Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Faves of 2011: Steve Pick

Our tallest employee, and long-time music writer and disc jockey, weighs in on his 20 favorite records released in 2011. The list is in alphabetical order, as he just can't make up his mind how to rank them otherwise.

Gregg Allman - Low Country Blues. He's been out there performing all along, but it had been years since he made a record under his own name. Teamed up with producer T-Bone Burnett and the whole crew of players that comes with that guy, Allman revisits the blues he loved when he was young, and shows that it's still primarily a vocal form, no matter how many talented guitar players you can surround yourself with all your life.

The Bangles - Sweetheart of the Sun. I love the hits as much as the next guy who lived through the 80s, but for me, the Bangles were always among the most exhilarating purveyors of 60s pop pleasures. I mean, come on, "Dover Beach" was my favorite single song of the entire decade back then. Anyway, this really is the second best album they've ever made, which is still impressive even when you consider there are only three that I like less than this one.

Steve Cropper - Dedicated. The guitarist for Booker T & the MG's and a thousand classic Stax/Volt singles has been content to stay in the background for the last 40 years, popping up with the Blues Brothers here, Neil Young there, and then with Felix Cavaliere of all people. But this record, a tribute to the Five Royales with guest vocalists like Sharon Jones, Bettye LaVette, B.B. King, Steve Winwood, and more, is an absolute delight. The songs deserve fresh exposure, because they are among the best 50s rock'n'roll numbers you've never heard.

Dengue Fever - Cannibal Courtship. Just your typical psychedelic alternative rock band with Cambodian pop music roots, I suppose, but the fun to be had listening to this album is anything but ordinary. Songs sung in a language I can't speak are aural bliss; songs sung in English are funny, and full of male-female interaction that actually sounds like real life. All this and you want to dance.

Ha Ha Tonka - Death of a Decade. First of all, there is "Problem Solver," which is the kind of furious, hook-filled rant that I've never failed to love, going back to my adolescent love for Mouth & McNeil's "How Do You Do." Then there's "Usual Suspects," which is almost as good. Then there is the singing, the harmonies, the guitar playing, the arrangements, the songwriting, the general inability to find anything they don't do well. They haven't yet done anything so brilliant you can't believe it exists, but they sound as much as any new band in recent years like they might get there one day.

Joe Henry - Reverie. In between producing half the records I love these days, Joe Henry continues to write tortured love songs, exotic observations, and generally intriguing material. Then he brings them to his band, which often includes Marc Ribot as just one item in an astonishingly effective assembly line. There's nothing that sounds like a Joe Henry record, and every time you play them, you hear something you'd previously missed. And, on this one, a lot of times there's a dog barking in the background because they recorded it live in his living room.

Sarah Jarosz - Follow Me Down. I never really got a chance to listen to her first album, but the cover of Bob Dylan's "Ring Them Bells" pricked up my ears when I heard it on KDHX, and further investigation into the new one just kept bringing me more things to love. Folkie with a pop sensibility and an art-rock musical talent, Jarosz is as uncategorizable as the Punch Brothers (who turn up on at least one track here) and purt near as exciting.

k.d. lang & the Siss Boom Bang - Sing It Loud. There are singers in this world who cannot let me down no matter what they do, and k.d. lang is at the pinnacle of that list. I've loved her through her country kitsch, her country sobriety, her adult alternative, her dance-pop, her lounge, and every other period she's flitted through with her pipes that blare stronger than those of almost any singer. But she's not just about showing off that big voice - she's a singer's singer, a master of her instrument, and given a great song (the title track, or her transcendent take on the Talking Heads' "Heaven"), she will put you right inside a constantly changing space of pure beauty.

Amy LaVere - Stranger Me. I've been the one-man proselytizer for this record. Big giant hooks wedded to big giant emotions and an admittedly little bitty voice. But that small voice packs a punch, as she spits out the damn love song her man was asking her to write just before she dumped him, or coos the entrancing title track, or just proves that she's actually capable of covering Captain Beefheart without making anybody wince (which, I guess, means that little voice might have some power after all). It's not exactly Shoot Out the Lights, but it's worth noting the drummer is the guy she dumped.

Shelby Lynne - Revelation Road. I've liked some of Lynne's half-hearted records these past ten years, but ever since she proclaimed I Am Shelby Lynne over ten years ago, she hasn't exactly honed in on what makes that a statement of such pride. Until now. Playing all the instruments herself, she has to make sure her vocals carry the songs, because there aren't any fancy tricks behind her to distract us. And the songs, led by the uproarious (for her) title track and the complex examination of life's endings in "Heaven's Only Days Down the Road," are more than enough to work with.

