Best 2011 tunes; Hasidic reggae live at the Pageant

By Daniel Durchholz, Special to the Jewish Light

Since we’ve somehow managed to zip through half of 2011 already, and because I’m one of those stereotypical (male) music geeks who is obsessed with lists, here’s a quick look at a handful of my favorite releases so far this year.   

• The Decemberists, “The King Is Dead”: I’ve long admired the work of the Decemberists, whose hyperliterate songs often use words straight out of the New York Times Crossword Puzzle. But the band’s tendency toward ‘70s-style concept albums – like 2009’s “The Hazards of Love” left me a little chilly. With “The King Is Dead,” they’ve given me an album to love unreservedly, trading in prog-rock pretentiousness for a smart, tuneful set of stand-alone songs with more of an Americana sound.  


• Paul Simon, “So Beautiful or So What”:  I don’t know if Paul Simon has copped to its influence, but the premise of his song, “The Afterlife,” is reminiscent of an old “Saturday Night Live” bit in which, after you die, you go down a long, white tunnel-and then take a number. However he came by it, the song is maybe my favorite of the year so far. The album, meanwhile, is Simon’s most thoughtful and musically expansive work in -gulp – two decades.  



• Adele, “21”: The second album’s the hardest, it’s said – a make-or-break proposition, even after a Grammy-winning debut like Adele’s “19.” The British chanteuse stands up to the pressure, and with “21” – yes, the titles refer to her age at the time of recording – delivers a soulful tour-de-force, suggesting Adele will be with us for some time.


• Low, “C’mon”: When Robert Plant played the Fox recently, he said he thought Duluth, Minn., was the “center of the universe when it comes to mood, darkness and sex.” His opinion is largely based, I’d imagine, on the music of Low, the Duluth trio whose slow, brooding tunes Plant has been covering lately. “C’mon” is another entry in Low’s long string of terrific albums, but even Plant’s endorsement can’t seem to rescue them from the thankless honor of being one of the most underrated bands in the land.  


The Beastie Boys, “Hot Sauce Committee, Part Two”: A career that began as an infantile yawp in the mid-‘80s and peaked creatively only a few years later with the dense, sample-heavy masterpiece “Paul’s Boutique,” is now a story of survival – not only about Adam Yauch’s fight with cancer, but about the band itself, which is well past its theoretical expiration date. “Hot Sauce” is unabashedly old school, but it’s every bit as joyous – and infinitely smarter – than the group’s early records.


Space doesn’t allow me to detail the rest of my mid-year Top 10, but it includes: Pat Metheny, “What’s It All About”; James Blake, “James Blake”; Sarah Jaroz, “Follow Me Down”; Destroyer, “Kaputt”; and Abigail Washburn, “City of Refuge.”   

• Matisyahu is scheduled to perform at the Pageant on July 9. Since his last St. Louis appearance, the Hasidic reggae artist has released “Live at Stubb’s, Vol. II,” a concert recording that brings him back to the Austin, Texas, club that helped him break into the mainstream with the first “Live at Stubb’s” album.

Even though he’s become well-known, his mix of spirituality and secular music still throws some folks off. In an interview last year, he told me, “People don’t know what to expect, or they expect something different. In some ways that helps, because it really makes an impression. And then also it drew a lot of attention. My philosophy is not to pay too much attention to what people think and try to make some music the best that I can and to grow and develop and put my music out there and let karma kind of deal with the rest.”

This has nothing to do with music, but I’ve been running my Kindle’s battery down lately reading Albert Brooks’ novel “2030.” Yes, that Albert Brooks: the one whose comedy albums and movies such as “Real Life,” “Lost in America” and “Defending Your Life,” were as inventive as they were hilarious.


As its title indicates, “2030” offers a peek into our possible future, but it’s set only a few decades down the line, so the science fiction elements are kept to a minimum. There’s one significant development, though-cancer has been cured and, along with other medical innovations, people are living much longer. This takes the country’s social safety net to the breaking point, and young people forced to foot the bill for care of the elderly-does any of this sound familiar?-are ready to revolt. Throw in a catastrophic California earthquake and an unpayable national debt that is held by China, and you’ve got a lot on the plate of Matthew Bernstein, the first Jewish president.


Brooks’ book is incredibly prescient and it’s a page-turner, to boot. Highly recommended.