"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Got holiday iTunes certificates to burn? You could look to the deluge of top-10 lists for hints on what to buy. But since those lists so often include all the same albums in slightly different order — and because you’ve likely already formed an opinion on whether you’re into the well-liked albums by Bon Iver, PJ Harvey and Drake — how about some other ideas.
What about those excellent albums that never quite find their audience or get the acclaim they deserve? Rather than list the top albums of 2011, below are 10 (well, 11) albums that were overlooked and undervalued by consumers as well as critics — and we’ll include a “recommended if you like” guide with each so you can quickly find a new favorite in any genre. Think of it as a list for music lovers who are sick of lists. And, to avoid any post-list-making angst, they’re in alphabetical order.
European pop music doesn’t translate to American shores. Just ask Katy B, whose first solo album debuted at No. 2 in the U.K. but failed to get much praise beyond the same blogs and online publications that regularly fete the always deserving Robyn. Too bad: The hooks on “Broken Record” and “Katy B on a Mission” are tense and coiled, the imaginative beats move and morph insistently, and the hyperactive production tweaks tired dubstep conventions like she’s already tired of that trend. The young, flame-haired singer presides over it all with brash confidence and poise, delivering her tough-minded lyrics with a forceful voice and complete command of the beat. “On a Mission” is the sharpest, smartest pop record of the year, besting lackluster efforts by Britney Spears, Lady Gaga and even the usually impeccable Beyoncé.
For fans of: Katy Perry, Robyn
2011 may be remembered as the year when the underground hip-hop scene exploded, when unsigned newcomers like Danny Brown and Action Bronson had more clout, if not more sales, than most major-label rappers. Of this new generation of indie hip-hop artists, few sounded quite as smart or as conflicted as Memphis’ Gavin Mays, aka Cities Aviv, who self-released his debut full-length, “Digital Lows,” on bandcamp. It’s a raw record, dense with intense verses and noisy interludes, and it established Mays as an adventurous sampler. “Die Young” turns Depeche Mode’s “People Are People” into a club anthem that disguises seize-the-moment urgency as smirking nihilism, while “Meet Me on Montrose (For Ex-Lovers Only)” appropriates soft-pop also-rans the Alessi Brothers for a bracing meditation on romance and regret. Through it all, Mays battles all the expectations that come with being a young black man in a city known for its death rates and poverty, yet his defiance sounds like the only logical response to growing up in a city “where they killed the King” (no, not Elvis) and to living in a world that offers him such limited roles. Ultimately, there’s something almost novelistic about Mays’ attempts to stake out a place for himself in the Bluff City, such that by the time he starts rapping over Modest Mouse’s “Float On,” all the bluster and noise coalesce into something deeply moving.
For fans of: Kanye West, Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All
Over the past few years, San Francisco’s psych-rock scene has undergone a dramatic renaissance, as acts like Thee Oh Sees, Sic Alps and Ty Segall slyly reshape the city’s music history for a post-punk present. The strong DIY ethic has kept the scene from imploding from the increased attention, yet the musicians’ open-mindedness has allowed others to find a home in Fog City. For years, Mikal Cronin made the long drive back and forth between his hometown of Los Angeles and San Francisco, where he recorded his solo debut with a handful of locals. He shapes noise into short, sharp pop-punk songs, marrying Beach Boys melodies with spastic guitars and lo-fi vocals. “Get Along” and “Is It Alright” could be covers of lost ’60s nuggets, while “Apathy” contains one of 2011’s most undeniable hooks. “Mikal Cronin” is deeply aware of but never beholden to rock history, local or otherwise.
For fans of: Ty Segall, Jay Reatard
If you didn’t know Robert Ellis was from Houston, you could pick him out as a Texan after only a few notes of his debut, “Photographs.” He’s absorbed the lyrical lessons of Lone Star songwriter-poets like Townes Van Zandt, Vince Bell, Robert Earl Keen, Willie Nelson and too many others to name. He addresses big topics in plain-spoken lyrics and a dusty-dry voice that makes him sound older than his years. Side 1 is acoustic and quiet and slyly devastating: If opener “Friends Like These” doesn’t have you calling up your old college pals to reconnect, then you must not have their numbers. His band joins him on the second side, playing rowdily and wittily as Ellis unspools yarns about women who cheat, men who drink, and trains that only reinforce their loneliness. He covers all the usual country topics, but Ellis makes them sound as personal as old photographs.
For fans of: Townes Van Zandt, Willie Nelson
Emperor X is the stage name of C.R. Matheny, a former high school math teacher who toured his first two albums via Greyhound bus, hauling his guitar and effects pedals around with him. His third album builds on that mundanity: Evoking a strange world, it sounds like it’s played on 20th-century instruments excavated during the 22nd century and jury-rigged for tentative amplification. The sustain pedal on the piano is perpetually stuck, the guitars flare and flicker like fireworks, and a low-level headache hum thrums underneath every note. It’s a wonderfully bizarre idea of what rock music can be, and is matched only by the whimsy and imagination of Matheny’s lyrics, which cycle through various perspectives: the religious extremists of “Allahu Akbar,” the infatuated handyman of “Compressor Repair,” and the lonely survivalist of “Erica Western Transport” who discovers a beat-up “Battlestar Galactica” binder and falls in love with its long-dead owner. It’s a lively and eccentric record, yet triumphant in its deep empathy and humanity.
