Saturday, December 17, 2011

2011 Music Review (Part 2)

Continuing where Part 1 left off....

25. Warren Haynes - Man in Motion

Haynes first solo album in nearly 20 years focuses as much on his aspirations as a soul singer as it does his legacy as a blues musician. His voice is in fine form throughout as tracks like "River's Gonna Rise," "On a Real Lonely Night" and the title cut showcase phrasing and emotion only hinted at in much of Gov't Mule. Haynes' Guitar still plays a prominent role and with the shortest song coming in at 5:30 there is plenty for his jam audience to embrace.

24. The Horrible Crowes - Elsie

Brian Fallon's side project isn't all that different from his work with The Gaslight Anthem. Most of the songs are more subtle and subdued but The Horrible Crowes are still a guitar driven band and Fallon hasn't abandoned his tendency (gift?) for anthemic choruses. "Behold the Hurricane" is one of the best songs of the year and "Ladykiller" isn't too far behind. Fallon is a very talented singer and songwriter and Elsie is more than just a placeholder until the next Gaslight album.

23. R.E.M. - Collapse Into Now

The final album from one of the worlds most important (and best) bands of the last 30 years sends R.E.M. out on a winning note. It's a mix of styles they've perfected over the years. There's jangle pop ("It Happened Today") heavy guitar Rock ("Discoverer," "Mine Smell Like Honey") acoustic ruminations ("Walk It Back," "Oh My Heart") and moody experimentation (Me, Marlon Brando, Marlon Brando and I"). The band also gets as close to punk as they ever have with "That Someone With You" and write one of the dumbest (and most fun) songs of their career with "Alligator, Aviator, Autopilot, Animator." This mix of playfulness and seriousness doesn't add up to a classic R.E.M. album but it's a fine way to waive goodbye.

22. Butch Walker & the Black Widows - The Spade

The Spade finds Butch Walker perfecting a blend of glam, pop, hard rock and americana that may not be all that deep but is an absolute blast to listen to. It's hard to know if Walker's tales of party's, lurid sex, rocking out and fighting are true stories or just made up memories but in the end it doesn't matter. Whether you're reliving the "Summer of '89" or getting "Day Drunk," The Spade is Walker's finest solo outing yet and one hell of a good time.

21. Dawes - Nothing is Wrong

At first listen Nothing is Wrong seems like a highly generic album of mid-tempo folk and country rock but it's songs seep into your brain and don't seem to want to leave for days. "Time Spent in Los Angeles," "If I Wanted Someone" and the beautiful closer "A Little Bit of Everything" are the highlights but the remaining tracks all feature fantastic harmonies and simple but effective instrumentation. Crosby, Stills Nash and Young would be proud.

20. Blitzen Trapper - American Goldwing

Blitzen Trapper must have been listening to their The Band records a lot recently. They almost completely abandons indie rock in favor of Americana on American Goldwing.  Only the fuzzed out guitars of "Your Crying Eyes" and "Street Fighting Sun"  hint at what the band had attempted on their previous albums. This could either be considered good or bad news depending on your viewpoint. For me their songwriting is far better than in the past and American Goldwing ends up being Blitzen Trapper's best album yet.

19. The Old 97's - The Grand Theatre, Volume 2

The Old 97's continue to play to their strengths on their second Grand Theatre album and the results are better than the first. The rocking "I'm a Trainwreck" and "Bright Spot (See What I Mean)" are balanced out by the pop of "Brown Haired Daughter" while the honky tonk of "No Simple Machine" and "Visiting Hours" are vintage 97's. Add in the hobo anthem "White Port," the acoustic based shuffle of "Perfume" and the beautiful "How Lovely All It Was" and you have an album that represents all the best things the Old 97's have to offer.

