I decided to do this year’s list by album rather than by song. I had a surprisingly good year for albums in 2011.
Junip – Fields
By far my favorite album of the year. Junip is a new band from Sweden featuring José González, previously known for his several solo CDs of chilled-out semi-bossa-nova songsmithing. Transferred to a full band, González’s songs feel like they’ve moved from black & white to color. The colors are still muted browns and greens, but that’s as it should be. His songs have a sense of suspension to them, so the whole record makes for an immersive experience, great for long drives in the country or long walks in the city. I’ve found it to be one of those rare discs that even my mom likes, so I bought copies for the whole family for Christmas.
Buy Fields at Amazon.com.
Those Dancing Days – Daydreams and Nightmares
The hits keep coming from Sweden. I was sent the video for “Fuckarias” (terrible title given that the song contains no swearing), and as soon as the drums started, I was in love. The drummer is phenomenal. This is the first time an all-girl bland completely floored me. They have two full-length albums, and the songs have a good variety of style – 80s synth pop, post-punk/new-wave, R&B, heavy rock. One minute they’re the Go-Go’s, the next they’re Sleater-Kinney, then OK Go. Yes, I have a crush on them. Shut up.
Buy Daydreams and Nightmares at Amazon.com.
Dennis Olivieri – Come to the Party
This is a discovery from 1968 I made via DJ Shadow and the good people at www.whosampled.com (his song “I Cry in the Morning” is the backing track for Shadow’s “Six Days”). Dennis sits somewhere between Harry Nilsson and Tom Waits at the table of half-crazy songwriters (a table I imagine full of wine goblets, loose women, fine cheese and dead mice) and vocally he sounds like the younger brother of Blood Sweat & Tears’ David Clayton-Thomas. His songs have moments of brilliance but they resist being tied down into one convenient song. Just when you think he’s got a great pop tune, he takes some discursive left turn and you’re in the weeds of weirdness. He’s probably too sane for Captain Beefheart fans and too rambling to be enjoyed by pop fans. I need to find more of his stuff.
Buy Come to the Party on iTunes.
MAMA – Get Later
What can I say about Lenny Bryan? The Ho-Hum frontman still lives in a musical world of his own creation, and it’s not a world I entirely understand – I can’t trace the roots, I don’t know where the borders are, or which direction is up. But when on “We Became Untouchable” he sings “I just realized I’m never gonna be a star,” I’m plugged in, because every musician in their 30s needs to realize this at some point, so that’s not only familiar ground but Important Stuff. This is music that can’t be made by famous people; it’s a perspective that cannot be represented by the music industry as we used to know it. And it is a message that is Necessary to so many. It might even beg for a sequel song that tells ambitious twentysomething rockers “99.9% of you will fail to become rock stars.” And so the chorus of “You’re a friend of mine / And you’re the best kind / You’re a drink of wine / You’re a Valentine” serves as a nice tonic to that sad realization. Maybe it’s a consolation prize to all the would-be rock stars to know that, despite their failure to become famous, they still have a lot of friends.
Buy Get Later at Amazon.com.
Keith Horn – Rock Scissors
I met Keith at Dweezilla camp last year, and had no idea at the time that he was a Mad Scientist Genius. He knows all the Steely Dan chords. Combine that with all the Frank Zappa rhythm changes and tortured melodies, and you’ve got a unique hybrid that satisfies the needs of a wide variety of music nerds. He’s also a monster guitarist, not that I recall him revealing that to anyone at camp. So the guy is humble, too. Bastard.
Buy Rock Scissors at Amazon.com.
David Mead – Dudes
The title track makes a nice companion piece to Lenny’s “We Became Untouchable.” The opening line is “You’ve got bills and bouncing checks / Nothing’s right and nothing’s left to lose / But you got Dudes.” It’s a lesson from a guy who had two major-label albums and is still struggling to make a living with music, but who finds himself with the consolation of having a lot of friends. It should be noted that this album was financed by a Kickstarter campaign to which I was a hefty contributor (I got to visit the studio!), so it’s good to have Dudes.
