Yes, Virginia, there was a plethora of interesting, good, even great music -- in all genres -- to enjoy in 2011. Of course, you often had to look hard for it. Thankfully, Style Weekly's music writers kept their ears open, making note of the best new releases, the most noteworthy trends and the truly memorable musical moments of the year. Listen up:
Top 11 Releases of 2011
Beach Boys, "The Smile Sessions" (Capitol) -- Brian Wilson's never-released 1966 masterpiece (which was supposed to include "Good Vibrations," still one of the most audacious pop singles ever to hit No. 1) has circulated privately among musicians and fans for decades; it now serves as prime inspiration for a growing number of contemporary performers, from Animal Collective and Fleet Foxes to the Shins and Sufjan Stevens. Far from being dated, Wilson's ambitious "failure" holds up as a singular achievement for the ages -- a never-ending wellspring of ideas, riffs, harmonies and hooks. Choice cut: "Cabinessence."
Radiohead, "The King of Limbs" (Radiohead) -- The world's greatest contemporary rock band creates another near-perfect record. Choice cut: "Morning Mr. Magpie."
Dodos, "No Color" (Frenchkiss) -- So crammed with great songs and full-bodied performances that you may not even realize you're being rocked by a mere duo playing acoustic guitars and minimal drums. Choice cut: "Good."
Thee Oh Sees, "Carrion Crawler / The Dream" (In the Red) -- This inspired, San Fran garage band released not one but two of the year's best discs (the other was "Castlemania"). You say today's bands don't rock? Allow this to shut you up. Choice cut: "The Dream."
Charles Bradley, "No Time For Dreaming" (Dunham) -- As reverent and danceable as it can be, a lot of today's neo soul and retro funk can't really stand up to the older music it emulates. Veteran soulster Bradley's excellent effort is a notable, and powerful, exception. Choice cut (and an anthem befitting our current politics): "The World (Is Going up in Flames)."
Shabazz Palaces, "Black Up" (SubPop) -- An inspired new duo (including Butterfly from Digable Planets) re-jiggers the tired hip-hop formula and releases an art exhibition set to eccentric beats. Choice cut: "An Echo from the Hosts That Profess Infinitum."
Mekons, "Ancient and Modern" (Sin) -- This is the best-produced music in the veteran punk-country band's long (and distinguished) discography; if the songs themselves don't always match the aural exotica, there also isn't a bad one in the lot. Choice cut: "Calling All Demons."
Dengue Fever, "Cannibal Courtship" (Fantasy) -- The finest effort yet from a multiethnic ensemble that fuses '60s pop and traditional Cambodian music with such panache that it's possible to mistake the band's exotic originals for period classics. Vocalist Chhom Nimol is the anchor of the swirling Dengue sound. When she and the band find the groove, it's like getting caught up in a sonic windstorm. Choice cut: "Uku."
St. Vincent, "Strange Mercy" (4AD) -- Sure, it's arty, pretentious and overreaching. But St. Vincent's sophomore disc also is dense, thrilling and filled with so many wow-worthy guitar licks and bizarre production touches that it's nearly impossible not to return to it, again and again, picking out something new to love every time. It's like Captain Beefheart's "Trout Mask Replica" in designer clothes. Choice cut: "Cheerleader."
Wooden Shjips, "West" (Thrill Jockey) -- Reminiscent of a psychedelic steamroller, the Shjips' third disc confidently locks into heavy grooves and takes you on a droning magic-carpet ride. Fascinating and ridiculous in equal measure. Choice cut: "Lazy Bones."
Kurt Vile, "Smoke Ring for My Halo" (Matador) -- This native of Lansdown, Penn., scores big with a hypnotic masterpiece filled with shimmering folk guitar and warm analog atmospherics. It's the album Neil Young hasn't made in 15 years. Choice cut: The title track.
Honorable mentions: Dum Dum Girls, "Only in Dreams" (SubPop); Tom Waits, "Bad As Me" (Anti-); Wilco, "The Whole Love" (dBpm); Doomtree, "No Kings" (Doomtree); Akron/Family, "S/T II: The Birth and Journey of Shinju TNT" (Dead Oceans); Adele, "21" (Columbia); Michael Hurley, "Fatboy Spring" (Secret Seven); Raphael Saadiq, "Stone Rollin'" (Columbia); Washed Out, "Within and Without" (Subpop); Thee Oh Sees, "Castlemania" (In the Red).
