Best music discovered in 2011
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What was the best music or musical artist you personally discovered for the first time in 2011?
Loudon Wainwright III has lingered in the periphery of my consciousness for a long time without ever breaking through. I knew him as the songwriter behind Johnny Cash’s “The Man Who Couldn’t Cry,” and a little bit as a character actor in the Judd Apatow repertory company, but I suppose I knew him primarily as the father of the great Rufus Wainwright, and as the patriarch of a devastatingly talented brood I think of as the musical equivalent of J.D. Salinger’s Glass family, or Wes Anderson’s Tenenbaums. Just as Owen Wilson wanted to be a Tenenbaum in The Royal Tenenbaums, I decided I wanted to be a Wainwright after immersing myself in 40 Odd Years, Shout Factory’s utterly essential box set compiling four decades of the great troubadour’s oeuvre. Wainwright has a richly merited reputation as one of music’s great smartasses, but listening to the wonderfully, accurately titled 40 Odd Years, I was struck by the overwhelming sadness of its richly detailed portrait of a melancholy WASP world lost to the ages. The heartrendingly tender yet clear-eyed “Westchester County” and “White Winos” reduce me to tears, while “The Shit Song” succinctly captures the innate futility of the cosmic sick joke that is life with the lines, “Life’s a job you’re fired from / Unless, of course, you quit.” (Ain’t that the truth?) At his best, Wainwright isn’t just funny or sad; he’s a goddamned philosopher. Motherfucker is profound.
The best music I discovered this year happened because of an episode of Treme that contained an offhand reference to the indispensability of the only release of The Wild Tchoupitoulas, who put out a self-titled release in 1976, then went away. Sort of. The album brought together Art and Cyril Neville from the great, soon-to-dissolve New Orleans funk band The Meters with their brothers Aaron and Charles. Two years later, the Neville Brothers released their first album. But that’s another story: The story here is the Nevilles backing their uncle George Landry, a.k.a. Big Chief Jolly, and his tribe through eight call-and-response Mardi Gras Indians songs under the guidance of producer Allen Toussaint. It’s a grand convergence of New Orleans talent and New Orleans styles, and it’s, as Treme suggested, absolutely indispensable.
Up until this year, I’d absorbed the music of Stax Records mostly through incidental contact. The old Memphis soul label’s hits—such Sam & Dave’s “Soul Man,” Booker T’s “Green Onions,” Otis Redding’s “The Dock Of The Bay,” The Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There,” and many others—are just part of the fabric of popular culture. Like Motown, its music seems to hang in the cultural ether. After visiting the very cool Stax Museum—where Isaac Hayes’ Cadillac is on proud, unforgettable display—with Keith while in Memphis for Pop Pilgrims, I picked up the essential four-disc collection The Stax Story. It’s hard to top the wall-to-wall hits of the first disc, but all four discs paint a picture of one of the most vital music scenes of the 20th century. Now I just need to start tracking down more of the individual albums.
I’m always knee-jerky and wary when people I’m dating think they know something that’ll be up my alley. It’s like, sure, we spend a whole lot of time together, and hopefully you have some insight on me, but I’ll curate my own tastes, thanks. So when an ex took me to see a band she thought I’d really like, Toronto’s Blood Ceremony, I kind of dragged my feet. The name was cool, but how often does that pan out? Sure enough, though, Blood Ceremony landed squarely in my wheelhouse. An old-school metal band that draws on the unholy trinity of Satanism, paganism, and flute solos, Blood Ceremony channels the daemons of early metal groups like Black Widow without sounding like a nostalgia act. Sure enough, they’re my new favorite band.
Before Canadian singer-songwriter Basia Bulat visited our offices to perform for our Undercover series, I was unfamiliar with her. But after her fantastic cover of Ted Leo’s “Where Have All The Rude Boys Gone?” I delved into her discography, 2007’s Oh, My Darling and 2010’s Heart Of My Own. (The latter stood out more.) Bulat can be gentle, as on the delicate “Sparrow” and “I’m Forgetting Everyone,” but she also infuses songs with urgency, such as on the galloping opener, “Go On.” But central to the success of these songs is Bulat’s voice, an instrument in its own right, expressing a range of emotions with even the subtlest shift in her lilt.
Somehow I’ve gone 41 years without really ever noticing Dwight Twilley, but a couple of months ago at the Toronto film festival, I watched the home-invasion thriller You’re Next. While I wasn’t crazy about the movie, I was fascinated by a song that plays on repeat in the house of one of the victims. The song reminded me a little of Spoon at first, with its off-kilter rhythm and weird atmospherics, but then it blossomed into power-pop in a way that seemed more locked into the ’70s than the ’00s. Afterward, I read a review that mentioned that the song was Dwight Twilley Band’s 1977 single “Looking For The Magic.” I have a couple of Twilley songs in my archives, culled from compilations, but none of them ever grabbed me enough to make me pursue his music further. After hearing “Looking For The Magic,” I immediately bought Twilley’s first four albums (available on two CDs from Australia’s Raven Records), and spent a week or two obsessively replaying Dwight Twilley Band’s debut album, Sincerely, which is a just-about-perfect guitar-pop record, in the same league as Marshall Crenshaw’s debut and Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend. I like the other three albums too, and in particular, the second one, Twilley Don’t Mind, which contains “Looking For The Magic.” (Though to be honest, I mostly just like saying “Twilley don’t mind,” which has become my go-to way to express that everything’s cool.)
