MUSIC: My 10 Favorite Songs of 2016 So Far

On this day each year I usually post 2,000 words or so highlighting my 10 favorite songs of the year exactly six months in. Well, this year I simply did not have time to write anything of appreciable length. But, I’ve still been keeping track of my favorite tunes and am happy to present them to you in truncated form.

Below you’ll find YouTube clips of my favorite songs of 2016 so far and an embedded Spotify playlist as well. You can also find that playlist here. The songs are presented in alphabetical order by artist.

Enjoy!

CAR SEAT HEADREST – “DRUNK DRIVERS/KILLER WHALES”

CHANCE THE RAPPER – “ALL NIGHT” (FT. KNOX FORTUNE)

CULLEN OMORI – “CINNAMON”

DIIV – “UNDER THE SUN”

KANYE WEST – “REAL FRIENDS”

M83 – “GO!” (FT. MAI LAN)

PARQUET COURTS – “ONE MAN NO CITY”

RADIOHEAD – “BURN THE WITCH”

SUNFLOWER BEAN – “EASIER SAID”

WILD NOTHING – “JAPANESE ALICE”

MUSIC: The Half-Decade That Was

With five years nearly down for this decade, I thought I’d share some thoughts about the music that mattered most to me during the five years of 2010 through 2014. There’s certainly been some outstanding music these years and there’s been a lot to digest. I’ve been to many great concerts and come across so many incredible artists through friends, websites like Pitchfork and the A.V. Club and by always keeping my ear to the ground.

This will be something of a hodgepodge of superlatives and random thoughts on these past five years, but at the end I’ll provide lists of my 50 favorite songs, 10 favorite concerts and 10 favorite albums of the past half-decade. These will be presented without much commentary since you can read what I’ve had to say about most of these artists and their work in other places on my blog.

I’ll open up with some general thoughts on what’s happened in music since 2010.

At no time in history has it been easier to access music. That can be both a terrifically awesome and horrifically calamitous thing, for both listeners and artists. I won’t get into the debate about how the streaming services potentially screw over artists, but it’s pretty amazing for listeners to have access to a massive library of music at any given time as long as they have a stable Internet connection.

Where I find this troublesome is that listeners have so many options at their disposal and such quick access to those options that I wonder how many people really take the time anymore to get into a single artist or album, but instead just jump around from song to song willy-nilly. That I make such a huge deal about albums at the end of each year and write 3,000 words about my favorites puts me in a distinct minority, at least among people around my age.

We’re rapidly entering a phase where the 50-plus-year-old album-based model for popular music is deteriorating. When I come back to write a decade retrospective in five years, will albums still be a thing? Will artists revert to a model of releasing more EPs or individual tracks? Deep down, I don’t think albums are going away anytime soon. I think there’s still a large enough group of people who like to dive deep into the minutiae of how songs interact with each other in a bigger picture to keep the album alive. At least that’s what I hope.

That easy access to music helps diversify and evolve the tastes of people like me who really get into this stuff. It makes it so much easier to find out about (and sample the sounds of) new artists, to know when that new band you like is coming to town and to connect with others about what you like (or don’t like). This is how I have artists as different as Kendrick Lamar and Mark Kozelek show up on my year-end lists. Not only are more people listening to music now than ever, they’re also listening to more different kinds of music and appreciating things they never would have imagined without that access.

Take a band like Neutral Milk Hotel. Their last album was released in 1998 and unless you read indie magazines or alt-weeklies like the dearly-departed Boston Phoenix, or just so happened to pay attention to the Georgia freak folk scene of the late-’90s, odds are you never knew anything about them when they were together in their initial run. Their last album In the Aeroplane Over the Sea eventually grew into a cult favorite and by the time the band reunited for tours starting in 2013, they had enough of a fanbase to sell out theaters and play to festival crowds.

Today, it would be exceedingly rare for a band like Neutral Milk Hotel to go unnoticed. Quality music tends to spread like wildfire thanks to social media and the finely-tuned ears of those who run music blogs and websites. That’s not to say an album with initially-tepid reception won’t find second life later on these days. It’s just that if you’re paying attention, good music doesn’t get overlooked so much anymore.

So while the paradigm is shifting in some respects, there’s still amazing music of every flavor imaginable being made and it’s never been easier to get it. For that we should all be thankful.

ONE LATE 2014 ADDITION

One of the problems with putting out my year-end lists before the year actually ends is there’s always a chance something will come out late in the year that I either don’t give enough consideration (I typically start writing my albums post in mid-November), or it arrives after everything’s been written and posted. The latter happened this year.

On Dec. 15, the elusive neo-soul/funk legend D’Angelo released Black Messiah, his first album in 14 years in the best possible sneak-attack on our senses. D’Angelo worked on this album off and on over the last decade-plus and it was worth the wait.

D’Angelo went through lots of personal strife to get to this point, plus I think he really wanted to shake the persona as “that guy who was naked in that music video way back” and be known for what he really is: a virtuoso who very much belongs in the same breath with guys like George Clinton, Sly Stone, Curtis Mayfield and Stevie Wonder.

Although Black Messiah was slated to be released next year, D’Angelo reportedly asked it be pushed up to this month because of the ongoing protests around the killings in places like Ferguson and Staten Island. His engineer told the New York Times the album is “pretty much right out of the oven – it’s still hot.”