Most invigorating show: Original P at the Richmond Folk Festival. This is where the most diverse crowd I've ever seen at a Richmond music event (young, old, all races, genders and affiliations) bumped and shimmied together in a sea of gyrating joy.
Most surprising show: The Monkees at Innsbrook. It could have been just another oldies cash-in show, but the Pre-Fab Four (minus Mike Nesmith and plus a hot, reverent backing band) managed to turn the Snagajob Pavilion into both a pop-music remedial learning center and a colorful psychedelic freak-for-all. Can you dig it?
Most memorable local videos: "I Got It" by Noah-O and "Joey Rodriquez" by Amazing Ghost.
Most insipid "controversy": The closing down of The Hospital, a "secret venue" that was about as secret as Kim Kardashian's last sex tape, provided some with 15 minutes of misdirected outrage this year.
Best CDs of 2011
Charles Bradley, "No Time for Dreaming" (Dunham) -- Charles Bradley used to make a living as a James Brown impersonator, but his gritty, soulful vocals are for real -- and so are his catchy '70s-styled songs backed by the young Menahan Street Band, featuring members from Antibalas, Dap Kings and Budos Band.
Tom Waits, "Bad As Me" (Anti-) -- Waits comes back strong with a collection of shorter, but still moving songs that seem to draw from various stages of his career; and his famous vocals sound the best they have in years.
Total Control, "Henge Beat" (Iron Lung) -- An Australian post-punk band that rocks. It incorporates a wide range of offbeat influences, from Eno and Wire to Suicide and the Swell Maps, into a moody, shape-shifting sound that hints at more good things to come.
Washed Out, "Within & Without" (SubPop) -- Dreamy '80s synth music that feels smarter and fleshier than the usual Digital pop wash.
Tune-Yards, "Whokill" (4AD) -- New England native Merrill Garbus has a flare for multifaceted pop and world music. It's danceable, it's funky, and it's an inspired sound often built on live drum loops, ukulele, and her powerful voice that sounds like it came straight from Rosie the Riveter.
Ice Age, "New Brigade" (What's Your Rupture) -- The sound of angry young kids from Iceland -- mixing hardcore, punk and new-wave influences -- for something brutal and alive and a little bit scary, as it should be.
Shabazz Palaces, "Black Up" (SubPop) -- Hip-hop has been getting stale for years, and while there wasn't a clear stylistic innovator this year, the Seattle duo of Shabazz Palaces dropped this psychedelic album with atmospheric beats, jazz flourishes, and thought-provoking lyrics that trigger the imagination with cinematic flare.
Gillian Welch, "The Harrow and the Harvest" (Acony) -- It took forever to arrive, but beguiling songstress Gillian Welch and her partner, guitarist David Rawlings, still know how to write and sing mellow folk songs of rare beauty with the best duets of all time. Not her best, but still an album to grow on.
Various artists, "This May Be My Last Time Singing: Raw African-American Gospel on 45 RPM 1957-1982" (Tompkins Square) -- Music critic and collector Mike McGonigal hit the mother lode on his latest; these sweaty tunes of divine inspiration, including Pentecostal jams and drum-machine gospel, will get you off your butt in a hurry and somersaulting down the pews.
Charles "Packy" Axton, "Late Late Party: 1965-1967" (Light in the Attic Records) -- Featuring early Southern R&B work from the legendary session team of guitarist Steve Cropper and bassist Donald "Duck" Dunn, the tenor saxophonist and bandleader serves up the perfect album of instrumentals for your late-night, greasy spoon grooves.
Various artists, "To What Strange Place: The Music of the Ottoman-American Diaspora, 1916-1929" (Tompkins Square) -- A mesmerizing three-CD collection of otherworldly music, recorded before the Great Depression in New York by immigrants from Anatolia, the Eastern Mediterranean and the Levant. Turn back the time and hear community music that resonates with longing for home as well as the incredible new influence of the alien big city.
