24 More Unmissable Records from the Pacific Northwest in 2011
Remember when we said we’d share our list of 25 other unmissable records the first week of January? Whoops. Thing is, the first month of this new year, we were still listening to and falling in (and out) of love with records from 2011. Discovering albums we should’ve shared months ago and finding out what sounded good in summer, didn’t survive snowmageddon. We added and whittled and debated and listened and when it comes down to these 24 albums, all released in 2011 by bands from the Pacific Northwest, we loved.
Here’s what you won’t find on here: records we wrote about in 2010 (The Head and The Heart, Beat Connection, Joseph Giant, Baltic Cousins), just okay releases from bands we’ve loved before, collections of 7’’s made into best of EPs, EPs in general and plenty of records that you loved with your whole heart and we just, didn’t. But, after hundreds and hundreds of hours of listening and seeing these bands live, slightly fewer spent talking about the albums amongst ourselves, we’re confident these are 24 records you’d be remiss to miss from 2011.
Here’s what you will find on here: bands from Seattle, Portland, Vancouver and Boise. Psychedelic symphonies. Menacing metal. Four-Eyed Soul. Modern R&B. Party Punk. Folk confessionals. Hip shaking hip hop. These albums are self-released, funded by fans and put out by labels big and small. They are debuts and albums that defied sophomore slumps and career defining work. Albums that have been loudly lauded and others who’ve been mostly ignored. Its a sample of what makes being a music lover in the Pacific Northwest right now so exciting, there’s a little something for everyone and we hope you find something you love too.
AgesandAges – All Right You Restless (Knitting Factory)
Agesandages fills up a room. With no fewer than seven people adding harmony to the airtight, country-funk rock that spins off Alright You Restless, the debut record enthralled me with the desperate joy that permeates its entirety. Playing with the bog of loneliness and defeat, and inviting the world into that dark fold to find comfort in each other, it’s music that offers salve in stomps and hope in runaway choruses. (Kathleen)
Allen Stone – S/T (Self-Released)
“I’m sick and tired of soul music looking so clean and proper! Cause my soul… my soul… my soul is just a little big greasy!” This is how Allen Stone introduces himself to the crowd from the stage. Obviously steeped in tradition but not married to its dictates, Stone’s four-eyed soul is unrepentant in both its influences and its willingness to disregard them entirely. Repping the Northwest he’s more than likely on stage in a flannel or Sonics jersey instead of any Detroit mandated button-up uniform like most of his current peers. This un-buttoned attitude extends to the dynamic mixture of straight R&B ballads and kinetic pop and funk on display in this record. If nothing else, just like the live show, Allen Stone represents Stone being unapologetically himself. (Excerpted from Josh’s full October review.)
Case Studies – The World Is Just a Void to Fill the Space (Sacred Bones Records)
It’s plausible to say that every music fan in Seattle cried a tiny tear when Jessie Lortz and Kimberly Morrison decided to end their tenure as The Dutchess and The Duke a few years back. Yet, if any and all knew that Lortz would take the new found freedom and put an album as poetic and gorgeous as Case Studies’ The World Is Just a Void to Fill the Space, I wonder, how sad would we all of been?
I discovered Case Studies during a two week period where I was living out of a hotel room in Dubuque, Iowa. My girlfriend was in the midst of a two-week intensive dog-training course and I’d signed out to drive out there and then “focus on my writing” for two weeks in a thrifty Day’s Inn a few blocks from the Mississippi River. To say the least, the smell of old cigarettes and scratchy linens inspired nothing in me and I found myself grabbing my keys and drifting through the Midwest in a chrome-green Honda Element. The Midwest is a strange, lonely place for a city dweller, and with no destination in mind I’d pick a spot on the map an aimlessly cruise towards it. It was on one of these roads with the green blur of farmlands speeding by in the background, the thin snake of the Mississippi my only landmark, that I not only discovered Case Studies but fell wildly in love with it.
