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The Best Music of 2011

The Best Music of 2011

Okay so I am a couple weeks late getting this list posted for several reasons, but mainly because it’s so difficult to choose which twenty of the fifty-six 2011 albums I purchased belong on the list. 

The top five are the albums I’ve listened to the most during the year, and two of the top five are by groups that don’t get anywhere near the attention they deserve, especially in the United States.

1. CapsulaIn the Land of Silver Souls.  This is the album I’ve listened to probably a hundred times, and I never tire of it. Their sound is part seventies Bowie, part Stooges, part Sonic Youth, a pinch of Link Wray, and a whole lot of “it.” Martin Guevara on guitar and vocals, Coni Duchess on bass and vocals, and Ignacio Villarejo on drums take all of their influences an blend them into one of the best sounding sonic stews I’ve ever heard. Top tracks are “Wild Fascination,” “Communication,” and “Hit ‘n’ Miss.”


Now that you’ve watched that video, you’ll probably want to go buy the CD. Good luck. Right here in Seattle where’ve they’ve been in heavy rotation on KEXP and have played two shows in the past six months (The Comet and the KEXP BBQ), you can’t find their music at Sonic Boom, Easy Street Records, Silver Platters, or any other store I’ve wandered into. The album is on the BCore Disc label, which must have very poor distribution in the U.S. Amazon sometimes has it, and you can buy it from the band for $10 if you go to a show. So what I guess I am saying is go to a show, see the band, buy their music, spread the word. (I guess you pod people can download it too.)

2. P.J. HarveyLet England Shake. When I read that P.J. was working on an album of songs she plays on an autoharp, I thought that’s gonna be pretty weird. What it is, is a masterpiece – an incredibly focused, forceful collection of passionate and sometimes angry songs about war. Here’s one of the twelve films by Seamus Murphy that are available on YouTube and on a DVD now available in the UK that hasn’t yet made it across the pond.


3. Tom WaitsBad as Me. It’s been a long time since Tom Waits put out an album of all new songs, and it was worth the wait. Tom uses all his voices in this album. He delivers the rockers “Bad as Me” and “Satisfied” in a howling gravelly voice with a nice shout-out to Mick and Keith, and “Back in the Crowd” and “Last Leaf” in deep, slightly raspy melodious voice.


4. The DecemberistsThe King is Dead.  I had heard the Decemberists on the radio quite a few times, but I never paid much attention to them until this album came out. This is a pop album that the band says was influenced by Siouxsie and the Banshees, XTC, and R.E.M. (Peter Buck plays guitar on three songs.) Top tracks are “Calamity Song,” “Down by the Water” and “This is Why We Fight.”


Be sure and watch the video for “Calamity Song” too.  It was inspired by the David Foster Walace novel, Infinite Jest.

5. The Duke SpiritBruiser.  This album was released in Europe in September and has not yet been released in the U.S. where they don’t get near the attention they deserve. KEXP has recently started playing a couple of tracks, so maybe the band will get a little traction and release their album in the U.S. soon.  Liela Moss has one of the sexiest voices in rock ‘n roll today, and the band backs her up brilliantly. Key tracks are “Don’t Wait,” and “Surrender.”

The Duke Spirit – Surrender from The Duke Spirit on Vimeo.


This is taking too long, so not much commentary and no more videos from here to the end.

6. The Head and the HeartThe Head and the Heart. The kings of Seattle folk-pop on Sub Pop.

7. The Low AnthemSmart Flesh. This album will grow on you. With lyrics like, “Then she left me here reeling with that time-release feeling/Like a long wisp of hunger, I swung from the ceiling” how could it not?

8. The Civil WarsBarton Hollow. I learned about this band from Paul Krugman of all people. He posted videos of the band on his blog when he needed a break from all the political craziness.

9. Viva VoceThe Future Will Destroy You. The album was released on the first day of summer and this guitar-heavy, retro-psychedelic-pop record instantly became the soundtrack to my summer. It’s a great one to listen to while driving through the city on the way  home.

