Top 20 Albums of 2011

#20. The Beastie Boys — Hot Sauce Committee, Part Two. A welcome return after a cancer scare for Adam Yauch, and their overwrought and just-no-damn fun-at-all previous album, 2004’s To The Five Boroughs. Although the Beasties love an epic sprawl, you gotta admit their albums are often about five tracks too long. Hot Sauce Committee is succinct and tidy, never wears out its welcome, and the wordplay and beats are more reminiscent of the classic Paul’s Boutique than anything they’ve done in between now and then.

#19. Raphael Saadiq — Stone Rollin’. Sometimes it’s hard not to hold a person’s artistic past against him or her. (For example, in order to finally be taken seriously as an actor, Mark Wahlberg had to take years to overcome the stigma of being the tighty whiteyflashing teen rapper “Marky Mark,” which — to his credit — he did with grace and good humor.) Raphael Saadiq started out as a member of the ultra-slick, super-shallow New Jack Swing outfit Tony! Toni! Tone! in the late 80’s. He finally hung up his poofy Hammer pants in ’96, and began making solo records that hearkened back to ’60s soul — not so much in the smooth, jazzy Motown mold (which is great in its own way), but the more stripped-down, beat-oriented sound of Memphis R&B (with occasional flashes of funky West Coast psychedelia — love that Mellotron!) Saadiq plays most of the instruments himself. He’s a passable guitarist, and a great bassist, but the most immediately noticeable thing on most of the tracks is his absolutely gleeful bashing around on the drum kit.

#18. Cut Copy — Zonoscope. My love/hate relationship with electronic music comes down pretty firmly on the “love” side regarding Cut Copy. Human fingers moving across real instruments made of wood and metal will never (ever, ever, ever) be bettered by mouse-clicks and microchips, but the artifice and machine-assisted pulse of such creations can weave their own weird spells. Like Frankenstein’s Monster, true humanity reflected in a less-than-human simulacrum can be riveting to experience, if concocted by people still connected to emotions rather than simply sounds. This is why artists such as Cut Copy (with songs like “Take Me Over,” one of the best singles of the year) will always have longevity and resonance, as opposed to shallow sonic dog-shit like Skrillex. (I’m going to start a Kickstarter page to raise money to hire someone to punch that stain in the face.)

#17. Cults — Cults. A hypnotic and charming bit of ear candy that reconstructs the old-fashioned “girl group” sound of the Shirelles and the Ronettes, but relying on a thoroughly modern post-rock hum as its foundation, rather that Phil Spector’s orchestral “Wall of Sound.” Retro touches like finger-snaps and glockenspiel leap out from the echoes and hazy atmospherics that stamp this as a product of the 21st-century New York City underground scene, and both the old style and new benefit from this clever alchemy concocted by bandmates Brian Oblivion and Madeline Follin.

#16. Wilco — The Whole Love. For quite some time, Wilco was the confusing and often frustrating product of the Two Sides of Jeff Tweedy. The traditionalist Tweedy who can craft and execute an agreeable song in a comfortable and familiar idiom, and the deconstructionist Tweedy who can’t wait to dismantle that song, or make it dissonant and off-putting by dousing it in random squawks and weird noises, or stretch it past the ten-minute mark for no conceivable reason. Too much of the former Tweedy and you get the pleasant-but-bland Wilco The Album, too much of the latter and you get the headache-inducing A Ghost Is Born. The key is finding the perfect blend, as he did with Being There and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and comes very close to finding with The Whole Love. The long numbers’ length is justified by their content (the closer, “One Sunday Morning” is 12 minutes long, and earns it as one of the loveliest numbers Wilco has ever done), the flourishes of experimental oddity seem more warm and welcoming, and the band seems to have a genuine, sprightly bounce in their step for the first time since their Woody Guthrie project with Billy Bragg.

#15. Arctic Monkeys — Suck It And See. What sounds like an absolutely filthy title to puritanical American ears is actually a harmless British-ism for “you never know until you try.” Arctic Monkeys survived the Curse of the Smashing Debut (see #6 below), but with the expected stumbles, right out of the Big Book of Rock Band Cliches: a second album that was exactly half as good as the Smashing Debut, a difficult third album that was dark and messy (“but rewards repeated listening” as the Book says), and now their fourth album — the “We’re Gonna Stick Around Awhile” album — comfortable in its own skin, well-produced, groove-oriented. The growling, bottom-heavy “Don’t Sit Down ‘Cause I Moved Your Chair” and “Brick By Brick” take the band to new lows (sonically — that’s a good thing), and “The Hellcat-Spangled Shalalala” showcases Alex Turner’s continued fondness for rapid-fire, tongue-twisting lyrics.