Best Shows of 2011
Ty Segall at Strange Matter (March 7): If you love loud, punky garage rock with pop hooks, it would be difficult to top this nonstop, blistering show from the prolific Californian tune master.
Lake Street Dive at Balliceaux (May 10): Booker Chris Bopst has an eye for up-and-coming talent, and he scored with this breezy and soulful New York pop group led by the sexy-as-hell, Scarlet Johannsen-in-a-can vocals of jazz singer Rachel Price. The group's spine-tingling, slow encore cover of the Jackson 5's "I Want You Back" was a musical highlight of the year.
Kepone reunion (Gwar-BQ) at the National (Sept. 17): Anyone who saw Kepone, one of Richmond's all-time most-talented hard-rock bands, back in its '90s heyday understands how impressive it was that three 40-something dudes could take off for 13 years then come roaring back without missing a beat. This isn't easy music to play. The highly anticipated Gwar-BQ reunion was a triumphant return to form that led to a high-profile gig opening for Scratch Acid at the 9:30 Club and East Coast dates with local metal superstars Lamb of God. Finally, recognition served.
Paul Simon at the Landmark Theater (Nov. 30): Few legends charging this much money are actually worth it. One of Simon's great tours had it all, two-hours-plus worth of hits, rarities, decent new songs and covers -- and of course, a mesmerizing, updated solo acoustic rendition of "Sounds of Silence," which I've been wanted to hear live since I saw "The Graduate."
Richmond Varietease Burlesque Show at Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (Sept. 23): This had good idea written all over it in Hot Topic lipstick. After being booted from the Canal Club because of some draconian ABC law, the sultry burlesque dancers of Richmond Varietease had an affirming, sold-out show at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts inspired by its "Faberge Revealed" exhibit. Spectacles were steamed over, eggs were fondled, and as Queen Bee Maggie Burnside might say, "The hot light was on at Krispy Kreme, honey."
Best CDs of 2011
Charles Bradley, "No Time for Dreaming" (Dunham) -- The Daptone factory doesn't make lemons and this release was ready to roll. A former James Brown impersonator finds his voice in a gut bucket of songs of pain, loss and love.
"Henley Family Gospel Singers" (self) -- Powhatan's finest gospel group released its first CD after decades of touring local churches and gospel concerts. Its throwback sound was provided by former D'Angelo collaborator and cousin, Marlon Cox, who is working on his own album in 2012.
King, "The Story" (King) -- This trio set the bar high with its debut EP, a collection of soothing soul that's the perfect soundtrack for a road trip. Next year we'll expect the group to go the distance with a full release of futuristic R&B.
Adele, "21" (Columbia) -- While "19" showed more range and depth, Adele's second album was a good numeral as well. She's mastered the sweeping pop ballad, a genre she seems built for. Let's hope she takes it slow and remembers that her next number doesn't have to be consecutive.
Amy Winehouse, "Lioness: Hidden Treasures" (Universal Republic) -- Yes, the songs that Amy left on the floor were better than most of popular music in 2011.
Raphael Saadiq, "Stone Rollin'" (Columbia) -- He might have given up on leading R&B music to its next phase, but the bassist has a firm grip on the sounds of yesterday and he's not letting go. "Stone Rollin'" was his second trip down memory lane and this journey was just as enjoyable as the first.
Gretchen Parlato, "The Lost and Found" (Obliqsound) -- Lush and captivating, the jazz singer's latest release was unforgettable. Her reconstruction of pop and R&B hits as jazz songs lends them a dignity and grace that only she could lend.
The Year in Review
Best movie about music: First-time director Michael Rappaport's love letter to A Tribe Called Quest, "Beats Rhymes and Life," wasn't a perfect film, but it finally proved that some rap groups are worthy of the same analysis and criticism as rock bands.
Most disappointing comeback: When the band formerly known as the Time reappeared under the moniker of the Original 7ven, because of Prince's legal claim to the name, it was only a matter of time before things went south. The group managed a couple of shows and television appearances after the October release of "Condensate," but by mid-December, original member Jesse Johnson had announced on his Facebook page that he'd left the group. If the rest of the band wants to continue it will need a new guitarist -- and a new name.
