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Sunday, December 11, 2011

Lou's Top 20 of 2011, Part 2

Here's the second in a four-part series revealing my choices for the Top 20 records of 2011. Feel free to submit your own list to purgegeeks@gmail.com and I'll strongly consider posting it. 

11.) Dawes - Nothing Is Wrong  (ATO)

It might be an understatement to say that Dawes' excellent 2009 debut, North Hills, was heavily influenced by The Band, so it wasn't shocking that they ended up backing Robbie Robertson on tour early this year. So it is with their relationship with Jackson Browne, who they are now backing. Nothing Is Wrong channels Browne's plaintive, often heart-tugging poetry and the accessible yet highly authentic instrumental backing of his wonderful early records, which for my money are too infrequent touchstones today. But as with the debut, despite the plain debt to their progenitors, there are some simply killer songs and performances here that transcend eras. Taylor Goldsmith has a knack for songs which are heartwrenching and buoyant all at the same time, "Moon in the Water" being perhaps the finest case in point here.

12.) Marissa Nadler (Box of Cedar)

An artist whose back catalog I have somehow been oblivious to, Marissa Nadler is unmistakably a beautiful and haunting singer-songwriter. "The Sun Always Reminds Me of You" is simply one of the most affecting songs you'll hear--intoxicating, heartbreaking, and uplifting all at once. "Baby I Will Leave You In the Morning," alternatively, is incredibly intense despite Nadler's voice barely rising above a coo. The instrumentation belies its subdued folkiness with numerous creative wrinkles and deceptive power throughout, though when "In A Magazine" fills out the sound a bit and Nadler's voice floats beautifully on the low end and becomes entwined with the pedal steel it's something of a revelation. An impeccably crafted record perfectly suited to a clearly gifted artist.

13.) Bird of Youth - Defender (Jagjaguwar)

The debut from this vehicle for singer-songwriter Beth Wawerna is simply chock full of incredible hooks delivered by a charmingly disaffected-sounding Wawerna. Both the songcraft and the organic yet often energetic backing offer strong nods to Okkervil River, whose Will Sheff co-produced.

14.) Okkervil River - I Am Very Far (Jagjaguwar)

For years now, each time I get wind of a new Okkervil River record on the way a part of me expects it to be the one where the bottom falls out, where there will no longer be any discernible connection to the stripped-down indie-folkies I fell in love with way back in the early 2000's and I'll just let them drift away. But it hasn't happened yet, even as Will Sheff and company continue to take the band's sound further and further afield from where it began. Though the backing tracks keep sounding more and more like a full-blown stage production, there remains no other writer as gifted as Sheff with a clever phrase or a penetrating hook, or a singer as irresistibly emotive, and he and his cohorts have ably met the challenge of maintaining the quality of their craft with a greatly expanded palette. Perhaps I should no longer be surprised that Okkervil River remains among the best out there.

15.) The Cynics - Spinning Wheel Motel (Get Hip)

The legendary Cynics stay hip with their finest release since 1989's seminal Rock 'n' Roll. While 2007's Here We Are seemed to find the band moving into a more subdued space perhaps befitting a band that has been around for nearly 30 years, Motel  is fairly evenly split between the garage rock vein which they have mined more successfully than any band this side of The Sonics and Byrds-ian forays like "Gehenna" and the simply lovely "Circles, Arcs and Swirls." Regardless of genre, the songwriting of frontman Michael Kastelic and guitar god Gregg Kostelich (the band's constants over the years) has only become more polished with time, Kastelic's vocals are as incisive as ever, Kostelich continues to add more creative touches to the bedrock riffs he produces better than anyone, and Moon-esque Pablo Gonzalez stands out from the long line of Cynics drummers on the anthemic closer "Junk."



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