SOUNDSCAPES staff BEST OF 2011
These are the 25 favourite new releases and reissues of 2011 as chosen by the staff of Soundscapes. 13 staff members chose their own 15 most loved albums in each category. Each album was then weighted by points (i.e. 15 points for a #1 pick, 14 for #2, and so on) and the totals were added for this list. Please visit each staff member's own page to see the individual lists.
Top 25 New Releases of 2011
1. SANDRO PERRI – Impossible Spaces
"Not only do I predict that our 2011 staff poll will find Perri's latest once again on top of our year-end list, but I think he absolutely deserves the accolade...and should get the same praise elsewhere. That's because Impossible Spaces is more than just the best thing this local uber-talent has done (whether under his own name or his also-exceptional aquatic ambient guise, Polmo Polpo). It's an album that stacks up beautifully against anything released this year. It is, as a colleague of mine opined earlier, 'a game changer.'" (originally published on October 18, 2011)
2. TIMBER TIMBRE – Creep On Creepin’ On
"As swampy and intoxicated(-ing) as ever, the album wanders into our ears with complete confidence in its considerable powers. The music is a little denser than before, but never is it showy—see the single-note tension of the strings that close 'Black Water'; the banging and clattering that walk through 'Swamp Magic'; and, especially, the truly heavy atmosphere created by the stomping, all-hands-on-the-freakiness-deck of 'Woman.' Whether the product of greater touring, an actual recording budget, the sense that more is at stake with this record, or all of the above, Timber Timbre is much as before, only with a little more muscle on its bones." (originally published on April 12, 2011)
3. JENNIFER CASTLE – Castlemusic
"They are tunes of great emotional heft and spiritual weight that still float by like translucent pillows of sound. Part of the appeal of Castle’s music is how she’s able to infuse some rather traditional folk instrumentation with touches of psychedelic wandering, and even menace. On 'Neverride,' a gentle drifting acoustic stroll is dragged strangely off-path by an intoxicating high warble. Elsewhere, like on the mystic sleepwalk of 'Powers' or the mellotron séance of 'Misguided,' she channels a personality both threatening and benign—it’s remarkable how the same songs can sound equally creepy and gorgeous depending on the moment of listening." (originally published on May 22, 2011)
4. THE WEATHER STATION – All of it Was Mine
"When attempting to record a follow up to 2008's The Line, Tamara found herself bouncing between various studios around Toronto without being able to find her desired sound. It wasn't until an offer came from fellow folk singer Daniel Romano to come record at his studio in Welland that things started to fall into place. Originally envisioned as demos to be 'properly' recorded later, the final result is a raw and devastatingly honest record. Stripped down to only guitar, banjo, some drums and backing vocals (provided by Romano and Bruce Peninsula's Misha Bower), the record successfully showcases Tamara's understated vocals and descriptive lyrics. All in all, All Of It Was Mine is a stunning achievement." (originally published on August 24, 2011)
5. DESTROYER – Kaputt
"The entire record—both sonically and lyrically—walks a line between winking silliness and genuine pathos. As characters chase after parties and cocaine, deny themselves love, have spats with the press, sing songs for America, and just generally carry on in indulgent, self-destructive ways, they do so to a soundtrack that evokes a faded decadence—a false front of elegant composure that we all know hides a decaying structure behind." (originally published on February 3, 2011)
6. UNKNOWN MORTAL ORCHESTRA – S/T
"It has clearly been realized in a quick and dirty fashion, but it also features the kind of cohesion that tends to come from a single mind. Instant hits like 'Ffunny Ffriends' and 'Thought Ballune' have more in common than poor spelling. A little psych, a little pop, and a ton of reimagined funk, the songs are catchy, chunky and dripping with syrupy fuzz. And these dudes are tight. The drumming, courtesy of teen whizkid Julien Ehrich, is insidiously groovy and rich, while (Ruban) Nielson is one heck of a guitar player." (originally published on July 8, 2011)
7. THE CARETAKER – An Empty Bliss Beyond This World
An album built entirely from pre-war 78s, An Empty Bliss Beyond This World is James Leyland Kirby's most clear, concise and accessible effort yet under the Caretaker moniker. Continuing his explorations of memory, nostalgia and connecting songs to a place and time, the music sampled has a larger feeling of familiarity to the listener. The static and dusty nature of the songs allows one's imagination to create clear images, whether it be a large house covered in cobwebs, or an underwater city long abandoned, yet with a feeling of claustrophobia still lingering. Gorgeous.