Imelda May - Mayhem. Sometimes you just want to party with some in-your-face rockabilly-derived excitement. And sometimes you just want to hear an amazing singer with complete control of nuance, passion, and dynamics. Hey, right here, you get both. It's among the most fun listens I had this year, and yet it sticks to the ribs with strong songwriting and a performance of complete control.

Meshell Ndegeocello - Weather. She's been confounding expectations for almost twenty years now. Funky when you think she might be alternative rock, out-there jazzy when you feel she's going down the folky singer-songwriter road, and now completely uncategorizable, with all her musical elements merging into a personal, idiosyncratic, and entirely mesmerizing style. She covers Leonard Cohen's "Chelsea Hotel," and I heard it three times before a friend actually pointed out to me that's what she was singing. Her originals (written by her bandmates and herself in varying combinations) are subtle, engaging, and mysteriously sexual. And for further seasoning, she brings Joe Henry on board to produce, which means it sounds as good as records get.

Tracy Nelson - Victim of the Blues. Nelson can sing just about every style - country, rock, soul, etc. - but here she returns to the songs that inspired her when she started out back in the early 60s. It's blues, and considering she picks songs we've heard before from Howlin' Wolf, Jimmy Reed, and Ma Rainey, she makes everything sound as if it was just being discovered. Really, my pick for the album nobody else is raving about.

Willie Nile - The Innocent Ones. It's a Willie Nile album. Automatic consideration for any year-end list. It's possibly the third best Willie Nile album (after Streets of New York and Places I Have Never Been, but Beautiful Wreck of the World is right in the mix somewhere). Automatic consideration for falling in love. It's big, bright, giant guitar hooks, masses of vocal melodies, and yearning observations about life, love, and winners who deserve to be losers and vice versa. Why isn't this guy showing up on every year-end list?

Over the Rhine - The Long Surrender. I am not one of those types who have followed this duo through thick and mostly thin, as they attract a worshipful cult second only to the Bruce Cockburn clans in intensity and lack of perspective. But, dangit, this record won me over right away, with clarity of melody, with poetic condensation and openness in the lyrics, and with a completely organized ramshackle approach to sound masterminded, one presumes, by producer Joe Henry. I've liked some of their stuff before, but this one is head and shoulders above the rest.

Peter Bjorn & John - Gimme Some. Clearly, these guys are raking in some cash, as "Second Chance" provides the theme and bed music for the sitcom Two Broke Girls week after week. But despite the over-familiarity of the opening riff of this cut, Gimme Some is the kind of record that reveals new things to love every couple months when we spin it again at work. And "Lies" is the only recording I've heard in the last 25 years that could have been released on a 45 in 1977 and had me pogoing like a madman. These Swedes understand punk rock better than all the wannabes that have come along since the glory days. It's about aspiring to reach beyond your capacities, not limiting yourself to being like something else.

Rum Drum Ramblers - Mean Scene. I don't know enough about the street musicians of the early 30s who kind of played blues but also played other stuff (generally referred to as hokum whenever someone like Robert Johnson would record a song like "Red Hot" and confuse blues purists), but I know what I like. Whether this St. Louis combo is recreating something that happened before any of us were born, or whether they're updating it into something decidedly post-postmodern, I leave up to expert scholars. In the meantime, I'm gonna "Jump Into a Frenzy" whenever I hear a song as downright crazy rhythmic as "Jack & Tom" or "Get Behind the Wheel." Singer/guitarist Mat Wilson works himself up into a frenzy whether he's pumping up the electricity with Bob Reuter's Alley Ghost, or ploughing the acoustic fretboard in this context.

Paul Simon - So Beautiful or So What. This was my fave album this year long before I was lucky enough to see Simon lead a brilliant live band in concert at the Fox a couple months back. Smart as a whip, willing to cut himself in public with both wit and sheer audacity, Paul Simon puts the lie to any belief that creativity diminishes with age. I mean, I liked a lot of the stuff in between Graceland and this one. I'm on record as being the only music critic who really thought The Capeman was a great idea. But this one is like all the things you've loved about Simon, no matter which ones they were in his long and varied career, only sounding as if he'd just now come up with a way to distill these thoughts into musical vivacity.