Best re-release: We can thank former United Nations Ambassador Andrew Young (and his business partners) for Bounce TV and the return of America's greatest cultural treasures to weekly television -- old "Soul Train" episodes. Now we don't have to tell 'em how it used to be; they can see for themselves.
Worst moment: She told us she was trouble, so most of us weren't astonished when British soul singer Amy Winehouse was found dead in her London flat. Known for her rude behavior and refusal to reform, the singer left a legacy of tortured R&B songs and jazz-tinged ballads that are unmatched in the modern era. She didn't just sing her songs, she lived them. And they will live on.
Best CDs of 2011
Ellie Goulding, "Lights" (Interscope)
Real Estate, "Days" (Domino)
The Decemberists, "The King is Dead" (Capitol)
Foster the People, "Torches" (Columbia)
Emperor X, "Western Teleport" (Bar None)
The Rosebuds, Loud Planes Fly Low (Merge)
Doomtree, No Kings (Doomtree)
Okkervil River, "I Am Very Far" (Jagjaguwar)
Farewell Flight, "Out for Blood" (Mono vs. Stereo)
Bon Iver, "Bon Iver" (Jagjaguwar)
The Year in Review
Best local album: Mechanicsville native Ross Wright released "Hallelujah, There's a Place for Me," an album full of folk rock meets indie-synth pop that doesn't focus on any one genre but is excellent enough to keep on repeat.
Best show at the National: The National has had some amazing shows this year, including Crystal Castles, Jimmy Eat World, the Flaming Lips, Foster the People and Sufjan Stevens. But for me, the one that stood out the most was from the Mountain Goats in March. The group gave fans a taste of songs it was playing live for the first time. This is where I learned that Mountain Goats followers are pretty much on par with Justin Bieber fans when it comes to losing their minds at the concert.
Best show at a smaller venue: The farewell show at Sprout, which featured a huge roster of bands playing into the night while they said goodbye to their favorite venue.
Best new local discovery: No band caught my attention this year like Dead Fame, a newly formed group of dark, indie-pop rockers that reminded me so much of the Cure and Bauhaus that I feel instantly in love.
Best "Richmond-music-makes-the-big-time" moment: No BS Brass trombonist Reggie Pace joined Bon Iver and appeared on various talk shows including "The Colbert Report" and "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon" before coming home to a sold-out show at the National and overwhelming support from fans.
Saddest moment in local music: Many of Richmond's best music venues shut their doors this year, including Sprout, Grandpa Eddie's, the Triple, Plaza Bowl and Shenanigans. Although Kingdom rose from the ashes of Alley Katz's demise, the loss of so many venues was a definite blow to the music scene.
Most uplifting local music moment: A group of local musicians including White Laces, the Atkinsons, VCR and many others got together to honor their friend and fellow musician Ross Harman, who took his life last year. The touching benefit show at Edo's Squid raised more than $4,000 to release a tribute album entitled, "Love Me When I'm Gone," featuring covers of Harman's songs.
Best show that I'm kicking myself for not going to: The National appearance of Okkervil River. It figures that I fall in love with the group's latest release, "I Am Very Far," right after its appearance here.
Top 11 CDs of 2011
St. Vincent, "Strange Mercy" (4AD) -- Annie Clark's angelic voice delivering songs full of sex and darkness flanked by psychedelic riffs is intoxicating. Album of the year. Period.
Lydia Loveless, "Indestructible Machine" (Bloodshot) -- Think a dust-kickin' Neko Case circa "Virginian" with more F-bombs.
Lykke Li, "Wounded Rhymes" (Atlantic) -- A collection of feral songs that pounds with intensity and occasionally smashes your heart.
Adele, "21" (Columbia) -- Adele got dumped and we got an amazing from-the-guts soul record inspired by the singer's exploration of songs by ladies such as Loretta Lynn and presumably a few shots of whiskey.
Jeff the Brotherhood, "We Are the Champions" (Infinity) -- Jagged guitars and hammering rhythms rock your face off in fewer than 30 minutes. "Stay Up Late" quickly became a late-night party anthem. Quite a punch for a team of two.
