This is Fifty Second Week.
There’s an awful lot of music released every year, and as hard as I try to hear it all, I can’t. In fact, as hard as I try to review everything I hear, I can’t do that either. Hence this annual tradition, in which I clear my backlog from the year as quickly as I can. This is my way of wiping the slate, and greeting the new year fresh.
How does it work? I have in front of me 52 albums from 2011, none of which received a full review in this space. It’s not that they weren’t deserving, it’s that the march of time is a bitch. So for the last column of the year, I’m going to review them all. I’m giving myself 50 seconds for each one – I have one of those handy desktop stopwatch programs, and when it beeps, I’m done, even if I’m in the middle of a sentence. In fact, it’s more fun if I am.
Fifty-two reviews in just under an hour. This is Fifty Second Week. Ready? Go!
Adele was everywhere in 2011, with her big, booming voice. There’s nothing really wrong with this soulful little album (except the cover of “Lovesong”), but I can’t listen all the way through. She only has one setting on that voice, and it gets wearying.
The Baseball Project, Volume 2: High and Inside
Second outing from Scott McCaughey and Peter Buck and company. This one is even more ragged than the first, if you can believe it, but there are some great true baseball stories here, including a serious concentration on my Boston Red Sox.
Battles, Gloss Drop
Not nearly the revelation that Mirrored was, this sophomore album skimps on the super-complex instrumental madness of the debut, and adds vocals on some of the weaker tracks. Sure, Gary Numan is here, and that’s cool, but this album is a definite disappointment.
This may or may not be my first dubstep album – I have trouble keeping all the electronic subgenres apart. Blake has a really nice voice, and apparently his big innovation is writing actual songs, which he does pretty well here. It’s spooky, but it’s definitely recognizable as pop music.
The Book of Mormon Original Cast Recording
Oh. My. God. Trey Parker and Matt Stone conquer Broadway with the filthiest, funniest musical I’ve heard in years and years. There’s no bad here – the story of two Utah Mormons sent to Uganda to convert the natives is touching and hilarious. Hasa diga eebowai!
Broken Bells, Meyrin Fields EP
I can’t think of any reason these four songs were not appended to the already very short Broken Bells album. The collaboration between Danger Mouse and James Mercer of the Shins sounds exactly the same here, in this bite-sized collection. It’s still pretty good.
BT, These Humble Machines
One of two supplemental records for Brian Transeau’s massive These Hopeful Machines double album, this one condenses that record’s 12 songs onto one disc. I can barely tell you what’s missing, the editing is so good.
BT, These Reimagined Machines
And here’s the other, and the much more substantial one – 17 remixes across two hours, and one of the finest remix projects I’ve ever heard. These songs were largely sublime to begin with, but in these other hands, they’re blissed-out wonders.
Cage the Elephant, Thank You Happy Birthday
Cage the Elephant have exactly one good song, and it was their hit: “No Rest for the Wicked.” You can hear the ideas running out as this second album progresses. It’s not worth your time.
Cassettes Won’t Listen, Kevinspacey
Technically, it’s called Evinspacey, since Kevin Spacey threw a fit, but the hell with that. This is the second album from Jason Drake, and he makes chilly electronic pop music with wonderful melodies. This is bedroom pop at its best, particularly “Echoes.”
Alice Cooper, Welcome 2 My Nightmare
Is this sequel worthy of the 1975 shock-rock original? No, not really. But it is one of Cooper’s best albums in a long time, and it preserves the original’s classy sleaze, if that makes any sense. There are songs called “I’ll Bite Your Face Off” and “Ghouls Gone Wild,” if that helps.
Cut Off Your Hands, Hollow
Proof that all the good band names are taken. This record is a really good slice of country-rock mixed with ‘80s clean-guitar goodness, like the Smiths meets Smith and Wesson. Despite the horrible name, I ended up li
Dawes, Nothing is Wrong
As a regular reader of the AV Club, I want to say this album is the pinnacle of all music, curing all the world’s ills with that sweet Laurel Canyon sound. But I won’t. This is actually a damn fine guitar-rock album from a meat-and-potatoes band that does their thing very well.
Dream Theater, A Dramatic Turn of Events
If you thought Dream Theater would flounder without founding drummer Mike Portnoy, think again. New guy Mike Mangini is less show-offy, and the focus is on some of the best prog-tastic songs DT has written in years. A pleasant surprise from a band I was worried about.
Florence and the Machine, Ceremonials
This is really good, and I’m not sure why I didn’t get around to reviewing it. Florence Welch has a strong and powerful voice, but she uses it in service of some quirky, all-out dramatic songs here, and it works. This is a go-for-broke second album, and I almost always like those.
Foster the People, Torches
Another one that deserved a full, in-depth review. Torches is the electro-pop album of the year, thanks to Mark Foster’s danceable, hummable, infectious tunes. Yes, they’re about dark subjects. No, you won’t notice while you’re dancing.
