I can look back at 1984 and see just how good a year for music it was. Purple Rain. Born In The USA. Reckoning. Building The Perfect Best. Heartbeat City. The Warrior. The Unforgettable Fire. Welcome To The Pleasure Dome. Sports. Like A Virgin. Band Aid. Spinal Tap … SPINAL TAP! It felt like that, in ways, during 2011. At the start of the year, it seemed like every week, there was another good album coming out - not good, but great. Downright solid, in every genre. By mid-year, the pace slowed slightly, but it became the year where Spotify took over. iTunes still dominates, to the point where WalMart bowed out of music aside from legacy CDs, but Spotify became the Wikipedia of music. Almost every album was at my fingertips, traceable in the way that Wikipeda can cost a person hours and hours and hours. One click on “related artists” would take me down a Spotify hole, leading to amazing discoveries and wasted hours. Instead of pirating music - not that I’d ever do that - my ten bucks a month gave me a license to discover, sample, and come across everything from a rare Daryl Hall project to the latest pop sensation that was a guilty pleasure. (Unfortunately, the sharing features might let people know that I did listen to a lot of old Duran Duran. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)
It also gave me license to listen to things I might not have gotten a chance to hear a year earlier. Someone would suggest something and click-click I was listening. Albums that barely made the top 20 this year would have been top 5 in recent years. An album like The Civil Wars’ full length debut or the Jay-Z/Kanye project hold up well against the best of previous years. In the end, there were ten albums that made this list, but there were so many good ones that I think we’ll look back at 2011 as the turning point, when music figured out that it was about quality and promotion and less about creating “pop.”
There’s really, really good albums that didn’t just miss the top ten, but not even the top twenty, like Black Keys, Tom Waits, Alison Krauss, and Charles Bradley. If that doesn’t tell you how deep it was, I don’t know what will. There’s always going to be a need for disposable music, but in an era where everything is at our fingertips, there’s more of a need for something solid, something to really believe in. There’s no excuses any more, aside from time, not to listen, and no excuse not to make the music the artists truly believe in. There’s a “long tail” out there for even the nicheiest of niche artists, as this list will show.
(If you want to hear my mix from each of the Top Ten albums, check it out on Spotify here.)
When I listen to Mona, I hear both the hope and hopelessness of the American music business. Here’s a band that’s killing it in Europe, opening for Kings of Leon, an obvious and easy comparable band. They look like London Calling-era Clash and sound like the U2 that Bono left behind somewhere in the arms of America before heading to Berlin. Yet for all the pure rock and roll perfection of this album, loaded with accessible singles, genuine angst, charisma, and what Napoleon Solo once called an “elegant air of decadence”, the closest Mona came to stateside recognition was a song in a commercial for Vegas. Maybe the hype train let what happened with this album stay in Vegas but everyone else missed out if that’s the case. There’s no excuse for a debut album this perfect to have not been playing on every radio station that still has the temerity to say they play rock. Mona’s album holds up as well as anything I’ve heard in years, from the pure angry rock to the pleading anthems. It deserves a listen on this side of the Atlantic, if only so that you can say “I knew them when …”
James Blake: James Blake
It’s been a long time since an album confused me as much as James Blake. The first time I listened was late at night, typing in the dark on my laptop. The sound that came out of those small speakers was … it was wider than anything else and my MacBook Air is hardly an audiophile’s dream. Blake’s beats seemed to come from around me as much as inside the normal musical stage. It wasn’t that it didn’t sound like anything else I’d heard, it was that it wasn’t at all like anything I’d heard. The initial confusion was exciting and frustrating, demanding careful, repeated listens. On each one, I found more … and less. There are times where Blake’s work is amazingly complex, with new things to hear on each listen, and then it seems to wrap in on itself, showing itself as just a simple song again. His repeated loops and lyrics are somehow both childish and structural. It’s a minimalist composition with perfect construction. Amazingly, he kept putting out music, with another EP in November that didn’t feel rushed, including a song with kindred spirit Bon Iver. Blake’s voice, simple even through the gyrations of computer alteration, never loses the emotion. James Blake is the opposite of last year’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, but somehow there are similarities. Both are flat out masterpieces, but where West puts everything out there, structurually and emotionally, I’m left at the end of nearly a year with this album wondering if James Blake even exists.
