The Best Under-the-Radar Albums of 2011

Ten albums you may have missed this year – but ought to know

Josh T. Pearson, 'Last of the Country Gentlemen'
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When it comes to best-of-the-year album lists, there are the polls of authority, like the survey just published by this magazine – and there is everything that hit my Victrola and stuck around, from under the radar and beyond the insitutional consensus. This is some of the best of what happened to me on records in 2011.

Josh T. Pearson – Last of the Country Gentlemen (Mute)
Pearson specializes in final reckoning. A decade ago, on his only album as the singer-guitarist-prophet in Lift to Experience, The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads (Bella Union), he brought the End of Days forward with power-trio relish, like Nostradamus with Hendrix firepower. Pearson's solo debut turns that intensity inward, examining sexual despair and ravaged faith with a gripping solitary force: eccentric improvisations on acoustic guitar, like a slow-motion John Fahey, and a stark anguished voice running the range from burning hell to hard-won peace. This was at once the most frightening and healing record of the year.

We Were Promised Jetpacks – In the Pit of the Stomach (Fat Cat)
It took an incendiary live set at Iceland Airwaves to get me past the band's name – to the ball-of-spikes distortion and machine-gun precision of this Scottish quartet's brawny dance-wise pop, like the Buzzcocks armed with the orchestral-guitar majesty of Explosions in the Sky. The final sale, though, was the songwriting the group showed off that night from this album, including the fast glowing dynamite of "Medicine" and the noisy extended grace of "Pear Tree." Ironically, the name now makes sense. We Were Promised Jetpacks deliver the right flight.

Vicky – Cast a Light (Vicky Music)
I only caught part of one of this Icelandic quartet's Airwaves shows, but it was long enough to hear what is now one of my favorite songs of the year: "How Do You Feel?", rusted-glam seduction with striking hints of Johnny Thunders' grinding fuzz and Siouxsie Sioux's vocal voodoo in guitarist Karlotta Halldórsdóttir's blackened crunch and singer Eygló Scheving's plaintive cry. The rest of Cast a Light, made and released independently by the band, is just as tough and alluring and worth the hunt. You can start at iTunes.

Willie Nile – The Innocent Ones (River House) and Garland Jeffreys – The King of In Between (Luna Park)
These longtime kings of New York both issued peak-time records this year. Nile's opening trio on The Innocent Ones – "Singin' Bell," "One Guitar" and the title track – is Righteous-Anthem City, a fight on behalf of "the outcast, dead last" (as he sings in the second) waged with classic-rock ardor. Jeffreys' album was a true comeback; his last U.S. release came out in the previous century. But the local geography and defiant vocal poise in "Coney Island Winter," "I'm Alive" and "Roller Coaster Town" came with a funky jangle and martial stride that seemed barely a New York minute away from the pavement pride and candor of his 1977 classic, Ghost Writer. And that was Jeffreys' Syracuse University pal, Lou Reed, deep in the doot-doots of "The Contortionist" – a nice bit of reunion to go with the return.

The Gourds – Old Mad Joy (Vanguard)
Founded in 1994, this Austin, Texas institution issued nearly a dozen records on its way to this earthy, lyrically incisive pleasure produced with an invigorating touch by Larry Campbell, the ex-Bob Dylan guitarist who now plays with Levon Helm. The Gourds have always had a good long streak of Helm's old outfit, the Band, in their progressive-country dynamics and barroom-sawdust party. But the best thing about Campbell's empathy was the way he brought light and focus to the central continuing dialogue of the Gourds' primary singer-writers, guitarist Kevin Russell and Jimmy Smith – the wise worn hearts that constantly beat inside the roots.

Jeff The Brotherhood – We Are the Champions (Infinity Cat)
The title is colossal nerve. The truth is in the delivery: Tennessee brothers who play pneumatic punked-up blues like the Ramones with the iron pulse of Neu! Guitarist Jake and drummer Jamin Orrall delivered one of the most lunatic shows I saw at 2011's SXSW. Everything they did there is here, except for the stage diving.

Arborea – Red Planet (Strange Attractors) 
This husband-and-wife duo plays a trance-folk that, at every turn in the slipstream, seems to hail from another country: the murder ballads of Appalachia; the plucked-string stasis and Om drone of New York minimalism; the iridescent-Middle East imagination of the Incredible String Band.  Singer Shanti and guitarist Buck Curran take Tim Buckley's "Phantasmagoria in Two" at a compelling near-standstill pace; their own "Wolves" is a long circular hush streaked with crying fuzz. Another primary instrument here: the soft oceans of reverb that cushion every minute of this stark and tender balladry.

Motorpsycho – Roadwork Vol.4: Intrepid Skronk! (Rune Grammofon)
The Norwegian acid-metal trio that made my favorite loud-and-tripping album of 2008, Little Lucid Moments, dropped this thrilling live souvenir in 2011, part of a for-fans series that promises "maximum immersion value." That is a good description of the improvised and episodic adventure on these 2008-2010 concert tapes.  The plain vocal sorrow of Moondog's pocket madrigal "All Is Loneliess" gets an 18-minute extension into enraged tangled darkness, while "The Alchemyst," the breakneck climax of Little Lucid Moments, closes this affair with even greater ascending violence. May next year bring U.S. tour dates. Please.    

Wadada Leo Smith's Organic – Heart's Reflections (Cuneiform)
Just turned 70, this trumpeter and restless avant-garde explorer has made nearly three dozen albums as a leader, in a wide range of disciplines and contexts,  since 1972. Organic, one of Smith's several current projects, is at once a throwback – building on the aggressive turbulence of Miles Davis' early-Seventies electric impressionism – and contemporary dynamite: a very big band  with strings, reeds, laptops and no fewer than four electric guitarists. Everything on the two CDs of Heart's Reflections runs way long, to haunting effect with Smith evoking Davis' clean fighting peals with uncanny immediacy over the momentum. The precedent is obvious. But the music – a modern black-rock Agharta – is fine fresh hypnotism. 

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