Top 25 Austin Albums of 2011: #5-1

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5. Quiet Company - We Are All Where We Belong - 'You, Me, & the Boatman'

Quiet Company frontman Taylor Muse describes this as a breakup album, and it is surely one of the most original and personal breakup albums ever made. Muse, in an earlier life, was quite active in organized religion, but as this album details, he slowly and thoroughly became disillusioned with that particular brand of faith. And thus We Are All Where We Belong comes across as the most optimistic and confident agnostic’s manifesto ever. The album’s title is a repeated refrain through many tracks, and Muse adopts many other mantras as well, like “Let’s live to love and love to live,” “I know my time is coming,” and “Everybody’s probably going to be alright.” The positivity, though, is balanced by a critical takedown of zealotry and fanaticism. It’s subject matter rarely visited in popular music, and Muse treats it with thoughtfulness and respect while never getting heavy-handed. Oh, and the songs are awesome, too.

4. Okkervil River - I Am Very Far - 'The Valley'

Will Sheff and company continue to amaze. Their experience last year producing and collaborating with Roky Erickson is evident in the confidence with which they approach this record. Sheff’s songwriting and lyricism is particularly sharp – for example, “Hanging From a Hit” is moving until an unexpected turn alters the whole scope of the track. But the songs also just sound powerful. Lead track “The Valley” rocks like few others in Okkervil River’s catalog, “Wake and Be Fine” combines thudding drums with soft strings and Sheff’s rapid vocal delivery. Even though our song of the year (“Mermaid”) didn’t make the album, it’s chock full of wonderful moments – like the grandeur of “Rider” or the steady bounce of “Your Past Life as a Blast.” I Am Very Far is the product of a band that knows it can do whatever it wants.

3. Golden Bear - Alive - 'Who We Are'

Golden Bear, the local eclectic indie pop quintet, released their third LP, Alive, in October. This time around, the group has let their piano and vibraphone take the lead making for some great raucous rhythmic chords as well as delicate melodies. Golden Bear’s sound reaches anthemic heights at numerous points on the album. Whether it’s the pounding drums, the singalong vocals or the explosive bridges, something makes you want to listen to this album loud. Fans of The Polyphonic Spree, The Flaming Lips or Built to Spill will find a lot to like here. Album highlights for us include almost half the album. Check out the opener “Juggernaught,” the first single “Who We Are,” “Prospect Park” and “Wait for the Signal.”

2. Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears - Scandalous - 'Livin in the Jungle'

Black Joe Lewis is at once both retro and contemporary. On Scandalous, he and the Honeybears draw from classic R&B and funk while managing to sound original and not at all anachronistic. Lewis certainly deserves much of the credit for his utterly engaging charisma that translates clearly onto the record on tracks like “Mustang Ranch” and “Booty City” when he charms his way through some sexually-charged tracks. But the band as a whole is what carries this record. The rhythm section is locked in the entire time, the guitars often hit complementary rhythmic and melodic patterns, while the horn section completely dominates everything it touches. Songs like “I’m Gonna Leave You” ebb and flow until they swell into dramatic crescendos. “Jesus Took My Hand” offers a stilted rhythm that the drums accentuate while keeping everything a little bit off. This is first-class musicianship combined with top-notch showmanship producing an utterly enjoyable record.

1. The Great Nostalgic - Hope We Live Like We Promised - 'Spirit World'

The Great Nostalgic put together a classic with Hope We Live Like We Promised. It’s a quasi-concept album that actually feels like an album, and engages with every song. The sequencing is perfect, allowing the album to flow in three distinctly different acts, both sonically and lyrically. Main songwriter Abram Shook explores themes of emerging adulthood, and his intricate lyrics leave little Easter eggs for careful listeners throughout the disc. Because most of the music was written with drummer Vincent Durcan, the drums mold and shape the songs in original ways, keeping the music interesting rhythmically while Shook delivers hook after memorable hook without ever getting too saccharine. There are just too many fantastic songs here: “Morning Light,” “Islands,” “Hustlers and Junkies,” “Wilderness,” “The Great Unknown,” “Spirit World.” Yet it always feels like the songs are contributing to a greater whole. Hope We Live Like We Promised is a stunning achievement in a year full of quality albums from ATX.