Posts Tagged ‘ Decemberists ’

Best Albums of 2011

It’s traditional for end-of-year lists to start with a self-aware apology. I’ll gloss over the standard part, because I assume you already know how silly and arbitrary this process is, that it’s only meant to reflect my own opinion, and so on. The only part that really gives me pause is how incomplete it is. I do this as a hobby, which means that I’m generally only reviewing the albums I’ve chosen to buy (or in a couple cases, borrowed from friends). This year, I reviewed 67 albums, only 32 of which were actually from 2011. I still have about 15 more from this year that I have yet to review. Now, I listened to part or all of a couple hundred albums online before I decided I was interested in the ones I bought, but it’s still a limited sample.

So, I’m sure I’ve missed a few gems. But at this point in my life, I’m pretty confident in my ability to find the music I’m most likely to enjoy. So I think it’s fair for me to pick a top 5 for the year. Even if I did buy and review a couple hundred more of the year’s popular albums, I think that these ones would manage to stay within the top 10.

I don’t really feel like there was a runaway #1 this year, but I’m comfortable defending each one’s position near the top. Yes, even the albums that no one else picked.

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Decemberists – The King Is Dead (Music Review)

The King Is Dead cover

Decemberists - The King Is Dead

To start, let’s get this straight: The King Is Dead is not The Decemberists’ “country album” or “folk album”. It has some elements of those, with an acoustic guitar taking lead and the mandolin, tambourine, and harmonica occasionally appearing as well. But the music never settles for long within the strictures of either genre. If anything, a vague term like “The Decemberists’ Americana album” would work.

It’s obvious why people are looking to define¬†The King Is Dead, though. It’s a startling new direction for the band. While The Decemberists have never been afraid of change, this is a sudden reversal from the sea shanties and gritty 18th-century settings.

Many songs still fit comfortably within our expectations of The Decemberists. “Rox In The Box” is full of winking affectation for a granite mine that’s a full century and several social strata removed from Colin Meloy’s current world, while lifting riffs from the traditional Scottish “Raggle Taggle Gypsy”. (It’s also a disturbingly cheerful song about a serious tragedy.) “January Hymn” is a simple song with first-person narration that Meloy’s voice makes intensely personal. But other songs are only identifiably by The Decemberists because of that distinctive voice, and that highlights the boundaries that the band has generally stayed within before: Meloy’s nasal voice has always worked either as a quirk to make his narrators seem human and present, or as a comfortable vehicle for over-literate affectation. Hearing him sing without either of those elements is occasionally jarring. He never strays from his strengths for long enough to make me argue that a different vocalist would be better, but the thought did cross my mind a few times. Fortunately, the songwriting is so consistently strong that any complaints about the vocals seem out of place.

Given that the first few tracks emphasize this departure from the band’s normal sound, it’s obviously intended to be the purpose of the album. These songs break from the clear, story-driven lyrics of the past for more inscrutable meanings, and command their simple Americana instruments to create a powerful, confident wall of sound that would go straight to the top of the pop charts in a slightly different universe. This album deserves to bring in an entirely new set of fans without ever alienating the existing ones.

Knowing The Decemberists, it won’t be more than an album or two before they have shed this style for something new. In a way, that’s too bad. A band could spend its entire career exploring the sonic territory uncovered by The King Is Dead. The catchy, pop-oriented feel mixes with complex instrumentation and lyrics to create one of the best albums of their career.

Grade: A