8. KURT VILE - Smoke Ring For My Halo
Soft and tough, fingerpicking solo and riffing with Violators in tow (including the below-listed War On Drugs' leader Adam Granduciel), self-deprecating and scathing, "just playin'" and outright putting down, Vile's second for Matador saw him refine his songcraft and reconcile both sides of his work, fully rising to the occasion with arguably his most consistent album to date.
9. THE WAR ON DRUGS – Slave Ambient
"On Slave Ambient, the quite slight three-piece manages to articulate a wide sound that is as fond of the past as it is the future. A not-so-bizarre, yet still-unique amalgam of time-honoured folk/pop songwriting and digitally fueled aural wanderlust. And so it is that the group is just as comfortable on the gentle harmonica-laced shuffle of 'I Was There' as they are on the short ambient interlude 'The Animator.'" (originally published on August 24, 2011)
10. PJ HARVEY – Let England Shake
"This record moves with a briskness and sings with a welcoming appeal that we've not seen from her for years. Few songs linger overly long, but all of them are presented with great openness—something missing on her last few more cryptic releases. The jaunty horns of 'The Last Living Rose,' the bouncy vibes of the title track, and especially the awesome Niney The Observer-sampling 'Written on the Forehead' all sparkle on first listen—yet none compromise in terms of invention or theme, remaining true to the obvious high standards Harvey keeps for herself." (originally published on March 1, 2011)
11. THUNDERCAT – The Golden Age of Apocalypse
It turns out that 2011 is the year you can say "It sounds kinda like a
MPS-era George Duke record with a dude shredding fretless bass all
over it" to anybody other than the dork in the mirror and actually get
faced with a smile. Sweet.
12. ANIKA – S/T
"Produced by Geoff Barrow of Portishead (credited as a full-band production by Beak>), this record makes a point of showing its influences on its tattered/tailored sleeve, whether interpreting the songs of Skeeter Davis, Yoko Ono, Bob Dylan and Ray Davies or eerily echoing the early-'80s productions and spirit of such staunchly individual acts as The Flying Lizards, Vivien Goldman, ESG, The Slits and PiL." (originally published on January 13, 2011)
13. BRY WEBB – Provider
When the Constantines (one of the best bands to come out of Canada in the last decade) broke up last year, a lot of people were understandably bummed out. For me, one of the biggest Cons fans around, I was quietly relieved. They made four flawless records and went out leaving us wanting more. Plus, it's finally allowed Constantines frontman Bry Webb to put together his debut album, one that he's been hinting at with solo shows stretching back more than half a decade. While Provider carries forth little sonically from his past band, Webb's lyrics remain as potent as ever. Sparse and reflective, these songs will stick with you.
14. ANNA CALVI – S/T
Anna Calvi's debut album is a dark gothic post-punk-influenced gem, with her rich vocals inviting comparison to the likes of Patti Smith, Siouxsie Sioux and PJ Harvey.
15. DUM DUM GIRLS – Only In Dreams
The best and fullest-sounding Dum Dum Girls release to date comes complete with hook-filled tunes of heartbreak.
