Best of 2011

As an amateur blogger, I am compelled by the Internet Trend Gods to wrap up the year in true self-indulgent fashion, and inform you of all the things I liked. As John Cusack says in High Fidelity: “what really matters is what you like, not what you are like.” So, here is my pre-apocalyptic list of the standards I’ll be judging you by.

Many of the things listed below were not necessarily released or created this year, but they are things that made 2011 memorable for me. If you click on the highlighted titles, you’ll be linked to a sample, trailer, or something.

ConcertLCD Soundsystem’s Final Concert in Madison Square Garden

In a single weekend, I flew from Arkansas to NYC and back in order to catch this concert. I was in the nose-bleeders, and paid a fortune to be there. I had seen LCD before, and both of those previous concerts were better than this one. BUT, it was the first concert of 2011 I got to, and “All My Friends” never meant so much, and you could hear it in the tremble of Murphy’s voice when he sang “this could be the last time…” Maybe the best thing about this band (and the worst) was how well they defined our generation. I’ll never shake the thought of “instant dance party” that “Dance Yrself Clean” will create, even when I listen to it on my headphones. It was great to see a band at its peak wrap things up in style. Oh, also, I brought my mom with me.

Top 5 Albums

1. Girls – Father, Son, Holy Ghost

This album lived up to all my expectations, and more. It’s infinitely listenable, displays some beautiful musicianship, and never oversteps its boundaries. Christopher Owens seems to be asking us: why do we need to invent new music when old music sounds so  damn good? With the exception of “Die” (which is a great song – and certainly has its old-school roots) you can play this album and it will be understood and appreciated cross-generationally. It’s like a distillation of all the best of rock n’ roll, country, surf, and soul aesthetics into one 55-minute album.

2. Bon Iver – Bon Iver

Enough has been written about this album for you to research it on your own. It’s been a long time since I’ve found anything this spacious and mind-blowing. All you want to do is drive around the countryside and see landscapes go by.

3. The Black Keys – El Camino

If you know me at all, you know that the Black Keys will likely make my top 5 on any year, regardless of whether they’ve released an album or not. This year they released their follow-up to the gorgeous Brothers, and it was almost destined to be a disappointment. You can read my review below, but let me say this: for now, the changes are welcome, but if their next album sounds like this one, then I fear the sell-out discussion may actually apply to these guys, who have been so good at selling out without selling out.

4. Youth Lagoon – The Year of Hibernation

Despite his almost baby-girl whine of a voice, his canned beats, his rough synth vamps, this dude has figured out how to be melodic and catchy. The reason he’s making a splash is that he’s found an indie niche that’s already inhabited, but has no-one in it as crafty. These songs pack emotional punch, but instead of trapping you into sentimentality, they have the sonic space built in to let you breathe.

5. R.L. Burnside – Matthew Block Recordings

This was released in 2006, but I just came across it, despite being a huge Burnside fan. This guy lived the Blues, and he had the raw slide-guitar talent to sing about it too. When asked if he killed a man, he said to the judge “I shot him, but him dyin’ was between him and the Lawd.” Every bit of that is in this recording, made on his Mississippi Delta front porch – you can even hear some kids yelling in the background during “Goin’ Down South”. If you’re nostalgic for the Delta like I am, spin this one.

Top 5 Songs

1. Girls – Vomit

This is the best rock song to come out in the last 5 years, hands down. It has the love-drunk protagonist, the drug-soaked lyrics, the Muscle Shoals waves of organ vamps, the acoustic arpeggios, the epic guitar solos, and the gospel reprieve into sweet release. Plus, the title doubles as a Biblical reference and a hung over cry for intervention.

2. TV On The Radio – Second Song

Great lyrics, great hooks, and a ruthless 21st century sound that incorporates a brass section? Hells yeah. And the video is cool too.

