An abundance of excellent music came my way from the SoCal community in 2011. My favorite 20 albums follow, with some special mentions/recommendations beyond that.
It was an especially rich year for folk-rock and singer-songwriter albums, not so much for hard rock. Most of the nouveau electro and experimental releases left me cold. I didn’t include any rap because, frankly, hip-hop is my blind spot and I’m not gonna pretend. Check out LA Weekly’s list, or take two trips to Passion of the Weiss and call me in the morning. And after some internal debate about what constitutes “local,” I left out of consideration albums from “legacy” artists – props to the Foo Fighters, Jane’s Addiction, Blondie, the Cars and Bangles for their releases, and Lucinda Williams, you are a goddess.
I should also point out that although I listened to a lot of music this year, I didn’t get to everything. Feel free to weigh on what you perceive as my glaring omissions. And thanks for reading.
1. Eastern Conference Champions, “Speak-Ahh” (self-released)
The L.A. trio’s first full-length album in four years possesses the heart of a poet, the knuckles of a boxer and the stubble of a man working the graveyard shift. ECC’s unique hybrid of atmospheric rock and blues-folk (Dylan doing Radiohead doing the Jesus and Mary Chain?) sets the tone for frontman Joshua Ostrander’s rich narratives and metaphysical wrangling, mostly delivered in a side-of-the-mouth drawl that ranges from biting to melancholy (and can be an acquired taste). Rockers “Attica” and “Atlas” showcase Greg Lyons’ convulsive drumming as well as the bristling guitar assault of Ostrander and Melissa Dougherty. “Bull in the Wild” is a beat-driven romp that’s lyrically dizzying and halfway to hip-hop. And “Hell or High Water” offers a lament with the stop-you-in-your-tracks line: “The mark I left upon this world / was cigarette butts thrown across the floor.” The album’s DIY production takes some of the bite out of ECC’s bark (live, it’s another story), but not so much that “Speak-Ahh” isn’t conversant on a lot of different levels.
2. Dum Dum Girls, “Only in Dreams” (Sub Pop)
Only in dreams did I think a band that so flaccidly recycled girl-group pop in its infancy could make an album like this. The sophomore record from the SoCal quartet fronted by Kristin Gundred (here doing business as Dee Dee) comes with emotional heft and buzzing guitars to match. Gundred confronts matters of the heart, and matters of life and death, with a confident quaver, and the production from the legendary Richard Gottehrer and the Raveonettes’ Sune Rose Wagner coats Dum Dum Girls’ songs in just the right amount of fuzz. In all, a dream come true.
3. Foster the People, “Torches” (Columbia)
Mark Foster’s gold-selling debut harks back to the days albums were laden with radio singles – there are probably no fewer than six airwaves-ripe tunes on “Torches,” a collection so impossibly catchy that “Pumped Up Kicks” might be an oldie by the time Foster moves on to the second album. While it’s easy to be seduced by melodies, hooks and Foster’s buoyant boyishness, “Torches” is not prefab pop. Subtle textures added by Foster and producer Greg Kurstin make “Torches” as much of a headphones record as it is the highlight of your kid sister’s year.
4. Big Black Delta, “BBDLP1” (self-released)
Leave it to a guy from a guitar band to dirty up the synthpop of the 1980s. The solo venture of Mellowdrone singer-bassist Jonathan Bates, Big Black Delta piles up furious beats, careening synth lines and outer-space effects to form a mountain of sound that ranges from raging house to gloomy drone. You get the feeling BBD’s whole album could have been littered with singles like “Huggin & Kissin” and “Capsize,” but Bates, who has collaborated with M83 and contributed a remix to Daft Punk’s “Tron Legacy” soundtrack, reveals a great deal of his sonic explorations here, and in the context of the album they only add to the head trip.
5. Cold War Kids, “Mine Is Yours” (Downtown)
Owing to their work with hit-making producer Jacquire King, the SoCal quartet’s third album is a far cry from their rattling, blues-punk roots. But considering what songwriter Nathan Willett chose to tackle – the capricious and often treacherous nature of relationships – “Mine Is Yours” works as a meditation on vanishing youth, changing responsibilities and emotional candor. The rough edges of the Kids’ minimalist sound might have been smoothed, but as songs such as “Skip the Charades,” “Louder Than Ever” and “Bulldozer” testify, the foursome hasn’t last its passion.
6. Apex Manor, “The Year of Magical Drinking” (Merge)
Hooky and razor-sharp, this could have been the album the Replacements made had they staged a comeback this year. “Teenage Blood” and “Under the Gun” are ragers; “I Know These Waters Well” would hold up in any era of power-pop; “My My Mind” sounds like the diary of somebody who spent a year on a hilltop writing songs, which Ross Flournoy did. It’s a damned shame that Flournoy had to retreat from the scene this year to, ironically, get treatment for drinking (“Update: The year of magical drinking has ended” asserts the website). But the magic in the album, and there is plenty of it, worth a round of Coca-Colas for the bar, and more.
