2011′s Overlooked Gems

Wondering Sound Staff

By Wondering Sound Staff

on 07.29.11 in Lists

Every year, a mountain of records is unleashed on an unsuspecting public. And while many move to “Instant Favorite” status, it’s inevitable that even more will fall through the cracks. With five months left in 2011, now is the perfect time to play catch up. These are our picks for 2011′s overlooked gems

Alternating tracks with skits featuring a pub-soused middle-aged curmudgeon named Big Trev grumbling about how lovely people give him no respect, three likewise middle-aged outland-Brit post-post-punks favor rhythm over melody like indie's '80s never ended. Leicester guitarist Crayola rants with dry wit while jaggedly channeling the Gang of Four's Andy Gill, and the high-speed pogo-funk of Leeds/Mekons drummer Tom Greenhalgh and Manchester/Big Flame bassist Alan Brown uncoils with staccato precision and sufficient concision to remind you how the Minutemen got their name.

Stone Rollin'

Raphael Saadiq

Despite his neo-soul aesthetic, Buddy Holly glasses and on-stage jam with Mick Jagger at the 2010 Grammy's, Raphael Saadiq is not a relic of the past. Sure, The Way I See It — the Grammy-winning album that landed him onstage with Jagger — was heavy with Motown rhythms and topped with a smidge of Marvin Gaye roleplay, but Saadiq has always been more of an originator, rather than an imitator, in sound. (To wit: His other Grammy win was for penning D'Angelo's "Untitled.") In Stone Rollin', his follow-up to 2008's The Way I See It, Saadiq once again establishes his relevance as a soulful, if modest, balladeer with a lyrical and instrumental edge that's far too absent in the work of his contemporaries.

On the contemporary R&B continuum, Stone Rollin' fits somewhere in between The Lady Killer and Love Letter, but unlike Cee Lo's electro-lined throwbacks and Kells's sexual explorations, Stone Rollin' boasts hand-crafted beats and lyrics informed by pain instead of fantasy. The string-propelled standout "Good Man" may boast a silky melody, but it's no valentine; battered drums beat beneath a stinging narrative of a blue-collar man who suffers the ambiguously-motivated spite of his lover. The song ends with the "good man" in a cop car and his former lover in the car of another — complexity, both lyrically and sonically, that trumps most other contemporary R&B jams. Refrains like "fuck you" or "we made love in a taxi cab" may bode well on the charts or streets, but Saadiq's chronicle of lost love will be relatable for years to come.

Pint Of Blood

Jolie Holland

"Can't believe you're treating me like all those girls — all those sweet girls go home to cry," Holland sings in the opening line of her fifth album, Pint of Blood. The line is meant in context as a lover's complaint, but it works as a bit of musical autobiography, too. Holland is a musician whose bent, bluesy voice demands a different set of rules from all those other girls. She is Billie Holiday channeled through Joanna Newsom, with a Dust Bowl twang for good measure, an unrepentant oddball whose singular warble often drifts a country mile away from her melodies. She allows a busted guitar solo on "Gold and Yellow," and a stray fiddle on "June," but her voice — as always — is the focal point, regardless of musical accompaniment. It charges through finger-snaps on a jaunty tune called "Wreckage," and then seizes hearts over halting piano during "Rex's Blues," which ranks with the best of her material. Diehard fans will be glad to hear her take yet another stab at "Littlest Birds" — this is at least the third time she's recorded the song, dating back to her early band the Be Good Tanyas, and her solo debut Catalpa. Each version sounds different from the last, a testament to Holland's restlessness and range.

Leeds, the restive capital of the People's Republic of West Yorkshire, has produced its far share of goth, indie rock, downbeat dance music and tubthumping pop. It's nobody's idea of a jazz mecca though, which is why Submotion Orchestra's accomplished debut album comes as such a surprise. Shot through with avant-garde textures, refracted at unexpected dub and ambient angles, and at times even sinister, it's a slick and accomplished collection of ersatz jazz and mellifluous trip-hop.

