2011 IN REVIEW: Shannon Cleary's Best Local Music Of The Year

Posted by: Necci – Jan 04, 2012


Best Records of 2011

10. Lobo Marino – The Reincarnation (Somedaythiswillallmakesense)

Lobo Marino spent most of 2011 on the road, sharing their music from town to town in any makeshift venue available. Prior to their departure, they spent the early part of 2011 recording The Reincarnation at the Richmond Ballet, with Dave Watkins at the helm. The end result is an accurate portrayal of the group since the addition of Nathaniel Roseberry, as well as the continued evolution of their storytelling. The Reincarnation starts with a return to a place that has lost its immediate familiarity. Upon further examination, the final consensus is that home has become an abstract. The internalized construct of this thought resounds in the group’s immediate departure by the end of it’s fifteen minute run. This is a release full of howls, wonderful instrumentation and glowing melodies that offer a unique take on the folk scene in Richmond.

9. Dogs on Main Street – Bound in Blood (Church Hill)

“I’m not sure that these songs should have ever left the bedroom,” was one of the first sentiments that Mac Rowe expressed to the audience during his debut Richmond show. It was a delight to discover that this was false. And soon, Church Hill Records put out a collection of his songs entitled Bound in Blood. Rowe channels Bruce Springsteen in a way that feels fresh and honest. His lyrics exist in a world where love is worth fighting for and making it through the night is never a struggle--it’s when our dreams come true. Many of the tracks introduce themselves with a harmonica and a sweet, grizzled voice to lead us on our musical journeys. Rowe is already showing promise on his debut release under the moniker of Dogs on Main Street. Hopefully in the New Year, another extended player or a full-length will be on the way.

8. Dave Watkins – When No One Else is Here and Everyone is Asleep (self-released)

There is no easy way to classify what Dave Watkins accomplishes on When No One Else is Here and Everyone is Asleep. There are layers upon layers that delve into the minor construction of the songs; walls of percussion and strong showings from Watkins’ instrument of choice, the dulcitar. “Marshall Street” may be one of the strongest showings from a Richmond artist this year, but you can’t simply remove the track from the proceedings that occur before and after. This is a record that deserves praise for the amount of time Watkins put into it, as well as its unique approach to a genre that is now beginning to see more purveyors come out of the woodwork.

7. Canary Oh Canary – Last Night in Sunway Knolls (self-released)

Running away, embracing your lover, reminding yourself of a fallen king, and realizing celebrity are several of the thoughts expressed on Canary Oh Canary’s Last Night in Sunway Knolls. Their music minimizes the need to fill every open space in a song, and Richmond doesn’t have another group that is doing this quite like Canary. They have not been a band for a year yet, and there is already significant fan chatter regarding the group. The moment when singer Michael Harl screams “run” in “Last Night in Sunway Knolls” may be one of my favorite haunting musical moments of the year. The song takes its time to get there, but when it does, it’s impact will not leave you unscathed.

6. The Trillions – The Trillions (self-released)

This might come across as a bold statement, but I think the rock scene within Richmond has greatly improved in many respects as a result of bands like The Trillions. Way back when they played their first show at Gallery 5, and when they released the Flux EP, they left their mark, and definitely set a precedent for what you could pull off musically. As part of this reinvention of the rock sound we have come to know and love, this year they got together many of the tracks they had been playing live and released a self-titled full-length. “When Things Go Wrong” and “Parallelograms” are two fine examples of their divergence in sound from song to song. “Wrong” channels the pop sensibility in the wonderful final act, as it builds slowly on the introductory crescendo we become familiar with over the course of the song. “Parallelograms” demonstrates that the rhythm section is never underutilized in The Trillions. If anything, they make sure that guitarists Charlie Glenn and Chris Smith will be able to keep up and nail each remarkable part. The Trillions are here to stay, and this collection of theirs is a strong accomplish for one of Richmond’s finest.

5. Greenland – Cleanly Shaven (self-released)

I honestly thought the days of Greenland unveiling new records were long gone. They were one of my favorite exports from Washington DC, and on many occasions shared the stage with The Gaskets, took part at the Fist City Fury and Ghost of Pop events, as well as just calling Richmond a favorite place to play. In 2011, they released Cleanly Shaven and Smooth As Its Name. These records represent two different sides of the group, but Shaven may be the superior of the two. With tracks like “Coffee,” “Thursday,” “Teen Anthem” and “Black Lightning,” Greenland exude a definitive presence for their brand of post punk pop fodder. “Black Lightning” in particular is a song that has been floating around in their sets for years now. The incarnation that appears on Shaven would never let anyone know. If anything, the tune has aged incredibly well. Greenland has been one of my favorite bands for several years now. Now I can add Cleanly Shaven to the list of reasons why.