It starts with “You Folded Up My Blanket Like We Were Already Lovers,” a deceptively upbeat story about love in a car, on the stairs, in a garden. The road will numb you, and my musical selections weren’t cracking the shell, but “You Folded Up My Blanket…” with it’s beautifully simple lyrics slipped in and I played it on repeat, memorizing every word like a smitten teenager. From there “My Silver Hand” squeezed in to the gap, Lortz’s deep, whiskey-soaked voice rising above the simple violin and guitar, the words full of heartbreak and the need for redemption just peppering my emotional core. Somewhere between Dubuque and Hazel Green, Wisconsin, I fell wholeheartedly in love with the album as a whole. I pulled over the car and sat and stared out in to an endless stretch of green and felt lonely and a bit sad and completely won over by everything Lortz was crooning, every simple beat that stretched out from the door behind me. (Noah)
Cave Singers – No Witch (Jagjaguwar)
I’ve never quite been able to put my finger on why or how, but every moment on No Witch seems suffused with joy. Maybe it’s the way Derek Fudesco’s guitar notes dance like afternoon sunlight on the living room wall, or maybe it’s the honest, folksy feel of the foot-stomping energy. Whatever the case, No Witch has become my go-to cheerup album, my foolproof impetus for dancing around the kitchen with gleeful abandon. It’s not that there’s no darkness – “My mind wakes me up every night sir, see devils in my backyard,” Quirk sings on “Black Leaf,” but the bleak and the bright are bundled up together in little boxes of hope. Weather moves in dark patterns, but as Quirk espouses in “All Land Crabs and Divinity Ghosts,” “It’s too big of a world to give up now.” (Brittney)
Constant Lovers – True Romance (self-released)
When Macklemore said “My city’s filthy,” this wasn’t quite what he meant, but as its cover art indicates, True Romance listeners are in for a low-down dirty ride. This album is a tribute to sybarite pleasures of all kinds, from the warm burn of whiskey in your stomach to the red memory of teeth marks on skin, from the hip-thrust of the drums to the thrust of, well, other things. Conveniently, it’s also the perfect soundtrack for the unbridled enjoyment of these recreations. (Brittney)
Dan Mangan – Oh Fortune (Arts & Crafts)
I recently turned thirty. Not long after, I found myself looking back on the 20s version of me and thinking, “What an ass.” 28-year-old Mangan (who, incidentally, is incredibly polite and charming) seems to be going through a similar process a couple of years early, and has done us all the favor of turning it into a delightful album. With endearing honesty and trademark wit, Mangan crafts carefully textured odes and confessionals that reward with every listen. (Brittney)
See the rest of our 24 unmissable records from 2011 after the jump
Dave Bazan – Strange Negotiations (Barsuk)
Dave Bazan gave me a perfect song on Strange Negotiations. Track eight, “Don’t Change” opens with declarative drums and a clean melody that tempers a grounded Bazan singing about things fraying a little more every day.
I’m so deep That only in my sleep Do the secrets that I keep Float to the surface
So I hold them down ‘Til they don’t make a sound Like they accidentally drowned Except on purpose
Bazan has a knack for subtle hooks that find the smallest opening in your assailed mind, and plant themselves there, holding a tiny part of you captive and repeating their candid, raw narratives. He grasps intrinsically that even a messy life, one spent putting out albums that spar with the eternal, is best captivated in power and brevity. His songs on Strange Negotiations are the messiest I’ve heard from him, with heavy distortion roiling under his newly ragged voice, but they strike with deftly balanced, crisp honesty. Dave Bazan may be singing about the gray days more than the white heavens now, but he’s good company down here, and I for one need him on this side. (Kathleen)
Dolorean – The Unfazed (Partisan Records)
Sounding a little like a lost Magnolia Electric Co. album with cowboy boot clad Yankee Hotel Foxtrot flourishes, The Unfazed is a beautifully brutal break-up album and it journeys through the whole emotional spectrum of heartache. Like many great break-up albums, The Unfazed doesn’t tell the story of Al James’ break-up, it tells the story of yours. (abbey, from a previous record review)
Dude York – The Gangs of Dude York (self-released)
Dude York grab you with a pun and a slicing hook in the first 17 seconds of their debut album Gangs of Dude York and before you even hear a word of “And Andrew Too,” they’ve already got you. Clocking in under 24 minutes, Gangs of Dude York delivers infectiously catchy party punk that staggers, rages, dances, screams and makes-out with you in the corner in eleven songs. They’re nasty drunks, but they clean up nice by the light of day. While these songs are great for a dark bar and dark deeds, their riff-rich pop sensibilities will have you playing these tunes in daylight, innocently bopping along at your desk. Three dudes, 11 songs, 23.4 minutes and absolutely everything I want from a debut. (abbey)
Fly Moon Royalty – S/T (Sportin’ Life)
It takes a lot to get me excited about modern day R&B. Ever since I fell out of love with En Vogue as a child, there has been a void in my heart that has yet to be filled. That’s not to disrespect the multitude of talent that has called this particular genre “home” over the past two decades.