#14. (TIE) Noel Gallagher’s High-Flying Birds — Noel Gallagher’s High-Flying Birds and Beady Eye — Different Gear, Still Speeding.  Beady Eye is all the members of Oasis minus chief songwriter Noel Gallagher, who split acrimoniously in 2010. (The band was quickly dubbed “No-asis.”) Beady Eye retains the guitar buzz and the bad-ass attitude, while Gallagher’s solo project has the big hooks, soaring choruses, and unabashed Kinks/Burt Bacharach influence. Of course, it was the blend of these two styles that made (early) Oasis so great. I know I’m not the first to remark on this, but by combining these two albums, you get the best Oasis album in fourteen years.

#13. Blitzen Trapper — American Goldwing. After sort of losing me with last year’s hippie-dippie Destoryer Of The Void, Blitzen Trapper gallop back into my good graces with this homage to swinging Southern rock that sounds like it bubbled up from a lost era of FM radio. If there were any justice in the world, “Love The Way You Walk Away” would become an anthem as beloved as “Slow Ride” or “Free Bird,” with better lyrics to boot: “I’ve been feeling hard to get/Like a dog hiding out underneath the step/Burning this bridge ’cause I need the light/For to see my way through the coming night…And a brand-new coat of paint/On this brokedown palace couldn’t compensate/For the things I never really said to make you stay/’Cause I love the way you walk away.”

#12. Iron & Wine — Kiss Each Other Clean. Iron & Wine creator Sam Beam has continuously expanded his sound over the course of his discography, from the troubador-style rustic man-and-his-guitar of his early work through the world music flourishes of The Shepherd’s Dog. (M. Ward has also followed this trajectory with some success.) Kiss Each Other Clean is the most musically complex of his releases thus far, but it never sounds forced. In fact, the whole vibe of this album is a kind of nocturnal, funky breeziness. Breathy backing vocals oooh and aaah over neatly-textured guitar and keyboard work, sometimes stately, sometimes with a jaunty lilt, and occasionally augmented with a little lounge saxophone or flute. (And I think the title is actually a little grosser than the Arctic Monkeys title.)

#11. Foo Fighters — Wasting Light. What’s killing rock? Shifting consumer taste, yes, but also a dearth of musicians committed to producing rock & roll at a quality level. Our culture is producing fewer and fewer musicians because no one is bothering to learn how to play anything any more. Learning an instrument is hard (Lord knows I can’t do it, which is why I write self-indulgent blog posts about it), it takes years to get really good, and there’s too many distractions for the impatient Young People Today (who, if I had a lawn, I’d be telling to get off of). The guitar heroes of yore became so skilled because the guitar was all they had. Oh, we still have “indie rock” (which is now a genre as opposed to a philosophy) and I suppose I should be grateful for that, but a lot of these indie-rock guys coast by with laughably pathetic playing skills (I’m looking at you, Drums) because the bar has been set so damn low. So I’ll raise a Budweiser to the last great Major American Rock Band. (Kings Of Leon officially lost that title in a hail of bird poop last year, and The Black Keys need a few more stadium-filling years to truly qualify.) I can’t say I’m a fan of everything the Fighters do (2007’s Echoes, Silence, Patience and Grace veered dangerously close to Nickelback territory), but if they watch their step, they can produce something with both raw power and a little craftiness — as they did with Wasting Light.

#10. White Denim — D. A close look at the cover of D can give a pretty good idea what to expect from the sounds it contains. A junk-shop melange of curios and detritus, a crazy quilt of genres and styles, it’s never boring and frequently exhilarating. Guitarist James Petralli can churn out Pete Townshend-style riffage or fluid, flamenco licks with equal ease. Sometimes the more free-form moments threaten to spin off into jammy noodling, only to be reeled back in by Steve Terebecki’s bass and Josh Block’s drums.

