For a few reasons I'm not prepared to discuss here, Manchester Orchestra's album Simple Math completely changed the trajectory of my year. And as the album's finale, 7-minute "Leaky Breaks," is playing its last notes through my headphones in an airport on my way home for Christmas, I can't help but just sort of look back over the album's tracklisting and find a memory for each and every song.
2011 saw me achieving a goal of mine that was over 5 years in the making. It was a year in which I maybe grew up more than I ever have before. It was a year that made me take quite an uncomfortable look at who I have turned into. "I never knew how capable I would become / I'm tired of talking to a wall / When I could talk to someone else." Those words, from "Pensacola," are hands down my favorite on the album. They are this year's essence, for better or worse.
I guess I was kind of at this place where I thought, "Ok, this is how me and my life are, and this is how it will always be." I thought that how I acted and responded to things was the only way I ever would. People never change or whatever. To a certain extent, I believe that to be true. And I also believe that, to a certain extent, people shouldn't change. So much of this life is bullshit, that all we ever really have is how we are. I don't even completely know what I'm saying, because I feel like this is so wishy-washy and back-and-forth and whatever else. But I suppose all I mean to say is, we should change because we want to. I'm certainly not an oppressed individual in anyway, but I found out this year that I could get what I wanted without having to make myself into something I'm not. Because if I did do that, would what that "different" person wants even be the same as what I want?
Andy Hull, on song after song, struggles with his identity and what it's doing to those around him. At times it's destructive, at times it's so lonely and miserable that you don't want to do anything but reach out and give the dude a hug. But it's always him. And I don't think it's selfish to say to the world, "Look, this is what I've been given and this is what I'm going to do with it." With songs that are forceful in an almost therapeutic way ("April Fool" or "Virgin"), Manchester Orchestra created an outlet that's a two-way street. You know after hearing an album like Simple Math that these dudes feel a lot better, and it's kind of like we're all getting fixed together.
It's still a little weird to admit this, but I don't think I would be where I am right now if I had not heard Simple Math when I did. And if that sounds like a gross exaggeration, perhaps that's because it probably is. But if there's one thing I wouldn't mind exaggerating about, it's this. I've never really felt the need to thank a band before, but basically, that's exactly what I want to do. Thank you, Manchester Orchestra. If the goal of this whole thing is just to be alright and be better, I'd like to think we've both achieved just that.
2011 was a weird year. 2011 was a difficult year. 2011 was a year I would never change.
#2 The Wonder Years - Suburbia, I've Given You All And Now I'm Nothing
I'm running out of ways to say that I'm a big fucking baby and this was my big fucking pacifier (Or maybe I'm not!!!). Regardless, anyone who's ever followed this band knows the deal. They went from jokes to, well, something else. Maybe I can relate, to a certain extent. When I started writing for this site, all I wanted to do was make people laugh. I just wanted users to understand that music "journalism" or, really, anything music related, can be done a million different ways. My old standbys were jokes about food and jokes about myself. Which, yeah, that sounds a lot like Let's Get Stoked on It! But then something happened, life or whatever else, and everything didn't always seem so funny. Or, at least, not every situation needed a joke.
I could see you interpreting this as, "Oh fuck, Blake got boring." While I don't believe that to be true, I can see how people would be like, "Dude, what gives?!" I know but I don't really know. This whole thing is a sort of ebb and flow, which is how I picture The Wonder Years' career path. Songs like "Came Out Swinging" and "Hoodie Weather" and "My Life As A Pigeon" are bigger and more dynamic and more adult then anything else the band has given us. Yet I still think there is a life and enthusiasm in these songs that is so much fun to listen to. The term "maturation" gets thrown around a lot, but I don't think that's what this is. I think this is, more simply, just some dudes who had to figure out a new way to deal with their shit. I haven't quite figured that part out yet, but I guess if these guys can do it, so can I.
Whoo boy, these next three albums are going to be hard to write about. Starting with War Paint as the example, my three favorite albums of 2011 were so immensely touching to me that it's hard for me to sit here and say why or what or even how an album like War Paint and I connected. Which, fine, is a cop-out. I understand that. I also understand that whatever I say here would be so outlandishly personal and crybaby-ish that I'm just not that comfortable having anyone else read it.
As a person who still doesn't understand irony, I'll go on a limb and say that's irony when discussing a record like War Paint. There is literally nothing left to the imagination here, which is why I tend to find myself connecting with the more in-your-face variety of songs ("Miscommunication" or "No One's Gonna Need You More" or "War Paint"). Perhaps my favorite lyric from the whole thing comes early, in "War Paint" when AJ Perdomo sings, "Remember when we first met, we were alone?" And I guess to me that kind of sums this whole thing up. You have to be alone before you can stop being alone. You can't let the lack of people in your life keep you from ever having people in your life. I think it becomes increasingly easy to stick with your own personal status quo, and that scares the fucking crap out of me. War Paint, after lots and LOTS of listens, kind of became a sort of rallying cry - it might sound stupid and overly trite, but The Dangerous Summer created more than an album for me. They crafted a handbook for getting better and moving forward. Sometimes it doesn't have to be complicated. Sometimes, we just need to remember that although we can stand on our own, we don't always have to.
