I feel it's important to state that right off the bat. Yes, I know that in these waning days of the year it's the thing bloggers do: countdowns of the best or worst songs, albums, movies, varieties of soup, what have you. And I hate those kinds of posts, because they always lead to the same arguments among the commenters: "How could you rank X higher than Y? Are you insane?"
2011 was a pretty damn good year for music. Lots of fantastic stuff out there if you're willing to dig for it. So, despite my reticence to join in with the year-end-list crowd, I'm doing it anyway - but I'm not ranking these in any order. Think of this more as a "buying guide" provided to you by your old pal Bryan. You're welcome.
Another note before we dive in: yes, I know one or two titles here might technically have been 2010 releases, but I'm including them because they got a lot of airplay around here this year, and thus they are 2011 releases in spirit. And it's my list. So suck it. Here we go:
Freezepop - Imaginary Friends/Secret Companion
Originally released in the fall of 2010, Freezepop's fourth album, Imaginary Friends, was reissued this year as part of a limited edition two-disc package with nearly another album's worth of bonus material, Secret Companion. Founding members Liz Enthusiasm and The Other Sean T. Drinkwater, along with relative newcomers Robert John "Bananas" Foster and Christmas Disco-Marie Sagan (it took two people to replace the departed Duke of Pannekoeken!) continue the band's remarkable ability to recreate a spot-on circa-1983 synthpop sound updated for the 21st century. It's a fuller, lusher sound these days, but that's not a bad thing. Their insanely clever lyrics and constant ironic wink will leave you wondering at times where the line between tribute and parody lies, but you'll be dancing the whole time, so does it really matter? "Doppelganger" is the single, and it is simply outstanding:
Shilpa Ray & her Happy Hookers - Teenage and Torture
Pounding out blues-based punk-tinged rawk-n-roll on her harmonium and spewing forth raging vocals that will pin you to the wall if you're not careful, Shilpa Ray has drawn favorable comparisons to just about every emotion-fueled female musical icon you can name from Ella Fitzgerald to Chrissy Hynde and beyond, yet she stands quite uniquely on her own with no comparison being quite accurate. "Heaven In Stereo," the first single from Ray's band's second LP, is representative of the driving, insistent sound you'll find throughout. Rough-edged but stunning. Don't miss this one!
Crisis of Conformity - "Fist Fight!"/"Kick it Down and Kick it Around" (single)
Saturday Night Live's greatest musical export since The Blues Brothers turns out to be this nostalgia-fueled celebration of mid-80s hardcore. The brainchild of Fred Armisen, Crisis of Conformity found life in a single skit last season (a newlywed's father gets his old band together at his daughter's wedding reception, and the four graying middle-aged friends launch into "Fist Fight!" while wrecking the place). All of the by-the-book moves are here, from the mid-song tempo change to the nonsequitor name-checking of Ronald Reagan and Alexander Haig. Armisen should know those moves - his pedigree is real, having played drums for Chicago's Trenchmouth in his youth. Drag City Records released the single this year; the clip includes both songs.
Van Buren Boys - Up All Night
Fans of The Exploding Hearts, Paul Collins' Beat, or other hard-edged power pop should line up for this one, the second full-length LP from The Van Buren Boys. Their first effort, 2009's Six String Love, was a helluva debut whose only drawback was that every song sounded very samey (that they all sounded like The Clash's "Gates Of The West" helped mitigate that, of course). With Up All Night, The Van Buren Boys (Seinfeld fans should get the reference) find the confidence to stretch a bit beyond that safe zone. The result is a twangy, guitar-ringing sound that should put a big ol' smile on the faces of those other bands' fans.
They Might Be Giants - Join Us
What could I possibly say about They Might Be Giants that would add anything new or insightful to the many, many songs of their praise over the past 25 years or so? You know everything you need to: John Flansburgh and John Linell are freakin' geniuses when it comes to writing insidiously catchy songs with lyrics far wittier than you or I could ever come up with, and the well from which their creativity springs seems to be bottomless. This year's album is no exception. Just get it.
