The Problem With Year-End Lists (And: Favorite Records Of Fall 2011)

Each season, we ask a small handful of our favorite musicians to look back and nominate one new album that best cut through the noise and resonated with them.

Admittedly, this is out-of-step with the way things work at most music magazines, and I imagine many new readers may be surprised to find us publishing a Fall Release Roundup on December 31st. But to us, it’s natural.

Contrary to popular belief, autumn doesn’t actually end until December 21st each year. For those of us who live in temperate climates, New Year’s day represents the mere threshold of the long winter ahead, not its apex. Somehow, our minds forget what our bodies know.

It’s easy to understand the confusion. We live in odd times where gift shops hang Christmas decorations the minute the the Halloween candy hits clearance racks. Over the last half-century, we’ve fallen into the habit of practically bypassing the fall. We’ve been taught to spend nearly half the season gearing up for yuletime, only to blow our whole holiday load the first week of winter.

It’s similar to the error many music magazines make in their coverage. The dominant approach is to spend the year chasing one new album after another, building them up before their release dates only to abandon them as soon as they’re introduced to the world. Near the end of the year, these terminally nervous outlets finally pause their frenzy for a moment of reflection. The result, unfortunately, is just new form of overkill: a barrage of overlong year-end lists that reek of rehash and false authority. At both ends, this approach can be overwhelming and indigestable to casual fans and deep listeners alike.

Here at TMimaS, we prefer to respect the seasonal nature of things. No, I don’t want to buy a 3-ring binder and a fall sweater in the last week of July; Thanks, but I’m not interested in your year-end list or your Christmas lights on November 29th; And dammit, autumn has barely been over for a week. Here are the best releases from fall 2011, as picked by some of the most creative young musicians around.

It’s by no means a comprehensive list.  Just a small taste of the releases from the past three months that, once the dust had settled, still meant something to a few of our favorite musicians.

Tom Waits – Bad As Me
by Alon Nechushtan

Bad As Me

Bad As Me

Bad As Me is Tom Waits’ seventeenth studio album, and his first since he was inducted into the Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame. It’s also a return to the good old snarly sounds of early classics like Rain Dogs.

A quick listen to the track “Satisfaction” reveals the same kinds of wry-rhyming parodies found on Swordfishtrombones and Frank Wild Years, laid over a minimalistic, repetitive guitar riff delivered with the usual precision by the great Marc Ribot, a veteran and master Waits collaborator.

“Roll my vertebrae out like dice
Let my skull be a home for the mice”

Within that familiar, broad framework, Waits runs a gamut of styles. There are other fiery tracks like “Hell Broke Luce”, but the mood changes to a sizzling ballad setting with songs like the beautiful ‘Last Leaf’, where the text mellows down and we find Waits crooning along with Ketih Richards.

On tunes like “Kiss Me” and “‘Chicago”’ the vibe turns loungy, and Waits becomes silky and seducing, with sounds and lyrics that brought me back to the feeling of Heart of Saturday Night, and to the realization that Tom Waits can still produce remarkable songs with the same ease and elegance he did over thirty years ago.

“you gassed her up and you’re behind the wheel
With you arm around your sweet one in your Oldsmobile”
“(Looking for) The Heart of Saturday Night”

Old friends abound on this remarkable album: Wife and collaborator Kathleen Brennan, who has been writing songs with Waits since 1983, horn players Ben Jaffe and Clint Maedgen from the Preservarion Hall Jazz Band, and there are newer, welcome guests like bassist Flea. For his part, Waits plays guitar, piano, pump organ, banjo, and even tablas on the disco-turned-Bollywood “Raised Right Men”.

On the album closer, “New Year’s Eve”, there are shades of a festive and uplifting waltz with hints of both “Amazing Grace” and “Auld Lang Syne.” What a great way to finish the year. Highly recommended.

Alon Nechushtan is a pianist and composer who’s performed with jazz luminaries, written for small ensembles and big bands, and even recorded an album of klezmer music for John Zorn’s Tzadik label.


St. Vincent – Strange Mercy
by Blake Madden

Strange Mercy

Strange Mercy

Annie Clark never met a juxtaposition she didn’t like. On her third album Strange Mercy, Clark (aka St. Vincent), displays more of the musical balancing act that has become her hallmark; mixing the sweet and sour in equal doses. From the album’s conflicting title to its conflicting music, Clark wants you to be comfortable but never too comfortable, like a babysitter that sings you to sleep, but screams in your face just before you close your eyes.