Hammock, Asleep in the Downlights
Two of the greatest shoegaze bands on earth, Hammock and the Church, team up for this four-song EP, on which every tune sports vocals. This is a new thing for Hammock, but they pull it off – this is hazy, dreamy, beautiful stuff.
I Can Make a Mess Like Nobody’s Business, Gold Rush
Ace Enders, formerly of the Early November, returns with this nine-song collection of decent, singable guitar-pop. He’s come a long way since “Ever So Sweet,” and these songs are among his best, although I seem to prefer it when he goes acoustic.
Alison Krauss and Union Station, Paper Airplane
What’s left to say about Allison Krauss and Union Station? This is a great record. They’re all great. Krauss’ high voice is in fine form, the band’s bluegrass twang is perfect, and this one includes an absolutely wonderful version of “Dimming of the Day.”
Limp Bizkit, Gold Cobra
HEY! HEY!! BREAK SHIT! FUCK SHIT UP!! I’M FRED DURST, AND I CAN SAY FUCK! YOU DIDN’T MISS ME AT ALL!! TRUST ME!!
Loney Dear, Hall Music
A darker and more difficult record from Emil Svanangen, this one piles on brass and strings and other instruments to great effect. It’s still bedroom pop, of course, but this one sounds fuller, more substantial. I like it a lot.
The Lonely Island, Turtleneck and Chain
Second album from Andy Samberg’s crew is just as funny as the first, and includes “Jack Sparrow,” a thing of sidesplitting beauty featuring Michael Bolton. A few bum tracks, but overall a solid second
The Lost Dogs, It Came From the Basement
The soundtrack to a new live DVD, Basement rarely betrays the cramped, overheated, torturous conditions under which it was made. The Dogs sound great here, especially on an extended, crazy, what-the-hell-just-happened rip through “Why Is the Devil Red.”
The latest purveyors of danceable mostly-instrumental rock. This album doesn’t do a whole lot to distinguish itself, but it’s a fun time.
The Low Anthem, Smart Flesh
Either this band requires a lot more patience than I have, or their sleepy, lazy, traditional mopes are just about the most boring thing I’ve ever heard. I have tried to get through Smart Flesh half a dozen times, and I just can’t make it. It’s terrible.
Stephin Merritt, Obscurities
Proof that the songs Stephin Merritt throws away are better than the ones most people proudly present as their best work. All of Merritt’s projects are here, and his witty way with both a melody and a cutting turn of phrase is ever-present.
Tom Morello The Nightwatchman, Union Town
An EP with a union theme from this folk troubadour who used to be in Rage Against the Machine. The title track is as typically hardline as you’d expect, and the rest of the album covers songs by Woody Guthrie and others. The highlight is the closing live “Union Song,” played in Wisconsin this year.
Tom Morello The Nightwatchman, World Wide Rebel Songs
And here’s the full-length album, and it’s somehow less impressive. Morello turns up the amps here, and though his songs are the same sort of leftist shoutalongs they’ve always been, they just seem somewhat diminished under the distortion. I like some of this, though.
Peter Murphy, Ninth
Long-awaited new one from the venerable Bauhaus frontman. This record is everything I’ve ever liked about Peter Murphy on one disc. Creepy-cool songs, played loudly, with the old man’s voice in superb form. I’m already excited for Tenth.
Meshell Ndegeocello, Weather
Surprisingly accessible album from this soul-folk wunderkind. There’s no jazz noodling, no soundscapes, nothing but straight-up good, memorable songs, and Ndegeocello’s unforgettable voice.
Gary Numan, Dead Son Rising
Do you miss the industrial heyday of Nine Inch Nails and other bands of that ilk? You may want to check out what Gary Numan’s been doing for more than a decade. If all you know is “Cars,” the fascinating music on display here will flip your head around.
Richard Page, Solo Acoustic
I have always liked the Mr. Mister frontman, but rarely more than I do in this setting. Just Page, his great voice, his fine songs and an acoustic guitar. I love this, especially his takes on “I’ll Remember” (which he wrote for Madonna) and his hits “Kyrie” and “Broken Wings.” You’ve never heard ‘em like this.
Pain of Salvation, Road Salt Two
Second half of a double album in which these Swedish prog-metallers jump headlong into dirty ‘70s rock and balladry. It’s a surprisingly good fit, even if this record gets a slow start. Daniel Gildenlow can sing damn near anything, so it shouldn’t be surprising that he can sing this stuff.
Every time I think Neil Finn can’t disappoint me more, he finds a way. This tossed-together effort brings in his wife Sharon on bass, resigns one of the best pop voices ever to the drums, and ends up with a load of forgettable grooves in search of anything to make them worthwhile.
Panda Bear, Tomboy
About what you’d expect from this Animal Collective member – psychedelic swirly soundscapes with oceans of harmonized vocals on top. This is really good for what it is, and Panda Bear stands out as the best in a field of one.