Tom Waits - Bad As Me. Year-end lists are never particularly relevant to the way we listen to music. Arbitrary cut-off points mean that the records we played like crazy 11 months ago have to compete with the ones we can't stop listening to now. I have a very talented writer friend who has resisted writing these pieces out of a pathological fear that something she would love has not actually crossed her ears in a given year. And then, something like my own pathological insistence that I listen to everything in the order I receive it comes along. I've got this album, but it currently sits about ten or fifteen discs above what is getting my intense auditions, which means the albums I play in my car. Until then, I won't know for sure if it's as amazing as it sounds in the store, but because it sounds here like the best thing Waits has done since Frank's Wild Years (and I tried relistening to Mule Variations to see if that was better, but it wasn't), I'm putting it on this arbitrary list right now. Something about his reunion with the likes of Keith Richards and Marc Ribot makes this one sound much fresher than he has in a long time.

Abigail Washburn - City of Refuge. Some people embrace folk music because they want to revisit something they lost, or more often, never had in the first place. Then there's Abigail Washburn, who is a folkie only because the banjo was the instrument she figured out how to play, and traditional songs were the easiest ones with which to learn. Turns out they led her to write stuff that, while retaining an influence from bluegrass and turn-of-the-last-century rural styles, is entirely personal and wide-ranging and musically adventurous. Sure, I wish this album had a couple songs sung in Chinese, as the other ones do, but who needs ancient Mandarin when you've got so many new ideas?

Monday, December 26, 2011

Best Sellers Week Ending Dec. 25

1. Black Keys - - El Camino
2. She & Him - A Very She & Him Christmas
3. Adele - - Live at Royal Albert Hall
4. Adele - - 21
5. Wilco - - The Whole Love
6. Gillian Welch - - The Harrow & the Harvest
7. Tom Waits - - Bad As Me
8. Roots - - Undun
9. Amy Winehouse - - Lioness: Hidden Treasures
10. M83 - - Hurry Up, We're Dreaming

Monday, December 19, 2011

Best Sellers Week Ending Dec. 18

1. Black Keys - - El Camino
2. Amy Winehouse - - Lioness: Hidden Treasures
3. Wilco - - The Whole Love
4. Ryan Adams - - Ashes & Fire
5. Roots - - Undun
6. She & Him - - A Very She & Him Christmas
7. Wild Flag - - Wild Flag
8. Gillian Welch - - The Harrow & the Harvest
9. Adele - - Live at Royal Albert Hall
10. Tom Waits - - Bad As Me

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Euclid Records is thrilled to get in on the ground floor and help introduce DeRobert and the Half-Truths to the soul and funk fans of St. Louis when they give a free performance in the store on Saturday, Dec. 17 at 3 pm. Hailing from Nashville, TN, this band is one of the most exciting new groups to come along in some time. Taking their cues from the soul and funk stylings of the late 60s and early 70s, they invest the music with clever and emotionally intense originality. DeRobert and the Half-Truths will also be appearing at 2720 Cherokee later that night.

With seven members, including a full 3-piece horn section, this band can produce a variety of different sonic approaches. The Nashville Scene says of DeRobert and the Half-Truths that their songs “feature buttery hooks that simmer in your skull like a funky, funky stew.” Dusty Groove America, one of the most respected mail-order houses for this type of music, says of their new EP, “Beg Me”: they’ve “shown enough potential thus far to make us think they'd eventually rise to the upper tier of neo classic funky soul collectives – and with this exceptional EP we think they've made it!”

Monday, December 12, 2011

Best Sellers Week Ending Dec. 11

1. Black Keys - - El Camino
2. Amy Winehouse - - Lioness: Hidden Treasures
3. She & Him - - A Very She & Him Christmas
4. Javier Mendoza - - On a Silent Night
5. M83 - - Hurry Up, We're Dreaming
6. Tom Waits - - Bad As Me
7. Roots - - Undun
8. Civil Wars - - Barton Hollow
9. Gillian Welch - - The Harrow & the Harvest
10. Betty Wright & the Roots - - The Movie

Monday, December 5, 2011

Best Sellers Week Ending Dec. 4

1. She & Him - - A Very She & Him Christmas
2. Smashing Pumpkins - - Siamese Dreams
3. Tom Waits - - Bad As Me
4. Ryan Adams - - Ashes & Fire
5. Gillian Welch - - Harrow & the Harvest
6. Various Artists - - A Christmas Gift For You from Phil Spector
7. Coldplay - - Mylo Xyloto
8. Wilco - - Whole Love
9. John Prine - - The Singing Mailman Delivers
10. Bjork - - Biophilia