Sunday, May 23, 2021

Countdown to 30: My Favorite Album From 2011


My 2011 was pretty dang weird. Well, it was a lot. After planning to go into film for 6 or 7 years, I had a major depressive episode, decided I couldn't do it, dropped out of school and moved back to Ohio. My depressive episode got even worse and music was both a place to take solace and a place to realize the world was falling apart. Tally Hall broke up, Ben Gibbard and Zooey Deschanel got a divorce, Amy Winehouse died. Obviously she had the worst time in 2011. At the pit of my depression, and this is pretty personal, I remember lying on the floor in my childhood bedroom, listening to "The Long and Winding Road" and bemoaning how temporary everything is, how relationships, bands, lives- all end. 

But 2011 is also the year I started this blog. It's the year I started the career path I'm currently still on (although for sure I need to go back to school at some point). It's also the year I entered my first real romantic relationship. If you know me at all, you'll know it wasn't a good relationship, but if you read the first paragraph, you might understand why I was thrilled that anyone would validate my low self-esteem.

Anyway, weird. I had more than four favorite albums in 2011, but I'm only selecting the top four because they stand out compared to everything else. Second and third place are a tie, but I'm putting them in this order for narrative reasons.

Codes and Keys is kind of what I consider to be the final Death Cab for Cutie album. It's not, but it's the last time Chris Walla and Ben Gibbard seemed to be working together harmoniously. Walla and Gibbard were on one anothers' projects for most of their recorded work up until this point. Walla would partly produce and perform on Kintsugi, but it wasn't the same. This was the last full record by my favorite formation of Death Cab, Gibbard/Walla/Nick Harmer/Jason McGerr. And it was good. There were some fans who were turned off by it, presumably in part because it is a lot more positive and upbeat than the previous three albums. Gibbard said that after the negativity of Narrow Stairs, he didn't want to get that dark again. So Codes and Keys contains songs like "Stay Young, Go Dancing" and "Unobstructed Views." Even "You Are a Tourist" is an encouragement to travel, to make homes in new places. Fans have assumed that "Monday Morning" is an ode to Zooey Deschanel, but I feel a connection to it. Perhaps I like the album because of how much Walla worked on it, writing the instrumentals to several tracks on his own, with Gibbard adding lyrics. It's a departure from Narrow Stairs for certain, with more piano, more synthesized parts. There's something strange about listening to a positive Death Cab album, but I recommend trying it at least once.

Good & Evil might be better than Tally Hall's first album. I know my friend Erin prefers it. Marvin's Marvellous Mechanical Museum is weird. I love weird, but it's not for everyone. Good & Evil was a perfect way to show off the talents of the band as songwriters, musicians, etc. And by the way, remember last year when I mentioned Tony Hoffer, who produced Write About Love by Belle and Sebastian? Well he produced Tally Hall's Good & Evil also. Due to various complications that are not all publicly known, the release of the album was pushed back two years. Back when I discovered Tally Hall in 2009, they were evidently recording what would become Good & Evil, because they only finished recording it days before the show where I saw them open for Rooney. Yet still, fans eagerly awaited this album, which was initially supposed to be released on Atlantic, but ended up on Quack! I preordered Good & Evil, and was rewarded with a huge box of goodies, including a trophy for what number I was in the preorders.

Tricksy Wizard created this comic to sum up the situation.
When I first heard this album, I wasn't sure how to feel. It's so much more serious than Marvin's. But after the second or third listen, I got it. This album isn't as silly as their first one, but it's still weird and wonderful. There is intensity to Good & Evil. There are similarities to The Decemberists. I now listen to Good & Evil on my way to renaissance festivals because it gives off those vibes. "&" slaps hard. "Turn the Lights Off" is on my Halloween playlist every year. My sister and I went to two dates of this tour. I talked about most of this in the 2005 album of the year. I highly recommend Good & Evil.

Like I said, these two albums aren't in any particular order. I told you I got into Tally Hall because they were openers for Rooney, well I got into Speak because they opened for Tally Hall in Ann Arbor. I had passed the point of researching openers every time, but my sister and I were blown away by both of the openers. I bought Casey Shea's album and Fuzzy had the good sense to pick up the E.P. by Speak. That E.P. was excellent, and I think all of the songs made their way onto the album, I Believe in Everything, which came out not too much later in the year. This album has the distinction of being the first album in any of these articles that I actually reviewed already

So that's it *brushes hands with finality* my work here is done.

Just kidding, that was ten years ago. Even my ranking of which albums I enjoy the most from 2011 has changed considerably. Surely I have some big almost-30 thoughts on I Believe in Everything ten years later. 

Eh, sort of. I agree with most of the things I had to say in 2011. I think this albums holds up. I'm upset that these boys dropped of the face of the world a few years ago because this album had real potential, as did Pedals in 2014. I don't know why they weren't more successful, other than lack of exposure I suppose. All I know is that their last social media post was back in 2017, saying that they were "working on new material," and their website is just...really weird right now. I can tell it's been hacked but I'm not sure how much of the other stuff on there is corrupted. Looks like a lot of it.

Anyway, album of the year for January of 2012, I said Good & Evil was the album of 2011, and only ranked this one at my sixth favorite. But in retrospect, I have no idea what I was thinking. 

Ceremonials by Florence + the Machine is a masterpiece. It is at times gothic and baroque, with elements of church choirs and hymnals. Florence Welch's songwriting is gorgeous, her lyrics incredibly poetic. Her lyrics on Ceremonials are so good in fact, that they ended up in a meme about music from the '70s vs. the present day (well, present day in 2012).