10. Anna CalviAnna Calvi. She’s got pipes, she can play guitar, and she’s got impeccable taste. Here’s a list of her influential albums from the November 2011 issue of Uncut Magazine: Aladdin Sane – David Bowie, Death of a Ladies’ Man – Leonard Cohen, Heaven or Las Vegas – Cocteau Twins, Gris-Gris – Dr. John, Grace – Jeff Buckley, The Ecstasy of Gold – Ennio Morricone, Quartet for the End of Time – Olivier Messiaen, Let Love In – Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Wild is the Wind – Nina Simone, and Limehouse Blues – Django Reinhardt. ‘Nuff said.

11. RadioheadThe King of Limbs. John Buckley over on Tulip Frenzy picked this as his number one album of the year, so go read what he has to say about it.

12. Scott H. BiramBad Ingredients. If you want some nasty junkyard blues, this album is for you.

13. The Black KeysEl Camino. This album was released in December, and because of publishing or voting deadlines, it didn’t make a lot of lists, but thanks to my tardiness in posting, it made mine.

14. WilcoThe Whole Love. Nels Cline does some extreme guitar shredding on “Art of Almost.”

15. White DenimD. This Austin band smoothed out the edges of their sound on their latest release. Sometimes that’s not good, but in this case it is.

16. Black Joe LewisScandalous. James Brown is alive and well, he just goes by a different name and his band is awesome.

17. Dum Dum GirlsOnly In Dreams. You like girl pop? You’ll love this.

18. Kurt VileSmoke Ring for My Halo. Great title. I just recently bought it, and it keeps growing on me.

19. John DoeKeeper. It’s John’s “happy” record. No, really. Listen to “Little Tiger” and “Lucky Penny.”

20. Wild FlagWild Flag. Carrie Brownstein’s new band: “What is the sound of an avalanche taking out a dolphin? What do get when you cross a hamburger with a hot dog? The answer is: WILD FLAG.”

Honorable mentions to: Dave Alvin, The Cave Singers, Danger Mouse and Daniel Luppi, Ry Cooder, Drive By Truckers, Jason Isbell, The Kills, The Pimps of Joytime, The Roots, Sons and Daughters, Tinariwen, Trombone Shorty, and Thurston Moore.

Get over “Retromania” and Move Forward

Get over “Retromania” and Move Forward

As long as I am in this music posting mode., I might as well tell you about another article I recently read in The Atlantic.

First the setup: I bought the October 2011 issue of Mojo Magazine last week, and the CD compilation that came with it is titled Return to The Dark Side of the Moon, a reinvention of the original 1973 album by several groups covering the songs plus a few songs from Wish You Were Here.

I put the disc in my car and listened to it on the way to work and on the way home.  I’d probably listened to the Pink Floyd album at least a hundred times, so I know it note by note, word by word. I was, however, not familiar with any of the artists on the reinvention album, and I ended up liking a few of the covers. I especially liked The Pineapple Thief’s cover of “Money.”  But, I was much more interested in hearing another band performing “The Great Gig in the Sky,” because that track – with the wordless melody sung by Clare Torry –  tripped me out more than anything else on the record.  How could anyone cover that song?  The Last Hurrah!! gave it a go but it was kind of a letdown.  So when I got home I figured what the hell, I’ll just load up my Pink Floyd cd’s, listen to the original recordings, and chill while drinking a beer.

The new issue of The Atlantic had arrived in the mail that day and I came across an article by JamesParker titled, “Everything Old – Our obsession with music nostalgia is strangling pop.” I thought to myself: This is weird. Here I am, listening to an album recorded 38 years ago that sold over 45 million copies reading an article about our obsession with music nostalgia. I was thinking I should change out the cd’s before reading it because I am not one of those people that is stuck in some kind of time warp where the only music I listen to now is music I discovered while in high school and college. (I left the Floyd running.)

