AWM’s Favorite Albums of 2011

I think a part of the reason I like to make lists of my favorite albums of the year is selfishness. It helps me take stock of the art that was put out over the course of the year. It helps me remember shows I’ve seen, or moments I shared with new music. It helps me feel fonder about the year that has passed, and more hopeful for the year that is coming. It forces me to examine what this music meant to me, and why it meant that. I tend to favor albums whose tracks I loved, start to finish, that had meaningful lyrics or were soundtracks for important moments. Plus, I always favor risks. If I feel like a band played it safe and made a solid record, I’ll dig it, but for those who try to tackle huge topics through their art, I always admire it and end up loving it more.

For these reasons, I really could just jot down a list to myself, smile smugly, and move on. That said, I do think there is value in sharing lists, because it sparks conversations (or arguments, if you’re into that) and can potentially (and hopefully) help people discover new albums they may not have heard of before. This year, I found myself leaving off albums that contained a handful of unforgettable songs because the rest of the album was weak. I also found myself extending my list to a top-15 instead of top-10, including in my final 5 growers that I still need to spend more time with, but that were so striking in their own way that I had to include them. Without further ado:  my 2011 best-of list! Enjoy, be angered, argue and discuss. All is welcomed.


Peter Bjorn & John rock it out at Antone’s

There are a lot of thoughts that race through your head when Peter Moren is standing next to you, sweating all over the place, singing passionately into the mic and pumping his arm like a hip-hop icon, moving from person to person in the audience as he sings right to each one. For me, the one that managed to get caught in the tidal wave of “Oh my God!”s and “No way!!”s was, “How did I get here?”

When you’ve seen a band perform live more than twice, excitement for the show shifts from, “What are they like as live performers?” to “How will this show measure up to that fantastic show at [insert venue and town]?” For instance, I’ve seen Muse play Austin City Limits three times, and I watched them open for My Chemical Romance, and my favorite performance will always be the first time I caught them at Zilker Park in 2006, when they were still fighting for attention and fueled by a desire to “make it.” I’ve seen Phoenix live six times now, and I will still hold the La Zona Rosa gig up as their beacon performance for me, when half of the crowd ended the night onstage and I forgot everything and was just existing in their music.

Of all of the bands I’ve followed in a rabid fangirl way over the years, the one I have seen more times than any other by a long shot is Peter Bjorn & John. I was lucky to stumble on them at South by Southwest in 2007, attending their show based on the buzz around their then-new single, “Young Folks.” I was immediately blown away by the trio (which, at that time, didn’t even include John; he hadn’t made it overseas with his counterparts, so a black-haired non-John was the drummer at their seven South by Southwest gigs). I remember sitting at the Austin City Limits studio in the dim light, about 50 feet from the stage with a near-empty dance floor stretching out in front of me. As the group launched into “Objects of my Affection,” tears started streaming down my face. That was the moment; tingles erupted all over my skin and butterflies flew from my stomach to my throat. I followed the band around the rest of South by Southwest, and have since seen them about fifteen times, as well as four solo Peter Moren shows. I know this band.

However, despite earning enough hypothetical frequent flier miles to get me to Sweden and back, every single time I attend a Peter Bjorn & John show, it is like I am watching them for the first time. That fresh joy that fills you, making your head feel light and fuzzy, your eyes glaze over as the music paints landscapes in your mind, and forces a grin on your face that makes you ache as you stretch your tired body out the venue door – this is what this band has to offer every single time they play. There are few artists I can think of who are as good to their fans as Peter Bjorn & John, who work as hard for them, and it totally pays off.

Bjorn, Peter & Caitlin - the new hit band.

When the band took the stage at Antone’s on the first of June, they brought an explosive rock show to a Wednesday night that you could see reflected in the happy faces of all of the attendees. Their six albums are very diverse, but they managed to update all of their discography to reflect their latest straight-rock style that they play with on Gimme Some, the album they released this year. This also allowed all three members to showcase their instrumental chops; Peter ripped out some especially impressive guitar solos, Bjorn punched his bass riffs out with sass, and John was getting a full workout on the drums, arms flying wildly between snare and cymbals.

