Let’s Live to Love and Love to Live
The 2011 Top 10 List

So this is Christmas, and what have we done?

Well, let’s see. In 2011, I got a great new job, I bought my first home, I met many new and wonderful people, and I participated in a musical project I’m very proud of (www.madeinaurora.com). I went to Cornerstone again, I saw Second City, I watched a friend of mine sing with They Might Be Giants, I called 911 for a choking man, and I learned a lot about myself. All in all, it was a really good year. I have complaints, but they seem petty when stacked next to all the good 2011 brought me.

So here we are at the end of it, and I get to survey the musical wonders this year delivered as well. And once again, it was an incredible year. For months on end, something new and magical hit stores every week, and the announcements just kept coming. I made a few new discoveries – two of which made the top 10 list you’re about to read – and saw old favorites step up and deliver like never before. This is, if you don’t mind me saying, an astonishingly good top 10 list.

Like any good list, there are rules. Only new full-length studio albums of (mainly) original material need apply. No live records, no b-sides or remix collections, no best-ofs, no EPs. And each album must hit stores (or the interwebs) between Jan. 1 and Dec. 31, 2011. Eagle-eyed long-time readers will note that I’m allowing a digital-only release onto the list for the first time ever this year, simply because not including it would be ridiculous. So I guess I’ve made my way into the 21st Century. In the end, it wasn’t really a difficult decision at all, as you’ll understand when we get there.

With so many great albums hitting this year, I was spoiled for choice when it came to this list. There have been years when I’ve struggled to fill 10 slots, but this year, I could have made a top 20 list with no problem. That means the list you’re about to read is more about my own taste than just about any I’ve done. With so much greatness to choose from, the particular kinds of greatness I respond to most will make their way to the top. And they did.

That means you won’t see some nearly-universal favorites from 2011 in this list. I want to assure you that I’ve heard them, from Adele to Fucked Up to M83 to Wye Oak to St. Vincent to Steven Wilson. I just didn’t like them as much as everyone else did. I plan to put together in-depth reviews of each of the worthy records I appear to have missed this year for sometime in January. And I’ll explain then why they didn’t make the list you’re about to read.

What did? Well, we have two senior citizens making late-career triumphs. We have two brilliant new bands overcoming the sophomore slump like champs. We have a pair of discoveries, a couple more welcome returns, and at the top of the heap, an angry, defiant, painful, glorious record from one of the best songwriters working today. Shall we?

Here is the 2011 top 10 list.

#10. The Boxer Rebellion, The Cold Still.

The first of my new discoveries. Every couple of weeks, someone asks me if I like the National. I don’t, but until I heard The Cold Still, I couldn’t really put my finger on why. The Boxer Rebellion, an English band on their third album, makes the kind of music the National wishes they could create. It’s simple stuff, all rising and falling chords, slow and soothing and dramatic, but it’s full of life. Just take the opener, “No Harm.” Four piano chords, simple beat, and some guitar flourishes. But when Nathan Nicholson digs into the chorus, it’s unspeakably moving. I wish this hadn’t been my first Boxer Rebellion experience – in some ways, their second album, Union, is better, and I missed it. But I won’t miss any more.

#9. Over the Rhine, The Long Surrender.

This record, the 12th from the husband-and-wife team behind Over the Rhine, came out in January. It’s been hanging on to its spot on this list for longer than any other album here, and it just would not let go. A stratospheric peak for this band, The Long Surrender brings their fascination with jazzy textures to the next level, and combines it with their love for classy balladry. The result is timeless and beautiful, raw and perfectly spit-shined, simple yet deeper than the ocean. I want Karin Bergquist on the list of the most celebrated singers we have. I’m not sure what else she’d have to do to make such a list – her work here is extraordinary and heartbreaking. One of the best albums ever from a band I’ve loved for a long, long time.

#8. The Violet Burning, The Story of Our Lives: Liebe Uber Alles, Black as Death and the Fantastic Machine.