“Hot” is definitely a great way to describe Black Messiah. The songs touch on numerous topics, some are politically-charged while others are simply about love. The influence of everyone I listed above is present here, in addition to many others, like the Hendrix guitars of “Prayer” and the Miles Davis-inspired flamenco sketches of “Really Love.” And you can’t help but love the classic funky strut of a song like “Sugah Daddy.”

When it all comes together, Black Messiah feels like a capital-A album, with everything working in concert and one song flowing perfectly into the next in a way few albums do these days.

I know I only have a couple weeks of listening to Black Messiah under my belt, but if I could re-do my favorite albums list for 2014, I’d slot this third, just under Atlas and ahead of They Want My Soul. As for a favorite song, it’s a tossup between the full-bodied shuffle of “The Charade” and the gorgeous, epic closer “Another Life”, but you really can’t go wrong with anything here. I’m just thrilled D’Angelo is back in all of our lives.

FAVORITE BANDS, OLD AND NEW

This is not going to come as a shock to anyone who pays attention to what I write here, follows me on Twitter or knows me at all, but my favorite band of this half-decade is, without question, the National. I wrote about them at length here when I named Trouble Will Find Me my favorite album of ‘13 and I don’t have much more to add now. They’re so rock solid, write incredible songs, sound unbelievably great live, get behind causes I believe in, Bryan Devendorf is the best drummer on Earth and I can’t wait to find out what they do next. It may not be until ‘16, but here’s hoping we get a taste sooner than that.

For anyone who hasn’t, I highly recommend checking out Mistaken For Strangers, the documentary piloted by lead singer Matt Berninger’s brother, Tom, when Tom worked as a roadie on one of the National’s recent tours. You don’t have to be a fan of the National to appreciate it, but it gives you an interesting view into band dynamics, how a tour works, and above all, the relationship between two brothers at very different places in their lives.

Also check out this awesome Song Exploder podcast where Berninger and guitarist Aaron Dessner discuss how they wrote Trouble‘s seminal track, “Sea of Love.”

Other artists/bands that really stand out to me during this stretch include: Arctic Monkeys, the band who has come of age alongside me and finally hit the mainstream bigtime in ‘13. I never expected it would be a song like “Do I Wanna Know?” that would push them over the top. I’m excited to see what they have in store…Cut Copy, the electro-pop heroes from Australia who can seemingly do no wrong (except for those weird interludes on Free Your Mind, but I digress) released two strong LPs and I believe will continue their world-conquering ways in the next half-decade…Local Natives defined what it means to be a workmanlike band in the ‘10s, producing two outstanding albums in Gorilla Manor and Hummingbird, drawing from the best of bands like the National and Grizzly Bear and touring their asses off. Their best work is still to come…Vampire Weekend continues to grow by leaps and bounds, following up their great debut by releasing the varied Contra and then last year’s refined Modern Vampires of the City, which I expect will help launch them into the type of career reserved for the best of the best…Other artists I want to make sure I mention here include Passion Pit, TV on the Radio, Spoon, Two Door Cinema Club, Bombay Bicycle Club, Real Estate, St. Vincent, Frank Ocean, Kendrick Lamar, Haim, Japandroids, Dum Dum Girls, the Pains of Being Pure at Heart, Wild Nothing, Beach House and Hot Chip.

It was also great to see some reunions and comebacks over these years, including live revivals for the Stone Roses, Pavement and, as mentioned above, Neutral Milk Hotel. David Bowie returned with his first album of new material in over decade but didn’t tour, while My Bloody Valentine finally followed up Loveless with an album and an equally-acclaimed tour. Now, if only we could get Talking Heads back together…

IT WASN’T ALL GREAT…UNFORTUNATELY

I know at this point Festivus has passed, but I’d like to take this opportunity to air some grievances and say how certain things in the world of music have disappointed me in the last five years.

In ‘09, no band was more on top of the indie world than Animal Collective. After several critically-acclaimed releases through the 2000s, they unleashed Merriweather Post Pavilion early in the year and the album exploded behind standout single “My Girls.” Their experimental electronic sound dominated by psychedelic synthesizers was imitated in many places and their producer, Ben H. Allen, was suddenly one of the most in-demand producers in the industry. At the time I felt Merriweather Post Pavilion was the closest thing to Pet Sounds I’d heard in years, both in terms of subject matter and overall feel. Later that same year, they released an EP of leftover songs, Fall Be Kind, that was similarly lauded.

Unfortunately, the band didn’t really capitalize on this success. As a “collective,” members slipped in and out over the next few years, with Noah “Panda Bear” Lennox and Dave “Avey Tare” Portner releasing solo records before reuniting in 2012 for the wildly underwhelming Centipede Hz. Only the album’s first two songs, “Moonjock” and “Today’s Supernatural”, represented anything close to the depth and innovation from Merriweather Post Pavilion. The rest was mostly incoherent noise splattered across the canvas. I did see the full band live in March ‘13 and they were excellent, however, this was just before they had to cancel the rest of their tour due to an illness for Panda Bear.

There’s been no indication Animal Collective plans to record again anytime soon, with Panda Bear (who’s always been the McCartney of the group) set to release another solo album next year. The first track from that, “Mr Noah”, is promising. But it’ll be sad if the band never comes close to their creative high of ‘09 again. They certainly haven’t so far in this decade.