All At Once: The Airborne Toxic Event
When do we know a band is great? Two albums seems early, but The Airborne Toxic Event is making me wonder. All At Once is a veritable homage to a range of influences that go from U2, The Clash, and Neil Diamond to a more current The National and Modest Mouse, and everywhere in between. The album is seldom subtle - Edge-style riffs, Dropkick Murphys-style piping, Arcade Fire-style chants - but it’s not so literate to be anything more than intense and engaging. It’s music that’s bigger than the band’s near-Fleetwood Mac Disney concert. (That concert was captured in All I Ever Wanted, available on iTunes and worth a watch.) All this influence goes into the grinder and comes out, somehow, without an ounce of derivativeness. It’s hardly original or even challenging; it’s just damn good. Styles change from song to song, but never jarringly or preciously so. It’s not change for change’s sake, but change for the song’s sake. It’s never just a look-at-me move either. This band has surprising range without an Arcade Fire’s cast or bluster. TATE just didn’t make a jump from their first album to the second; they put themselves in the conversation for truly great bands. That they’re still slightly unknown, burning up mid-level theaters on tour, is the amazing part. Then again, I remember seeing U2 at a similar place, though it was after their third album.
I slept a bit on Adele’s first album, 19. Two years later, no one’s sleeping on her dynamic combination of a powerful belting voice and emotional songwriting. There’s a touch of Carole King that takes multiple listenings to really find at the heart of 21 (named, like her previous album, for her age at the time of recording.) There are places where she soars, places where she stumbles, but it’s always distinctive. Adele can’t really be compared to many of the pure singers of the day, though it’s easy to try. Her single “Rolling In The Deep” is one of those catchy things that you find yourself liking even after a million plays, though “Rumor Has It” and it’s Motown-ish vibe doesn’t hold up as well. The album’s highlight is “Someone Like You,” which is a heartbreaking ballad that Adele crushes live. Go to Youtube now and watch this performance from the Brit Awards last year. (Sadly, she mutes this amazing performance by doing it note for note and gesture for gesture on the MTV Awards nearly a year later.) She’s no American Idol contestant, but that, my friends, is a moment. I can only hope that Adele’s next album is 23, 24 at the most.
Soul Punk: Patrick Stump
The voice is recognizable as the same one that sold millions of units with Fall Out Boy, but Patrick Stump hasn’t just gone out on his own with his first solo work, he’s gone in his own direction. Stump’s album recalls early Prince in ways, including that he played all the instruments and did all the vocals. It’s a bit more electronic than most would have expected from someone with Stump’s background, but maybe Stump was the one being held back. Stump’s songs are solid, his lyrics good if a bit predictable, and his emotions not so much on his sleeve as caught on his zipper. It takes guts or stupidity to try and make a singalong chorus out of a line like “If you’re unfaithful, get your hands in the air!” but Stump does it in between synth riffs that wouldn’t be out of place on 1999. He follows it with Erasure-style keyboards, Michael Jackson vocal tics, and a song that goes 8 minutes about the regrets of the club kid lifestyle. Soul Punk is nothing if not ambitious and while Stump doesn’t always hit the mark, he never misses the note. His voice is simply phenomenal throughout the work. Most have focused on some similarities to Prince and Michael Jackson, but his pure tone reminds me of someone else. I think Stump may just end up this generation’s Daryl Hall, which is about as high a compliment as I can give a singer. I just wonder now if Pete Wentz is John Oates.
Torches: Foster The People
If you have only heard “Pumped Up Kicks” — and heard it and heard it — you might think Foster The People is just a one-hit wonder, a gimmick that found one catchy hook and ran with it. Thing is, the whole album is like that. It’s one hook after another that will get inside your head and you’ll find yourself walking through the grocery store humming something before you realize what it even is. Mark Foster might have a non-standard voice, but it fits his music somehow, that boyish sing-song following along with what seem like simple structures. Mark Foster’s background as a jingle writer shows through in the music, but his lyrics veer toward the dark. “Pumped Up Kicks” is a Columbine-like gunman’s song and that might be one of the lighter songs on the album. From the opening beats of “Helena Beat” to the last lingering synth note, there’s not a misstep on what could be the purest pop album of the last decade. It wouldn’t surprise me if this turned out to be a Meet The Beatles style first album - pure bubblegum - on the way to something deeper and even more complex.
Bella: Teddy Thompson
If Teddy Thompson weren’t the child of Shoot Out The Lights … I mean Richard and Linda Thompson, would he have the same issues he does today? Like his father before him, Teddy is dreadfully underrated, even ignored, but for different reasons. Teddy’s music is between three different genres and it doesn’t seem like he can be marketed, but listening to his crystal tenor makes me wonder why. Sure, he can sound like a cross between Vince Gill and Keith Urban … but he does it on a pop song. He can sound like Roy Orbison at times, when just a hint of twang would make the song a country hit in any other year than the one that introduced “Dirt Road Anthem”, the kind of song that must make Merle Haggard vomit blood. Thompson’s just going to have to keep making incredible music without the recognition it deserves. If there’s no room for this kind of voice and these kind of songs in the prefab world of pop and “country” then I hope there’s plenty of room in the one that’s being built on the back of iTunes and Spotify.
