Nate Knaebel

Favorites of 2011

Every year when I begin putting together a best-of list, my mind initially goes blank. I can recall a handful of records, but I can’t remember for certain if I even liked any of them. It momentarily feels as if I’m not a music fan at all. It’s a little unnerving and a little depressing. Then the floodgates of memory open and before too long I have a huge list of new releases, singles, and reissues. It reminds me that there is always an ocean of good music being made on a regular basis, if you want to hear it badly enough. Don’t ever let anyone tell you this or that year was a bad one for music; that’s nonsense, they’re just being lazy.

So herewith, a haphazard, hastily compiled list of the sounds that stuck with me for one reason or another throughout 2011.

Fucked Up
David Comes to Life

Although what follows is in no particular order, I can state unequivocally that this is my favorite record of the year. It’s not a punk-rock endgame, but it certainly pushed to the limit what’s expected of a record that falls within the confines of punk and hardcore. In doing so, Fucked Up flung itself free once and for all from the genre shackles with which they’d been wrestling since at least Hidden World. If the break-up rumors (or at least realignment rumors) are true, then Fucked Up could do a lot worse than to go out with this corker—a soaring, unrelentingly anthemic concept record about love and heartache in Thatcher’s dismal England.

Meg Baird
Seasons on Earth
Drag City

Meg Baird is, simply put, one of the finest folk singer-songwriters working today. With Seasons on Earth, she offers her first album of largely original material. The Philadelphian’s enchanting voice recalls UK artists like Shirley Collins and Sandy Denny, yet it easily traverses time and place. Of course, Baird seems more concerned here with emotional color and atmosphere than any specific genre marker. Her subtle, impressionistic lyrics and commitment to the underground (she’s also in psych-folk collective Espers and Philly noise-mongers Watery Love) might make her a wild card in the eyes of would be Joan Baezs, but she walks her own path regardless, one we’d all be advised to follow.

Sucre du Savage

New Orleans culture is rich and unique, and there’s far more to the city’s music than second lines, Preservation Hall, and benyas, wonderful though those things may be. Ambassador to this shadow New Orleans is mad scientist Quintron. The organ-playing swamp tech maestro’s 2011 release, Sucre du Savage, is a two-parter recorded live at the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA). Part one is a rollicking mess of analog squiggles and honks, catchy choruses and phat bass hooks that owes as much to sissy bounce production and Mannie Fresh as it does to the garage and vintage R&B that frames Qunitron’s aesthetic. Part two is a series field recording made around the grounds of NOMA. Uplifting stuff.

Apache Dropout
Apache Dropout
Family Vineyard

I’ll call this my Tim Tebow record. It took me a long time to accept that Apache Dropout were the real deal. Their hero worshiping (tributes to Jon Sinclair and, gulp, Johan Kugelberg) and tendency to wear their influences on the whole of their collective shirts, let alone just the sleeves, initially struck me as a little excessive, ham-fisted, and maybe tongue-in-cheek. Then one day it all clicked: they mean it man! I too became a believer. Blown-out organ, fuzz-guitar, a dum-dum thud, paeans to common teenage frustrations—how could I ever have been in doubt! (Note: this is not an endorsement of Tim Tebow.)

Northren Psych
Columbus Discount

After a notable hiatus from recording and performing, the poet laureate of the Columbus rock underground, Ron House, returned in 2011 with his first new band since forming the Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments almost two decades ago. To say that Psandwich and the band’s excellent debut LP, Northren Psych (the spelling is intentional) represents a mellowing for House would be disingenuous and wrong. His voice remains as cantankerous as ever, like an extremely brilliant and articulate toddler on an epic rant about the vicissitudes of art and life. And his new backing band (comprised entirely of musicians he hardly knew let alone ever played with) offers sprawling, jagged walls of distortion over which House can serve up his barroom treatises. Still, Psandwich signals a new direction—or at least new possibilities—for a legend thought to have called it a day. As one of the song titles here suggests, House still has something to prove... and nothing to lose.

White Mystery
Blood & Venom

Ms. Alex White is a pint-sized wrecking ball who’s been laying waste to cities and speakers across the underground since the early 2000s. Now with her brother, Francis Scott Key White, backing her, she seems poised to conquer much larger terrain. On their second LP under the White Mystery moniker, the White siblings unleash a carpet bomb campaign of Crampsy swagger under thick layers of Mary Chain fuzz. Now if they could just get on Conan...