Other disappointments: It took me a while to warm up to the Black Keys and I was finally on board after mostly liking Brothers and loving El Camino, but they took a major step back with Turn Blue this year. How about getting back to rocking, guys? And don’t think I haven’t noticed the same trend in you, Kings of Leon…At some point in ‘10-’11, John Mayer stopped making accessible blues-rock and turned into Harvest-era Neil Young in just about every way. Normally, I’d think this is a great thing, but I really miss the Try!/Continuum/best parts of Battle Studies-era Mayer who destroyed everything in his path with his Fender (I bet he secretly wishes he’d been the one to come out with something like Black Messiah). Here’s hoping he reunites with Steve Jordan very soon…Arcade Fire is one of my favorite bands, they were outstanding live when I saw them a few months ago and I generally have very few bad things to say about their music. However, they botched the rollout of Reflektor, waited way too long to announce a tour and went to exorbitant lengths to build up an album that to me didn’t really live up to the hype. Maybe scaling things back for the next album won’t be a bad idea…and finally, I’m generally disappointed by the break-ups or indefinite hiatuses for LCD Soundsystem, the White Stripes, Girls, Fleet Foxes, the Walkmen and, most recently and perhaps most dishearteningly, Smith Westerns. I say that because of how young they are and I don’t know if any of them will reach the band’s lofty promise on their own.

MY TOP 50 FAVORITE SONGS OF ‘10-’14

The full list of my 50 favorite songs is here in a Spotify playlist and, unlike my usual yearly lists, includes more than one song from an album in some instances. One missing song is My Bloody Valentine’s “she found now”, which was No. 24 on the list and isn’t available on Spotify. Otherwise, it’s listed in order from 50-1.

Here’s the top 10 with embedded YouTube clips, and some words about the #1 song at the end:

10. THE NATIONAL – “CONVERSATION 16” (2010)

9. PASSION PIT – “IT’S NOT MY FAULT, I’M HAPPY” (2012)

8. BOMBAY BICYCLE CLUB – “TAKE THE RIGHT ONE” (2011)

7. THE PAINS OF BEING PURE AT HEART – “BEAUTIFUL YOU” (2014)

6. THE NATIONAL – “SEA OF LOVE” (2013)

5. WILD NOTHING – “NOCTURNE” (2012)

4. LCD SOUNDSYSTEM – “ALL I WANT” (2010)

3. CYMBALS – “THE NATURAL WORLD” (2013)

2. REAL ESTATE – “CRIME” (2014)

1. M83 – “MIDNIGHT CITY” (2011)

“Midnight City” endures for me as the best song so far this decade and one of my favorite songs ever because of how excited it still makes me even though I should be tired of it by now. Everything works together so well, from the blaring melody siren throughout, the lyrics about seizing the evening and the surprise saxophone solo that I still love hearing. There’s something for everyone in “Midnight City.” I hope M83 and its leader, Anthony Gonzalez, return guns blazing soon with something remotely as spellbinding as “Midnight City.”

MY 10 FAVORITE CONCERTS OF ‘10-’14

There’s no way I could rank these concerts, so I’ll present them to you in chronological order. Like I did with my overall list a couple years ago, I’m basing this on the greatness of the headliner, the greatness of the entire bill, my personal memories of the show and the overall concert experience.

9/28/10 – LCD Soundsystem with Sleigh Bells at the Orpheum Theatre, Boston MA

11/20/11 – M83 with Active Child at the House of Blues, Boston MA

6/6/12 – Dave Matthews Band at the Xfinity Center, Mansfield MA

9/23/12 – David Byrne and St. Vincent at the Orpheum Theatre, Boston MA

5/26/13 – Youth Lagoon, Dirty Projectors, the Walkmen, Of Monsters and Men and the National at Boston Calling, City Hall Plaza, Boston MA

6/4/13 – The National with People Get Ready at Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel, Providence RI

8/11/13 – Jay-Z and Justin Timberlake at Fenway Park, Boston MA

11/16/13 – Cut Copy with Larry Gus at the House of Blues, Boston MA

4/17/14 – The War on Drugs at Paradise Rock Club, Boston MA

9/5/14 – Future Islands, Neutral Milk Hotel and the National at Boston Calling, City Hall Plaza, Boston MA

MY 10 FAVORITE ALBUMS OF ‘10-’14

Thanks for reading this far. My 10 favorite albums so far this decade are as follows:

10. Bombay Bicycle Club – A Different Kind of Fix (2011)

differentkind

 

Top songs: “Take the Right One”, “Lights Out Words Gone”, “Shuffle”

9. Haim – Days Are Gone (2013)

DaysAreGone

Top songs: “Falling”, “Forever”, “Go Slow”

8. Real Estate – Atlas (2014)

atlas

Top songs: “Crime”, “Had to Hear”, “Past Lives”

7. Wild Nothing – Nocturne (2012)

wildnothing

Top songs: “Nocturne”, “Only Heather”, “Paradise”

6. Cut Copy – Zonoscope (2011)

zonoscope

Top songs: “Pharaohs & Pyramids”, “Take Me Over”, “Alisa”

5. The War on Drugs – Lost in the Dream (2014)

lostinthedream

Top songs: “Burning”, “Red Eyes”, “Eyes to the Wind”

4. Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010)

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Top songs: “POWER”, “All of the Lights”, “Runaway”

3. The National – Trouble Will Find Me (2013)

TroubleWillFind

Top songs: “Sea of Love”, “Graceless”, “Pink Rabbits”

2. Passion Pit – Gossamer (2012)

passionpit

Top songs: “It’s Not My Fault, I’m Happy”, “I’ll Be Alright”, “Love is Greed”

1. The National – High Violet (2010)

highviolet 

Top songs: “Conversation 16”, “Lemonworld”, “Bloodbuzz Ohio”

With that, I’m done. Happy New Year and happy listening!