Within And Without: Washed Out
There was a point a couple years ago when it seemed like everything was revolving around a set of influences that centered on Talking Heads. There were a hundred bands beyond the obvious Vampire Weekend that aped the arty, multicultural vibe of early Heads. Now, we’re moving past the first phase of New Wave and into that awkward phase before Duran Duran and the MTV generation really hit. Those influences of Eno-style experimentation come back around with bands like Washed Out. This is an album that demands multiple listens, but doesn’t demand much more of you. On the first listen, it might be just a bit too sleepy. It’s not ambient, it’s not synth-pop, but it’s close. The term “chillwave” doesn’t really tell you anything other than someone at Pitchfork ate their clever chow. But there’s something more here. It’s sleepy, yes, but there’s more going on than just a synth groove that would be good background music for a trendy restaurant’s brunch. This is going to sound like an insult, but you remember on John Hughes movie soundtracks there were always a couple bands you’d never heard of and one of them would have a song you really dug? (Belouis Some, come on down!) This is like that. It would fit perfectly there and I can see these songs slid onto a TV show, a la Gray’s Anatomy. Again, that’s not an insult. That’s relevancy. Better, it all leads up to the final song, “A Dedication”, which is almost a piano driven song with just enough of a change of pace that you hear something new, something that you’ll likely hear more of on the next album, but not so different to jar you. Lots of college kids are going to make out to this music and again, that’s not a bad thing. In fact, we could use a lot more of that.
Big Talk: Big Talk
I remember hearing about Foo Fighters just before their first album came out. It was still the primitive days of the net, so I’m not sure what newsgroup it was that I read about it on, but those were the days, huh? (No.) I can remember thinking “Nirvana’s drummer?” and not expecting much. It wasn’t a great album, but Foo Fighters have become a very solid good-not-great band with the occasional song that really connects. “My Hero” and “Best Of You” are my favorites. All that brings me to Big Talk, a band which is mostly Killers’ drummer Ronnie Vanucci’s project. At times, Vanucci sounds a lot like Brandon Flowers, in a “Daltry or Townsend?” kind of way. That’s not a bad thing, though Flowers solo album was pretty dismal. Vanucci sounds more like Sam’s Town-era Killers here, again, not a bad thing at all. Big Talk is much more Bruce Springsteen (in the way Sam’s Town was) than it is Duran Duran (in the way Killers’ first album was), but it never quite gets the scope of The Boss and settles into a nice area that’s just a Hammond organ shy of being late 70’s Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers. Any of these tracks could have been pulled from Damn The Torpedos, or at least the 2010 remastered version. In fact, the first minute of the opener, “Katzenjammer” is about the best minute of pure rock n roll craft I heard all year. It’s a classic way to open an album, Who-like sequencers building and then releasing, but he doesn’t crash as the wave rolls over. Instead, the (again) Who-like riffs kick in, so much that you can just see Townsend windmilling on stage. The song itself holds up and rides it out. We heard similar on the last Killers album, with the opening riff from “Human”, but it wasn’t as confident as “Katzenjammer.” Big Talk may be a side project and Killers’ may be working on a new album, but maybe Vanucci might need to be more in front next time. I know I’ll be more intrigued next time a drummer decides to go solo.
