The Best of 2011The year provided so many great discs that caught my attention that I’ve expanded my list to twenty. If you’re reading this in a seasonal card and want a more fuller explanation of discs 11 through 20, shoot me an email and I will send you my blog link. Many of the bands on the top half of this list I saw live and most of them were outstanding, but especially Gillian Welch (see at the new Union Transfer venue in mid-October) and Dawes, seen at the TLA in Philly one week later.
1. The Harrow and the Harvest, Gillian Welch (Acony). A harrowing, haunting meditation that explores America’s darkest corners with heartbreaking observations and savvy commentary. Welch’s first studio recording in eight years is a masterpiece. The intricate, delicate, and ethereal interplay between Welch and her partner, David Rawlings, was breathtaking to witness first hand. Welch’s plaintive vocals, interlocked with Rawling’s subtle harmonies and guitar picking, belies the terror of their best tunes. Each song is a journey worth taking and savoring but “The Way It Is,” “Dark Turn of Mind” and “Six White Horses” seem timeless.
2. Nothing is Wrong. Dawes (ATO). The most joyous rock ‘n’ roll record of the year, performed by a band that exudes confidence and is primed to explode. Their show in October was unapologetically fun. The DNA for their music can be found in the music of Bob Dylan and the Band and Jackson Browne. A slow simmering brew of guitars, organ, piano and drums. Taylor Goldsmith’s tasty guitar licks are homages to Browne’s longtime guitarist David Lindley. His vocals performance skew a tad too close to Jackson’s plaintive yearnings for some listeners, but I find them compelling. “Fire Away” burns with passion. “Time Spent in Los Angeles” (despite a tortured rhyme) got more air play. Goldmith’s collaboration with John McCauley and Matt Vasquez (Middle Brother) will delight fans of this Dawes recording and is list-worthy.
3. Tassili. Tinariwen (Anti). An intoxicating brew of acoustic guitars, hand claps and percussion that shares the same simmering sonic palette of fellow African Ali Farka Toure. The musicians in Tinariwen hail from the southern Sahara region of the continent and perform live in nomadic gowns and headdresses. Tassili is named for the part of the Algerian desert where the musicians recorded the music. The band’s name means “empty places” and that serves as an apt similie for the relaxing vibe this music creates. “Tishoumaren” (music of the unemployed) addresses issues of political repression and awakening, and demands of sovereignty. Ibhahim Ag Alhabib, the band’s primary songwriter, sings with an earthy, soulful earnestness that adds an ageless bluesy feeling to the record.
4. Burst Apart. The Antlers (Frenchkiss). Ambient, trippy, blissful pop music. This Brooklyn band makes music that bears repeated listening and will take you to another place. If you like trip-hop music in mold of Portishead and Radiohead, you’ll find the Antlers equally appealing. Pete Silberman’s choir boy warble brings an epic, orchestral sensibility to the music of Burst Apart. Darby Cicci brings seamless support on synthesizers, electronic piano and trumpet. An irresistible truffle of an album, “I Don’t Want Love” and “Putting the Dog to Sleep”, the album’s opening and closing cuts, stand out as the best tracks on an album full of them.
5. I Am Very Far. Okkervil River (Jagjaguwar). Will Sheff was given a big budget for this effort and the money was well spent. He expanded the sonic palette of his previous folk-rock albums by adding cellos, violas, violins and a raft full of brass instruments you'd find in a middle school band room. His experiments don't always work, and the album feels slightly off kilter at times, but Sheff's lyrics are always worth hearing. His eye for details remains sharp and his vision unrelenting. His best songs have always plowed a bloodstained field to find their inspiration. This album is as dark as ever, a stark warning of the approaching Apocalyse. The violence is less personal this time around, but the social warning it evokes is no less powerful or thought-provoking. “Rider” was my favorite song of the year but it’s all worth hearing and thinking about.
6. Yuck. Yuck (Fat Possum). Big meaty hooks. Bouncy melodies mixed with searing feedback distortion amid crunchy guitar riffs. This is a princely mix of power pop and punk, served up in a concoction that recalls the halcyon days of Dinosaur Jr. It grabs you by the throat and won’t stop shaking it. Will make you wish you were young enough to head to your nearest mosh pit. Think Kinks in their head banging swinging London days and you’ll get the idea. (London is their hometown) Find “The Wall” or “Get Away” on YouTube and prepare to have your world rocked.
