I thought 2010 had been a great year for music, but it was really just a prelude to the embarrassment of riches 2011 has brought. As always, my Top 20 of 2011 list will be brought to you some time in early 2012 long after everyone has stopped caring, and as always, I begin December by taking a quick look at the albums that are worth hearing, but didn’t quite make the cut.
R.E.M – Collapse Into Now. We all had to say goodbye to one of the cornerstones of modern rock when R.E.M. called it quits after 29 years. In this writer’s opinion, they should have done it after original drummer Bill Berry quit in 1997. The three albums after Berry’s departure were lackluster and hollow. (Some people still like Up, though.) But just when they were about to be written off as totally irrelevant, they came back to life with 2008’s aggressive Accelerate, and now this — their final album, which recaptures their signature sound. (“Oh My Heart” is the R.E.Miest song R.E.M. have ever done.) Glad they’re going out on a high note.
Coldplay – Mylo Xyloto. Always commercial-oriented (remember when “Clocks” was everywhere?), Coldplay doesn’t lose a step, putting out an album that captures the sound of “Top 40 Radio in 2011,” but proving those big, glitzy pop/R&B grooves don’t have to restrict themselves to brainless fun. If you program your ‘pod to skip some of the weaker Melancholy Ballads (TM) that are also Coldplay’s stock in trade, this would make a good “summer” album.
Pains Of Being Pure At Heart — Belong. Some great hooks to be heard here, but man do these guys wish it were 1988 and they were opening for My Bloody Valentine. Belong is a meticulously crafted homage to those halcyon days where straightforward pop like The Outfield began co-mingling in listeners’ ears with the stuff coming from the fuzzy underground. They re-create it so well that it’s almost distracting.
Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears — Scandalous. Retro soul of the Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings variety, but lacking that outfit’s dark edges. This is a party record through and through.
Black Lips — Arabia Mountain. A Georgia punk band formerly known more for their onstage antics than for their music, they’ve finally began developing some real chops over their last three albums. They’ve dug a nice little niche between the primal garage rock of the 1960s and the hardcore sound of 1980s acts like Husker Du and the Minutemen. They’re still a little inconsistent over the course of an entire album, but I predict their arrival in my actual Top 20 within their next few releases (if they don’t electrocute themselves or OD in the meantime.)
Ryan Adams — Ashes & Fire. Ditching his versatile back-up band the Cardinals (for now), Adams’ thirteenth album finds the former drug-addled “alt-country” rage-aholic in a mellow mood, singing some pretty basic love songs over a spare, soft country backing. He even duets with Norah Jones and sounds happy doing it. Adams’ new album (and new persona, it would seem) are testaments to his contented maturity, but I kind of miss the bad old days of Whiskeytown.
Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit — Here We Rest. A great songwriter when he can avoid shopworn cliches, Isbell’s third solo record after a celebrated stint with the Drive-By Truckers (who also released a record this year — nowhere near as good) is chock full of sad drinking stories and road-weary laments. Isbell’s previous two outings found a place on my final list, and there were so many worthy new things out there this year, I just couldn’t justify a third trip to the Isbell well for the coveted Top 20. (He’s also starting to sound like a young Steve Earle, and why place a Steve Earle simulation on the list when you — spoiler alert — can have the real thing?)
The Felice Brothers — Celebration, Florida. These former New York subway performers kick up a hell of a racket with their Appalachian instrumentation, but a few too many of their clattering compositions fall just short of the mark. The album’s opener, though — “Fire At The Pageant” — may be my Song of the Year. (Previously awarded to Cee Lo’s “Fuck You.”)
The Raveonettes — Raven In The Grave. This Danish duo has been a near-miss for my list before (2008’s Lust Lust Lust), and they came even closer this time. The first four tracks of Raven In The Grave are an amazing run — a reverb-drenched slab of nu-shoegaze that’s more listener-friendly than most others of its ilk thanks to Wagner & Foo’s savvy understanding of stylistics and structures that have provided the framework of popular music since the days of Bing Crosby.
