Best Of 2011: J Howell

Published on January 9th, 2012 in: Best Of Lists, DVD, Music |

let england shake

If there’s one good thing that can be said for what turned out to be a furthering of turbulent and dark days the world over, 2011 was at the very least a good year for music. A great year, even.

There were many very good releases from faces old and new alike last year. Some were awesome, but predictably so: Tom WaitsBad As Me and David Lynch‘s “solo” recording debut Crazy Clown Time come to mind, as both were wonderful, if not exactly shocking or radical departures from two of my favorite creative minds of all time. Likewise, The Jesus Lizard‘s CLUB DVD (and accompanying album of the tracks as mp3s) didn’t exactly break any new ground for the band, but showed they still have it where it counts live, even if it turns out to be the last we hear from them. Speaking of things turning out to be the last, The Middle East‘s I Want That You Are Always Happy (reviewed here) is a bittersweet gem in more ways than one, and their breakup not long after the album’s release was both surprising and saddening. Hopefully, after some time away, the band will reconsider, as they are just too good to stop now.

Two releases stand out as exceeding my expectations, one from a new favorite and another from one of the anchors of my record collection. Unsurprisingly, John Parish had a hand in both. The first is Peggy Sue‘s Acrobats (reviewed here), as fine a second record as any that comes to mind. If I had to make a claim for “best album of the year,” though, PJ Harvey‘s Let England Shake would have to take the prize (reviewed here). The bar is always high when it comes to Harvey’s work, and Let England Shake, as I’ve said before, should stand the test of time as one of the most important records of the era as well as another entry in a long and amazing body of work.

There were many other recording that were also high points of 2011. Some came from old favorites, such as American Catastrophe‘s 10″ single release of “Six Foot Whisper” and Elysian FieldsLast Night On Earth (reviewed here). And some came from newcomers, such as the very promising Sea of BeesSongs For The Ravens (reviewed here).

Especially impressive, on the local Kansas City front, was In Dreamlife, a record that makes one wish The Hearers were more on-again than off-again these days, and includes one of the best, most unexpected covers I’ve heard in a while, a gentler but no less emotionally raw reading of the Jesus Lizard’s one and only pretty song, “Elegy.” K.C. Americana-ish favorites Dollar Fox made a strong showing with Close To Home as well as a split 7″ with the Peculiar Pretzelmen, featuring another imaginative cover, “Big Rock Candy Mountain.” Hidden Pictures, a band who have become a favorite the last couple of years, released a fine album, Synchronized Sleeping. The Black Bullet Promise‘s The Truth, My Dear was enjoyable and shows a lot of promise for the band’s future. Somehow, despite being the kind of thing I generally don’t quite go for (read: a bit slick and poppy for my tastes), Quiet Corral‘s debut EP managed to not only impress, but to find its way onto my iPod quite a bit last year, no small feat given the competition.

Last but far from least, Mary Fortune‘s self-titled debut record was not only my favorite local release of 2011, but one of the most enjoyable I heard from anywhere. They’re no slouches live either, and deserve attention from the wider world beyond Kansas City as much as any of the fine bands our city has spawned in recent years.

Carrying over from last year’s “best of” in an updated incarnation, Joe Gore‘s blog has moved over to Tone Fiend, hosted by Seymour Duncan, the esteemed maker of pickups, pedals, and other assorted fine guitar gadgetry. Joe’s blog just gets bigger and better, and while I have yet to get cracking on them, the Tone Fiend DIY Club kicked off with three really cool projects that leave even novice electronic tinkerers with some fun, useful pedals and an awful lot of insight into what makes things tick.

While Jim Campilongo hasn’t released a new album of his own since last year’s stellar Orange, I did spend some quality time with some of his “lessons by mail” last year. I can say without reservation that even through simple recordings and tablature, Campy is a wonderful instructor as well as one of the finest players around. Jim’s personal warmth comes through in his lessons, and if I can learn the solo from “Cat Under A Car,” you can too. Be prepared to practice though! Jim keeps it fun even when it’s tricky, however, and even when his lessons are challenging, they’re encouraging. With many choices available and new ones added to his website often, guitarists of any stripe would do well to check out these lessons. Campilongo (and Norah Jones) fans should also keep an eye out for The Little Willies‘ new record as well, available in just a few days as of this writing.

Happy New Year!

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