4. The Low Branches – Sinking, Rising (Church Hill Records)

Sinking, Rising is The Low Branches at their most elegant and fully realized. I grew worried that this would be the record that 2011 would forget, considering the low-key profile the group has taken for most of the year as well as it’s January release date. Fortunately, the release has held up well in the face of an unpredictable year. Christina Gleixner and Matt Klimas’ uncanny abilities to set musical beauty in motion are unmatched. Their gentle vocals and subtle compositions evoke thoughts of groups like Codeine and Low. “Piscataway Creek” envelops the listener in its coy, gentle vocals, while sounding invigorating with it’s resonating calm. It’s their deliberate approach to this folk-infused style that makes a record like Sinking, Rising linger. The New Year should prove to be exciting for The Low Branches, as they continue working towards a full-length record.

3. Sundials – Never Settle (Toxic Pop)

Never Settle is a strong achievement for the Richmond punk scene as it is for the band Sundials. Their first release on Toxic Pop Records valiantly shows the constantly evolving songwriting prowess of Harris Mendell. With “Take You In My Coffee” and “Blame,” his sense of wit and charm is present, as is a sense of humility in face of heartache and personal tragedy, while “47 Million” and “Either Way” show a strong pop sensibility with a message behind it besides your typical “woe is me” antics. With the recent announcement that The Riot Before will be calling it a day, I think it’s safe to say that Sundials are heir apparent for the title of most active band in Richmond. They have spent every month of the past year on the road (even traveling overseas). They have continued to write and release several vinyl singles with many of their touring band friends. Never Settle was simply the tip of the iceberg for the 2011 that Sundials had in store for themselves and the rest of us, but what a record to start their year off right.

2. The Itchy Hearts – Tried to Be Punk (self-released)

When it comes to honest, compelling songwriters, look no further than Andy Cobb. This will be the second year that I have included a record by his band The Itchy Hearts on my year-end list. Tried to Be Punk is just as good if not better than 2010's Do Ya Best. Cobb’s melodies have only become more intricate and compelling . A few tracks retain the acoustic folk aesthetic, but others focus on escaping common expectations for the group. It’s as simple as hearing a song like “I Can’t Wait” and noticing the subtleties in Cobb’s fingerpicking, then turning to “I Went Off” and sensing the atmosphere that he's able to create with the accompaniment of electric guitars. The standout track on Tried to Be Punk is “My Band,” a song that considers the personal history of The Itchy Hearts while expanding beyond that and telling the story of any band that thinks to just give it a shot. Once the shouts of a gang chorus erupt at the end of the track, the longing in Cobb’s voice to be with his bandmates is diminished; the company has arrived to let all know that The Itchy Hearts are here.

1. James Wallace and the Naked Light – More Strange News From Another Star (self-released)

As you can probably guess from the picks on my list, it’s been a great year for music in Richmond. When deciding on what would be my favorite record of the year, I thought long and hard. The record that really stuck out to me was James Wallace and the Naked Light’s More Strange News From Another Star. Spending most of his time in Nashville these days, Wallace invited several of his old Richmond friends to join him in recording this phenomenal album. More Strange News moves between soul, jazz, folk and straight up rock, while spotlighting Wallace’s unique penchant for clever wordplay. These elements are incorporated into tunes like “Worse Things Have Happened,” “He’d Like to Hear it Once Again” and “Chopping Block.” More Strange News From Another Star is not only a Richmond record, it’s an incredible record by an immensely talented songwriter that spent the greater part of the last year playing and celebrating the wonderfulness that is More Strange News From Another Star.

Best Singles of 2011

15. Kid is Qual - “Qual is Qual”

Kid is Qual has been circulating around the Richmond music scene for several years now. It wasn’t until recently that they put out the Damn, Son EP, which resonated with prevalent creativity. The dual bass-fronted outfit delves into remarkable musical territory with flares of dance and thrash. “Qual is Qual” is a fair testament of their sound and how well executed it is. It may not win over everyone, but it is undeniably in a league of it’s own.

14. Tyrannosaurus Awesome - “Teenage Emotion”

Take one half of the Color Kittens, up the ante with garage rock adoration, and you have Tyrannosaurus Awesome. Their standout single, “Teenage Emotion,” is full of non-stop catchiness and shows that even when it’s just guitar, drums and vocals, there’s no end in sight for this immensely talented duo.

13. Josh Small - “Somebody’s Queen”

This self-proclaimed attempt at a response to a Maxwell song not only pulls that off in spades, but may be one of the best songs to appear on Small's recent album, Juke. Beginning with the groove of a humming electric guitar and reaching a finale of soulful vocals, this is the Josh Small that Richmond has come to know and love.

