The Best Albums of 2011: #1

Bon Iver: Bon Iver

Bon Iver (specifically lead singer and mastermind Justin Vernon) first entered our consciousness about 3 years ago with the brilliant but sobering debut album, For Emma, Forever Ago. Armed with a guitar, a few mics and a makeshift drum kit, Vernon recorded the album alone in a cabin in rural Wisconsin. Encompassing years of heartbreak and love loss, the album evoked a sense of pain that was palpable and all the while enthralling. A year and a few Grey’s Anatomy episodes later, Vernon’s star was on the rise. Most notably, Vernon took a turn as singer and collaborator on Kanye West’s most recent album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. After touring extensively, Vernon and his mates returned to the studio for a follow-up, resulting in this, their eponymous follow-up.

Back again is the signature ambiance, marked by Vernon’s haunting falsetto vocals.  Except this time, the production is more dynamic resulting in a bigger sound. The opening track “Perth” starts up with a guitar lick that repeats, followed by deeply reverberating vocals and a marching snare; somewhat familiar territory. But then the song picks up its intensity with horns and a double bass drum; perhaps a signal of what lurks next. The dreamy “Holocene” sounds much like something from the previous album, except that it’s far more layered in sounds and textures. The album’s first release, “Calgary” is also the band’s most upbeat song on the album. Essentially straight-ahead rock, it rounds itself out nicely with some carefully placed synth work. The album closes in a peculiar way with “Beth/Rest,” an 80′s styled-ballad that would make Michael Bolton blush. Replete with 80’s keyboards and a sax solo (yes you read that correctly), the song sounds like it was meant to be played during the credits of some random 80’s flick. Don’t worry though, somehow- like the rest of the album- it works.

Learn more about Bon Iver at http://www.boniver.org/

Select Cuts: Perth, Holocene, Calgary

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Early Album Review: Bon Iver [Bon Iver]

Rating: 9.6

Release Date: June 21, 2011

Label: 4AD

Bon Iver (or specifically lead singer and mastermind Justin Vernon) first entered our consciousness about 3 years ago with the brilliant but sobering debut album, For Emma, Forever Ago. Armed with a guitar, a few mics and a makeshift drum kit, Vernon recorded the album alone in a cabin in rural Wisconsin. Encompassing years of heartbreak and love loss, the album evoked a sense of pain that was palpable and all the while enthralling. A year and a few Grey’s Anatomy episodes later, Vernon’s star was on the rise. Most notably, Vernon took a turn as singer and collaborator on Kanye West’s most recent album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. After touring extensively, Vernon and his mates returned to the studio for a follow-up, resulting in this, their eponymous follow-up.
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The Best Albums of 2010

I realize this is cheating, but I had no choice.  I thoroughly enjoyed each of these albums but in different ways.  While How I Got Over may be the album I bumped the most in 2010, I couldn’t ignore the shear brashness of Kanye West’s most recent album- My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.  So I split the difference (er cheated) by calling #3 on my list a tie.  Without further adieu…

3.  (Tie) The Roots: How I Got Over [Def Jam]

How I Got Over is The Roots’ first album since they become Jimmy Fallon’s house band.  On this, their ninth album, the Philly-based rap/soul/jazz group show why they continue to get the respect and adoration of so many.  As I’ve mentioned on previous occasion, the rap genre is much like the broader category of pop music, in that its homogeneous (or boring).  Albums like this continue to push back on the notion that rap is dead.  Its fun, creative, and it contains a bevy of credible artists (John Legend, Monsters of Folk/Jim James, Joanna Newsom).  Check it out, there’s something here for everyone.

Prime Cuts: Walk Alone, Dear God 2.0, Hustla

3.  (Tie) Kany West: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy [Roc-A-Fella, Def Jam]

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is the sort of album that an artist records when they’re trying to send a message.  In the case of Kanye West, the message is a big giant middle finger to everyone (including me) that thought Kanye went a little nuts.  We all know that things haven’t been easy for the guy these last few years with the untimely passing of his mother.  I’m sure many of us would go a little nuts after an experience like that.  Throw in the fact that he’s ridiculously famous and you get what happened at the MTV Video Music Awards a few years ago.  To redeem himself, West produces this wonderful catharsis.  But this isn’t only about demons.  West has some fun, and brings a few friends (Kid Cudi, Rick Ross, Nicki Manaj, Jay-Z, Bon Iver) along for the ride and the result is probably his best work to date.

Prime Cuts: So Appalled, Runaway, Hell of a Life

Good Vibrations

The National: High Violet

Rating: 9.2

Label: 4AD

Release Date: May 11, 2010

Reminds me of: Beatles, Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, Sufjan Stevens

If there was ever any question that The National was capable of being one of the few bands to define today’s musical landscape, High Violet – their fifth full-length studio album – should send a clear message that they are.  Starting with 2005′s Alligator, followed by their magnum opus Boxer, and continuing to present day, The National are in the midst of a string of brilliant releases.  Quite a rare feat in today’s musical universe.

At first blush, High Violet is a bit of a downer.  Yet, somehow with each listen, the music morphs into a collection of deeply resonant songs, each thoughtful in its approach.  After awhile you find yourself immersed in a sea of musical textures and sounds that do not readily make themselves known from the outset.  In some ways High Violet is a continuation of the formula that the band executed effortlessly on Boxer.  Lead singer Matt Berninger sings with ambiguity channeling, joy, reflection, despair and even oddity (“I was afraid I’d eat your brains”).  And while the music continues along the same path as its predecessor,  High Violet goes a step further.  While both Boxer and High Violetseem to move at a similar pace, there is more grandiosity here.  In particular, the last two songs on the album — “England” and “Vanderlyle,” which are the kind of songs that showcase a band that is in full command of its purpose with equal pomposity and grace.  I’m not sure if these Ohio boys got anything left in the tank after this, but doubtless many will be waiting.

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The Greatest Albums of the 2000s

Bon_iver_album_cover#8.  Bon Iver, For Emma, Forever Ago (2007): Writing songs about heartache is nothing new.  In fact, entire genres (blues, country music) of music are almost entirely about the subject.  As a result, devoting an album to the feeling of a love lost doesn’t always come across well……. enter in Justin Vernon.  Recording under the name Bon Iver (“good winter” in French), Vernon retreated to his father’s cabin to record a collection of songs about his broken heart.  To be sure, this is a simple album.  Vernon wrote and recorded the tunes  all by himself.  With a few exceptions, the album features only him on vocals and guitar.  As a natural consequence, the simplicity of production brings out the gut wrenching feeling of loss.  Vernon’s soulful falsetto vocals evoke a sound akin to Michael McDonald.  Laugh if you must, but it works; almost to perfection.  The raw emotion is palpable, if for any other reason because its real.

If you’ve ever experienced heartache but needed just the right musical companion to wallow in your misery, this is the album for you.  On the other hand, the beauty of sadness most evident on this album would be an equally good reason to give this one a listen.

Faves: Flume, Lump Sum, Skinny Love, Blindsided

Listen Here: http://www.lala.com/#artist/Bon_Iver

Website: http://www.boniver.org/