Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Best Of 11

What an amazing year for music - I'm like a pig in truffles. If you had told me in January that Wilco, Radiohead, TV On The Radio and Bon Iver would put out new records and NOT end up on my Top Ten, I would have told you to get lost. But that's exactly what happened. Here are the whys and wherefores, from one to (sort of) ten. If you want to listen in, head over to and just push play.

1. Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues 
This has not lost its grip on the top spot since July. As I discussed on a recent episode of Sound Opinions, It's more musically and thematically complex and expansive than their debut, perfectly building on the promise of that stunning record. Robin Pecknold is obviously the leader but they are definitely a band and J.Tillman, drummer extraordinaire, is their secret weapon. Give a listen to this Daytrotter session if you want to know why.

2. Mastodon - The Hunter
After a series of knotty and thrilling concept albums, the boys from Atlanta hook up with the guy who co-produced In Da Club, among other things, and let it all hang out, writing songs about meth-heads searching for the perfect tree knot, forlorn cephalopods, etc. After the sprawling epics of their earlier records, concision may have been the only challenge left to them and they conquer it with extreme prejudice. No big story to tell, just a series of virtuoso hard rock tunes that solidify Mastodon's place in the pantheon of American bands.

3. Hollie Cook - Hollie CookWho'd a thunk that the daughter of a Sex Pistol would craft one of the most delightful records in recent memory? You can have your Beyonce and Rihanna - they sound positively anhedonic compared to Hollie. She has the perfect collaborators in Prince Fatty and Horseman, creating a rock-steady vibe that is pure fun. I may have listened to this addicting collection more than any other record this year. Take a taste and you too will be hooked.

4. Amor De Dias - Street of The Love of Days
Like Hollie Cook's album, the collaboration of Alasdair MacLean and Lupe Núñez-Fernández sounds deceptively easy. The breezy set of songs features gorgeous production and some of Alasdair's finest singing to date. There's a hint of darkness that adds depth, like the slight bitterness at the bottom of a demitasse.

5. Jonathan Wilson - Gentle Spirit
There's a lot of things about this album that seem unpromising - that title, for one, the amateurish cover art, for another, not to mention a song called Can We Really Party Today? - but it is a spectacular, enveloping listening experience. Wilson is a bit of a journeyman, playing with and producing everyone from Dawes, Elvis Costello, Mia Doi Todd, Erykah Badu and J. Tillman (him again). Several songs on Gentle Spirit feature Wilson on all the instruments, which is astonishing when you consider the interplay and improvisation that's going on. He makes Paul McCartney's similar attempts sound like the work of a gifted tinkerer. The songs are full of unexpected twists and turns, sometimes taking a leaf from Harry Nilsson, and sometimes Pink Floyd or David Crosby. A major talent that is absolutely one of the discoveries of the year.

6. Hilary Hahn (with Valentina Lisitsa, Piano) - Charles Ives: Four Sonatas
Except for her recordings of Violin Concertos by Schoenberg and Jennifer Higdon, Hahn is mainly known for incandescent performance of great repertory works, most notably the mighty and ethereal Sibelius. She takes a brave step here by recording the complete violin sonatas of that spiky American original, Charles Ives. She has steeped herself in the folk songs that Ives drew on and seems to sing through her violin. There is a refreshing lack of defensiveness, apology or obligation here - she knows what great music this is and seeks to communicate that with all the talent at her command. In no small part helped by Valentina Lisitsa's dynamic piano, this recording is a complete success and a joy to listen to. You may even find yourself singing along!

7. The Strokes - Angles
Expectations can really sink a band. If you wanted Is This It Part 2, maybe you should have made it yourself. This is smart, inventive, intricate music that is filled with what can only be called an energetic ennui. It gleams with a very special light and marks its own territory in the dire landscape of today's guitar rock.

8.1 Prodigy (of Mobb Deep) - Complex Presents The Ellsworth Bumpy Johnson EP
This six song download is filled with a unity of sound and purpose that eludes most hip hop. He's not trying to be anything, like Drake or Tyler The Creator, he just IS. It took a minute to adjust to his slower flow on these songs but, as was revealed on my next selection, that was just a demonstration of his versatility. His producers (including Sid Roams and Havoc) come up with some scintillating soundscapes for P to work his magic on. One standout is Stronger, produced by King Benny and featuring a killer Nina Simone sample. QED: "Maybe once in a tangerine moon/I'll be in the mood to paint the town red with your corpuscles and plasma/Some violent art/These thoughts, in the corner of my mind are dark/But then the Times Square lights/They switch my whole attitude." Still on the fence? Did I mention this was a FREE download?

8.2 Mobb Deep - Black Cocaine EP
As I wrote recently, these guys, that name, it's guaranteed to be good. Hip Hop is always on the hunt for the new new thing, but when some old G's come up with the goods, there's no shame it recognizing it. The Bounty Killer sample on Dead Man Shoes is a coup and if it inspired the refrain "Eat food, I'm full, doggy bag 'em, feed 'em to the wolves, toe-tag'em, they walking in dead man shoes," it was worth every penny paid to the dancehall marauder. Prodigy is in full command throughout, stepping up the pace as the music demands, as is partner Havoc. Four other excellent songs have me eager for the full album to drop in 2012.

9. Lou Reed & Metallica - Lulu
Let me just say that half the people piling on this record are descendants of the dudes who returned White Light/White Heat to EJ Korvette's for a refund in 1967 because they thought there was something wrong with it. And the other half are followers just doing it out of aesthetic insecurity or those guys who considered ending it all when Metallica cut their hair. This is a great record - big riffs, nasty lyrics, moments of transcendent beauty. Perhaps Lou is dragging the Metallicatz into the world of German expressionism rather forcefully, but they pump their own blood into the songs. Like The Strokes album, I'm convinced Lulu's time will come.