Clark returns with her usual knack for lush, intricate arrangements and unexpected melodic leaps, but her arsenal has changed. Melodies that on her last album Actor might have been played by a flute, horn, or live string section, are now played on Moog synthesizers. Chunky, unabashed synth basslines sprawl over plodding, mechanized and flattened beats. Clark has channeled her inner P-funk, but she doesn’t want to tear the roof off the sucker so much as make it structurally unsound. The grooves are there, but disjointed, creating sterile dance music that you would never, or could never actually dance to. In other words, you might put this album on if you are about to get into bed with someone, or – as some of the album imagery and lyrics suggest- if you are lying in that bed alone in a hospital room.

Clark revels in smashing extremes together in this way in each piece of music, and never misses an opportunity to do so. The slithering, angelic synths of opener “Chloe in the Afternoon” beckon you towards the pearly gates for a handful of seconds before Clark’s gritty, effected guitar slashes through and brings you back down to earth. “Cruel” begins as one of Clark’s purest pop gems to date, like ABBA on Adderall, before she takes a solo that sounds as if her guitar is throwing up, and then moves to an almost hysterical bridge. The standout “Surgeon” again begins in an ethereal haze of synths, sounding a lot like Jon Barry’s “You Only Live Twice” before dropping the beat and synth-bass into a groove that crescendos with a synth solo that would make Bernie Worrell weep with joy.

When Clark does stray into straightforward territory, it’s never for long. The song “Northern Lights” begins as if might eventually turn into a straight ahead rock tune, but an unorthodox beat restrains its momentum throughout. When the backbeat finally materializes, it’s an afterthought, masked underneath a synth noise solo.

If making sense out of St. Vincent’s stop-and-start grooveless grooves seems a bit masochistic, it’s because it is. That seems to be the point of Clark’s music. She excels at finding that perfect mid-point between pain and pleasure; between the serene and the chaotic, the organic and the mechanical, the sexy and sexless. And while the message is blurred at times, the underlying musicianship and songwriting ability is never in doubt. St. Vincent’s musical trajectory mirrors Clark’s own journey as a music-shool dropout perfectly: it begins inside of ‘the box’ before it forgets the rules and dismantles said box piece by piece. It’s maybe not exactly what we wanted; it’s much more interesting. Strange mercy indeed.

Blake Madden is a musician and a writer who’s best known for his work with the Seattle band Hotels. He’s also written music for film, and is the author of a novel, The List Maker.



Afuche – Highly Publicized Digital Boxing Match
by Jesse Krakow

Afuche is a (mostly) original instrumental 5-piece band consisting of guitar, bass, baritone sax, keyboards, drums/percussion. Hailing from Brooklyn, they manage to combine rock, jazz, prog, classical, musique concrete, and no-wave into their own highly bizarre and totally singular sound.

Their debut album “Highly Publicized Digital Boxing Match”, was released late this year on Maryland’s legendary Cuneiform Records, and it is a valuable addition to the label’s influential catalog. Not content to stay in one area for too long, Afuche has enough chops and composition acumen to veer from style to style without sounding like a pastiche, devoid of personality.

As such, they’ve given us a record that swings from the avant afrobeat-isms of the opener “Monster Smith” to the whimsical beauty of the chamber-like “Who’re They”; from the unsettling stuttering funk of “Pablo Leon” to the almost Zeppelin-like unison guitar and bass riffs in “Here’s To Toast”, from the drum-lead controlled chaos of the mathy “Initialeone” to the epic closer “Th Sq’d”.

The most fully realized piece on the album, “Th Sq’d” starts with hypnotic prepared piano playing a bastardized bossa nova, then moves into a slow cocktail lounge dirge, revs up to a sad and demented marching band figure, slinks into a powerful free-time sax solo, before slamming into a darkly beautiful polyrhythmic coda that gradually sheds it skin and gives way to nothing.

It’s a helluva ending that somehow encapsulates all of the angst and beauty of the entire album.  If you’re into Gutbucket, Jerseyband, & Ahleuchatistas, but also worship Grand Ulena, Friendly Bears, & late 60’s Miles Davis, it is inconceivable that you will not like this album. Truly a wonderful debut by a young band. It’s going to be fun to watch them morph & develop.

Jesse Krakow is a bassist who has played with Shudder To Think, Tall Pines, PAK, Julee Cruise, Kate Pierson of The B-52s, and countless others. He’s curated concerts in tribute to cult favorites like Captain Beefheart, Spinal Tap, and The Shaggs; his former band Time Of Orchids were a cult favorite in their own right; and his 2004 absurdist four-track masterpiece Oceans In The Sun is a personal favorite of TMimaS editor Justin Colletti.