To put it bluntly, I’m not a cat that you’re going to see crooning in his car to slow jams. No Gerald Levert. No Luther Vandross. No KC and JoJo. No Queen Mary J. Furthermore, if it sounds like Babyface produced it, you’ve probably already lost my interest (Then again Babyface produced every hit record except Nevermind in the nineties, so I might have to recant that statement).
Fly Moon Royalty are baaaaaaaaddddddddddd. (“Bad” as in good. Keeping with nineties slang.) There are so many “bangers” on this record that there’s no way in hell they don’t own the entire universe by the end of this year. “Lemonade” an old fashioned doo-wop backbeat with attitude. The molasses like party starter that is “In The Woods.” Let’s not forget my personal favorite “Betty’s Kitchen,” which might be one of the greatest food related songs of all-time. If you create a song that makes me want to eat and dance not simultaneously — actually, fuck that! A smoked turkey leg can dangle out of the side of my mouth while I cabbage patch, consider me yours for life. (Phil)
Grand Hallway – Winter Creatures (Porchlight Records)
In a quote I wonder if he regrets giving now (based solely on how many times I’ve referenced it), Tomo Nakayama said he wanted to write a perfect song with Grand Hallway. A bold goal to be certain, but less so when Nakayama paired himself with Shenandoah Davis and Kevin Large, focusing three of Seattle’s most gifted song-writers on a single project.
And while I’m of the mind they may have already achieved perfection with Promenade’s lead-off “Raindrops,” Winter Creatures is full of contenders itself. Unlike Promenade which had a clear stand-out, Winter Creatures is astounding end-to-end. Dense, delicately developed and exquisitely executed Northwest orchestral pop using strings, horns and banjos to cradle wise poetry sung in Nakayama and Davis’ fine falsettos. Its an album of love songs, not to a singular person, but to the cycles of life — to birth in “Roscoe (What a Gift)” and to death in “Wildfire” and “Father’s Clothes.” Cinematic and impossibly huge at times, while at others so intimate it feels it may be playing on your spine, it is clear that Winter Creatures is an album envisioned and executed by a band talented enough to rightly believe perfection is an attainable goal. (abbey)
Helms Alee – Weatherhead (Hydra Head)
I’m about to tell you something that defies biology (if you believe in that sort of witchery). I’ll put it in joke form (because that’s what I do around here):
Q: What band has one pair of testicles but more balls than every other Seattle band? A: Helms Alee
That’s what Weatherhead signifies to me. Sophomore slumps are those afflicted with the disease of content. Following the obvious formule to success is something meant for sports, not musical creation. When I first heard this album, a big question mark loomed over my head. I wasn’t sure how I felt about it. During some moments I was completely enthralled (ie. “Weatherhead,” “8/16,” and “Pretty As Pie.”) and left wanting more of the same. However, there were other occasions where if you told me I was listening to anything other than a Helms Alee album, I probably would have believed you (ie. “Anemone of the Wound,” “Revel!” and “Pig Pile.”).
