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Best Music of the Year: Top 50 Albums of 2011


The buzz of insignificant musical matters of the past year—ranging from reporting on what seemed like Justin Bieber’s every move to the state of Beyonce’s pregnancy (carrying her own or using a surrogate)—easily blurs the fact that plenty of great music came out in 2011, particularly for fans of traditional forms of rock and soul. It’s a big tent that has room for Adele, Wild Flag and Raphael Saadiq.

1.      Tedeschi Trucks Band – Revelator (Sony Masterworks)
The 11-piece collective that features married couple Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks as its creative engine recorded a dozen songs that are a predominantly laid-back affair that mines the same fertile ground as The Band and Little Feat while tossing in enough soul and blues to give American roots music crossover appeal without homogenizing it.

2.      Wild Flag – Wild Flag (Merge)
Featuring members of Sleater-Kinney and Helium, Wild Flag’s debut features kick-ass songs fueled by well-honed, intuitive playing that embraces the economy of Television while incorporating the swagger and snap of the Runaways and Modern Lovers.

3.      Ryan Adams – Ashes & Fire (Capitol)
A degenerative ear disease led to Ryan Adams’ 2009 announcement that he was retiring from music but apparently his creative urges thankfully got the better of him. The 11 songs that make up his 13th studio album are a gorgeous and heartfelt collection of nostalgic observations and optimistic views of the future.


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4.      The Feelies – Here Before (Bar/None)
The Feelies’ first album in two decades is infused with the same jangle, monotone vocals and minimalist time-keeping that made this quintet the critically acclaimed bridge between the Velvet Underground and famous fans R.E.M. and Yo La Tengo. This treasure trove of smartly written songs doesn’t really remake the musical wheel as much as serve as an example of what it should sound like in the right hands.

5.      Adele – 21 (XL Recordings/Columbia)
This year will not only be remembered for the loss of Amy Winehouse but for how her peer Adele carried on this style of a big voice wedded to heart-on-her-sleeve songwriting. The latter’s sophomore bow not only includes the soul-searing opener “Rolling in the Deep,” but finds room for a bossa nova-flavored rendering of The Cure’s “Lovesong.”
 
6.      Portugal. The Man – In the Mountain. In the Cloud (Atlantic)
Wasilla’s second-most famous export after Sarah Palin makes the leap to major-label status and in the process, infuses enough of an optimistic and cheery delivery to the proceedings to make you entertain the thought of space-rock enjoying some modicum of commercial success not equated to selling out.

7.      The Belle Brigade – The Belle Brigade (Reprise)
In keeping with the aforementioned musical trend of resurrecting/paying homage to ‘70s-era SoCal soft rockers/Laurel Canyon legends, the Belle Brigade serves up harmonies evoking Fleetwood Mac circa Rumours and on the band’s self-titled debut, siblings Ethan and Barbara Gruska have the kind of creative chemistry you’d expect to hear from Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks

8.      Butch Walker and the Black Widows – Spade (Dangerbird Records)
A musical Zelig whose travels have found him going from glam metal outfit Southgang to alt-pop power trio the Marvelous 3 and being an in-demand producer (Pink; Dashboard Confessional), Butch Walker added to his overlooked solo canon with a recent record that is a cornucopia of glam rock and power-pop goodness.

9.      Shelby Lynne – Revelation Road (Everso)
While we can look forward Shelby Lynne’s 2012 plans to record with sister Allison Moorer, the latest album self-released on Lynne’s Everso Records is a fine way to bide time thanks to its mix of blue-eyed soul and honky-tonky that gets plenty personal and vulnerable.

10.  Blitzen Trapper – American Goldwing (Sub Pop)
The buzz on this Portland-based alt-folk/country outfit began building in rock critic circles as far back as 2007. On its sixth album, the band is finally getting some commercial love thanks to a vibe that falls somewhere between The Band, Elton John circa Tumbleweed Connection, The White Stripes and Dylan.

11.  Nick Lowe – The Old Magic (Yep Roc)
Well into his transformation into a country music-flavored crooner content to sing about living and loving during the autumnal years of life, Nick Lowe once again triumphs with an album steeped in the kind of organic production trimmed with the right amounts of echo and guitar twang that enhance his relaxed and intimate singing style.

