The 10 Best Albums of 2011

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Jan 4 2012, 0h00

About 18 months ago, my relationship with music changed.

It changes from time to time, as my life and technology has progressed. The way I listen to music - the where, the when and the how of it, affect the who, what and why of the music I listen to.

18 months ago, I decided to try out the music leasing model. I'd had a few backup hard drives die on me, and I'd lost a big chunk of my musical collection. And I was the kind of guy that digitized his CDs and then sold the CDs to Half-Price books. So I didn't have originals anymore.

So I subscribed to Rdio. It was before Spotify was able open shop in the States. When Spotify finally got going in the US, I thought I may jump ship, but it lacked some of the bells and whistles that I grew accustomed to with Rdio.

One of the things I enjoyed with Rdio was the discovery process. Every Tuesday (at midnight, Monday night), hundreds of new albums appear in Rdio's catalogue. They're all in random order and come with no descriptions. You often have no idea what kind of music will assault you from your earbuds when you click play. It could be Bollywood death-metal, french hip-hop, alt-bluegrass - who knows.

Monday nights or Tuesdays, I "drop the needle" on hundreds of records only to say "Ak! Yuck" for most of them.

But when the needle drops onto something listenable, it's like a revelation. Especially when I stay up late on Monday nights - it's exciting to be among the very, very first to hear something truly artistic, lovely, original, bold, or whatnot. It's very exciting to be the one among my music-nerd friends to say, "This band. Look over here. These guys are good."

I don't have the opportunity nor temperament to discover music through live shows, but Rdio makes me feel a bit like that snooty record store clerk that's heard it all already.

Many of my all-time favorite musical acts have released albums this year: Mike Doughty, Iron & Wine, Kate Bush, St. Vincent, Peter Gabriel, The Mountain Goats, Mates of State, Decemberists and Wilco. And all, with the exception of Peter Gabriel, sounded promising on first listen. And yet, I've failed to get back to many of them. I've been so enamored with discovering new music that most of my old musical friends have been languishing in my collection, waiting for that moment that I'll connect emotionally with them.

But not the Peter Gabriel. His album ("New Blood") sucked.

Also, 6 months ago, my music listening habits changed again with the advent of Turntable.fm. Turntable.fm allows people to share songs with one another in real time. I enjoy it very much, even though it's song-based, and my music listening habits tend to be album-oriented. But since I enjoy Turntable, my tastes have now been focusing more on strong songs and less on a stronger package.

Anyway, with those things in mind, here are my favorite albums for 2011.

10. Treefight for Sunlight - A Collection of Vibrations For Your SkullTreefight for Sunlight
Sounding like an early Yes album - meets XTC - meets Polyphonic Spree, Treefight for Sunlight have a trippy, sunny sound that sound like a hallucinogenic trip to the beach with no ill side effects. Treefight for Sunlight are a quartet from Denmark, but their sound is sunny enough to make one assume them to be Californians. Lush layers of heavily-reverbed tenor voices soar over looped guitar and piano samples can easily remind one of Animal Collective. But Treefight for Sunlight write more complex song structures. This album challenges the listener, but with a smile and open arms.
Listen to Riddles & Rhymes: [youtube]http://youtu.be/HXuzzngLJ7Y
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9. Kate Bush - 50 Words for Snow
I put off listening to this album until just last week. I was reluctant to listen to it.
Earlier this year, Kate Bush put out a re-working of earlier music called "The Directors Cut." Included, was a new video for the song "Deeper Understanding" - one of my favorite Kate Bush songs ever. But the video was so awful, so terrible, so very disappointing, I thought I'd never listen to Kate Bush again. "The Directors Cut" was a waste of time in many ways, also. Lots of songs about sex with snowmen. And yes, it's still a great album.
Kate Bush has always been a bit kooky, and that often translates into head scratching decisions upon occasion. But those artistic risks she takes also cause her to be one of the best rock musicians ever, when she succeeds.
And boy, did she succeed with "50 Words for Snow"
Minimalist arrangements, focusing on her voice and piano, make this chilly winter album exceptionally intimate, and she uses that intimacy to her advantage. She builds these songs slowly, telling quirky winter fables and drawing in her audience to hang on her every verse. It's brilliant stuff. I'd probably have ranked it higher if I had listened to it more.
Listen to "Wild Man" (edit) [youtube]http://youtu.be/a3BzjfAjug4[/youtube]


