Music critics tend to focus on whatever is new and fresh in print, but their personal time is often spent with old favorites and newly discovered obscurities. We asked a few of our critics – Rob Sheffield, Jon Dolan, David Fricke, Jody Rosen and Will Hermes – to share their top musical obsession from 2011 that didn't actually come out in 2011. Their picks range from loopy Kraut-pop to the only great British pop band of the Eighties not to have their catalog plundered by imitators in the past decade.
I'm a casual fan of Slapp Happy, the loopy Kraut-pop band British experimental musician Anthony Moore co-founded in the early 1970s. But I'd never heard this 1978 solo record until a friend sent it to me this spring. I've been playing it constantly since. Moore works a nexus between Brian Eno at his gizmo-twisting blissiest, John Cale's mordant Victorian whimsy, the demented glam-bubblegum of Sparks, post-Genesis Peter Gabriel and Berlin-era Bowie. "Judy Get Down" is the perfect-world Top 40 smash, a hand-clapping, noise-spritzed ode to a hooker somewhere between the Dixie Cups' "Iko Iko" and Eno's "I'll Come Running." And the rest is bursting with playful ideas and left-field hooks too: from the dawn-over-the-moors balladry of "Lucia" to androids-at-happy-hour rockers like "Useless Moments" and "Girl It's Your Time" to the album-closing ambient ice-bath "Twilight (Uxbridge Rd.)." Moore's singing makes Bowie sound like Sam Cooke, but even that kind of adds to the record's alien charm. In England in the Seventies, every art-rock weirdo, no matter how out there, seemed to have one great oddball pop record in him. Well, this is this dude's, and it’s awesome.
– Jon Dolan
I still buy records in stores, so I didn't find one of 2010's best albums, released in Britain last fall, over here until this spring. By then, Britain's Oceansize – my idea of triple-guitar heaven since I first saw them at SXSW in 2002 – had split up. They went out in a visceral contemporary-prog din: guitars climbing and clanging with symphonic dynamics over complex metal-army drumming. There is human fire in there too; guitarist-lyricist Mike Vennart sings with a bright furious poise, holding fast in a silver rain of treble and feedback. Oceansize made five EPs and four albums, counting this one. Start here, then go deep.
– David Fricke
When Jeff Mangum and his acoustic guitar turned up in the sights of a lo-fi webcam at Occupy Wall Street in October, it marked the most public return yet of the singer/songwriter whose 1998 LP with Neutral Milk Hotel had become a generational touchstone in the 10-plus years since he’d given up performing. That latter point was driven home a few weeks later at a benefit in Woodstock, New York, where Mangum played Aeroplane's surreally emotional songs for an audience that hollered along with nearly every word. Like Occupy, the LP – whose beautiful rawness still gives me the chills – represents truth begun as a subcultural murmur, and ending up as a collective shout.
– Will Hermes
I’m not sure how I managed to avoid hearing the Crazy Horse album until now, but there you go. It’s just called Crazy Horse, from 1971, a showcase for the whipped-flayed-and-sauteed voice and guitar of Danny Whitten, who sounds like a decrepit hippie trapped in the body of a young man, barely standing upright with help from Ry Cooder, Nils Lofgren and other Neil Young cronies. I heard this album in a bar in my neighborhood one blustery afternoon last March, getting creeped out by the wasted harmonies of "I Don’t Want To Talk About It." I’ve played it dozens of times since then. I’m sure I’ll play it dozens more times next year, and I’m also sure it’ll keep creeping me out.
– Rob Sheffield
The 1980s revival has lasted far longer than the Eighties themselves ever did. (We must be in the 15th straight year of the synth-pop renaissance at this point.) But somehow there are a few Eighties acts whose catalogues haven't plundered by eager-beaver indie rock imitators. This year, I spent a lot of time revisiting one of the best bands of my misspent Eighties youth: the English Beat. They emerged in early part of the decade in the Two Tone ska revival, and although ska was always the bedrock of their sound, they were really just a pop band, led by a great singer-songwriter, Dave Wakeling – for my money, the ne plus ultra of whimpery British white boys. My favorite is the band's studio album, Special Beat Service (1983). Songs like "Sole Salvation," "End of the Party," and "I Confess" are as catchy, and as savagely witty, as anything by Elvis Costello, and Wakeling is far less impressed with his own smarts than Costello. And then there's "Save It For Later," their biggest U.S. hit. In high school, I remember hearing it was about oral sex, and spending a lot of time puzzling over the lyrics. These days I'm just happy to dance to it.
– Jody Rosen