Once the most maligned instrument this side of the bagpipes, saxophone used to stand for all things musically awful: Kenny G, cheesy soft-rock, hair-blown '80s pop, bad jazz. It was synonymous with taking a solo, the least punk thing anyone can ever do. And, yet, in 2011 sax came roaring back, and seemed to suddenly be everywhere. It achieved such cultural cachet that several saxy records —Atlas Sound's Parallax, M83's Hurry Up, We're Dreaming, Au's "Solid Gold," and, surprisingly, Fleet Foxes' Helplessness Blues— couldn't find themselves a place, here, on this list: a veritable celebration of The Year of the Saxophone.
In the Year of the Saxophone, it was Bon Iver who took the sax to the masses. Or, y'know, at least back to them. In an unexpected evolution for those who bought into the deer-huntin', wood-choppin', acoustic-strummin', back-to-the-land mythology of For Emma, Forever Ago, Justin Vernon made a self-titled set steeped in autotuned-washed R&B ballads and smoothed-out soft-rock. So, the saxophone was a natural fit for such a quiet storm, and Vernon invited along 2011's Man of the Year, Colin Stetson, to blow hot woodwinds throughout. Most of the time the sax was non-cheeseball, until controversial album closer "Beth/Rest," which sounded like a refugee from a late-'80s Peter Cetera record.
In indie-folk troupe Grizzly Bear, Christopher Taylor serves as a somewhat-secret saxophonist; adding woodwinds to his role as bassist, keyboardist, and in-house producer. Taylor grew up as devoted student of the sax, studying John Coltrane records and practicing his jazz chops, and, on his debut solo LP, Cant's Dreams Come True, he buried many a horn part amidst the dense, dissonant, synth-heavy mix. Taylor, too, couldn't help but notice that, beyond his own project, his much-maligned instrument of adolescent-choice was everywhere in 2011: "I've spent the year saying 'look, another saxophone!" Taylor laughed, late-November into the Year of the Saxophone. "But, I bet it won't be back next year. That's my unofficial prediction for 2012."
3. Canyons 'Keep Your Dreams'
Saxophone-splattered pop from Down Under was no small change in the '80s: Men at Work and Inxs both bothering pop-charts the globe over with songs boasting glittering saxophone solos. But Canyons may be the first Australian band, since then, to so liberally splatter sax all over their jams. The Perth-born production duo —who play a progged-out disco trussed with tribalist percussion and odd experimentation— enlist sax all over their debut LP, Keep Your Dreams. The album announces that intention with "Under a Blue Sky," whose rave-friendly build stops to let a wailing, solo-ing sax loft itself upon proceedings. In such, Canyons showed that, in 2011, you couldn't even keep saxophone off the dancefloor.
4. Colin Stetson 'New History Warfare Vol.2: Judges'
The Year of the Saxophone was the Year of Colin Stetson. The saxophonist's CV was already plenty impressive, including appearances on albums by Tom Waits, TV on the Radio, Arcade Fire, Yeasayer, and Buke and Gass. If he'd previously been anonymous contributor, that changed with Stetson's second solo album, New History Warfare Vol.2: Judges; a work of radical experimentation that wrung new sounds out of the sax, and arrived in time for buzz-building shows at SXSW. The record was nominated for a Polaris, as were two more LPs —Arcade Fire and Timber Timbre— Steston had played on. By the end of 2011, he'd issued another solo EP, and turned up on records by Bon Iver, Siskiyou, Esmerine, and Feist. Stetson ended the year indie-rock's most famous saxophonist, and a totemic symbol for the year in music.
This was the album. This was the one. When Kaputt arrived it was still January, and we had no idea that its collection of cheesy pop-saxophone solos was setting the tenor for the rest of 2011. Back then, back before the year of the sax had clearly become the Year of the Sax, I asked Bejar about whether trotting out a cheeseball sax solo was a transgressive act, and he swore a lot. And also said "I don't know what people's problems are with the sax." The Year of the Sax was about challenging perceptions, wondering why this instrument —but not, say, the trumpet or clarinet or, y'know, guitar— had become effectively forbidden for so many years. The fact that Kaputt went on to crush all manner of album-of-the-year countdowns made that message ring loud and clear.