In the end I consider this album a triumph because it took me some time to understand what I was experiencing. I appreciate that because it rarely happens to me these days, especially if we’re talking about musical compositions. I’m into instant gratification, whether it be music or otherwise. Check my label, I am properly American. Born in the United States.
If you’re still not sold on Weatherhead as an album, I encourage you to go see Helms Alee in a live setting. The songs sound good on vinyl but they make more of an impact when they are presented in front of your face. During their set I gaurantee that you’ll check the ceiling above multiple times to make sure that the roof is not caving in.
Your new found appreciation for this band will have you looking forward to the next record. Having heard some of the newer material already, I know I am. (Phil)
Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter – Marble Son (Station Grey Records)
Marble Son offers a mercurial take on the psychedelic ’60s. This isn’t the summer of love or CSNY harmonies, but the bitter disillusion that followed. A bad trip made beautiful by the peerless guitar playing of Phil Wandscher and the hypnotic prose of Jesse Sykes. And I suspect in 30 years when Marble Son is reissued, music critics will be crying foul, asking why it wasn’t lauded as a masterpiece in its own time.
There is a cohesion and completeness to Marble Son that few albums touch, the songs, the movements of a psychedelic symphony. Beginning with what sounds like a lonesome metronome, Marble Son conjures a mood and time, getting you in beat with the band before the first riff of the album by Wandscher. The riff, one that guitar greats wish they’d played, echoes throughout the album and is is the defining moment of Marble Son. When Wandscher returns heavy on the theme in “Pleasuring the Divine” it feels as if the sky might split in half. That Wandscher’s guitar work is so central to the album, a co-headliner with the ghostly beauty of Sykes gravelly whisper, speaks only to his skill, as Sykes once again shows a timeless talent as a song-writer and singer. Marble Son may not be an album you love on your first listen, but it is worthy of your time and attention. Or as Sykes best sums up herself on “Servant of Your Vision,” “It’s hard to love, harder not to love.” (abbey)
Lucas Field – Conquest of Happiness (Self-Released)
Low vs. Diamond guitarist and singer Lucas Field takes to the Rhodes for his first solo effort Conquest of Happiness, and along with a cast of funky characters delivers his own version of four-eyed soul at a time when R&B is getting it’s feet wet again in the Northwest. Unlike say a Mayer Hawthorne or some other modern soul contemporaries, Field’s not behind thick rims but Ray-Bans, and at our recent soul revue he was behind a pair of pink heart shaped lenses. Conquest of Happiness is just as much the story of fellow singer Tiffany Wilson’s yin as Field’s yang, elevating of a goofy party animal’s organ vamps and falsetto pop lyrics to legit jams for hooking-up and grinding the night away. “Two Lovers” is the tale of two cheaters, an obvious love song that’s open to interpretation as to whether the cheaters actually leaving their committed partners for a life with each other or it might be the moment of the one last fling that they’ll have. In truth once love is involved every relationship is a complicated situation, and Field and Wilson’s repoir in these songs reflect that universal dynamic. That while love might be something that just happens, it’s process as much as an emotion, a two-sided equation where the proper expression of those feelings matter as much simply having the feelings. And if Field’s relating a bevy of struggles in love here, it’s a relating a life of taking a chances with an open heart, where until you know you’ve found “the one,” heartbreak and hard luck is a fact of life. But maybe the spice of life too. (Josh)
Monogamy Party – Pus City (Good to Die Records)
“I married my temper, there is no recourse.” This line from the title track to Pus City explains the mood of the album, one of the year’s most artful assemblages of heavy sounds and hoarse-voiced rage. Monogamy Party harnesses the innate primality of their unusual drum-and-bass-and-vocals setup to create music that delivers almost physical blows, but the sneaky surprise lies in their secret pop sensibility that creates unexpected hooks of an entirely different kind. (Brittney)
Nurses – Dracula (Dead Oceans)
Do Seussicals really exist? I’ve only seen them briefly mentioned on television sitcoms and on websites that I choose not to explore further. I suppose I could do some research but as of early December, I haven’t had to.