Liquor Store
Yeah Buddy
Almost Ready

Liquor Store might be the rightful heirs to The Dictators throne. Granted, that’s a mighty big championship belt for a bunch of barely-of-age Jersey hooligans to try to wrest from the heavyweight champs themselves. But it’s hard not to see some parallels in Liquor Store’s style, from a sense of humor that's offensive to the point of parody to the guitar-army onslaught of vintage punk hooks. But it’s Sarim Al-Rawi’s love ’em or hate ’em cartoon vocals that make the band truly distinctive. Be forewarned, Liquor Store aren’t here to make friends, but they’re bringing pizza—I’ll bet that much.

Sex Church
Growing Over

These guys snuck up on me, but I instantly took to the Canadian band’s Birthday Party–inspired howl. Growing Over is dark, brooding and loud, but it’s far from simply an angsty mess of post-punk buzz and clang. Indeed, there’s some excellent songwriting on display here that isn’t afraid to dance around a genuine pop hook now and again.

Charles “Packy” Axton
Late Late Party 1965–67
Light in the Attic

This is a nice collection of sides from Memphis’ forgotten son, sax player Packy Axton. Packy’s mother was Stax cofounder Estelle Axton, and he came of age as a member of the legendary Mar-Keys. Yet despite the family connection and the musical pedigree, Packy was booted from the Stax inner circle for his wild ways and refusal to play the role of company man. That didn’t stop him from writing, recording, producing and performing on some of the greasiest sides to emerge from the classic Memphis-soul era. It’s a fascinating glimpse of the sort of shadowy ancillary figure that gives a scene its true heart, with nice liner notes too.

Happy Refugees
Return to Last Chance Saloon

Just when you think diggers have gone so deep they’ve hit China, a gem like this pops up. Wide-screen melancholy pop, herky-jerky avant-rock, infectious Swell Maps–style shamble, the Happy Refugees touched all the bases laid out after the initial run of post-punk in the late 1970s. This reissue collects the band’s first LP and single and repackages them with outtakes and live cuts. A delightfully unexpected reissue worth your time.

Julianna Barwick
The Magic Place
Asthmatic Kitty

I only heard this record one time, over the summer in a friend’s living room in San Francisco. She was on painkillers after breaking her leg, and she wanted to listen to it as she claimed it went well with synthetic opiates. I can only imagine, as Barwick’s celestial vocal loops felt hauntingly euphoric to me drug free (if sipping beer truly constitutes “drug-free”). I never managed to catch back up with The Magic Place after leaving the West Coast, but it’s stayed with me nonetheless and I’d be remiss not to mention it here.

The Babies
“Breakin’ the Law”

The rest of the self-titled full-length debut from which this song is taken is solid. But I’ll be damned if this skuzzy, hit-the-skids sing-along from Vivian Girl Cassie Ramone and Woods’ Kevin Morby isn’t the best song Dead Moon never wrote.

The Normals
“Almost Ready”
Last Laugh

It boggles the mind that this slice of raw power-pop punk from New Orleans’ first-wavers the Normals sat dormant in a vault somewhere for more than 30 years. Credit Last Laugh with excavating an unreleased classic that needn’t have been so obscure in the first place.

Sinner’s Crossroads
With Kevin Nutt on WFMU

Truth be told, I probably spent more time combing the archives of this amazing raw gospel broadcast than I spent listening to all the new releases on this list combined.

Extremely Notable Also-rans

Human Eye, They Came from the Sky (Sacred Bones)

Kurt Vile, Smoke Ring for My Halo (Matador)

King Louie’s Missing Monuments, Painted White (Douchemaster)

Milk Music, Beyond Living (self-released)

David Kilgour and the Heavy Eights, Left By Soft (Merge)

Brian F≠, Sleep Rough (Sorry State/Grave Mistake)

Mickey Newbury, An American Trilogy (Drag City)

Les Rallizes Denudes Reissues (Phoenix)

Void, Sessions 1981–83 (Dischord)

Dow Jones and the Industrials, Dow Jones and the Industrials EP (Family Vineyard)

Rational Animals, Bock Rock Parade (Katorga)