Bjork – Biophilia
by Eric Lemmon

In October, Björk released Biophilia, and the iPad/iPhone applications that allowed her listeners to interact with the album. The creative power in these apps lies in both their simplicity, and just how much they allow the user to do with the music Björk has composed.

Biophilia’s first application, “Cosmogony”, functions as a menu screen and, less importantly, as a traditional music video. The video orbits around a beautiful celestial design that acts as a portal to the rest of the album, but ultimately, it’s a passive experience.

In “Thunderbolt” however, we begin to get a closer look at the real possibilities of interactivity. In it, users control bolts of lightning with their hands. The interface tracks the position, length, and number of fingers applied to the screen in order to manipulate the pitch, speed, and complexity of the notes that are played back. This effectively allows the listener to take over the performance of the background synthesizer part.

Where “Thunderbolt” lets users interact with surface textures, other apps allow them to change the underlying structure of the songs. “Crystalline” combines the look of early vector-graphic arcade games like Battlezone with a style of gameplay that’s reminiscent of Sega’s Sonic The Hedgehog. But instead of collecting rings, users collect crystals, and their choices alter which section of the song is played next.

The few apps that fail to deliver, do so when they limit the user’s interaction with the music too greatly. ”Moon”, for example, offers the ability to control the song’s harp accompaniment, but any attempts by the user to change the meter or notes of the harp part underneath Björk’s voice turns the song off. It’s an understandable limitation, as there’s reason to fear that listeners could ruin the intended effect of the song by introducing strange dissonances or ill-advised changes in meter. Still, this choice seems a lot like like offering a child a sandbox and a pail, and forbidding him to build sandcastles.

Perhaps the most successfully interactive app on the menu is “Solstice”. Here, the pitfalls of “Moon” are easily avoided. Sun beams (which control the pitch of a harp) and the orbits of the planets (which control speed) can be modified freely as Björk’s voice sings above. As with many of the apps that allow interaction there’s an option to save and even record your work.

But the apps don’t have to be complex to be worthwhile. “Dark Matter” might be of the simplest programs in Biophilia, but it’s also one of the most enjoyable. Essentially glorified ear-training program, it prompts listeners with a series of pitches that listeners must play back correctly in order to play back to progress to the next section of the song. It also includes some nice graphics that outline paths to create theoretical scales as users select more and more pitches.

Björk’s foray into interactive multimedia music is not without precedent. Classical composers have long explored the idea that audiences and environments can play a part in music’s creation. It’s only been made easier through the proliferation of advanced computing, personal touchscreen devices and web-based Flash games. Earlier in the year, Nathan Davis composed a piece for the International Contemporary Ensemble that incorporated audience interactions via cell phone, even giving the audience and their devices an extended solo during the performance.

In this context, it would be a mistake to see Björk’s latest album as a revolution. In reality, it’s more akin to The Who or the Beach Boys’ inclusion of synthesizers in their late 60s and early 70’s albums. With Biophilia, Björk is treading down a long path that has been cleared before her. She may not be one of the inventors, or even the earliest pioneers of this style of interactive music, but she’s perhaps the first large-scale pop artist to implement the concept in a meaningful way.

Eric Lemmon is a composer and violist. He is a member of the Circles and Lines new composers consortium, and his music has been performed at Le Poisson Rouge, Vaudeville Park, and on WQXR New York Public Radio.


Honorable Mentions

Naturally, this roundup leaves off plenty of fall 2011 albums our readers might enjoy.

There were a few albums by established prestige artists that should appeal to those who are already fans of their work (Kate Bush’s 50 Words For Snow and The Roots’ Undun come to mind.) There were other records that were spotty, but worth certainly exploring (David Lynch’s Crazy Clown Time, for instance.)

Most of all, I was impressed by the quality of the records our readers sent in for consideration. (Sorry guys, I make it a point not to assign reviews, but I thought Spanish Prisoner’s Gold Fools and High Tea’s The Pleasure Of Finding Things Out were particularly worth mentioning.)

If you’re an established musician who would like to submit a review of your favorite Winter 2012 release, get in contact with us via [email protected] before March 21st. If we missed a Fall 2011 release you loved, shoot us an email before the end of the month, and we’ll run your one-paragraph review in the next issue.

This entry was posted in All Stories, Featured Stories, January 2012, New Releases. Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.
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