A version of this column appears in Wednesday’s Life section of The Oklahoman.
BAM’s top 10 albums of 2011
Column: Oklahoma recording artists from across the musical spectrum made beautiful music and reached impressive milestones in the year just past.
For fans of Oklahoma music, it’s hard to imagine a more exciting year than 2011.
Tulsa Sound pioneer Leon Russell finally made it into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and then the Songwriters Hall of Fame for good measure, Owasso-based country star Garth Brooks joined Uncle Leon in the songwriters’ club, and Chockie ranch girl Reba McEntire and Pauls Valley native Jean Shepard were ushered into country’s hallowed hall.
Tishomingo denizens Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert squeezed in their wedding between his reality TV breakout on NBC’s “The Voice” and the release of his latest LP and her launch of side project Pistol Annies and work on not one but two albums. On the red dirt scene, Cody Canada & The Departed arrived to soothe those saddened by the breakup of Cross Canadian Ragweed, while The Great Divide reunited after more than eight years after the original lineup split.
Maud native and rockabilly queen Wanda Jackson teamed with White Stripe Jack White to make a barn burner of a comeback record, former Tulsan Ronnie Dunn made his solo debut after two decades with country duo Brooks & Dunn, and teenage Internet sensation Greyson Chance of Edmond and country duo Thompson Square, featuring Miami, OK, native Keifer Thompson, released splashy debut albums.
Oklahoma City-based rock ’n’ roll mad scientists the Flaming Lips experimented the year away, recording six- and 24-hour-long songs; releasing music on USB drives encased in gummy fetuses, $5,000 real human skulls and strobe-light gizmos; and finally inviting Yoko Ono and Sean Lennon to ring in 2012 at their fifth annual New Year’s Eve Freakout.
With all those milestones, the decision to make my top 10 albums list of 2011 an all-Okie affair was easy. Figuring out who would make the final cut, now that was hard.
1. Miranda Lambert “Four the Record” (RCA Nashville) and Pistol Annies “Hell on Heels” (Columbia Nashville)
The Texas native not only fired off a fourth solo album even better than its Grammy-winning, game-changing predecessor (2009’s “Revolution”) but also lit the fuse on a doozy of a side project with her all-girl trio Pistol Annies. Between the two albums, she wrote or co-wrote 14 songs and cut a total of two-dozen, matching her impressive output with prodigious quality.
On “Four the Record,” she confidently covers a wide range of topics, emotions and musical styles, from the blazing bad-girl anthem “Fastest Girl in Town” and the galloping breakup freakout “Mama’s Broken Heart” to the affectionate celebration of diversity “All Kinds of Kinds” to the gorgeous ode to her adopted home state “Oklahoma Sky.”
With their first effort as the Pistol Annies, Lambert and fellow singer-songwriters Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley ignited the country charts with their old-school sound, sharp songsmithing and take-no-prisoners attitude. They’re pretty, they’re smart, and they’re going to say and do whatever they want. And they’re coming for you.
2. Cody Canada & The Departed “This Is Indian Land” (Underground Sound/Apex Nashville)
I can’t think of a better entrance for a new band so rooted in Oklahoma’s red dirt scene than this homage to the state’s songwriting greats. The Departed — former Cross Canadian Ragweed singer/songwriter/guitarist Canada, ex-Ragweed bassist/singer Jeremy Plato, Texas guitarist Seth James, Tulsa keyboardist/organist Steve Littleton and Yukon drummer David Bowen — tunefully pay tribute to the finely crafted story-songs of Tom Skinner, Bob Childers, Greg Jacobs and more with a debut that leaves you eager for more.
