Casual Listening

A review of cool new music

By Jeff Pinzino

Best of 2011

While I haven't been doing weekly reviews, I have been doing a lot of listening, and there's been some great music this year.  Here are my picks for the best albums of 2011.

1. Hanni el Khatib - Will the Guns Come Out?  (rock)

The mark of truly great rock and roll is the sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach knowing your parents wouldn't approve of your listening to it.  Hanni el Khatib wraps danger in an irresistible sound, with driven vocals and heavy drums bolstered by undercurrents of 50's rock and doo-wop.  A Molotov cocktail.

Listen to Hanni el Khatib "Come Alive"

2. J.C. Brooks and the Uptown Sound - Want More  (R&B)

It's been a magical year for soul music, with Adele and Raphael Saadiq setting the bar unbelievably high.  Still, J.C. Brooks clears it with room to spare.  Like an undiscovered Otis Redding album, Want More has all of the emotion, tight musicianship, and thick groove of classic-era soul.  You'd be hard pressed to find a disc this year that has broader appeal.

Listen to J.C. Brooks and the Uptown Sound "Sister Ray Charles"

3. Robert Moran - Trinity Requiem  (classical)

A work of extraordinary beauty commissioned for the 10th anniversary of 9/11, recorded by the youth chorus of Trinity Cathedral in lower Manhattan.  The closest thing to a sense of peace that I've felt around the events that this music commemorates.  

Listen to samples of Robert Moran - Trinity Requiem at

4. tUnE-YaRdS - WHOKILL  (rock)

This band marches to the beat of a different drummer, one whose kit seemingly got built from spare junkyard parts somewhere in East Africa.  Quirky doesn't begin to capture the vision of tUnE-YaRdS' Merrill Garbus , whose crazy quilt noise pop is among the most original sounds of 2011, and I'll predict among the most enduring. 

Listen to tUnE-YaRdS "Gangsta"

5. Tinariwen - Tassili  (world)

Tinariwen is innovating on its Northwest African "Bedouin Blues" sound by bringing in some unlikely collaborators - art rock visionaries TV on the Radio and New Orleans' own Dirty Dozen Brass Band.  The results are ear-opening, still firmly rooted in loping call-and-response cadences with ornaments from other corners the African musical diaspora.

Listen to Tinariwen "Tenere Taqqim Tossam"

6. Joe Lovano - Bird Songs  (jazz)

A full-album tribute to Charlie Parker is rarer than you might think, due in no small part to the difficulty of the music and the compulsion to take it somewhere new.  Lovano's captures all the drive and energy that defined bebop, primarily on some of Parker's lesser-known works.   The rest of the quintet is more than up to the challenge, notably with Esperanza Spalding on bass.

Listen to Joe Lovano - "Moose the Mooche"

7. Chris Thile & Michael Daves - Sleep With One Eye Open  (bluegrass)

This album just oozes joy.  Thile and Daves sound like giddy schoolkids throwing down on a handful of bluegrass oldies.  They've got the high lonesome sound down cold, and both of them are wizards on the strings.  It's worth noting that Chris Thile's other recent mandolin album is with Yo Yo Ma; this one is way more fun.

Listen to Chris Thile & Michael Daves "Rain and Snow"

8. Pokey LaFarge and the South City Three - Middle of Everywhere  (blues)

Like a Rip van Winkle who fell asleep in 1933 and woke up in 2011, LaFarge finds the hard times/good times music of an earlier era eerily resonant now.  He makes the old blues and ragtime styles live again, with playfulness and vim.  Some mighty fine slide guitar, washboard, and harmonica playing.

Listen to Pokey LaFarge and the South City Three - "Ain't the Same"

9. Lupe Fiasco - Lasers  (rap)

This is hip hop at its most interesting - an artist with a message woven into an expressive soundscape - in this case drawing in everything from ray gun science fiction to traditional Chinese strings.  Don't come expecting to agree with everything that's here, either lyrically or musically - Lupe Fiasco is a provocateur, and there's power enough in this music to provoke you.

Listen to Lupe Fiasco - "Words I Never Said"

10. Houston Grand Opera - Cruzar la Cara de la Luna  (classical)

Possibly the world's first mariachi opera.  Beautifully done, with a story of family that crosses borders, languages.  You don't need to be a die-hard fan of either genre to fall under it's spell.

Listen to Houston Grand Opera - "Cruzar la Cara de la Luna"