7. Zola Jesus, “Conatus” (ADA)
Nika Roza Danilova established herself as something of L.A.’s answer to Fever Ray (OK with us) with an album that sounds like something out of a fever dream. The transplanted Midwesterner’s incantations – part Siouxsie Sioux, part Elizabeth Fraser – are the shiver-inducing stuff of dark cinema, icily layered over synths, strings and electronic beats. Not overplaying her estimable pipes, though, “Conatus” reveals a pop sensibility and a wide range of emotions. It can be at turns exhilarating and brooding, but seldom does it sag under the weight of its own drama.
8. Vanaprasta, “Healthy Geometry” (self-released)
For all its fascination with mathematics, the L.A. quintet’s debut arrived with immeasurable ambitions. Party anthems, Floydian excursions, proggy guitar interplay, Brobdingnagian choruses led by diminutive lead singer Steven Wilkin – “Healthy Geometry” not only abides no formula, it’s kind of like pi in its transcendental qualities. On their third try, Vanaprasta found in album producer Dave Schiffman a studio hand who could approximate their arena-ready live show, and as a document of their first three years as a band, all the numbers add up.
9. Active Child, “You Are All I See” (Vagrant)
Not the only former choir boy on this list, Pat Grossi takes ethereal to a new level on his synths-, harp- and reverb-lade debut, which could have been called “Tragedy in Falsetto.” Rather than pound you over the head with mopery, though, Grossi’s painterly approach invites you to view his heartache from behind a velvet rope of clinically cut beats, warm textures and barely distinguishable vocals. Part of Grossi might have died somewhere along the way, but despite “You Are All I See’s” funereal quality you can’t touch the body.
10. Army Navy, “The Last Place” (Fever Zone)
Jangle-pop doesn’t get much better these days than the sophomore album cooked up by Justin Kennedy, Louie Schultz and Douglas Randall. With Kennedy waxing forlornly about a breakup, “The Last Place” stands up with the likes of Teenage Fanclub, the dB’s, Material Issue and the Posies as pure-pop confection, its precise guitar work, propulsive rhythms and melodies and meticulous production (courtesy of Adam Lasus) leaving a sweet aftertaste. Dozens of bands aspire to make songs like these, and a few even get them on TV and in movies; few can hold your attention over a whole album.
The debut from the band anchored by sister-brother duo Barbara and Ethan Gruska is all about songcraft, much of it the way it was practiced by legendary California pop and folk-rock bands in the 1970s. It’s about as unpretentious as it gets, from the siblings’ meticulous harmonies to the timeless melodies to the equally timeless themes of love, loss and redemption. A perfect companion to the Dawes album, “The Belle Brigade” can rock out as well as reign in, and whether it elicits wistful smiles or twisted guitar faces, it’s worth the journey.
12. Fool’s Gold, “Leave No Trace” (IAMSOUND)
Pared down from a sprawling collective to a tight quintet, Fool’s Gold marries its Afro/Caribbean sound to ’80s radio influences on its sophomore album, and tropi-pop’s loss is our gain. “Leave No Trace” works thanks to singer Luke Top’s almost Moz-like entreaties, and the pointillist guitar work of Lewis Pesacov, whose licks burst atop the complex rhythms like bubbles on a fizzy drink. At times it’s as if they’ve crashed a Cure concert wearing brightly colored print shirts and orange sunglasses rather than black and eyeliner. The colors suit them.
13. Dawes, “Nothing Is Wrong” (ATO)
The Malibu-bred foursome’s pristine trip to the Laurel Canyon of the 1970s waxes dramatically about the various muses in songwriter Taylor Goldsmith’s life, the prominent one being the city of Los Angeles itself. His crisp guitar work, yearning vocals and introspective yarns are the stuff of veteran musicians, not a twentysomething on his sophomore album. Indeed, the cred Dawes earned from Jackson Browne and Robbie Robertson (each of whom tabbed the quartet as his back band) was well-deserved, and “Nothing is Wrong” is simply testimony to Dawes’ folk-rock craft.
14. The Sea of Cortez, “Make It Sound” (self-released)
If good ol’ indie-rock got the respect it deserved, these guys would be headlining gigs around town, if not blowing people away on tour. After teasing in 2010 with the sprawling, cinematic track “The Shores,” the Sea of Cortez polished an album that hopscotches from atmospheric anthems to art-pop to post-rock in a way few bands can, at least on one disc (although Yo La Tengo comes to mind). Vanishing youth, recurring alienation and the inner battles with both: All are confronted here a way that might make you lose your head, and find it too.