16. JONNY – S/T
"Jonny is the super-group (or more precisely super-duo) of Norman Blake of Teenage Fanclub and Euros Childs, formerly of Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci. Both are energized and seem to be having a great time harmonizing with each other and being a bit silly, setting the tone on 'Wich Is Wich,' the album opener with its goofy lyric and short Moog solo. Lead single 'Candyfloss' is pure Gorky’s-channeling-'Incense and Peppermints' in the verses, before flowing into the classic Teenage Fanclub harmony sound for the bridge—a perfect melding of their individual talents. 'Circling the Sun' is Blake’s shining moment, with everything one could love about his songwriting.” (originally published on April 14, 2011)
17. LOW – C’mon
"From the charm of 'Try To Sleep' and the gentle pressure of 'Especially Me' to the all-out epic growth of 'Nothing But Heart,' Low have written ten tracks of a very high quality, a reminder why the mighty Robert Plant covered them not once, but twice on his last album. No matter how unique Low's style was, they wrote great songs then. And they're writing even greater ones now." (originally published on April 12, 2011)
18. FLEET FOXES – Helplessness Blues
"This album dials back even the few AM pop detours of their past releases to create a remarkable distillation of their musical essence. It's the sound of them being them, and it's something you've got to admire—on the heels of a breakout 2008-09, the band refuses to either artfully complicate or commercially simplify their sound. The record oozes with welcoming confidence." (originally published on May 16, 2011)
19. CRAFT SPELLS – Idle Labor
If you're looking for an album of upbeat, dancy, synth-based pop reminiscent of New Order, look no further (I mean, just look at that album cover)! Captured Tracks continues to put out top-tier post-punk-revival material (with this one leaning on the more poppy side of the spectrum) with Justin Vallesteros' first full- length effort as Craft Spells. A very bright-sounding record full of romantic and slightly lovesick jams, with one of its intros even sounding like Big Country. It's great!
19. JULIANNA BARWICK - The Magic Place
"With little more than her voice and a cathedral full of reverb, Barwick carefully builds up layer upon layer of mostly wordless vocals that reach high enough levels of intensity to rival the heights reached by that magnificent Pastor T.L. Barrett reissue from last year. Barwick’s transcendence, however, is much closer to European choral music traditions (think Le Mystere de Voix Bulgares without the brain-mulching dissonance) than it is to soul-cleansing American black gospel." (originally published on April 1, 2011)
21. WHITE FENCE - ...Is Growing Faith
Underrated as he may still be (especially at this point, after a banner year for garage-rock in general that saw such peers as Thee Oh Sees and Ty Segall strengthening their public profiles exponentially, and with good reason), Tim Presley's White Fence project may have the more modest fan base, but Presley's warbling, jangly lysergia still stands out humbly from the pack on this sophomore effort.
22. THE SKELETONES FOUR – Gravestone Rock
The Skeletones Four have done the impossible: they've made a math-rock record that girls can dance to and get into. Taking cues from the more angular edges of the '80s, the Four add a post-rock sensibility and fatter basslines to the equation to create a new take on this most manly of musical territories. If you're coy enough, you could slip on Spiderland right after this, and your ladyfriend might even take to it...
22. TRUE WIDOW – As High as the Highest Heavens…
Slowcore done right. For a three-piece that sounds so full, they're incredibly bare at the same time. As High As The Highest Heavens is heavy and doomy (they even refer to themselves as 'stonegaze'), but with vocals that sound so distant that they lend quite the dreamy nature to this record as well.
24. ELEANOR FRIEDBERGER – Last Summer
"'You know I do my best thinking when I'm flying down the bridge,' declares Eleanor Friedberger immediately within the first few seconds of her first solo LP, Last Summer. In the speedy delivery and curious content of that one line, she tells you a lot about what to expect over the next 40 minutes. Her voice is never far from the listener, pausing only briefly for instrumentation—cerebral, yet charmingly human, she speaks in apparent non-sequiturs that still manage true feeling, if not precise meaning." (originally published on July 19, 2011)
25. A WINGED VICTORY FOR THE SULLEN – S/T
Stars Of The Lid (SOTL) and their side projects appear on my lists every year because they inhabit a unique soundworld that I love, and they keep finding new ways to explore this world. A Winged Victory... finds SOTL’s Adam Wiltzie collaborating with pianist Dustin O’Halloran, and contains some of the most beautiful ambient-classical music you’ll ever hear.