They eased into the evening the way you’d ease into a pool for night swimming, with the lush and flowering “May Seem Macabre.” The pace picked up a little with “It Don’t Move Me,” which was reimagined to be less of an electronic-rock dance tune, and more of a straightforward rock ‘n’ roll romp. “Eyes” really got bodies moving, including Peter’s; this was one of the first songs where he approached the crowd as close as he could get, jutting his guitar out into the front row.

Throughout the night, the three band members interacted with the crowd in their distinctive ways, revealing their own personalities. Peter was the most in-your-face, crouching down and hamming it up for a guy in the front row who was taking a photo, running from one end of the platform to the other and jumping out on amps or whatever else he could find so he could be closer to the crowd, and even leaping into the crowd for singsongs on two songs. Bjorn scanned the audience with a perfectly nonchalant blank rocker face, stepping forward toward the crowd a few times for the more epic of his solos, and John would often pick out individual audience members, pointing at them and nodding to encourage their clapping, singing, and general enjoyment of the show. He also is in the habit of standing up after each song to give a little bow and mouth the words “Thank you,” reflecting his sweet role in PB&J.

One of the first big singalongs of the night came with “Second Chance,” the latest single from Gimme Some. “Let’s Call It Off” from their breakout album, Writer’s Block, continued that trend, and then I lost it (and embarrassed myself a bit, managing to crush my boyfriend’s toes as I leapt up and down and screamed) when they launched into “Teen Love,” a cover of a Concretes song they included on their second album, Falling Out. This was the only song they performed that wasn’t from their latest three records (not including the instrumental album, Seaside Rock), but it fit in perfectly with their more stripped-down rock sound. It’s a straightforward little diddy about young, heartsick love, and Peter lets his vocals wail.

Another standout moment of the night included the three-song chunk near the end of the opening set, featuring a rip-roaring take on “Breaker, Breaker,” a breathless minute-and-thirty-nine-second song that puts John front and center as his drums fly by at breakneck speed. That transitioned into the rhythm-heavy anthem and Gimme Some opener, “Tomorrow Has to Wait,” which raised a chorus of audience voices proclaiming we would live in this moment, and my favorite tear-jerker, “Objects of my Affection.” Bjorn introduced it as “the whistle song,” which led to whispers among audience members guessing we were about to be treated with “Young Folks.” Instead, we got a barrage of leaping guitar and Swedish men, as the guys took us all to a brief moment of nirvana. The lyrics especially rang true that night as Peter proclaimed, “I remember when, when I first moved here/A long time ago/’Cause I heard some song I used to hear back then/A long time ago.” It’s a song that reminds you of your personal growth, and how proud you should be for it. It is sweeping and glorious, the kind of song you wish would follow you around on days that are hard and days that are beautiful. They finished off their opening set with a jam session called “I Know You Don’t Love Me,” which took PB&J to their pinnacle of rock, and allowed John to sing his first lead song of the night.

The pleas for an encore were the weakest I’ve ever heard at a live show, which is really the only complaint I have about the night at all. I’m afraid that audiences have become so accustomed to encores that they don’t even bother to work for them anymore; they just stand there, waiting expectantly. Luckily, Peter Bjorn & John took the applause and hollers they got, plus the cue from nobody budging, to come back out for not one, but two encores.

The first encore kicked off with Peter holding nothing but a mic and a harmonica, busting out a bluesy take on “Nothing to Worry About.” Almost immediately, Peter hopped down off of the stage and made a beeline for the middle, strutting slowly in a line as audience members excitedly but respectfully stood in awe around him, pumping their fists and nodding their heads to the tune. Peter had a giant grin on his face, eating up the audience’s happiness and acting every bit the frontman as he sang his words clearly and carefully, enunciating to the point of almost sassily spitting out the words. If anyone had been unsure about whether they should dance, this pushed them over the edge. Everyone started grooving after this song.

Bjorn’s big Writer’s Block hit, “Amsterdam,” came next, and the weed smoke that already filled the air with a sweet-and-skunky stench grew that much stronger. Then we all dipped into a bit of stereotypically metal Swedish rockness – “Black Book” put John back on lead vocals, and prompted headbanging and some near-pogoing as the floor seemed to shake a bit with the heaviness of the song. The trio brought it down for “Down Like Me” to close out their first encore, allowing everyone (band members included) to breathe a little bit, and ensuring there would be one final encore, as the group’s big hit had yet to whistle its way onto the setlist.