One Man Mutiny: Tommy Stinson
It’s hard fort me to think of Tommy Stinson as part of Guns N Roses. To me, he’s the guy who was a part of The Replacements, which was the cool band of my high school days. The ‘Mats were like a cool test. If you could quote Westerberg lyrics, you were fine. It wasn’t the doom and dark of The Smiths and Depeche Mode, which was a bit too dark if you were going to be a more-or-less mainstream teen in the not-so-deep south of the eighties. But you could be cool still, realizing that The Replacements were the descendants of Lou Reed who came from Roy Orbison and … well, we could take it all the way back to Robert Johnson (who recorded in Texas, not Mississippi mind you.) But Stinson of 2011 is a long way from that guy. Still, the opening couple tracks of this solo album reminded me of Izzy Stradlin’s solo efforts. Underrated, a bit ragged, a descendant of Keith Richards, but solid. Ragged isn’t a bad thing, especially given the provenance, but then something amazing happens. The tracking of this album is one of the most peculiar things in music over the past … wow, decade? In between songs two and three, Stinson found his voice. I realize the album probably wasn’t recorded sequentially, so I have to think it’s a stylistic choice. It’s like seeing a character arc in a movie, growing before our eyes, changing in some unexpected way. The music doesn’t really change, but it moves slowly from recalling Izzy Stradlin through the first four songs, hanging on with some solid bluesy slide work, but gradually changing. In tracks three and four, we start hearing a poppier voice to the song, somewhere between Ryan Adams and … is that Paul Westerberg I hear? Yep. As quickly as that comes, we swing again, over to Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne? Yeah, by tracks five and six, that’s the easiest, best comparison. There’s a final change as the voice goes back to the more ragged, bluesier notes with late Westerberg in there too. (Westerberg co-wrote one of these songs, no wonder.) It might sound like a mess, but somehow it works and it’s never so jarring a change that you sit up and really note it. There is one of those moments however, in the midst of “Come To Hide.” It’s a relatively basic song, starting with a simple strummed guitar line. The lyrics aren’t special, the typical indie-pop longing we’ve heard, but nice. Then out of nowhere, a lone trumpet rings into the song and takes it from nice to special. It’s a solo of a type that I haven’t heard in pop since Manic Street Preachers did it in “Kevin Carter”. I’m reaching to say that it stands with the more iconic sax solos like “Waiting On A Friend” or “Jungleland”, but this centerpiece just shows us that Stinson hasn’t just been standing in the shadows all those years behind Axl and Paul. He’s been listening and more importantly, growing.
The Next Ten:
Pioneer: The Maine - Another great power pop album from The Maine. Somewhere between fellow Arizona natives The Format and Las Vegas’ Killers.
Revelator: Tedeschi Trucks Band - On their own, married guitar slingers Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks are pretty good. Together, they’re even better. Trucks can get a bit jam-bandy on his solos, but they’re always worth hearing.
Here We Rest: Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit - Isbell continues to prove that he’s the Don Henley of the Drive-By Truckers, making solid, country-inflected music that makes you sing along and think along.
Elsie: The Horrible Crowes - It’s not the Gaslight Anthem, but Brian Fallon’s side project is his Nebraska. Which makes a lot of sense when you know about Brian Fallon. Bruce Springsteen isn’t as good without the E Street Band, but he’s still worth a listen. Fallon’s the same.
Barton Hollow: Civil Wars - Joy Williams and John Paul White are ridiculously talented on their own, but have a kind of Marvin Gaye/Tami Terrelle thing going where they’re even greater together. It took me forever to figure it out, but his album sounds like breakup sex.
The Belle Brigade: The Belle Brigade - Music with a California influence came back - again - this year. The Belle Brigade is a brother/sister combo that can echo Fleetwood Mac like nobody’s business. That’s high praise for a debut.
Nothing Is Wrong: Dawes - Dawes toured behind Neil Young and Robbie Robertson last year. They’re pure echoes of Laurel Canyon with everything from Jackson Browne (who sings backups) and The Eagles, as well as Young and The Band.
Undun: The Roots - The Roots didn’t sell out when they became Jimmy Fallon’s house band. Instead, they took the opportunity to make an uncompromising album, knowing they had the safety net. Briliiant, challenging work that takes multiple listens even without trying to follow the underlying, told-in-reverse story.
Skying: The Horrors - While many acts were showing 80’s influences, The Horrors were perfecting their niche of late 80’s shoegaze, Britpop and dance influences. Echo and the Bunnymen never really hit in America either.
Watch The Throne: Jay-Z & Kanye West - An album so over the top shouldn’t have worked like it did. It’s the album by hip hop’s 1% that still makes the heads bob in Zucotti Park.
Now to address the album that’s not here and everyone will ask about. Like I said, there’s a ton - a ton - of great albums out this past year, so I don’t feel bad saying “this is what I liked best.” It’s that sentiment - this is what I like and why - that keeps Bon Iver off the list. I can appreciate what Justin Vernon and his band have done. My problem is that I just don’t enjoy it. His voice grates on me. I can count the number of falsettos I like on one finger — Frankie Valli — and even Prince’s can drive me nuts when he overuses it. A song like “Holocene” is beautiful and worthy of every accolade it’s getting, but at the end, when Vernon uses his normal voice on “Beth/Rest” and it’s every bit as powerful as the falsetto just reminds me of what I’m missing out on. Then again, that song makes me think of Peter Cetera.
- willcarroll posted this