Wednesday, January 04, 2012

2011 Year in Music + Top 10 Albums

This turned out to be an outstanding year in music releases, overall. Easily one of the best in the last decade, 2nd only to 2005 (which not only saw such enduring classics as 'Demon Days', 'X&Y', and 'Get Behind Me Satan', but was notable for the wealth of discoveries I made in New Zealand. NZ factors into this year's list, though not so heavily. The music scene this year made up for the awful slate of 2010 so dismal, outside of a couple NZ albums, I didn't even post a 'favorites' annual synopsis)
Another delightful trend was the reunion fever through the year. Splendid in that some of my favorite bands, who had not been heard from in years, re-surfaced - albeit to mixed results
There were also some extreme low points this year for me. Being away for work meant I missed seeing some amazing shows, missed connecting with friends, and tho I carted my Stick around the world, and was able to have some fantastic connections on a musical scale (thanks, Raine & Yao & friends!), I had to put my own beloved Colossal Inertia on ice, and performed no gigs this year. 2012 looks to have no improvement on this front, but we'll see.
Another major shock was the death of longtime friend and collaborator, and indeed, one of the great shining lights of the Bay Area music world, Lisa Fay Beatty. She will be greatly missed.

Counting down :

10) "Songs for Christchurch". A mega-huge compilation put together by NZ artists as a benefit for Christchurch Earthquake Relief. I usually protest inclusions of compilations on best-of lists, but this one deserves attention. Over 7 hours worth of music donated as a digital downloads for pay-what-you-will, it ranges from marginal to outstanding. With some of the biggest nation-wide names in the mix, it also serves as a de-facto introduction to the modern Kiwi music scene. Worthy cause for anyone to contribute to, and worth any price to get this collection.

9) Bright Eyes - "People's Key". There were a host of peppy, eclectic, polite-rock releases this year. But Bright Eyes stood above the crowd - with a solid consistency, tasty production, and ingenious samples and interludes.

8) Book of Knots - "Garden of Fainting Stars". One of the prodigious joys of the year was the seemingly continuous outpouring from Carla Kihlstedt & her partner Matthias Bossi. I've had the honor of knowing them personally over the years, and revel in the many incarnations of their musical personas. "Still You Lay Dreaming" and "Causing a Tiger" are worthy of mention, but I have to put Book of Knots at the top, this is the most ear-friendly and exciting of their work.

7) Bright Brown - "Oceans". Another friend makes this list, worthily so. Alex Nahas is one of the few Chapman Stick players I've seen play & played with over the years, this release is a further maturing & expansion of his Bright Brown group, he's grown tremendously as a songwriter, singer and producer.

6) Steve Hackett - "Beyond the Shrouded Horizon". Hackett's strongest & most ambitious, and yet most focused & intimate, album in years. With legacy artists like this, most albums often retread watered-down glory days, at best, but this one delivered and kept me listening through most every track. It's a cliche to say, "he avoids cliches", especially from prog-fusion guitarists, but "Beyond" was revitalizing & stimulating, and had flashes of what's made Steve Hackett one of the great pioneers of rock guitar. What's more, it came with a bonus disc of expansive suites that had substance, not just gloss.

5) Radiohead - "King of Limbs". Radiohead is undoubtedly one of the great bands of the era & exist at a nexus of brilliant songwriting, mind-expanding arrangements, and studio mastery. 'Limbs', though, seemed a bit unfinished and unfocused. Though I did fire up these songs frequently, I had no qualms about skipping around - never a good sign.

4) Octant - "Cold Spark". The jewel in the reunion crown this year! OK - maybe a one-man band can't count as a reunion, but I was so geeked to hear the news of a new Octant release, and so not disappointed. It didn't quite have the depth, range, or ingenuity of Car Alarms and Crickets, but Cold Spark, with it's toylike keys, sympathetic guitar, and (literally) robotic drum machine jangle, was a consistently fun, upbeat, and intelligent listen many times over. Octant is forever one of my top under-exposed bands, and it's great to hear/see Matt Steinke at it again.

3) The Decemberists - "The King is Dead". The Decmberists have shown remarkable range, in a somewhat limited scope of lit-rock, and their strength is their sometimes peppy, but strongly soulful tunes. No, wait - their strength is their exquisite, throwback arrangements, and rich imagery. No wait, their strength is their ability to craft songs which touch common ground in range of audiences, yet be intellectually stimulating. Well, their strengths are all of these things, and it all comes together in The King is Dead, in a stronger package than their last few releases. And the Long Live the King EP is an outstandingly complimentary companion piece, in some ways more interesting than the full-length.

2) Foo Fighters - "Wasting Light". Another case of exceptionally talented veterans with their strongest release in years (maybe their best yet). Foo Fighters reclaim the crown as standard-bearers for good old-fashioned guitar ROCK-N-ROLL (a title not likely to be reclaimed by Jack White anytime soon…). Rich, majestic, powerful songs (every one), passionate delivery, and an integrity of production sorely lacking elsewhere. If your don't like the Foo Fighters, maybe you don't like rock.

1) "The Adults". When I heard about Shihad frontman Jon Toogood planning a solo release, but more mellow & soulful, I was intrigued, but not expecting a lot. Hardrock singers/guitarists solo albums often reek of pent-up sensitivity, or sound like throwaways from their main band. But The Adults was truly a unique experience, and clearly a labor of love. Shihad is one of my favorite (not just NZ) rock bands, because of their mix of melody, aggression, and intellect. This had all the beauty & smarts, but really did show a different side, and held up as its own album. Supplemented by the fact I saw them play live in Sydney, and was right up at the front of the stage the entire time, even interacting w/ Jonny a couple times & really feeding off how much he loved what he was doing in that moment. A far cry from the times I've seen Shihad, behind thousands of rabid fans. This & Wasting Light were the only albums which got better with each listen.

---- So, there is my ebullient & loquacious recap, but as you can tell, I was quite excited and satisfied with what I heard this year. Honorable mention : Paul Simon's "So Beautiful So What", and Fleet Foxes "Helplessness Blues", Hammers of Misfortune. Some disappointments : Bjork, the much-anticipated Eleanor Freidberger (Fiery Furnaces) solo disc, and the much-much anticipated Riverdogs reunion disc. But the good outweighed!

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