Favorite Album Art Of 2011

I spend a lot of time listening to music throughout the year, making my lists of favorite records, the best songs and so on and on. But in the process I cannot help but look at and think about the album artwork and how that accompanies this music. Increasingly, in this digital age, album art is relegated often to postage stamp-sized icons on our screens and iPhones, already downsizing from the pretty small size of CDs. Maybe people do not think about album covers as much, yet I still love to stare over them like I did as a kid. And I still tend to buy albums in LP format because I like seeing that cover nice and big.

In lieu of a best albums of the year list, I decided to curate this list of my favorite album covers of the year. Below is but a sampling of some of the excellent artwork from 2011, some of which point to a few of the thematic trends in imagery, typography, illustration and intricacy.

Wilco, Live At The Vic

I had the opportunity to fly to Chicago last week to catch Wilco at The Vic Theatre, the third night of a five-night run in Chicago. What made this run special was the fact that each night was a different venue, at increasingly smaller venues: Civic Opera House, Rivieria Theatre, Vic Theatre, Metro and ending Sunday night at Lincoln Hall. It was a very cool week of hometown shows that spread the love of each venue that made each night different and a treat for fans.

The only real repeated songs were tunes off the new album The Whole Love. Otherwise, our show was filled with older songs (“The Lonely 1”), rarer songs (“A Magazine Called Sunset”) and lots of great stuff from A Ghost Is Born and Being There. A few of the other highlights were “Radio Cure,” “Art of Almost,” “One Sunday Morning,” and “At Least That’s What You Said.” You can see a full set list here.

Here’s a video of the night’s second song “Hell Is Chrome.”

Wilco (The Tiny Desk Concert)

Back in late September, we all gathered on a Saturday at the NPR Music offices for a special Tiny Desk Concert with Wilco. One of the best we’ve had, and certainly my favorite I’ve seen and played a part in. I had the pleasure of filming and editing the video along with some great NPR multimedia producers. The result is a pretty stunning and intimate video from one of my all-time favorite bands. 

Wilco, ‘Born Alone’

I just cannot get enough of this new Wilco album. It seems like every listen reveals something new in a different song, which is something you probably couldn’t say about the last couple records. Anyway, there’s a new video directed by Mark Greenberg for Wilco’s “Born Alone” from their superb new album The Whole Love. I can’t wait to hear this song live in concert. It will be amazing.

Wilco Loves Its Label

Wilco’s new album The Whole Love is already assured to be among my favorite albums of the year, but it’s also the band’s best since A Ghost Is Born, if not Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. It’s also the first record on their new label dBpm. The band released a 7″ single this summer to celebrate, with “I Might” and a great cover of Nick Lowe’s “I Love My Label.” Check out this nice video of them recording that song in their famed “Wilco Loft.”

This fall Wilco will be touring with Nick Lowe as well, so that’ll surely be an excuse for them to collaborate on stage. Should be fun.

Deerhoof Collaborate With Jeff Tweedy And Sons

This year the arty noise rockers Deerhoof have been releasing a series of collaborative singles — on which different vocalists sing on instrumentals from their 2011 album Deerhoof Vs. Evil. The latest 7″, “Behold a Raccoon in the Darkness”, features Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy singing over the instrumental for Deerhoof’s track “Behold a Marvel in the Darkness”.

The B-side, “Own It”, is a new recording from Tweedy’s side project the Raccoonists, a band that includes his two sons, Spencer and Sam. Check out the super fun lo-fi video for that song:

Wilco’s ‘I Might’ Shows Promise For New Album

If you heard this new Wilco single “I Might” a few weeks back and thought it showed great promise for the upcoming record, you’re not alone. It’s a great tune. Now I have now heard the new Wilco album The Whole Love, and I can say it’s absolutely great. Totally the album I had hoped they still had in them after the last two decent, but ultimately sorta boring records. The experimental fire is back and it might be the best record of theirs since A Ghost Is Born. That’s probably all I’m allowed to say for now, but more later I’m sure. In the meantime, listen to this song again. It’s great.

Jeff Tweedy Goes Solo In The District

Jeff Tweedy performing live in Washington D.C. (Credit: Francis Chung)
Jeff Tweedy performing live in Washington D.C. (Credit: Francis Chung)

Jeff Tweedy solo shows are pretty durn rare these days, especially away from Chicago, and more especially out here on the east coast. So it was an incredible treat to get the chance to see the Wilco-mastermind perform here in Washington D.C. at the historic Lincoln Theatre.

The entire set was nearly perfect: a mix of old classics from Summerteeth, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost Is Born, intermingled with some newer fare from later albums, and even a few rarities tossed in. It was sparsely lit with a single spotlight, with a simple black curtain backdrop and a few guitars surrounding him in a half arc behind him. It was much like what I envision an old Bob Dylan acoustic show might’ve been like. It was at times both heartfelt and beautiful and yet surprisingly funny when Tweedy would cut wise with the sometimes overly-talkative audience. That Jeff Tweedy is one quick and witty dude.

