Friday, December 9, 2011

2011: Album(s) of the Year

It's been a while since I've done one of these. Of course, being ronin, I have no excuse this year.

First some meta commentary. When iTunes Match was first announced, I wondered why anyone without an Apple TV would want it? If you have WiFi sync, doesn't your music get to all your iDevices anyway? Even if you had an Apple TV, wouldn't you just AirPlay from your iDevice to the ATV?

Sure there is value in going legit with your music collection, but ever since the digital music folks went DRM free, I've been able to maintain a very karmically clean library, so the amnesty value didn't stand out for me.

As usual, one needs to really embrace a new Apple offering to really "get" what value it was designed to deliver. Having had iTunes Match for a while now, being matched to the mother of all curated digital music collections has resulted in a music library that is the cleanest and best organized I've ever had. I find myself listening to more music and exploring more music.

The most unexpected benefit for me was how much new music I was exposed to because of iTunes Match. With all my music nicely mapped to the iTunes catalog, it was very easy to jump to the iTunes page for any of the songs in my library, see what others had said, and explore related music. With 90 second samples and alternative sources for (ahem) longer samples, I bought and listened to more new music than I had in a very long time (how the heck did I not know about the Decemberists and the Weepies?)

With the availability of a 64GB(!) iPhone and the option to automatically downsample tunes to 128kbps when loading onto the iPhone, I'm now liberated from storage management for my music library. All my tunes are now ripped lossless, and I no longer have to play games to manage what is and isn't on the phone. I also now always rip entire albums, meaning I'm exposed to much more music than I was before. (as an aside, my phone now has 1,000,000x the memory that my first computer had...we are only a handful of years until my personal phone has more memory than sum total of every Apple ][ ever sold)

On to the goodies. First some niche winners, then my overall winner.

Best Video No One Saw But That Everyone Must See: Simple Math (Manchester Orchestra)
I think I first heard about this video on twitter...clicked through on a lark, and had an emotional 2x4 slapped right upside my head. Holy crap! An amazing song, but the imagery and the integrity of the vision of the piece completely blew me away. Send this tape back in time 35 years, and you would have an entire generation of Scorsesees emerge in an instant. A great song, and a great reminder of how modern technology and tools have enabled and democratized a level of artistic expression that was unthinkable even a generation ago.

Best Album Everybody Already Knew About But Me: The Crane Wife (The Decemberists)
How did I get this far in life and not know about The Decemberists?  Colin Meloy is bastard son of Robyn Hitchcock and Elvis Costello, with a musical sensibility that puts both to shame. How can the same song mercilessly and simultaneously blow both your left brain and your right brain away?  As a newbie to their tunes, I'm treading slowly into the mind blender, but holy cow what an achievement is The Crane Wife.  Every listen is like returning to a recurring dream, but with ever more Inception-like layers within the layers.  The album is 5 years old now, but it may take another 5 years for me to get my head wrapped around this one.

Best Reminder That Art Is About Baring Your Soul: Sign No More (Mumford & Sons)
When I first heard some of their songs (and they were hard to avoid in 2011), I thought here are some hipster posers trying to channel Van Morrison and David Grey. Then I saw them perform on TV...damn! How do you bring that much of yourself to a performance and put it all out there? On first listen, several of the songs really stood out, with the rest being "eh". For some reason I kept coming back to the album and playing it all the way through.  Each time through, another song really stood out. At this point, I can't get enough of this album and this band.  Do yourself a favor and get the deluxe version (linked above). The DVD and the CD of a live performance are awesome.

As an aside, honorable mention in this category to the Piano Tribute to Mumford & Sons. These tribute albums are usually a curiosity and soon deleted. This is the exceedingly rare case where the artist is an extremely talented musician that is a huge fan of the source material.  There is a deep and true and powerful set of emotions that run through this album.  It is like listening to a good friend sit at the piano and play his favorite music. Recommended.

Most Poignant Emotional Time Machine: Remembrance-A Memorial Benefit (George Winston)
This last September 11 was a difficult one for me.  I thought I had wept all I had to weep.  I was very very wrong.  10 years on, the emotion was as raw and as numbing as ever.  By chance, I ran into a benefit album that George Winston had recorded within a couple days of that terrible day.  Through piano, guitar, and harmonica, he expressed the sadness, despair, anguish, fear, and loss from those terrible days so vividly.  Very difficult to listen to, but necessary and important. All proceeds to benefit those that were harmed that day. Do yourself a favor and remember.

2011 Album of the Year: Bach: Cello Suites No. 1-6 (Pablo Casals, Opus Kura)
This past Thanksgiving, I had NPR on in the background while I was jamming through day before Thanksgiving dinner preparations.  On came a piece about November 23 being the 75th anniversary of the recording of the famous Pablo Casals Bach Cello Suites and Robert Johnson cutting his first record.  I of course knew about Robert Johnson, but I had only the vaguest knowledge of Pablo Casals or the history behind the Bach Cello Suites.  I stopped my cooking and simply listened. I was struck by the passion and reverence of those speaking of these recordings, and the transformational impact they had. The next day as the meal settled, I downloaded a copy and sat down to listen. From the first note, I was like the character in Flatland who is lifted up out of the page, and sees things from a perspective he has never seen before. I had heard these pieces before, but here was a true master channeling the souls of the angels. Even through the hissing and the crackles, the music was transcendent: a moment of profound beauty. Ours is a better civilization for what Casals did that day. You owe it to yourself to share in this gift.

As an honorable mention, in any other year where I hadn't stumbled on one of the defining musical moments of the 20th century, my album of the year would have been New Blood (Peter Gabriel). A marvelous revisiting of some great songs, but with the depth and maturity that comes with age. Some of the orchestral arrangements literally took my breath away. Favorite like "In Your Eyes" have returned with all the power of an Aaron Copland fanfare for the ages. I immediately purchased the BluRay edition, but have been holding off watching it until I get my real sound system and TV out of storage. Fair warning to the neighbors: the house will be shaking when that one gets fired up.

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