Shonen Knife - Osaka Ramones
It is truly amazing to consider how far The Ramones' influence has reached over the years. What would music sound like today had they not existed? Scary prospect, isn't it? Many, many artists have attempted to repay their debt by either covering Ramones songs (or occasionally, full albums!) or penning tributes. Few have done so with the unbridled enthusiasm of the wonderful Shonen Knife. Joey Ramone himself gave the girls the nickname "The Osaka Ramones" after hearing them play; they have always said they learned to play rock and roll by listening to The Ramones and The Beatles. Well, if you're gonna do it, you couldn't ask for better teachers! On Osaka Ramones, Shonen Knife reverentially honor the classics: "Blitzkrieg Bop," "Rock 'n' Roll High School," "Beat On the Brat" - they're all here. My personal fave, though, is their take on "Sheena Is A Punk Rocker." Enjoy!
Poly Styrene - Generation Indigo
Former X-Ray Spex frontwoman Poly Styrene's comeback album also, sadly, turned out to be her swansong. Released shortly before losing her battle with cancer, Generation Indigo presented Poly in prime form. In 1977 she was singing about a world of dayglo and genetic engineering and disposable society; in 2011 she was still going on about such modernisms being foisted on us in place of real human interaction ("Virtual Boyfriend"). Her vocal style, once described as shrieking out songs "with all the delicacy of a cat in heat," had grown into a confident, strong, unique voice that served her well whether the sound was hard, soft, reggae, dance, whatever. Enjoy "Thrash City," one of the best tracks on an excellent album:
Madam Adam - Madam Adam
From the hard rock side of my record collection I offer South Carolina's Madam Adam. Discovered this band opening up for Halestorm here in Lancaster, PA, about this time last year, and was very impressed. Granted, they're not breaking any new ground here: it's just no-frills, by-the-book rock-n-roll with tinges of Aerosmith and Cheap Trick. It's a sound that will always sell because it's just good. It's party music; it's music for speeding down the highway in a car filled with too many friends; it's music for blasting on your stereo and violently air-guitaring until the neighbors pound on the door and demand you turn it down. Crank up the single "Sex Ain't Love" and see for yourself:
Hillbilly Moon Explosion - Buy Beg or Steal
After half a dozen albums, it's a shame Switzerland's Hillbilly Moon Explosion haven't found a larger audience. Basing their sound in American rockabilly with a modern twist, not entirely unlike HorrorPops, Hillbilly Moon Explosion are at once very familiar and very foreign. You could jump in just about anywhere in their discography and be pleasantly surprised at the gems you'll find, but the prize found in this year's release is their cover of Orchestral Manouevres In The Dark's "Enola Gay," about the first aircraft to drop an atomic bomb as a weapon of war. Brilliant!
Kimberly Freeman - Into Outer Space
I discovered Austin, Texas' One-Eyed Doll earlier this year, and they have quickly become one of my favorite bands. As I've gotten to know their material, I've discovered that Kimberly Freeman is a remarkably talented and unbelievably creative force. Within the framework of One-Eyed Doll she is all over the musical map (as noted in earlier posts, they run the gammut from death metal screaming to hook-laden pop to children's-song chanting); outside of One-Eyed Doll, her solo work finds even more facets to her fascinating musical world. I could rave about her work for hours, but that would take away time you could be spending listening for yourself! Check out "Fame And Loathing," the single from Freeman's 2011 solo album Into Outer Space, then follow the link to the One-Eyed Doll site and start exploring!
Amy Gore & Her Valentines - "Drivin' Around"
A late entry in the 2011 sweepstakes, but a winner nonetheless, is the debut track from Amy Gore's current ensemble. Best known for her work in The Gore Gore Girls and her teaming with Nikki Corvette to form Gorevette, Amy gathered up these particular Valentines for a one-off gig in her native Detroit. They discovered they really enjoyed playing together, and ta-da: a new band is born! "Drivin' Around" is one of those tracks that nearly defies genre. It's a solid chunk of whaddaya-wanna-do-tonight-I-dunno-whadda-you-wanna-do guitar rock, with a simple but insidiously catchy chorus and sound that holds great promise for a full album's worth of goodies from the band. Soon Amy? Please?
OK, those are my picks for 2011. How about yours? Any glaring omissions here? Have at it in the comments section! And also, please have a safe and happy New Year!