I heard a motherlode of great local music in the last twelve months, so much so that compiling anything resembling a Top 10 list damn near ached. I eschewed sticking with an all-Seattle roster, going instead with my gut and using the most basic of criteria: Namely, picking the ten 2011 Northwest releases that I listened to–and enjoyed–the most. Full-length albums and EPs were considered.
Please don’t expect anything resembling a grand, overarching view of this region’s musical tapestry for the year. If something’s not on this list, it’s most likely because: a) it wasn’t actually released in 2011; b) I resisted the urge to do a Northwest Top 20 list; or c) I was too damned senile to remember it. Enclosed, please find my heartfelt recommendations; and please go online (or into that arcane temple known as Your Local Music Store) to buy some of this music if you like it.
My Favorite Northwest Music Releases (in Order):
10) Between the Bed Sheets and the Turpentine, Carrie Clark and the Lonesome Lovers (Red Bug Records): Clark writes weep-in-your-beer alt-country and folk songs as well as anybody in Seattle, but it’s her’s and the Lovers’ expansive vision beyond the Americana picket fence that makes Between the Bed Sheets and The Turpentine such a great surprise. Here’s a so-called roots band that tackles several unexpected turns (deliciously-teetering cabaret pop on “Bum Bah Dum,” epic psychedelia on “Down at my Knees”)–and nails them.
9) My Goodness, My Goodness (Sarathan): Joel Schneider and Ethan Jacobsen capture their unholy Sonics-meets-Zep-in-a-barroom-brawl live sound on record, sublimely.
8) Dirty Radio, Sallie Ford and the Sound Outside (Partisan Records): The Sound Outside’s rockabilly sound chugs out of Portland with a jumpy energy that transcends retro tropes, and Ford’s voice–a wonderfully strange weld of Wanda Jackson’s rockabilly yelp and Billie Holliday’s alien sexiness–rewards adventurous ears the way a really great mixed drink rewards the senses.
7) Reptilians, Starfucker (Polyvinyl Record Co.): Life is short, and Starfucker’s Josh Hodges knows it. A profound awareness of mortality courses through Hodges’ songwriting on Reptilians, but the insistently percolating wall of synths and percussion generated by this Portland band never lets you forget that life’s as sweet as it is fleeting.
6) Valley of the Headless Men, Ravenna Woods (self-released): I could prattle on and on about Chris Cunningham’s breathtaking acoustic-guitar picking, Brantley Duke’s surreal and eerie instrumental contributions, and Matt Badger’s restless and inventive percussion. But when Cunningham, Duke, and Badger sigh out harmonies and bark out chants above the haunted thrum of this brilliant EP, I’m too busy running headlong into the alluring darkness to analyze anything.
5) Ministry of Kultur, Kultur Shock (Kultur Shock Records): Gino Yevdjevich and his Seattle-based gang of gypsy hooligans enlisted the mighty Jack Endino to produce their latest long-player, combining the band’s whirling-dervish exoticism with a Hammer-of-Thor crunch that definitively captures their live sound. A ferocious, robust, saber-dancing, steel-toed gypsy boot of a record.
4) Black Up, Shabazz Palaces (Sub Pop): Only Seattle could’ve birthed a hip-hop record like this–sonically dense, surreal, catchy, sprawling, and utterly unpredictable. Time will tell if it becomes some sort of game-changing, genre-transcending milestone, but it sure as hell sounds like one from this cramped perspective. The headiest trip down a sonic rabbithole I heard all year.
3) Ernie Chambers v. God, Virgin Islands (Mt. Fuji Records): Bands with the guts to take bold jabs at socio-political injustices are rare birds today: Bands that do so with this kind of scalpel-sharp ferocity and a tackle-box full of hooks are one in a million. Somewhere in the Great Beyond, Joe Strummer’s smiling a crooked smile in approval at this awe-inspiringly sharp art-punk masterwork.
2) Myths CD, Pickwick (self-released): Damn, these cuts sound rough. With their echoey and slightly muddy production, they’re mere sketches compared to the soulful dramatic paintings that Pickwick’s been rendering live on Seattle stages all year (yes, that low-fi muddiness may be partly intentional, but it sells lead singer Galen Disston’s dynamic voice short). Good thing the songs preserved on this release are so damned great; irresistible, passionately played, and richly evocative of vintage Motown/Stax sounds without descending into placid imitation. It’s great to have all of these songs in one place (or on one hard-drive, or something), and I can hardly wait to hear the magic that arises when they hit a real studio for their follow-up.
1) After Nights Without Sleep, Curtains for You (Spark and Shine Records): I’ve been on the pulpit for these guys for awhile now; but this stunningly-realized third full-length still stands as the finest pure-pop record released by anyone, anywhere, this year.