A lot happened this year; love and friendship; not everything worked out, and there were some ups and downs. And as I went through those experiences, they shined new lights on songs I thought I knew, and perhaps directed some of my choices in music.
This is what I listened to in 2011. I’m writing this down mostly for me (I figure it might be nice to go back to this list in a few years) but feel free to check out some of this music yourself.
Top artists in 2011
I’ve been listening to most of those for years now, but there are a few artists I did discover in 2011: Beirut, Communist Daughter, Camille O’Sullivan, Coming Soon and more.
The year I rediscovered Tom Waits
Ten years ago someone recommended Tom Waits’ Rain Dogs album to me. I liked it and went on to listen to more by Tom in the following years. I wasn’t a big fan in the first few years, but Tom’s growling voice is just amazing, and the noisy inventiveness of his music grows on you. This guy is a genius. If you’ve never heard his music, you owe it to yourself to listen to Small Change (1976), Blue Valentine (1978), Swordfishtrombones (1983), Rain Dogs (1985), Mule Variations (1999), Alice (2002) or Blood Money (2002) — to name a few.
Anyway, in 2011 I helped two friends discover Tom Waits, and they both loved it. One fell in love with Rain Dogs, and in July we went to see the Rain Dogs Revisited show in Fourvière featuring covers by artists such as Arthur H, St. Vincent and Camille O’Sullivan. The other one favors Orphans, a collection of old and new songs and sound experiments published in 2006.
Urged by their enthusiasm, I went back to Tom’s music. I had bought half of his studio albums long ago, then the other half at some point in 2010, but there were whole albums I hadn’t listened to yet. In the summer of 2011 I spent roughly one hour each day listening to Tom Waits — a full album every day, more or less.
Saying goodbye to Gil
I discovered Gil Scott-Heron a few years ago (back in 2008 or 2009 maybe?). Damn this man could write! Just listen to The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, H20gate Blues or Running. And songs such as The Bottle, Home Is Where the Hatred Is and Johannesburg are great jazz/soul/funk/whatever tunes if you want something that’s not just meaningful but also catchy as hell.
Gil died this year in May, at 62. His last album, I’m New Here, is short but great. I’d also recommend Spirits (the three-part piece The Other Side is amazing), Moving Target, and maybe a compilation of older classics such as Ghetto Style.
I still want to be Peter Hammill
When I started taking singing lessons, I basically wanted to become Peter Hammill. I just love Peter’s voice and style. Take a shot at Nadir’s Big Chance and hear for yourself.
I’ve been listening to Peter for years. Ten years ago I discovered Van der Graaf Generator (his band in the 1970s), and I didn’t like it much but it was intriguing. Then a few years later I remembered a few songs by VDGG and I just knew I’d love them if I listened to them again. Sometimes you need to let your taste in music mature a bit (the same thing happened to me with artists such as Radiohead and the Pixies).
I’d recommend A Black Box (I’ve been listening to Flight, a 20min piece, quite a lot this year… and I don’t even like long pieces!), In A Foreign Town, and of course Nadir’s Big Chance.
Beirut and Communist Daughter
Last year, when I was listening to a lot of Andrew Bird, Spotify would recommend Beirut as a similar artist. And surely Zach Condon’s voice is quite similar to Bird’s, but I felt the music was a bit dull. Earlier this year a good friend recommended Beirut again, I listened to one or two albums but didn’t like it much except for one song, Elephant Gun.
A few weeks later I came back to Beirut’s first album, The Gulag Orkestrar, making a conscious effort to get to know Beirut’s music because that particular friend loved it. And then I was hooked. Beirut is indie-rock meets Balkan brass bands; just try it.
In early October I also discovered a band called Communist Daughter. They have only one album for now, Soundtrack to the End, and I love it. At some point I would play the full album once or twice a day. I’ve been listening to three Beirut albums and this one Communist Daughter album over and over. Add two or three Andrew Bird albums to the mix, and you’ve got my Fall 2011 playlist right there.
Whistling along to Andrew Bird
I’m not sure how I discovered Andrew Bird a few years ago. The first song I heard was Oh No on the Noble Beast album and I loved it, so I bought the full album.
What can I say? I love Andrew’s voice. I love the playful, cryptic lyrics. I love how he uses his main instrument, the violin — thank god for pizzicato! —, and how he incorporates looping and guitar and glockenspiel and whistling — he’s a mean whistler — and more in his songs.
I’d recommend the albums Noble Beast and The Mysterious Production of Eggs. Just listen to this crescendo in The Privateers!
Marillion: I’ve been a fan of Marillion for most of my college years. Even though I don’t listen to this band as much as I used to, there are a few songs or albums I go back to once in a while. Anoraknophobia (2001) is great.
Jean-Louis Murat: His best album is probably Mustango. This year I discovered 1829 thanks to a friend; it’s a simple acoustic album of songs from 19th century songwriter Pierre-Jean de Béranger, with music written by Murat.
Camille O’Sullivan: I saw Camille on stage for Rain Dogs Revisited in Lyon and she gave a great performance. She’s an Irish actress and singer, and her stage performances are very dramatic — which is perfect for Tom Waits songs. It seems she doesn’t write her own music but mostly does live shows with cover versions of songs by Tom Waits, Nick Cave, Brel and more. This would usually put me off, but she’s such a good performer that I don’t care one bit (her version of The Mercy Seat is better than Nick Cave’s, but his version of (Are you) the one that I’ve been waiting for? remains unparalleled).
Bruce Springsteen: still the Boss.
Coming Soon: Nice band of French youngsters. Their second album, Ghost Train Tragedy, is very good. I love the songs Moonchild and Sweetheart.
Kate Bush: I spent most of this spring listening to the second half of Aerial, and especially to one song, Sunset — It’s that good.
David Bowie: Not a big fan of Bowie, but this year I discovered his 2003 album, Reality, and I love it.
Some of my favorite songs of 2011
- Coming Soon’s Sweetheart. (
Let me tell you something you don’t know, sweetheart: when I’m with you I wish I didn’t have to go.)
- Tom Waits’ Downtown Train. (
Will I see you tonight on a downtown train? All of my dreams just fall like rain.) As sung by St. Vincent that night in July, a bittersweet experience really.
- Communist Daughter’s Speed of Sound. In part because of this line which feels like it was written for me and for that moment in my life:
every time I fall in love is another time I’ll watch you walk away.
That’s all for 2011.