A few of the band's nine members graduated from the Leeds College Of Music's respected jazz course, while others have plied their trades as club DJs, composers-in-residence, sessioneers and promoters. One, Ruckspin, is perhaps the only classical viola player we've encountered who claims his favourite album is The Prodigy's Music for the Jilted Generation. The cumulative effect of all this extracurricular work is far from academic or studied, however, the impression is of a varied brain trust running on free-range musical curiosity.

The primary colors on Finest Hour are muted strings, Fender Rhodes pianos, skittering beats and the delicious lazy inflection in Ruby Wood's voice, and it would be easy to make formulaic chill-out for phone ads from such ingredients. But the band is adept at turning their materials inside out to create moods that oscillate from the laid-back to the frenetic. "Secrets" develops from a swirling Jacuzzi of jazz horns into grand, bassy, Studio One-style reggae — Madness co-opted by Sun Ra. The record reaches a transcendent finale when "Perfection" unfurls into a grand, trumpet-led, intergalactic reverie and then disappears into a dub wormhole. The result is diverse and twisting enough to sit alongside vintage trip-hop like Thievery Corporation or Massive Attack without sounding like anything other than itself.


Killer Mike

Every year, a mountain of records is unleashed on an unsuspecting public. And while many move to "Instant Favorite" status, it's inevitable that even more will fall through the cracks. With five months left in 2011, now is the perfect time to play catch up. These are our picks for 2011's overlooked gems

Brian Lynch finds inspiration in honoring his fellow trumpeters. His 2000 disc, Tribute to the Trumpet Masters, was a career highlight, featuring four songs composed by other trumpeters along with five Lynch originals that have titles (and musical flourishes) that directly or indirectly pay homage to his kindred spirits in brass. Unsung Heroes Vol. 1 adopts a similar approach, only this time Lynch honors more obscure trumpeters — among them, Tommy Turrentine, Louis Smith and Kamau Adilifu. Where Lynch was the sole horn player in a quartet setting on Masters, this time out he stacks the front line with altoist Vincent Herring and tenor Alex Hoffman in a sextet and septet configuration, and favors punchy unison horn arrangements reminiscent of his days with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers.

Herring proves a good match for Lynch right out of the gate, on Joe Gordon's "Terra Firma Irma." (A former cohort of Blakey's and a member of Dizzy Gillespie's big band, Gordon died in a fire in the early '60s at the age of 44.) Herring's phrases, like Lynch's, are angular and aggressive, his tempo varied and self-assured, and he swings and bops in equal measure. Pianist Rob Schneiderman also stands out, pushing the pace with the sort of innovative surge-and-glide that separates this ensemble from standard-issue hard bop. Bassist David Wong plays with a pleasing mixture of low-end throb and upper-register accents. And Lynch himself, into his 50s now, has become more resourceful on ballads and midtempo numbers, as he shows on both Turrentine's "I Could Never Forget You" and in his compositional and flugelhorn tribute to Claudio Roditi, "Roditisamba."

There are three discs' worth of material from this project, including outtakes, available (for a slightly higher price) on Lynch's own website. Suffice to say that paying dues to forebears who have influenced him is an abiding desire for the trumpeter. He knows better than anyone how this becomes a fecund history lesson, as the passionate, well-considered music inevitably inspires the next generation of players.



As spry as prime-era Squeeze and as rigid and angular as the best Spoon songs, New Orleans duo Generationals somehow make their starched-collar guitar-pop sound crisper and more precise without turning it into a math equation. The guitars are just blips on the radar, so what drives these songs is their steady melodic bounce: "Goose & Gander," the prettiest song about domestic strife you're likely to hear ("We can't stand each other, but we can't be apart"), glides along on the kind of spritely keyboard hook that would do Hall & Oates proud and "Greenleaf" spirals like a set of sparklers in the July night. And undergirding it all is that steady, stentorian guitar chug — the guy in the corner at the party with the three-piece suit and stone-face who is, nonetheless, wearing a lampshade.