LIST: The 10 Best Concerts I’ve Seen

There’s a new band out there.

Pitchfork gave their debut an 8.4. Twitter and the music blogs are lighting up. Everyone you know has the single.

The group is coming to your town and you make sure to snatch up tickets. You know if you don’t, you’ll look back one day with regret.

You pack into the venue. The first band is good, but the band you, and everyone else, came out to see is a few minutes from taking the stage. You can feel the buzz in the room. The excitement is so thick you can taste it.

The lights go out. The spotlights come up. You dart your eyes to the stage. Everyone around you is cheering at the top of their lungs.

And they take the stage. From note one, to note last, they kill it. They’re everything you ever expected and more. You share amazed glances with your buddies every now and then.

Everyone in that room knows they’re seeing something incredible. Something special. The beginning of something.

It ends. And the breathless exaltation starts. You know something just happened you’ll never forget. Something you may never be able to replace.

That is, until the next band comes along.

I went to my first concert in August 2000. I’ve been to nearly 70 concerts since, which is a lot for some but a small number compared to others. There is nothing on Earth, in my opinion, like the thrill I just described above. It doesn’t necessarily just come from a band you haven’t seen before, or a new act trying to make a name for themselves.

It can come from a great act you’ve seen a a million times, or an old standby that hasn’t stopped rocking. Or it can just be from a great time and great memories you created with friends on a night with music.

As times change, the way we experience music has also changed. Until now, our increasingly socially-connected world hadn’t made its way to concert-going.

My best friend, Sam Mullins, has been working for months to develop an iPhone app that will help you find great live bands, check into concerts, rate and review shows and connect with other people in the crowd.

The app is called TourBus and it’s now available in the App Store on your iPhone. If you have an iPhone, and enjoy the thrill of live music, I urge you to check it out and tell all your friends about it. Check out TourBus on Facebook and Twitter, too.

To mark the occasion of TourBus’ release, and as a reward for your download of the app, I’m offering a list of the 10 best concerts I’ve seen. Narrowing down all the great shows I’ve seen to 10 was an extremely difficult task.

I have based this on a number of criteria, including but not limited to: the greatness of the headliner, the greatness of the entire bill, my personal memories of the show, the overall concert experience, and basically anything else I felt was important.

I’ve listed the shows in chronological order and each show is accompanied by my ticket stub. Thanks for reading, thanks for downloading the app, and keep on listening.

7.22.02 JIMMY EAT WORLD (w/PROMISE RING and DESAPARECIDOS) STATE THEATER, PORTLAND, ME

This was my second concert, and my first at Portland’s great State Theater. It was also the first of the seven times I’ve seen Jimmy Eat World, four average guys from Arizona who leave everything they have on stage every night. It was the height of their popularity, with “The Middle” and “Sweetness” burning up the airwaves. With nearly everyone from my high school in attendance, I got to first understand the power of a smaller venue. It was my introduction to the songs from their 1999 opus Clarity, which would become my favorite album of the era. Not only that, but the guys played not one but TWO encores, finishing the set with Bleed American‘s epic closer “My Sundown.”

2.29.04 ZIGGY MARLEY/MICHAEL FRANTI & SPEARHEAD (w/BETH HART) STATE THEATER, PORTLAND, ME

The first concert Sam and I went to together, we got there early and were leaning up against the front of the stage throughout. Beth Hart and her strong voice made a great early impression, but Michael Franti and his backing band Spearhead stole this show. Franti was wildly funky, traipsing the stage in bare feet. But he was so strong, so believable and so enjoyable from beginning to end. When the set ended, he walked off the front of the stage into the crowd to say hello to people in attendance. Ziggy Marley played a good set, but I was always struck by how much fun Franti and his band had that night.

4.29.07 THE KILLERS (w/THE RED ROMANCE and THE SILVER BEATS) TSONGAS ARENA, LOWELL, MA

Las Vegas rock gods the Killers were touring in support of their monster second album Sam’s Town when I was treated to the best arena show I’ve ever seen during my sophomore year of college. The Red Romance were a fun rock act with tinges of ’80s nostalgia, and put on an excellent set. None of us knew anything about the next band, the Silver Beats. It turned out they were a NOTE PERFECT Beatles tribute band from, of all places, Tokyo. I’m telling you it was borderline creepy how good they were. Perhaps the most pleasant surprise of any show I’ve seen. Then the Killers came out and made everyone nearly forget about the incredible display they’d just witnessed.

8.24.08 JOHN MAYER (w/ONEREPUBLIC) BORGATA CASINO BALLROOM, ATLANTIC CITY, NJ

Don’t pretend you’re not jealous: I got to see John Mayer in a casino ballroom and stood a few feet away while he spun hours of blues-rock perfection. Mayer wasn’t touring for an album, but it was my first Mayer experience and it was unforgettable. He played songs from throughout his catalogue, with some of the best coming from his best album, 2006’s Continuum. Certified show-stopper “Gravity” was the highlight of the night. Sam and I saw this show with Sam’s family friend Todd, known as “Toad” to friends. Toad, who loved live music, passed away about a year after this show. If you look really closely at the icon for the TourBus app, you’ll find a tribute to Toad in there.