Yeah, take a minute and deal with that title. Now deal with the fact that this album is a two-hour-and-40-minute triple-album concept piece about losing yourself and finding faith. And then, deal with the notion that the band produced, released and marketed this thing all on its own. Quite frankly, I don’t think anyone else could have been trusted to get this right. This is Michael Pritzl at the absolute top of his game, and he takes his band through some of the loudest material in TVB’s catalog, and some of the prettiest. When Pritzl titled one of these three chapters Black as Death, he meant it – the guitars are molten, the riffing explosive, the vocals raw and throat-shredding. But when he titled another Liebe Uber Alles (Love Over Everything), he meant that too – some of the songs here will shatter you, but they will also lovingly show you how to heal. Every listen reveals something new, some hidden meaning or melody weaving the three chapters into a whole. The Story of Our Lives is 2011’s most ambitious undertaking, and one of its most smashing success stories. Go here.

#7. Kate Bush, 50 Words for Snow.

This may seem like an obvious statement for Kate Bush fans, but there is no one else on earth who would make an album like 50 Words for Snow. It moves at its own drifting pace – seven long songs in 65 minutes, with a wintry piano the main (and often, the only) instrument. There are duets with Elton John and Stephen Fry, songs about Bigfoot and sexy snowmen, and an opening track sung entirely by Bush’s young son, Bertie. None of this should work; every second of it does. It’s her most serene record, sounding for much of its running time like staring out a picture window at the season’s first snow. It’s also her most heart-rendingly beautiful. More than 30 years into her career, Kate Bush remains a singular treasure.

#6. Glen Campbell, Ghost on the Canvas.

Yeah, I’m surprised too. Here’s the story: Glen Campbell, a legend if ever there was one, has Alzheimer’s. Ghost on the Canvas is the last album he plans to make, a farewell to a life well lived. You’d think that might lead to a maudlin collection of sentiments, but you’d be wrong. This album, produced by Julian Raymond and Howard Willing, is a joyous statement of contentment and peace. It pulls in songs from Paul Westerberg, Robert Pollard and Teddy Thompson, along with some originals, and wraps them together with interludes by Jellyfish’s Roger Manning. But the key here is Glen himself, sounding strong and in command, and waving goodbye with the most hopeful music you could imagine. Listening to this brings a smile and a tear every time. It’s a lovely way to go out, and Campbell deserved nothing less.

#5. Bon Iver.

A self-titled album usually signals reinvention, and boy, does it here. Justin Vernon, the man with the weepy voice and the sob story about a cabin in Wisconsin, effectively obliterates his past here with a fascinating jigsaw puzzle of a second record. Massive, dense, monolithic, and yet still fragile and gentle, Bon Iver begins with an apocalyptic near-metal march and ends with an ‘80s ballad straight out of Night Ranger. In between, Vernon shifts gears a dozen different times, and layers that voice atop it all, grounding it and letting it soar. It’s a most unexpected move from Bon Iver, but a brilliant one – the album reveals new layers with each listen, and the pieces fall more into place. And it all leads to “Beth/Rest,” one of the bravest and most jaw-dropping songs of the year. Early in the album, Vernon sings, “All at once I knew I was not magnificent.” He’s never been more wrong.

#4. Josh Garrels, Love and War and the Sea In Between.

Until July of this year, I had never heard of Josh Garrels, a singer-songwriter from Portland, Oregon. It’s been my loss. All this year, Garrels has been giving away his sixth album, Love and War and the Sea In Between, for free online. It’s a move that has brought him more notice and more acclaim than ever this year – we journalists love easy talking points – but even if the free sample got you in the door, the sheer quality of this extraordinary album kept you coming back. Garrels has trafficked in folk, pop and hip-hop, but this is the one that brings it all together, an 18-song opus of commanding presence and depth. From the explosive force of “The Resistance” to the delightful lilt of “For You” to the cascading beauty of “Ulysses,” the year’s prettiest song, Garrels never falters, and in the album’s phenomenal final third, he adds a conceptual, Biblical heft that drives the entire thing home. Discovering Josh Garrels has been one of the biggest joys of my year. Try this record – you have nothing to lose. Go here.

#3. Paul Simon, So Beautiful or So What.

