The Decemberists – The King Is Dead

The Decemberists’ fourth album was released on January 14th and made my top ten list of the year even in those early days with the whole year of releases waiting to knock it out of the ring. Over the course of eleven and a bit months it managed to see of all challengers and retain its crown as my favourite album of 2011. The King may be dead but he still rules.

2011 was the year of the last REM album release and their break-up. One possible contributing factor to their retirement might well be that REM didn’t release the best REM album  of 2011, The Decemberists did. Band leader/songwriter/singer Colin Melloy is unashamed in his love for REM and openly admitted that the King Is Dead was his tribute to the band, his way of thanking them for being such an influence. He even managed to rope in Peter Buck to add guitar and mandolin parts on the album, including this first song Down By The Water:

The whole album is full to brimming with harmonica, mandolin and accordian and, played in its entirety, feels like a road trip through all the major sub genres of Americana. From the  uptempo folk of Don’t Carry It All and Down By The Water to the haunting twin songs January Hymn and June Hymn, to the down home, feel good vibe of All Arise!, the album displays a level of quality through all ten tracks that few bands recording today can match. Stripped down acoustic versions of the tracks show the sheer quality of the songwriting on display, this acoustic version of This Is Why We Fight being a prime example, the bombast of the album version reworked into a soleful acoustic piece, resplendent with fiddle and lilting female backing vocals:

The standout track, for this listener at least, has to be Rise to Me. Colin Meloy and his wife, artist Carson Ellis, have a 5 yr old son with high functioning autism and Rise To Me details both the struggle and the triumphs of raising a child with autism, intended as a dedication to his son. It’s a beautiful, heartfelt piece that any parent can relate to. I am not ashamed to say this one chokes me up a little each time I listen to it:

The King is Dead was recorded over a six week period in a barn at an 80-acre site called Pendarvis Farm, near Portland, Oregon. The band recorded a superb 30 min documentary detailing their recording process called Pendarvia. Directed by Aaron Rose, it’s a warm, inviting piece of film that takes you into the process of recording an album live in a band with a group of friends. If this post has you seek out the album I would recommend tracking down the CD/DVD version with Pendarvia included.

In a neat piece of symmetry, The Decemberists saw out the year releasing a companion EP in December entitled Long Live The King. It features 6 tracks that could easily have sat alongside those on the main album and I can’t help feeling I’m not the only person whose music purchases this year have been bookended by Decemberist releases.

And that was my Top Ten Albums of 2011. Eagle-eyed readers will notice I missed off albums of writing music I’ve been blogging/tweeting about this year. That’s because there were so many great albums ideal as background music for writing sessions that I decided to put together a top five. Look for that tomorrow. In the meantime, what was your album of 2011?