My daughter turned 18 months old this week, which means that in 2011 I listened to far more Yo Gabba Gabba and the Fresh Beat Band than any new records that came out this year. Not that I'm complaining. I actually like both shows -- perhaps, I sometimes worry, a little more than even my daughter does. But I still found some time to listen to new music, assuming you count "new" as something released for the first time in the last 12 months, even if it was recorded 50 years ago.
What I'm trying to get at here is that my Top Ten list of the year has very little, if any connection, with what people who still pay attention to the hipster music scene and read the Billboard charts would consider the best records of the year. And to be honest, I don't give a crap. This is the stuff I listened to and loved this year (among others -- props to Paul Simon, the Mekons, Tommy Stinson, Herb Alpert & Lani Hall and many others who would have made my Top Twenty list). If it reveals me to be an old fart, well, the shoe kinda fits at this point. But I still think these records are worth your time and, if you're so inclined, your cash as well. Listen before you judge!
10. MIKE VIOLA - Electro Perfecto (Megaforce). In recent years, this power-popster extraordinaire has gotten more Lennonesque with his direct, blatantly autobiographical lyrics, while taking a McCartneyesque turn towards simple, ultra-catchy, bubblegummy pop. The results have often been brilliant; other times, it's like reading a rhyming diary entry with melodies sugary enough to give you a toothache. On Electro Perfecto, he largely ditches the piano in favor of guitar, ramps up the tempos, and makes the words a little funnier and more clever in an Elvis Costello kind of way. Fans of his '90s work with the Candy Butchers will see this record as a return to form, while those who haven't heard him before will wonder how they missed out for so long.
9. THE DISCIPLINES - Virgins Of Menace (Spark And Shine). If you know Ken Stringfellow from his solo albums or his work with the Posies, check out the snarl and thrash of this high-octane side project. If you've been listening carefully through the years, you know the boy's got some punk rock in his soul behind the high harmonies and sensitive-dude lyrics, and here's all the proof you need. A dozen songs race by in 34 minutes or so, and there's nary a clunker in the bunch. My favorites are "Fate's A Strong Bitch," a vocal battle royale with NYC no-wave heroine Lydia Lunch (both emerge scarred but intact), and "Kill The Killjoy," a melodic, anthemic pop-rocker that's worthy of a soundtrack album or at least a dramatic, plot-driven video. Sadly, it seems that the Disciplines have gone on indefinite hiatus, so this will probably be the last we'll hear of them for a while.
8. THE CHURCHILL DOWNS - The Churchill Downs (Shadoks). It's crazy how much fantastic music from the '60s is still surfacing four-plus decades later. Take this little known band from the Sunset Strip, who recorded 16 tracks in 1967-68 with famed producer Gary Paxton before Uncle Sam intervened -- key members were drafted, which wound up getting the project shelved. It somehow evaded the grasp of all the garage-rock connoisseurs and labels that specialize in unearthing this sort of stuff... until now. What amazes me is not only how good the music is, but how professional it sounds. A good number of these tracks (especially, to my ears, the opener, "Don't Turn The Light Off") sound like Top 40 hits from some alternate universe. A little psychedelic, a little rock, a little pop, and all killer, this is one of those great lost records that really is great.
7. TONY BENNETT - On The Glory Road (Columbia). Speaking of great lost records, here's a doozy for you. Buried in Bennett's new, gargantuan 73 CD/3 DVD Complete Collection box set, On The Glory Road was recorded in 1962, by which time Bennett had already been around for more than a decade. The completed album was ready to ship to stores when a little ditty of his called "I Left My Heart In San Francisco" unexpectedly started zooming up the charts. A new LP, hastily assembled from new and old recordings, was issued instead (and wound up becoming one of the biggest sellers of his career). A few tracks from On The Glory Road wound up coming out elsewhere, but the lion's share of it has never been heard until now. Well, 1962's loss is 2011's gain. Recorded mostly with a small jazz combo, Bennett turns in some stellar performances on both swingers like "Sometimes I'm Happy" and ballads like "You've Changed." But the highlight is "De Glory Road," a wild gospel number that's one of the greatest performances of his career, bar none. I can only hope that On The Glory Road gets a stand-alone release in 2012, but in the meantime, if you've got the bucks and the slightest inclination to buy the box, don't hesitate. You won't be sorry.
6. THE BEACH BOYS - Smile Sessions (Capitol). Forty-four years after rock's most famous unfinished album was shelved, Brian Wilson, the other surviving Beach Boys and Capitol Records have given the story a happy ending. It's not the record that might have come out in 1966 or '67 (although it certainly would have been trippy to put out an LP that took up three sides of vinyl back then). It's not finished -- you can hear the occasional loose end and rough edge here and there, and at least one instrumental track was supposed to have vocals. But what's important is that it now sounds like an album, and a weird, occasionally frustrating, and often brilliant album at that. The 2 CD version, a disc and change of which is session material, may seem like too little. The 5 CD/2 LP/2 45-RPM single version is, frankly, a little much. But the heart of the work, the 19 songs that now make up Smile, are essential whether you're a hardcore Beach Boys fan or, like me, a more casual admirer.
