Top 11 Debut Albums of 2011

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This is the graduating class from 2010, the bands Dirty Impound fully expects great, surprising and delightful things from in the future. So promising are these first steps that our faith is high that they have much more to give. As we wait for what comes next, we have these damn fine platters to savor and study.

The Barr Brothers: self-titled

For all the allure of The Slip, this might be the purest studio distillation of Brad and Andrew Barr to date, a rangy, ever-exploratory reach that demands the flexibility rock once promised in days past. There is a gentle lilt to some aspects balanced by a tough, jam-ready charge elsewhere, but always songs worth leaning in for a closer listen. John Martyn’s best work comes to mind, as does Brian Eno, Wilco and the Punch Brothers, but ultimately what’s so alluring about this band is how they combine so many disparate elements into such a pleasing, unique whole.

Le Butcherettes: Sin Sin Sin

Teri “Gender Bender” Suarez is the best female tsunami to hit rock since P.J. Harvey started shouting about 50-foot queenies. It’s no surprise that The Stooges asked Le Butcherettes to open shows for them this past December – one picks up on a lot of Raw Power in this dynamite-ready-to-explode trio that exudes a frighteningly honest aura of danger and household insurrection that jives well with classic Iggy. While their fake blood spewing, pretty dress soiling concerts are garnering a lot of (justified) attention, this Omar Rodriguez Lopez produced full-length allows one to ruminate on the subtleties and lyrical barbs below the rattle ‘n’ hum, and that’s what cements Gender Bender and her band’s spot on this list – there’s a LOT going on here, not just the guttural, sticky, visceral stuff that’s easy to catch. Color us wholly fascinated and not a little smitten.

Chamberlin: Bitter Blood

One of the most addictively listenable servings of pop-aware quality rock this past year, this initial offering from this young-but-maturing-fast Vermont group is what should rule radio waves (or the visual equivalent for today’s ADD generation), a truly cool mixture of classic and modern flavors. Memorable melodies, words you want to sing along to, a layered, smart sense of sound, and more winning details mark this as a harbinger of great things ahead from the songwriting team of Ethan West and Mark Daly and the rest of this sinewy group. Producer Scott Tournet (Grace Potter and the Nocturnals) gives the proceedings depth and clarity, putting the spotlight on the right elements throughout.

Jonny Corndawg: Down On The Bikini Line

New York City may be his home but Jonny C comes across like the test tube baby of Tom T. Hall and David Alan Coe on his debut, where humor and pathos grab shots, talk about their women troubles and money woes, and generally smile through the shit flying at them. Being even a little jokey is dangerous but Corndawg could shape up to be Americana’s Ween if he keeps going where this album hints. He also might really clear the high hurdle and develop some of Todd Snider’s indestructible wit and tunesmithing knack. Speculation aside, one would be hard pressed to have a better tear-in-your-beer time than Down On The Bikini Line.

Delicate Steve: Wondervisions

Hard to describe, quite easy to enjoy, and nigh impossible to fully dissect, Delicate Steve delivered an exuberant new (largely) instrumental bent to rock in 2011. The tempo changes are at times so odd and oddly effective that they evoke Zappa and his various ensembles chugging away at the nigh-impossible, but Delicate Steve does so with bigger grins and a sunnier, Africa-touched aura that’s different and immediately visceral. Delicate Steve is a band that couldn’t have arisen in another era, the children of iPods where Ethiopian funk, Paul Simon, Steve Kimock, Talking Heads, V.M. Bhatt and Os Mutantes mingle casually, a score for a world with rapidly dissolving borders.

Empty Space Orchestra: self-titled

Seriously thrilling, original music. The Bend, OR-based quintet is the best new instrumental rock act out of the Pacific Northwest since Critters Buggin started scrambling heads and genres in the 90s. Unpredictable, massively melodic and thickly musical, this first offering is a crossroads where fusion heads, jazzbos, math rock punks, metal lovers and post-rockers can gather and perhaps move outside their biases and predilections with a sound, attitude and execution powerful enough to shift perspectives. Never once did I spin this one and not find my jaw hanging on the floor at least a few times, laughing at what they’d pulled off in a most delighted way.