The Rapture — In The Grace Of Your Love. These studio perfectionists’ first album in five years isn’t quite the knockout punch we’d hoped for after 2006’s excellent Pieces Of The People We Love had us on the ropes. But these “indie-rock-dance-punk-post-punk-revivalist–electronica-acid-house-art-punk” practitioners (as described by the genre list on Wikipedia) still give us a healthy serving of dense, layered not-quite-anthems shot through with a cleansing dose of spirituality.
STILL DON’T SEE WHAT THE BIG DEAL IS:
Radiohead —King of Limbs. Meh.
Bon Iver — Bon Iver. Meh Part Deux.
Kanye West & Jay-Z — Watch The Throne. Pretty much the only rap album someone who’s not totally into rap needs to get this year. It pairs the two biggest stars, and distills every strength of commercial hip-hop circa 2011 into one easy package. It also distills a lot of the weaknesses (bombast, tortured rhymes, bombast, misogyny, bombast), but those flaws are part and parcel with what the genre is.
And as of this writing, I have not yet heard the new Roots album, Undun, but the phrases I’m hearing associated with it (“experimental” “conceptual”) don’t inspire a lot of hope.
The Strokes — Angles. Totally uninspired “comeback” has lead singer Julian Casablancas literally phoning it in from another studio, and the rest of the band members grimly assembling by-the-numbers dance-rock that’s as stale and passion-free as last week’s Wonder Bread.
Old 97’s — The Grand Theatre, Vol. 2. The story was that the Old 97’s had recorded so much great material that they had to split it into two records. The truth is all the good stuff was front-loaded onto Vol. 1 (my #20 on last year’s list), and Vol. 2 is quite clearly the leftovers.
Tom Waits — Bad As Me. I hate to say it, but the Waits schtick might be growing a little thin. Maybe it’s just me. I only call this one a “disappointment” because it was my most-anticipated release of 2011, and in the end, I didn’t love it.
SuperHeavy — SuperHeavy. I was hoping to get at least one or two killer singles out of this supergroup consisting of Mick Jagger, Joss Stone, Damian Marley, the Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart, and Indian composer A.R. Rahman. What I got instead is a bunch of limp, half-baked world music, laughable lyrics, way too much over-emoting from Stone, and final proof that Jagger’s voice is incredibly jarring and off-putting outstide the context of the Rolling Stones.
Speaking of the Rolling Stones…
RE-ISSUE OF THE YEAR: The Rolling Stones — Some Girls. The last of the “classic” Stones albums, 1978’s Some Girls join 1972’s Exile On Main Street in getting the deluxe multi-disc re-release treatment. A blend of disco, New Wave, and their signature rock crunch, Some Girls is a kind of travelogue through the trendiest (and sleaziest) night spots of New York at the height of the Cocaine Era. Recorded in a series of epic sessions in a Paris studio throughout 1977, the recording of Some Girls yielded enough material to provide the backbone of their next two albums, Emotional Rescue and Tattoo You, and still have enough left over to fill the disc of previously unreleased songs included with this set. Like the Exile bonus disc, Jagger & Co. have added fresh vocal and guitar tracks to some of the rougher, unfinished songs. Highlights of the original album include the pulsating disco of “Miss You,” their best ballad “Beast Of Burden,” the live-wire, proto-rap “Shattered,” and a Stonesified cover of “Just My Imagination.” Highlights of the bonus disc are the Chuck Berry-style rocker “Claudine” (about Claudine Longet, the murderous wife of crooner Andy Williams) and Keith Richards’ version of the Waylon Jennings country classic “We Had It All.” Available in a twenty-buck two-disc edition, or a deluxe $150 box set.
WORTH A SPIN — 2011 releases from: Bright Eyes, Cymbals Eat Guitars, Dawes, Deer Tick, Fountains Of Wayne, JEFF The Brotherhood, Kasabian, Mastodon, Yuck. And for some reason, my “Shuffle” setting seemed drawn to the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ I’m With You, giving me track after track, and I found myself not hating it as much as the cool people say I’m supposed to.
COMING SOON — The Top 20 Albums of 2011, #20-11