ARTIST OF THE YEAR: Bon Iver
You could’ve given me 50 options for who I thought would be my favorite musician of 2011 and I would never have come close to guessing Justin Vernon, a.k.a. Bon Iver. The bearded wonder symbolizes everything I’ve come to loathe about indie music. Or so I thought. The story of Vernon’s first album, where he poured his heart out after a bad breakup while sequestered in a Wisconsin cabin, just seemed way too precious for my tastes.
But Vernon has a tougher edge to him than I gave him credit for, despite the falsetto. This year I’ve bought just about every Bon Iver track ever released (which, admittedly, isn’t much), and the band’s dominated my year like no other. I have no idea what Vernon’s singing most of the time, and it really doesn’t matter. He has a way of evoking emotion just the way he delivers his music. It’s addictive, challenging, and, ultimately, rewarding work.
The Avett Brothers
Florence + the Machine
John Mark McMillan
My Morning Jacket
ALBUM OF THE YEAR: “Bon Iver,” Bon Iver (2011)
I undervalued this album when I reviewed it earlier this year. I was probably just looking for an out so as not to seem like a sucker for giving yet another glowing review to one of the most acclaimed releases of the year. My main complaint—that the middle trio of songs drags the album down—has been eradicated. Instead, I hear in “Bon Iver” a kind rock symphony, where groups of songs hang together in distinct movements. The first four tracks offer a breadth and scope of sound that continue to reward repeated listens; the middle complements all that earlier bombast like a deep breath; and then the final trio blends together with cathartic fire and releases you into the night.
Sometimes albums just grab you, and that’s what “Bon Iver” did for me in 2011. I didn’t expect it, and secretly didn’t even want it to happen. But I’ve returned to this disc over and over and over again this year. It works just as well on a breezy summer night as it does on a foggy, rainy, afternoon in November. Like The National’s Matt Berninger, Vernon provides snatches of imagery that stick with you, like “Christmas night, it clutched the light, the hallow bright.” “Bon Iver” is packed with moments like these.
Some of my all-time favorite artists released new albums this year, and each one I thought would replace “Bon Iver” as my favorite—or so I hoped. But none did. And so I’m left to admit that, much to my own annoyance, Bon Iver won a new convert this year.
“Circuital,” My Morning Jacket
“Covering Ground,” Chuck Ragan
“Elsie,” The Horrible Crowes
“Going Out in Style,” Dropkick Murphys
“iTunes Session,” The Gaslight Anthem
“The Medicine,” John Mark McMillan (2010)
“Paper Airplane,” Alison Krauss & Union Station
“Resolutions,” Dave Hause
“Rome,” Danger Mouse & Daniele Luppi
“Ukulele Songs,” Eddie Vedder
SONG OF THE YEAR: “Perth,” Bon Iver (from 2011’s “Bon Iver”)
This was a tough year for me on a number of fronts, yet one I’m better for having lived through. “Perth” sums that feeling up perfectly. It opens with plaintive, barely audible guitar and then steadily adds more pieces—and more volume—until it absolutely explodes into a percussive extravaganza 2 minutes 32 seconds in. This is my single favorite moment of any song this year, and it is the sole reason why I bought “Bon Iver” in the first place.
Vernon’s lyrics are nearly indecipherable on the album, and reading them often leads to just more confusion about what this guy is actually trying to say. But the chorus (if you can call it that) in “Perth” embodies the mixed bag that was my 2011. “Still alive for you, love,” to me, is a statement of honest hope, which is what I’m always looking for. That line admits that there’s been pain to bear—otherwise why would you need such reassurance in the first place? But there’s a dogged determination to it, an intentional optimism. This, in essence, is how I try to live my life: I have no patience for people who live in a bubble, yet I also have no tolerance for those who refuse to try for something more, something better, something greater.
That’s a lot to read into one line, I know, but favorite songs have a way of doing that for me. Here are some more …
“Art of Almost,” Wilco (from 2011’s “The Whole Love”)
This seven-minute epic opener to Wilco’s latest album summarizes everything I hope the band can be in its latter days. It finds the perfect balance between Wilco’s various shades, while pressing through to new ground at the same time. There are too many layers to unpack here, but this is a strong Song of the Year contender … just a brilliant piece of work that I love, love, love. From Nels Cline’s fiery solo to Glenn Kotche’s superb percussion to Jeff Tweedy’s recapturing of his sense of adventure and melody, it’s the type of track you hope a band still has the energy and vision and balls to create as they grow older. Too bad the rest of “The Whole Love” wasn’t nearly as good.
“Baba O’Riley,” The Gaslight Anthem (from 2011’s iTunes Session)
My new favorite cover of this Who classic. Every band member is pitch-perfect here, but special shout out to Alex Levine for his sick bass work in the final minute.
“Balthazar, Impresario,” Frank Turner (from 2011’s “England Keep My Bones”)
Tough call here picking a favorite from Turner’s excellent new album, but this acoustic bonus track paints such a beautiful picture of a musician making his last, unheralded stand, it wins out.