11.12.08 KINGS OF LEON (w/THE WHIGS and WE ARE SCIENTISTS) ORPHEUM THEATRE, BOSTON, MA

The Whigs and We Are Scientists both played good sets at this show. With that out of the way, I can now gush about how un-fucking-believable Kings of Leon played that night at the Orpheum. We had excellent seats, just a few rows from the stage. Only By the Night, the Tennessee quartet’s third album, the one that would launch them to super-duper-stardom, was tearing its way through the country while “Sex on Fire” and “Use Somebody” were in everyone’s heads. Every note they played that night was dripping with Jack Daniel’s-infused rock gravitas. They practically burned that place down. We knew immediately upon leaving we’d never see Kings of Leon in a venue that small again.

2.26.09 JIMMY EAT WORLD (w/REUBEN’S ACCOMPLICE) HOUSE OF BLUES, BOSTON, MA

This show came shortly after the newly-renovated House of Blues opened. I could think of no better kick-off  than seeing Jimmy Eat World on their “Clarity x 10″ tour. They played only 10 shows that winter showcasing the entirety of their finest album, which turned 10 that month. They played their set with a special energy and enthusiasm. For me, it was an unforgettable chance to see my favorite band play my favorite album. My emotions ran high as they went through favorites like “Just Watch the Fireworks” and “For Me This Is Heaven,” obscure singles like “No Sensitivity” and the incredible re-made closer “Goodbye Sky Harbor.” So many of the songs they played were ones I feared I’d never see again. Instead, they gave me memories in one night I’ll never forget.

12.4.09 SPOON, PHOENIX and PASSION PIT, ORPHEUM THEATRE, BOSTON, MA

The dearly-departed WFNX’s annual holiday show in 2009 had an absurd lineup, despite the disparate styles of the three bands: Passion Pit was a local group that had exploded that year thanks to their masterful electro-pop debut Manners; French rockers Phoenix were also gaining major attention in the U.S. for the first time on the heels of Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix longtime Texas alternative demi-gods Spoon were set to release Transference in the wake of immensely popular Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga. The result was an astoundingly-great show from beginning to end. Today the only one of those bands who could still headline a venue as small as the Orpheum would be, interestingly enough, Spoon, who headlined that night.

9.28.10 LCD SOUNDSYSTEM (w/SLEIGH BELLS), ORPHEUM THEATRE, BOSTON, MA

Before the release of their third album, This is Happening, James Murphy-led Brooklyn indie behemoths LCD Soundsystem made clear this would be the end of their band. With this knowledge in hand, there was no way I’d miss them that year. The result was a show at the Orpheum for the ages. We were in the back of the orchestra that night and I remember it being more sweltering than usual inside the old venue. That could have been due to the intensity of LCD’s live show. They blistered through classics like “All My Friends” and I specifically recall “Get Innocuous!” as a highlight of the night. It’s almost certainly the first, last and only time I’ll ever see LCD Soundsystem live. My sadness over that is replaced by the incredible memories of their live prowess.

11.20.11 M83 (w/ACTIVE CHILD), HOUSE OF BLUES, BOSTON, MA

We didn’t really know what to expect when we got tickets to see Anthony Gonzalez’s shoegaze-inspired synth pop project M83 in concert last fall. Because of demand, the show had been moved from the much-smaller Paradise to House of Blues and we stood in the mezzanine to get a bird’s eye view. It’d safe to say we were stunned beyond belief at just how astounding M83 was that night. From the opening synth drones of “Intro” to the out-and-out amazing closer “Couleurs,” I had chills the entire night. They scampered around the stage like crazed French elves, jamming away on Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming staples like “Reunion” and world-beating single “Midnight City.” This was definitely a night like the one I described in my intro. Months later, we were still talking about how great that show was.

6.6.12 DAVE MATTHEWS BAND, COMCAST CENTER, MANSFIELD, MA

I’ve seen Dave Matthews Band five times now, and every time has been awesome, including two fantastic shows at Fenway Park in May ’09. There cannot possibly be another band on the planet who has more fun on stage than these guys, who’ve been crushing it live for over two decades now. They have a chemistry that’s so deeply palpable. The show this past June stands out because of how it ended: After so many years as the DMB concert version of a white whale, Boston-area fans finally got to see “Halloween,” the Before These Crowded Streets deep cut that takes an entirely new existence live. That segued into a joyously euphoric closing rendition of “Tripping Billies” to cap another incredible show. Even if you aren’t a huge fan, you owe it to yourself to take in the DMB experience someday.

LIST: My 10 Favorite Albums of 2011

I’m happy to finally update this blog for the first time in months with write-ups for my 10 favorite albums of 2011. Before I get to the long-form thoughts on the 10 best albums I heard this year, here are albums 20 through 11 on my list, accompanied by one song from that album.

20. Cold Cave: Cherish the Light Years (“Confetti”)

19. Washed Out: Within and Without (“Amor Fati”)

18. Radiohead: The King of Limbs (“Give Up the Ghost”)

17. The Strokes: Angles (“Taken For a Fool”)

16. Wilco: The Whole Love (“Dawned On Me”)

15. Cults: Cults (“Abducted”)

14. Fleet Foxes: Helplessness Blues (“Grown Ocean”)

13. The Black Keys: El Camino (“Lonely Boy”)

12. Panda Bear: Tomboy (“Friendship Bracelet”)

11. Real Estate: Days (“It’s Real”)

Here they are, my 10 favorite albums of 2011.

