Saturday, December 17, 2011

My 20 Favorite Albums of 2011

WARNING: This is not some end of the year list where I pretend to have heard every album released in every genre for the year and I tell you what the best ones are. This list is merely what I was listening to this year. I fully admit that there is ton of music that I just don't listen too (electronica, pop, country, most rap) so while the new Toby Keith CD might blow me away, it ain't here. These are simply the discs that I was blessed to have come into my world and be my companions through the year. Hopefully these turned you on as much as me!

20. Danger Mouse and Daniele Luppi-"Rome"
An album from producer extraordinaire Danger Mouse (Black Keys, Beck) and Italian musician Daniele Luppi inspired by the music from spaghetti westerns featuring vocals from Jack White and Norah Jones?! Sounds like a mess, right? Think again. Flowing like the perfect movie soundtrack only needing a movie, "Rome" contains some of the most interesting sounds that came out of my speakers all year.
Danger Mouse & Daniele Luppi - Two Against One (Ft. Jack White) by MMMusic

19. Jay-Z and Kayne West-"Watch the Throne"
In no way do I pretend to be any kind of rap aficionado, but when the two most talented artists in that genre come together to record an album, one must listen. The result of one of most enjoyable listening experiences I had all year. This is two amazing rap lyricists at the top of their game working together to try to out do each other. Even if you don't like rap, its simply a joy to enter their world for an hour and hear what they came up with.

18. My Morning Jacket-"Circuital"
After recording their worst album in 2008 (Evil Urges), My Morning Jacket stormed back in 2011 with one of their best. While I certainly miss the "The Band meets Zeppelin" sound of their earlier albums, at least they dropped the cheesy "Hall and Oats" 70's pop homages this time out. Sounding both classic-rock and progressive at the same time, My Morning Jacket may have finally found the sound they have been searching for all these years.

Circuital by My MORNING JACKET

17. Gillian Welch-"The Harrow and the Harvest"
After 8 long years for fans, folkies Gillian Welch and long time partner David Rawlings finally released a new studio album. And a stellar one at that! While 2008's "Soul Journey" clumsily toyed with the addition of some bass and drums, "The Harrow and the Harvest" focuses on what these they do best; two acoustic guitars and two perfectly blended voices singing deceptively simple, beautiful songs that sound like they could have been written 100 years ago. Welcome back Gillian. Don't wait so long next time please!

16. R
adiohead-"The Kind of Limbs"
A don't think I have ever liked a new Radiohead album on first listen, and their 2011 release was no exception. At first spin, it sounded like an electronic mess devoid of any melody (similar to what I first thought of their groundbreaking masterpiece "Kid A"). But after further listening, the songs start to unfold themselves and wrap themselves around your brain until you can't get them out. The band hasn't seemed to mess with their formula much, but as someone still trying to come to terms with what that formula actually is, I'm thrilled they keep doing it. There is simply no one like Radiohead and "The Kind of Limbs" is another brilliant example why.

15. Feist-"Metals"
Make no bones about it, I'm in love with Canadian indie songstress Leslie Feist. There is just no one out there even remotely like her. Sort of like a modern day Laura Nyro, Feist writes complex music and lyrics while making the compositions sound deceptively subtle. Then there's her amazingly unique vocal quality which can sing torch, folk, rock, and most likely the phone book, all while never sounding anything short of exhilarating. "Metal" is not only a great new addition to Feist's catalog, but such a huge leap forward that it leaves in wondrous anticipation to hear what she can come up with next.

14. Eleventh Dream Day-"Riot Now"
Founded in 1987, just the fact that Chicago punk rock natives Eleventh Dream Day have a new album is cause for celebration. The fact that it is so balls out, rock and rolling awesome is icing on the cake. This is one of those bands who should be much bigger then they are. Everyone knows The Pixies for example, but these guys have been doing it longer and dare I say better then most other rock bands. "Riot Act" was recorded all in one day and it sounds like it, and I mean that in the best way. This is an "in-your- face", no frills, rock and roll blast of loud solos and choruses that is sadly missing from the radio these days. Turn it up loud and rejoice that these guys are still out there doing their thing. We need them!