 18. My Morning Jacket - Circuital

My Morning Jacket streamline their space country rock a bit into their best flowing album ever. From the opening slow burn of "Victory Dance" to the closing of "Movin' Away" Circuital lacks the frustrating and random genre shifts that marred their last few albums. There's still plenty of successful experimentation to be found on "Holdin' On To Black Metal" "First Light" and the title track but they're balanced out by the calm country of "Wonderful" and the dreamy "Slow Slow Tune." The result is a cohesive piece of work that doesn't just feel like a collection of songs.

17. Screeching Weasel - First World Manifesto

It's too bad this fantastic album got overshadowed by Ben Weasil's woman punching incident at SXSW (and subsequent "break up") because it's a blast to listen to. The pop is definitely emphasized over punk here but no one goes from snotty to sweet better than Ben at his best and "Dry is the Desert," "Beginningless Vacation," "Little Big Man" and "Fortune Cookie" rank among the best pop compositions Weasel has ever given us.

16. Ryan Adams - Ashes & Fire

Ashes & Fire is filled with beautiful acoustic based songs like "Lucky Now," "Dirty Rain" "I Love You but Don't Know What To Say" and the title track. While some of the tracks lean to the overly generic ("Chains of Love") and the whole thing could use at least 1 rocker (or at least 1 more up-tempo tune), Adams has rarely displayed this much depth and consistency and the album sounds gorgeous from start to finish.  

15. Deer Tick - Divine Providence

Deer Tick cranks up the electric guitars on the first half of Divine Providence giving way to the shambolic drunken mess of "The Bump" and "Let's All Go to the Bar" and the straight up hard rock of "Funny Word." The second half is more in line with the folk rock of their previous albums although the punkish "Something to Brag About" is a hard charger and "Main Street" successfully splits the difference between the two sides. There probably isn't a better closing track on any album this year than the beautiful folk of "Miss K." 

14. Hayes Carll - KMAG YOYO (& Other American Stories)
If you're gonna borrow from other musicians (and who doesn't really?), you might as well borrow from the best. Hayes Carll at times sounds like Dylan ("Stomp and Holler," the title track), Hank Williams ("Chances Are," "Bye Bye Baby") and a number of other influences. Carll is more than a mere impersonator as every track is filled with humor and passion. There probably wasn't a funnier song released this year than the duet "Another Like You" and "Hard out Here" and "Bottle In My Hand" are right on it's tail. These American stories are well worth hearing many, many times.

13. Beastie Boys - Hot Sauce Committee Volume 2

The Beastie Boys returned in a big way with Hot Sauce Committee Volume 2. Their sense of humor is evident throughout as they toss jokes back and forth between braggadocio and nonsense to great effect. Their brand of hip-hop is stridently old school but still allows for very successful experiments into reggae ("Don't Play No Game That I Can't Win") and punk ("Lee Majors Come Again") but really it's the sense of pure enjoyment and fun that the Boys obviously had making this album that's the biggest drawing point.

12. Wilco - The Whole Love

Wilco have seem to found a comfort level with what they want to do musically on The Whole Love and the results are excellent. Power pop is the main focus here as "I Might," "Dawned on Me," "Born Alone" and "Standing O" all feature catchy melodies and loud guitars. They haven't completely abandoned the avant-garde either as the opening "Art of Almost" powerfully demonstrates while the 12 minute acoustic track ("One Sunday Morning (Song For Jane Smiley's Boyfriend)" doesn't contain a wasted moment. Add in stabs at Beatlesque pop ("Capitol City"), string laden ballads ("Black Moon") and straight country rock ("Open Mind") and you have an album that not only offers a nice overview of Wilco's history, it plays to all the bands strengths as well.

11. Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears -  Scandalous 

Call it retro soul or rock and roll, it doesn't matter. Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears kick a lot of ass. Scandalous is a pretty big step up from their 2009 debut. The songs are catchier ("Booty City"), raunchier ("Mustang Ranch," "Black Snake"), hit harder ("Welcome To the Jungle") and feature more diversity (the slow blues of "Messin," the gospel influenced "You Been Lyin'). The slower songs ("I'm Gonna Leave You," "Since I Met You Baby," the title track) still bristle with energy and excitement and the rockers are ready made to be the soundtrack to many Saturday nights. 