Wild Flag, "Wild Flag" (Merge) -- Four ladies with solid, post-punk pedigrees crank it to 11 and make up one of the most revered super groups to surface in years.
Widowspeak, "Widowspeak" (Captured Tracks) -- Don't discount this Brooklyn trio if you're part of the hipster-be-damned set. Molly Hamilton and company churn out swoon-worthy tracks that shimmer and fade with intensity.
Yuck, "Yuck" (Fat Possum) -- Off-kilter tuning and reverb quakes sparked countless Sonic Youth comparisons ever since Yuck emerged from the London scene. Its debut is pure, glorious dissonance that indicates these kids are less concerned with being intentionally complex and more into having fun.
The Head and the Heart, "The Head and the Heart" (Sub Pop) -- The sweet harmonies of this Seattle outfit rival those that emerged from Laurel Canyon back in the '70s.
The Kills, "Blood Pressures" (Domino) -- The quintessential rock 'n' roll duo explores bluesy new territory on its fourth album, stepping away from its signature sound, which suggests that Alison Mosshart may have been influenced by her work with Jack White.
Best Shows of 2011
St. Vincent at the Jefferson Theater (Oct. 30): My heartfelt sympathy to anyone in the audience who had an adverse reaction to the spastic light show that accompanied songs played to utmost perfection by Annie Clark.
Hopscotch Festival in Raleigh, N.C. (Sept. 8-10): With its eclectic lineup, day parties and incredible beer selection, Hopscotch continues to set the bar for how festivals should be executed.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. at the Camel (May 18): NASCAR jumpsuits and crowd participation fueled a show by this Detroit powerhouse.
Cults at the National (Sept. 23): Foster the People got schooled by one of the most worthy upstarts of the year. Joined by a few extra players, Brian Oblivion and Madeline Follin proved far more powerful live than one would expect.
Iceage at Strange Matter (Aug. 12): These Denmark youngsters blew into the River City and brought furious, throwback songs from their debut, "New Brigade," to a rabid crowd of youngsters and a handful of seasoned punks.
Lucinda Williams at the National (July 26): The living legend proclaimed mad love for Richmond during her stop here. The feeling was mutual from the nearly sold-out crowd.
Carolina Chocolate Drops at the National (May 1): This was a show, folks. Musical history, storytelling and straight-up solid pickin' from some of Durham's finest old-time string players.
Brandi Carlile at the National (May 22): This is a voice that folks will still be talking about years from now. The Seattle songwriter and her mighty band play a solid set that will make you squeal like a schoolgirl at a Justin Bieber show.
Sleigh Bells / CSS at the National (May 6): CSS lead singer Lovefoxxx demanded we throw down to her Brazilian beats, and Sleigh Bells blew eardrums gaining a little cred as more than just a studio band.
Jeff the Brotherhood at Strange Matter (Sept. 7): Sweat! Riffs! Beer splatter! Wait, two guys are responsible for this?!
Best CDs of 2011
Miguel Zenon, "Alma Adentro: The Puerto Rican Songbook" (Marsalis Music) -- A revelatory homecoming, featuring arrangements by the brilliant Guillermo Klein.
Miles Davis Quintet, "Live in Europe 1967: The Bootleg Series" (Sony Legacy) -- The quintessential modern jazz group at the height of its powers.
Rez Abbasi and Invocation, "Suno Suno" (Enja) -- A bit of a cheat, it could as easily have been Vijay Iyer's "Tirtha" (ACT) or Rudresh Manhanthappa's "Samdi" (ACT) -- but all three are here.
Charles Lloyd and Maria Farantouri, "Athens Concert" (ECM) -- A lyrical detour -- in Greek -- for one of the best current bands
Bon Iver, "Sing" (Jagjaguwar) / K.D. Lang, "Sing it Loud" (Nonesuch) -- A tie for best band featuring breakout Richmond players -- Reggie Pace and Daniel Clarke, respectively.
Old and New Things, "Ghosts" (self released) -- There were a lot of very good local albums this year. It's a close call, but this is the best.
Keith Jarrett, "Rio" (ECM) -- Transcendent playing by the master of free jazz piano.
