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A fine year in local music

Shabazz Palaces Credit: YouTube.com

The biggest national story in Seattle music ended up not being that big of a story after all. Or at least it ended up being a story without much activity involved. The story was Soundgarden’s reunion, and when singer Chris Cornell broke the news that his old band was getting back together, it seemed like big things were on the horizon for the grunge gods.

Unfortunately, the band performed only one local show and a total of only three public performances in 2010. Worse yet, it was nearly impossible to get tickets to the local concert, held at the Showbox, because of a poorly planned ticketing system. Although it appears this year’s reunion shows were cash grabs to promote a Soundgarden boxed set, guitarist Kim Thayil has mentioned B-sides and live records in the works, so there is a strong possibility of more activity from the Soundgarden camp to come.

Other grunge activity included the first performance by the members of Mother Love Bone in more than two decades. The band played a brief surprise three-song set as part of a Brad concert (another grunge-era band that experienced a bit of a rebirth in 2010) with the soulful Shawn Smith filling in on vocals for the late Andrew Wood. The memory of Wood will live on in March when a documentary about his life titled Malfunkshun: The Andrew Wood Story gets released along with two CDs of his previously unreleased music.

On the festival front, City Arts magazine managed to book an impressive first-year festival that spanned four days and spread across dozens of venues throughout Seattle. The Capitol Hill Block Party expanded by adding a third day to accommodate Jack White’s touring schedule with his band Dead Weather, and One Reel celebrated Bumbershoot’s 40th birthday by booking Bob Dylan.

Unfortunately, Dylan’s gate draw couldn’t save One Reel from feeling the burn of the recession. One Reel, which is a nonprofit organization, laid off eight of its 14 festival staffers shortly after the festival. There’s no telling what this means for the 41st annual Labor Day weekend event. On a positive note, you should expect the Sasquatch! music festival to make some noise next year. The fest will be celebrating its 10th year and has already booked Foo Fighters and added an additional day to mark the occasion.

Sub Pop Records made a few power plays this year by signing the two hottest local acts The pair of signings not only show vibrant signs of life in the local music scene, they also help cement Sub Pop’s reputation for helping introduce the world to some of Seattle’s finest musicians.

In September the label signed Shabazz Palaces, a hip-hop group featuring former Digable Planets rapper Ishmael Butler. The group’s songs feature unorthodox rhythms and beats that are often heavy on African percussion, making for refreshing, challenging, and enjoyable hip-hop music. It is believed to be only Sub Pop’s second hip-hop signing (the other being Olympia’s Evil Tambourines in the 1990s), and you should expect very big things from the group in 2011.

The other Sub Pop signing of note is the Head and the Heart. The band of plays an upbeat style of folk with three and four-part harmonies and delivers spirited live performances. While the signing hasn’t been made official yet, it is the worst-kept secret in local music, and the proof is in the posting if you believe what you see on iTunes. The Head and the Heart have already pretty much conquered Seattle with their rapid rise to local fame (the band formed in late 2009) and are poised to take on the rest of the country with an album slated for release next year.

Musicians weren’t the only names in the news this year; several new and old venues also made the news. The Hard Rock Cafe finally landed in Seattle with a restaurant that features a performance space near Pike Place Market. Some feared that the corporate chain would interfere with the business of other area venues, but so far that has not been the case. The south side of town saw the welcomed return of Columbia City Theatre. Next year, be on the lookout for the reopening of the Neptune Theatre in the University District. The former movie house is being leased by Seattle Theatre Group, which plans to turn it into a music venue in the spring. The addition of new venues is a positive sign of growth and a reminder of the importance of the music scene’s role as an economic driver for the city.

Another sign of growth is the rising political clout the scene carries. The City of Music initiative, which was established in 2008, is still going strong, and Mayor Mike McGinn created the 21-member Music Commission to support the initiative’s mission of promoting the growth of the music scene in Seattle. McGinn, who received heavy support from almost every power player in the music community, also announced a nightlife initiative this year that proposes staggered last calls at bars, expanded late-night public transportation, increased security training at nightclubs, and other changes that were part of his campaign platform.

