Remember 2010? Among other things, it was a transitional year for Vermont music, as several longtime stalwarts called it quits or split town. And that made room for a new generation of artists to emerge. In 2011, many of those artists blossomed, establishing the next era of great Vermont music.
While recent years have seen a return to rock-and-roll roots in Vermont, 2011 was notable for diversification. In fact, so many genres and subgenres appeared that it’s hard to say any one style characterizes, or even dominates, Vermont music. The result: as vibrant and varied a collective local scene as any in memory. To wit:
Folk and Americana have never lacked for representation in Vermont, and this year was no exception. We heard traditional strains from the likes of the Mid-nite Plowboys’ Willy Lindner, and trad Celtic fare from Jennifer Culley Curtin. On the other end of the acoustic spectrum, stellar alt- and indie-folk debuts from Last October and Lila Mae & Jeff Hahn proved provocative and disarming. Hungrytown returned with a sparkling, long-awaited sophomore record loaded with retro charm. Kristina Stykos melded timeless rural imagery with touches of new-age mysticism. Erin McDermott staked her claim as the state’s next major musical export with a polished treatise on alt-country. And wily musical hobos the Hokum High Rollers dropped a spirited debut before hopping the last freight car out of town.
String bands featured heavily in the mix, as well, delivering myriad grassy varietals. Newcomers Something With Strings painted in several shades of blue on their plucky debut. Rambunctious upstarts Gold Town poured a double shot of whiskey-grass on their first fullength. And another Plowboy, Al Davis, dazzled us with his side project, the Dazzlers.
As ever, Vermonters suffered no shortage of rock and/or roll. Blue-collar bards Duane Carleton and Tim Brick each sidled up to the bar with country-rock gems. Veteran local songwriter Josh Brooks showed the kids a thing or two about garage-y blues-rock with his duo Grant Black. Torpedo Rodeo got geeky on their sophomore surf-punk effort. Not to be out-geeked, the Fizz continued riding the New Wave on their latest. Pariah Beat paid homage to their heroes with a tremendous record. New label/collective What Doth Life introduced Upper Valley rock to statewide audiences with releases from the Pilgrims and Giant Travel Avant Garde. Dr. Green got grungy, Squid City got proggy, Pulse Prophets got irie, and Waylon Speed got thrashy. Not to be outdone, punk resurfaced with new patches from Lord Silky, riot grrrls Doll Fight!, northern degenerates Gas & Oil and, of course, Vermont legends the Wards.
The indie scene continued to skinny up our jeans. Paper Castles put a lo-fi charmer to tape — literally. The Fifth Business further mined classic indie-rock jangle. First Crush put butterflies in our bellies with an indie-pop love letter. Teleport beamed us back to the golden age of Hall & Oates, and without a shred of hipster irony. Phil Yates hooked us with unabashed pop. And Grace Potter and the Nocturnals’ protégés Chamberlin came out of nowhere with a staggering, reverb-drenched debut.
In Vermont as elsewhere, the nebulous definition of “singer-songwriter” continued to expand. Aaron Flinn got twangy with a veritable local all-star band on his latest. Pop prince Gregory Douglass was nothing short of regal on a collaboration with cellist Monique Citro. Blues man Dave Keller struck R&B gold. Erstwhile rock star Rich Price grew up but not old. And Steven Leibman turned back the clock with a transcendent debut at the tender age of 63. Neo-soul siren Myra Flynn put it all together, delivering a signature work. Sara Grace & the Suits proved there is more than one Grace to watch out for. Sara Wallis made a name for herself on a pop-tacular freshman effort.
Top-notch hip-hop continued flowing from the 802. Danny Bick brought West Coast lean to Montpelier and Aleck Woog made a big step forward. Coba Stella got trippy. Face One and Andy Lugo joined forces and got high (minded). Lugo’s 2nd Agenda also released a new record, further cementing their impressive local legacy.
Gypsy jazz continued as the go-to style for local hepcats. Mike Martin and Trio Gusto reinvigorated hothouse cool. They Might Be Gypsies revealed a giant-in-waiting in teenage guitar phenom Aiden Ryan. And scene godfather Will Patton added another chapter in his “get rich slowly scheme.”
Local saxophonist Brian McCarthy stepped out of the shadows and into the spotlight on a scorching debut of original compositions. Lewis Franco and the Missing Cats found cheeky swing for grownups. And Jane Boxall proved marimba isn’t just for band geeks anymore.
Compilation albums figured prominently this year, in large part to aid Irene recovery efforts. Good Night Irene lent serious star power to the cause, and Vermont (VT Artists for Flood Relief) offered more local support. Meanwhile, Chamberlin notched a fun EP of reworked indie hits, also to benefit flood victims. Montpelier’s Golden Dome Musicians’ Collective released two intriguing comps, introducing the state to a bustling little scene in the capital.
Gone but not forgotten, Vermont ex pats released some good ones this year, too. Hotels & Highways hit the road with a rootsy gem. Pretend You’re Happy stopped pretending. Rubblebucket evolved into an orchestral art-rock juggernaut. Tumbling Bones got back to bluegrass basics. Francesca Blanchard stunned from Boston. Dirigo proved to be strange folk, indeed. And Crinkles made us all wish they’d just come home.
And so went another fascinating year in Vermont music. A strong case could be made that many of the aforementioned records are among the finest of 2011. But tradition dictates that we choose only 10. So these albums represent this critic’s best of the best, in no particular order. As always, thanks for listening, and for supporting local music.