Peaking Lights

Every year, a mountain of records is unleashed on an unsuspecting public. And while many move to "Instant Favorite" status, it's inevitable that even more will fall through the cracks. With five months left in 2011, now is the perfect time to play catch up. These are our picks for 2011's overlooked gems

Wood And Stone

Tara Nevins

Every year, a mountain of records is unleashed on an unsuspecting public. And while many move to "Instant Favorite" status, it's inevitable that even more will fall through the cracks. With five months left in 2011, now is the perfect time to play catch up. These are our picks for 2011's overlooked gems

John Cage's percussion works are hard to pull off. First, you have the notes that are actually written down. Then, there are the parts that require you to flip a radio dial back and forth, or use variable speed turntables and Test-Tone records (in what amounts to the very beginnings of turntablism as a concept). The thing is, you really need to believe in both activities as a performer to make it work. And you also have to be fearless about not chasing down clearances for every little speck of radio that might show up in your recording.

Listeners, meanwhile, are allowed to be suspicious about everything. So give Percussion Group Cincinnati, and Mode Records, a ton of credit here — for they have succeeded where many others have failed (or else declined to try). The Works for Percussion I also happens to be brilliantly sequenced as a standalone record: faithful both to Cage's philosophy, as well as the intuitive needs of our ears.

All of the Imaginary Landscape pieces are here, sometimes in multiple versions that show both how different and how similar the products of Cage's "chance" composition choices can sound, sandwiched in between two versions of "Credo in US." Lest you think these repetitions to be unnecessary padding, the difference in samples among the various takes makes the overall listening experience doubly rewarding. Sometimes, you get Shostakovich licks, while at other points the Beatles pop up (to pay their karmic due for the structure of "Revolution No. 9," perhaps). In the final track, you hear a stray blast of De La Soul. Regardless of whether you're intimately familiar with Cage's approach, the Cincinnati players have made an album that registers first and foremost as stylishly playful. Bring on Volume II.

Ghost Blonde

No Joy

This Montreal quartet's sumptuously shrill wall-of-noise debut came out too late in November to have a chance at most year-end lists. Coincidentally, the title of an earlier 2010 sleeper, labelmate Tamaryn's The Waves, applies here just as well: Singer-guitarists Jasmine White-Glulz and Laura Lloyd summon up crest after dizzying crest of churning distortion, their incantatory vocals half-submerged, as elements of 1960s girl groups clash with the brutal dissonance of the '90s rock underground. "You Girls Smoke Cigarettes?" is a cool blast; the title track a warm bath. Either way, there's no rush surfacing.

Something Big

Mary Mary

"Walking," the transcendent hit that's the centerpiece of this gospel-crossover sister duo's sixth studio album, is a piano-house sampling, light-soul-harmonizing argument for taking your time. And it's not alone. "Something Big," a holy-roller stomp over a Bo Diddley beat, opens the album then makes way for bee-buzzing electro-hopper "Something Bigger"; "Walking" itself precedes the humanely chattered domestic montage "Slow Walk," then two more delectably nimble pop-soul numbers. The rest of the record owes almost as much to Destiny's Child as to Jesus Christ.

It requires a bent mind in a weird mood to become simpatico for these soundscapes from Italian artist Salvatore Borrelli, but at the right moments they can be hypnotic, or disturb your typical listening patterns. There are electronics, tape loops, cross-faded and manipulated voices and instruments, and grainy field recordings, layered, folded and opened like a sonic origami. Individual songs are dedicated to various fringe European artists both historical and contemporary, and the entire work is "dedicated to all people who haven't voiced their life." Fortunately the music doesn't feel quite so pretentious. Check out "We Do Boring Things Together," probably the most "accessible" track, and leave your preconceptions at the door.

What would it be like if Jeff Mangum sang for a fuzzed-out psych-rock band? Northern Primitives are here with the answer to a question you never thought to ask. The Niagara Falls-area quartet pairs a sun-baked, bleary fuzz-guitar throb worthy of a three-day wine hangover and a crate of old Kyuss records with a high, keening sense of melody; the result sounds like a power-pop record experiencing a peyote-assisted desert vision in real time.