3. Wanda Jackson “The Party Ain’t Over (Nonesuch/ Third Man Records)
As he did with Loretta Lynn on her 2004 album, “Van Lear Rose,” producer/guitarist Jack White — the rocker best known for fronting The White Stripes — again demonstrates his masterful knack for celebrating a veteran performer’s storied past while still pushing her out of her comfort zone. This “Party” celebrates Jackson’s rock ’n’ roll trailblazing with smoking covers of Johnny Kidd and the Pirates’ “Shakin’ All Over” and Bob Dylan’s “Thunder on the Mountain” and recalls her country and gospel days with a funked-up version of “Dust on the Bible” and a stripped-down rendition of Jimmie Rodgers’ “Blue Yodel #6.” At 74, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer is still “the sweet lady with the nasty voice.”
4. The Damn Quails “Down the Hatch” (598 Recordings)
After just two years of making music as a duo, Norman-based singer-songwriters Bryon White and Gabriel Marshall earned national and international acclaim with their debut album, which features a rootsy sound both distinctly Oklahoman and uniquely their own. As each of the 14 earthy tracks comes “Down the Hatch,” it becomes increasingly clear the fertile Oklahoma music scene has nurtured a pair of exceptionally talented country-folk performers. Get the binoculars; you’re going to want to watch these birds.
5. Broncho “Can’t Get Past the Lips” (self released)
Here’s what I love about Oklahoma music: It turns out The Damn Quails weren’t the only Norman-based upstarts who released a standout debut record in the year just past. Broncho, the side project for Starlight Mints keyboardist Ryan Lindsey, forcefully declared that punk was not dead with its brawny, frenetic “Can’t Get Past the Lips.” As a bonus, the manic standout track “Try Me Out Sometime” deservedly made NPR’s list of five garage rock favorites from 2011.
6. Stoney LaRue “Velvet” (B Side Music Group)
Warm, smooth and surprisingly mellow, the red dirt star’s long-awaited second studio album fulfilled the promise of its luxurious title. The follow-up to “The Red Dirt Album,” the Edmond resident’s 2005 debut studio effort, “Velvet” was more than worth the wait, showcasing a more mature, finely crafted sound that maintains its rootsy authenticity.
7. Other Lives “Tamer Animals” (TBD Records)
After 14 months of painstakingly sculpting their sophomore album in their Stillwater studio space, the orchestral pop-rockers were richly rewarded for the elegantly lovely fruits of their labor: The band toured with Bon Iver in 2011, and they are joining none other than Radiohead on the road in February. Catch them in concert Jan. 26 at Tulsa’s Fassler Hall or Jan. 27 at Oklahoma City’s Blue Note Lounge because we will soon be forced to love Other Lives and their evocative music from afar.
8. Colourmusic “My __ is Pink” (Memphis Industries)
Like Other Lives, experimental rock quartet Colourmusic spent months in its Stillwater recording lab conjuring up its second album. With “Pink,” the neo-psychedelic wizards tried out a distinctively different sonic formula from their fantastic 2008 debut “F, Monday, Orange, February, Venus, Lunatic, 1 or 13.” Although their sophomore effort featured a much tougher and more aggressive sound, it maintained those beautifully mesmerizing melodies. I still get goose bumps on my goose bumps hearing their 10-minute epic “The Little Death (In Five Parts).”
9. Vince Gill “Guitar Slinger” (MCA Nashville)
The Country Music Hall of Famer was never going to match the scope and audacity of his four-disc, 43-track box set “These Days,” which won the 2006 Grammy for best country album and earned an overall album of the year nomination. But the Norman-born, Oklahoma City-bred singer/songwriter/guitarist didn’t disappoint with his 12-track follow-up, which channeled Motown with “Tell Me Fool,” memorialized Billie Holiday on “When the Lady Sings the Blues” and passionately pondered life and mortality on the Grammy-nominated first single “Threaten Me With Heaven.”
10. St. Vincent “Strange Mercy” (4AD)
The Tulsa-born singer/songwriter/guitarist also known as Annie Clark continues to make music reminiscent of a diamond-bladed scalpel: The otherworldly vocals and lush melodies possess a delicate beauty, but St. Vincent’s pointed lyrics and finely honed guitar hooks will cut you open as ruthlessly as the “Surgeon” she pleads with on her third album.