And while there were many favorites from the night — “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart,” “Via Chicago,” “A Shot In The Arm,” “You Are Not Alone,” and a completely un-amplified rendition of “Acuff Rose” to close out the night — I was wholly enamored and taken with his acoustic performance of “Spiders (Kidsmoke).”

The version he played to open the entire show was so stripped down and re-imagined from it’s original Krautrock form that it even took me a few to figure out what song it was. But it was absolutely gorgeous, making me hear that song and it’s lyrics — now imbued with an even greater sense of melancholy and lonely stillness as he sings “It’s good to be alone” — in a totally new way. It truly set the tone for the rest of the superb show for me.

This mp3 here of that song is from the New York show at the Bowery Ballroom performed a few nights before I saw him (I couldn’t find my show yet)… But wow!

[Audio:https://secureservercdn.net/198.71.233.179/wvv.338.myftpupload.com/soundbox/Tweedy_SpidersKidsmoke.mp3]

Tiny Desk Concert: Lightning Dust (and more…)

Over at NPR Music, I continue my reign of recent Tiny Desk Concert videos that I’ve helped put together. This week, is Lightning Dust, who put out one of my favorite albums of the year, Infinite Light. This video is infectious thanks to the wonderful harmonies of the two female singers, presumably sisters.

Take a look below, and read my little write up here on the website.

Also on NPR Music today, I contribute to the Take Five series’ Top 10 Jazz Records of 2009 list as part of our end of year coverage. Here I write about one of my favorite guitarists, Nels Cline — notably of Wilco fame — who put out a great jazz/rock/folk/minimalist album Coward.

I Used To Hate This Song: Wilco’s ‘You And I’

Now I kinda like it. This is one of my favorite quotes from the movie High Fidelity, still one of my favorite movies. Obviously, these are the words of record store owner Rob Gordon (played by John Cusack) as he admits to his ultra-hip music snob friends that he might actually be enjoying Peter Frampton’s “Baby I Love Your Way” — a song he used to once loathe.

When I first heard Wilco’s “You And I,” a new tune featuring Feist on the latest record Wilco (The Album), I felt it was easily one of the most blandly treated songs in the band’s repertoire. On paper, this song — in which Jeff Tweedy and Leslie Feist coo a sweet duet to each other — seemed like a no brainer; a surefire win. What’s not to like?

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=USjuOWLyWIQ[/youtube]

To be honest, my first impressions were no doubt soiled (unfairly perhaps) by high expectations of what I want a Wilco album to sound like. This is now second Wilco album that, while a sturdy and and generally “good” record, seemed to fall a bit flat for me. It could be argued that the band’s stellar live concerts — with the band’s virtuosic musicianship and instrumental prowess and high energy — has become the best way to experience the band. It could also be argued that what I want from Wilco, may not be what Wilco wants from Wilco anymore.

The Album finds the band for the most part still in a relaxed mode, playing good, unfussy songs well. But it’s a far cry from the deconstructionist rock I fell in love with.

“You And I” in particular, at least on first listens, jumped out by not jumping out at all. It’s certainly the most calculated and straight-ahead song on the record: not offensive or even particularly bad, but dull.

But then I caught a couple homemade videos on YouTube of Feist sitting in with Wilco on tour to perform the song. And again, this past week, they took the song on the Late Show, playing the song for David Letterman:

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p4NPMjmZ-5A&hl[/youtube]

Suddenly, I was noticing fragments of the song’s melodies rattling around in my head and began to wonder if there was more to this song than I had thought. I looked up the song’s chords online, worked up the song on guitar within an hour — still is a really simple and unfussy song structure — and found that I really loved the chord progression.

The best part of the song to me is the bridge (mistakenly labeled as the “chorus” in that chord sheet link), where the song has brief, and subtle key change:

F Fmaj7
Oh, I don’t wanna know
Em
Oh, I don’t wanna know
C Am9
Oh, I don’t need to know everything about you
F Fmaj7
Oh I don’t wanna know and
C Bb Am Dm G6 G7
You don’t need to know that much about me

That C > Bb > Am > Dm > G6 > G7 progression fits just perfectly and truly makes the song for me. My only wish is that they would play that section more than once. Oh well.

Over the last few days, I’ve decided that “You And I” may be one of the best “songs” on the records. Even if the rather glossy production and uninteresting instrumentation might paint the song as a bit tepid sonically, I think there is something to be said about the overall restraint in the melodies, the beauty of Feist and Tweedy’s vocals and the way the chords snugly fit together. Well done Tweedy, well done.