3. Yellow Ostrich – WHALE

Taking a page straight out of Andrew Bird’s folksy sounds and stuttered looping, this kid manages to create gorgeous harmonies, and catchy hooks. His cover of “Blue (Da Boo Dee Da Boo Dai)” is also a gorgeous adaptation of the cheese-ball 90s hit. But WHALE is his own, and it rocks.

4. Future Islands – Balance

Future Islands might be an acquired taste, but once you get used to the lead’s voice, you realize he is most likely classically trained, and thus able to croon in three different voices. At times sounding like Waits, at others like Vedder, he sings about absent or dissatisfactory love. The beauty of it all is that it’s a melancholy dance-party when it comes to the music. Shaking a tail feather never felt so cold.

5. Youth Lagoon – 17

See review above. This is the best example of what I’m into about this dude.

Some Honorable Music Mentions

Kanye & Jay-Z: Otis

Washed Out – Within & Without

Raphael Saadiq – Stone Rollin’

M83 – Midnight City

Gary Clark, Jr. – Bright Lights EP

Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues

Best Beer

Birreria del Borgo – Reale (American Pale Ale)

Refreshing and from the home country. This goes down easy, and is wonderfully refreshing without losing a full-body taste. I might have had too much to drink beforehand to recall specific flavors, but I know it was really, really good.

Best Restaurant

Il Latini in Florence – This is an old favorite, but never fails to amaze. Prosciutto fucking hangs from the ceiling! The waiters treat you like poo (especially if you don’t speak Italian) and the menu is not available: you eat whatever is good that day. Their minestrone is famous, but nothing will make you sad in this 5+ course meal. It’s in a hidden ventricle of Florence’s heart, and makes the trip to the tourist-invaded city worth your while.

Best Book

Herman Melville – Moby Dick

Someone should award you a T-Shirt on the day you finish Moby Dick. But the read is rewarding in and of itself: it transports you back to a time when humans still experienced wonder at what was in the world. It’s a powerful and all-consuming read that exposes so much about the Western psyche, that you’ll be alternately bored to tears and sitting on the edge of your seat.

Best Comic Book

The Unwritten

Saturated with literary references (from the clear Harry Potter-esque protagonist to Frankenstein) this epic series is smart, subversive, and a true application of the comic medium. The illustration at first seems like a run-of-of-the-mill cheap-o comic, but it uses its style to its advantage, occasionally exploding into true artistry.

Best Joke

As his 30-year marriage trudges into its 5th year of sexual depravity, Billy decides to make a move. But it’s been so long that he is at a loss: how can he spice things up? He does what any college educated man would do: some good old fashioned research. He knows that the most up-to-date information is on the internet, so he turns on the computer. He discovers a whole new world of techniques. He buys some Viagra, cooks his wife a nice meal, romances her, and then they get in bed. He tells his wife he’s going to do something new, and starts to plow into her, jarringly interrupting his motions every 10-15 seconds. Startled, his wife asks: WHAT ARE YOU DOING? WHY DO YOU KEEP FREEZING LIKE THAT? To which Billy replies: “Honey, it’s what all the kids are doing on the internet: it’s called ‘buffering’!”

Best Movie: 

True Grit (dir. Cohen Brothers)

This is the role Jeff Bridges should have won an Oscar for. I’m late to the game in seeing this one, but I wanted to make sure to read the novella first. It’s a wonderful adaptation, in part because it’s so unambitious: it’s pure Western fun, but has a real roughness. You really get the sense of what Arkansas was like, and the kinds of broken people that lived there.

Best Artwork

Henri Rousseau – Le Douanier

Nothing got me as excited to be living in London this year as much as seeing a sliver of this painting through a doorway of the National Gallery. I’ve always loved Rousseau’s work, but the colors of this work – which is inevitably surrounded by a captivated group of school children on a field trip – pop out so dramatically from the wood-panelling and dark wallpaper on which it hangs that you can’t help but be sucked into its feral and fantastical world.

Best Picture I Took

This one is unabashed self-promotion.


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