I, of all people, fully support this rant.

Florence + the Machine's first album Lungs had also been a triumph. On it, they worked heavily with Paul Epworth, who returned as the producer for Ceremonials. Welch wanted to work with him again after the finished product of "Cosmic Love." His work on the album is not to be discounted. 

"Only if for a Night" sets the tone for the album, beginning with the line "And I had a dream," and even name dropping the album title, Ceremonials. The song is based on a dream Florence Welch had when touring with MGMT. She dreamt that her late grandmother appeared to her and gave her advice, causing her to actually wake up weeping. Producer Paul Epworth sent Welch the bell portions of the instrumental and they reminded Welch of  being at her grandmother's house and her funeral, solidifying her decision to make this song about her grandmother, who passed away when she was a schoolgirl. 

The big hit from the album is "Shake it Out" of course, a real testament to what Welch can do with her voice, her lyrics, and in terms of writing a pop hit. The bells/tambourines listeners came to expect on Lungs are present, as is a pump organ played by Epworth to great effect. Of writing the song, Welch told XFM Radio "I wanted to just shake something out, shake out these regrets, shake out these things that haunt you. It was one of those songs that came in about half an hour and when you've got a hangover, it is almost like a hangover cure." "Shake it Out" reached #1 on the U.S. Adult Alternative charts, and was incredibly deserving. It feels both resilient and triumphant, powerful and an excuse to forgive oneself. 

"What the Water Gave Me" is named after a Frida Kahlo painting. It also makes reference to author Viginia Woolf's suicide. Woolf drowned herself with "pockets full of stones." In addition, Welch told NME "I was kind of fascinated by those stories about children who are swept out to sea, and their parents go in after them and try to rescue them and it sounds horrible, but because the children are smaller, they get swept in unharmed whereas the parents are drowned. It's like the sea demands this sacrifice." The imagery is dark, and the references to water continue throughout the album, particularly into the next song "Never Let Me Go." 

The poppiest song on the album is "Breaking Down," which also might somehow be the creepiest song on the album. All of Ceremonials has seen comparisons to Kate Bush, but this is the song that really makes me think of Bush, with the whispered vocals on the verse and drop to the deeper vocals for the chorus, along with lyrics that are strange and ghostly. The strings are very reminiscent of ELO. Welch wrote the song after her second breakup with Stuart Hammond, at which point she did sometimes feel as though she was breaking down.

An undercurrent (no pun intended) of religious imagery runs through the album, with "Lover to Lover" finally speaking of "no salvation." The intention of the song was to evoke the Mowtown and soul sounds of the later '60s, and meant to sound like Florence + the Machine may have sounded fifty years prior. 

"No Light, No Light" was the first song written for the album, and seems to allude to the breakdown of her relationship. It was named 2011's song of the year by Time Magazine, while Adele's "Rolling in the Deep" was only the runner-up. Time explained "could be the sound of a religious revival. Florence Welch's rich voice has never sounded better than on this track; her fervent, even rapturous, lamentations about her partner's lost love resonate like requests for salvation made by a faltering believer with arms raised to the sky. 'Heaven help me, I need to make it right' she wails, but gets no reply."

The religious references are most apparent in "Seven Devils," a song about casting out self-doubt, pain and guilt. "Heartlines" was Welch's attempt at positivity on the album, reminding people to follow their hearts (but still talking about drowning). "Spectrum" manages to wrap the themes of the album together, between talk of the ocean, praying, and relationships. 

I also got really into fashion photography in 2011.
This is a vintage dress I got at an estate sale on a 
rainy day in San Francisco.
I listened to Florence + the Machine after finding her music in the fanmix community (it was huge there, particularly "Cosmic Love," which one of my fellow film students also used as the soundtrack for their final project). With everything going on in Fall of 2011, I wasn't paying that much attention to new releases for a little bit. Luckily, my friend Zack has a knack for getting me albums that I need to hear right when I need to hear them. I connected with him at some point and he burnt me a copy of this album, apropos of nothing (I can't believe I'm still having to talk about this, but yes, I own the album legally now. In the 21st century, fans come from the sharing of music...yadda yadda). I'm incredibly grateful that he did, because it was exactly the album I needed that November/December. It got me excited to talk about music with the people around me, most of whom I could not explain it to. It also gave me this magical feeling in my stomach kind of like being in love. 

If the personal stuff I've been getting into the last couple of weeks hasn't been enough for you, I'm working on an article I still haven't released entitled "The Albums That Make Up a Toxic Relationship" and this is album one for me. I won't elaborate further on that aspect of it for now, but just know that it's there.

"All This and Heaven Too" was one of my favorites. I'm a sucker for any song starting with "and," like we're coming in in the middle of a conversation. This conversation is about how hard it is to understand love, which is another thing I'm a sucker for. The topic for a song, not that I'm a sucker for love, although...

I did tout the "Breaking Down"/Kate Bush comparison for a while, to anyone who would listen and understand. I really like the song and I think it's different from the rest of the album in a way. To me, it's kind of like the narrator finally getting a moment of clarity in which she realizes that something is wrong. 

Obviously "Shake it Out" was a song I enjoyed, and "Never Let Me Go" was another of my favorites. But I listened to this whole album on repeat for weeks of delivering pizza. The album is like a dream and a nightmare in the best ways. It's a pure sonic masterpiece start to finish, with well-written lyrics that link it all together.

Let's see what it looks like on that leaderboard!

Join me tomorrow for my favorite album from 2012.

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