Nurses have told me Seussicals are real.
How did they do that despite the fact that I’ve never met them or corresponded with them in any fashion? I heard their album Dracula and it is glorious.
Why do I make the odd comparison between Dr. Seuss and this Portland band’s music? If you could turn your childhood memories of reading Dr. Seuss (on one of those small carpets they have in elementary school libraries) into sonic form, Dracula is what it would sound like. Dystopian Dance Party in Whoville isn’t a unique enough description for me to type or for you to read. “Through the Window” is a bedtime lullaby I’m prone to singing during my morning showers. “Gold Jordan” (hopefully this is not a reference to Air Jordan’s) features one of my favorite verses of the entire year. Never underestimate the power of a three word phrase repeated over and over again. “Eternal Thrills” reminds you that even though your life is a string of underwhelming events life isn’t half bad at the moment and that you should probably lighten up a bit. Gentle readers, we have a winner. (Phil)
OCnotes – Medicine (Self-Released)
“If you haven’t listened to OCnotes Medicine, you are probably an idiot.” – Neil Degrasse Tyson (Writer’s Note: This quotation might be fabricated…might be.)
I potentially agree with Mr. Tyson. This album is solid gold. Greatness that is good for all occasions.
Are you walking around in Pioneer Square in an area that smells like a perfect combination of vomit induced by malt liquor and piss from a man who has no self-esteem? Yes. Are you enjoying a Seattle summer afternoon hiking alone in the mountains? Yes. Are you just waking up and are deciding to eat pumpkin pie topped with ice cream…for breakfast? Yes. Are you reading about interior design on the internet? Yes.
Each song feels like a separate episode. “Chill Pill” is a 4/8 godsend that will keep your head nodding. Not only is “Mr. Randolph’s Sex Magic” a great song title, the content that lies within is even better. That’s what happens when keyboards surround you like a pack of wolves and decide to make you dance instead of be their prey. “Mind Body Interventions” reminds me of old DJ Shadow (Which is awesome because I’ve been on a huge DJ Shadow kick during the past year. Hello 1998, good to see you again…).
“I’m a music lover too, gadget.” (Phil)
The Physics – Love is a Business (Self-Released)
The title to The Physics 2011 record Love is a Business is many layered. Though the “Love” the title track is generally referring to a love of hip hop, as an album title it’s undoubtedly also encompassing a life philosophy, as often crooning about their considerable libidios as rapping about their considerable libidios. The subtle groove of 1991 So-Cal summer day breezes through MC’s Monk Wordsmith and Thig Natural’s rhymes and a bit of humor about “making paper,” sippin’ “Corona’s on Madrona,” and “starting a clubhouse with no boys allowed,” makes their only half-joking overtures of seduction pretty believable. Aside from a well expressed Y chromosome though, the Physics are making their own case for the right approach to hip-hop, calling out the haters of course whilst doing their best to be the suave and confident Master of Ceremonies they seek. (Josh)
Police Teeth – Awesomer Than The Devil (Latest Flame)
Police Teeth take the punk movement’s working-class angst, slow it down, stretch it out, and roll it up with a little weed smoke and plenty of noise. The music goes down so easy that you may not notice the spite quietly simmering in the lyrics: “A thousand grocery clerks and they’ve all got MBAs. The next fucker who tells me to live for today is the next fucker who gets punched in the face.” (Brittney)
Quiet Life – Big Green (self-released)
There’s really only one thing I would change about Quiet Life’s Big Green, I would make it twice as long. Clocking in at just over 30 rollicking minutes, Big Green is a big party and I always wish the cops hadn’t been called so early to stop the fun. Quiet Life is anything but quiet. The gentle pristine harmonies so popular in the PNW are nowhere to be found, this is outlaw Americana. These are songs you blast, a little sloppy and a little sad, they are drinking songs and dancing songs, fighting and loving songs. Well-crafted with shit-kicking riffs, this is an album for a hell of a good time and the hangover the afternoon after. (abbey)
Sallie Ford & The Sound Outside – Dirty Radio (Partisan Records)