“Barton Hollow,” The Civil Wars (from 2011’s “Barton Hollow”)
You know the music that plays during the commercials and credits for “Justified” (my favorite show on TV)? Yeah, this is like that, minus the rapping. Incredible song. Just wish there had been more of this and less mopey Swell Season ripoffs on the rest of the album.
“Behold the Hurricane,” The Horrible Crowes (from 2011’s “Elsie”)
OK, so Brian Fallon’s side project didn’t quite live up to my expectations. Nevertheless, he still delivered three outstanding tracks on that album that I find it impossible to choose one over the other, so I’m going with all three. This is the purest “Gaslight”-type track on the record, and it’ll leave you humming the melody long after the music stops.
“Biloxi Parish,” The Gaslight Anthem (unreleased track debuted live in 2011)
Yes, my favorite songwriter on the planet is gonna pop up a lot on this list. Deal with it. This new cut takes Gaslight in yet another new direction, with its crunchy riff providing the most classic-rock Anthem in the band’s young catalog.
“Black Betty & the Moon,” The Horrible Crowes (from 2011’s “Elsie”)
When I first heard Brian Fallon was taking a break from Gaslight to make “nighttime music,” I had no idea what to expect. But somehow when I first heard this tremendous lounge-y number it was exactly what I wanted from the project, without knowing how to articulate it. Fallon is forceful but subtle, singing right in the sweet spot of his range about a tale of a woman who allowed the world to change who she is into what she thinks people want her to be. “Black Betty,” at just 3 minutes flat, is one of the best songs Fallon’s ever written.
“Carolina Tide,” John Mark McMillan (from 2010’s “The Medicine”)
If I could write a song, I’d hope it would come out something like John Mark McMillan, a Christian guy who sounds like he grew up listening to Pearl Jam, Led Zeppelin, and Tom Petty and found a way to infuse those influences with his own faith. I came across “The Medicine” a year later, but it instantly became one of my favorite albums of recent years. This is exactly what Christian musicians should aspire to be. There are any number of choice cuts from this album (which can’t be said, unfortunately, from his new record that came out this year), but “Carolina Tide” wins because I love the central image of going to the beach to try and rid yourself of guilt and come back a refreshed, reclaimed person.
“Cready Stomp,” Pearl Jam (from 2011’s “Vs./“Vitalogy” re-issue)
How did this incredible demo jam never become a full-fledged Pearl Jam track?!?! This is one of the hardest-rocking cuts the band’s ever written; so tough, in fact, it actually sounds more like Soundgarden than “classic” Pearl Jam. I’m mystified and annoyed that Eddie Vedder never put lyrics to this piece, because just imagining his voice soaring above this maelstrom gives me a little bit of the chills. Argh …
“Dirty Rain,” Ryan Adams (from 2011’s “Ashes & Fire”)
Adams’ first album in three years isn’t quite the comeback I was hoping for—a bit too much of the same droopiness throughout—but this album-opening track reminds me why I’ve followed this mercurial man for a decade through all his various shape shifts. This stripped-down country/blues is straight outta “Heartbreaker” awesomeness. It’s Adams at his very best.
“Discoverer,” R.E.M. (from 2011’s “Collapse Into Now”)
R.E.M. called it quits this year, but before they left the trio dropped one more classic on us. I’ve never been a big fan of the band, but this is certainly my favorite type of R.E.M. track. Soaring chorus, catchy melody, a tough edge but still poppy, and chiming guitars. Nice job here, boys.
“Give It Up,” Gangstagrass (2011)
Did I mention “Justified” is my favorite show on TV? Yeah, any song associated with that series is likely gonna show up on this list. This one was used in the Season 2 promos.
“Houses of the Holy,” Led Zeppelin (from 1975’s “Physical Graffiti,” as performed live at Constitution Hall on 2.1.11 by Robert Plant and the Band of Joy)
This has never been one of my go-to Zep tracks, but Plant’s slowed-down, country-fied re-imagining turns it into a masterpiece.
“Into the Mystic,” Van Morrison (from 1970’s “Moondance”)
Tony Kornheiser calls this the greatest single song ever written. After giving it a good many listens this year, I can’t say I exactly agree with him … but I definitely see where he’s coming from. Gorgeous stuff.
“Ladykiller,” The Horrible Crowes (from 2011’s “Elsie”)
Fallon reached out to his full range of influences for this album, so it should come as no surprise that Springsteen pops up. Only this is the “Tunnel of Love” version, which is a surprise. This song is so smooth. It fits Fallon’s voice wonderfully.
“Lay My Burden Down,” Alison Krauss & Union Station (from 2011’s “Paper Airplane”)
You know why Alison Krauss and Robert Plant were so great together? Because they’re both just great. Plant was the first to get an album out following the duo’s one-off Grammy-winning duet from 2007, but Krauss more than held her own with this outstanding effort back with her old mates from Union Station. Krauss has the voice of an angel, and nowhere on the new album is that quality more apparent than here.
“Lost in the World,” Kanye West (from 2010’s “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy”)
Kanye West’s latest solo album—like all of his work—is massively overrated. But sampling Bon Iver’s little-known “Woods” and spinning it into this big-beat manifesto was pure genius.
