Thursday, December 15, 2011

Least Boring Albums of 2011

Do you like "boring" music? I know I do.
Last month, the A.V. Club noted that 2011 is "the year of boring"--meaning that this year's most critically acclaimed music was almost invariably called the b-word by a large segment of music writers and the listening public. So, what does boring mean exactly? Here, I'll defer to the A.V. Club (after all, I'm not a member of the Club, and membership has its privileges):

Any kind of music can be boring depending on the listener. No song is inherently not-boring. . . because boring is obviously based on subjective perception. This makes boring music hard to pin down. In a sense, all music is boring. The same, however, can’t be said about “boring” music. “Boring” is its own genre. It is a code word that instantly conjures artists with clearly definable attributes. “Boring” music is slow to mid-tempo, mellow, melodic, pretty in a melancholy way, catchy, poppy, and rooted in traditional forms. It is popular (or popular-ish). It is tasteful, well-played, and meticulously produced. . . . It is “easy to like”—or more specifically, “easy for white people to like”. . . . It is critically acclaimed (perhaps the most critically acclaimed music there is), and yet music critics relish taking “boring” musical artists down a peg more than any other kind of artist.
I'll admit that I've fallen into this trap more than once myself. I'm immediately suspicious of music that is too popular or too well loved. And, I am perhaps a bit too eager to want to take much praised music down a notch or two. For example, Bon Iver's self-titled second album is one of the most critically acclaimed releases of the year. Metacritic averages out reviews from 43 publications, giving it an 86 [which Metacritic considers "universal acclaim"]. Pitchfork, perhaps the most popular (and, therefore, most despised) source for indie music criticism online, put "Bon Iver" at the very top of its Top 50 albums of the year. But, to my ears, Bon Iver's opus (I only just managed to stop myself from using scare quotes on that last word) is overly polite, exhaustingly produced and just plain boring--or, as AV would put it "boring."

With that in mind here are my top 10 albums of the year, with notes on their boringness.

10. Humor Risk by Cass McCombs

  • "Boring?" This is almost a perfect 10 of "bordom" as defined by the AV Club. Mid-tempo? Check. Melodic? Check. Pretty in a melancholy way? Check. Tasteful, well played and rooted in traditional forms? Check, check and check!
  • Boring? Hardly! Baltimore's Cass McCombs produced not one, but two impressive albums this year. The first, Wit's End, was somber and quietly affecting. But Humor Risk is even better, employing occasional irony ("Love Thine Enemy" he sings, but he doesn't seem to believe it) and seemingly unassuming melodies that don't let go of you.

9. Strange Mercy by St. Vincent

  • "Boring?" St. Vincent was specifically cited by the A.V. Club as an example of a "boring" artist. Moreover, Annie Clark is a guitar virtuoso and if the Sex Pistols taught us nothing else, it's that knowing how to play one's instrument is a strike against you. And besides, Clark is also classically good looking--how "boring" is that?
  • Boring? Clark has a delightfully twisted sensibility, as when she sings, "Best find a surgeon/come cut me open." And, her songs take twists and turns--tempo changes, odd instrumentals--that are chaotic but always manage to hold together.

8. Anna Calvi by Anna Calvi

  • "Boring?" Brian Eno calls this young Spanish/English singer-songwriter (A singer-songwriter in this day and age? Need I go on?) the "best thing since Patti Smith." Do we really need another, ponderous, "arty" singer?
  • Boring? There is a note of menace to Calvi's compositions. I'm sure I'm not the only one to suggest that she'd write the perfect theme for a James Bond movie (James Bond? Okay, that is boring.) We're talking Shirley Bassey, not Sheena Easton.

7. Cape Dory by Tennis

  • "Boring?" (Here I consult a thesaurus, so that I don't drive you away with all by b-word references.) Husband and wife teams? Tedious. Tweeness? Insipid. '50s retro production? Cloying.
  • Boring? If loving twee is wrong, I don't want to be right.

6. Veronica Falls by Veronica Falls

  • "Boring?" The Scottish indie scene is so late-90s. And surf guitar? Please.
  • Boring? Veronica Falls references the past (e.g. My Bloody Valentine noise and '60s beach pop), but isn't captive to it. They create something new and invigorating.

5. Tell Me by Jessica Lea Mayfield

  • "Boring?" With her lazy country drawl, Mayfield even sounds bored. And, enough with celebrity producers [the Black Keys' Dan Auerbach] already.
  • Boring? Mayfield's tales of the disappointments of love and sex are as old as pop music, but she breathes new life into an old formula. The choice of Auerbach as producer was key because he took what would have otherwise been simple folk songs (check out Mayfield's acoustic performances on YouTube) and turns them into something stranger.

4. Dancer Equired by Times New Viking

  • "Boring?" The only thing more dull than a highly produced, virtuosic performance is a low-fi, messy one.
  • Boring? Times New Viking's first few albums were nearly drowned in tape hiss, but on Dancer Equired they clean things up just enough that you can actually hear how good the melodies are. They raise the standard of rough-around-the-edges rock to a level not seen since the mid-80s glory days of New Zealand's Fly Nun label. Besides, you've got to love a band that appreciates a good font pun.

3. Scandalous by Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears

  • "Boring?" Whether it be Amy Winehouse, Adele or Sharon Jones, the proponents of "neo-Soul" are just reusing decades-old ideas.
  • Boring? Are you a fan of Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, and James Brown? Have you ever wished that there was one more classic, gritty late-60s Stax artist out there? Then, this is your lucky day. While there is very little to tip you off that Scandalous was recorded in 2011 rather than 1968, that's hardly a bad thing with music as good as this. "Booty City" may well be the most fun three minutes of the year.

2. Unknown Mortal Orchestra by Unknown Mortal Orchestra

  • "Boring?" UMO's Ruben Nielson recorded many of these songs in his basement, and it sounds that way. Call us back when you've booked a studio little man.
  • Boring? While some home recorded projects can be unnecessarily limiting, and some neo-psychedelia too self-consciously spacey, Nielson avoids these pitfalls and creates fun, danceable and appealingly off-kilter tunes that I returned to again and again this year.

1. Wild Flag by Wild Flag

  • "Boring?" Remember how great Asia, The Firm, and Power Station were? No? That's because the entire concept of the "supergroup" is the most tiresome in the history of rock. Just a bunch of huge egos trying to play over each other and relive past glories.
  • Boring? Are you kidding? With members from Sleater-Kinney, Helium, and the Minders, Wild Flag proves that the whole can in fact be greater than the sum of its parts (I know...cliches are boring.). It's true that Wild Flag sometimes repeats the glories of its component bands. "Racehorse" sounds a lot like a Sleater-Kinney tune and "Black Tiles" is definitely Helium infused (as if there's something wrong with that). And occasionally, as on "Glass Tambourine" you can hear all the parts working as as cohesive whole. And, once you've seen them live, you realize that this is the most exciting music to come out this year. Well, at least I did.

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