I've been doing lots of soul searching (OBVIOUSLY) over the past few months. But, actually, I don't even want to call it that. I don't know what "soul searching" actually means. Maybe I've been doing it all along. Once again, who EVER knows. However, with a record like Sympathy, it's hard not to feel like you're supposed to look inward, even if just for a few moments. Songs like "Five Minutes" or "Bury The Floors" (two of, by far, my favorite songs of the past few years), are penned, from first guitar strum to final lyric, with the not-so-simple task of self-exploration.
What I mean by that is, oftentimes it's left to us to understand, or even rationalize, the things that occur around us. On Sympathy, that "occurence" is the death of the lead singer's father. Understandably, a lot of "Why's" are posited by Scattered Trees. But even if you don't necessarily have that to deal with (and I hope you don't), what Scattered Trees does is let us try and figure out our surroundings and the consequences of being in a certain place at a certain time. I know I've become sort of a catchphrase/cliche machine as of late, but one particular saying resonates with me when I hear this beautiful, folky album: Sometimes things just are how they are. We can't change what happens TO us, but with a little perseverance and willpower, we can change what happens next.
I think sometimes what happens with End of the Year Lists is we all want to be different. I am not ashamed to say that I take a little pride in having records on my list that nobody else has. That's just part of the scavenger mentality of being a music fan in the digital age. This year that might not be as true as in the past, but it is something I certainly think about. But I guess at the end of it, the driving force behind these lists are things that we liked. And sometimes, the things we like, and the things that a lot of people like, are the same. When Bon Iver' first album became a hit, I was pretty shocked. Now, obviously, I'm not. It's kind of like how a band name is weird the first time you hear it. No matter what. But then you hear it and it's all like, oh yeah, of course they are called The Receiving End of Sirens. Duh!
Weird digressions aside, Bon Iver was perhaps the record I was most afraid would fail me (like that's somehow a thing). What I mean is that For Emma, Forever Ago kind of knocked me on my booty. I liked folk music a lot at that point, but this was something different. And so I also knew that once this guy was thrust into fame, his music would obviously be different. Maybe even disingenuous. But Bon Iver is very sincere and very relatable in many ways. "Perth" and "Holocene" and even "Beth/Rest" all carry very distinct viewpoints and slice-of-life-isms. But the way they are delivered, with build-ups and falsettos and sometimes even electronics/horns, make each song standalone yet crucial to the building blocks of Justin Vernon's always interesting worldview. Bon Iver made Justin Vernon a star for real, despite what people were calling him before. And I can't really wait to see how he continues onward and upward.
Oh man, did I listen to this record a lot. Like, probably too much. So much to the point where it kind of bums me out. Not because the record is bad or because I overplayed it (even though I did), but because of the mindset that it wells up within me. I fear it might become one of those albums that is so deeply intertwined with a period in my life (a not so good period, mind you) that it will never really count for anything outside of that context.
But at the same time, Under Soil and Dirt, and in the greater scheme The Story So Far, are great. This is a young band, with equal amounts of musical talent and discontentment. And, which may be obvious by now, I'm kinda into those who are discontent. Because, even though it's certainly negative and not an attitude that can be sustained forever (or maybe it can?), it's one that seems to imply a hope and a search for better. Is it so wrong to expect people to be cool and not horrible, disgusting monsters? Why are the people who ask for more from other people made out to be the dickheads? Never really made sense to me, especially since I feel like I've met a lot of dickheads this year. I don't know, I guess it seems pretty simple to me: be ok towards people, because isn't that almost always easier? Through their kind of rough words and kind of aggressive music, The Story So Far helped me keep in mind that trying to be an ok dude doesn't make you the weird one.
I don't have my Top 10 list in front of me, but I would hazard a guess at saying this is the first album, upon announcement, that I just KNEW would be a favorite of the year. This band and me have a special relationship, mostly because I feel like they opened me up to a style of music I never really gave a chance. Which is to say, the bigger, more brooding facets of indie-post-hardcore blah blah. They seemed to never put themselves in a creative box, even though some people seem to think that's exactly what happened with this record. But I don't know, Waves is definitely my favorite record of theirs. It is such a singular statement to me, done so in a way that makes every listen feel important.
