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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.