After a slightly stronger plea from the audience, the Swedes entered the scene one last time, kicking it off with a tune Peter proclaimed was made for the couples. “You can do-si-do, as you do in Texas,” Peter said, and then digressed a bit to talk about bathroom smells, Amsterdam smells and everything in between. Bjorn tried to bring it back, but forgot the term “do-si-do” and ended up gesturing to get his point across. “Stay This Way” was revamped from its sweet, stark, cool electronic whisper to a sensual, sexy soul tune.

Finally, “Young Folks” echoed into the evening air, whistles bouncing around the room as Peter leapt back into the audience and make the trek from one end of the room to the other, receiving gentle pats on the back and enthusiastic whoops couple with adoring smiles. The song is cute on record, but really unites live, and Peter got people jumping to this tune. The band closed out on a new tune, “Lies,” which is a quick, straight rock tune that benefitted from the unity of “Young Folks.” Everyone was singing, hugging and clapping, as we all took that final dip on this roller coaster of a night.

I suppose the way I made it to this spectacular show at Antone’s was by being dedicated to the point of extreme fandom. I put my faith in Peter Bjorn & John, and they have repaid me at every turn. They are giving of their energy and their emotion, and spent time after the show to ensure every fan that wanted an autograph, a picture or a hug would be satisfied. They make it easy to get to that place of overwhelming and all-encompassing bliss, with or without an “Amsterdam smell.” On waves of twirling and twisting guitar and bass lines, leaping between bursting drum beats, all carried by this charming, enthusiastic trio, they’ll make you smile every single time.

Peter Moren played a solo gig, powering through forgotten lyrics and “bathroom smells.” Check out my review of that gig here.

Peter Moren riffed and rocked at Ruta Maya

Personality is a big part of a live performance. Some artists are made for slaving away like hermits in their dark bedrooms, crafting perfect songs that carefully couple emotion and sound, and sending those out into the world on a record, never to emerge (see: Jeff Mangum). Then, there are those artists whose music thrives on the give and take of an audience, of the spur-of-the-moment choices and happy accidents that can occur from night to night. Peter Moren falls firmly into this second group. The records he makes with his band Peter Bjorn and John, as well as his own two solo albums, are lovingly slaved over until they embody his vision, but the music is given new life when he performs live, his guitar playing burning a little brighter and his energy filling the room.

This is why I was thrilled when it was announced, very last-minute, that Peter would play a solo set at Ruta Maya, a coffee place near St. Edward’s University. It’s a roomy venue, and when I entered the scene at 8:30pm, there were only five other people already gathered. I walked briskly to a table near the front, and waited another two hours for my favorite Swede to take the stage. When he picked up his shiny red electric guitar — one he’d purchased earlier that day — he jumped right into “This Is What I Came For,” off of his first solo record, The Last Tycoon. It had clearly been a while since Peter had performed the tune, as he read the lyrics off of sheets of paper. He revealed to us when the song was over, “I looked up these lyrics off the Internet. I was surprised to find them on the Internet! But, after the first bridge, there are a lot of question marks…luckily I wrote the song, so I can fill in the question marks.” He had stumbled at one place in the song, and explained, “There’s a line here that is not what I wrote, actually, but I almost sang it anyway, and they wrote, ‘In the middle of my supper, in the middle of my shit.’ Maybe that’s better than what I wrote.”

The entire night was completely laid back; it was as if Peter had wandered into someone’s giant living room and offered to play a few songs and tell a few stories. He was very relaxed, and completely hilarious — it was almost as if we were getting a comedic routine in between the tunes. Before he began his second tune, he explained that his band had been traveling around with a lot of down time, and had been spending lots of money, so he wanted to do some solo gigs to work. As he digressed, he suddenly caught himself and said sheepishly, “I’m getting nervous! It’s hard to reach the point — the dot at the end of the line. But we’re coming to the end of the line.” We laughed, and he chuckled along and said, shrugging, “It’s a cheap entrance, I can be messy. You didn’t pay a lot for this.”

