Ron Wadlinger

Top 10 Albums

Much like 2010, 2011 seemed like a transition year in the realm of music. With major label record sales steadily declining and the influence of the internet still increasing exponentially, we’ve reached a place where acts can crack the Billboard Top 10 with only a fraction of the sales that they would’ve needed even just 10 years ago. This means that artists that would’ve been considered on the fringe (e.g. Tyler the Creator) can now achieve such lofty chart status without compromising their work for a mainstream audience. While there weren’t really any grand unifying themes to the music of 2011, the continued emergence of a multitude of sub-genres provided further evidence of the democratization of the music industry, if you can even call it an industry anymore. All this leaves me optimistic: I think we’re headed in a direction where the line between the haves and the have-nots will continue to blur, and ultimately talent and ingenuity will win out in the quest for determining who will provide the soundtrack to our collective and individual consciousnesses.

Enough with the babbling, though, here’s my top 10 albums of 2011, along with a few other choice musical moments.

Thee Oh Sees
In the Red

The first Oh Sees album of 2011 contains everything that’s great about the band, from frontman John Dwyer’s keen ability to write garage-pop songs that are equally bizarre and catchy to his band’s skill at turning those songs into a joyful racket. Castlemania contains three or four songs that are among my favorites of the year, and they all sound completely different from each other. In other words, this is the type of album that gives you something new each time you give it a listen.

Panda Bear
Paw Tracks

Sure, Tomboy—the album that received the most hype heading into 2011—was an unqualified disappointment. However, pretty much any album would pale in comparison to the album’s classic predecessor, 2007’s Person Pitch. Perhaps knowing that it would be a mistake to try to make Person Pitch II, Panda Bear did what any great artist does: he challenged himself to make something completely different. For the most part, he succeeded. The kaleidoscope of vibrantly colorful sound is gone, replaced by a more sedate and deliberate sonic collage that is cobbled together using varying shades of gray. If Person Pitch was made to listen to while basking in the summer sun, Tomboy was made for cooling in the summer rain.

Dan Melchior und das Menace
Catbirds and Cardinals
Northern Spy

Catbirds and Cardinals arrived as Dan Melchior’s second album of the year. It’s more readily accessible and song-oriented than its predecessor, the experimental Assemblage Blues, which while still a good listen, fails to reach the heights of Catbirds and Cardinals. Whether it’s Melchior’s trademark biting wit on “English Shame” or the gritty pop of “Summer in Siberia,” the songs on Catbirds and Cardinals sound simultaneously like carefully designed gems and haphazardly glorious moments of inspiration. Over the course of the year, it was hard to find anything more compelling to listen to than the hypnotizing hooks of “Deep Fried Circuits” or the noisy guitar fireworks of the coda of “Gnomes on the Runway.”

Wild Flag
Wild Flag

Foaming at the mouth at the idea of a band that might carry on Sleater-Kinney’s legacy, the indie rock press hung the albatross of “most hyped band of 2011” around Wild Flag’s collective neck. Ever steadfast in my skepticism, I gave Wild Flag a cursory listen just to assure myself I’d correctly assumed that the hype was indeed just that, hype. I found that Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss were still operating at a level roughly equivalent to where they were with Sleater-Kinney (which, if you haven’t already guessed, wasn’t enough to elicit any positive reactions from me), but I had grossly underestimated the effect that being back with a full band would have on Mary Timony, whose guitar playing, songwriting and singing all sound reinvigorated. In other words, come for the stars, but stick around for the revival of one of the great underrated women of ’90s underground rock. Mark me down as a begrudging believer.

Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks
Mirror Traffic

My theory is that, inspired by his time doing the reunion circuit with Pavement, Stephen Malkmus came into the process of putting together Mirror Traffic ready to make the best record of his solo career since his self-titled 2001 debut. Mirror Traffic surpasses the intervening three Malkmus (and, sometimes, Jicks) albums because it takes the disparate elements found on each of those records and synthesizes them into a thoroughly engaging whole. There’s Malkmus the master pop songsmith, Malkmus the guitar hero, Malkmus the weirdo, and Malkmus the tender troubadour. Take a listen to the terrific one-two punch of the rabidly jolting (and aptly named) “Spazz” and the gently poignant “Long Hard Book.” This is Stephen Malkmus at the top of his post-Pavement game.