However, those two political stories pale in comparison to what was perhaps the biggest local music story of the year. Last summer KEXP made a push to move to the Seattle Center grounds in the shadow of the Experience Music Project. Heavy hitters like Eddie Vedder, Dave Matthews, and the Wilson sisters signed a letter urging McGinn to support the plan. While initially it didn’t appear KEXP would get its wish because the station’s proposal wasn’t deemed beneficial enough financially for the city, earlier this month McGinn revealed a proposal that would place the nonprofit station in Seattle Center’s Northwest Rooms. The move is scheduled for 2013 and is expected to have a major impact on the local music scene, which means it’s something you’ll be reading about in this space next year.

And there’s more to look forward to in 2011. Pearl Jam, one of the city’s biggest musical exports, is turning 20, and the band has big plans to celebrate. The first phase of the celebration involves the release of a live album called Live on Ten Legs, which will be released Jan. 18. The next phase has yet to be announced, but Kelly Curtis, the band’s longtime manager, stated that the band is planning a festival “somewhere in the middle of the country.” There are also plans for reissues of Vs and Vitalogy, the band’s second and third albums, as well as a Cameron Crowe-directed documentary that chronicles the band’s career.

Aside from the aforementioned releases by Shabazz Palaces and the Head and the Heart, you can expect a few bigger local names to release albums this year. Death Cab for Cutie will release its seventh studio record, Codes and Keys, in the spring. Ben Gibbard wrote a lot of the record on piano, so expect to hear a less guitar-driven side of the Bellingham band. Also, the bearded folk rock of Fleet Foxes will make a return in 2011 in the form of a new record. Hopefully the action from these two bands will wake the sleeping giant that is Modest Mouse, dormant since 2007’s We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank.

Of course you can rarely mention Pearl Jam without thinking about Nirvana, and the ghost of grunge past will make an impressive appearance at Experience Music Project. In April the museum will open Nirvana: Taking Punk to the Masses, an exhibition being billed as the world’s most extensive Nirvana exhibit. Krist Novaselic, Dave Grohl, and Courtney Love were involved in the creation of the exhibit, which will feature 200 Nirvana artifacts including lyrics handwritten by Kurt Cobain, instruments, clothing worn by Cobain, and other pieces of memorabilia. It will be the second museum gallery space dedicated to Nirvana in as many museums in Seattle in the past two years. Seattle Art Museum’s “Kurt” explored the influence Cobain had on artists in various disciplines in 2010. The fact that 2011 marks the 20th anniversary of Nevermind’s release is not a coincidence.

Looking back over the local albums of 2010, here are my picks for the 10 best:

10.  Jake One and Freeway, The Stimulus PackageThe local producer extraordinaire teamed up with a Philadelphia rapper for some great hip-hop.

09. The Lights, Failed GravesA mishmashing of rock subgenres blended into an excellent stew of punk rock potpourri.

08. The Posies, Blood/Candy – The Posies made one of the best records of their 25-year career.

07. Helladope, Helladope – Futuristic hip-hop by two of the city’s most promising young MCs.

06. The Head and the Heart, The Head and the HeartBeautiful harmonies, instrumentation, and songs all soar on this stellar debut.

05. Victor Shade, Victor Shade – Aggressive beats paired with the flow of Common Market’s Ra Scion are a winning combination.

04. Moondoggies, Tidelands – Campfire rock in its finest form

03. Hobosexual, HobosexualLoud, dirty, bluesy garage rock done right.

02. Unnatural Helpers, Cracked Love and Other DrugsBlissfully loud, aggressive and punchy punk rock goodness.

01. Head Like a Kite, Dreams Suspend Night – If this record doesn’t make you dance, then you have no pulse.

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