“Meet You in the Middle,” Chuck Ragan (from 2011’s “Covering Ground”)
Ragan’s ode to life on the road is one of my favorite records of the year, offering innumerable choice tracks. This one gets the nod for prominently featuring—who else?—Brian Fallon. Do yourself a favor and go find this album. Ragan is so intense, you probably won’t even notice he’s playing punk rock on acoustic guitar and violin with no percussion. His Leonidas roar voice fills all the empty gaps.
“Murder in the City,” The Avett Brothers (from 2006’s “The Second Gleam,” as performed live on 2.18.11 at Constitution Hall)
There could’ve been no better way for the Avetts to open their first show after a game-changing performance at the Grammys than this tender track about the love only a family can provide. One of four brothers, the line about their father’s love sticks out to me, in particular. But moreover this was a statement by the Avetts that no matter how much success they experience, their core will remain the same.
“No Weather,” Brian Fallon (from 2011’s Revival Tour compilation)
Fallon had himself quite a year for having no official Gaslight releases. This song was contributed to a comp heralding his tour of Europe with Chuck Ragan and Dave Hause, and the acoustic country stomper is a stirring reminder of the breadth of his musical range.
“Peg O’ My Heart,” Dropkick Murphys (from 2011’s “Going Out in Style”)
This light-hearted rocker probably would’ve been on this list even without Springsteen’s guest spot. The Boss’ invigorating cameo just makes it that much easier to select from all the other excellent tracks on this record.
“Pray for Tuscon,” Dave Hause (from 2011’s “Resolutions”)
I first heard this song way back in January 2010 when Hause opened for Brian Fallon at the Black Cat, and I was absolutely blown away. It took another year for the Loved Ones frontman to officially release his first solo album, but it was well worth the wait. “Resolutions” came out just two weeks after the horrible shooting spree in Arizona, and “Pray for Tuscon” instantly took on a higher meaning. A Song of the Year contender, for sure.
“Saints and Sinners,” Flogging Molly (from 2011’s “Speed of Darkness”)
Flogging Molly haven’t released a truly great record in nearly a decade, but each time out they seem to manage one or two cuts that recall their former unhinged, unabashed glory. This is one.
“Season’s Trees,” Danger Mouse and Daniele Luppi (from 2011’s “Rome”)
When I first heard Danger Mouse was working on a faux Spaghetti Western soundtrack with songs featuring Jack White, the mention of Norah Jones’ involvement in the project was merely an afterthought. Well, turns out she outshines White on the album, especially here in a song destined more for a Tarantino movie than a Western.
“Shake It Off,” Florence + the Machine (from 2011’s “Cermonials”)
Flo’s hit HUGE in the two years since releasing her debut album, “Lungs,” and that may have gone to her head a bit. The new album is a much more somber affair than the charming kitchen-sink mentality of her first effort. “Shake It Off” is Florence at her bombastic best, though, rattling windows with her clarion call of a voice soaring over top of a nu-gospel sound.
“Skinny Love,” Bon Iver (from 2008’s “For Emma, Forever Ago”)
So when I went down the rabbit hole this year on Bon Iver, this is one of several standout tracks I discovered (go find his “Blood Bank” EP on iTunes, btw). It’s harder and tougher than you’d think this guy could and should be, bringing in a bit of acoustic Zeppelin flair. It’s also one of the tracks where he doesn’t employ his trademark falsetto, and I wish he’d do that more often.
“Staircase,” Radiohead (from 2011’s “From the Basement” session)
It started with “15 Step” from “In Rainbows,” but “Staircase” is the song that finally made me, if not a Radiohead fan, then at least a secret admirer. I’ve never denied the band’s talent; it’s merely Thom Yorke’s dying-cow voice I haven’t been able to abide (and stlll cannot, for the most part). He tones that down here, though, making room for Radiohead’s incredible rhythm section—my favorite element of the band, here boosted by Robert Plant’s drummer on a second kit. “Staircase” is the kind of song U2 tries to write when they want to sound cool; Radiohead, on the other hand, seems able to toss off cuts like this effortlessly.
“Victory Dance,” My Morning Jacket (from 2011’s “Circuital”)
For as seminal a band as Pink Floyd is, you don’t often hear them referenced as a benchmark for newer acts. That’s probably a testament to how unique Floyd truly was. But My Morning Jacket’s dark, swirling, ethereal opening track to their outstanding new album comes as close to evoking Floyd’s sound as any band I’ve heard in recent memory, albeit with a touch of The Grateful Dead thrown in for good measure. This song will haunt your dreams.
“You’re True,” Eddie Vedder (from 2011’s “Ukulele Songs”)
You gotta hand it to Mr. Vedder for sticking with it. When I first heard he was releasing an album of only songs featuring the tiny instrument, I figured it would either suck or be totally great. Thankfully, perhaps surprisingly, the result is the latter. Vedder’s obsession with an instrument most people think of as a joke is just one more reason why I can’t help but love the guy. And he gets more out of it than probably anyone in history ever has.