Radiohead, TKOL RMX 1234567
I’m on record as liking The King of Limbs, Radiohead’s too-short effort from this year. But these pale and repetitive remixes don’t add anything to it. This is the kind of thing that only exists because it exists.
Real Estate, Days
This is a nice little record. Trafficking in the clean guitar rock of many an ‘80s underground band, Real Estate writes good little songs, and plays them with an almost total lack of pretension. This record breezes right by on chiming tones, and you’ll want to play it again.
Todd Rundgren, Todd Rundgren’s Johnson
Rundgren had two albums in 2011, and they were both different kinds of embarrassing. This one finds him covering the venerable Robert Johnson in full Blues Hammer style, electronic drums and pealing guitars and big Aerosmith-style riffs. It’s pretty awful.
Todd Rundgren, (Re)Production
Another fascinating failure of concept, (Re)Production finds Rundgren covering songs he produced for other artists, but doing them in what he really thinks is a modern dance club style. It’s out of touch and hard to listen to, especially since I’d like to hear straight covers of some of these.
Said Fantasy, Horse of Faded Grandeur
These three short tracks were all we got from Ronnie (Joy Electric) Martin in 2011. The kickoff of a new project that sounds an awful lot like his old project, the Said Fantasy EP is nice and charming and silly, but way too short. More, Ronnie, more!
Duncan Sheik, Covers ‘80s
Now this is how you do it. Duncan Sheik’s impeccable Covers ‘80s starts with an unimpeachable track listing, and casts each song in a stripped-down format perfect for his wavering, lovely voice. I enjoyed the hell out of this.
Smith Westerns, Dye It Blonde
This record did pretty big business this year, and I’m not sure why. It’s nice indie-pop with a Beatles flair, but it’s nothing special. Or, at least, it’s not as special as I was led to believe.
Switchfoot, Vice Verses
Switchfoot goes for volume and aggression over melody and songcraft on this long-awaited effort, and the results are decidedly mixed. I like some of these tunes, but none of them enough to call this a success. And the song on which John Foreman raps…? No. Please.
Tapes N Tapes, Outside
Good third record from this underrated band. Tapes N Tapes play a kind of blocky indie rock that takes some unexpected twists and turns. This is nothing I would shout from the rooftops about, but for what it is, I quite liked it.
Terry Scott Taylor, Swine Before Pearl Vol. 1
First installment in an odds-and-sods series from the genius behind Daniel Amos. This one starts with a whole bunch of newly-recorded acoustic tracks before moving into the usual demos and rough mixes. It’s a great little collection, if you’re a fan, which I am.
Terry Scott Taylor, Swine Before Pearl Vol. 2: Madness and Blindness and Astonishment of the Heart
I know, that title, right? The second installment in the series has more acoustic, live and demo tracks, and is just as much fun as the first. I am particularly taken with an unreleased Daniel Amos track called “UFO,” and a new Taylor tune called “You Ring My Bell.”
Telekinesis, 12 Desperate Straight Lines
Another indie-pop act I’ve been led to expect great things from, and another little disappointment. These tunes are fine, this glimmering pop is certainly enjoyable, but it ain’t great stuff. It’s just pretty well OK.
Tres Mts., Three Mountains
A teamup between Doug Pinnick of King’s X and Jeff Ament of Pearl Jam? How could it go wrong? Here’s how: they failed to write any songs worth hearing. This is wretched, in point of fact, one of the biggest disappointments of my year.
Washed Out, Within and Without
A very well-named band. Washed Out play blissful electronic drone-pop, wafting by on waves of sound that, well, wash over you. It’s good stuff, buoyed by the occasional pulsing drum beat, but it gets old over an entire album.
We Were Promised Jetpacks, In the Pit of the Stomach
This band? This band fucking rocks. The second album from these blistering Scots is all powerhouse riffs, precision guitars, thunderous drumming, and bellowing vocals. It’s kind of amazing, if you’re in the mood for it.
Gillian Welch, The Harrow and the Harvest
Welch, on the other hand, never gets old. She and David Rawlings fill this album with the same heartbreaking heartland folk music they’ve always played, and it never fails. This is just ten more great little songs, played and sung with rare sincerity.
Kanye West and Jay-Z, Watch the Throne
Insufferable. A low point for both Kanye and Jay-Z, this album is just two rich guys bragging about their wealth (during a terrible recession) over lazy, amateur production. And it goes on forever, so there’s that.
“Weird Al” Yankovic, Alpocalypse
And we end with Weird Al. Sometimes he’s more inspired than others, and this is one of the other times. It’s not bad, and it keeps the formula going – six originals, five parodies and a polka. But pop music is so lame these days that the parodies can’t help but follow suit, aside from the savage and wonderful “Perform This Way.” Laughs can be found, but not many.
And that brings us to the end of another Fifty Second Week, and another year. As always, I’ll be taking the first week of January off to recuperate. Thanks, everyone, for reading my stuff this year, and I’ll talk to you in two weeks. Year twelve! I can’t believe it.
See you in line Tuesday morning.