Critic's Notebook: A midyear look at some of the best music of 2011 (so far)
It doesn’t make sense in 2011 to try and count the number of CDs released because doing so is only one measure of the volume. Toss in mixtapes, thumb drives, vinyl, Bandcamp pages, Twitter links to Mediasphere downloads, streams, rips, .zips and 12-inches, and the bounty is so rich that the notion of an annual year-end round-up seems a woefully inadequate tool.
As a way of attempting to appreciate where we’ve been this year at midpoint, what follows is a personal list of essential recordings released so far in 2011, one that no doubt contains a glaring oversight or two and is limited mostly to officially sanctioned, record label affiliated recordings.
Jessica Lea Mayfield, “Tell Me”
The British-born Adele may be getting all the attention for her merging of soul, rock, r&b and country, but another young singer, Jessica Lea Mayfield, has released an equally assured Muscle Shoals-inspired soul album.
Mayfield , who grew up onstage as part of a traveling family bluegrass group, fell in with with Black Keys singer/guitarist Dan Auerbach when both were living in Akron, Ohio, and the two began collaborating. Auerbach produced “Tell Me,” Mayfield’s major label debut for Nonesuch, with a wood-paneled warmth that suggests Dusty Springfield’s “Dusty in Memphis” with a little bit of Nashville twang mixed in. Mayfield’s ability to capture private vignettes and draw them with unguarded honesty makes “Tell Me” essential listening. It’s rough and honest, strong but also delicate and vulnerable
King Creosote and Jon Hopkins, “Diamond Mine”
Here is a quiet 32-minute, seven-song cycle composed by Scottish songwriter Kenny Anderson – stage name King Creosote -- and arranged by British electronic composer Jon Hopkins. Creosote has been releasing music in Scotland, 40-odd albums worth, to little American interest for more than a decade, and has a voice that deserves a wider audience, even if this isn’t happy-go-lucky music.
On the gorgeous “Your Own Spell,” Creosote sings in a delicate tenor as Hopkins’ slow, heavy arrangement moves like a storm cloud through the words: “Arriving late to church, your dress is soaked, don’t you look miserable,” less Morrissey than pastoral Paul McCartney. Hopkins, best known for his work with Brian Eno on last year’s “Small Craft on a Milk Sea,” treats Anderson’s graceful voice with affection and admiration, and the result is an impressionistic song cycle about months at sea, silver sideburns, and dry white roses.
So much has been written about Adele over the past few months, including by me, but any list of the year’s most engaging records would fall short without acknowleging “21,” the second album by the 23-year-old superstar. It's the little things on “21” that deserve applause: the handclaps during “Rumor Has It,” wonderfully human in their looseness; the romantic strings and an easy-going demeanor of “Lovesong,” like a lost Sade classic; and “Rolling in the Deep” is already a standard. Not bad for a second album.
Frank Ocean, “Nostalgia, Ultra” (self-release)
This time last year, the r&b singer and songwriter had a label deal with Universal but wasn’t the label’s top priority, to say the least. Then the New Orleans-born, L.A.-based Ocean, the singing (and least offensive) member of the Odd Future hip hop collective, served up witty, intricate, post R. Kelly-narratives on “Nostalgia, Ultra” for free on the group’s Tumblr site. The resultant raves prompted Universal’s Def Jam imprint to officially issue “Nostalgia/Ultra” in late July.
Ocean is fearless, and has great intuition when singing his stories, which he does over a combination of new beats and recognizable samples including, most unlikely, the Eagles’ “Hotel California,” which he transforms into the melancholy divorce song, “American Wedding.” “It’s an American wedding,” he sings, “they don't mean too much, but we were so in love.” Alongside Gram Parson's “$1000 Wedding,” it’s one of the the saddest matrimony songs to ever come out of Los Angeles.
James Pants, James Pants (Stone’s Throw)
It's tough to explain the allure of James Pants to doubters. His music is certainly an either-you-get-it-or-you-don't proposition, and convincing anyone that the Austin one-man-band that his weird wood-paneled indie disco funk is worth paying attention is futile if the listener isn’t interested in delving into the stranger corners of tastes. If so, you may hear the sound of an expert craftsman at work building dance tracks and mutilated meanderings that mix up a whole bunch of references.
