It's that time of year again, when my friend Andy sends out a hotly excitable e-mail asking a dozen of his most music-crazed friends -- sound engineers, clubsters, DJs, anyone for whom music is less a casual dalliance and more like lifeblood -- to compile their personal lists of the year's best music, so we can all discover something new and/or gently mock each others' weird tastes in African banjo disco, kazoo jazz funk or ambient doom metal.
As usual, I dive into this venture with a great and all-consuming fervor, ignoring completely how I'm no music critic by training and instead opening wide to 25+ years of serious music obsessiveness; couple it with a bottle of premium sake and ignore all overwhelming meta Top 10 lists like this one, and it's all sorts of delightful. Plus I get to hear what an idiot I am for ignoring the likes of Bon Iver or Florence + the Machine. Bonus!
Here's my contribution for 2011, a damn fine year for music indeed...
Because The National didn't put out a new record this year. Because Elbow remain one of the warmest, friendliest, most awesomely unsung bands around (in the U.S. anyway -- they're huge in England), cranking out some of the most beautifully crafted, emotionally rich melodies that rarely see U.S. radio, or Spotify, or the DJ's remix tape. Whatever. In an industry with so few sure things, a new Elbow record is always cause for a deep sigh of gratitude.
Dude, look. Every year needs its Wolfmother. Every year should have its Icky Thump. Here's 2011's. Here's an epic, completely awesome, high energy retro Zeppelin throwback band that makes your groin tingle and your inner hippie leather biker badass yelp for feral joy, a band whose swirling psychedelia, wailing vocals, crunchy guitars and sheer joie de vivre at being young and alive makes you want to bolt a fistful of whisky and grow your hair to your nipples and howl and the goddamn moon. Manages that fine balance between classic-rock timelessness and staying fresh as a blanket of newly fallen cocaine.
It was looking a little bleak for awhile. The Field's Axel Willner's first record, 2007's mesmerizing From Here We Go Sublime was so pitch-perfect Zen-trance minimalist-dub flawless, his sophomore effort was almost fated to disappoint. And it did. 2009's Yesterday and Today was a pale and confused stepsister languishing under the huge accomplishment of FHWGS. It looked like Sweden's young, groundbreaking producer was a one-off.
But then, outta nowhere, Willner thumps and grooves right back into form, similar to Sublime and yet progressing and variegating those 10-minute zone-out rhythms into new shapes and textures, now less icy and razor-sharp, more warm and intricate. Put it on in the background as you work or play, drink or splay, and watch as it works like confident fingers deep into your pleasure center.
Inscrutable indecipherable howling yelping ultra-hyped enigmatic cult British sensation band/collective that could have, very easily, failed to live up to the ridiculous buzz surrounding their first bootlegged tracks, but (magically) didn't. Sure, Ellery James Roberts might just be the most tuneless singer you've heard all year. But his raspy howl still frames hugely likable songs, full of chiming guitars and fast, asynchronous drumming, underscored by lots of organ and feral howls that echo to the heavens. Gorgeously frayed, yet still wound up tight. Fantastic.
Six tracks of instrumental rock perfection. All epic landscapes, cinematic ambitions and cosmic crescendos, packed with so many swoony moods, chiming guitars and propulsive tempo shifts that you lose count 10 minutes into it, and don't care in the slightest. About as far as you can get from glitzy, overproduced, auto-tuned pop music Lady Gaga hell, which is a joyful thing indeed. Background music for people who hate background music.
Cheating here. This isn't a single release, but rather a bunch of smaller EPs and collaborations from throughout the year that I'm counting as one. I'm OK with that, because they all involve Burial, the mysterious, shy, never interviewed, uber-genius Brit DJ/producer, he of the scratchy, micro-dubstep woodblock shuffle beats, gauzy/gritty atmospheres and echo galore, with loneliness and melancholia dripping from every track like gloomy honey.
Of particularly exquisite note...
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Mark Morford is the author of The Daring Spectacle: Adventures in Deviant Journalism, a mega-collection of his finest columns for the San Francisco Chronicle and SFGate. He recently wondered who in your life you find perfectly toxic, cheered that the gay agenda will see you now, and is fairly certain Jesus took magic mushrooms. Join him on Facebook, or email him. Not to mention...