Being busy with real life, I haven’t had a chance to listen to much new music in 2011. Moreover, I was disappointed in a lot of new music right off the bat (e.g. Incubus’ If Not Now, When?; dredg’s Chuckles and Mr. Squeezy; Bon Iver’s self-titled), and I grew tired of other albums (e.g. The Sounds’ Something To Die For; Death Cab For Cutie’s Codes and Keys). That being said, I did want to single out the four albums that I really enjoyed this year. I’m not going to rank them all, but I will crown one of them “album of the year.” The list follows after the jump.
In the Pit of the Stomach by We Were Promised Jetpacks
Sure, it’s basically These Four Walls Part 2. But it’s also simultaneously more daring and more refined. The band has sanded down their rougher edges, but they’ve also gotten heavier and gloomier, practically delving into alt-metal on “Hard to Remember” and flirting with punk on “Circles and Squares” and “Human Error.” In the Pit of the Stomach isn’t just darker and angrier than its predecessor, though; it’s a much better album, and it should finally prove that We Were Promised Jetpacks isn’t simply a poor man’s Frightened Rabbit.
Major/Minor by Thrice
Thrice has always had a lot of under-realized potential. Following them for the past few years has been immensely frustrating because they’ve always seemed as if they were on the verge of making a great record, but have then gone and messed it up somehow. The Artist in the Ambulance had some great riffs, but it also had too many tunes that sounded alike. Vheissu had a bunch of great post-hardcore tracks that were ruined by pointless screaming. The Alchemy Index was a novel concept, but it had too much filler and could easily have been two-thirds as long as it was. Thrice finally seemed to figure things out with Beggars, a more mature, understated album than anything else the band had put out until that point in its career, and they’ve grown even more confident with Major/Minor.
For all intents and purposes, Major/Minor might as well be a grunge album. The guitars are heavily distorted, the production is more lo-fi than before, and the keyboards are almost non-existent. But somehow, this rougher sound feels more honest. Whereas Thrice previously seemed pretentious and inaccessible, Major/Minor is surprisingly inviting. Free from the shackles of needlessly complicated riffing or obscure literary references, singer Dustin Kensrue’s messages are clearer than ever before. “Promises” is a cynical examination of our society’s hypocrisy, while “Blinded” is a hopeful tale of a man finding salvation through faith. None of this comes across as preachy, however. Thrice no longer seems like a band with a mission, but rather, four guys playing music they love and singing about things that are important to them. It took them eight albums to get there, but it was worth it.
Suburbia I’ve Given You All and Now I’m Nothing by The Wonder Years
I haven’t really been into pop punk since about a decade ago, but The Wonder Years’ latest record has me wondering what other gems I might have missed during the aughts. The best way to describe Suburbia is that it’s pop punk, but augmented. The Wonder Years has a standard rock group setup, but they augment it by using a keyboardist/third guitarist to fill out their sound. The Wonder Years sings about standard pop-punk subjects like girls and partying, but they augment it with a sense of nostalgia, their lyrics being a wistful look back on their college years and the suburban life. The Wonder Years plays typical pop punk music, but they augment it with a melodic-hardcore edge, pumping the tempo up to speeds that Blink-182 would find inhuman. But above all, the reason Suburbia works so wonderfully is that it’s devoid of the snottiness and brattiness that characterizes so much other pop punk. The members of The Wonder Years are sincere to the core. Unlike so much generic turn-of-the-millennium pop punk, this is music made by people who believe in the music they’re making. Hopefully, others will believe in it too.
ALBUM OF THE YEAR
Lights of Endangered Species by Matthew Good
Ever since 1999, fans have been waiting for Matthew Good to record another Beautiful Midnight, arguably one of the best albums of the nineties. Instead, everything Good has done since then has been decidedly different from Midnight. His final record with his band, The Audio of Being, was a far heavier, more atmospheric outing. Since going solo, Good has strayed even farther away from Midnight’s sound. His first solo album, Avalanche, delved into vaguely futuristic quasi-space rock. He then released a straight-up rock ‘n roll album in the vein of Neil Young, White Light Rock & Roll Review. Next came an account of his attempted suicide, his failed marriage, and his time in a psychiatric facility, the acoustic/electronic Hospital Music. That was followed up by the Audio-of-Being-esque Vancouver, a cynical look at the titular city. All of those albums were great in their own right, but none of them could measure up to Beautiful Midnight.
Finally, in 2011, Matthew good released an album that could stand on the same pedestal as Beautiful Midnight, and it was ironically the least Beautiful-Midnight-esque album of his career. Lights of Endangered Species saw Good abandoning his alt-rock sound almost entirely to record with an orchestra. That should have been cause for alarm; rock musicians recording with orchestras have generated some of the most overwrought, overblown music of the past twenty years. Luckily, Good and producer Warne Livesey opted mostly for sparse arrangements, letting Good’s voice and guitar take centre stage. This isn’t exactly rock music, but it’s not schmaltzy orchestral music with a whiny guy trying to sing over it either.
What it is, though, is some of the best music of Matthew Good’s career. Unconstrained by the verse-chorus-verse format, Good lets his creativity shine with lengthy musical interludes and virtuosic, yet tasteful, guitar solos, like on the bluesy “Shallow’s Low.” He dabbles in indie on “In a Place of Lesser Men” and showcases his fun side on the jazzy romp of “Zero Orchestra.” But he also knows how to show restraint, as evidenced by the gorgeous ballad “How it Goes,” probably my favourite song of 2011. Lights of Endangered Species is rumoured to be the final album of Matthew Good’s career, but I can think of no better swan song for him than this.
Even though 2011 was a disappointing year overall for music, I did manage to find a few gems, and Lights of Endangered Species might be one of my favourite albums of all time. Plus, I’ve got lots to look forward to in 2012. New Closure in Moscow, new Coheed and Cambria, new No Doubt and Deltron 3030 (finally!), new Our Lady Peace, new Jimmy Eat World…it should be a good year.