A I A : Alien Observer


Every year, a mountain of records is unleashed on an unsuspecting public. And while many move to "Instant Favorite" status, it's inevitable that even more will fall through the cracks. With five months left in 2011, now is the perfect time to play catch up. These are our picks for 2011's overlooked gems

Dirty Radio

Sallie Ford & The Sound Outside

Every year, a mountain of records is unleashed on an unsuspecting public. And while many move to "Instant Favorite" status, it's inevitable that even more will fall through the cracks. With five months left in 2011, now is the perfect time to play catch up. These are our picks for 2011's overlooked gems

Carrothers is that rarest of creatures — a rural jazz artist. He thrived for five years in the jazz mecca of NYC in the late '80s and still does a fair share of high-profile gigs and recordings (check out his resume). But 20 years in a small town on Michigan's Upper Peninsula has provided a distinctive dimension to his piano sound; it is in the pace, patience and forlorn stillness of his chords and tone. And the solo piano album Excelsior — 16 evocative impressions about his boyhood hometown outside of Minnesota — is the most fully realized manifestation of that sound to date. The titles telegraph many of the moods, but for every "Amusement Park" or "Bygone Era," there is also a "Trees," or "Whoville" or "Bike Ride," where nostalgia, like rural Michigan, is a countryside best rid of bucolic cliches, and suffused with the same emotional musical jumble — inexplicable blues, uplifting gospel, solemn folk and gorgeously exacting chamber music — that you find in the city. But quiet enough to hear yourself.

The Chiara String Quartet team up with noise pranksters Matmos to alternately perform hip young composer Jefferson Friedman's quartets (the Chiara Quartet handles this) and to completely disassemble them (guess who). Friedman's pieces are sturdy, old-fashioned string quartets, and I mean "old-fashioned" in the best way: they don't fall back on facile, faux-minimalism tics, they develop moods and then explore them, they have rich and imaginative writing for the instruments involved. They earnestly probe small-scale modern human emotions — nagging doubt, creeping unease, simmering anger. To listen to them is to read a wordless novel inside your head. They could have been written at any point in the last 100 years, though, which is where Matmos comes in. What they do to the music is forensic and fascinating, and makes for a completely different listening experience.

Lounge Lizards

Purling Hiss

If you're a devotee of New Choogle (contemporary blues-rock a la Endless Boogie), you might have first heard Philadelphia-based Mike Polizze in Birds of Maya. His own Purling Hiss began as a noise-drone outfit landing somewhere between the brutal assault of '70s Japanese psych acts and the mellower motorik of San Francisco's Wooden Shjips. Recently signing to Mexican Summer, the long-haired dude's unleashed his inner J. Mascis, marrying a heavy vibe to killer pop hooks. Long live...grunge drone?

The past couple years have seen a remarkable surge of women coming into prominence in electronic dance music as DJs and producers, and the Turkish-born, American-based Kurtel is one of the most impressive. Music Watching Over Me is a straight-up, unashamed dance album: a dozen tracks intended to move a floor full of bodies, sometimes more slowly than others — as on the aptly hypnotic and undulating "My Ass" — but always purposefully, particularly "The L Word," on which plinky synths and Jada's moaned vocal ride a truncated piston of a bass line.

In the spirit of disorder, Brooklyn's The Men (not the Le Tigre offshoot band MEN) titled their third album Leave Home, just like the Ramones record. It's somewhat appropriate: their amped-up-n-loud music borrows heavily from punk and metal — not to mention drone and free jazz — without sounding pretentious or retro. Think that's a simple task? Try it. It's easy to take apart a refrigerator, but hell to put it back together again. The same goes for even the simplest of musical forms.

Ishmael Butler doesn't like to repeat himself, and he'll take as much time as needed between projects in order to make sure that he doesn't. As Butterfly, he led the New York trio Digable Planets through a pair of very different, equally rewarding mid '90s albums (1993's Reachin' and '94's Blowout Comb), then kept his head down for a decade. That group split in 1996, and Butler eventually made his way back to Seattle, where he grew up, and formed a solid funk-rock band called Cherrywine, whose sole, self-titled album came out in 2003. By decade's end, Butler had a new group: Shabazz Palaces, which gigged around Seattle. Butler insisted that local press not reveal his true identity, but it leaked quickly regardless.