12. The Goldrush - “Touch”

Expanding on the idea to exist at the crossroads where classical and rock music meet, The Goldrush knock it out of the park with “Touch.” The cooing hums at the end of the song, as well as the level of intensity this band can pull off, really set a new precedent for what Goldrush can and will pull off on their upcoming new material.

11. The Diamond Center - “20-Twin”

The psychedelic freakouts of The Diamond Center still haven't been perfectly captured on record. However, on the seven-inch single they released this year, “20-Twin” stood out with it’s contagious bass line, Brandi Price’s ridiculous vocals, and the full-on attack from the rest of the band as they power through this jam. The tune shows off the way the band has worked on their craft since their 2009 full-length, My Only Companion. Yet even as it shows that the music and members may evolve, Price’s voice reminds us where we all are as soon as she enters the musical scene.

10. The Snowy Owls - “Yr Eyes”

Up until this past year, The Snowy Owls was an experimental solo project from Matt Klimas of The Low Branches. After reaching out to a few friends, he was able to solidify a lineup and begin exploring the current shoegaze sound that the group masters so well. “Yr Eyes” is the finest example of how they do this: fuzzy vocals brought on with effects-laden guitars make this a promising cut from The Snowy Owls. They should have an exciting new year (especially with a split vinyl release with White Laces coming out in January of 2012).

9. Homemade Knives - “Sea Sand”

When Homemade Knives reformed in 2010, there was tremendous excitement regarding new material. Although a full-length has yet to materialize, this single, released on The Richmond Scene’s 2011 Mixtape, has hit the spot. It gives a slight hint as to the direction the new incarnation is leaning towards with new material, and it’s always a delight to hear Wil Loyal’s observations regarding any and all things. Here’s hoping that “Sea Sand” is an indicator of where a new full-length in 2012 may end up sounding like.

8. The Veins - “Southern Corridor”

The Veins may have had a short lifespan as a band, but they left behind “Southern Corridor” in their wake. The Replacements influence is in full effect, and it showcases the fantastic songwriting abilities of Ben Shepherd. There is just enough distortion to get by with, but the song relies most heavily on it’s strong wit and catchy hooks. Definitely worth a listen just so you can know what you were missing out on when they were spending weeknights playing to crowds at The Triple, Strange Matter and Gallery 5.

7. Photosynthesizers - “Crush”

On Photosynthesizers’ EP, they race back and forth between rapid fire lyric exchanges and awesome beats, created by their rhythm section, which sound unique and organic. Yet, it is their track “Crush” that stuck out the most to me. With it’s smooth-sailing tempo, it reminds me of Things Fall Apart-era Roots. It doesn’t hurt that the outfit is fronted by one of the best MCs in Richmond, Barcodez. There’s a reason why the kids keep coming out to see what the Photosynthesizers have been up to. They are just that good.

6. Black Girls - “Get Off”

I have never questioned the promise and potential of Black Girls. Their full-length released in 2010 may have missed a few marks in how it recreated their live show, but there is no denying the greatness that is “Get Off.” Strong guitar lines and astonishing vocals by Drew Gillihan mark this a definite favorite from this past year. With a new full-length dropping early in 2012, I can only imagine that they will finally have a release together that will show the true heart and talent of Richmond’s finest, Black Girls.

5. Sports Bar - “Bad Thing”/Rabbits - “Nine Times Out of Ten”

Between Sports Bar’s split with Sexy Crimes and the reformation of Rabbits for Love Me When I’m Gone: A Tribute to Ross Harman, it’s been a good year for this crew. “Bad Thing” is the second half of Sports Bar’s side of the split, and it’s a frantic track that shows off why they are the best at what they do. Rabbits, on the other hand, pay tribute to their friend in a way that helps remind me of seeing them back in the day. The back and forth of “Nine Times Out of Ten” is stellar, and reminds me of a time when Stuart Holt, Kemper Blair and Chris Smith used to share the stage together. These two songs combine to create both a nostalgia for earlier musical eras and in the things these musicians have accomplished.

4. Dead Fame - “We Can Run”

As the year came to a close, one of the most talked about bands was Dead Fame. With their stylistic similarity to the likes of Bauhaus and New Order, they have won over audiences left and right. “We Can Run” is a strong showing that only further builds on the hype that they have deservingly received. Its contemporary take on the sounds of the past are full and lively, with every electronic nuance that shivers it’s way through it’s demure setting.