Back in 1969, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel sang a song called “Old Friends.” It imagined the singers as two old men on a park bench, wistfully proclaiming, “How terribly strange to be 70.” Well, here we are – Paul Simon is 70 this year, and while that is terribly strange, his career has been unpredictable and amazing to follow. If So Beautiful or So What, his best album in two decades, is indeed his last, it will be a fine and fitting capper to a life of musical adventure and lyrical genius. Here, over subdued yet funky grooves, he tackles the big questions: is death something to fear, and what’s waiting on the other side? What do you do with all the regret you’ve accumulated? In a simply astonishing set of lyrics, he imagines himself as a man rewriting his own life (“Rewrite”), and as a dead man finding out what lies beyond (“The Afterlife”). It’s all darkly funny, searching, beautiful stuff, particularly the sparse “Love and Hard Times,” which reduces me to tears with every listen. In the end, Simon says, life is what we make of it. He’s made it a song worth singing again and again.

#2. Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues.

I was actually worried about this one. After their sublime debut album, would Seattle’s Fleet Foxes be able to at least maintain that level of quality on record number two? Reports of scrapped sessions didn’t help my confidence. But when all was said and done, Helplessness Blues turned out to be another masterpiece. It retains the core of what they do – sun-dappled West Coast folk with enchanting, otherworldly harmonies – but takes it in new directions. Suite “The Plains/Bitter Dancer” exemplifies this, nimbly moving from section to section, soaring on those voices. But it’s the comparatively simple title track that contains the heart of this record, and it’s a beautiful thing, timeless and yet somehow old as time itself. I don’t know how long they can keep this up, but with this second record, Fleet Foxes proved they’re no fluke. They really are what they seem to be – a modern folk band with roots as old as the ground, and dreams as high as the stars.

Which brings us to the top of a very tall heap. The album at number one will be no surprise to readers of this blog, or to readers of ThinkChristian, where my review of it appeared earlier this month. It drew a wide spectrum of responses, from those condemning my doubt to those who shared it. It was a gratifying experience, and I owe that opportunity to my friend Josh Larsen. But I also owe it to this searing, honest, phenomenal record.

#1. Quiet Company, We Are All Where We Belong.

Quiet Company is a band from Austin, Texas, led by a guy named Taylor Muse, who just happens to be one of the finest songwriters I’m aware of. I’ve watched him grow from capable to brilliant in the space of three albums, to the point where I would put his songs up against those of just about anyone else I could name. I can count the disappointing Taylor Muse songs on one hand. None of them are on We Are All Where We Belong.

Had this just been a brilliant pop-rock album by a great band, which it is, it would still have charted on this list. But We Are All Where We Belong is more than that. It’s Muse’s breakup album with God, his final word on the religious upbringing of his youth, and the emotional pain it’s caused him. It’s a conceptual piece about giving up on the very notion of spiritual faith, and turning our efforts to the life we have, and the people we love. It’s a frightening, difficult, and ultimately joyful ride, the most thrilling hour anyone produced this year.

And it affected me deeply. I went through a lot of the same spiritual questions Muse raises on this record, and wrestled with a lot of the same doubts. I came to different conclusions, but then, my journey wasn’t nearly as intense – see the verse about suicide in “The Black Sheep and the Shepherd.” But I have screamed to the heavens with anger, as Muse does on “The Easy Confidence,” and I have yearned to hear the voice of God, and been met with silence. This album captures those experiences so completely, so perfectly, that I relived them as it played.

Some parts of this album, like the two “Preaching to the Choir Invisible” sections or “The Easy Confidence,” are terrifying in their palpable anger. But some, like the impossibly lovely “Midnight at the Lazarus Pit” and “Are You a Mirror” – the perfect new father song – are simply beautiful. And when you get to the final stretch, in which Muse adopts the voice of God himself and concludes that “we’re all gonna be just fine,” it’s the happiest, most freeing musical moment of the year.

Should it be? I’m not sure. That’s the power of We Are All Where We Belong – I don’t fully agree with it, but I’m swept up in it. I’m frightened and fascinated by it. And I can’t stop listening to it. Even as 14 songs on a piece of plastic, it’s the best album of the year by a considerable margin, but as a sweeping statement about rejecting faith and embracing love, it’s powerful in a way I can’t truly explain. It moved me like nothing else I heard this year.

You can hear it too, right here.

So, that’s it. Next week is Fifty Second Week, and then on to 2012. Hope your year was as good as mine, and the next one is just as good to us both. Leave a comment on my blog at tm3am.blogspot.com. Follow my infrequent twitterings at www.twitter.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning… and to all a good night.