Maybe the other thing I appreciate, is how the lyrics kind of let you fill in the blanks. There's ambiguity to songs like "Parts in Different Places" or "Always Only For Me." And even though I understand when a band is so clearly trying to pull at my heartstrings, I don't care. And why should I? Anyone who says that they aren't listening to music in order to connect with something is either lying to themselves or probably deaf. Isn't that what we're all trying to do? Like every single moment of every day? Maybe that's an exaggeration, but what Moving Mountains have accomplished with Waves is allowing their listeners to do a little soul searching, a very personal task that they allow us to keep extremely personal. And the fact that it's all set to great, anthemic music is just the extra bit that makes this not so much a record but a mantra.
For a while, under my avatar (is that what they still call those things? It feels VERY 2005), it said that I, or at least my internet persona, was a Young Pilgrim. I suppose I am not the only person who connected with that namesake. Regardless of the fact that I found this album during a move, it can mean a lot whether you're never getting out of that godforsaken small town. Being a pilgrim can represent a lot of things, most of them, obviously, are mental. As sad as it sounds, the Internet has given us the ability to be pilgrims in many ways. Take me for instance, I discovered music. It gave my life more than a little purpose. And I think what Charlie Simpson does so well, is make me feel alright about the pursuit of, well, whatever. It's ok to not even know what you're after, I think, as long as you realize you're after something.
So different than his work in Fightstar, Simpson shows a masterful use of tonal shifts and intelligent songwriting. There's nothing here overly trite, as everything is created in a way to make us think. Uncomfortable as it may seem, aren't we always at our best when there's more on the line? Or, at least, don't we always feel compelled to do our best? I think it can be easy to enjoy music but not absorb it, especially if you're very into a specific type of music. And even though on songs like "Suburbs" or "Parachutes" or "Hold On", we essentially here acoustic singer/songwriter tunes, they are presented so carefully and in such orchestral fashion that it almost becomes a feeling in our gut that what's going on here is no Whole Foods commercial puff piece. What we get on Young Pilgrim is a dude with a vision that is simple but hard to follow through on: We are all here to figure something out. And if we don't, were we ever really here at all?
When Lydia broke up, I was pretty bummed. Which, I don't know, seems kind of weird, even now. Bands go away all the time. Whatever. But they always leave us with their work, which in some cases, is more than enough to keep us going for eternity. But I always felt like Lydia had more to give (which they, in a new form, did. And, sadly, it wasn't as amazing as I'd like it to be.) But The Cinema, well, The Cinema created an album that, although different, kept with Lydia's theme of making long-lasting, emotionally-charged music. My Blood is Full of Airplanes is in someways even more singular a statement than even Assailants. Its dichotomy of electronics and Leighton's ethereal voice make songs like "Picasso" and "Satellites" burst out of your speakers in a truly monumental fashion.
Most of the albums I like, I do so for a very specific reason. And usually I can pinpoint that reason, but when I listen to My Blood is Full of Airplanes, lots of things rush through my head. Some of them hopeless, some of them carefree, but all of them meaningful. I won't say that is is a more personal record than any of Lydia's work, but it does have a view I can respect. By maybe jumping from thing to thing, it is perhaps more human. As cliche as it is, we are complicated beings. There is no one way to be. There is only how we are. The Cinema reminded me that what's now is not forever, nor should it be. Now is only now, and with any luck, we'll get to later.
So here starts my countdown of my favorite 10 records of 2011.
The journey, of course, begins in the bedroom. Not like that, though. It begins with the thoughts of one man - Trevor Powers. It begins with his overwhelmingly personal, hazy bedroom pop. When The Year of Hibernation makes it's first run through your mind, it evokes thoughts of crippling loneliness. But that's not really what it's about, luckily. What this album means to me is that we are all capable of finding something within us to grow and nurture. Each of us has a little something, that if given the attention, can become glorious and lasting. Which, for a 22-year old like Powers, is no easy feat. At this age (fine, I'm 24), the last thing we think about is what's going to last. Because, really, what do we know? But with simple looping electronics, vocals mixed so heavily that they become indiscernible in the most elegant of ways and cathartic, introspective lyrics, Youth Lagoon has made something that will last even if we aren't ready to admit that things in our lives have that ability.
I suppose what really touched me the most about The Year of Hibernation, sort of like what I said in my review, is that I can believe these songs. Music is very often theater, which is fine, I'm not complaining. But despite the constant hyperbole of what I'm spewing, The Year of Hibernation is as relatable and every(teen)man as it gets. It's what we've all kind of always thought, just without the added element of being an accomplished musician. So perhaps, I GUESS, The Year of Hibernation, might be only #10 on this list, but in many ways it is #1. If only because I sort of know me, and sort of know that I will always find something completely and utterly agreeable about the mindset and mental state of Trevor Powers.