#9. Sleeper Agent — Celabrasion. Say you’re a twenty-something garage band from Kentucky, who know your way around a Farfisa organ and a slightly out-of-tune power chord. Your record collection is probably built around scratchy, vintage 45s from the Sixties, a few Pixies bootlegs, and maybe a  Buzzcocks greatest-hits album or two. You’re getting nowhere. What do you do? You graft a feral, 18-year-old female singer onto your already powerhouse sound, bash out a raging-hormone lead single called “Get It Daddy,” and watch the ensuring fireworks as jaded, middle-aged music nerds swoon like bobby-soxers. Pandering? Undoubtedly. Shameful? Perhaps. But I can’t deny the rush this material brings whenever it pops up on the shuffle. Sleeper Agent hits like a punch to the solar plexus. I think their ferocity seems destined to burn itself out sooner rather than later, but this is one instance when the Holy Bee wouldn’t mind being wrong.

#8. Steve Earle — I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive. “A country Bruce Springsteen” is how I first heard Steve Earle described to me when he started his comeback in 1996, and it remains the most accurate description (if a little unfair, as most simple comparisons are.) I was too young to hear of him when he had his first whirl of fame as a promising young newcomer back in the ’80s. A prison spell and countless drug problems later, he re-emerged with a sound that was both less traditional (i.e., eschewing the corny Nashville slickness that has sadly dominated country music for over three decades) and more traditional, embracing archaic popular music forms like folk and bluegrass. His mad-professor appearance and radical politics have made him a favorite with the university crowd, and he put together an incredibly strong run of albums in the late 1990s. He stumbled a little recently with some over-produced and over-politicized works, but I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive is of a piece with the albums that made me a fan in the first place. It’s mostly honest, unfussy roots-country (producer T-Bone Burnett can’t be bettered on this type of project), with the colorful flashes that keep Earle’s material interesting — “Molly-O” recreates the old 17th-century English murder ballads, and the closer “This City” sports a New Orleans horn section straight out of Mardi Gras.

#7. Girls — Father, Son, Holy Ghost. “Love is just a song,” sings Girls frontman Christopher Owens. But it’s also “magic.” Conflict between reality and romance fuels Girls’ beautiful second album. Ultimately it seems reality wins out, but we’re granted the hope that you can still be a romantic without being blind to the darker side of human nature. The centerpiece of the record is a slow-burner with the unfortunate but absolutely accurate title “Vomit.” So much comes pouring out, but it’s all better when it’s over. Fuzzed-out guitar lurches and sways against pure gospel organ and backing vocals as Owens describes a night of agony going from haunt to haunt looking for the lover he suspects is being unfaithful at that very moment. “As a dog returns to his vomit, so a fool repeats his folly” goes the Biblical proverb that inspired the song’s title, and repetitive damaging behavior patterns dominate Girls’ 2009 debut. Father, Son, Holy Ghost is not necessarily about breaking free of those patterns with a fake epiphany or happy ending, but accepting them in yourself (because, let’s face it, you’re not really going to change) and forgiving them in others (they aren’t changing either.)

#6. The Vaccines — What Did You Expect From The Vaccines? The Libertines. Franz Ferdinand. Arctic Monkeys. Throughout the first decade of the 21st century, every couple of years, a group of incredibly young, tousle-haired guys from the British Isles burst forth with a debut album so energetic, so catchy, and so full of the orgasmic realization that a few chords, some cheap amps, and songs they’ve spent their entire lives crafting can score them girls and free drinks that it threatens to revive the moribund corpse of guitar rock. Then comes the second album… The Vaccines currently occupy this unenviable position. Will they beat the odds, and continue to raise the bar for themselves with increasingly complex work (the Franz Ferdinand model)? Will they hit a holding pattern with solidly-rocking, enjoyable albums that satisfy their pre-existing fan base? (the Arctic Monkeys model)? Or will they flame out and be forgotten in sixteen months? (the thousands of other Brit-rock bands model)? Remains to be seen, but at least we have this album, a thirty-minute jolt of adrenaline-addled bash & pop.