8. Mocean Worker - Candygram for Mowo
It's been a number of years since I've heard an album that just sounded like a party waiting to happen. Starting with track one, ("Shooby Dooby Doo Wah!") and going through the next 13 tracks, "Candygram for Mowo" is 60 minutes of non-stop booty shaking. Unlike most dance albums, however, Mocean Worker culls his musical inspiration and samples from the most unlikely of places. Old 78's from the 1930s, classic jazz, hip hop, gospel, big band and lounge are all well represented, reconfigured, and made new. On top of these, Mocean Worker adds new sax solos, piano and horn parts, along with the occasional guest vocalist. The hip-hop, De La Soul-influenced "My Own Little World" featuring Lyrics Born on the mic, is a standout track.
Mocean Worker, aka MoWo, aka Adam Dorn has been putting out a steady stream of albums for over 10 years, but this is the first one I'd ever heard. It won't be the last.
Listen to "My Own Little World"

7. Florence & The Machine - CeremonialsCeremonials. Good stuff.
Before I'd finished listening to the third track on "Ceremonials" - I knew I was listening to one the best albums of the year. Florence Welch & Co's sophomore effort was a gelled sound. Florence's over-the-top white-girl-belting-soul sound over dreamy organs, pianos and guitars, and countered with the tribal bombast of hugest drums this side of Phil Collins' "In The Air Tonight." In many ways, "Ceremonials" sounds like a long-lost Eurhythmics Greatest Hits record. Welch sings much like Annie Lennox. She has a strong voice and likes to use it. And even when she's trying to sound fragile or emotional, she does it with some serious strength. This album has something for everyone. Hipsters and their moms could both enjoy this album. It's probably a good CD for family road-trips. It doesn't really challenge the listener - this is very accessible music - which may make repeat listens get a bit boring. But this is still a solid album full of some of the best pop of 2011.
Listen "Shake it out" [youtube]http://youtu.be/WbN0nX61rIs[/youtube]

6. Youth Lagoon - The Year of HibernationYouth Lagoon
This is the kind of album I typically give one listen to and move on. It's a homemade affair, recorded in novice musician Trevor Powers' bedroom. It's sung quietly into the mic, as if he's trying to not piss off his neighbors. The whole thing is awash in 20 layers of reverb, as the hipsters so often do these days. On first glance, it's a pretty typical indie affair
But Powers, aka Youth Lagoon, has a sense of melody. And an ability with his homemade recording. His vocal lines are stronger than his voice allows. His keyboard parts and guitar lines take up a lot of the melodic slack here. And while his drums sound cheap, they're programmed well, mixed right up front, and demand the listener to take notice.
This may be a moody, echoey indie record, but it refuses to be background music. This music demands your attention. It reminds me of Casiotone for the Painfully Alone, Galaxie 500, Sparklehorse, and well, I could name a lot of similar sounding musical projects. But this one's special. Worth a listen. Give it a spin. G'head. You'll like it.
Check out "July" [youtube]http://youtu.be/hEDPdybOeU4
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5. Lucinda Williams - Blessed
Late in 2010, I 'discovered' Lucinda Williams. Obviously, she'd been around for quite a while, and had already I'm Blessed to have heard this record.garnered plenty of popular and critical attention. So the fact that some 41-year-old dad in rural Ohio "discovered" her didn't register as even a blip on Ms. Williams radar.
She registered with me. And a mere month or so after discovering how good she was, she released a great new album. With sleazy guitar solos and greasy Hammond Organ parts, dutifully played by the likes of Matthew Sweet and Elvis Costello, and produced by Don Was. Instrumentally, this was a perfect little rock 'n roll record.
And then there's Lucinda's performance. For those unfamiliar with Ms. Williams' singing, it can sound like a cross between Stevie Nicks and Courtney Love. But, wait...no! Don't go running away screaming just yet. She pulls it off. Her songs are so heartfelt, so believable. You believe that Lucinda's lived a hard life, and has loved and lost. Songs like "Seeing Black" - her reaction to musician Vic Chesnutt's suicide - is a tough enough song on its own merits, but it's preceded by "Copenhagen," another song about the loss of a loved one (I haven't found any clues as to who). And this is her upbeat album. It's called "Blessed," after all. And when she says that she feels blessed, you believe her. And you feel blessed for living an easier life than she has. She's an incredible talent, and this is an amazing record.
Watch "Copenhagen" [youtube]http://youtu.be/3QN7VSOklK[/youtube]I