In 2011, where Seattle’s attention was on Hip Hop and Folk with a side of Soul, Portland had pop bands getting interesting. Instead of trying for modern or falling back on twee, Sallie Ford & The Sound Outside’s debut LP Dirty Radio showcases a band incorporating a much earlier era of American music, classic country and rock to 1920’s vaudeville. It’s a rare soft moment of amongst a record of challenges to the devil and men on “Thirteen Years Old” when Ford tributes a lost father and her slightly affected vocal approach finds it’s full realization. The raw emotion of her style comes into focus maybe because of this memory and song. For the rest of the record Ford’s singular vocals are flapper sass, referring to her own more carnal needs frequently and patently unafraid to be the one doing the propositioning or instigating a situation. Ford knows what she wants and isn’t about to stop being her saucy self for anyone, or to anyone. Coming out of the Northwest, that sounds just about right. (Josh)
Shenandoah Davis – The Company We Keep (self-released)
When listening to The Company We Keep one word rises above all else: accomplished. Shenandoah Davis isn’t just a gifted vocalist, but pianist, song-writer and composer. The album is achingly lovely in every way: the words, the instrumentation, the emotion held in her falsetto trill … The complexity of orchestration and Shenandoah’s voice, makes the words themselves seem like a supporting role to a listener, but if you peel through the layers of strings, wind instruments and operatic vocals, there is poetry. She’s one of a kind, Shenandoah. The Company We Keep puts both what elevates Shenandoah above us all (a rare talent) and what makes her just like us (the characters that inhabit all our lives and how our hearts open and break because of them) on display. And it’s a beautiful sight to behold. (abbey, from a previous record review)
Strong Killings – S/T (Don’t Stop Believing Records)
This was the most important “punk” record to be released in the city of Seattle last year. What other possible contenders would there be? Go ahead and name them. Scream about those bands until your lungs bleed. Send me hateful telegrams because I decided not to write a short blurb about them to contribute to the blogosphere.
I am of the opinion that “punk” rock should be inherently yours. It’s equal passion and internal relief but at the same showing a total indifference to the opinions of the outside world. Judging by what is going on our local music scene, if you listened to this record, you wouldn’t guess that this band created music within a light year of this city’s limits.
It’s creativity and songwriting shatters the mold. This record possess a spirit and attitude that I haven’t heard in years. There are so many different elements that make this record great. Whether it’s the bizarro opera sequence of “Stegosaurus” or the debacherious antics of “Minumum Wage,” this record does not quit. That’s not even mentioning the fringe element ear candy of “Licked, Nicked” or “(You Never Wanna) Dance With Me.”
Not to mention, the vinyl is one of my favorite artistic achievements of all-time. (Phil)
Youth Lagoon - The Year of Hibernation (Fat Possum)
A rainbow. It’s a temporary beauty and an improbable reality, a utopian vision even, and image on cover of Youth Lagoon’s debut record The Year of Hibernation. Envisioning this reality displays the essence of the lyric “When I was seventeen/my mother said to me/don’t stop imagining/the day that you do is the day that you die.” This chorus to “17” seems the heart of Trevor Powers own recording’s thesis, and a theme that’s returned to throughout the record, lyrically and sonically. These songs build quickly into their own fantasy worlds of his own making, and echoing through the endless halls of these dream-states Power’s hazy vocals are as important for their melody as any meaning the words might have. The Rad Racer escapism of “Daydream” contrasts the very real anguish of “Montana” that follows, and here the need for deliverance to somewhere else is at it’s most palpable, the built-up synthetic orchestra at its most soaring. Though these songs might’ve been built “just me in my room with my eyes shut” as the first verse to “17” states, that by their very nature they were tools to escape those four walls meant that they weren’t destined to remain there for long. (Josh)