Robin Wheeler’s top 10 albums and concerts of 2011 (heard, seen and unseen edition)

Nate Burrell

The year 2011 doesn’t end with one giant stand-out album, but a pool of admirable work. A list of 20 favorites would have been so much easier. This list was dictated by my mood during one week in December. Ask me in a month, and it could be different.

With concerts, it’s not just about bearing witness to some great nights, but also the regret of shows missed and the ridiculous reasons why.

Ten Favorite Albums

Cults – “Cults”

Not even two years old, the New York duo of Madeline Follin and Brian Oblivion managed to capture the lo-fi power of ’60s garage rock with girl group-worthy vocals, without sounding like a dated throwback. “Go Outside” was the earworm of the year.

Hanni El Khatib – “Will the Guns Come Out”

California skate punk El Khatib created sparse and brutal soundscapes on a debut album with primal beats and fuzzed-out guitar that capture a dark hopelessness in songs like “Fuck It, You Win” and the doo-wop-freckled “Dead Wrong.”

The Features – “Wilderness”

Someone please give this Tennessee quartet their due, already. They continue making some of the wittiest pop-rock out there with “Wilderness,” their third full-length record. Don’t let their association with Kings of Leon (The Features are on KoL’s label) or presence on sparkly vampire movie soundtracks fool you; this is a smart band with the humor to write a song begging a lover to take everything but his records (“Fats Domino”).

Eleanor Friedberger – “Last Summer”

All of the creativity of her work with Fiery Furnaces, stripped of the noise and weirdness, Friedberger’s debut solo album is full of singer-songwriter pop that tell stories heavy on setting (“Scenes From Bensonhurst”) and heartache.

Ha Ha Tonka – “Death of a Decade”

West Plains’ favorite musical sons got some well-deserved publicity in the days before releasing their third album when Anthony Bourdain featured them on his Travel Channel show, “No Reservations.” Not only did the band get to barbecue with the acerbic chef, but they got to play their album’s opener, “Usual Suspects,” to a national audience. Ha Ha Tonka continues to move towards complex songwriting and arrangements without forgoing their Ozark roots, defying the southern-rock label.


Wanda Jackson – “The Party Ain’t Over”

Jack White brought Loretta Lynn to a new audience when he produced her 2004 album, “Van Lear Rose,” and he did it again for rockabilly legend Wanda Jackson this year. While he beefed up her backing band with his signature guitar blast, the songs and voice are pure Miss Jackson — growling and taking no prisoners, muttering, “You always have to push,” to White’s direction at the beginning of Amy Winehouse’s “You Know I’m No Good.”

PJ Harvey – “Let England Shake”

Polly Jean Harvey’s made quite the evolution in the two decades since she was an angry British farm girl begging us to look at her child-bearing hips in “Sheela-Na-Gig.” For her tenth album, Harvey adopted a softer, higher-pitched vocal style to create a sense of vulnerability on conflict-heavy tracks like “The Words That Maketh Murder.”

My Morning Jacket – “Circuital”

My Morning Jacket’s compositions aren’t good enough for the Muppets. So what? The two songs the band submitted to be performed by Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem in the most recent Muppet film form the center of “Circuital” — “Wonderful (It Matters to Me) and “Outta My System” didn’t make the cinematic cut. While the former is sweet and delicate enough for family audiences, the anti-establishment themes of the latter, paired with the complex orchestration are far too good for Disney. They’re much better paired with the dark tones and Jim James’ soaring voice.

The Vaccines – “What Did You Expect From the Vaccines?”

I expected the rave-up ’80s throwback punk, which they provided on “Wreckin’ Bar (Rah Rah Rah),” the chiming guitars in the breakneck-fast “Norgaard,” and the deep, straightforward rhythms of “Wolf Pack.” And I wasn’t disappointed at all.

Wilco - The Whole Love

Wilco – “The Whole Love”

No one can accuse Wilco of falling into a rut. No band has managed as many sonic changes over nearly 20 years. After a few near-misses with their last few albums, the band found a superb balance of experimental noise (“Art of Almost”), smart pop songwriting (“I Might”) and humor (Nick Lowe cover “I Love My Label”) with the first album released from their own label. For “The Whole Love,” Wilco took what they learned from every past album, combined it and reinvented themselves yet again.
        
Favorite Shows (Five I Saw, and Five I Stupidly Missed — Now With Flimsy Excuses!)

Click on the links to read reviews from KDHX volunteers.

Attended

Arcade Fire at Scottrade Center’s Concert Club – April 21

It would have been preferable to have had a St. Louis show by the Grammy-winning Québécoise at some point since they’re last show at the Rocket Bar. But this is what we got, and it was worth the wait. The larger venue gave the band a platform for a theme and graphics-heavy performance without curtailing the music’s emotional wallop.

Marshall Crenshaw with the Bottle Rockets at Off Broadway – January 19

Seventeen years into their career, St. Louis’ Bottle Rockets could rest on their back catalog and loving fan base. Instead they went into heavy rehearsal mode to step behind Detroit singer-songwriter Marshall Crenshaw for a short Midwestern tour. The tour opened at Off Broadway, and despite blizzard conditions, the show sold out with fans cheering the band’s next chapter.

Wanda Jackson at the Duck Room – March 27

Seeing idols in concert 50 years past their initial popularity is a tricky business that often rests on the ease of nostalgia. And while 73-year-old Jackson doesn’t shake her fringe like she did when she first toured with a young Elvis, she still has that fierce growl. Coupled with brave new material produced by Jack White, Jackson proved her relevance to a crowd that didn’t need convincing.

My Morning Jacket at the Pageant – August 2

Long overdue for a St. Louis visit — it had been five years since their last local show — My Morning Jacket hit town on one of the hottest days of the year. Jim James has one of the clearest, most power voices in modern rock. It soared for hours on the power of the orchestral work of his band.

Wilco at the Peabody Opera House – October 4

For a band that’s played damn near every venue around St. Louis, it was only appropriate that the second show at the restored Peabody Opera House would feature the band’s rich complexity that suits such a venue. A fine welcome home for Mr. Tweedy.

Missed

Elvis Costello at the Pageant – July 1

Chose to take my kid to Louisville and teach her to bet on the ponies that weekend.

The Features (opening for Kevin Devine) at the Old Rock House – September 10

Boycotted them as an opening act. It’s high time they headlined. I stand by this decision.

Ha Ha Tonka at Off Broadway – April 22

Let a tornado-phobic friend dictate my agenda. Which was probably a good idea.

Ravonettes at the Firebird – April 8

Allowed early reports of a packed, agitated crowd play on my pessimism.

Matthew Sweet at the Duck Room – October 15

While warning friends to buy their tickets because the show would sell out fast, failed to heed my own advice.

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