Leica M9, 21mm Summilux (cropped), processed in Silver Efex 2.
Empty train station, with the previously useful tracks converted to a bike path.
The King of Limbs may be the first record that ever sounded like it was made specifically to be played on an Apple device: sonically elegant, airtight, perfect. When we realized how much “Morning Mr. Magpie” tracked “Shhh/Peaceful” from Miles Davis’ In A Silent Way — down to the Jack DeJohnette drum figures — with Thom Yorke’s beautiful voice taking the role of Davis’ trumpet — well, it’s pretty clear we’re dealing with a band of higher-order artistry. Normally we would hold that against them, and in fact we have: we’ve been skeptical of Radiohead in part because while what they produced was impressive, it wasn’t real rock’n’roll. The King of Limbs isn’t either, but it is a tight, melodic, beautiful album, significantly upbeat, with Jonny Greenwood’s compositional sophistication in greater service to efficient pop music than anything they’ve done in years. So we cast all our resistance to Radiohead overboard and strapped in for the ride. While fans of Fugazi and Blur, even U2, will on occasion locate the antecedent riff, this is a band that has largely created its own vocabulary. If White Denim works in a hot Texas garage chewing on jimson weed, Radiohead seems to work in a Swiss lab, the kind of place that produced LSD almost by accident. We don’t hold it against them that, in fact, their recording studios have reportedly been constructed from Drew Barrymore’s borrowed manse, for that’s the orbit in which they circle. But we really are done resisting: they can record their next one in a Swiss bank, for all we care, so long as it sounds like this.
It’s been a long time since PJ Harvey produced a record that vied for Album Of The Year honors. We thought that 2000’s Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea, was so good we would have named it Album of The Decade, if only we could have figured out which decade it belonged to, the 1990s, or the Aughts. No question that Let England Shake was a record for the ages, an angry, beautiful meditation on Albion’s wars, proving artists have long memories of their nation’s psychic wounds. A rare blot on Sasha Frere-Jones’ workbook, for his early review prepared us for the worst, though maybe it was all the sweeter when we were stunned to find that Let England Shake wasn’t just a fine record, it thoroughly revived our faith in Harvey. Released around the same time as Adam Hochschild’s brilliant book To End All Wars, we will never think about World War One the same way again. Yeah, a rock album did that. Hint: the NPR podcast of her performance of it in San Francisco earlier this year is in some ways even better than the album release.
White Denim is the inverse of The Black Keys: a maximalist band that shows off what can be created by overdoing it. Adding a second guitarist on D, they plied the ground between Southern and prog rock, two unfashionable genres that when mixed in the Austinite’s mixmaster came out as an elixir of joy. When we wrote about D earlier this year, we described them as one of those Ben & Jerry’s mashups mixing Brendan Benson with The Magic Band, because they found a way to take a power pop sensibility and stick it spoon deep into the tight choreography of a Captain Beefheart track. But even that doesn’t do justice to a band that produced some of my favorite country music of the year. Great singing, great songwriting, with a turning radius tighter than a Fiat 500, these guys would be the house band for any benefit raising money to Keep Austin Weird.
Is Capsula the best rock’n’roll band in the world? Earlier this year, we wrote “Capsula is a throwback to an era of punk rock that may not ever have existed, a remnant of a Platonic world where all songs are played fast, where the drummer keeps an animalistic beat for hours on end, a place where the pogoing guitarist can fill the stage and stage the fills with melody and soul as the girl bassist with the bunny ears rocks harder than Izzy Stradlin. They are, in short, a revelation, Buenos Aires expats who moved to Bilbao, Spain because in South America, in Tom Verlaine’s words, the distance it kills you, and there was no way to foster a career having to cross the Andes just to get a gig in Santiago or Punta Arenas.” On In The Land Of The Silver Sun, Capsula came close to hitting the high standard set five years ago with Song & Circuits, which was maybe the best punk album since Nevermind. If you can listen to “Town of Sorrow” and then “Hit and Miss” without smiling and starting to move, there is something seriously wrong with you, deserving of a heaping dose of pity, if not contempt.
Robyn Hitchcock’s glorious late career run of fine albums continued in 2011 with the the release of Tromso, Kaptein. Taking the title track from Goodnight Oslo and reworking it in Norwegian, this quiet record proves that one of the great guitarists of the punk era can, some thirty years hence, still rock with a backing band comprised entirely of bass, drums, cello. What’s most notable about the Hitchcock who, since 2004, has produced one great album after another, is that rock’s great ironist is taking the craft of making albums entirely seriously. Maybe he’s done that since the days with the Soft Boys, and only now we notice. To the uninitiated who have seen Robyn Hitchcock show up on Tulip Frenzy’s Top 10 List lo these many years, and you wondered where, given the diversity of options, to start, Tromso, Kaptein would be a wonderful entry point, a mature, unplugged album of pop songs that have such finely wrought hooks, they should be displayed in a museum. And we do not mean Robyn Hitchcock’s “Museum of Sex,” for this was an album that was all about love.