Monday, February 20, 2012

Top Albums of 2011, 5-1

5.  Kevin Devine - Between the Concrete and the Clouds.  In 2008, after hearing an acoustic version of "Brother's Blood" for the first time at a Kevin Devine/Jesse Lacey show, I thought Kevin Devine's next record would be his best by a landslide.  As it turned out, "Brother's Blood" was the best song from that album (also titled "Brother's Blood"); unfortunately, though, nothing else even came close.  This is in part to the greatness of that song, but also to the horrible pacing of the album; the tracks either awkwardly bled into each other or sounded so disparate that the idea of an "album" lost its aura.  It seemed like a mix tape--one with some of Devine's weakest songs to date.

So I was apprehensive about "Concrete and Clouds," hoping that one of my favorite performers could bring more of his live energy into the studio.  I couldn't have been more pleased with the outcome.  Much like Bright Eyes' 2011 revival, Devine's lyrics remain the focal point, but now they are accompanied by a full band effort with more pronounced melodies.  The poignant "The First Hit" touches on familiar lyrical themes but sounds like a more polished song from the "Put Your Ghost to Rest" sessions.  "11-17" could have been a quiet, acoustic track, but Devine instead plucks a twangy, electric guitar, and the song ultimately breaks down into a slow-burning haze.  Songs like "11-17" capture the live energy that was absent from "Brother's Blood"; and after listening to the album through the brooding closer "I Used to Be Someone," which could have been written from Devine's or his deceased brother's perspective ("rest assured I used to be someone / A brother's brother and a mother's son"), one thing becomes clear: this is a consistent and cohesive effort--possibly the beginning of Devine's studio evolution from a singer/songwriter to the leader of a full-fledged rock band.

4.  The Weeknd - House of Balloons. From my review at The Setonian: The anonymous R&B singer The Weeknd recently released his 9-song debut, "House of Balloons" – a staggering mix of R&B, dubstep and indie/avant-garde samples. The mixtape sounds like Drake during his most wallowing moments, offering a dark and despairing insight into the world of drug consumption that, for all its sadness and futility, is also undeniably catchy, or perhaps addicting itself.  Opener "High for This" begins somewhat conventionally: hypnotic drum slugging and reverb-drowned vocals a la Drake. However, when The Weeknd implores, "Open your hand," electronic fuzz and dubstep beats suddenly pulsate, awakening the song from its swoon. This weekend party has all the elements of contemporary mainstream rap—lots of drugs and girls—but even when The Weeknd sings the song's chorus, "Even though you don't roll / Trust me girl / You wanna be high for this," he is hardly glorifying this hedonism.

The mixtape's highlight, "House of Balloons / Glass Table Girls," nears 7 minutes, beginning with fuzzy waves of electronic noise and a psychedelic sample from Siouxsie and the Banshees, which revels in its drug-filled indulgence: "This is a happy house / We're happy here in the happy house / This is fun, fun, fun, fun..." The song unwinds midway into the sludgy beat of "Glass Table Girls," capturing the dingy atmosphere of a cocaine-filled after-party: "We could test out the tables / We got some brand new tables / All glass and it's four feet wide / But it's enough to get us ten feet high." The Weeknd alters his normally echoing and despondent vocals with aggressive and confrontational near-whispering, evoking tension and a sense of looming danger.  "House of Balloons / Glass Table Girls" captures the ethos of the perpetually high hip-hop and rap scene, and it is therefore not just one of the better songs released this year but also one of the most culturally and historically significant.

Much like Elliott Smith's posthumous "From a Basement on a Hill," a haunting collection of songs about drug-addiction and dying recorded when Smith essentially was a walking corpse, "House of Balloons" sounds frighteningly earnest—the harrowing words from a moribund singer. If true art is suffering, "House of Balloons" is a ghastly masterpiece.

3.  M83 - Hurry Up, We're Dreaming.   If a group says they are influenced by "Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness," chances are I'm going to listen.  "Hurry Up We're Dreaming" is a joyous album; it's not only just thoroughly enjoyable, but it is one of those albums that makes me happy every time I listen to it, from the stellar "Intro" and MGMT-esque single, "Midnight City" to the childlike visions on "Raconte-Moi Une Histoire" all the way through the second disc, the 22nd song.  I will have much more to say about this album once I review its individual songs and M83 at Terminal 5 (which I paid an arm and a leg for to get me and my brother in).

2.  Bon Iver - Bon Iver, Bon Iver.  Beautiful, majestic, "Holecene."  A perfect album and the fact that it came out in the summer was a pretty daring move for an artist whose music and persona are associated with winter, snow, and log cabins.

I don't care if the last song, "Beth/Rest," sounds like Phil Collins; it remains one of my favorites. Especially when Vernon proclaims, "I ain't living in the dark no more."  What a great line, especially for someone who's unfairly portrayed as a self-wallowing recluse.

One of the many reasons I really enjoy this album is very subjective: nostalgia.  I streamed this record over and over at my summer internship, and it just reminds me of the good times and great people (and no crippling grad school stress) there.  I loved that job and was so sad to leave.  But I still have this album to bring me back, which isn't the worst consolation gift.

1.  The Weeknd - Thursday.  The difference between "House of Balloons" and "Thursday" can be found in their covers: the monochrome debut versus the colorful contrasts on the sophomore mixtape.  I wouldn't love "Thursday" if I didn't love "House of Balloons;" it's the perfect follow-up to a phenomenal debut, adding color to an occasionally bleak palette.  "Life of the Party" revels in the Carnivalesque--it's loud, bold, swanky, dirty, and sadistic: "if you want to go downtown with the drugs in your body / take that step, you're the life of the party."  I don't believe that the Weeknd is a sadistic person but just an imaginative lyricist; he creates a terrifyingly realistic narrative, where vultures ("The Birds" series) scour drug-filled parties for their inebriated female prey. I think this album could be a fashionable listen--something I'm just really into this year and will eventually not like as much--but I cannot deny that this was the album I listened to and enjoyed the most this year, and I'm still loving it.


  1. great list, post your list on your MusicEmissions profile!

  2. Nooooooo "Beth/Rest." But hooray for the rest of the album and for Kevin Devine.