4.The Decemberists- The King Is Dead / Long Live The King
Yay! Decemberists don't disappoint! Here's the point where Paul Mazzoni rolls his eyes and says, "The Decemberists. Of course"
The year was bookened by two Decemberists releases. "The King Is Dead" came out in January, and the EP "Long Live the King" was release at the end of October.
"The King is Dead," while catchy and full of hummable songs, worried me. I knew my expectations were too high for this release, and this was a nice reset button - in that it was an all-around atypical Decemeberist record. But it took the release of the EP in October for me to realize that all they were doing with the King Is Dead was making the best R.E.M. record since "Fables of The Reconstruction." (R.E.M. must have agreed, since they broke up shortly after "The King Is Dead" was released.)
"Long Live the King" saw Decemberists back in true form with songs of evil plantation owners and dead babies. The band was able to stretch its arms out of the REM confines, and even delivered a nice performance of the Grateful Dead's "Row Jimmy."
They gave me a scare, but The Decemberists remain my favorite band.
Watch, listen "The Calamity Song"

3. RAVE ON BUDDY HOLLY
Rare is it for a Various Artists record to have enough consistency to make it on to one of my 10 best lists, and even rarer is it for a tribute album to appear here. And I love tribute albums. Or, rather, I love the idea of tribute albums, and am a sucker for most of them. And most have some lovely moments but are overall disappointing. Usually on tribute records, there's one or two good songs placed right at the beginning, and the rest of the songs are by artists you never heard of and would rather never hear from again.
Rave On Buddy Holly was different.
Rave On Buddy Holly was under the direction of Randall Poster, who's been the music supervisor for Wes Anderson and Martin Scorsese. Poster had enough clout to get some big names, spanning musical generations. And all musicians, save for one, give great performances.
Two things make this tribute to Buddy Holly work: One, was that Poster found musicians whose musical styles already mesh with the music of Buddy Holly. There's no "Holy shit, what's Prince doing singing a Joni Mitchell song?" moments on here.
The second thing that makes this record work is Holly's songs. The simplicity of the songs, the strength of the hooks, and the timelessness of the lyrics make these songs sound as fresh today as they did when the Crickets recorded them.
The standout tracks are numerous. Paul McCartney, coming off a messy divorce and marrying wife #3 does a rollicking and self-aware "It's So Easy To Fall In Love." Graham Nash hasn't sounded as good as he has on "Raining In My Heart" in years. Justin Townes Earle sounds like he was born 4 or 5 decades too late with his raw "Maybe Baby." And newcomerJenny O's version of "I'm Gonna Love You Too" may be the best track on the album.
Even tracks by the Black Keys, and Kid Rock - and I'm not fans of either - work well on this album.
The only thing that fails, and it fails epically - is Lou Reed's "Peggy Sue."
Is it safe to say the Lou Reed hasn't done any worthwhile music in over 20 years? And 2011, he's released a bunch of stinkers.
If Reed hadn't contributed to this album, "Rave On Buddy Holly" would have been my #1 pick for the year.
Watch Justin Townes Earle sing "Maybe Baby" [youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7MnGhqTkXSk&feature=relmfu[/youtube]


#2. The Belle Brigade - S/T
Barbara Gruska and her younger brother Ethan are The Belle Brigade. Barbara, an Oberlin graduate, started as a drummer for Jenny Lewis and the Playboys. Watching Barbara and Ethan perform, I'm reminded of the Carpenters, since the sister is on drums and the brother is on guitar.
But this sister is also on guitar. And this brother's on piano. And they both sing. And the both sing really well. And the especially sing really well together.
Not since Fleetwood Mac introduced the world to the harmonies of Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham has the world had a pair of singers that sounded so natural together, so perfect.
It's an amazing freshman effort, and I kept it from being my #1 pick because I'm eager to hear an even better, more mature version of these guys. I'm not sure it's possible.
The album is wonderfully fleshed-out musically, but I prefer this acoustic and live version of "Losers" because it shows how powerful their voices are together, even live.[youtube] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V1p7EG65tf4[/youtube]

#1 Asa - Beautiful Imperfection
Asa ( prounounce Asha) a French-Nigerian, is not a household name in the States. But she should be. She has a voice that fits squarely in the space between Amy Winehouse's and Sade's. She writes songs about as poignant-yet-catchy as anything Bob Marley or Marvin Gaye's written. She's backed by a fantastic set of musicians that shine light on all of her talents. And while she's offering up her world-beat version of neo-soul, she's also offering a wonderful snapshot of the beginning of this second decade in the twenty-first century. In "Maybe," a song about wanting to succeed and reach one's full potential, she laments, "There never used to be/This much attention to security/Until the terror and catastrophe/And now there's guns and war machines."
This is a fantastic album. I believe it will have some legs, too. I believe that this will be an album highly cited by future musicians that grew up listening to neo-soul.

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