12.  Black Lips – Arabia Mountain (Vice)
Best known for bizarre stage antics ranging from spontaneous urinating to gratuitous nudity, this Atlanta foursome hooked up with retro-leaning Amy Winehouse/Adele producer Mark Ronson and Deerhunter’s Lockett Pundt for a wonderful batch of Nuggets-inspired manna.

13.  Sloan – The Double Cross (Yep Roc)
The group’s tenth album celebrating Sloan’s twenty years together as a band contains all the elements fans have come to expect— clever lyricism, muscular riffing and hooks a-plenty wrapped around a sweet mix of hard-rocking ear worms, heart-on-your sleeve yearning and character-driven fare.

14. Lucinda Williams – Blessed (Lost Highway)
Light and frothy material once again gives way to dark subject matter that’s unfailingly compelling despite Lucinda Williams using the bliss of her 2009 marriage to Tom Overby as a muse. Williams’ tenth studio album nonetheless proves to be a rich sounding rootsy affair that solidly fits in with her already impressive canon.

15.  John Hiatt – Dirty Jeans and Mudslide Hymns (New West)
If you look past John Hiatt’s odd decision to work with Aerosmith/Black Crowes producer Kevin Shirley, you’ll be pleased by this collection of songs that has Hiatt sounding more forceful as he sings about n’er do well hoods trying to go straight, love lost, witnessing the horror of 9/11 and the latest addition to his growing pantheon of car songs.

16.  Dawes – Nothing is Wrong (ATO)
If 2011 winds up being remembered for a musical movement that revived the spirit of 1970s If 2011 winds up being remembered for a musical movement that revived the spirit of 1970s Laurel Canyon stalwarts CSN and Buffalo Springfield, know that Dawes was at the center of the revolution. The band’s second album bubbles over with wisps of Crazy Horse, The Eagles and Jackson Browne (who is also a guest background vocalist here).

17. John Doe – Keeper (Yep Roc)
18. Jimmie Vaughan – Plays More Ballads, Blues & Favorites (Shout! Factory)
19. Ben Harper – Give Till It’s Gone (Virgin)

20.  Frank Turner – England Keep My Bones (Epitaph)
The punk rocker-turned-alt-folkie made a major splash this year with a fourth album overflowing with allusions to Jolly Old England. With its mix of songs about places like Wessex, “London’s drinking reservoirs” and the odd traditional English folk song, Turner’s latest is a delight for both music lover and Anglophile alike.

21.  Smith Westerns – Dye it Blonde (Fat Possum)
Chicago’s Smith Westerns have a taste for the glam and glitter of T. Rex and Mott the Hoople. And while the sweet hooks, chunky riffs and gorgeous harmonies found in Dye It Blonde make these comparisons irrefutable, there’s a degree of lo-fi charm and ethereal textures that hint at latter-day Britpop icons Teenage Fanclub and Supergrass.

22. Reid Paley & Black Francis – Paley & Francis (Sonic Unyon)
23. Social Distortion – Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes (Epitaph)
24. Peter Bjorn and John – Gimme Some (Almost Gold/Startime Intl’)
25. The Raveonettes – Raven in the Grave (Vice)
26. Steve Earle – I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive (New West)

27. The Horrible Crows – Elsie (SideOneDummy)
This side project featuring Gaslight Anthem’s Brian Fallon and his guitar tech Ian Perkins moves away from the Springsteenian affectations of GA and allows the duo to plunge into a darker strain of songwriting. Or as Fallon puts it, “hymns for lonely people” and “a trip through a breakdown and that descent into madness and hopefully redemption.”

28.  Middle Brother – S/T (Partisan)
Yet another corner of the musical world touched by the seemingly omnipresent touch of Dawes, this one-off project features members of the aforementioned band along with members of ragged country-rockers Deertick and San Diego American crew Delta Spirit. The result is a sound that features the best elements of all three groups.

29. Booker T. – The Road from Memphis (Anti-)
30. Dex Romweber Duo – It That You in the Blue? (Bloodshot)

31.  Glen Campbell – Ghost on the Canvas (Surfdog)
In 2011, Glen Campbell announced that he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and going on a farewell tour running through next year. The corresponding farewell album wound up being a touching elegy that found Campbell co-writing a passel of solid song along with Jellyfish/Imperial Drag keyboardist Roger Manning Jr. and recording touching covers of Paul Westerberg, Teddy Thompson and Guided by Voices.