10. Dum Dum Girls: Only in Dreams

We’ve seen an influx the last few years of girl-driven California indie pop, including Best Coast, Vivian Girls and Dum Dum Girls. The latter group, led by the velvet-voiced Dee Dee, became my favorite of the bunch this year with the aces EP He Gets Me High and their second full-length, the perpetually-jangly Only in Dreams. There isn’t much variation to the song structure and the drumbeats on several tunes are virtually the same. But the surf-guitar sound on tracks like opener “Always Looking” and single “Bedroom Eyes” make this record stand out. In a year when so many acts were attempting to mask their words, Only in Dreams is refreshingly straightforward. There’s depth here too, with three-chord sermon “Coming Down” and the melancholy sadness of closer “Hold Your Hand,” which conjures the feelings of being with a loved one as they slip away to the great gig in the sky. For my money, Only in Dreams hits its peak on mid-album rocker “Heartbeat.” Dee Dee’s voice has been endlessly compared to Chrissie Hynde, perhaps my favorite female vocalist. On “Heartbeat,” Dee Dee reaches Hynde-like heights of beautiful, deep confidence. “Take it away,” the chorus pleads over and over. On Only in Dreams, Dee Dee and her ladies only give, and they give just about everything.

9. Girls: Father, Son, Holy Ghost

The story of Christopher Owens, the genius behind Girls, reads like The Blind Side but with a white kid with a guitar. Born into the Children of God cult, Owens had an older brother who died due to the cult’s beliefs and a mother who prostituted herself on its behalf. Later, Owens was taken in by a Texas millionaire and then moved to San Francisco, where he started Girls. Their debut album, fittingly titled Album, was a ‘60s-style rock triumph, but Owens takes the more fleshed-out group further on Father, Son, Holy Ghost. Opener “Honey Bunny” is an honest examination of Owens’ shortcomings over with one of the happiest-sounding guitar tracks of the year. “Alex” is about a girl Owens pines for, with the common refrain of “Who cares?” describing feelings going both ways. “Die” rocks unlike anything on Album while the building “Vomit” takes the band to a mountainous crescendo. There’s plenty of playful tracks like “Saying I Love You,” “Magic” and “Love Like a River,” but the album also displays an incredible amount of depth, nowhere better than on “Forgiveness.” You can hear Owens’ heart break as he croons “nothing’s gonna get any better” and “no one’s gonna find any answers.” His acoustic guitar and the plodding keyboards tell the story before the mid-tune breakdown and emotional solo. The song’s final words always give me chills: “I can see so much clearer / When I just close my eyes.” Without a doubt, Father, Son, Holy Ghost is one of the best albums of year to just sit back, close your eyes and love.

8. Bon Iver: Bon Iver

Speaking of back stories, this is one you may be more familiar with: Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon wrote and recorded the project’s debut album, For Emma, Forever Ago in a remote Wisconsin cabin. For his second act, Vernon went quite a bit bigger. A cabin couldn’t possibly hold back Bon Iver’s self-titled sophomore effort. Every song on Bon Iver feels massive. From the marching drums and guitar of “Perth,” the soft arpeggio brilliance of “Holocene,” the folky touches of “Towers” and the quiet strength of “Wash.,” it’s no wonder this is the record where Vernon crossed over into mainstream accolades. My biggest issue with Bon Iver is Vernon’s continual insistence in recording with multiple tracks of his lead vocal, which masks his incredible falsetto voice and typically mangles understanding of what he’s singing. Vernon’s live performances are usually more powerful than his recorded work. Still, it’s hard to not be enraptured by Bon Iver’s soft sonic mastery from beginning to end. And it’s the end that seems to get people talking. Easily the most divisive indie rock song of the year, closer “Beth/Rest” very easily could be mistaken for an easy listening ballad in the mold of Bruce Hornsby or Richard Marx. But, dammit, the song is amazing. You have to respect the hell out of Vernon for taking a chance like this and pulling it off in a totally non-ironic and completely earnest fashion. The degree of difficulty, and effortlessness of Vernon’s sound, makes Bon Iver an indelible highlight of 2011. He sure is a long way from that cabin now.

7. Foster the People: Torches

Admit it: a year ago, you’d never heard of Foster the People. Now, it’s impossible to exist without hearing them. Their debut, Torches, exploded this year in a maelstrom of viral hits and tunes you’d hear everywhere from movie trailers to coffee shops to car commercials. For 2011, they were next in a line of synth-dance-indie-pop-rock groups to gain insta-fame, following in the footsteps of MGMT and Passion Pit. The common thread of the groups is that beyond the hype and the annual chorus of fans saying “I knew them back when…” it really comes down to the solid sounds they’ve forged. At first, I wasn’t crazy about Torches, thinking songs like “Color on the Walls (Don’t Stop)” cribbed a bit too much from the MGMT playbook. But unlike many albums I heard this year, there wound up being cohesiveness to the overall product that simply worked. Mark Foster and Co. created a sound that so many millions will closely associate with where they were in 2011. Each song is different but so clearly comes from the same place: “Waste” brings heavenly choruses; mega-smash “Pumped Up Kicks” creeps along a bouncy beat and tells a story about why you probably shouldn’t play with guns; “Houdini” and my personal highlight “Call it What You Want” are whacked-out dance-a-thons that undoubtedly birthed hundreds of unplanned hipster dance parties this year. Truth is, to some, it’s probably already uncool to like Foster the People. Anyone who tries to say that is trying too hard to be cool themselves. Love Torches now, and wait to see who’ll be the Foster the People of 2012.