10. Frank Turner - England Keep My Bones

You won't find an album with three better singles than England Keep My Bones. the strenght of "Peggy Sang the Blues," "I Still Believe" and "If I Ever Stray" is enough to warrant heavy consideration in any years top 20 but the rest of the album hold up just as well. The songs are much more filled out than in Turner's previous work and the bigger sound works very well for a vast majority of the songs. There's still no shortage of energy and passion in Turner's vocals and the combination makes England Keep My Bones much more than a great folk-punk album. It's a great rock and roll album period.

9. The Roots - Undun

Undun is simultaneously the Roots most challenging and yet most surfacely accessible album to date.  There are more soul hooks than ever before and tighter songwriting but it's all done in the context of a concept album about life (and death) on the streets, all told in the first person. It's easy to enjoy songs like "Make My," "One Time," "Kool On" and "The Otherside" on their own but putting them in the context of the album takes time and is ultimately much more rewarding. The closing 4 song suite is unlike anything I've ever heard on a hip-hop album before and the 39 minute run-time makes it one of the most concise concept albums ever made. The only real issue is, where's the vinyl release? Undun is perfect for that format and the lack of one costs The Roots a few spots in this completely arbitrary ranking.  

8. Drive-By Truckers - Go-Go Boots

The Truckers turn to country-soul on their latest outing and prove themselves a very versatile band in the process. There are very few traces of their big guitar rock but the three Mike Cooley tracks ("Pulaski," "Cartoon Gold" and "The Weakest Man") are great country songs. Patterson Hood's story songs ("Used To Be a Cop," "The Fireplace Poker," the title track) carry a lot of weight and the two Eddie Hinton covers ("Everybody Needs Love," "Where's Eddie") add authentic soul to the proceedings. The closing "Mercy Buckets" balances the bands attempt at recreating the Muscle Shoals sound with some great guitar work to help prove there are fewer bands in rock as consistently great as DBT.

7. Foo Fighters - Wasting Light

Wasting Light is the best straight hard rock album of the year and the best Foo Fighters album since The Colour and the Shape. "Bridges Burning," "Rope" "A Matter of Time" and "Arlandria" feature both solid hooks and loud guitars and having Bob Mould show up on "Dear Rosemary" elevates the song to a new level. The pop of "Back and Forth" and the Queens of the Stone Age style hard rock of "White Limo" show off the extreme sides of the band very well and "One of these Days," is among the best power ballads Dave Grohl has ever written. The closing "Walk" feels much more epic than it's 4:30 minute runtime would indicate (I mean this in a very complimentary fashion). Consistency hasn't always been the Foo Fighters strength but Wasting Light proves that the band can still make a great album from start to finish.

6. John Paul Keith & the One Four Fives - The Man That Time Forgot

The day I discovered John Paul Keith's music was one of my favorite days of this year. He may not be well known outside Memphis but hopefully that will change in the future. Keith mainly treads in retro sounds but he does so with amazing proficiency. Whether it's 50's style rock ("Never Could Say No," the Buddy Holly vibe of "Bad Luck Baby"), 60's era garage rock ("Afraid To Look"), classic country ("You Devil You") or 70's power pop ("Anyone Can Do It"), Keith and his crack backing band show their gifts for hooks and effective musicianship. The best compliment I can give is that most of these songs just seem like they've always existed and Keith just pulled them out of the air. Obviously that's not true but there's a timeless quality to The Man That Time Forgot that's both charming and exciting. Fantastic stuff here folks.