32. The Fleshtones featuring Lenny Kaye – Brooklyn Sound Solution (Yep Roc)
33. Neil Young and the International Harvesters – A Treasure (Reprise)
34. Warren Haynes – Man in Motion (Stax)
35. North Mississippi Allstars – Keys to the Kingdom (Songs of the South)
36. Foo Fighters – Wasting Light (RCA)
37. The Baseball Project – Volume 2: High and Inside (Yep Roc)

38.  Raphael Saadiq – Stone Rollin’ (Columbia)
The latest triumph by one of the neo-soul generation’s most talented artists, Raphael Saadiq’s fourth album is a heady affair that tips a cap to Sly Stone, Curtis Mayfield and the bluesy side of Stax Records with the occasional gospel/Bollywood-meets-chamber pop flourish.

39. Greg Allman – Low Country Blues (Rounder)
40. Buffalo Killers – 3 (Alive)
41. The Wronglers with Jimmie Dale Gilmore – S/T (Heirloom Music)
42. Hayes Carll – KMAG YOYO (and Other American Stories) (Lost Highway)
43. Charles Bradley – No Time for Dreaming (Daptone)
44. Mayer Hawthorne – How Do You Do (Universal Republic)
45. Red Hot Chili Peppers – I’m With You (Warner Brothers)
46. Merle Haggard – Working in Tennessee (Vanguard)

47.  Stevie Nicks – In Your Dreams (Reprise)
Not content to periodically reappear on tour with Fleetwood Mac, Stevie Nicks instead found a viable creative partner with Dave Stewart and production partner Glen Ballard. Nicks came away with her first album in a decade and best solo outing to date.

48.  Garland Jeffreys – The King of In Between (Luna Park)
Missing from the domestic recording scene since 1992’s most excellent Don’t Call Me Buckwheat, the Brooklyn native finally returned with a stellar follow-up that is a love letter to his native New York adorned with more of this stylistic jaunts that include a credible stab at ska.

49. Steve Cropper – Dedicated: A Salute to the 5 Royales (429 Records)
50. Various Artists – This One’s for You: A Tribute to Guy Clark (Icehouse Music)

TOP 11 REISSUES
1. Nirvana – Nevermind [20th Anniversary Deluxe Edition] (Geffen)
2. U2 – Achtung Baby [20th Anniversary Edition] (Island)
3. Nick Lowe – Labour of Love (Yep Roc)
4. The Staple Singers – Beatitude: Respect Yourself (Stax)
5. R.E.M.  – Life’s Rich Pageant (Capitol/I.R.S.)
6. Neil Diamond – The Bang Years (Columbia/Legacy)
7. Alicia Keys – Songs in A Minor: 10th Anniversary Collector’s Edition
8. Smashing Pumpkins – Gish/Siamese Dream [Deluxe Edition] (Virgin)
9. Peter Tosh – Legalize It/Equal Rights [Legacy Edition] (Epic/Legacy)
10. Pink Floyd – Dark Side of the Moon/Wish You Were Here [Experience Edition](Capitol/EMI)
11. Ozzy Osbourne – Blizzard of Ozz/Diary of a Madman 30th Anniversary Deluxe Collector’s Box (Epic/Legacy)

TOP 10 2011 SONGS
1. Adele – “Rolling in the Deep” (XL Recordings/Columbia)
2. Amy Winehouse – “Our Day Will Come” (Universal Republic)
3. Airborne Toxic Event – “Changing” (Island)
4. The Naked and the Famous – “Young Blood” (Universal Republic)
5. Drive-By Truckers – “Everybody Needs Love”
6. Alkaline Trio – “Movin’ Right Along” (Walt Disney Records)
7. Rich Robinson – “Station Man” (Circle Sound/Thirty Tigers)
8. Garland Jeffreys – “’Til John Lee Hooker Calls Me” (Luna Park)
9. Laura Marling – “The Muse” (Ribbon Music)
10. Dawes – “Time Spent in Los Angeles” (ATO)
11. The Old 97’s – “Every Night is Saturday Night Without You” (New West)

 

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