Best Stuff 2011: Not-so-new music edition

In keeping with the self-centredness on this blog, this post will not be about the best music that came out in 2011. That post is still to come, and will be woefully under-informed, as my temporary retirement from music criticism has kept me at a disconcerting distance from the cuttingest-of-edges in modern music.

Instead, here are nine albums that I discovered this year (as in hadn’t heard a peep of them before 2011) that I think are well worth sharing, sorted conveniently by their place in the alphabet. Some are available through conventional means, while others may take more creativity. But all of them contain sounds that would be simply shameful to keep to myself.

Bela Bartok’s String Quartets

The logical continuation of the Stravinski fix that started my year, but even more unsettling. The constant discord keeps your stomach in knots throughout. Perfect if you’re craving something to wrestle your eardrums into submission through sheer sustained tension.

Recommended track: String Quartet No. 4 in C Major

Bill Withers – Just As I Am

“Lean on Me” is a great song, but its inherent cheese does no justice to the potency of Withers in his more melancholic moods. Put side two opener “Hope She’ll Be Happier” on in a crowded room, and see that the room doesn’t fall silent. Withers has the ability to mine complex emotions from the simplest arrangements – listen as he repeats the words “I know” 26 times in the middle of album highlight “Ain’t No Sunshine,” with nothing but the drums propping him up; somehow, those two words end up as captivating as the most overblown vocal flourishes.

Recommended track: Ain’t No Sunshine

Bubble Puppy – A Gathering of Promises

Don’t get thrown by the ridiculous name (it’s a misremembering of an Aldous Huxley line, for what it’s worth) and just focus on the music. Dual-lead southern psychedelia that moves from sweetness to blistering guitar workouts in a fraction of a second, the group isn’t quite garage-y enough for a Nuggets comp, but that doesn’t make it any less deserving of a place in the proto-hard-rock pantheon.

Recommended track: Hot Smoke and Sassafras

Deltron 3030 – Deltron 3030

Sci-fi hip-hop set in the far-off year 3030 (“Way past the millennium,” as the album is eager to point out). The setting is mostly an excuse for producers Dan the Automator and Kid Koala to conjure up dystopian soundscapes without resorting to chilly synths or other future-chic cliches. Del’s cartoonish flow keeps things closer to comic book whiz-bang than hard sci-fi – no wonder Damon Albarn tapped the trio for the first album from his post-apocalyptic cartoon outfit, Gorillaz.

Recommended track: “Positive Contact”

Jim O’Rourke – All Kinds of People Love Burt Bacharach

This one might’ve actually come in late 2010, but it’s deserving of another mention anyway. Bacharach is one of the finer songwriters of the 20th century, but aside from a few Elvis Costello albums and twee popsters like Sondre Lerche, his influence can be tough to spot. But, as this album’s title says, all kinds of people love Bacharach, including, apparently, Japan’s avant-garde, along with ex-Sonic Youther Jim O’Rourke, who produced this album and plays most of the instruments. Some tracks play things relatively straight (Akira Sakata and Masaya Nakahara’s take on “After the Fox” might be straighter than the Peter Sellers/Hollies original), but it’s twists like Haruomi Hosono’s self-centred “Close to You,” and the impeccable production, that make this one essential.

Recommended track: “Close To You”

The Liminanas – The Liminanas

Skuzzy down-tempo garage rock with several dollops of Serge Gainsbourgh sexy-cool mixed in with its Velvet Underground swagger. Even the band’s attempts at straightforward pop (“Chocolate in my Milk” have a charmingly detuned quality to them, but the album’s at its best when it plays up its dark-side-of-Paris charm in smoky, sultry, and downright sinful grooves.

Recommended track: “Down Underground”

Margo Guryan – Take a Picture

I wrote about this one for the month of new music, so I won’t rehash too much of that here. Suffice to say, Take a Picture is a thoroughly lovely blend of breathy, Joni Mitchel singer-songwriter fare with hard-edged psychedelia and sunshine pop, all with a jazz-tinged core that keeps things lively throughout. Very disappointing that she only ever put out one album.

Recommended track: “Sunday Morning”

Spiro – Lightbox

The instrumentation of this one (guitar, mandolin, fiddle and accordion) puts it square into the folk-traditionalist category, but a minute or two is all you need to realize there’s more going on here. Folk structures are reinforced with the more hypnotic elements of minimalist classical composition, while the movements go through the same slow-builds and constant ebb as modern dance music. And for all that, it never sounds pretentious or over-thought.

Recommended track: “Binatone”

York Redoubt – York Redoubt

Before Long Long Long was plying its near-blend of spastic math-pop and lo-fi bedroom rock, most of the same guys were in the even-more-oddball York Redoubt, whose one self-titled album is everything an album like this should be. Alternately head-bopping and ear-grating, striking a balance between pure sugar hooks and “is that really the riff?” verses, it’s packed with enough ideas for at least three bands. Which is good, because Long Long Long already flamed out at this year’s Wyrd Fest, which means it’s up to the latest incarnation, Each Other, to take on the mantle.

Recommended track: “Where the Day Grows”

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