Many moons ago, post mini-disc player, pre-iPod, it was pretty easy to put out a CD, even on a local level. Play some shows, scrounge up a grand or so, get a buddy who knows Photoshop to do the art, and POW!, you've got a shiny disc to hawk to your pals. These days, though, bands have to find new ways to push their wares - whether it be vinyl only releases, pay-what-you-want methods like Bandcamp, or, hell, sometimes even tapes (yes, those tiny things your mom's mini-van used to eat up) are all used to release music in 2011. And that's exactly what most of the local acts on this list have done; even in an age when nobody wants to really buy music anymore, a lot of these groups have managed to create essential releases that prove some of the best sounds around are being finagled in our own backyard.
Carradine - In Case I Lose It, We Both Have It (Mostly Filler Records)
With bands like Yuck, Real Estate, and Telekinesis having "hit" records this past year, it seems like the '90s revival is in full swing in 2011. Carradine's In Case I Lose It, We Both Have It is Detroit's own little version of that, repping hard with slack-pop tunes that could single handedly make flood pants and your grandpa's cardigan become your every day uniform. Ringing with Superchunk-y barre chords and raspy vocals, songs like "Opinion Shelter" and "Bleeding Out" would sound great on a mixtape between other '90s greats like Versus and the Promise Ring. Yes, I said mixtape.
City Center - Redeemer (K Records)
Fred Thomas is one of those great songwriters who "suffers" (but not really) from multiple personality disorder. At one time or another, he's led bands that pull from Motown, Britpop, hardcore, surf, emo, folk, and indie rock, all laced with his signature vocal warble and ability to make just about any style of music sound like he invented it. Match him up with Ryan Howard, City Center's other half, and you get sample-based dream-pop not unlike Panda Bear and Washed Out, but with a bit more emphasis on the "pop" than the "dream" part. Redeemer, honorably, was released by Olympia, WA-based indie stalwart K Records - quite the feat on anybody's standards - but this is also a band keen on tapes, digital-only releases, and other hard to finds. Find them, you should.
Dale Earnhardt JR JR - It's a Corporate World (Warner Bros./Quite Scientific)
An album called It's a Corporate World released on the very corporate Warner Bros. records... is it tongue-in-cheek irony, the product of blog-buzz and hit-the-road gusto, dumb luck, or a little bit of all three? It's possible we'll never know, so instead I'll just say that it must be the tunes, man. Because in DEJJ's corporate world, they've got them for days - pieces of thick-sliced electro-pop pie, not indie-weird enough for the Animal Collective kids, but not as cheesed-out corny to make them the next Postal Service. Which is why they're the perfect band for people who still actually buy CDs. So if this is "corporate rock" in the new millennium, then I can live with that.
Dirtbombs - Party Store (In The Red)
What's the next logical move for a garage rock band that's done it all, seen it all, and heard it all for the last 16 years? Why, release an album covering classic Detroit techno jammers, of course. Sure, it seems odd to the uninitiated, but constant Dirtbomb Mick Collins has flirted with electronic music for just as long as he's wrangled blues chords from his six-string. Party Store turns techno-staples like A Number of Names' "Shari Vari" and Cybotron's "Cosmic Cars" into motorik, minimal shards of rock, adding a more human element to the song's otherwise robotic nature. It's a cool experiment, and probably exactly what the band needs to shake off perceptions of what a "garage rock" band is supposed to be like in 2011.
Glossies - Phantom Films (self released)
If you've been to a bar in Ferndale sometime in the last year, you've run into Glossies main-man Scott Masson. He's probably been jovial (drunk) and probably kissed you (drunker) and you probably don't mind because he's a hell of a nice guy. Or maybe he's cut meat for you behind the deli at Holiday Market. And when he's not doing that, he's probably at home, writing one of the best songs you've ever heard. See, Masson is one of those guys that can do it all - drum, rip on guitar, sing beautifully (he's actually got a great scream, too) - and "it all" is just what he does on Glossies debut Phantom Films. Throughout the record, there's hints of Bowie's pomp, the Shins' pop mastery, tasteful electro flourishes, more than a bit of Pixies-esque rage, and even a bit of Jellyfish's Technicolor take on rock, all wrapped up in an easy to digest FREE album on Bandcamp. Over the year, Masson's acquired a killer band, too, turning the well-produced album's tunes into full-on romps that only solidify how much potential this band has.
