Seems like the major labels will continue to mine the nostalgia angle with the hope that they can squeeze a few more ducats from aging music fans everywhere. Fine by me, if the music merits the "super-deluxe-never-before-heard-or-seen" treatment. And since I've been sucked into that black hole with the Dead, Stones, Rush, Hendrix, Jesus & Mary Chain, et al., I've missed some amazing music and culture this past year. No excuses now as I cram a full year's worth of culture down my gullet before Christmas. You can check out more of my favorite culture from 2011 in these Spring, Summer, and Fall articles.
Mia Doi Todd: Cosmic Ocean Ship (City Zen) - I was struck by her otherworldly vocals after copping her major label debut in 2002. Her ninth effort picks up where her critically acclaimed 2008 self-released effort Gea left off. And it's quite apparent that her time on the road opening for Jose Gonzalez informed the vibe on these worldbeat-infused folk-rock tunes. Perhaps we can expect a full-on collaboration sometime soon?
The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition) - Somehow I avoided this freewheeling classic for many years. One can trace the arc of the Summer of Love in the Bay Area after reading this autobiographical novel blueprint by one of the Beat Generation's most original voices. Buddhism, poetry, hitchhiking, and back-to-nature ethos abounds. I suspect that "Go West, young man" never sounded more enticing to the disfranchised youth of America than after reading this tome.
Black Dub at Webster Hall, June 2011 - I've been a fan of Daniel Lanois's solo efforts since the '80s, but I was not prepared to be so sonically and emotionally overwhelmed by his latest roots-rock meets gospel/R&B-fueled quartet. If you missed a recent appearance on Craig Ferguson, or you've not caught them on tour, the vid below showcases them live in the studio.
The Fall: Ersatz G.B. (Cherry Red Record) - WTF? Mark E. Smith's 29th release? Really? Formed in 1976 in Manchester, England, an acquired taste when he first hit the punk rock scene, championed by the late great John Peel on BBC radio. Cryptic lyrics; abrasive, nasty, and evocative tunes; Smith's nasal vocals floating above the din of noisy guitars, and fractured rhythms never let go.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 2 (Warner Brothers Films) - Am I easily entertained or is this one of the most satisfying movies of the year? You want closure in a film series? Yup, director David Yates delivers. Actors? How often can a movie series boast that the actors actually grew up in each installment and not only maintained their excellence but expanded with their roles. Immense, grandiose, and thoroughly enjoyable; I've watched it several times these past few months and have yet to tire of it.
Jonathan Wilson: Gentle Spirit (Bella Union) - It's not all that difficult to appreciate the artistic integrity of Laurel Canyon's folk-rock music community circa early '70s. Nor is it a stretch to say that it seeped into this transplanted North Carolina singer/songwriter/producer/guitar builder and his music jams he hosted while he lived there. And while he may now reside in Echo Park, the mojo of CSN, Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, and Warren Zevon, et al, has left its mark on his provocative and organic music.
Neil Diamond: The Very Best of Neil Diamond (Sony Legacy) - The man certainly turned out the chart hits back in the day. If you're a youngster and don't know his catalog, this is the place to start. Twenty-three tasty tunes, all of them easily digestible and dynamic sing-along pop rock. The original "I'm a Believer" remastered in glorious mono may be even better than The Monkees' cover. Ditto for "Solitary Man," "Cherry Cherry" and "Red Red Wine."
Chinglish by David Henry Hwang - Many ways to deceive in business, love, and awkward social settings. Award-winning playwright David Henry Hwang explores them all in this East-meets-West, thinking-man's dramatic comedy. Cleverly staged as projected Chinese subtitles are woven into the rich dialog of the Asian and American cast within a revolving set that all add up to the thrill of this theatrical staging. Worth the sadly bloated Broadway ticket price.
The War on Drugs: Slave Ambient (Secretly Canadian) - Philly-based Kurt Vile and Adam Granduciel side project cops a Mogwai/Spiritualized-shoegazer, Dylan vibe and doesn't need to offer any apologies about that hybrid either. It's pretty compelling and catchy space rock even if the Dylan reference has more to do with Adam's nasal, whiny vocals.
The Lawless: Habit Forming (Mille Plateaux Organic) - One of my favorite electronica labels releases another classic. One would think that these tunes may have found their way out of a Tarrantino film or Morricone score, but not so. U.K.-based Ross McLean has crafted a superlative album of timeless music even playing most of the instruments -- bass, guitar, drums, piano, keyboards, accordion, flutes, glockenspiel, percussion, and backing vocals.
Jimson: Bee Stings & Broken Hearts (MusicOfJimson.com) - Nashville-based singer/songwriter Christopher James enlisted the aid of multi-instrumentalist/producer/k.d. lang bassist Lex Price on his self-released debut CD. A very wise move, as they seem the perfect complement to each other. Suffice to say, I'm hooked on his dreamy, pastoral alt folk-rock. You will be, too.
P.J. Harvey: Let England Shake (Vagrant) - I confess, I've got a man-crush on Ms. Harvey. Happenstance a few years back, I stood next to her at a Calexico gig at Irving Plaza and I was absorbed by her energy via osmosis. Truth be told, I was already a fan of her music since her crackling debut Dry in '92. This album smolders with that same energy -- feminine mystique, enveloping me, cradling me, nurturing me into submission. It matters not that this is her crowning achievement, her homage to her motherland. I can only suckle, nourished and satiated by her majestic poetry.
Real Estate: Days (Domino) - A nod and a wink to The Feelies; fellow New Jersey rockers have big shoes to fill if they think they can bump them from my favorite Garden State band perch. But you know what? Their second proper album is pretty damn fine, regardless. You like jangly R.E.M.-like guitars and propulsive drums? Check. And check out their Shins homage "It's Real" and try not to be swept away on arpeggiated guitar hooks.
The Who: Quadrophenia Deluxe Edition (Geffen Records) - This remains my favorite work by Mr. Townsend and his U.K. lads. Bombastic, rockin', and just plain fucking grand. And the movie is equally deserving. Extras offer insight into Pete's work. Not a clunker in the lot. I can't think of a better double rock record ever released. Now when will the film get re-released in theaters on wide screens with quadrophonic sound?
Various Artists: Johnny Boy Would Love This!...A Tribute to John Martyn (Liaison Music) - The peerless U.K. singer/songwriter gets a very deserved two-CD homage from some of contemporary rock's most unique voices including Beth Orton, The Swell Season, David Gray, Snow Patrol, Lisa Hannigan, Paolo Nutini, et al. Rare that a tribute record affords unique interpretations of such amazing music. Emotional depth is reached on Beck's "Stormbringer" and Robert Smith's "Small Life" as they breathe life into their two respective classic tracks.
Blessings to you and yours during the Holidays and the New Year.
Mr. Wright is the former editor-in-chief of Creem and Prince's New Power Generation magazines as well as a writer of films, fiction, and music. He is also a singer/songwriter who has released 4 solo CDs, and a member of the folk-rock quartet GIANTfingers. And before all of this he was a William Morris agent.