25. CASS McCOMBS - Wit's End
Sure, this first of two 2011 titles from McCombs did come out back in April and thus afforded us more time to sit with it and weigh its merits than November's Humor Risk, but however you slice it, this writer has been happily wallowing in Wit's End's comparatively mopier tales and tones for long enough to feel it has a strong leg up over its (slightly) sunnier younger brother.
25. SMITH WESTERNS – Dye it Blonde
The second album from Chicago's Smith Westerns sees them slightly less scrappy than on their self-titled debut, with vocals that ooze "whatevs" and gloriously sparkly, glammed-out guitar parts that impart an immediate urgency to otherwise gauzy declarations of youthful love.
Top 25 Reissues of 2011
1. JIM SULLIVAN – U.F.O
"On the U.F.O. sessions, Sullivan's distinctively deep voice and guitar playing were augmented by Wrecking Crew players Jimmy Bond (bass), Earl Palmer (who drummed on Little Richard's "Tutti Frutti" and The Righteous Brothers' "You’ve Lost that Lovin' Feelin'") and Don Randi (who played keys for Phil Spector and on The Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations"). It’s this combo of killer playing and Bond's orchestrations that places this album in similar territory as such genre-defying works of psych-folk/orch-funk as David Axelrod's Song Of Innocence and Songs Of Experience (on both of which Earl Palmer also drummed!), as well as Jean-Claude Vannier’s arrangements for Serge Gainsbourg; folkies and beat-diggers alike therefore have much to sink their teeth into with this one." (originally published on January 12, 2011)
2. THE BEACH BOYS – The SMiLE Sessions
"First recorded in 1966-67, The Beach Boys' SMiLE is regarded as one of the greatest 'lost albums' of all time. This is the first time the original, as-complete-as-possible version of SMiLE gets an official release, and it's a doozy. Using Wilson's 2004 sequence as a guide, the album feels pretty dang near complete, with all the pieces falling nicely into place. It's exhilarating to finally hear, and it will surely put a smile on your face." (originally published on November 7, 2011)
3. THE LEFT BANKE – Walk Away Renée/Pretty Ballerina / The Left Banke Too
"A young band from New York City, The Left Banke also threw their hats into the baroque-pop ring and scored with not one, but two big Beatles/Zombies-flavoured hits, 'Walk Away Renée' and 'Pretty Ballerina.' Their wonderful debut album from '67, titled after those tunes, as well as their almost equally sublime 1968 follow-up The Left Banke Too, have been unavailable for almost twenty years. Now, these LPs have been reissued, and what a treat it is to delve into them!" (originally published on June 28, 2011)
4. CHARLIE RICH – It Ain't Gonna Be That Way: The Complete Smash Sessions
He's best known as a country singer, but in the mid-'60s the great Charlie Rich recorded a ton of infectious r'n'b-driven tracks compiled on this superb collection.
5. VA – Sweet Inspiration: The Songs of Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham
The one word that comes to mind is…"Wow!" Listening to this masterful compilation of songs written by Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham gives me 24 reasons to say it—it’s mostly deep soul, but there are a few country corkers that show the close relationship between the genres. Sweet Inspiration indeed.
6. MICKEY NEWBURY - An American Trilogy
It's only fitting that the label best known for harbouring Will Oldham all these years went all out on this 4CD anthology of one of Bonnie Billy's clear forebears, first issued as a hardshell riveted case, and now available as a slimmer, cheaper (but no less deluxe-looking and extra-stuffed) repress due to overwhelming demand.
