album. There’s not much to say that probably hasn’t already been said elsewhere. “Beth/Rest” did take a while to warm up to, but now I even crave listening to it sometimes. Something about that non-ironic Kenny G-esque sax and his Casio keyboard set to “Electric Piano 1” just gets me. But if that’s not your bag, there does exist a magical acoustic version of the track which is stripped down bare to just piano and Justin Vernon’s surprisingly deep falsetto-free vocals (http://n.pr/qcFF27).
Key Tracks: Holocene, Beth/Rest, Wash.
Favorite Lyric: “open ears and open eyes/ wake up to your starboard bride/ who goes in and then stays inside/ oh the demons come, they can subside” (Calgary)
Fun Fact: Justin Vernon is quoted as saying that if they were to win a Grammy he would go up on stage and say “Everyone should go home, this is ridiculous. You should not be doing this. We should not be gathering in a big room and looking at each other and pretending this is important." A few months later, the album and “Holocene” were nominated for four Grammys. He is not, however, nominated for Album of the Year, so hopefully we can avoid another “Who is Arcade Fire?” debacle. (http://whoisarcadefire.tumblr.com/)
1. Typhoon – A New Kind of House
And here we are, Ms. Chew’s #1 album/artist discovery of 2011. Techinically, it’s an EP. What started with La Blogotheque’s Take Away Show set high in a giant tree somewhere in Austin, TX (http://vimeo.com/26568916), became an obsession where I’m pretty sure I shared this band with everyone I know who has ears. And then went to go see them pack their 15-some members onto the tiny stage at Bottom of the Hill. Typhoon combines everything I love in music these days—millions of instruments, multi-part vocal harmonies, and grippingly honest lyrics that grapple with life, death, faith, and love. I want to write more about them but I just threw the album on and I can’t stop listening to it. Kids, listen to this album. You will not be disappointed. And if you don’t have Spotify, get on Bandcamp (http://bit.ly/dUYx0l) and thank me later.
Key Tracks: Kitchen Tile, The Honest Truth, Summer Home
Favorite Lyric: “My old house, my childhood’s tomb/ it is a failing light but it will come back soon/ A candle burns in your old room/ before it goes out, I swear I will find you” (Summer Home)
Fun Fact: I got to meet the lead singer before their BotH set. He’s surprisingly short. Maybe 5’5”? The exchange went something like this..
Me: "You probably get this all the time, but I'm really excited you guys are here."
Kyle: "I'm excited to be here too!"
Me: "Can I get a picture with you?"
Kyle: "Sure.. is that a Droid? I have an iPhone, myself."
And then it took like 4 tries to get a decent pic b/c my cameraman/the bassist from Youth kept getting bumped. Proof:
The Avett Brothers – I And Love And You
The brothers Avett played Hardly Strictly last year but it took me a hot minute to actually seek out their albums. I think I started to listen to this album in the 11th hour—literally on December 31, 2010, when I was writing last year’s Year in Review. So they didn’t make the cut for last year and also couldn’t be in the running for this year because technically I found them and that album came out last year. Regardless, an epic-folky-wonderful-banjo-ey album that I can’t imagine my life without. Yea, it’s that good.
Release the Sunbird – Come Back to Us
This is a collaboration project from three local indie bands. Featuring the vocals of my favorite Mission-dwelling Rogue Wave frontman Zach Rogue, I found them when I saw “Hey Zach Rogue is playing a show at the Swedish American!” and promptly bought four tickets, not even knowing what material he would play. Thankfully, NPR came to the rescue and featured them on First Listen so I could study up before the show. So solid, I listened to this album almost non-stop during my week in SoCal over the summer, so throwing it on brings back memories of warm sunny days on the beach and mild summer nights driving with the sunroof open and windows down in San Diego. Yum.
Matrimony – The Storm & the Eye
This album came out last year, but I can’t believe I didn’t mention them then. So I’m making up for it now. Matrimony has to be one of my favorite indie finds that I am the most proud of. I actually found them by clicking through the “indie” tagged albums on Bandcamp. I liked the look of the album cover and gave them a listen. I think I’ve become their biggest SF fan to date. They’re in North Carolina and haven’t quite made it out to SF just yet, but when they do I’m so there. I actually pitched in for their Kickstarter to get a bus to tour the east coast, and when I emailed them about tabs or chords to “Flee or Fight”, the lead singer personally responded with chords and lyrics and an offer to send me a video if it wasn’t clear enough. Their Bandcamp page actually features a free download of their new single that’s not on Spotify, so I highly recommend grabbing it. (http://matrimonyband.bandcamp.com/) So brilliant and catchy and ughhh.. this is why I don’t trust myself to write music. There’s too much better stuff out there.