I spent more time this year immersing myself in the music of the San Francisco Bay Area than in any year prior, so in that regard it’s a wonder I had time to consider any other music. But consider I did, and looking back, there were quite a number of noteworthy moments. Here are five that stood out the most for me in a year that, as usual, was overflowing with such moments:
The Beach Boys: The SMiLE Sessions
I had a hard time believing that Brian Wilson actually agreed to release the Beach Boys’ long-mythologized sessions for the legendary SMiLE. But then the day came when the package was in my hands, and at that point there was no choice but to believe.
In terms of packaging, Capitol went all-out to get this thing right: from the miniature 2-CD box to the double vinyl package to the enormous 5 CD/2 LP/2 7″ vinyl boxed set, the attention to detail in terms of using all original period artwork and historically correct type settings and label designs is just staggering. Furthermore, the sequencing and organization of the 4 discs’ worth of sessions and outtakes is both logical and listenable. You can break it up in chunks and listen for pleasure, or simply refer back to them as references when you need to.
Then there’s the music of the core album material. Listening to the newly assembled SMiLE program – especially in the vinyl edition, where the low end frequencies are stronger, giving the album that oft-discussed “warmth” that is missing from CDs and digital downloads – was nothing short of a religious experience. Hearing just how seamlessly the album flows from theme to interlocking theme, with the Beach Boys’ 1966-67 voices imparting a youthful innocence that is absent from the no less amazing 2004 recording that Brian completed as a solo album, I experienced a sensation that was the closest natural approximation I’ve ever felt to that one time I took acid. Only this time, rather than feeling immersed in the revelation of our internally and externally universal interconnectedness upon hearing the widely reverberating sound of a piss stream following its path down the pipes of a portable urinal, I instead felt it upon hearing this beautiful, timeless, classic album. No drugs were required – after all, Brian and his inner circle did plenty of that already in 1966 and 1967. Now we can reap the benefits without the side effects.
Ash Reiter: Heatwave
This six song mini album was a big highlight in a year full of them. It marked a new level of pop songwriting craft for Berkeley-based Ash Reiter the artist, and a fine debut for the current lineup of Ash Reiter the band. The depth and breadth of the songs – from funky ruminations on the city of Oakland, to a lightly rockin’ personal push to be a more assertive communicator in “I’m Gonna Try,” to a classy folk pop appeal for lovers to “Make Amends,” and the title track’s brilliant questioning of climate change deniers in the context of an infectious pop song – shows enormous artistic growth. Plus, as they used to say back in the early ’60s, “it’s got a good beat and you can dance to it.”
tUnE-yArDs: W H O K I L L
Speaking of Oakland, Merrill Garbus has done more than most this year as far as giving Oakland a reason to be proud of its musical community. She has taken her band tUnE-yArDs to soaring new heights with their second album, expanding the sound to include pulsating West African rhythms, matched with unique instrumentation, a dazzling method of building and managing digital loops, and strongly delivered lyrics of personal empowerment. The band has traveled the world, played several major music festivals, and has been recognized by late-night TV hosts and influential music magazines, not to mention the adoring and enthusiastic audiences who oftentimes will mimic Merrill’s distinctive face-paint patterns on their own skin. The feeling down here on the ground is that this is just the beginning. Let’s hope so, because the world needs a band like tUnE-yArDs: positive, uplifting, original, innovative, culturally aware, and artistically inclusive of both the mainstream and the avant garde.
The Parson Red Heads: Yearling
Now based in Portland, the Parson Red Heads made a big leap this year when they released their second full-length album. Many of the songs on Yearling – among them the pulsating and groovy “When You Love Somebody” and the very spiritually satisfying “Time Is Running Out” – have been road tested by the band over the past three years, so to finally hear them in professionally recorded studio versions was a thrill and a dream come true. This is another positive, uplifting band that the world needs, and one whose importance also rests on their tirelessly carrying a torch for the classic folk/pop/rock of forebears The Byrds, Neil Young, The Beach Boys, Big Star, and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers while simultaneously channeling and championing contemporaries like Dawes, Everest, and Blitzen Trapper. Not only that, there are few if any bands whose music so beautifully and congruently matches the inner beauty of the band members as human beings.
R.E.M.: Collapse Into Now and Part Lies Part Heart Part Truth Part Garbage 1982-2011
Give credit to R.E.M. for writing the end of their story on their own terms. They controlled the message, they delivered it themselves, and they did it with integrity and grace, just like everything else this band has ever done. Not only that, what they released in Collapse Into Now is a final album that stands among Murmur, Life’s Rich Pageant, Automatic For The People, and whatever your favorite R.E.M. album is (for the record, mine is New Adventures in Hi-Fi) as one of their all-time best. The double CD compilation that followed later in the year also stands as the definitive introduction to, and distillation of, the band’s catalog of music, and is fine listening regardless of the band’s history and importance. Here’s to owning your destiny, and thank you to R.E.M. for showing us how it’s done with an unbeatable soundtrack.
Paul Simon catalog reissues 1971-1990
Brian Wilson In The Key of Disney
Fleet Foxes Helplessness Blues
Miles Davis Live In Europe 1967: The Bootleg Series Vol. 1
Vetiver The Errant Charm
Radiohead The King of Limbs
The Twilight Singers Dynamite Steps
Ever Isles Cocoon
The Cars Move Like This
Juliana Hatfield There’s Always Another Girl
Magic Leaves GLOW
Red Hot Chili Peppers I’m With You
The Beehavers The Fairgrounds