I spent a fair amount of my professional life this year listening to sensitive singer-songwriters and dreamy chillwave records, so when it was time to knock off for the day and crack open a beer, I let off steam listening to a lot of ’80s metal, including tons of Iron Maiden. Digging deeper into the genre, I came across the self-titled debut by Metal Church, a frequent tourmate with Metallica back in the day that never broke out to an audience beyond committed metalheads. Which is a shame, because 1984’s Metal Church is a hard-hitting, enjoyable record that doesn’t sound nearly as dated as many metal records from the period. Founding guitarist Kurdt Vanderhoof got his start in the ’80s Seattle punk scene, and mentored younger musicians like King Buzzo of the Melvins and Kurt Cobain, who briefly took to spelling his name “Kurdt.” While Metal Church predates grunge by several years, and is definitely more metal than punk, the record’s anthemic riffage and chest-beating aggressiveness (dig Kirk Arrington’s incredible drumming) is reminiscent of a less-sludgy Soundgarden.
There was a period in the summer months when pretty much all I did was listen to Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk” over and over and over again, for no particular reason. It was a song that got in my head something fierce, and it introduced me to the band’s weird, early-’80s experimental period. I can’t say I like every song out of this period, but it made me think of the group in a new way, and gave me a new appreciation for its ability to craft great hits. Plus, the song features a marching band, and I can’t think of a song featuring a marching band I haven’t enjoyed. (My other favorite discovery from my Fleetwood Mac period? “Silver Springs,” a Rumours outtake that apparently everybody but me knew about already.)
When I was 16, I received one of the greatest gifts of my life: a box of old records from a friend of my mom. That friend listened to “edgy” music while in college in the late ’70s and early ’80s, and she’d heard from my mom that I was getting into bands like The Clash, Buzzcocks, and so on. That box blew open my formative view of music; among its many treasures were Brian Eno’s Before And After Science, Elvis Costello’s Get Happy!!, and Television’s Marquee Moon. Not every record in the box, though, got under my 16-year-old skin. For instance: The Members’ 1982 release, Uprhythm, Downbeat. Honestly, I don’t even recall why I didn’t like it. I just remember selling it to a used record soon after, and making a mental note to avoid the band’s albums in the future. It didn’t help when I discovered the post-punk concert film Urgh! A Music War a couple years later—and found that The Members’ contribution, “Offshore Banking Business,” was a faux-reggae novelty song that remains one of Urgh!’s few dull spots. Fast-forward to 2011: I’d been listening to one of my favorite punk bands, The Newtown Neurotics, and I remembered hearing long ago that one of its best songs, 1983’s “Living With Unemployment,” was a reworking of a Members tune. The last time I’d thought about it, though, Google didn’t even exist. So armed with that convenience, I hunted down the original The Members track, 1979’s “Solitary Confinement”—which, of course, isn’t on Uprhythm, Downbeat, the Members album I’d first been exposed to—and sure enough, it was the exact same song as the Neurotics’ “Unemployment,” only played slightly cleaner and with different lyrics. And as much as I hate to admit it, the Members’ song is even better; in fact, I’ve become obsessed with it for the past few months, to the point where I find myself singing it aloud around the apartment and in the shower almost every day. Witty, angry, dynamic, catchy, and raw, it’s the perfect crystallization of everything I love about punk rock—or music as a whole, for that matter. And guess what? As I found out, the rest of the band’s output isn’t that bad at all. Granted, I should have figured that out when I was 16.
Spending time with the Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream deluxe edition has been my greatest musical joy of 2011. I was driving down New York’s autumnal Taconic Parkway when I first pressed play, and really did feel like, for the first time, I was experiencing this touchstone album of my generation without taking it for granted. The remaster completely sheds Dream’s nostalgic baggage and transforms it into something wholly absorbing and musical. Time and changing trends make it easier to critically distinguish Billy Corgan and company’s breakthrough from other so-called ’90s “alternative” or “grunge” acts, but I just have to listen to hear something singular, muscular, and beautiful. Corgan and James Iha’s guitar-god licks on “Mayonnaise” and “Geek U.S.A.” sound psychedelic and luminescent, and Jimmy Chamberlain’s drumming is absolutely primal and tight throughout, especially the epic “Silverfuck.” The singles, including “Cherub Rock,” “Today,” and “Disarm,” are connected to a much more ambitious whole, one that wouldn’t be complete without the dreamy glam paean “Spaceboy” or warped, chugging sludge of “Quiet.” This is the rare reissue that really justifies its existence, and makes for one hell of a rediscovery on a long, scenic drive.