Eleventh Dream Day, 'Satellite' by Slicing Up Eyeballs

13. The Black Keys-"El Camino"
Perhaps my favorite album of last year was The Keys- "Brothers". It showed a giant leap forward for these guys who I had originally (and mistakenly) pegged as a short lived, blues/garage rock hybrid. The fact that in just over a year, they could release something as good and progressively better then "Brothers" is mind-boggling. This is one of the rare albums that feels instantly recognizable and goes by far too fast that you want to jump up and hit play the minute its over. Just released in early December and deservedly destined to be on most critics lists this year, this is the "crank it up", winter gift album for all the folks luckily enough to be in on the party.

The Black Keys: El Camino by -gaga

12. P.J. Harvey-"Let England Shake"
This 2011 winner of England's Mercury Price for best album is a beautiful stunner of a record. In a nearly 20 year career, P.J. Harvey has never come close to making the same album twice. And that is what I love so much about her. You just never know what she's up to and sometimes after many listens to one of her albums, you still may not know. I've been listening to the majestic "Let England Shake" for the better part of the year, and I'm still digesting it. It sounds like a different album every time I play it. Singing in strange falsetto style on many of the tracks, this song cycle about the trials of England's wars will certainly not be for everyone. But if you let it sink in and get under your skin, you will be in for a major treat that you can't shake.

PJ Harvey - Let England Shake by 140dB Management

11. Ryan Adams-"Ashes and Fire"
The easy knock on Ryan Adams is that he is TOO prolific, releasing too much material too quickly resulting in spotty quality work. Personally, I say the more songs the better, and let me choose which ones I like. That argument aside, there is no denying that Ryan's first proper album of new material in three years is his best since his 2005 trifecta of greatness ("Cold Roses", "Jacksonville City Lights", "29"). "Ashes and Fire" is a stripped down affair that is in no way depressing. I find the lyrics in these songs of lost loves and failed chances surprisingly hopeful and more importantly, instantly likeable. Because he is so varied an artist, Ryan is one of those guys who will never please all his fans no matter what he puts out. Some will say this is just Ryan playing it safe, but I'll take safe and quality over varied and adrift. Welcome back Ryan!

Ashes and Fire by ryanadams

10. The Roots-"undun"
The hardest working band in showiness took a break from their nightly gig as Jimmy Fallon's house band to record this killer song-cycle about growing up in the 'hood. While not as immediately likeable as their 2010 masterpiece "How I Got Over", "undun" carries a major lyrical weight that opens itself up after multiple listens. Oh, and then there is the fantastic musicianship that is not so secretly making The Roots the most versicle band in the land. This is an important release that needs to be paid attention to.

The Roots feat Phonte & Dice Raw – One Time by TheWellVersed

9. "Wild Flag"
Taking two-thirds Sleater-Kinney (Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss), one part Helium (Mary Timony), add killer hooks, pounding drums, blissful harmonies, dual guitar jams, and you have one of the best rock and roll records ever made. Sleater-Kinney being maybe the best band of the 90's, this makes for a tall shadow to get around, but "Wild Flag" is one of those rare albums that sounds instantly likeable and effortless. Oh, and if you can make it past the first 2 minutes of "Romance" without cranking it up to 10 and banging your head in rabid euphoria, you have no rock and roll soul!

Wild Flag - Romance by MergeRecords

8. The Decemberists-"The King is Dead"
I will admit to never liking The Decemberists before. I tried, I really did, but I simply found them too "difficult" to really fall in love with them. When I read that on their sixth album, they were bringing in R.E.M.'s Peter Buck for guitar inspiration, Gillian Welch for harmonies, and a title nod to one of my favorite bands of all time, I was sold. But it was the tightly written, masterful songs that finally got me. Every song sounds like an old friend and radiates with a joy that one doesn't hear enough in modern music. I've been converted, and so was everyone that listened.

The Decemberists -- Down By The Water by buzzlegoose

7. "Bon Iver"
After making a huge splash with his brilliant 2007 debut "For Emma, Forever Ago, Eau Claire, Wisconsin native Justin Vernon (and friends) returned with the ever important sophomore release. The good new is while it lacked the "breakup record recorded in the woods" drama that surrounded "For Emma", "Bon Iver" perfectly expands on the sounds and moodiness that made that album so great. While I admit to never really having any idea what Vernon is signing about, the majesty in his music is that it conjures such a special mood and feeling, that it makes you understand. And it's a wonderful thing to feel if you let it.....