It's not as if Butler had anything to be ashamed of. Black Up, Shabazz Palaces' debut, is defiantly strange: murky, stoned, meditative, uncompromised, from the gamelan and eerie chant that drive "An echo from the hosts that profess infinitum" to the dank, minimalist percussion and disembodied soul wail that marks "Recollections of the wraith." (All the titles are like that.) Yet for all its private-files feel, the music is instantly accessible: Butler's far too hook-canny to settle for pure alienation, and nearly two decades on from Reachin', his rhymes skip nimbly and easefully: "I find the diamonds underneath the subtlest inflections," as he boasts on "Are You...Can You...Were You? (Felt)." Like its obvious sonic predecessors, Sly Stone's There's a Riot Goin' On and Tricky's Maxinquaye, Black Up feels like a personal statement as much as a sludgy funk fantasia. "Clear some space out so we can space out," goes the chorus of "Recollections of the wraith." Well put.

Beyond the 4th Door

Eternal Tapestry

This Portland, Oregon, rock trio has been soundtracking imaginary Jodorowsky movies for years. Their debut for Thrill Jockey mines several decades of out-sound and manages to find new, groovy crevices in those worn, spacey grooves. The trio occasionally serves as the backing band for Tom Greenwood's Jackie O Motherfucker, and you can hear why in the 10 1/2-minute "Reflections in a Mirage." But though it may bear a passing sonic similarity, Tapestry's take on droning experimentalism is so much better — it's more accessible, and fun. — Mike McGonigal

Dylan Carlson has been leading Earth down the same Dead Man-esque — as in Neil Young's spooky Jim Jarmusch score — path for more than five years now. And while all of the band's post-Hex albums have been essential listening, Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light I is downright stunning, full of tumbleweed tropes that make riding off into the sunset sound as hip and heavy as an old Morricone soundtrack. To top it all off, we still have the second half of this sprawling set to look forward to in 2012, as it was originally intended as a double LP.

Just when you think Sarabeth Tucek's music sounds too softly sweet to be much more than a drowsy coffee house diversion, she uses a particularly evocative image ("State I Am In") or a swell of electric guitar ("Wooden") to jolt through herbal tea reveries. Her second solo album is fueled by grief over her father's sudden death, so yes, Get Well Soon is sad, but it never cloys — Tucek's clear, cutting vocals transcend mope music. There are countless numbers of singer/songwriters with acoustic guitars and issues to work out; Sarabeth Tucek is one who deserves your attention.

From the very second Tamer Animals fades into focus, it's as if Other Lives are out to deliver one of the year's most richly detailed records; a flawless, filler-free set of spellbound songs that'll make anyone with a pulse feel sudden pangs of loss and regret. If you understand the appeal of artists like Fleet Foxes but leave their LPs feeling a bit empty, this record will fill that void with what essentially amounts to a well-edited vocal version of Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Meaning: music that moves you, even if you can't quite put your finger on why.

The word critics most often use to describe Mike Watt's music is "elliptical", which should give you some idea just how difficult describing his music is. Ever since his time as bassist for punk/funk legends Minutemen, Watt has specialized in music of evasion. Most punk rock barrels forward; his music is a constant sideways skitter. His songs never take the straight route, but they still manage to get where they're going faster than anyone else, depositing a few unlodgeable sounds in your ear and disappearing all in the elapsed time it takes for you to mutter, "Huh?"

No one can maintain that kind of high-step forever. Mike Watt is 53 now, and hyphenated-man, his new solo record, is a meditation on that truth, a punk-rock lifer's shit-eating-grin look at mortality. A lot of aging men in rock make this record eventually, the one that takes baleful stock of their accumulated scars, settles debts, issues pronouncements. The "Regrets? I've had a few" record. Often, they sag under the leaden weight of their subject matter.

