This isn’t a “Top Ten” list because it has twelve items. And it’s not a “Best Of” list either. It’s just a dozen music CDs from 2011 that I thought were worth checking out and talking about.
Battles – Gloss Drop
In his previous band, Pittsburgh’s mighty Don Caballero, guitarist Ian Williams successfully dealt with the departure of the other guitarist by using sampler pedals and taking on the role of two musicians. Could Williams (along with bassist Dave Konopka and drummer John Stanier) do the same thing with Battles after the departure of multi-talented band member Tyondai Braxton? With some help from guest vocalists like Gary Numan and Matias Aguayo, the answer is yes. Gloss Drop is daring, experimental rock that’s also really fun.
Cage, John – The Works for Percussion
This likely will be a divisive recording for listeners. Some of you will think it’s a brilliant recording of pioneering works by an iconoclastic composer. Some of you will think it sounds like someone dropping an armful of coffee cans while spinning the radio dial.
Cut Copy – Zonoscope
Vocally, this Australian group is reminiscent of 80s British new wave and synth pop (e.g., O.M.D., Haircut 100, Human League, etc.) but with updated production for the dance floors of the 21st century. It’s the kind of layered, easy-going music intended to keep you swaying on the dance floor all night rather than head-pounding fist-pumpers that might exhaust you after one track.
DiDonato, Joyce – Diva Divo
Sopranos get undue attention so why not check out the latest CD by mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato? Mezzos get to sing almost as high as sopranos, but also in a fun opera tradition of often playing young male roles (as fellow American singer Jennifer Larmore showcased on her album, Call Me Mister). Here, DiDonato goes back and forth between trouser and skirt roles and sings arias from 18th century Gluck up through 20th century Strauss.
Dudamel, Gustavo – Tchaikovsky & Shakespeare
Energetic conductor Gustavo Dudamel (b. 1981) is a product of Venezuela’s El Sistema of music education for poor children. Here he conducts a program of 19th century pieces by a sexually conflicted Russian composer based on English plays from four hundred years ago. And people say that classical music is somehow culturally limited.
J-Rocc – Some Cold Rock Stuff
The creations of record collector and turntabilist J. Rocc are less suited for rapping over than for film soundtracks or smoky sit-down parties. The standout track for me is “Malcolm Was Here,” whose first half is jazzy before the ominous bass line and a straight beat takes over.
Low – C’mon
Low are still a three-piece indie rock group of guitar, bass and percussion with male and female vocals. They’re still slow. But for the last ten years or so, they’ve added other instruments (such as banjo and strings) played by a number of guests. Nonetheless, their songs still retain their austere beauty.
McGarrigle, Kate & Anna – Tell My Sister
Even though recently deceased Kate was married to Loudon Wainwright and is the mother of Rufus and Martha Wainwright, I sometimes worry that the McGarrigle Sisters are forgotten when people think back to talented Canadian 1970s singer/songwriters such as Joni Mitchell and Gordon Lightfoot. This reissue will help correct that. The singing sisters play accordion, banjo, guitar, and piano, and as Canadians they sometimes, not surprisingly, sing in French. Although they are accompanied by some of the top-notch studio musicians of the era, I prefer the sparser songs like Kate’s “Go Leave” which is just voice, guitar and heartbreak.
Meehan/Perkins Duo & the Baylor Percussion Group – Restless, Endless, Tactless: Johanna Beyer and the Birth of American Percussion Music
You may or may not be already familiar with the music composed for percussion ensembles by Edgard Varèse, Henry Cowell and John Cage. This CD will familiarize you with a half dozen works by Johanna Beyer (1888-1944) and some of her contemporaries from the 1930s. Less bombastic than you might think, many of these percussion pieces feature passages that are quiet and hypnotic. And if you’re a fan of late 20th century minimalism, check out the 2nd movement of Beyer’s Three Movements for Percussion (1939) and see how she predates the experiments of composers such as Steve Reich, albeit more sparsely.
Ortega, Lindi – Little Red Boots
Lindi Ortega doesn’t have much twang in her voice, but she isn’t some slick and smooth, over-produced, pop country star. And musically, you’ll find traditional country sounds such as slide guitar, upright bass, and the “train beat.” Often, she defines herself more by what she is not: “not a blue bird,” “no Elvis Presley” and “you may not know my name ‘cause I have not met fame.” After an album as solid as this, you may soon know her name.
Vile, Kurt – Smoke Ring for My Halo
Kurt Vile’s rock has a bit of a lackadaisical, watery feel, but it takes a lot of talent and craftsmanship to sound like a slacker. While Kurt Vile is based in Philadelphia, his sideman Jesse Trbovich was a participant in Pittsburgh’s indie rock scene in the 1990s.
Wild Beasts – Smother
The vocals for Wild Beasts are characterized by clearly articulated words often pushed up into the falsetto range and sung at an almost confessional volume. That may sound unappealing to some, but I find this album to be thoroughly engaging, especially as each track varies the instrumental texture underneath the vocals: sometimes guitars, sometimes piano, sometimes drum set or percussion, sometimes electronic bleeps and bloops.