For fans of: the Mountain Goats, Grandaddy
Film fans may recognize Amy LaVere from her small parts in “Black Snake Moan” and “Walk the Line,” but in addition to acting in movies about musicians, she is a musician herself, playing stand-up bass and singing songs that usually involve bad boyfriends and murder. Her second solo album opens with a kiss-off to a boyfriend who pestered her to write him a love song (the chorus: “here’s your damn love song”), then moves to “Red Banks,” about pushing her abusive lover in the river and watching him drown. There’s grim humor in these songs, but she gives her band the freedom to make her songs as dark and eccentric as possible. Dave Cousar’s spidery licks crackle and bristle around the edges of the songs (her former guitar player joined the Hold Steady, but he’s not missed), and LaVere’s bass lays down snarling rhythms that sound motivated by barely contained resentment or lust or both.
For fans of: Sam Phillips, Tom Waits
Amanda Shires has had an unlikely career: She studied classical violin as a teenager, then discovered she enjoyed fiddling along to Texas swing better. She worked as a side player in various projects, but realized she had the lyrical and musical charisma to take lead. Her first albums were instrumental, but her last two showcase a distinctive songwriting voice with a knack for unexpected imagery and subtle wit. “Carrying Lightning” is her best to date, a collection of amiably shambling, finely observed, and deeply felt songs that pit sexual desire against romantic angst. On “When You Need a Train It Never Comes” she doesn’t need a mustache-twirling villain to tie her to the tracks. She can knot her own ropes, thank you very much. And “Swimmer, Dream Don’t Keep” contains one of the best and most succinct confessions of intense desire:
April was the last time I think I saw you
You were carrying lightning
The way you walked into the room,
If I was a flower I would’ve opened up and bloomed
For fans of: Shawn Colvin, Amy Rigby
It’s the business of Nashville to forsake its own history, to send old stars out to pasture and to disregard the non-stars completely, but on the periphery of the music industry are folks like Kurt Wagner and Cortney Tidwell, who still interact with the past and find fresh wisdom in old songs. The unlikely pair — he’s the frontman for indie orchestra Lambchop and avowed Jim Nabors fan, and she’s a husky-voiced solo artist and mother of two — collaborated on a covers album of songs released through Chart Records, which was owned and operated by Tidwell’s grandfather in the late 1960s and early ‘70s. The label was relatively adventurous, its roster diverse: “Invariable Heartache” ranges from sturdy heartbreak laments like “Incredibly Lonely” to country-psych exercises like “Penetration,” but all are uniformly eloquent, witty and emotionally dignified. Kurt and Cortney have Loretta-and-Conway chemistry, revealing all the sharp turns of phrase and bitter emotional revelations in a tribute to all the artists who came before them. In that regard, it’s less a piece of local history than a musical genealogy — a family tree set to music.
For fans of: Lynn Anderson, Lambchop
Abigail Washburn’s second solo album begins with the sound of children shouting and playing — a bit of ambient chatter accompanied only by the scratches of a lonely violin. It’s a short, quiet intro, but it lends “City of Refuge” its particular gravity. Washburn made the recordings several years ago in the Sichuan province of China, as part of the Shanghai Restoration Project; the children had recently been left homeless by a massive earthquake. “City of Refuge” is an album about finding solace and compassion in the face of tragedy, and Washburn’s approach to collaboration lends those themes special resonance. A student of international law who gave up the books for a clawhammer banjo, she recruited musicians from America and China, including members of My Morning Jacket and the Mongolian folk group Hanggai. The result is a mashup of traditions that sound surprisingly harmonious instead of forced or awkward. These songs sound immediately familiar yet constantly surprising, darkly gorgeous yet assuredly optimistic, making “City of Refuge” one of the year’s most powerful pieces of international diplomacy.
For fans of: Andrew Bird, Patty Griffin
At a recent show in Chicago, Waters closed their set with an unlikely singalong: frontman Van Pierszalowski jumped off the stage and performed the acoustic ballad “Mickey Mantle” in the middle of the audience. Coming from other artists, it might have looked like a calculated rock-star move, but Waters sold it as an act of humility, with Pierszalowski busking the song as the crowd shouted back its simple chorus of “Forever! Forever!” It was a magical moment, but not out of place for Waters, who rose from the ashes of Pierszalowski’s former band, Port O’Brien. Recorded in Dallas with super-producer John Congleton, Waters traces West Coast classic rock down Highway 1 and maps out a moral system, as though Pierszalowski realizes that singing songs like “O Holy Break of Day” and “If I Run” every night will make him a better man.
For fans of: Neil Young, Will Oldham
Well, damn. As soon as I finished this list, reshelved all the records, and got ready to move on to 2012, a friend recommended what turned out to be one last great, overlooked album of 2011. It’s a late-year release on a tiny label out of North Carolina, but it’s good enough to stand on anyone’s year-end list. Just consider it a New Year’s bonus.
For nearly a decade M.C. Taylor fronted the Court & Spark, a semi-obscure San Francisco band that specialized in a moody brand of alt-country. Shortly after moving cross-country to Durham, N.C., the band broke up and Taylor went solo as Hiss Golden Messenger. On his second full-length, he explores the seemingly endless possibilities of drums-guitar-bass. “Poor Moon” represents a personal, very expansive view of America and Americana music, alternately recalling Dylan, Hank Williams and any back-porch pickup band, yet the superlatively breezy country-rock vibe conceals bleak implications about morality, fatherhood, and country. Taylor sees a darkness, and to his considerable credit, he never flinches.
For fans of: Bob Dylan, Bonnie “Prince” Billy
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)