Bon Iver, Bon Iver by boniver

6. Paul Simon-"So Beautiful or So What"
At this point in his career, no one needs another reason for believing Paul Simon is one of our greatest songwriters. And that's what made 2011's "So Beautiful, So What" such a revelation. Crackling with an energy and soul that astounds, these are songs of craft and wit that only Mr. Simon can provide. Using a killer band that sounds thrilled to be playing these tunes about God, Love, and Hope; Paul Simon has made one of the greatest albums in his collection. And that is really saying something!

So Beautiful Or So What by Paul Simon

5. REM-"Collapse Into Now"
After 31 years together, 2011 saw R.E.M. release their best album in 15 years, but sadly their last. R.E.M.'s first five albums are one of the best artistic strings in rock and roll history, but that magic had long passed. Coming after years of disappointing album after album, "Collapse Into Now" was simply a miracle for their long time fans and absolutely deserves to be mentioned as one of their best. It's an album that reminded you of why you loved them in the first place, yet sounded like a whole new journey was to come. Unfortunately, it will have to stand and a perfect swan song to one the most important bands in my life.

4. Fleet Foxes-"Helplessness Blues"
For those who fell in love with the Fleet Foxes upon hearing their stunning 2008 debut, one would have thought topping that release impossible. Wrong! On their sophomore release, the band wisely doesn't mess with the formula that make them sound like no other. The lush harmonies and timeless sounding acoustic instruments shimmer and paint a musical landscape that you want to come back to again and again. (PS-Listening to this beauty released on gorgeous 180-gram vinyl should be required for anyone with a turntable!)

Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues by MMMusic

3. Wilco-"The Whole Love"
With eight masterful and varied albums under their belts, every Wilco studio release is an event these days. Fans putting the needle on a new Wilco record for the first time wonder what they will hear, and finding out is a huge part of the fun of liking this band. The great news with "The Whole Love" is we simply hear a Wilco that is 100% on top of their game. While their last release; "Wilco-The Album", sounded almost like a great mix tape of different styles, "The Whole Love" is a confident and flawless stream if ideas like only Jeff Tweedy and Co. can create. Book-ending with two of their best songs that happen to sound like they were made by different bands, Wilco have crafted their most varied and enjoyable album to date. For longtime fans of the band, "The Whole Love" sounds like a beautiful reward. For new fans, it's only the beginning of a wonderful journey. I envy you....

The Whole Love - Wilco by Brian Friesen

2. Tom Waits-"Bad as Me"
What can you say about Tom Waits these days that hasn't been said? He is simply a world all his own and one of music's treasures and each album is a gift. He has aptly described his songwriting as making "grant weepers and grim weepers" and his first studio album in seven years is the perfect blend of each. From the opening aggressive howl about going to Chicago to the final brilliant weeper "New Years Eve", this is one wild ride through the mind of Waits. It's simply one of his best albums in a career chalk full of them. Thanks for the gift Tom!

Tom Waits - Bad As Me by ronnierocket

1. TV on the Radio-"Nine Types of Light"
No album this year rocked my world as much as this one. A slow-burning masterpiece of styles and moods, "Nine Types of Light" is the kind of album that stops you dead in your tracks and demands you to listen. While sounding like Prince jamming with David Bowie in a Brian Eno managed opium den, the Brooklyn, New York based TV on the Radio somehow get better with each release, all while pushing boundaries and sounding like no other. This is music that is simply invigorating to listen to and proves that TV on the Radio are a band leading the pack of creativity. I suggest you pay attention. You will thank me later.....

TV On The Radio - "Will Do" by Interscope Records

2011 Honorable Mentions:
The Jayhawks-"Mockingbird Time"
Peter Gabriel-"New Blood"
Drive-By Truckers-"Go-Go Boots"
Lindsey Buckingham-"Seeds We Sow"
Robbie Robertson-"How to Become Clairvoyant"
Thurston Moore-"Demolished Thoughts"

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