It’s always good to be skeptical of rediscovered “lost classics” from obscure figures, but Roberto Cacciapaglia’s The Ann Steel Album is the real thing, a retro-futurist joy from 1979 reissued this year by Half Machine. I’m not real clear on either part of the partnership: Cacciapaglia is reportedly a major figure in pioneering Italian electronic music and classical composition. As his official website awkwardly notes, “His work as a composer and producer permits him to experiment with the language of rock music,” and this collaboration with a Michigan singer/model is eight tracks of proper album, plus the A/B side of a separately released single, the sum total of their collaboration. There are lots of perky synths and shrilly euphoric vocals: “Start on the shelves of my memory / My thoughts are in perfect array,” Steel trills at the start. “I need overwhelming information for a complete shopping list,” one of many celebrations of the onset of a technological Information Age where knowledge is definitively quantified, a point of view that’s equally satirical and sincere. Nearly 35 years later, it comes across nostalgically, someone genuinely anticipating a day when “billboards show me the way” and life can be divided into “Measurable Joys.” Steel’s pinched voice and the trebly instrumentation won’t be for everyone (a good metric for whether you’d enjoy this: How do you feel about McCartney II, a similarly naïve investigation of synthetic possibilities?). My choice for the song that makes the best case for the album is “Find Your Way”:
2011 was the year I finally decided to take the advice of several friends and acquaintances and investigate the music of Dream Theater. When the band first emerged in the late ’80s, I’d just gotten a job at a record store, and I didn’t want to hear any artists that weren’t getting coverage in Melody Maker or New Musical Express, particularly not if they seemed to be just another heavy-metal group. I maintained that mindset until a few months ago, when I stumbled upon a ridiculously cheap copy of the band’s two-disc collection, Greatest Hit (…And 21 Other Pretty Cool Songs), and decided to take the plunge. I started off intrigued with what I was hearing, but by the time I hit “Misunderstood,” 2002’s Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence, I knew I’d made a mistake by rejecting the band for all these years… or least since 2002. I’m sure longtime fans would tell me this is the worst possible time to fall in love with Dream Theater, since drummer/co-founder Mike Portnoy is no longer in the band, but I’d argue that it’s as good a time as any, since my lack of allegiance to any particular lineup means I can enjoy the old stuff as well as their new Portnoy-less album, A Dramatic Turn Of Events. I’ve always had a soft spot for prog-rock, and these guys hit hard enough with their take on the genre that I’m not embarrassed to say I’ve become a big fan.
I’d love to say 2011 was the year I unearthed a stellar set of lost Sly Stone demos or a third KMD LP, but my big discovery has a slightly more recent vintage. I’ve listened to Gavin Castleton’s Won Over Frequency, released in 2010, more than any other album this year (at least, as long as we’re calling Frank Ocean’s nostalgia, ULTRA. a mix-tape). A stunning mix of folk and R&B with brief punk, jazz, and orchestral bursts, the gorgeous production alone is reason enough to loop the thing in your headphones for weeks at a time. But Castleton’s warm voice and deft poetry are what reel me back in for repeated spins. On “Are You Brave,” he makes a plea for love without restraint that only the coldest cynics would dare deny. For “Grandhands,” he describes a cross-country road trip with his grandfather in such luminescent, intimate detail that you can trace the crow’s feet around the man’s eyes. With, “The Song You Didn’t Write,” he trades his own perspective for that of the woman who just left him, and over whirring organ, manages to channel both Stevie Wonder and Adele (stylistically) as well. Each song feels like some kind of feat, but what makes the album really sing is the way it consistently connotes substantiality while remaining pretty stripped. Castleton’s preceding full-length was brilliant too, but high-concept—2009’s Home detailed a zombie apocalypse as a metaphor for love gone mortally putrid—while Won Over Frequency is artistically ripe, but utterly free of artifice.
I don’t think another album gave me as much oomph to start my day this year as Royal Headache’s self-titled debut. The tremendous volume of hooks that these Australian punks pack into their quick, concise garage-soul songs almost makes me wish the production was as clear and open-hearted as Shogun’s shit-hot vocals. But the crust and dust that covers everything adds to the total effect and still doesn’t dull the shine on absolute rippers like “Girls” and “Psychotic Episode.” If I was ever going to give up coffee—I’m not going to—this is the album I’d turn to for my daily buzz.
I’ve spent most of 2011 going through Chrissy Murderbot’s “Year Of Mixtapes.” The Chicago musician started the project back in 2009, providing clear, fun hourlong intros to all sorts of dance music. The mixes are remarkably nichey, covering everything from “Weed Songs” to “Golden Era Happy Hardcore.” They’re not all my cup of tea, but they’ve been a nice way to figure out the subtle differences between all sorts of electronic genres. Plus, they’re mostly beats-based, so pesky lyrics don’t get in the way when I’m writing or editing.