But not Mike Watt's version — his is, well, more elliptical. There are myriad ways to moan "I'm gettin' old" in rock 'n' roll, but nobody else has done so by writing 30 songs dedicated to individual figures in Hieronymous Bosch's gruesome Renaissance triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights. The titles describe the figures: "belly-stabbed-man," "pinned-to-the-table-man," "head-and-feet-only-man." The lyrics, however, are startlingly direct and personal: On "antlered-man," he sings wryly, "When I was younger, tried to act like something stronger/ But the ego, it just won't let go," encouraging himself to "get naked, let weakness show." As is usually the case with Watt's work, what looks wildly counterintuitive on paper turns out to be, for him, somehow the shortest distance from A to B.

Apart from the words, his voice betrays the years: It has acquired a beer gut and a permanent sunburn, full of the crags and pits that come from decades of "jamming econo." But the antic rhythms haven't flagged a step. Many critics have faltered in conveying this experience, but here goes: It's like riding shotgun in a dune buggy down the sheer side of a rocky cliff, gripping the handles while Watt shouts factoids about the native flora and fauna into your ear. It's thrilling, queasy, and disorienting; it's packed with information and over too soon; and the minute you make it down alive, you want to start over.

Toby Twining is a hauntingly pure-voiced singer from Texas who layers his birds-egg fragile, Antony-high voice into mini-choirs and makes records that sound like modern madrigals. There is a chanting-beneath-the-waves feel to his latest record, Eurydice, that will easily hook the ear of those interested in Julianna Barwick or Tune-Yards. Twining artfully twists and manipulates his vocals so that they sound like a lot of things - pipe organs, French horns, wah-wah-ing guitars. It's often hard to discern his voice from the few spare instruments that creep into the mix. The result is disarmingly beautiful and subtly, pleasantly mind-bending.

Trash Hit

Mr. Dream

The new Brooklyn band Mr. Dream has chosen to pick up and wield an old, little-used old shard of '90s alternative rock: the leering, misanthropic mongoloid stomp of the Jesus Lizard. It is a shrewd moment to revive this particular roar, as the current indie rock landscape is mostly devoid of leering, locker-shoving bullies. But the best compliment one could pay Mr. Dream's debut album Trash Hit is to say that it would stand up just as well if it were released in the heyday of Lizard and the Melvins. The guitars lurch queasily in various stages of brutal down-tuning; the drums hit with bone-cracking force; and lead vocalist Adam Moerder howls and cackles with the gleeful, mad-professor mien of someone who has glimpsed the bloody end and cannot stop giggling.

Conquering Animal Sound is made up of just two people, Anneke and James who, according to their Tumblr, "make music in their flat every day." And that's exactly what Kammerspiel sounds like: small, delicate, hand-crafted songs that move like the tiny ballerinas atop miniature music boxes. The music is spare — tiny, tinkling bells, quiet xylophones, a few whispery clicks and snaps — and Anneke's childlike voice seems simultaneously full of wonder and caution. "Flinch" is built from plinking plastic pianos and odd snatches of percussion, "Tracer" is shivery and quiet, a low bass hum and sporadic synths that blink like distant airplanes. This is warm, deliberate music, as gentle as a lullaby, as soft as falling snow.

The influx of bands worshipping at the altar of C86 has been so overwhelming over the course of the last few years that Simon Reynolds < "a href=http://www.amazon.com/Retromania-Pop-Cultures-Addiction-Past/dp/0865479941">wrote a book about it (sort of). But Irish group Girls Names offer good reason to set aside your reservations about reverb for at least 28 minutes. There's an undeniable spookiness to these songs, Neil Brogan's voice seeming like it's echoing back from across the river Styx. The band balances that bleakness, though, with a batch of bounding guitars and booming rhythms beat out mostly on a bass drum. Songs like "I Lose" rush forward breathlessly, while the sad-eyed Brogan bellows Eeyore-like in the background. In 1995, the Pizzicato Five wrote a song called "Happy Sad." Sixteen years later, Girls Names take its title as marching orders.