10. Epic45 - Weathering
This achingly gorgeous ambient-folk song cycle is assembled with such care, it should be sold as a single download. However, there are enough standout songs that it's OK if it ends up on shuffle play. At a less fractious time (and one less obsessed with dance music), this album would be an event. In 2011, most people don't even know it exists. In this case, joining the 1% would be a badge of honor - and an entree into a beautiful soundworld.

Whew. It wasn't easy to demote the luminaries listed at the top of this post but they, and many others, will be featured in a Best Of The Rest Of 11 entry, coming soon. Also on the horizon is a look back at the year in concerts. In the meantime, share your comments, or your own Top Ten, below.

Friday, December 02, 2011

2011: The Year In Live, Part 1

With 2011 still ringing in my ears, and on the eve of my first concert of 2012 (Jonathan Wilson, Mercury Lounge, 1/19/12), here's the first rundown of live shows from last year.

Concert-going ran the full gamut this year, from a tribute to a legendary soprano to a world tour with a string quartet, and from psych-rock and folk-rock master classes to ear-splitting metal. Add some filthy hip hop and some twisted jazz and you would have a fair representation of my musical diet. Maybe in 2012 I'll hit all of those marks.

My daughter and I are The Two Live Crew - back for a repeat engagement in 2011.
At the Bon Iver concert, Prospect Park

The Return Of The Two Live Crew - River To River
We once again filled the summer with cornucopia of musical delights. I have already written extensively about the Brooklyn Rider concert we saw during the River To River Festival. That same organization gave us the opportunity to see Sean Lennon's Ghost Of A Saber Tooth Tiger in full flower at South Street Seaport. While I have been his fan since Into The Sun in 1998, this recent project seemed to be getting by largely on the charm of Sean and Charlotte Kemp-Muhl, his partner in music and life, as evidenced in their, yes, charming appearance on NPR's Tiny Desk Concert. So I was not expecting the full-on psychedelic freak scene they brought to the little stage by the sea. While his solo albums have focused on his ravaged heart, the new songs are full of play and imagery. Sean is a stunning guitar player and his maniacal exertions were contrasted perfectly by Charlotte's effortless cool and precise bass playing. The three musicians who filled out the band were uniformly excellent. While the Acoustic Sessions album was pleasant enough, I can't wait for the full band album - although with their website two months out of date, I won't hold my breath... The opening act was the entertaining Blood Orange - when his first song ended I thought, "That's what I hoped Lightspeed Champion would sound like." Then I realized it was the same guy. His bedsit pop is punctuated by unexpectedly convincing guitar heroics, a great combination that doesn't quite come over on his album, Coastal Grooves. Worth a listen, but try to catch him live.

The Return Of The Two Live Crew, Pt. 2
Hannah and I also trekked out to Brooklyn for the Bon Iver experience in Prospect Park - and it is an experience to see Justin Vernon & Co. onstage. The large band gave the new songs an increased dynamic range that revealed their structural and emotional intricacies more effectively than the album versions. Vernon is a massive talent and although he seemed to give his all, sometimes heading for an emotional brink, I never worried about him, as he projected a grounded and healthy air. He's the real deal and I expect we'll have him around for awhile. He is also a generous musician, including his band and the audience fully in the proceedings. If you're a fan but found yourself somewhat confounded by the second album, catch the concert - it will all make more sense.

The Return Of The Two Live Crew Pts. 3-5
After summer 2010, Hannah and I were dyed in the wool fans of Tanglewood's Sunday morning chamber concerts. We managed to make it to three this year and were introduced to some amazing music. One concert included Fred Ho's Fanfare to Stop the Creeping Meatball, a witty romp that was an entree into the world of an idiosyncratic and brave musician. We also had the privilege of attending an all-vocal concert that was a 90th birthday celebration for Phyllis Curtin. Appropriately enough, the concert opened with Britten's complex A Birthday Hansel, but soon moved into a wild array of exclusively American song, including a fantastic performance of Marc Blitzstein's poignantly brash The New Suit "Zipperfly" by bass David Salsbery Fry. YoonGeong Lee's take on Joseph Schwantner's Black Anemones was also unforgettable. And I doubt there was a dry eye to be found when the entire company sang The Promise of Living chorus from Aaron Copland's The Tender Land. I know I was tearing up watching Curtin's beaming face as the young singers performed. If you're in the Berkshires at all next summer, stop by Tanglewood at 10:00am on Sunday - you never know exactly what will happen but you know it will be wonderful!

The Return of The Two Live Crew: Encore!
Combining one of our favorite places (The Metropolitan Museum of Art) with one of our favorite activities (live music) seemed like a guaranteed good time and the New York Philharmonic's Contact! concert in December did not disappoint. Hosted by the ever-amazing John Schaefer, the show featured a world-premiere by young Brazilian composer Alexandre Lunsqui, a new classic by Magnus Lindberg and, the big piece of the night, H.K. Gruber's outrageous Frankenstein!! The Lunsqui piece was knotty but propulsive, with some cheeky references to his native Brazilian rhythms. Lindberg's choice of symphonic sections of woodwind and brass - as if "the other bus of musicians didn't arrive" - was an exploration of instrumental textures, but not in an academic way. Frankenstein!!, with its toy instruments, theatrical vocals and (admittedly somewhat dated) pop-culture obsessed poetry, is a unique work that deserves to be experienced at least once, especially with Gruber himself in the role of Chansonnier - although ring-leader might have been as apt a description.

Still to come: The Year In Live, Pt. 2

Did you take your kids to any concerts last year? Tell us about it!