Among the 62 albums I acquired in 2011, many were old albums I'm only now catching up on. Some stuck with me better than others. Here are my (unranked) favorite new-to-me albums of the year.
Harmonia: Musik von Harmonia and Cluster: Zuckerzeit
2011 was kind of a Clustery year for me. I acquired Zuckerzeit as well as an earlier Kluster album (terrible), two solo albums from Hans Joachim Roedelius (both not bad), and Harmonia's debut (Harmonia is Cluster + Neu's Michael Rother). Of them all, Musik von Harmonia and Zuckerzeit are far and away the best. Musik von Harmonia starts with the excellent "Watussi"—one of the group's best tracks and perhaps the clearest krautrock progenitor to modern techno outside of Kraftwerk. Overall that record is a seamless integration of the sounds of the two groups its members hailed from—"Sonneschein" and "Dino" contain the steady, train-like rhythms of Neu! while much of the rest of the record is immersed in the more meditative electronics Roedelius and Dieter Moebius traffic in with their main gig. Zuckerzeit was released the same year as Musik von Harmonia (1974), and I guess it shows: I bought both records on the same day and have found myself playing them back to back ever since.
Talk Talk: Laughing Stock
Talk Talk's last two albums (this, and before it, Spirit of Eden) are so perfectly realized that it's hard for me to find a way of even articulating what's so great about them. Both were reissued this year, along with Mark Hollis's one and only solo album (at the top of my to-buy list right now). I like Spirit of Eden just a hair more, but I think it has more to do with hearing it first—the two albums are of a piece. Both are spacious, emotive, tightly wound yet sounding loose and easy at the same time. No single song excels apart from the records as wholes—they are just ripples in a larger, perfectly evocative sea of music.
- Talk Talk: Ascension Day
Harry Belafonte: Calypso
In sharp contrast to all the moody ambient I listened to this year, one of my very favorite acquisitions of 2011 was Harry Belafonte's debut album from 1956. "Day-O" is the recognizable hit, and perhaps therefore the least compelling song on the record due to its oversaturation of the last 65 years. It's really all about the rest of the record—folky numbers that, for the most part, lack the boisterousnous you might associate with Belafonte due to a song like "Jump in the Line" (not on this album). The songs are all jams, in any case, including the ones that have a socially conscious undertone. I return to this album over and over, the same way I do my Les Paul or Doris Day greatest hits, Elis & Tom, or anything by Harry Nilsson—not because it shares anything specific in common with those albums, but because it is a pure joy to listen to.
- Harry Belafonte: Dolly Dawn
Caetano Veloso and Gal Costa: Domingo
Recorded before the tropicalia movement really took off, Domingo is a straightforward bossa nova album much more in line with Antonio Carlos Jobim and Elis Regina's Elis & Tom than with the more adventurous material Veloso and Costa would tackle just a year or so later. I give you that preamble so I can follow up with this: who cares? Domingo is a lovely album, perfect for quiet evenings and early mornings. No single song rises above or falls below the others—it's a consistently pleasurable 30 minutes of wonderful bossa nova.
- Caetano Veloso and Gal Costa: Coracão Vagabundo
Dillard & Clark: Through the Morning, Through the Night
A couple of years ago I picked up Dillard & Clark's 1968 debut, The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard & Clark, and it has stood up as one of my favorite albums ever since. Their one and only follow-up is quite good, though perhaps not quite as good as the first. The band feels less focused—maybe it's all the covers, or the addition of Doug Dillard's girlfriend, Donna Washburn, who takes lead vocals on a fine cover of "Rocky Top." Regardless, Gene Clark's songcraft, overlaid by Dillard's bluegrass wizardry, shines through.
- Dillard & Clark: Through the Morning, Through the Night
Brian Eno: Ambient 1: Music for Airports
After finally getting into Brian Eno a few years ago and realizing I'd discovered an artist who I knew would have rewarding record after rewarding record, I made the decision to take it slow going deeper into his discography (and to try, more or less, to take it chronologically). Thus I've spent the last few years digging on his earlier rock albums (for what it's worth: Here Come the Warm Jets > Another Green World > Before and After Science >> Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy). Just this month I finally bought my first ambient Eno album. Guess what: it's awesome. One more thing: I'm such an idiot for waiting until my 30s to get into Brian Eno.
- Brian Eno: 2/1
Cat Stevens: Tea for the Tillerman
I wrestled with whether or not to count this as "new to me," since much of it was already familiar. Oh well—it's a great record. I talked more about it here.
- Cat Stevens: Into White