5. MR. HO'S ORCHESTROTICA - The Unforgettable Sounds Of Esquivel (Tiki). Why bother with an album that recreates, note for note, the work of Juan Garcia Esquivel -- the spiritual father of the space-age bachelor pad music revival of the mid '90s? After all, Esquivel's own CDs and records are still easy enough to find, and his brand of swinging, kitschy big-band insanity is as commercially dead as the Macarena. I was more than a tad cynical myself, until I gave this album a listen. Esquivel's albums, recorded in the early days of stereo, had super-wide, extreme mixes that bounce from speaker to speaker like so many ping pong balls. It's pretty cool, but occasionally the mix takes away from what the musicians are actually doing. This album, featuring the original, long-lost arrangements painstakingly recreated by Brian "Mr. Ho" O'Neill and featuring a crack 23-piece big band, employs a much more natural stereo mix, and the result is like watching a favorite black-and-white film in color for the first time. Of course the Orchestrotica's recreation can't replace Esquivel originals like Infinity In Sound, Vol. 2 and Other Worlds, Other Sounds, but this is no mere rehash.
4. MR. HO'S ORCHESTROTICA - Third River Rangoon (Tiki). If you don't know your lounge music, I'm here to tell you that anyone who can do both Esquivel and Martin Denny justice is the musical equivalent of an athlete who can play both baseball and football professionally. Where Esquivel is all over-the-top big-band pyrotechnics, Denny's music (also known as exotica) is mellow, quiet, dreamy, drawing from jazz, pop, classical and "third stream" music. The vast majority of modern-day exotica I've heard gets the tropical vibe right but doesn't have much going on beneath the surface. But Brian O'Neill isn't just a great musician, he's also a first-rate composer -- he wrote seven of the eleven tracks here. Third River Rangoon sounds nifty as the soundtrack to an evening of mai tais, but if you decide to dig deeper and really give it your time and attention, you'll be rewarded in spades. Just about all the original stars of exotica, which peaked in popularity half a century ago, are gone -- here, at last, is their successor.
3. R.E.M. - Collapse Into Now (Warner Bros.). Throughout their career, every R.E.M. album switched gears and tried new flavors, whether it was enunciating lyrics, turning up the guitars, adding string sections, bringing in electronics, you name it. Collapse Into Now, their fifteenth studio album, was the first to not break any new ground, but it was a masterful reassertion of their strengths -- the anthemic rock of "Discoverer," the revved-up thrash of "All The Best," the beautiful understatement of ballads like "Every Day Is Yours To Win" and "Walk It Back," and of course a couple of waltzes (if you didn't notice before, R.E.M. have always been crazy about 3/4 time). When Collapse Into Now came out in March, if felt like, for the first time since original drummer Bill Berry left the fold in 1997, R.E.M. was a cohesive band again. Then in September, when R.E.M. announced their breakup, all the little musical and lyrical clues I'd chosen to overlook became glaringly clear. As far as goodbyes go, this is a brilliant one. But I'm still sad there'll never be anymore hellos from one of the best American bands of the last three decades.
2. THE BEASTIE BOYS - Hot Sauce Committee Pt. 2 (Capitol). There are better rappers out there than the Beastie Boys. There are plenty better funk instrumental bands. And there are definitely superior hardcore bands. But what the Beasties do better than just about anyone is weave those three musical strands together, making brilliant albums which turn their weaknesses into strengths. On their last vocal album, 2004's To The Five Boroughs, they dropped all the musicianly stuff and made a simple, straight-ahead rap album that was their first to fall relatively flat. Hot Sauce Committee Pt. 2, set for release two years ago and delayed because of Adam Yauch's cancer diagnosis, is a giddy, party-hearty return to form. Apart from the occasional cameo by the likes of Nas and Santigold (on two of the album's best tracks, not coincidentally), the Beastie Boys reside in a vaccuum -- ignoring hip-hop's latest trends, making inside jokes and pop culture references going back decades, picking up their instruments when they feel like it, and not seeming to care who gets them and who doesn't. Which is precisely why they have such a large and dedicated fan base after close to thirty years (as Ad-Rock puts it, "Grandpa been rappin' since '83"). They're growing older without getting old, a nifty trick for someone who's been following them since the "Cookie Puss" days.
1. DANGER MOUSE & DANIELE LUPPI - Rome (Capitol). You don't have to be a fan of spaghetti Westerns or Ennio Morricone to love this remarkably faithful homage to Morricone's classic soundtracks of the '60s like The Good, The Bad & The Ugly and A Fistful Of Dollars. It's a beautiful, darkly atmospheric work in its own right, and what makes it more than just a soundtrack-without-a-movie are the six tracks featuring Jack White and Norah Jones. I figured for White to do a bang-up job with his three tracks. But I've also got a newfound appreciation for Jones, who delivers a sultry iciness not on display on her own records. Straddling retro and modern, instrumental and vocal, Rome doesn't sound like anything else that came out this year. And if you ask me, it sounds better than everything else released in 2011.