2011 Wrap Up

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Toasting goodbye with four reviews and a top 25 list.

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Anthony Mark Happel | December 29, 2011

Welcome to the 2011 Black Orchid wrap-up. Yes, 2011, we’re going to remember you for a while. Starting with the earthquake in Chile through the death of Steve Jobs, it has been a year of watershed moments, and extremes. Representative Gabrielle Giffords was shot while talking with her constituents, the Arab Spring materialized all over the Middle East, we were hit by a debt ceiling crisis/fiasco unlike any before, the Occupy Wall Street Movement went global and the Packers won the Super Bowl. Wow!

With all that in mind, I realize that year-end music lists might seem frivolous or unimportant on some level. But my response to that would be to quote Nietzsche, who said, “Without music, life would not be worth living.” No matter what is going on in the world, or what kind of anguish is troubling you, music can act as a psychological and spiritual healer. To be able to lose your conscious self in a song or a passage of music is one of the mystifying things about being human and being alive. It is part of what makes us alive, the ability to feel and comprehend something in our brains and souls that exists as amorphous waves in the air outside of us. Music is the sublime language of the universe. The rhythms of life are music. Music is who we are as human beings, underneath everything else.

Year-end best of lists do tend to be exercises in musical masturbation wherein someone offers up a list of personal favorites that represent an extremely narrow perspective and that is supposed to capture the entire year’s worth of music. I usually try to avoid that trap and present as broad and diverse a list as I can muster, but this year I’m doing something different. I’m offering my favorites, damn the torpedoes, with some emphasis on the stuff I covered for Impose. There are some albums that would have made the cut if they weren’t already appearing on the lists of many others (Cloud Nothings, Thee Oh Sees). Check out the excellent Impose Best Music of 2011 list.

Just before sitting down to write this I was reading the USA Today and I glanced at the music charts. The Top 40 is the first chart you see: Rihanna, LMFAO, Katy P, Bruno Mars, Flo Rida Kelly Clarkson… ad infinitum. The Urban chart: Beyonce and her hubby and his friend, Drake (twice), J. Cole (twice) Chris Brown, Young Jeezy… And as for the Active Rock chart: Chevelle, Nickelback, Bush, Staind, Korn… What the hell year is it again? My God, people! What has happened to us? We need help, desperately. Maybe 2012 will be a bounce back year for music and politics. Shit can’t get no worse in most quarters.
Be forewarned. There’s no Jay-Z and Kanye, no A$AP Rocky, no Radiohead, no Wild Flag, no Destroyer and no Rihanna anywhere on my list. There wasn’t any new heavy metal that did much for me either. Call it what you want, but so much of today’s post-black metal and death metal is the same laborious, theatrical riffing/ranting we’ve been hearing for about a decade, with little or no imagination whatsoever. Sorry to be a buzzkill, but a change-up is due in the metal world.
As I agonized over the dozen records that were vying for the title of “album of the year” in my mind I made a bold decision and went with two that reached me about the same time and then proceeded to bowl me over. Total Babes and Turf War, both on Old Flame Records, released albums that were overloaded with great songs and all sorts of crazy, free radical energy. They’re both a hell of a lot of fun, and you can go back to them repeatedly and they continue to morph and expand. There are a few labels with more than one entry on my list, and that is rare indeed. I recommend checking out anything on those labels. Also included here is a review of a Factory Records compilation of 80s tracks and a wild (and historically significant) collection of 70s Iranian pop-rock on Vampisoul. Thanks, as always, for reading. See ya in 2012.

Total Babes, Swimming Through Sunlight (Old Flame)

Pitchfork called this Cleveland-area band “wildly infectious,” and after hearing “Rot Away” with its brilliantly simple rhythms and catchy, distorted vocals you can understand why. Originally it was singer/guitarist Chris Brown and Cloud Nothings drummer Jasyn Gerycz just jamming, but the songs came unexpectedly and they went with it. They were eventually joined by Cloud Nothings guitarist Joe Boyer and bassist Gary Spolarich and they became a viable live entity. Jacked-up and revved up, with a strong melodic sensibility going on underneath the racket, they absolutely fucking kill it on nearly every song. “Like They Always Do” is high energy lo-fi of the first order. “Be So True” is like an early 60s pop-punk throwback complete with backing vocal “oohs…,” and it reminded me of some of the great 90s bands that were mashing up these same raw influences. It’s gnarly and rough around the edges, but even the guitar breaks lock onto a hook and carry it along. And it’s a fine musical example of the shortest distance between two points. It’s interesting to note how much “power-pop” actually owes to the mods, historically speaking. I can hear all kinds of formative 60s tropes here that emerge in a flash and then they’re gone. “Give Me Nothing” sounds like a dozen different bands at any given moment. Upon first listen it popped up as an immediate dark horse contender for best albums of 2011.

Turf War, Years of Living Dangerously (Old Flame)

Whoa, hey! Almost fell off the chair when this thing hit me. I wasn’t expecting much from this Atlanta band that began as a “bedroom project” for singer John Robinson, but, boy howdy, was I wrong. The Black Lips’ Ian St. Pe fell in lust with these lads upon meeting them and jumped in to produce this album, and after you hear them it’s not a huge surprise as to why he did so, either in terms of musical content or overall quality of presentation. The Black Lips are definitely a touchstone, among other notables, but it’s an amorphous connection, and TW are already an exceptional standalone musical entity. They shine like mad on their own, and their songs all have an urgency, and a nearly irresistible, universally appealing garage-rock quality. They rarely ever miss the bull’s eye. The bright flash of “For The Last Time” is mildly anthemic and makes hay right away, but it’s only the beginning as the obtuse, hidden hooks just keep surfacing on song after song. It leans back into retro-mode with occasional nostalgic trappings (chord progressions, lyrical passages) while somehow always going forward; and they ride the edge of smart, sarcastic rock delinquency /fun as well as any band out there right now. “Where I Belong” and “A Little Harder This Time” are effortlessly cool and laid back, while also making their messy musical point quite precisely. Ironies and paradoxes abound on Years of Living Dangerously. It’s a stunningly good record, and TW has already left a noticeable mark in the dirt. This is one of the best bands in America.