5. Raphael Saadiq - Stone Rollin'

Saadiq has been playing around with retro-soul ever since his days in Tony Toni, Tone but he's never done it gritter or better than on Stone Rollin'.  Whether he's rocking out on "Heart Attack," giving us the best bassline James Jamerson never wrote on "Radio" or laying down the hard funk of the title cut, Saadiq has never sounded this assured in his diversity. Getting Robert Randolph to add some pedal steel to the Ray Charles vibe of "Day Dreams" was a stroke of genius and "Movin' Down the Line" features a fantastic groove.  The slower songs ("Go To Hell," "Just Don't" and especially "Good Man") are fantastic string laden contemplations on life that give Stone Rollin' real depth. Retro-soul rarely gets better than this.

4. The Decemberists - The King is Dead

The Decemberists didn't appear to be a likely candidate to strip down and making an album of country rock but they did just that on The King is Dead and turned in their best album in the process. The influence of early R.E.M. is extremely apparent on a number of tracks ("Down By the Water," Calamity Song") but the overall songwriting is very strong and Colin Meloy's voice has never sounded better or been better accentuated by the music. The overall result is an album of beautiful melodies, great harmonies and fine musicianship that avoids the bands previous tendencies for self-indulgence and pretentiousness.

3. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit - Here We Rest

Isbell's third solo album is his most confident and successful outing yet. Here We Rest focuses mostly on country, and folk ("Alabama Pines," "Tour of Duty," and what is perhaps the song of the year in "Codeine") but still gives us the hard rock of "Go It Alone," the honky-tonk of "Never Could Believe" and the soulful "Heart on a String." Isbell's talent is undeniable as the combination of melody, lyrics and vocals are very rewarding. Add in the great support from the 400 Unit (and some guests) and you end up with one of the best albums of the year from an artist who may just be starting to reach his full potential.

2. Tom Waits - Bad as Me

Tom Waits albums are always a welcome addition to the ol' record collection and Bad As Me is his best studio work in a long time. There are no themes or motifs on display here. Just an economical 13 song, 45 minute blast of all things that make Waits music fantastic. The heavy stomp of  "Hell Broke Loose" and jump blues of  "Get Lost" play alongside the funkier title track and opener "Chicago." It only makes sense that if you're gonna respond to the Stones 40 years after the fact, you might as well get Keith Richards to play guitar as Waits does on "Satisfied" (He also duets with Wait's on the beautiful and fitting "Last Leaf"). The ballads hold up just as well as the rockers as Wait's voice is in perfect form throughout the album. His vocal versatility is really showcased on the haunting "Talking at the Same Time" and the sweet "Pay Me" and the lovelorn  "Back In the Crowd." With all the different styles Waits has tackled in his career it's a bit of  a surprise to see his 70's barroom balladeer show up on "Kiss Me" but there he is, laying his heart out. It might not be possible for Tom Waits to make a bad album at this point in his career and there's still no one else that sounds like him. Hopefully we won't have to wait 7 years for the next (studio) one.

1. The Black Keys - El Camino

The Black Keys have conquered both the blues and soul with their previous releases of 2004's Rubber Factory and last year's Brothers so I guess they set out to conquer mainstream rock with El Camino. While El Camino isn't as good as either of those albums, it does manage to take home the top spot in a year without any obviously classic albums. The whole thing is a giant riff heavy affair with Danger Mouse's production giving it a scuzzed out glam feel. This is a long way from indie rock but still manages to sound like the work of the same band. There's not a whole lot of brains behind the lyrics of "Lonely Boy," "Gold on the Ceiling." "Run Right Back," "Money Maker" or "Mind Eraser" but it doesn't matter. El Camino is all about bringing the rock and on that level it greatly succeeds. The only quit moments occur in the first half of "Little Black Submarines" before a Tom Petty riff filtered through Neil Young makes this the Keys version of "Stairway To Heaven." El Camino doesn't quite reach heavenly status but it's at least knocking on the door.

If you have any interest in hearing any of the artists on the entire list, I made this Spotify playlist for just that purpose. Lots of good stuff here and if you don't have Spotify I highly recommend getting at least the free version.

Shaft Went To Africa 2011 Playlist

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