6. Arctic Monkeys: Suck It and See

Arctic Monkeys were the first band around my age I loved. Debut Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not and sophomore Favourite Worst Nightmare defined my college years with tight punkishness while 2009’s Humbug was a step back with mostly hardcore sludge. It came out after college during a strange time for me. This year, Suck It and See was released when I was starting to figure things out. Clearly, Arctic Monkeys also figured things out, with an album that culls from their best work. Lead singer Alex Turner, who mostly yelled early on, is now a bona fide hard rock crooner. Standout tracks “She’s Thunderstorms,” “Black Treacle,” “The Hellcat Spangled Shalalala” and “Reckless Serenade” combine bouncy riffs with rocking attitude. Heavier tunes “Brick By Brick” and “Don’t Sit Down ‘Cause I’ve Moved Your Chair” were the best songs not on Humbug. “Library Pictures” is a blast-from-the-past, an angry rant befitting the Sheffield boys’ early days. But it’s the end of the album that hits home hardest, showing the band’s maturity as they enter their mid-20s. Closer “That’s Where You’re Wrong” (starts 1:50 into video) is their best song since “Fluorescent Adolescent.” This sounds of a band that’s waged the battles of youthful expectations, coming out the other side with their talents and brains intact, reaching a point where they’ll be supporting the Black Keys on a 2012 arena tour. “That’s Where You’re Wrong” shows how far they’ve come with Suck It and See. Two-and-a-half minutes in, Jamie Cook launches into a high-pitched solo as the song turns triumphant. “Don’t take it so personally,” Turner says. “You’re not the only one.” Maybe getting older, and wiser, isn’t so bad.

5. Smith Westerns: Dye It Blonde

I’m pretty sure the guys in Smith Westerns are tools. I saw them at Great Scott and while they played well, the long hair of brothers Cullen and Cameron Omori were in their respective faces the entire time. Cullen quickly unplugged his microphone and ran off stage at the end of their set without playing an encore. These Chicagoans, weaned on Beatles and T-Rex records, will soon realize their audience is the wrong group of people to piss off. But with Dye It Blonde, they’re at least in a mature place when it comes to their recording style. George Harrison is smiling in rock heaven, knowing his signature guitar sound lives on. “Weekend” is a piece of glam perfection that goes a bit deeper than just having fun on a weekend. Because to Cullen weekends are never fun “unless you’re around here too…” Showing a bit of their age and feelings of mortality, mid-record masterpiece “All Die Young” winds down with a massive chorus and a truthful refrain: “Love is lovely when you are young.” “Dance Away” is awfully danceable, “End of the Night” chugs along with some really fun riffs, “Only One” recalls the Britpop of the late-80s and early-90s. The final tune, “Dye the World” has perhaps the best guitar work on the entire album and ends with an awesome melancholy riff. Dye It Blonde is the work of a band trying to find its way in the wide world of indie rock. Between their garage-y debut and this very polished second effort, I’d like to think their best work is to come. I’d also like to think they wouldn’t be douchebags when I see them again in January.

4. TV on the Radio – Nine Types of Light

The fourth studio album from these Brooklyn indie heavyweights was released on April 12. Eight days later, bassist Gerard Smith died following a bout with lung cancer. Nine Types of Light was likely written and recorded with the knowledge Smith was undergoing the fight of his life. Because of that, an odd darkness permeates much of the album and gives it an aura unheard on their other records. Even upbeat songs, like ironically titled opener “Second Song,” lead single “Will Do” and the truly repetitive “Repetition” all feel like something is desperately wrong. This album lacks the star power of 2008’s Dear Science but works nearly as well. The frantic “No Future Shock” introduces us to a brand new dance craze conjuring the plight of many today. “Keep Your Heart” features lengthy coos from Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone, who come into their own as vocalists. The finest moments come in the form of a mid-album sandwich with “Will Do” providing the tasty filling and two of the best pieces of bread ever baked up by TV on the Radio. (OK, that was lame. Sorry.) “Killer Crane” is similar in feel to the epic Dear Science ballad “Family Tree” and explodes with sad beauty. It includes what has to be the most depressive use of banjo I’ve ever heard. The light touches of synthesizer, followed by slight acoustic strumming take it to another level. Just one song later, they strike a decidedly different tone. Dripping with sex, “New Cannonball Blues” reaches down into the deepest recesses of their funkitude. Only “Golden Age” can rival this song’s access to the dirty and forbidden. There aren’t many bands with the range of TV on the Radio. Nine Types of Light is an incredible exhibition of that range. Although things will never be the same, I hope they never lose their ability to reach for new places.

3. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart: Belong

Over the last few years my musical tastes have made a significant shift. There was a time when I hated anything that wasn’t guitar-bass-drums with no frills. You could play piano, but it better not be plugged into anything. As you can tell from this list so far, and the two albums to come, I’m way more open to machine-made sounds. Yet Belong, the second album from New York indie cool kids The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, is an effort I would have appreciated at any point of my life. Their self-titled debut touched on many of the late-‘80s fuzzy British themes. On Belong, they creep forward a few years, pumping up variations on the ‘90s alt-rock I grew up on. Working with ‘90s mavens Alan Moulder and Flood probably had something to do with that. These short guitar-pop joys fly by quickly. The first three tracks are wonderfully breezy, with single “Heart in Your Heartbreak” the most adorably fun song of the 2011. “The Body” frenetically recalls yesteryear, with a video that will make you hate yourself for growing up. There’s a deep longing in “Even in Dreams” not previously experienced by this band. “Even in dreams,” Kip Berman wails, “I will not betray you,” followed by the crashing Clinton-era guitars and cymbals. The final two songs here, “Too Tough” and “Strange,” harkens back to their My Bloody Valentine-tinged debut with some of the finest shoegaze you’ll hear anywhere. Do The Pains of Being Pure at Heart do anything supremely different or special? If this were 1994 I’d say no. But in an indie world where nostalgia rules the day, they used Belong to separate themselves from the thundering herd. “Our dreams are coming true,” Berman coos over and over on “Strange.” Here’s hoping this band’s dream continues to come true for years to come.