Various Artists, FAC.DANCE: Factory Records 12” Mixes & Rarities 1980-87 (Strut)

This is a moderately satisfying 2-disc, 24-track collection of a few of the well-known Factory bands: Section 25, A Certain Ratio and Durutti Column, along with some lesser-knowns, at least as far as American audiences are concerned, like Royal Family & The Poor and Streetlife. It’s a hodgepodge of sounds, with a few lengthier remixes, and some original versions, and some of the songs just don’t survive as well as others. New Order’s “Confusion” is obviously a post modern classic, with a unique timelessness all its own, like the rest of their music. The same goes for Swamp Children’s “You’ve Got Me Beat,” which rises above the cut-out bin. But 80s music, by its very nature, often feels time-centric, dated and over-processed, partly due to prevailing trends and limits in technology at the time, and that’s the case with a lot of what’s going on here. That impacts how we all have come to hear 80s music nowadays. The synth sounds are just too quaint and precious sometimes, but if you can get past that there is a whole musical language underneath it all. It’s a “prisoner of the moment” kind of thing, and you either love it or you don’t.

Various Artists, Rangarang: Pre-Revolutionary Iranian Pop (Vampisoul)

This 28-track, 2-CD/3-LP collection is a peek into a musical world that completely evaporated, and it’s a fascinating piece of history. During the 1960s/70s, prior to the creation of the Islamic Republic of Iran following the Islamic Revolution, the Shah of Iran was a promoter of modernization over traditional Persian culture, and partly as a result an Iranian pop-rock music industry flourished for many years. After the Islamic Revolution overthrew the Shah “having fun” was banned, not only as a part of music’s “controversial status” in Islam, but also as part of an all-out attack on the Shah’s monarchy and all it represented. Most of these artists just “disappeared” after the revolution. A singer named Shohreh was on tour in the U.S. at the time and she was never allowed to return to Iran. Those who stayed in the country were coerced into signing declarations stating they would give up their musical careers and never perform again. This compilation is all over the stylistic map, so to speak, from soul to light jazz, funk rock to cocktail lounge-pop, but the musicality comes through loud and clear. Some of it is cheesy, and some of it is clearly intended as an homage to western pop sounds and arrangements. The quirky pop of “Dokhtare Shab” by Mehrpouya is excellent, with some amazing vocal work. Leila Forouhar’s “Moama” is swell 60s gangsta chic, like something from an Iranian James Bond soundtrack. Pooran’s “Shahre Paiz” has a wilder, psychedelic quality than most of the other tracks, and is quite well done. And “Asemoni,” by Hamid Shabkhiz, is slick and funky and catchy as all get out. Vampisoul has accomplished something profound by unearthing and re-releasing this overflowing wealth of good material. It was definitely worth saving from complete obscurity. What occurred in Iran in the late 70s is unprecedented on planet earth, both in terms of the inherently strange religious/revolutionary politics involved, and also what it did to a vital cultural community and a country. While politics continues to tear us apart, this stuff is proof of how much we all really have in common as human beings.

MY FAVORITE ALBUMS OF 2011:

01. Kurt Vile – Smoke Ring For My Halo (Matador)
02. Wooden Wand & The Briarwood Virgins – Briarwood (Fire)
03. Meredith Bragg – Nest (The Kora)
04. John Martyn – Heaven and Earth (Hole In The Rain)
05. I Was Totally Destroying It – Preludes (Greyday)
06. Chris Mills – Heavy Years: 2000-2010 (Ernest Jennings)
07. Turf War – Years of Living Dangerously (Old Flame)
08. Ryan Adams – Ashes & Fire (PAX-AM)
09. Run Dan Run – Normal (Self-released)
10. Total Babes – Swimming Through Sunlight (Old Flame)
11. Wire Tree – Make Up (Self-released)
12. Slide To Freedom – 20,000 Miles (Northern Blues)
13. The Piney Gir Roadshow – Jesus Wept (Greyday)
14. Fucked Up – David Comes To Life (Matador)
15. Prophets & Kings – S/T (Self-released)
16. DMZ – Radio Demos/Lyres – Live At Cantones 1982 (Munster)
17. Chelsea Wolfe – Apokalypsis (Pendu)
18. Dan Mangan – Oh Fortune (Arts & Crafts)
19. White Orange – S/T (Made In China)
20. Funky Frauleins: Female Beat, Groove, Disco, funk in Germany 1968-1981 (Grosse Freiheit)
21. Jen Shy & Mark Dresser – Synastry (Pi)
22. People’s Temple – Sons Of Stone (HoZac)
23. Loney Dear – Hall Music (Polyvinyl)
24. Orchestra of Spheres – Nonagonic Now (Fire)
25. Night Genes – Like The Blood (Self-released)*

*This album is slated to be released in the U.S. in January 2012, but the CD is dated 2011, so that qualifies for the purpose of this list.

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