So I read through the article:

Has pop culture, uh, stopped? Why do the major musical developments of the past decade include Guitar Hero, reunion tours, hip karaoke, the rise of the tribute band, pop stars made entirely from bits of other pop stars, and Van Morrison re-performing Astral Weeks? Lady Gaga, bless her radical retro soul, is Cher after three weeks in Warhol’s Factory. Cee Lo is Motown with swearing. This month, even as Roger Waters breaks temporarily from his transglobal plod-through of Pink Floyd’s 32-year-old rock opera, The Wall, Roger Daltrey sallies forth with a production of The Who’s 42-year-old rock opera, Tommy. One salutes the unkillability of these gentlemen, one reveres their work, but, honestly.

Early in Retromania, Simon Reynolds’s recent compendious and slightly nauseating (in a good way) account of pop-cultural backward-looking, the author visits 315 Bowery—once the site of the punk club CBGB, now a John Varvatos clothing boutique. Reynolds is on the heritage trail: he’s already been to the British Music Experience in London…

The floating simultaneity and endless availability of all recorded music, the deadening sophistication of the average listener—these are not spurs to Art. “It’s glaringly obvious,” Reynolds writes (indisputably in my view), “that all the astounding, time-space rearranging developments in the dissemination, storing and accessing of audio data have not spawned a single new form of music.” The key word in there is data. Encoded, flattened, trimmed, compressed, and abused, music in the digital age is turning its back on us. It’s a fact, Jack: MP3s sound horrible. I suspect they are bad for your brain. Dionysus will not be treated as information.

We might of course be old farts, Reynolds and I, with old-fart ears and old-fart memories, freaked out by the world that is blossoming at our old-fart fingertips. It may be that to complain (as he does) of feeling “splayed and stuffed” when you go online is merely to say: Yes, I am middle-aged. But Retromania goes deeper. Burrowing backward in search of retro’s first cause, Reynolds traces the reactionary roots of punk rock—its claim to be rescuing rock and roll from the bloatations of the early ’70s.

He concludes with “the fix is in” as if it’s all been done, so what now?

Well I disagree.  The fix is not in.  There are so many new bands making really great music these days. I left the article thinking that Mr. Parker needs to stop thinking and writing about the past and start paying attention to bands that are making great music now.  He thinks that many new artists borrow from the past, but I say, who doesn’t?  So what?  It’s okay to take something from the past as long as you don’t just copy it, but move it forward.

So James Parker and Simon Reynolds, if you come across this site, may I suggest for your listening pleasure the following bands:

Capsula (my favorite band right now)

The Duke Spirit (my favorite band before I heard Capsula)

Grinderman (featuring my favorite singer and song writer, Nick Cave)

Sons and Daughters

First Communion After Party (a new discovery via Tulip Frenzy)

Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter (recently discovered by James Buckley at Tulip Frenzy)

White Denim

The Pimps of Joytime (another new discovery)

Saul Williams

Wild Flag (familiar faces in a new band)

…just to name a few, and yeah they sometimes borrow from the past, but they are using what they borrow to make new and exciting music.

Listen to their music.  Move forward.

Friday Night Videos – White Denim, Robyn Hitchcock, Ha Ha Tonka

Friday Night Videos – White Denim, Robyn Hitchcock, Ha Ha Tonka

White Denim is from Austin, Texas, and this song is from their new album Fits that you can’t buy in the U.S. right now.  

I found about them by reading a review of the new album in the July issue of Mojo Magazine where their sound was described as “Cranium-melting Texan galactic punk/funk” worthy of a four-star rating.  That makes me want to buy the album, but I can’t.

Here’s the video for “I Start to Run.”

Robyn Hitchcock was a favorite of mine back in the eighties.  Here he is performing “Brenda’s Iron Sledge” on a 1985 airing of the BBC program Whistle Test.

Ha Ha Tonka’s video of “Caney Mountain” from their 2007 album, Buckle in the Bible Belt.