2. M83: Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming

Two years before his death, Irish literary titan James Joyce published Finnegans Wake, a novel considered incomprehensible at the time and only slightly more understood by readers and scholars more than seven decades later. One thing is universally recognized about Finnegans Wake: Joyce was attempting to synthesize in words what we experience in dreams. He spent 17 years writing the book, mostly in France. That also happens to be the home country of Anthony Gonzalez, the progenitor of M83, a group now six albums into their career. Unlike Joyce, Gonzalez spent just three years crafting this breakthrough release, the double-disc Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming. Gonzalez has tried a similar feat here: a musical form of what happens when we sleep and dream the things we dream. Don’t mistake what you hear on this album for anything close to reality. Over the course of 79 minutes there’s little Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming doesn’t possess: huge synthesizers, frenetic guitar work, perfect drumming, beat-you-over-the-head obvious lyrics, what-the-fuck-is-he-saying unintelligible lyrics, unreal bass fills, well-placed saxophone solos, train sound effects, clarinet bursts, heavenly choruses on heartfelt ballads, a song named after a ‘60s movie star, ghastly instrumentals and a little girl yammering about magic frogs. Yet so many songs are based on simple chord changes and themes, things you know you’ve heard before but just never placed like this. “Intro” is a grand opening with gigantic synths; “Reunion” rollicks with tremendous guitar work; “Claudia Lewis” lives and dies on an astounding bass line and a vibe straight out of 1987;  “Steve McQueen” probably has nothing to do with Steve McQueen but sounds damn amazing. M83 reaches their peak on the second song and lead single “Midnight City,” which was far and away the best song I heard in 2011. The unmistakable synth hook leads into an awesomely fun jaunt that always gets my head weaving. “Waiting for a car,” Gonzalez and company sings, “waiting for a ride in the dark,” and later, the most affecting line of all, “the city is my church.” From there the song elevates along a simple progression, leading to the final heightened refrains and the sax solo everyone’s been talking about since it came out. Is it out of place? Does it belong in any song released in 2011? That’s the great thing about Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming. Nothing Gonzalez does here is what you can expect because, well, we can never expect what we see in our dreams. The album has flaws; it could have been shortened by a few indulgent instrumentals and the dirge of slow ones like “Wait,” “Soon My Friend” and others make the pacing somewhat odd. But there’s no denying Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming will go down as one of the classic indie albums of this era. James Joyce would indeed be proud.

1. Cut Copy: Zonoscope

I had never listened to Cut Copy, the Aussie electro-pop quartet of nerdy-looking dudes led by Dan Whitford, before their third album, Zonoscope, was released in February. That’s probably why I never got caught up in the “oh, it’s really good but not as good as In Ghost Colours” line of thinking that seemed to pervade the criticism of this near-perfect album. Listening to this for months without being influenced by the greater star power of In Ghost Colours allowed me to fully appreciate Zonoscope‘s ‘80s-inspired indie electronica for what it truly was: the most complete, most listenable and most memorable album of 2011 for me. Leading off with the builder “Need You Now,” Zonoscope contains everything we want from indie pop these days: catchy hooks, well-placed drums, synthesizers everywhere, sneaky-great guitar and bass work and lyrics that leave the deciphering up to you. The bassy fun of “Take Me Over” includes wonderful synth work through the choruses. There’s the clap-along stomp of “Where I’m Going,” the Bananrama vibe of “Blink and You’ll Miss a Revolution,” the Cars recalling on “Alisa,” the longing of “Hanging Onto Every Heartbeat.” It finishes on 20 minutes of deadly serious dance-punk, a stretch Cut Copy picks up the baton from the dearly-departed LCD Soundsystem as purveyors of raw emotion in the electric indie world. “Corner of the Sky” hits a funky verse about 2:30 in that makes you feel like Whitford and his drones are going to reach out through the speakers and grab you. The final 15-minute jam “Sun God” is borderline creepy, with obsessive lyrics sung over and over: “Please please please please please / Won’t you give your love to me?” and “Are you gonna give me your love? / Love won’t be enough” among them. Eventually the lyrics go away and we’re left with a kraut-rockish jam that dissolves into a barrage of synth blasts. Again, no band I heard in 2011 released anything like this. Where Zonoscope separates itself from the pack is the astounding “Pharaohs & Pyramids,” a dance romp that takes the listener to Egpyt and beyond. There are prickly synths, cryptic lyrics and excellent percussion leading up to a breakdown with Whitford yapping about disco sounds and lights (which is something he does a lot). The breakdown zooms into a wild build-up then a euphoric burst of energy, a veritable volcano of sonic bliss. A plaintive guitar solo even shows up midway through. Every amazing sound on Zonoscope, everything great about the album and everything great about music in 2011 is rolled into these last two minutes of “Pharaohs & Pyramids.” So many different tastes have resulted in the creation of so many different sounds. Maybe disco indie rock isn’t your thing. But there’s a ton of diversity on Zonoscope, and the quality of all the different sounds makes it my favorite of the year.