7. VA – Brand New Wayo
This bangin' compilation highlights the brief halcyon days of democratic Nigeria's popular dance music scene. For four years beginning in 1979, there was an explosion of "Nigerian boogie", a heady disco-funk blend that matched the newfound economic and social freedom with a vibe that was decidedly more hedonistic NYC clubland than Fela's Afrobeat. The accompanying booklet gives a tremendous overview of the changing Nigerian political and musical landscapes. As Bayo Damazio sings in his track "Listen to the Music", this comp will "get everybody dancing"!
8. PAUL McCARTNEY – McCartney II
However Paul McCartney’s home-recorded exercise in experimental electronic pop may have been regarded in 1980 (with 'eyebrows raised' being a polite description), thirty years of marination have been favourable to McCartney II. Coming across as equal parts prophetic ("Waterfalls," "Darkroom"), straight-up insane ("Bogey Music," "Temporary Secretary"), and classic McCartney ("Summer’s Day Song"), the rediscovery of this album over this past decade has definitely (and perhaps defiantly) led to a return to respecting the oft-maligned songwriter and showman. And don’t forget the excellent bonus tracks, as it was originally designed to be a double album!
9. JEF GILSON – The Best of Jef Gilson
A multi-album box would have been nice, but we’re okay with this single-disc (or double-vinyl) set by the French multi-instrumentalist, composer, bandleader, producer, Palm label boss, and engineer at Vogue. From Rive Gauche waltzes with operatic female vocals to expansive spiritual jazz workouts, this was a jazz reissue that truly blew multiple minds here at the shop.
10. WILLIE WRIGHT – Telling The Truth
"Like many singers of his generation, Wright got his start in doo-wop groups before falling into the folk scene and recording an album in 1963 on Argo Folk, a subsidiary of Chess Records. In the intervening years between that album and Telling The Truth, he seemed to have developed a taste for faux island rhythms to add zest to his often meditative atmospheric folk. Call it spiritual folk jazz, an unusual descriptor for sure, but one that also applies to the likes of Terry Callier, Jon Lucien, and John Martyn." (originally published on February 21, 2011)
11. VAN DYKE PARKS – Arrangements Vol. 1
"A man who started his parallel careers as arranger, producer, lyricist, songwriter and A/V/A&R rep at an astonishingly early age, Van Dyke Parks is a musician's musician thoroughly deserving of canonization by way of this long-awaited, self-released anthology (with more volumes hopefully to come)." (originally published on November 8, 2011)
12. THE JAYHAWKS – Tomorrow The Green Grass (Legacy Edition)
I’m just so happy this album got reissued this year. I’d never heard the Jayhawks before, but when I put this record on in the shop back in January, I immediately knew I was hearing some special. The 2-CD set includes original b-sides and unreleased tracks, including a whole 18-track disc dubbed “The Mystery Demos,” containing tracks recorded by Olson and Louris in the early 90s. While quite a few of the songs reappeared on later albums, there are some true "lost" gems here, including my personal favourite, "No Place." A modern American classic.
13. HOWLIN' WOLF – The Howlin' Wolf Album
While the sassy 1968 copy-writing on the cover may be true, it's
pretty hard to deny that this psych-blues freakout counterpoint to
Muddy Waters' Electric Mud totally slays.
14. GILBERT O'SULLIVAN – Himself
A handful of us at the shop let out a "Yipee!" when we saw that '70s singer-songwriter Gilbert O’Sullivan’s debut LP was finally being reissued on CD. It may not feature O’Sullivan’s mega-sad mega-hit "Alone Again, Naturally," but do not fear; this cleverly sequenced album is full to the brim with jaunty piano-based odes to the mundane, and elegantly crafted compositions that dabble in McCartney-esque music hall revival, bossa nova pop and baroque instrumentation. O’Sullivan didn’t appear with this idiosyncratic aesthetic fully formed, though, as the essential bonus tracks of early singles and demos included so helpfully reveal his artistic progression.