“Clouds Over the Pacific” sounds like a Mark Mothersbaugh track from the “Rushmore” score as interpreted by a drunken Human League. The B-52 and Prince jam with Donkey Kong. Rick James is involved. What’s exciting about Pants’ pastiche, though, is how inticately arranged it is. To call it low fi would be to mislabel it; it’s more that Pants has invented “other-fidelity,” a flat, unlayered sonic creation that sounds like 1970s FM radio recorded onto cassette and baked in the sun for a few minutes.
PJ Harvey, “Let England Shake” (Vagrant)
Those searching for a singer to tackle hard subjects and to create a cohesive artistic statement over the length of an album should track down Harvey's eighth solo recording, an anti-war album, a meditation on a declining British empire, a searing look into Western foreign policy and its effects on the the world.
Sounds thick, yes, but Harvey conveys her frustration with such invention that the lyrical indictments arrive on the back of music rich with allusion, aural footnotes and oddly engaging cut-up insertions. With sharp scissors, Harvey cut figures out of the past and pushes them into the present, as in a gung-ho bugle cry on “The Colour of the Earth.” The song “The Words That Maketh Murder” pastes in an Eddie Cochran line from “Summertime Blues” onto a defiant new canvas. “Soldiers fell like lumps of meat,” sings Harvey, “blown and shot out beyond belief/arms and legs were in the trees.” This is war, and few have the courage to look at it clearly right now.
Burial, “Street Halo” (Hyperdub)
London-based beat music producer Burial, born William Bevan, has moved from the realm of slow-burn, suffocating rhythms and, on his recent three-song EP into a strange, ethereal intersection of minimalist techno and British dubstep. He speeds up his normal tempo on “Street Halo,” which features the sampled sound of a female voice, suggesting the influence, or vice versa, of current British It-Boy James Blake. Burial is deeper and scarier than Blake, and on “Street Halo” and the equally haunting (and catchy) “Stolen Dog,” Bevan continues to drive the conversation at the fringes of bass music.
Beastie Boys, “Hot Sauce Committee, Part Two” (Capitol)
Few could have predicted in 1985 that the frat-rap originators would wisen up, straighten out and delve into the most creative parts of their psyches over the next few decades, but “Hot Sauce” proves that the Boys as men can still bring the power, the energy and the smarts to their game – unlike, unfortunately, most of their younger brethren.
This admirably restrained recording uses as its template a more sparse version of a sound the Beasties mastered on “Paul’s Boutique.” The samples and tones are strange and futuristic, the beats heavy and at that usual Beastie Boy pace. This casual confidence makes “Hot Sauce” a keeper, and one of the best summer albums of the year.
Paul Simon, “So Beautiful or So What”
“So Beautiful or So What” surprises not only because the last few Paul Simon releases have been less than dazzling, but, more important, because the songwriter seems to have found a whole other wing to the sound cathedral he started constructing 50 years ago. You can hear it in “Dazzling Blue,” a song that’s lazy in the best way, browsing around inside itself inquisitively, as if to examine the nooks and crannies of its own structure.
Indeed, Simon, like Harvey, has been wandering around in old recordings looking not only for inspiration but actual recorded pieces to weave into his work, one way to acknowledge the shuffle world we live in. “Getting Ready for Christmas Day” which incorporates snippets of a Sunday morning sermon, and “The Afterlife” is already a Simon classic, one that feels both old as the ages and completely of its time.
Cults, Cults, (Columbia)
Cults, of New York City, are a buzz band of the moment, and deservedly so, a duo that wraps sweet, cavernous pop in a scratchy, feedback drenched cloth and enough echo to spook a spelunker. If this sounds like a description of indie sweethearts Best Coast, or San Diegans Wavves, the music that Madeline Follin and Brian Oblivion create is even sturdier. “Walk at Night” should be playing in every lovelorn teenaged girl’s room in America right now, a sweet ode to independence and longing that moves in suprising little directions at every turn. The whole of Cults is like this, a tight, compact pop drama as shouted in a candy factory.
Top Photo: PJ Harvey Credit: Redferns
Second Photo: Adele Credit: Getty Images
Third Photo: James Pants Credit: Kat Pants
Fourth Photo: Beastie Boys Credit: Bertrand Buay / for the Los Angeles Times
Fifth Photo: Cults Credit: Joey Maloney / for the Los Angeles Times