Pink Reason
Shit in the Garden

The long-awaited follow-up to 2007’s Cleaning the Mirror, Shit in the Garden reveals a Kevin Failure who has grown artistically while still retaining the ability to create truly unique dark, outsider rock. The songs here are just as bleak and stark as Pink Reason’s music has always been, but Failure has managed to add a variety of textures that give an added dimension to his work. The fuzz in “Sixteen Years,” for example, gives the song a sense of urgency seldom seen in the Pink Reason catalog. It’s also clear throughout the album (particularly on “I Just Leave”) that Failure has been paying close attention to his Jim Shepard records and has done well in continuing to explore the musical territory first charted by V-3 and Shepard’s other projects.

Times New Viking
Dancer Equired

It’s hard to believe that Times New Viking has already released its fifth album (time flies, and all that). It’s not surprising, though, that TNV’s latest album finds the band one-upping itself, or that Dancer Equired is the trio’s third album to make the top four in the Agit Reader’s annual best-of list. This album has some of the year’s sharpest rock anthems and some of its sweetest pop moments, often in the same song. Sometimes I feel like I gush about this band too much, but then I put this album on again and feel like I haven’t gushed enough.

Northren Psych
Columbus Discount

For a band that was originally intended to be a one-day arranged marriage, Psandwich has certainly exceeded expectations. Fortunately, the line-up clicked and has continued to grow, and after a few years of performing and recording, Northren Psych arrived this year as a definitive document of one of Columbus’ better-kept secrets. Sort of in between the caustic pop of the Great Plains and the dirty, hard-edged rock of Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments, the songs on Psandwich’s debut re-establish singer Ron House as the guru of Midwestern underground rock. From the band’s skewering “Little White Cords” and “Sketchnya” to its earnest cover of “Home Before the Snowfall,” this album is loaded with classic jams.

Rocket from the Tombs
Fire/Smog Veil

Reunion albums always suck. It’s a hard and fast rule. But it’s also a rule that Cleveland’s legendary Rocket from the Tombs broke with wanton disregard this year. Maybe this could be expected, though, from a band that arguably invented punk rock after forming in 1974, then broke up a year later, reunited in 2003 and waited until 2011 to release its proper debut LP. While the raw explosiveness of the band’s original incarnation has faded a bit over the years, Barfly provides ample evidence that this line-up still knows how to flat out rock. Most impressive about this album, though, are its more mellow, haunting songs, such as “Romeo & Juliet” and “Six and Two,” which capture the liquor-soaked forlornness of middle age in a manner just as brilliant as the band’s classic material captured the rabid angst of youth.

Liquor Store
Yeah Buddy
Almost Ready

My album of the year may be off the charts for most rock fans, but I challenge anyone to find something as brutally epic as Yeah Buddy. The three-guitar attack of New Jersey’s Liquor Store is responsible for the year’s most devastating guitar riffs, and band ringleader Sarim Al-Rawi gets credit for the year’s most fully realized, unabashed, no-holds-barred rock anthems. Sometimes absurd, sometimes awe-inspiring, but always ass-kicking, the 11 songs on Yeah Buddy conjure the few bits of the 1970s that are worth revisiting—like the groovy grit of the Stooges, the mind-melting guitar work of that decade’s best hard rock, and the reckless abandon of early punk—and filter them through the band’s modern-day reality as members of a new lost generation. The results—like the Schwarzenegger at a basement show vision of “Commando” or the PBR-swilling workingman’s anthem that is “Proud to Be an American Man”—are incomparable and most evocative of what went down in 2011.

Best Reissues

3. Reatards, Teenage Hate Deluxe Reissue (Goner)

2. Cheater Slicks, Our Food Is Chaos (Almost Ready)

1. The Beach Boys, The Smile Sessions (Capitol/EMI)

Best Concerts

3. Psychedelic Horseshit at Carabar, Columbus, February 24

2. Times New Viking at Wexner Center, Columbus, July 1

1. Guided By Voices at Dublin Pub, Dayton, March 16