Hospital Garden - Haunter (Arts Vs Entertainment)
Ok, so I'm kiiiiiiiiinda cheating on this one, but hear me out: if you're keeping score here, Hospital Garden isn't exactly a Michigan band. They're based in Chicago, actually, by way of Dayton, OH (Ohio...I know!). But, it needs to be pointed out that main singer, songwriter, and guitarist Lucas Hollow is originally a Mitten-stater. He grew up in Jackson, and spent his collegiate years living in Ypsilanti, playing in scrappy punk groups along the way. But it wasn't until the formation of Hospital Garden that Hollow had finally found his voice. He just did it once he left state lines, is all. Either way, once I heard (and saw) Hospital Garden, I knew I had to include them on this list, despite me breaking my own rules. Think a rougher Guided By Voices, injected with Husker Du's breakneck speed, and the Pixies' noisier bits and HG is somehow better than that. And hey, Stevie Wonder is still considered a local artist and he probably lives in a palace somewhere in LA, right?
JOHN - Things In My Mind (The Jack Holmes Recording Co.)
Full disclosure: I play in a band with JOHN - John Nelson, to be exact - so I'm probably a bit biased. But having been an actual fan of Nelson before I became his friend and bandmate, I feel like I have every right to include his debut solo album on this list. Though Nelson is known for making ears ring (including his own) with countless loud-rock bands in the past (New Grenada, Copper Thieves, etc.), this collection finds this self-proclaimed grump in full-on Neil Young mode, conjuring up raw, emotional, mostly-acoustic sad-guy songs that sound raging, despite the lack of bombast and distortion. After listening to the record, you'll wonder why more songwriters in this town aren't this brave.
Minutes - S/T (self released)
Quite frankly, I’m almost rendered speechless when trying to come up with ways to describe how much I love this record. Based in Kalamazoo, with lineage between tons of west-side-of-the-state post-hardcore bands like Trocar and Hornet - as well as a DC connection (geographically, as well as in sound) in Ryan Nelson (of the long-lost Most Secret Method) - Minutes play the kind of workman-like punk that can only come from dads in their mid-30s that are old enough to have seen Fugazi play their first Michigan dates, but young enough to still have a fire in them to keep doing it. Honestly, there isn’t a record I’ve heard all year that I can relate to more. Kills on the treadmill, too.
Prussia - Poor English, Parts 1-3 (self released)
See, this is what I was talking about in the intro paragraph, about how bands have to think of different methods to get their music to the masses. At this point, Prussia has become popular enough to have just said, “Ok, all million of our friends: here’s our new CD, it’s 10 dollars, buy it at our shows. Thanks.” But instead, the band leaked previews online, and eventually ended up releasing Poor English in three parts, all one month a part from each other, in a name-your-price type format on Bandcamp. Then, the dudes went a step further, and released the album physically on three separate 10” vinyl records. So now, not only do you have it on your iPod, but also you have collector's item records, and everybody in the world is happy, because Prussia finally released this damn thing well after it was done. But it was worth the wait, as the band has grown in leaps and bounds, dynamically, stylistically, other “cally” descriptions that I can’t think of right now, and suffice to say, I’m proud of ‘em.
Zoos of Berlin - Pallaster Chant EP (Time No Place)
Oops. I’m breaking the rules again. Sorry, but this one is an EP...not even a full album or anything. But who needs ten or 12 songs to sift through when you’re busy checking your Facebook at work? Zoos of Berlin know this, and they also know their way around the studio, as Pallaster Chant is again another example of a band at the top of their game, mixing Berlin-era Bowie, Brian Eno-ish ambiance, a little white-boy funk ala Talking Heads, and the Sea and Cake’s jazzy indie-rock to perfection. And do I even have to mention that it’s also free on Bandcamp? Thanks Zoos, you’re too good to us.
Check back tomorrow for Ryan Allen's list of 12 local bands to keep an eye on in 2012.