Indeed, the night was quite possibly the best $6.89 I have ever spent. He treated us to three songs off of his Swedish solo record next, going so far as to translate two for our English-speaking audience. He grinned widely during all three songs, playing smooth, jazz-infused rock songs that reminded me of early Sondre Lerche work. Introducing the jazziest, “att komma ikapp,” Peter said, “I know some fancy chords,” as his fingers whirled around his new instrument.

Peter also utilized the show to indulge in some covers. He played “Time” by Richard Hell, who he described as the godfather of the punk style. “He wore trashy clothes, that were torn on purpose, and Malcolm McLaren said, ‘I’m going to make punk fashion!’ based on Richard Hell. But this is not a trashy song — it’s very well put-together. I guess if you dress trashy, you can write music like that.” At this, he looked down at his own attire, and thought out loud, “I dress very neat. I guess…that means…I write bad songs? No, that’s not right. Shut up.”

Peering into the psyche of this musician was a treat. He stopped at one moment to ask the audience, “What is that smell? It smells like a bathroom smell. Mmm, tasty bathroom smell,” and we all basically lost it at that point. Laughter bounced around the room as we all sat, amazed at how friendly everything felt.

Peter introduced “Paris 2004” by saying, “I’m gonna do a sell-out thing.” It was one of five Peter Bjorn & John songs the artist performed, including two of my very favorites, “(I Just Wanna) See-Through,” a punkish number that was a B-side to the band’s second album, and “Objects of my Affection,” a raw and raucous song from the breakout album, Writer’s Block.

Peter poked fun at Norwegians, as any good Swede would do, but made amends by saying, “I’m gonna play a song by some Norwegians. It’s their only good song. The lyrics are shit, though.” To the audience’s delight, he busted out A-Ha’s “Take On Me,” and when he bravely (and accurately) hit the high notes, applause and hollers confirmed that this was a good choice.

The song of the night for the Texas crowd was the first of his encore, a cover of Buddy Holly’s “Oh Boy!” Peter even dug deep to pull out a little twang for the song, which was possible because he comes from “Swedish Texas.” The whole night closed out with “Goodbye, Again or,” another PB&J number from their second album that Peter recorded on his cell phone back in the day. There is a windy, whipping little guitar riff in this song that Peter played immaculately, despite forgetting the lyrics momentarily. It was a quiet goodnight kiss to a rapt and loving audience.

From “tasty bathroom smells” to “Amsterdam smells,” treat your senses by checking out my review of Peter Bjorn & John’s show at Antone’s here.

Setlist – Peter Moren, Ruta Maya 05/31/2011

This Is What I Came For
I Spåren Av Tåren
Att komma ikapp
My Match
Paris 2004
Collect, Select, Reflect
(I Just Wanna) See-Through
Take On Me

Oh Boy!
Objects of my Affection
Goodbye, Again or

Peter Bjorn and John at Antone’s – Setlist

I’ve got a review of the Peter Bjorn & John gig from last night at Antone’s on its way (It’s up! Click here), but I wanted to post up the setlist, which I wrote on my arm and hand. I figured enough work went into documenting it, I should share it with y’all. Here you go:

Peter Bjorn & John at Antone’s, 06/01/2011

May Seem Macabre
It Don’t Move Me
Second Chance
Let’s Call It Off
Teen Love
Dig a Little Deeper
Breaker, Breaker
Tomorrow has to Wait
Objects of my Affection
I Know You Don’t Love Me

Encore 1
Nothing to Worry About
Black Book
Down Like Me

Encore 2
Stay This Way
Young Folks

Best of 2009 – Caitlin's List

The prospect of writing up a list of the best of anything is harrowing, and for a music lover, having to somehow rank music by musicians you adore is near impossible (commence metaphors about picking favorite children.)  However, it is the difficulty of the task that makes it so thrilling.  So, I’m here to try to convince you, my readers, that the albums I am about to rank off are ones you should invest your time, money, ears and hearts in.  Though one would think the following disclaimer goes without saying, I prefer to be perfectly explicit:  the albums here are by no means an exhaustive “best of” list, because I am one woman with two ears and not the most money (and yes, I still pay for my music).  These are the best albums that *I* listened to this year.  However, because they span folk-rock, indie-pop, Americana and gritty blues rock, I’m hoping there’s enough here to induce head-nodding or curiosity great enough to get you to check a band out.  Alright, now that we have all these niceties out of the way, let’s get real.

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