7. The King is Dead. The Decemberists (Capitol). Colin Meloy’s swansong with the Decemberists is his most radio-friendly collection of tunes and, not too surprisingly, it has sold more than any of his earlier, more acerbic, albums and made the band more popular than ever. I caught two of their shows this year, one in Philly at the Academy of Music and a second show at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. Both shows relied heavily on the string of hits here: “Don’t Carry It All,” “Calamity Song,” Down By the Water” and “This Is Why We Fight” are among the catchiest tunes Meloy has ever penned. A great folk rock album in the tradition of Fairport Convention and Pentangle.
8. Whokill. Tuneyards. (4AD). Merrill Garbus has such an unforgettable, distinctive voice that this quirky debut stood out as one of the year’s most captivating records. Channeling the Afro-pop vibe of Fela Kuti, Garbus uses her voice more as an additional instrument than as a source of personal angst or political commentary, both of which find a way into her message. Garbus uses drum and vocal loops to create a mesmerizing mixture of wails and beats. When I caught her show this year at Philly’s new concert venue, the Union Transfer, the trickery wore thin on me after about an hour. But my son and youngest daughter (big fans of the band) were all in. “Bizness” is the song to hear if you want to sample this exotic dish.
9. Helplessness Blues. Fleet Foxes (Sub Pop). It took a while to warm up to the Fleet Foxes sophomore effort. To my ears, there was no stand-out single that was appealing as “White Winter Hymnal” on their eponymous first album. But as the year went on, I kept returning to this record and each time I was rewarded with something that stuck with me and sounded fresh. The band’s harmonies, their hallmark, are as soaring and inspirational as ever. Writer and lead singer Robin Pecknold’s arrangements build from creeping, slow crescendos into sweeping orchestral moments of sheer sonic bliss. Besides, the Welch disc, this was the best folk CD I heard all year, in a year that was loaded with folk diamonds. The title track, "Bedouin Dress” and “Lorelei” stand out.
10. Bad As Me. Tom Waits (Anti). Tom’s first studio album since 2004 was worth the Wait. It’s his best collection of original material since 1992’s “Bone Machine,” but far less experimental and weirdly dissonant than that collection. Waits is channeling his inner blues muse on this album and the songs are far more focused (and shorter) than he tends to churn out. Never a great singer, his raspy voice still sounds as if he’s been smoking charcoal and drinking refrigerant. But this time the songs are jubilant and danceable and Waits is in full-tilt boogie party mode. “Get Lost” and the closer, “New Years Eve” are highlights.
The albums that came close to making my list, in alphabetical order:
Chief, Eric Church (EMI); Cannibal Courtship, Dengue Fever, Concord); Small Craft On a Milk Sea, Brian Eno (Opal) Speed of Darkness, Flogging Molly (Borstal Beat); Eye Contact, Gang Gang Dance (4AD); Ancient & Modern, the Mekons, (Sin); Reverie, Joe Henry (Anti) Middle Brother, Middle Brother (Partisan); Kiss Each Other Clean, Iron & Wine (Warners). Soul Time, Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings (Daptone); Smart Flesh, the Low Anthem; Dakar-Kingston, Youssou Ndour (Decca); So Beautiful or So What, Paul Simon (Concord); Wild Flag, Wild Flag (Merge).
The top 20 songs of the year: 1) “Rider”, Okkervil River; 2) “Calamity Song,” The Decemberists; 3) “Bizness,” Tuneyards; 4) “Don’t Owe You a Thang,” Gary Clark Jr., 5) “Fire Away,” Dawes; 6) “Dark Turn of Mind,” Gillian Welch; 7) “The Wall,” Yuck; 8) “Portland” Middle Brother; 9) “Don’t Shut ‘em Down,” Flogging Molly; 10) “Space In Your Race”, the Mekons; 11) “Glass Jar,” Gang Gang Dance; 12) “Putting the Dog to Sleep,” the Antlers; 13) “Homeboy,” Eric Church; 14) “You Were Never There,” Diego Garcia; 15) “Get Lost,” Tom Waits; 16) “Barton Hollow,” The Civil Wars; 18) “The Afterlife,” Paul Simon; 19) “Bedouin Dress,” The Fleet Foxes; 20) “Change the Sheets”, Kathleen Edwards.