New Yorker outfit Forest Fire show the depth of saxophone's inroads into indie-rock. Rather than invite along a guest saxophonist, they make the sax part of their instrument-juggling line-up; those blown-out solos and fiery horn parts indivisible from the band's music. But it's their music that's the most interesting thing. Forest Fire aren't soft-rock revivalists or '80s-aping ironists, but a straggly, ramshackle country-folk combo who owe an obvious debt to Neil Young. Here, the woodwinds blow amidst woody instruments and fuzzed-out, psychedelic guitar; brass blasting amongst Americana twang and experimental monkeying. Where, for many, the sax solos of 2011 were an outfit to be tried on and, assumedly, soon discarded, Forest Fire don't feel tied to fashion; be it current or passe. And that showed that the sudden influx of saxophone wasn't merely a whimsical trend, but the product of a slow process of growth.
For Iron and Wine leader Sam Beam, repeating himself would be "no fun for anybody else to listen to." So, the bearded folkie —who'd made his name whispering at barely-audible volumes over lo-fi acoustic strums— decided to undergo a makeover. Gone was the unwashed, all-natural air, in its place was a smooth, blue-eyed-soul palette; all synths, '80s R&B production, and multi-tracked falsetto. And, oh yes, saxophone solos. Plural. The album's grand finalé was "Your Fake Name Is Good Enough for Me," a seven-minute psychedelic-jazz freak-out that sent the album —and subsequent live-shows— off in a flurry of furious sax honk. For an artist once as rustic as Iron and Wine, it was a telling marker of the Year of the Saxophone.
The Rapture are no strangers to saxophone. Like any devoted students of post-punk and dance-punk, they've long employed sax, integrating the instrument into their sound, à la their heroes A Certain Ratio. In the form of multi-instrumentalist Gabriel Andruzzi, they've had a resident saxophonist in the band for the best part of a decade; letting him blow his horn on 2003's Echoes and 2006's Pieces of the People We Love. But the third Rapture album, In the Grace of Your Love, was by far the outfit's most saxophone-y LP. There's woodwinds blown all over the record, leading to the closing cut "It Takes Time to Be a Man," a piano-vampin', blue-eyed-soul-ish ballad that climaxes in a hothouse of multi-tracked sax.
For their fourth record, and second LP proper, Canadian combo Timber Timbre wanted to polish the dark, folkie blues of their early records into something more striking, more stylized. That turned out to be Creep On Creepin' On, a suitably-creepy set of spooky piano ballads that sound like the soundtrack to a haunted hotel's black-tie lounge-bar. The thrumming autoharps and scraped violins of yore were buffed over with glinting piano polish from Mathieu Charbonneau and, of course, saxophone, for which Timber Timbre recruited the omnipresent Colin Stetson. The results were glorious; a bleak, black-comic perversion of 'tasteful' tropes that was a worthy Polaris Music Prize nominee and, without doubt, one of the Year of the Saxophone's records of the year.
2011 wasn't just the Year of the Saxophone, it also marked Tune-Yards' breakout. Merrill Garbus followed up her awesome (best-of-the-'00s-worthy) 2009 debut, Bird-Brains, with the swaggering, commanding Whokill, a set that ended up atop album-of-the-year lists everywhere. Where her first LP was intimate, insular, and idiosyncratic, this time around, heading into a real studio, Garbus had a grander vision. And, thus, on a bold, ballsy, brassy album, Matt Nelson's saxophones —tenor and baritone, no less— are drawled across half the jams. In keeping with such, Garbus hit the road, whilst hot, backed by a band recruited straight from 2011 casting: one bassplayer, two saxophonists.