The overriding theme of 2011 could take on a number of guises. It could be the Year of the String Quartet. Or perhaps the Year of New Amsterdam Records. An argument could be made that it was the Year of Spotify.
It certainly wasn’t a year dominated by Japanese rock. Yes, the top half of the Favorite Edition 2011 list is occupied by Japanese artists, but they’re the concentrated minority in a series of lists dominated by string quartets and new music ensembles.
My tastes have been shifting gradually away from Japan over the past few years, but it seems 2011 marks the first real evidence of that wane. Another indicator — new release e-mails I receive from CD Japan don’t actually feature specific albums by artists I like. They’re all compilations now.
As usual, comments provided for entries added since last time.
- Duran Duran, All You Need Is Now
- Kuriyama Chiaki, CIRCUS
- Chiara String Quartet, Jefferson Freidmann: String Quartets Nos. 2 and 3 There’s something accessible about Freidmann’s string quartets without actually having to be pandering. At times, it felt as if he were taking diction for Alfred Schnittke, while at other times, he seemed to be keeping up with the post-minimalist Jonses. Chiara tears into these works, attacking fast movements with the intensity of an inferno, then pulling back when the material turns serene. Not sure what the Matmos remixes add to the album, but they’re not entirely unwelcome either.
- SuiseiNoboAz, THE (OVERUSED) END OF THE WORLD and I MISS YOU MUH-FUH Mukai Shuutoku put such an indelible stamp on SuiseiNoboAz’s self-titled debut, I sarcastically called it ZAZEN BOYS 5. For their second album, SuiseiNoboAz take over the control board, and the results are astonishing. In fact, many of the songs are downright catchy, if your idea of catchy is screaming along with Ishiahara Masaharu, “I MISS YOU MOTHERFUCKER” or “ASK FOR TIGER”. It is mine.
- MO’SOME TONEBENDER, MO’SOME TONEBENDER
- Matt Alber, Constant Crows This time around, Alber leaves the Cocteau Twin synthesizers at home and puts more focus on a band setting. The stratospheric counter-tenor doesn’t get much of a work out, which is fine by me — easier to sing along. His cover of Madonna’s “Take a Bow” is worth the price of the album alone, but that’s not to say the rest of it doesn’t shine.
- James Blake, James Blake
- Kronos Quartet/Kimmo Pohjonen/Samuli Kosminen, Uniko
- Steve Reich, WTC 9/11/Mallet Quartet/Dance Patterns Steve Reich has mined the multi-tracked ensemble to death, so that particular compositional technique holds little in the way of surprises. But it’s the sampled voices — recordings from emergency dispatch and air traffic control on Sept. 11, 2011 — that gives WTC 9/11 its real weight. I was expecting a longer piece, though. It seems to end pretty abruptly. The bass marimba that Reich looked forward to featuring on Mallet Quartet doesn’t come forth on recording, but in live performance, a few hits of that thing in the lowest registers feels like a seismic anomaly.
- The Decemberists, The King Is Dead
And now for the honorable mentions of 2011.
- Björk, Biophilia I wish Vespertine turned out the way Biophilia did.
- Gregory Spears, Requiem Like the title of Ann Dudley’s long out of print solo album, this work is both ancient and modern. RIYL Nico Muhly.
- itsnotyouitsme, Everybody’s Pain Is Magnificent This sprawling double album is pretty much targeted for listeners who can’t get enough of Mogwai, mono, Explosions in the Sky and, oh hell, everyone on the Temporary Residence roster.
- John Lunn, Downton Abbey So I took a peek at some sheet music for the Downton Abbey theme song, and my hunch was correct — it uses the same chords as “The Heart Seeks Pleasure First” from Michael Nyman’s score for The Piano.
- Death Cab for Cutie, Codes and Keys Not The Photo Album or Transatlanticsm, but certainly better than the first two albums the band has recorded since jumping to a major label.
- Gang of Four, Content
- Abigail Washburn, City of Refuge
- Adele, 21 I’ve been blissfully unaware of Adele since her debut, but the drive from Austin to Seattle with my friend Andy ended that. I can see why this album won all those Grammy’s, and I certainly dig “Rumour Has It”. But I never once cried to “Someone Like You”.
And since I seem to be living in the past these days, the favorite reissues of the year:
- Smashing Pumpkins, Gish (Deluxe Edition) I bet I would have more allegiance to Smashing Pumpkins if their second album used more of the material found in the Gish deluxe edition than the absolute shite that Siamese Dream turned out to be.
- U2, Achtung Baby! (Deluxe Edition) The b-sides to this album are almost on par with the b-sides for The Joshua Tree. I probably could have done with fewer remixes.
- The Smiths, Complete I knew I would eventually own at least three out of the Smiths’ four studio albums, so I didn’t mind dropping the cash to get additional albums I wasn’t too keen on getting. It did, however, force me to listen to Rank, for which I’m thankful.
Finally, the catalog albums that I finally discovered.
- Fugazi, 13 Songs I’m hesitant to explore the rest of Fugazi’s oeuvre because this album is really that good.
- Simple Minds, Once Upon a Time I liked all three singles that came from this album, but reviews at the time made me hesitate to buy it. Bollocks on those reviews.
- The Tiger Lilies and Kronos Quartet, The Gorey End No, I won’t even try to describe how strangely satisfying this album is.
- The Outfield, Play Deep This album is more than just “Your Love”. You can’t find harmonies that tight outside of AutoTime these days.
- Michael Nyman, String Quartets Nos. 1-3 (Balanescu Quartet) Let’s face it — Nyman knows how to spin some pleasing harmonies.