15. Hanni El Khatib, “Will the Guns Come Out” (Innovative Leisure)
Unabashedly retro and undeniably testosterone-charged, the San Francisco-bred skater/shredder’s garage-soul is full of salt and sharp edges and, as advertised, “songs for anyone who’s ever been shot or hit by a train.” El Khatib is the latest, and one of the most adept, in a line of artists to extract a full emotional and aural experience from mere guitar-and-drums. This is not your grandpa’s ’50s, unless your grandpa had a two-pack-a-day habit and a rap sheet.
16. The Sister Ruby Band, “In Cold Blood” (self-released)
In an era when most psychedelia relies on heavy distortion and/or production that amounts to sonic graffiti, the Sister Ruby Band takes more painterly approach. Their under-the-radar release falls somewhere in the realm of the anthemic ooze of the Verve, the acoustic sprawl of Spiritualized and the woozy world of Black Rebel Motorcyle Club. Frontman Johnny Ruby (born Marlon Rabenreither) had worked on his music in between studies at art school in London, and now back home with solid backing band he can tap into L.A.’s vibrant psych-rock community. He should be embraced.
||| Previously: “Straight Into Your Heart.”
17. Gardens & Villa, “Gardens & Villa” (Secretly Canadian)
Maybe just as unlikely as falling for a band in charro suits: Tripping out over a band packing wood flutes. The Santa Barbara quintet’s beguiling mix of the organic and electronic is the stuff of half-awake dreams, precise and melodic in the foreground but a bit foreboding behind the curtain. The wizard who lurked there, Richard Swift, produced the debut from Shane McKillop, Chris Lynch, Adam Rasmussen, Levi Hayden and Dusty Ineman in his seemingly mystical place in Oregon. Jethro Tull it ain’t. An intoxicating first record it is.
18. Mariachi El Bronx, “Mariachi El Bronx II” (ATO)
If you disbelieved the Bronx’s first excursion into south-of-the-border sounds (who, me?), the punk rockers’ alter egos took on larger-than-life personas on their second album as Mariachi El Bronx. Frontman Matt Caughthran, all anguished screams as a hardcore guy, can flat-out belt as an anguished romantic, and from the guitar and accordion stylings of Joby J. Ford and Vincent Hidalgo right down to their charro suits, Mariachi El Bronx make it clear their music is more than just play-acting. Hard to resist singing along, very hard.
19. The One AM Radio, “Heaven Is Attached by a Slender Thread” (Dangerbird)
Songwriter/producer/purveyor of all things bittersweet Hirishikesh Hirway makes some of the finest bedroom pop around, and on his second album for our favorite Silver Lake-based label he pulls up the shades and throws the windows open. Maybe owing to the production flourishes from Tony Hoffer, “Heaven” is electro-pop that feels bright and expansive even as Hirway gets all Moz about old lovers, the perils of Los Angeles and emotional regeneration. Recommended if you like a lot of current Swedish electro-pop, or if you remember Stars’ very early work.
20. Voxhaul Broadcast, “Timing Is Everything” (self-released)
Where timing might not be everything. The O.C.-bred, L.A.-based quartet’s debut was long-overdue, its 50-plus-minute mix of rock ’n’ soul, danceable indie and garage-y neo-psychedelia representing a kind of “look what we’ve done so far” (some material dated to 2007). It’s a great start, especially “Leaving on the 5th.” Frontman David Dennis and bandmates – now on the board with this release (and a follow-up digital EP)– can set about honing their artistic direction. Which is everything else.
Depending on your music-buying budget and genre preferences, these albums [links in our glossary] are also recommended:
Daniel Ahearn, “Long Way Home”
Jim Bianco, “Loudmouth”
Bikos, “Make Your Sound Sound”
The Elected, “Bury Me in My Rings”
400 Blows, “Sickness and Health”
Frankel, “Sugar Twists Like Hurricane”
Nik Freitas, “Saturday Night Underwater”
Heywood, “Skills for the Long Emergency”
Holloys, “Sun Lungs”
Honeyhoney, “Billy Jack”
Jack’s Mannequin, “People and Things”
Light FM, “Buzz Kill City”
Liquid Love Letter, “If/Then”
Judson McKinney, “Drink the Wine”
Just an Animal, “Lonely Hunter”
The Milk Carton Kids, “Prologue”
Miracle Parade, “Hark … And Other Lost Transmissions”
The New Division, “Shadows”
Pepper Rabbit, “Red Velvet Snow Ball”
Pollyn, “Living in Patterns”
Rival Sons, “Pressure and Time”
The Robotanists, “Plans in Progress”
Arrica Rose & the …’s, “Let Alone Sea”
David Serby, “Poor Man’s Poem”
Spindrift, “Classic Soundtracks Vol. 1”
The Spires, “Forever City Chorus”
Mia Doi Todd, “Cosmic Ocean Ship”
Walking Sleep, “The Tarp Sessions”
War Widow, “War Widow”
Wires in the Walls, “New Symmetry”
Henry Wolfe, “Linda Vista”