Buy Dudes at Amazon.com.
Parov Stelar – The Paris Swing Box EP
Finally someone is doing for old swing records what Moby did for old blues tunes. This is the first of two albums on this list that I found via a television commercial (Cosmopolitan Hotel of Las Vegas – by the way, why is one hotel in one city running national ads? Is that a first? How many guests can one hotel really take with nationwide exposure?), which I guess is the new MTV. Parov is really an Austrian DJ named Marcus Füreder, and not all of his stuff is as great as “Booty Swing” so kudos to the Madison Avenue wizard who put that tune in the commercial.
Buy The Paris Swing Box EP on iTunes.
The Asteroids Galaxy Tour – The Golden Age
Here’s our other TV commercial song (for Heineken – thanks, Shazam app!) that harkens back to an earlier time and genre. A product of Denmark, TAGT may have one of the more unwieldy and confusing band names I’ve ever heard – how do they name their tours, The Asteroids Galaxy Tour American Tour? Great tunes, though.
Buy The Golden Age at Amazon.com.
T-Ride – Unreleased
This summer I came across several tunes from T-Ride’s unreleased second album, via their guitarist Geoff Tyson. T-Ride was a Bay Area trio with devastating musical skills – three-part vocal harmonies and instrumental technique beyond belief. Geoff’s guitar playing on “Serial Killer” is as close as I’ve heard metal come to jazz and still be a song without any real soloing. Like much T-Ride’s material, the virtuosity came not in the form of guitar solos, just maddeningly difficult riffs and fills. How they sang and played that stuff I have no idea. Drop me a line if you want to hear the other tunes.
Tori Amos – Night of Hunters
Finally a curveball from Tori, who hasn’t really thrown the world a curveball since 1998’s From the Choirgirl Hotel. This album not only features a more classical/chamber music sound, but also an instrumental (see below)! Her daughter sings with her on several cuts, which would count as nepotistic self-indulgence from anyone but the citizen-queen of Planet Tori.
Buy Night of Hunters at Amazon.com.
Tedeschi Trucks Band – Revelator
Does anybody make greasy soul blues rock from the South anymore? I’m just glad this band exists.
Buy Revelator at Amazon.com.
Animals as Leaders – Weightless
Math rock, prog, jazz fusion and metal have finally converged. This trio led by guitarist Tosin Abasi is one of the only groups out there still pushing the boundaries of genre and technique. They are making the impossible possible with music that is as heavy as it is brainy. It would be easy to dismiss them as shred nerds if their rhythms weren’t so relentlessly brutal and their compositions so statistically dense.
Buy Weightless at Amazon.com.
Megadeth – Peace Sells…But Who’s Buying? 25th Anniversary
I don’t think any band in the genre of metal has ever combined ferocious intensity with such precision and madness as is exhibited on the live album that accompanies this special edition of Megadeth’s classic. Guitarist Chris Poland and drummer Gar Samuelson were hopeless heroin addicts and Daves Mustaine and Ellefson were their usual messed up selves, but the band manages to be tight and loose at the same time. This is as close as the raw energy of punk ever made it to its magnetic opposite of rock guitar wizardry. Metallica might have been faster, Slayer might have been scarier, but Megadeth were the craziest. They were the mad ones.
Dream Theater – A Dramatic Turn of Events
They’re back with a new drummer and an increased willingness to just go batshit crazy on guitar/keyboard unison lines. Welcome back, guys.
DJ Shadow – The Less You Know, The Better
I haven’t yet warmed up to all of Shadow’s new disc, but “Stay the Course” featuring Posdnuos and Talib Kweli is definitely the standout, along with “I Gotta Rokk” featuring a few samples from none other than Yngwie Malmsteen. Finally a convergence of hip-hop and metal I can get excited about.
This year I also discovered this really nice little George Harrison demo, a bonus cut from “Gone Troppo”.
On a sad note, one of my all-time favorite bands pretty much called it quits this year, The Softlightes. Please go buy everything they ever did as The Softlightes and as The Incredible Moses Leroy.