Ghosts of Jupiter: self-titled

This is what I want pumping loud out of the speakers if I ever score a spaceship or rocket car. Sumptuous and classic rock wise, the eponymous debut from Boston’s Ghost of Jupiter begs serious comparison to the early works from Procol Harum, Spirit and Hendrix, while giving contemporaries like The Raconteurs a run for their money. Spearheaded by former Assembly of Dust keyboardist-singer-songwriter Nate Wilson, GOJ is a guitar nuts wet dream thanks to the twin assault of Johnny Trama and Adam Terrell. The whole enterprise rides atop the smoothly pummeling rhythm team of Thomas Arey (drums) and Tommy Lada (bass), and ride they do, cruising in a hard yet graceful way – balls and melody both abundantly apparent in these Ghosts, who haunt up strange, curious visions in their smoke trail.

The Habit: Lincoln Has Won

Immigration, a divided country, the malaise and shock of life during wartime and other sharp, large scale concepts slice and slash on this utterly fantastic Brooklyn group’s debut. What impresses is how The Habit’s ambitions don’t get in the way of rockin’ the hell out or in putting a human face on things. They are kid siblings to Exene and John Doe in their bare knuckle early flourish as well as The Pogues, who they share a gift for melancholy that’s neither forced nor false – when they pull a tear from you they’ve earned it. Lincoln Has Won deftly shows us that the conversations still dominating America’s national discourse have been going on longer than anyone might like, offering inroads to thorny subjects whilst inspiring us to kick out of our chairs, overturn the tables and dance a mad jig until things are set right once and for all.

Just An Animal: Lonely Hunter

An air of unshakeable modernity hovers over this taut, shimmering first effort from the same guys who used to be Red Cortez. Set aside any lingering preconceptions from their history though because Just An Animal seethes and stalks one with a swiftness and confidence that’s kinda steals one’s breath. One catches some quality 80s hip shake like Duran Duran and Psychedelic Furs in their sound, and they’re working some of the abstract veins tapped by Interpol and Liars, though neither drips the desperate romance of lead singer-guitarist Harley Prechtel-Cortez, and the lean-yet-enveloping production from Richard Swift further make this, well, its own animal. As bombs drop and kamikazes zoom in deadly and fast, Just An Animal swerves through the wreckage towards a light in the distance – faint and flickering but a spark nonetheless, and in such capable, eager to explore hands a spark is all one needs.

U.S. Royalty: Mirrors

Sexy fuckin’ rock ‘n’ roll. U.S. Royalty captures the long miles and loose adventure of the gypsy life and channels them through the warbled blues of early Fleetwood Mac and Black Crowes, desert rock psychedelia, Grizzly Bear-esque yearning and other glowing, softly searching lenses, refracting something beautiful and true that hums with subtext. Put another way, the layers in their music aren’t obvious beneath the group’s abundant surface charisma, but trust us, there’s layers aplenty. Mirrors hangs together really well as a complete work, a nifty exception to the bits and pieces, singles and scraps mentality amongst most young rock bands. U.S. Royalty is formulating a vision that’s already fascinating as it comes into focus.

Vanaprasta: Healthy Geometry

There are so many glorious moments on Healthy Geometry that it’s a bit surprising it’s a first record. Hailing from the hilly Silver Lake section of Los Angeles, Vanaprasta arrives fully formed AND stuffed with promise; throughout this set – fine as it is – one can feel their sky high potential (which is amped up further by their blazing live shows), a humid tangibility similar to that produced by say Radiohead’s The Bends or TV On The Radio’s Return To Cookie Mountain. The intensity, shine and electricity of modernity are apparent in these grooves, but Vanaprasta is also adept at throwing curves like handclap powered, Cars-esque “Self Indulgent Feeling.” Not so much in sound but in attitude, they recall My Morning Jacket, where one senses a willingness to follow whatever top hat wearing rabbit that scampers by and trips off their curiosity. They’ve got talent and heart aplenty – lead singer Steven Wilkin, in particular, has one of those voices that gets down to the human condition in a really pleasingly palpable way – and of all the new bands I encountered in 2011, Vanaprasta stands out as the one most likely to score a devoted cult sooner than later – it’s not hard to imagine this being THE band for someone.