Sonny Rollins, "Road Shows, Volume 2" (Emarcy) -- An undiminished giant, featuring a guest appearance from fellow legend Ornette Coleman.
Rene Marie, "Voice of My Beautiful Country (Motema Music)" -- Fiercely patriotic iconoclasm and more from the former Richmond singer.
Ambrose Akinmusire, "When the Heart Emerges Glistening (Blue Note) -- The debut of the year from a trumpeter full of promise.
Best Jazz (Etc.) of 2011
What makes something the best of the year? Is it sustained contribution from the likes of Brian Jones, Daniel Clarke or No BS Brass? Is it innovation, as in Spacebomb's launch, the breakout of the Scott Clark 4tet, or the bloody good fun of Glows in the Dark's Italian movie soundtrack project?
Is it the great moments? Like Samson Trinh's big band collision of the Beatles' "Dear Prudence" with Jobim's "The Waters of March" at Dogwood Dell; the Bon Iver (with Reggie Pace) sing-along to "Wolves" at the National; Gretchen Parlato's Modlin Center vocal solo on Wayne Shorter's "Juju"; the Bach-like interplay of UTV Chamber on a Sunday afternoon at the Black Hand; or the mesmerizing conch shells solo by Steve Turre at a Richmond Jazz Society concert.
Could it be the things everyone missed, such as Clay Ross' exuberant, criminally under-attended Matumbo gig at Balliceaux? Or the well-attended successes such as the Claudia Quartet sets at the Camel?
If the focus is on the best local albums, "Old and New Things" was the standout. But what about Ombak's "Fan Bricks," or Bryan Hooten's trombone solo CD? How can you judge Lydia Ooge's delicate "Lux Vacancy" against Beast Wellington's debut featuring the blowtorch vocals of Samantha Hewlett-Reed? How can you leave out Bio Ritmo? Or not pay attention to major label greatness from Vijay Iyer, Keith Jarrett, Sonny Rollins or two brilliantly individual CDs from Rene Marie?
It was a full year, and every choice obscures something possibly equally worthy. The best of the year is a moving target; a shotgun is more useful than a rifle. Even better would be the opportunity to reload.
Listening Locally in 2011
Noise ordinance be damned, local musicians inspired us with sheer volume doused in melodic attitude. A big nod to post punk was exhibited by bands such as Lost Tribe, Canary Oh Canary and Dead Fame, as well as the monthly No Richmond DJ nights at Balliceaux. Emphasizing the punk was Lost Tribe, whose self-titled LP and fog-shrouded shows were dark, dank delights. The jaw-dropping epics of Canary Oh Canary stretched into shoe-gaze territory on its debut, "Last Night in Sunway Knolls," while Dead Fame updated new wave for the 21st century.
The Snowy Owls swapped acoustic pop for electric fuzz and wrote some of the tastiest hooks this side of '90s alt rock. Their live sets were accentuated by stunning visual backdrops from Dave Watkins, who by day was creating a spectacular audio collage of experimental folk, psych, and post-rock for his album "When No One Else Is Here and Everyone Is Asleep." Hip-hop producer Ohbliv mish-mashed his own artistic influences into a head-bobbing brew of beats (and sometimes rhymes), including the "Yellow Gold" album with rapper Nickelus F and a stack of collaborations with the Just Plain Sounds collective.
The glorious Double Rainbow successfully bridged hip-hop with folk on its first release, "Fuck the Internet." Patrons of greatly missed venue Sprout were bathed in beer at its last show, an impromptu response to minimalist scuzz punks Nervous Ticks. Don't say you never got the chance to catch pop-punk band the Haverchucks, because they played shows literally every month in 2011.
Metal fans solemnly rejoiced when Forcefield Records released the self-titled debut of doom stalwarts Windhand and "Crimes of Faith" by the not-to-be-pigeonholed Balaclava. If any event embodied the do-it-yourself spirit of Richmond music, it was this summer's all-acoustic Island Power Jam. After practicing to live Led Zeppelin videos, Travis Tucker mastered the pipes, poses, and tight pants of Robert Plant while Zepp Replica brought down the house at the WRIR Under the Covers benefit. Finally, it's rad seeing local champions Chrome Daddy Disco and Kepone gigging again on the regular.