So the NME just published their 2011 Cool List. As ever, it’s a bewildering document that proclaims the likes of The Killers’ Ronnie Vanucci, the Arctic Monkeys’ drummer and, yes, Lana Del Rey to be cool, which makes us wonder if the NME’s writers have the same understanding of that particular word as we do. Anyway, we appreciate that setting yourself as arbiters of “cool” is asking for trouble (especially if you then proceed to include two members of Kasabian in your Top 10), but the fact remains: there are some people missing from the NME‘s list who we think should be there. We’re not sure if this makes these people “cool” or just generally awesome, but either way, here are 10 non-NME-approved musicians who we think were just great during 2011. So there.
Here’s the thing about Erika M. Anderson: she doesn’t care what you think. She’s going to do her own thing. And no doubt she doesn’t care that she’s not on NME‘s silly cool list, either. But she should be, and somewhere near the top. Apart from making one of the best albums of the year, EMA has been one of its most refreshingly unaffected presences — on stage she cracks jokes, trips over guitar leads, breaks things, and actually (gasp) engages with the audience, all the while exuding the sort of effortless star quality that most of NME’s nominees couldn’t muster with the aid of a thousand image consultants. Her songs are similarly free of any artifice or pretense — they’re laceratingly honest, and you get the feeling that for someone like Anderson, they couldn’t be any other way, because like her songs, she’s real. In a world where pop culture is ever more dominated by plastic people, someone like EMA stands out like a beacon in a sea of bullshit. Long may she prosper.
Also on the “refreshingly unaffected” tip, we nominate Brittany Howard of rising Southern neo-blues/soul combo Alabama Shakes. As we mentioned in our round-up of holiday season events, we saw Alabama Shakes in Nashville a few weeks back, and they absolutely blew us away. The whole band is as tight as something very tight indeed, but there’s no doubt who the star is: singer/guitarist Howard, who sings like a young Aretha Franklin and can rip out a mean guitar solo to boot. If there was one moment that summed up what we love about her, it was this: her band finished their set about two minutes early, and started to pack up their gear. Howard, however, was having none of it, stepping up to the mic and admonishing them: “We can play another song! We’ve got two minutes… How long can it take?” And so they belted out precisely half a song, stopping on the dot of their alloted time to let the next band take the stage. You can’t imagine Kanye West doing that, can you?
This Flavorpill writer penned a paean to John Maus yesterday as part of our Thanksgiving round-up, so it’s probably redundant to go over old ground here, save to say that Maus is strange and idiosyncratic and fascinating and we wish there were more people like him. Instead, we’ll just point you to this quote from his recent interview with The Guardian: “We live in a world where information travels faster and is circulated more widely than ever before, yet all it delivers is inanities. We’re all just playing on our smartphones, popping little texts back and forth and saying nothing at all. What the album title [We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves] means to me is: come on guys, we should struggle to interrupt that, we should pitilessly censor ourselves. I’m sure I sound like the most ineffectual type of clown who’s just as complicit with that world as anybody else, if not more so. But the idea is that no art stands a chance unless we struggle, unless we make some kind of effort to think.” YES.
Yes, the old German dude who used to be in Harmonia and who played with Simeon of Silver Apples at ATP. We were lucky enough to also catch Roedelius’s solo show at a little venue in Brooklyn, and it went something like this: Roedelius emerges, sits at his synth, makes an hour of amazing hypnotizing ambient noise, realizes he’s forgotten how to work something on his keyboard, summons an audience member to help him, drinks a beer, delivers an impromptu lecture on electronic music as aforementioned audience member fiddles with various knobs and sliders, makes another half an hour of hypnotizing ambient noise, stands up, and heads over to the bar to chat with whoever wants to stick around after the show. If we’re even alive when we’re 77, we’ll be delighted, let alone traveling the world to play spellbinding sets of experimental music to people young enough to be our grandchildren.
New Orleans’ sissy bounce superstar has threatened to break through into mainstream stardom in 2011. Big Freedia’s azz-shakin’ shows are all kinds of awesome — if you’ve not caught her live yet, then suffice it to say that the spectacle of a butt-obsessed genderqueer rapper and a cadre of posterior-wagging acolytes is something that has to be seen in the flesh (as it were) to be appreciated. The next step for Big Freedia will be translating her shows into a compelling album — her recordings have been largely unpolished, lo-fi affairs thus far — but for now, it’s a case of freeing your azz and letting your mind follow.
The most acerbic man in rock, and long one of its most under-appreciated. Falkous would probably be mortified to find himself on an NME-sponsored cool list anyway — the mclusky-era song “Collagen Rock” was a coruscating satire on pretty much exactly such things — but his biting wit, fierce intelligent and bone-dry sense of humor remain a pleasure, and as far as we’re concerned, these things all have far more to do with being cool than a vintage scarf or an asymmetric haircut.
2011 has been a year to remember for Nika Danilova — she released an album that got praised high and wide, she basically owned CMJ, and she shot straight to the top of the list of Indie Types Who Are Most Likely To Cross Over Into Bona Fide Mainstream Stardom. Through it all, she’s remained exactly what she was when she first emerged from rural Wisconsin with a remarkable voice and a tape full of strange, lo-fi recordings — an individual, both stylistically and artistically. This, we reckon, is something to be celebrated. (And anyway, our Social Media Director and Zola Jesus überfan Russ Marshalek would murder us all if we left Zola Jesus off this list.)
A while back, we mentioned Kristin Hersh in another Flavorpill feature — namely, a round-up of the most genuinely funny people in the world of music. Someone obviously passed it onto her, because a couple of days later she tweeted a link to the article, along with a note to the effect that it was her favorite of all the rock ‘n’ roll lists she’d been included on. This, we reckon, pretty much speaks volumes about why we like her so much. But for the sake of posterity, let it be said that Hersh is one of the most consistently interesting and productive artists in the world of music, and also seems like one of its most down-to-earth and generally awesome people. Her memoir Rat Girl is one of our favorite books of the last couple of years, the 50 Ft Wave stuff she’s released this year has been great, and Throwing Muses were amazing when we saw them a couple of weeks back. And we’ll stop now, because this is getting soppy, but you get the idea.
It’s a measure of Portlandia‘s success that, arguably, more people now know Carrie Brownstein as “that girl from Portlandia” than “that girl from Sleater-Kinney.” But really, the popularity of her TV show just serves as proof that pretty much anything Brownstein touches turns to gold. (Wild Flag!) Now, if you’ll excuse us, we’re off to put a bird on our Sleater-Kinney records.
Fact: Tom Waits is cooler than you. And me. And pretty much everyone else (except maybe Leonard Cohen). And that’s pretty much all there is to it, really.