Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Top music news of 2011

Thinking back on the big music-related happenings of this year, five stories and trends seemed to take center-stage, at least from my perspective.

5. Amy Winehouse, RIP. The troubled “Rehab” singer’s death at age 27 (July 23, 2011) brought immediate comparisons to Janice Joplin, another soulful femme who died of a drug overdose at the same age. Whether the comparisons are fair or not, the news of another talented but troubled musician who left the stage too soon was tragic news for many music fans. But her music lives on, as a new album of unreleased material is coming out just in time for the holidays.

4. Enter the new divas. While Amy Winehouse’s death may have left a void for some music fans, 2011 saw many other female acts step up. Most visible was Adele, a crooner who drew inspiration from Winehouse’s jazzy style. Rihanna never left, and showed up in the oddest places, including a Coldplay track. Lykke Li brought a fresh new voice from Scandinavia, Fiest made a comeback and Florence Welch (Florence + The Machine) came on strong toward the end of the year.

3. R.E.M. calls it quits. “You mean they were still around?” So asked one Facebook friend in her status update upon hearing the news that, after 30 years, one of the greatest rock bands of my generation announced they were breaking up. Unlike many bands, however, Michael Stipe and company left on a high note, on the heels of one of the group’s strongest albums in years, Collapse Into Now.

2. Going Gaga -- for 99 cents. When Amazon decided to offer an mp3 version of Lady Gaga’s latest album, Born This Way, for 99 cents, they discovered that even their servers couldn’t handle the demand of Gaga’s little monsters. And curiosity seekers, like me, who decided it was worth a buck to download the album. But was it really worth the buck?

1. Get on my cloud. But which one? Cloud music services burgeoned in 2011. Amazon’s cloud music service, digital streaming service Spotify opening to the U.S. and the public launch of Google Music all could change the music game. Both Amazon and Google Music allow users to upload their own tunes to the cloud, while Spotify lets you play tunes from your hard drive while also accessing music from the cloudstream. Is cloud music the wave of the future? Some in the music business aren’t enamored of streaming services. One distributor, STHoldings, which represents 200 (mostly small) labels, recently announced it was withdrawing its entire catalog from Spotify, Napster, Rdio and similar services. But that may not mean much to Spotify, which announced today that it was launching a platform for third-party apps. That could be the biggest news of the year for the music business, and could also impact publishing and other sectors.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Oldies but Goodies: Five Albums You (Might) Have Missed The First Time

While I've been preening my list and checking it twice getting ready for this year's installment of Higher Ed Music Critics, I can honestly say I've spent more of 2011 listening to stuff released well before it than any other year in the past. There's no real rhyme or reason for this, it's just worked out that way.

I've decided to whet the thistle of your playlist appetite by digging into my virtual vault to pull out a few notable pieces that have gotten some playing time in the past year or so.

Black Tambourine (2010)

Black Tambourine were a twee-pop act that hailed from Maryland of all places, at a time when most indie pop acts were coming over from the UK. Slumberland Records released a compilation of their complete records with six more songs last year (hence the 2010) but these guys were a blip on the screen in the early 90s. Despite having a very short lifespan, they're considered one of the major influencers of a dozen or so major indie rock acts that you can hear today ranging from Vivian Girls to Frankie Rose & The Outs and one of my favorites of this year, Crystal Stilts.  

If you like indie pop, there are no words for me to describe how great this LP is. Just play it and it'll fill in the blanks for you.

The Beach Boys - Pet Sounds (1966)

I have a wistful memory of "oldies" music, because it reminds me of fishing trips with my grandfather growing up. He always had the oldies station playing and a few songs stayed in my memory over the years, most notable among these The Beach Boys tracks. I had no idea how good this album was or how "ahead of its time" it was when it released. Pet Sounds holds up extremely well over forty-five years later.

Madrugada - Industrial Silence (1999)

I don't know when I first ran into Madrugada, but I have to say they've lept to the top of my favorite bands list after spending some quality time over the past year with their catalog. Their debut LP, Industrial Silence is what I like to call "the best alternative album no one's ever heard." A band from Norway, these guys slipped under the radar in the pre-MP3 era and faded into obscurity before they could develop anything other than a underground fan base. But their sound is a kind of proto-grunge that sounds great.

Blacktop - I've Got A Baaad Feeling About This (The Complete Records) (2003)

Mick Collins is a Detroit scenester who has been putting out music for well over two decades with a bevy of bands most notably The Dirtbombs. Blacktop is one of his many short-lived side projects, but in my opinion is the absolute best. It's garage rock at its finest, recorded from 1994-96 during the band's short lifespan. It's upbeat, shake the sand out of your feet from the beach rock and roll that you don't hear people making much anymore. Much less from fifteen years ago never to be heard from. This stuff is the goods, no doubt.

Ultimate Spinach (1967)

I like contemporary psychedelic bands like Dead Meadow, The Black Angels, Tame Impala and Dungen, so it made sense at some point to go back and listen to older bands that I might have enjoyed from the actual era. I'm pretty sure that Ultimate Spinach was recommended to me by sometime last year and I dove in head first. It's not my favorite band of that era and it's a real headtrip, but it's pretty good stuff anyway.

So there you go. None of these were released in 2011, but they're all worth adding to your musical buffet of delights. Enjoy!

Ron Bronson has been in a perpetual state of redesign. He is currently the webmaster at Eastern Wyoming College. He blogs less frequently these days at

Sunday, November 27, 2011

New year, new countdown, new critics

It's time once again for the people who post on this her blog, the self-proclaimed Higher Ed Music Critics, to share our collective and individual thoughts about the year's best music. This marks the third year of a project that began with an ambitious ranking and countdown of the top 100 albums of the first decade of the 2000s. (Technically, it was a ranking of the best albums released between 2000 and 2009, which wasn't the first decade of the 2000s, since the year 2000 actually marked the end of the '90s. But tell that to the hundreds of other music bloggers who did the same thing a year early.)

In year two, we scaled back our approach and focused on the top 50 albums of that year only.

Now, for year three, we're taking the same approach as year two and preparing our rankings of the top 50 albums of 2011. We do so with a slight change in the lineup.

New to the Higher Ed Music Critics collective this year are Joel Goodman, Mark Greenfield, Gordon Ryan, Alaina Wiens and Dylan Wilbanks. Joel and Dylan both shared guest posts last year (Dylan's is here and Joel's here), but Mark, Gordon and Alaina are complete newcomers to the effort. We're excited to add their perspectives to the effort.

Also this year, a few past contributors are taking this year off. Georgy Cohen, who was one of the original bloggers at this site, is focusing on her new business and other projects this year. Jenna Spinelle and Mike Petroff, who contributed to last year's effort, are also sitting this one out. Their insight with past projects has been highly valuable, as each brought a slightly different perspective to the effort. We hope they'll be able to rejoin us in 2012.

You can read a bit more about current and past contributors in the sidebar titled "The Monsters of List." There you'll also find our Twitter handles so you can connect with us via that network and harangue us about our suspect taste. In the meantime, we have lists to make. But we'll see you soon.