I've felt a little bit of unfinished business with music this year, primarily because I was busy digging my ass out of a few ruts and trying to stay awake doing it all. Now as everyone ushers their best-of lists, I decided this past week to make it a priority to catch up with some albums I missed this year. Some have been sitting in a promo pile of the damned and some were downloaded promo albums earlier in the year and remained in my file folder thence. In a couple cases, some of my good friends in the music business obliged me with comp copies without expecting editorial on them. Merry Christmas to me and a merrier Christmas to said friends. You all rule.
While I'm still letting the new Hammers of Misfortune and Feersum Ennjin albums linger upon my ears as holiday tunes are starting to wedge themselves in for their fair share of attention, here's a handful of goodies I managed to catch up with in the past week, all certainly deserving of honors lists:
Yes - Fly From Here
Drama-era, Buggles-fused Yes gets a second crack (though Trevor Horn primarily acts as producer and backing vocalist) and they triumph with the flexive, mid-range pipes of Benoit David. Jon Anderson, he is not, but so what? This cat is as confident as they come in his duties and Yes gives him tapestries of texture to decorate instead of empower. It still pays dividends. Moreover, Yes 2011 merges Drama and Tales From Topographic Oceans with only a few shades of their eighties attempt at a pop crossover that only worked once. Steve Howe got lost in his retrospective grandeur and this quasi-concept album soars accordingly. Mostly, this is an intelligent, detailed and alluring return to glory most people might've missed as I almost did. Easily Yes' finest hour since 90125.
The Decemberists - The King is Dead
Many Decemberists fans balked at the critically-praised The Hazards of Love, which capitalized on the band's breakout sensation, The Crane Wife. Almost everyone connected to the indie scene has sung the praises of this year's offering, The King is Dead, a forty-minute alt-country, REM-coated happy pill that goes down palatably like a kid's gummy vitamin. Certainly, the back-to-basics mentality Colin Meloy and company employ on The King is Dead is a revitalized venture.
Obscura - Omnivium
I saw this release sitting high upon many metal critics' best-of lists for 2011 and with good reason. This German tech-death-grind hybrid may have a random hiccup or two because their mathematics are so complex it must riddle their playing digits at times, yet Obscura are simply astonishing on their fourth album. Picture Nile, Nektar and your favorite death metal band wrestling for dominance over each style and succeeding admirably.
Gary Clark, Jr. - The Bright Lights EP
One of the most imperative EPs to come out in recent history. Even though Texas blues guitarist Gary Clark, Jr. has been awhile at carving out a sizable niche as the newly-crowned Stevie Ray heir apparent, his newfound fame exploded this year. The title track is like Big Brother and the Holding Company's acid-drenched soloing from "Combination of the Two" on Cheap Thrills played to a street thug's pimp stride. "Don't Owe You a Thang" is one to give Robert Randolph a hard run in their homages to Leadbelly and Howlin' Wolf. Gary Clark, Jr. is on his way to becoming an overnight sensation. Here's hoping this cat has career longevity to-boot.
Krum Bums - Cut the Noose
I might've fallen out of touch with the current punk scene since I spent much of the year tooling through the seventies and eighties punk rock, but it really seemed to me as if the genre didn't have much to offer in 2011--at least on the radar. LCD Soundsystem may not be pure punk, but they certainly were electro-punk and their breakup this year made more headlines than the new Flogging Molly album. Thank God for the Krum Bums, who put out an entertaining, old-fashion punker punch this year. That was well-needed.
Ray Van Horn, Jr. is a veteran entertainment journalist whose writing and live photography has been featured in Blabbermouth.net, Dee Snider’s House of Hair Online, Fangoria.com, Horror News.net, About.com Heavy Metal, MetalManiacs, New Noise, Music Dish, AMP, Hails & Horns, Unrestrained,Noisecreep, Impose, Pit, The Big Takeover.com, Rough Edge.com, Pitriff and others. His blog The Metal Minute won a “Best Personal Blog” award in 2009 from Metal Hammer magazine and he wrote and produced his own hard rock e-zine, Retaliate.
He has contributed essays to UK author Neil Daniels’ Iron Maiden and ZZ Top biographies. Ray’s fiction has been published in various periodicals and anthologies, including his flash fiction piece “Off the Record” for Akashic Books’ “Mondays Are Murder” noir series. His recent short stories “Before the Ball” and “Widow” were featured in subsequent editions of Alex S. Johnson’s Axes of Evil anthologies. Ray wrote serialized original superhero fiction for Cyber Age Adventures and five of those stories appear in the anthology Playing Solitaire. He was the winner of Quantum Muse’s fiction contest in 1999.
Ray is a former NHL game analyst for The Hockey Nut and one-time host of the forum “Comic Books” at ReadWave. He has done beat reporting, photography and lifestyle articles for Metromix, an affiliate of The Baltimore Sun, Carroll Magazine, The Northern News and The Emmitsburg Dispatch.