Here we are in the last week of 2011, which means it’s time for all of us who have been reviewing stuff since last January to start publishing our lists. While completely subjective, the only reason for publishing them is to take one last stab at convincing you to give the items listed a listen. So for what it’s worth here are the discs released in 2011 that I like the most. This year there were more than ten, so in no particular order, here are my favourite 11 releases from the past 12 months.
Hank Williams III – Ghost to A Ghost & Guttertown Greatness must skip a generation, because unlike his father Hank Williams III manages to genuinely capture the spirit of the original Hank’s music. While they may have very little in common musically, both the grandfather and the grandson have that raw, rebellious nature to their music that makes it vital and alive. Hank Williams’ music was among the first steps towards rock and roll, so who knows what Hank III’s will lead to. Difficult to listen to at times, but never boring, Hank Williams III is a refreshing change of pace from the rhinestone shclock that passes itself off a country music these days.
Azim Ali – From Night to the Edge Of Day This collection of Middle Eastern lullabies is a chance to hear one of popular music’s truly beautiful voices. Unlike those who mistake a screechy falsetto for emotional intensity, Ali effortlessly soars from one end of her extensive vocal range to the other. Whether singing in her native Farsi, Turkish, or Arabic, she manages to convey the emotional depth of each song through intonation and tone. Not only is her performance wonderful, the collection is an opportunity to sample the diversity of music and poetry of the Middle East.
Bobban & Marko Markovic Orchestra & Fanfare Ciocarlia – Balkan Brass Battle Every year the great German label Asphalt Tango, which specializes in music from Eastern Europe and especially music of the Roma, puts out at least one recording that will knock your socks off. This year involved putting the two forces of nature passing as brass bands, The Bobban & Marko Markovic Orchestra and Fanfare Ciocarlia, into a recording studio together and telling them to try and outperform each other. The result is beyond belief as they trade boasts, insults, and music. This is brass band music for people who don’t like brass bands, as it takes the instruments and the sounds they make to another dimension. The only thing better than this CD would be seeing the two bands live, so if you happen to be in Europe in the near future and hear about a Balkan Brass Battle playing anywhere near you, check it out. You won’t be disappointed.
Erdem Helvacioglu & Ros Bandt – Black Falcon The words electronic music always make people think of banks of computers and synthesizers. So this album will come as something of a surprise with Bandt’s use of traditional plucked stringed instruments. However Helvacioglu has been making what he calls acoustic electronic music for a while now. The electronics are used to both digitally modify the sounds and to create base tracks which allow him and others to improvise with their own work. The results are always fascinating and, in the case of Black Falcon, hauntingly beautiful. In Helvacioglu’s hands, electronics are instruments to be incorporated into the final composition, not just toys to be played with, and the results speak for themselves.
Flogging Molly – Speed Of Darkness Once in a while a band comes along that reaches out and grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go until the disc is done. Flogging Molly’s mix of traditional Celtic folk, punk rock sensibilities and social political awareness take you on a ride you won’t soon forget. Intelligent lyricsthat address our worries about the future, but never give up hope for a better tomorrow, are accompanied by tight and energetic musicianship. These guys are great on disc; I can only imagine what it would be like to see them in concert.
Grayson Capps – The Lost Cause Minstrels If you can imagine an old time Southern revival meeting where instead of singing prayers the music is about honky-tonks, hookers, drunks and bootleggers you’ll be part way to picturing the music of Gryason Capps and The Lost Cause Minstrels. With music that’s as rich and varied as the history and people he sings about. Capps has created an album as diverse as the South itself. Rock and roll as well as country and blues sound like they’ve been stewed over an open fire under a full moon with lyrics woven out of the fabric of real people’s lives. Part storyteller and part poet, Capps is one of the most spellbinding performers you’ll hear in a long time, and this disc is another in a long line of great releases.
Jordi Savall & Various Artists – Hispania & Japan: Dialogues The idea of finding anything in common between Japanese and Spanish music is just a little hard to believe. However, cellist and composer Jordi Savall has made a career out of reaching back in time to bring unusual musical collaborations to life, and this disc is no exception. Based on choral pieces and other religious music brought to Japan in the sixteenth century by Portuguese missionaries, this recording features traditional musicians from Japan and classical musicians from Spain collaborating to recreate and reinterpret this music. Taking scores that were first written down in the 1600s as their foundation, the results are both beautiful and revealing. It’s amazing how common ground between two such apparently diverse cultures doesn’t appear to be difficult to find–something we could all learn a lesson from.
Mariachi El Bronx – Mariachi El Bronx II A punk band doing Mariachi music? The only thing stranger than that would be if they did it completely straight without any concessions to contemporary music. Guess what – that’s exactly what the punk band Bronx has done. This is a great album of Mariachi music done with traditional instruments and with great verve and style. The only thing separating them from a Hispanic band is the lyrics are all in English, but aside from that you’d be hard pressed to find anything about this band and this recording that doesn’t ring true. Mariachi El Brox is not a novelty act, but they play pure and wonderful Mariachi music. Enjoy their album with your favourite tequila.
Marianne Faithfull – Horses and High Heels If there’s anyone deserving of the title “The Grand Old Dame Of Rock and Roll” it would be Marianne Faithfull. With her distinctive growl firmly in place, she can still sing circles around most of the so called “stars” out there. Sure her range is limited, but she does more with what she has than anyone else could even dream of doing. Horses and High Heels is a great recording by a great artist.
Susan McKeown – Singing in the Dark Mental illness is probably one of the few taboo subjects left in modern society. By delving into the history of music and poetry, McKeown not only shines a spotlight on the subject; she underlines its connection with the creative mind. How many artistic geniuses have been suppressed because they’ve been misunderstood and diagnosed as mentally ill? She doesn’t shy away from the dark side of the subject either. The material she’s chosen to interpret makes no bones about the fine line between the light of inspiration and the darkness of depression artists walk, and she takes great pains not to romanticize the subject. Of course the music is also beautiful and her voice is amazing. As a result this collection will not only stir your soul–it will make you think.
Tinariwen – Tassili From the first time I heard them, Tinariwen have been one of my favourite bands. The combination of electric blues guitar and traditional drums is mesmerizing. With this release, they’ve pushed both deeper back into their traditions and reached out further into modern pop. Recorded with entirely acoustic instruments from a base camp deep in their native Saharan desert, they’ve also expanded their sound with guest musicians from North America for the first time. The Dirty Dozen Brass Band from New Orleans and Tunde Adebimpe of TV On The Radio supply instrumental and vocal support respectively on a couple of songs without being jarring or incongruous. Tassili perfectly exemplifies how a band can stay true to their traditions while preventing their music from stagnating.
Willie Nile – The Innocent Ones Willie Nile has been kicking around the music industry for so long that he does what he wants to do and doesn’t worry about what anybody else has to say about it. It’s too bad more people don’t have that confidence, as this is as fine a collection of popular music as you’ll have heard in a long time. He does everything equally well, with an exuberance that puts most acts to shame. Always a joy to listen to, Nile’s latest is both topical and musically interesting. If you want to be reminded what rock and roll music is, check out this disc.