3. The Blue Rajas - “Papyrus”

Thumbs Up Everybody for Rock and Roll could have easily fallen under the radar. This debut release by The Blue Rajas is straight-forward rock at it’s best. When “Papyrus” hits, though, you know that there is something up. The duo of Gracie and Zoe Golden absolutely kill it on this pop gem that captures your attention right from the start. If there is a better example of a perfect pop song released by a Richmond band this year, I cant think of it. The Blue Rajas have masterfully demonstrated a clear understanding of what dynamics are necessary to make a pop song feel fresh and new. “Papyrus” is the best example of this and could easily be one of the best tracks to see the light of day in Richmond in years.

2. White Laces - “Hands in Mexico”

When talking about game changers, you cant ignore the impact that “Hands in Mexico” has had for White Laces. While their debut EP was a sold release, when the single and subsequent video for “Mexico” were released, everyone was buzzing. The strong dynamic changes that take the song through a solid pop foundation at the start and follow through into darker territory by its finale are unprecedented. Singer Landis Wine carries the song well through its messy melody that fits with the fierce guitar parts and solid rhythm base. They won over several new fans at this year’s RVA Music Fest, and it’s easy to see why when they are making magic happen with songs like “Hands in Mexico.”

1. Amazing Ghost - “King Den’s Long Desert Dream Song”

My favorite local track for 2011 was clear immediately. Amazing Ghost were at the midst of solid things with their 7 inch single release on Electric Cowbell last year, and with the early 2011 release of Blasts Off. But the epic eight-minute long “King Den’s Long Desert Dream Song” was what ultimately preserved the group’s legacy. Grooving through the opening four minutes with synth slides and a hypnotizing bass-line, it reaches a new level as Edward Prendergast sings the opening lines. The bouncing melody only builds and builds until it arrives at its phenomenal chorus. It isn't until the arrival of a guitar line that feels directly removed from the days of psychedelic soul and perhaps even the rockier side of the Beastie Boys that you know you are in store for something amazing. The final moments are full of larger than life horn sections, Prendergast’s howls over the closing choruses, and an all-out onslaught of hip-hop/electronica/dance awesomeness. There have been so many great tracks from Richmond groups all year, but they have a hard time matching the precision of this track. Its candid musical expression shows why Richmonders have been raving about Amazing Ghost since their inception in 2008.

Best Shows of 2011 (in no particular order)

-WRIR Sixth Anniversary Party featuring Ultra Dolphins, The Diamond Center, Pennyshaker, Marionette and many more @ The Renaissance Ballroom
-The Trillions/1888/The Veins/The Hadron Delay @ The Camel
-WRIR and The Commonwealth of Notions Presents featuring Nick Coward and the Last Battle, Ophelia, Josh Small, Orioles, The Veins, Sports Bar, The Trillions and Amazing Ghost featuring members of the NO BS Brass Band @ The Firehouse Theatre (first night) and Gallery 5 (second night)
-Lemuria/Coke Bust/The Two Funerals/Little Master @ Gallery 5
-Homemade Knives/Brown Bird @ The Firehouse Theatre
-The final Sprout show, featuring The Milkstains, Baby Help Me Forget, Snowy Owls, Ben Shepherd, The Nervous Ticks, Joshua Bearman, Head Molt and many other Richmond acts paying their respects.
-The Most Potente Potions/The Diamond Center/The Milkstains/Tyrannosaurus Awesome @ Strange Matter
-The Ghost of Pop 7 featuring The Druthers, The Goldrush, Kid is Qual, The Trillions, Young Adult Fiction, Horsehead, My Old Ways and a special reunion of Prabir and The Substitutes
-The Mountain Goats/Megafaun @ The National
-Lobo Marino/Madeline/Dave Watkins @ The Camel
-Crooked Fingers/Strands of Oak/Clint Maul @ The Camel
-The Rosebuds/The Goldrush/White Laces @ The Camel
-RVA Music Fest featuring Girl Talk, Best Coast and many of Richmond’s finest
-White Laces/The Late Virginia Summers/Canary Oh Canary @ Bella Café (Washington DC)
-Black Girls/The Trillions/Jenny Besetzt and Black Girls/Eternal Summers/Powhatan’s Curse @ The Camel
-James Wallace/Cliff and Bonnie/Nelly Kate @ The Firehouse Theatre (Listening Room)
-The Milkstains/Fire Bison/Mutwawa @ Balliceaux
-Sports Bar during a crucial rainstorm on the fourth of July in a friend’s backyard with lightning, overpowering rain and fierce rock to boot
-Pavement Cover Night featuring Adah, The Diamond Center, Climbers, Snowy Owls, The Milkstains, Dave Watkins, Nelly Kate and Landis Wine
-Amazing Ghost @ Balliceaux (every time!)

By Shannon Cleary