#5. TV On The Radio — Nine Types Of Light. Art-rock meets R&B. If the Velvet Underground had cut a record with Curtis Mayfield, it just might have emerged as TV On The Radio. As a fully-grown adult-type person, my bedroom is nothing special. The whole freakin’ house is mine, so I spend most of my time in other areas. I sleep there, and it’s a convenient laundry dumping zone. But when you’re a kid, particularly a surly teen, it’s different. Your bedroom is your whole indoor world, and there are certain albums that are “bedroom albums” — meant to be listened to as your sprawled on the bed, ideally on your back with your feet resting high on the adjacent wall (leaving dirty marks if you don’t take your Vans off.) Probably obsessing over something or, more likely, someone. The music in your speakers or headphones feeding into that obsession. Nine Types Of Light is a bedroom album. Hushed, smooth, often lush — full of repetitive musical patterns that skitter across its murky depths like flat stones on a pond. The vocals croon lyrics about seeking solace from a messed-up society and its myriad of issues by making connections with others — friends, romantic partners, anyone. Because it’ s intimate while keeping its eye on the wider outside world, it’s the perfect “grown-up” bedroom album. Realistically –tragically — most adults just don’t have time for such things anymore. Maybe I’ll go lay down on my laundry…

#4. The Black Keys — El Camino. I’m going to play the thoroughly obnoxious (but satisfying) “I-knew-about-these-guys-before-everyone-else” card here, because I so rarely get to. Before The Black Keys filled arenas and appeared on the covers of national magazines, the Holy Bee eagerly awaited the release of their first album, The Big Come-Up, way back in 2002 after reading a tiny blurb about them in a “new bands to watch” article that described their sound as “buzzing garage blues” or something to that effect — it was enough to catch my eye and cause me to begin a vigil at my local Tower Records (RIP), waiting for it to appear on the shelves. Watching (and listening to) their development from a scrappy two-piece with a Junior Kimbrough fixation to a fully fleshed-out band (there’s still only two official members, but the sound is now augmented with overdubs in the studio and side musicians onstage) over the subsequent nine years and six albums has been a pleasure. Last year’s double-length Brothers was a serious statement of purpose, announcing to the world that they were no longer simply blues-pastiche dabblers, but a real, roaring, eight-cylinder rock & roll machine. The leaner, shorter El Camino is the exclamation point on the end of that statement.

#3. Fleet Foxes — Helplessness Blues. I suppose I’m in the minority here, but I think the Fleet Foxes’ second release is superior to their first. The first album captured everyone’s attention with its gorgeous, soaring harmony work from the band’s several vocalists, but a lot of the songs themselves seemed sketchy and unfinished. They sounded like a product of early morning drum-circles. A lot of people must have found that charming, but my ears crave structure. I was delighted with Helplessness Blues because the material is now polished enough to see your reflection, and the harmonies that made everyone love them to begin with are hitched to actual songs rather than formless voice exercises. And yet, this record got maybe one-fifth of the attention that their first record did. Growing increasingly musically adept, accessible, and listener-friendly is apparently a step backward in some  people’s opinion. The public (especially the indie-music public) is a fickle beast.

#2. My Morning Jacket — Curcuital. The Teflon Band — no label can stick to them. They outgrew the “alt-country” category after their first two records. As their songs grew longer and their live shows began attracting more and more dreadlocked, dirty-footed potheads, they wiggled free of the “jam band” stigma by embracing elements of techno and acknowledging Prince as a major influence. (Although I’m sure they had no problem cashing those Bonnaroo checks.) As My Morning Jacket’s sixth album unfolds, the listener can hear echoes of 20/20-era Beach Boys, fragments of Led Zeppelin, and even the bucolic pop of John Denver woven into their musical fabric. As strong as the songs are, they all bow before MMJ’s moment of total triumph: the staggering “Holding On To Black Metal,” which rides a groove of Judgment Day horns and a female chorus to total bliss.

#1. The Decemberists — The King Is Dead. Any band whose mindset is so firmly in the sepia-toned 19th century is all right by me. Sea shanties, banshee laments, and folk ballads that seem to come from the deepest, most isolated hollows are the starting point for the The Decemberists’ sometimes obtuse, sometimes spooky and gripping song-cycles. They had always been a band whose concepts often streaked ahead of their ability to pull them off coherently, but The King Is Dead reveals them reaching new heights of songcraft and making a statement through the strength of the music itself rather than the clever ideas behind it. Forgoing the ethereal, twee artiness and long-form narratives that made some of their earlier work rough going, The King Is Dead is full of punchy arrangements that, while still firmly in the country-folk mold, are more dance-hall than rural meadow. Drums and acoustic guitars clatter, accordions and harmonicas wheeze, the pedal steel wails, and the lyrics are less byzantine (and sound less like an academic thesis) than we’re used to from this band. Maybe old-school Decemberists fans won’t love this new direction, but The King Is Dead was the very first record I acquired in 2011, I listened to it compulsively all year, and never stopped being moved by it.

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