15. THE HOLLIES – The Clarke, Hicks & Nash Years: The Complete Hollies 1963-1968
It can be argued that the Hollies weren't quite the Hollies once Graham Nash beelined it for Laurel Canyon (and massive success with Crosby & Stills), and while the post-Nash Hollies had some highlights, this 6CD boxset makes a compelling case for the pro-Nash viewpoint. It comprehensively follows the British masters of three-part harmony through their early beat-group days to their album-based songwriting era.
16. VA – R&B Hipshakers Vol. 2: Scratch That Itch
The followup to Vampisoul's first R&B Hipshakers compilation offers more irresistible uptempo cuts from the King/Federal/Deluxe labels. All killer, no filler!
17. NEIL DIAMOND – The Bang Years 1966-1968
"Diamond's songs and impassioned delivery guaranteed a string of hits in their own right, and a cache of songs that would be sung by countless others, producing a repertoire of pop standards that most musicians would love to have produced in their whole career, much less in the space of two years!" (originally published on April 3, 2011)
18. NINO TEMPO & APRIL STEVENS – Hey Baby!
"This Ace compilation is a full retrospective of Tempo and Stevens' careers that includes numerous solo efforts by both. All in all, it’s one of the year’s most satisfying reissues—let’s give Nino and April their due!" (originally published on July 28, 2011)
19. TAMMI TERRELL – Come On and See Me
Known primarily for being Marvin Gaye’s most frequent and talented duet partner, Tammi Terrell (a.k.a. Tammy Montgomery) was a supremely talented singer in the Tamla/Motown roster who was taken from us too soon. This amazing double-disc collection is full of hawt soul jams which were largely unavailable previously. Even at a moderately premium price, this is a must-have for any soul/girl-group/female vocalist aficionado.
"With a wide variety of '40s/'50s styles covered (from R&B to jump blues to fuller, big-band arrangements) and such standout tracks as 'The Turkey Hop', 'Oopy-Doo' and 'Hound Dog,' Midnight is a real grabs-you-from-the-get-go crowdpleaser from an orchestral revue that clearly put on one heck of a show." (originally published on November 10, 2011)
21. VA – Come Together: Black America Sings Lennon & McCartney
The Beatles covered a few r'n'b numbers in their early days, but who knew that Al Green, Otis Redding, and so many other soul greats put their own delightful twists on the Fab Four's tunes?
22. GENE CLARK – Roadmaster
"Gathering together the cream of the L.A. country-rock fraternity, Clark set about recording an album of pure country rock unfettered by any commercial dictates." (originally published on November 25, 2011)
23. AARON NEVILLE – Hercules: The Minute and Sansu Sessions
I don't know much, but I know that Aaron Neville's oft-overlooked
early career is top-notch. From the proto-funk NOLA bounce of
Toussaint's production to the way Neville ha-ha-ha-handles a
tearjerking lyric, there's a hell of a lot of music here.
23. BOBBY MARCHAN – Get Down With It: The Soul Sides 1963-1967
Bobby Marchan has a voice: a voice that floors you; a voice that was made for singing soul. Bobby Marchan is also the master of the story song, wherein he’ll begin, interrupt or end his song with a monologue telling us why he is so heartbroken, and pouring out his soul to us. It really must be heard to be believed.
23. CANDI STATON – Evidence: The Complete Fame Sessions
In 2004, there was a surge of interest in Candi Staton when the Honest Jon's label released an amazing 26-song compilation of her glory years recording for the masterful Fame label (1969-1973). That out-of-print compilation has now been superceded by this even better set, covering everything she recorded at Fame: a full 48 tracks of prime Southern soul.
23. O.C. TOLBERT – Black Diamond
Just when you think that soul-reissue well has dried up, the good people at Kent have once again messed with your line of credit by issuing yet another must-have purchase. For the most part, these recordings are dirty and dusty (yet clearly painstakingly transferred/remastered, of course!), which is always a huge plus, and Dave Hamilton's production complements Tolbert's gritty voice. Yet more reasons to be reminded of how Detroit is quite possibly the greatest music city on earth.