Here are 10 albums or shows that I keep returning to as touchstones for what made 2011 in music challenging, delightful, intriguing, and something with a beat I could dance to (listed in the order in which they happened). Click the band name for the link to its original blog entry.
Americana: The Civil Wars – Barton Hollow
Magic Vegetal Meatballs
This haunting album manages combines the plucking strings and wistful lyrics of traditional folk music with an aesthetic as contemporary as Showtime dramadies. The vegetable-stuffed meatballs are a dish I should revisit in my myriad struggles with ground turkey.
Post-Punk Collides with Electronica: Atomic Tom – live at Martini Ranch
It’s not just frontman Luke White’s ability to energize a crabby Grammy-night crowd (or our similar tastes in outfits): it’s a clever and energetic take on where rock could have gone if most of grunge hadn’t happened. “Take Me Out,” in particular, grabs the best of the very early 1990s, slaps it into shape, and gets your hands in the air.
Dive Bar Alt-Rock: To Have Heroes – Lost in America
Pecan Pie Muffins
When Americana goes into a dive bar, orders a PBR, and starts scribbling college-lit-inspired lyrics on damp napkins, enter To Have Heroes. After the fourth or fifth beer, somebody picks up an electric guitar and remembers riffs from the glory days of power rock. This Andy Skib project is easily one of the three best reasons to find oneself drunk and in Oklahoma. Pecan pie muffins are also deliciously lethal.
Wicked Pleasure Pop: Bruno Mars – live at Comerica Theatre
Bruno Mars jokes that he writes “in the key of fuck” — and basically, yeah. Live, his songs are even more insanely catchy than on the radio, and he’s a fast-moving ball of charm armed with a guitar, a ukelele, and a wink.
Bon Iver Arm-Wrestles Led Zeppelin: David Cook – This Loud Morning
Bacon-chocolate-chip cookies and oatmeal-craisin-chocolate cookies
The epic fantasy match-up between shy forest creature Justin Vernon and a phalanx of screaming rock guitars requires only that Journey offer to referee. This concept album matches crunchy guitars and aggressive riffs with big pop-rock choruses and complex layers of aural effects, in service of a journey through dreams and despair. The result is moody as hell, but catchy and intellectually engaging. The bacon-dark chocolate-chip cookies may become my signature dessert.
Dream Pop: The States – Line ‘Em Up
Blueberry Upside Down Cake
Like The Sundaes, only more hallucinatory, the sound exists in a dreamlike flux between reality and possibility, with edgily sweet vocals. “Time to Begin” is insanely earwormy. The upside-down cake is also sweet, with an edge.
Traditional Alt-Rock: The Foo Fighters – live at U.S. Airways Center
What would Dave Grohl do? He’d play every fucking song he knows, which takes two hours and forty minutes, including acoustic interlude played to the cheap seats. This experience is why arena shows exist.
Grunge Meets Punk, Greenpeace Cowers: Wild Flag – live at The Rhythm Room
The band’s catchphrase of “an avalanche taking out a dolphin” is about right: don’t get too comfortable with the more psychedelic-tinted jams or New Wave twists, as things are about to rock hard.
Feisty, Angsty Rock: Suddyn – Before the City, Dark Lights
Irish Soda Bread
Melancholic alt-rock with strong guitar riffs picks up a danceable synth-pop edge to go with its magical realist lyrics and gorgeous vocals. A full Irish breakfast is required.
Poetic Alt-Electropop: BacknBloom – Music for the Modern Monkey
Eggnog Cranberry Loaf
Electro-violin, guitar, and keyboard take the lead as musical motifs quarrel and reconcile, with poetically enigmatic lyrics about hope and self-actualization. This album also demonstrates that sound mixing can be witty and delightful. Eggnog-cranberry loaf provides a similar blend of sweet, sophisticated, and complex.