Some might call 2011 a long-anticipated year of minimalism, though not necessarily in the sense of fewer releases, even if output might have decreased ever so slightly. Instead, many artists were emphasizing the understatement – Civil Wars, Kate Bush, Low, Bon Iver. There were also many short albums clocking in at scarcely above 30 minutes – such as those by Maria Taylor and Richard Buckner, though brief did not by any means imply bad. What remained true in the minimalist year was the same trend observed since the start of the recession – a good three or four dozen albums deserved calling out as exceptional, and they came from artists of all ages and experience. In fact, the economy seemed to be driving plenty of musicians back out on the road, so that a good number of bands hailing from the 70s, 80s, 90s, and even 00s seemed to be reuniting in 2011 – some for just best-of stadium tours, but many generating new content.
Seemed like a lot of re-releases were begging the consumer to part with $150 or more of money that was not there for most, begging the question of whether anyone needed a super-edition of The Who’s Quadrophenia, The Rolling Stones’ Some Girls, even The Beach Boys’ Smile. And then there’s the lush re-releases of four or five back albums at once, in HDCD editions – Smashing Pumpkins, Throbbing Gristle, This Mortal Coil – excuse me, we’re having a recession here. The Specials section of this list does not grade re-releases, though Smile deserves a nod of some sort. If anything, the monster releases prove that physical copies of musical works are not going away in the era of file sharing, though when companies ask us to shell out three figures, it might make more sense to give money to charity instead.
Anyway, there’s still more to look for in 2012, with new Guided by Voices, Kathleen Edwards, Flobots, Leonard Cohen, Cate LeBon, and Pere Ubu debuting early in the year. It will be interesting to see if any of the planned “Occupy” benefit albums will be any good. Sad to see the year end with REM broken up, Amy Winehouse gone, Gerard Smith of TV on the Radio gone, and Gil Scott-Heron dead, though thank you Jamie Xx for remixing “I’m New Here” before the master died.
Regular Studio Albums, 2011
- The Decemberists, The King is Dead – When this album came out very early in 2011, I thought that Colin making a conscious pitch for more pop accessibility, and thereby creating “the perfect REM album,” might be a little too precious to last. I was wrong. This is one of those “no weak cuts” type of albums, where you somehow never get sick of Gillian Welch chiming in on ‘Down by the Water.’ Best keeper of the year. Bonus Edition Handicap: Decemberists join the list of bands that offer five versions of their album, including a $100 art edition, but in this case, you get a DVD about the making of the album, and silly tchotchke like a T-shirt and artwork. Skip it.
- The Civil Wars, Barton Hollow -- Are John Paul and Joy calculated as can be in their smoking passion? Are they deliberate in generating the kind of heat that gets audiences hollering “Get a room!” by mid-set? Of course. Does it matter? Hell no. This duo has crafted some of the finest country-folkie-pop songs in years, rightfully putting them into the pantheon of Johnny Cash & June Carter, Gram Parsons & Emmylou Harris, Dave Carter & Tracy Grammer…
- Mogwai, Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will – Reviewing expansive instrumental albums can be tricky, as there is often a fine line between majestic and overblown. Mogwai has had albums in both categories. This one is the perfectly-crafted cusp of what the band has been about for nearly 15 years, the kind of effort that brings chills. Bonus Edition Handicap: The two-disc version of this album comes with the absolutely essential 20-minute cut, ‘Music for a Forgotten Future.’ If you were to get an extended edition of any album this year, here is the one to get.
- Jay-Z and Kanye West, Watch the Throne – My expectations were a bit low for this collaborative effort, but the two ego kings turned out to be a perfect foil for each other, devising an album that is tense, political, layered, full of puzzles and clues, and worth multiple listens. Compare this to intriguing concept-style R&B/hip-hop albums like Drake’s and Roots’s new ones – the latter are great, no doubt, but this one really stands out. Bonus Edition Handicap: The four extra songs and the elaborate packaging of the bonus edition is well worth the price of admission.
- Florence and the Machine, Ceremonials – After I expected a slight slump for a sophomore release, one that might have used Florence’s awesome windpipes for less interesting material, Florence instead comes out with a second album that outdoes her first, with songs very unlike any on Lungs. The odd thing is, many critics chided her for going with holler-material anyway. The critics are wrong. This is a superbly-crafted album full of interesting songs, and Florence reaches a bit for this one. Bonus Edition Handicap: The 20-song version of this album is best, but you’ll only find that on the British double-disc package. The best alternative is to get the U.S. 16-song deluxe single-disc edition, search on Torrent for the extra four songs, and wallow in the Florence goodness.
- Fucked Up, David Comes to Life – I had to get past my abhorrence for hardcore punk and death-metal bands that use growls as a substitute for vocals. Even if Pink Eyes/Mr. Damian sounds like a cross between Cookie Monster and Sam Kinison, this was an ambitious and remarkable screamer rock opera, complete with string quartet. Some might question putting this one up high and snubbing the Lou Reed/Metallica concept album, but it’s just a matter of personal taste.
- Charalambides, Exiles – The crowning achievement of Tom and Christina’s 20-year career, and obviously a carefully-crafted work to expand their fan base. And that’s OK. For a couple that has built a portfolio on improvisational and difficult music, Charalambides has compiled a suite of beautiful work. Bonus Edition Handicap: The two-LP vinyl version with extra songs is essential, too bad it doesn’t come with digital downloads.
- The Kills, Blood Pressures – Jack White fans would say that Alison Mosshart’s best singing has come with The Dead Weather, but I’d say her first home and first allegiance lies with The Kills, and that this new album in particular is the band’s finest, and is far superior to anything Dead Weather has done. Less heroin chic and more bright and poppy fun in his album.
- Richard Buckner, Our Blood – Welcome back from an extended hiatus, Mr. Buckner! This one displays a little more sameness in material than his last album, Meadow, but it has that mysterious tension that characterized albums like Impasse and The Hill. Infinite sadness you can cut with a knife.
- Robert Pollard, Lord of the Birdcage – One reason I’m listing the new Guided by Voices as a 2012 album is that Pollard released so much excellent solo material in 2011, this seemed like the fairest way to spread the Pollard love. This album was my personal favorite of the five released in 2011, mostly because it’s heavy on the poetry and ponderous sadness, evident in songs like ‘In a Circle.’ Other Pollard fans will no doubt disagree.
- Kate Bush, 50 Words for Snow – Some might find this release a little more single-focus than Aerial, but I find the long ten-minute songs, the collaboration with Elton John, the mesmerizing rhythm of the title cut, a classic Kate work of mystery.
- Wilco, The Whole Love – A nice mix of YHF-style experimentalism, and the whimsy shown in albums like Summerteeth. Tweedy is truly back in top form, particularly in the final 12-minute song, ‘One Sunday Morning.’ Bonus Edition Handicap: The second EP disk has some pretty clever and compelling bonus songs.
- Tori Amos, Night of Hunters – It would be easy to dismiss Tori Amos reinterpreting modern classical works with the help of her daughter and niece, but this one is odd and ambitious enough to work more often than it doesn’t. Bonus Edition Handicap: The higher-end edition is better for its book-style perfect binding and its pictures, but the DVD on the making of the album is about as pretentious as you might anticipate.
- The Black Keys, El Camino – I found The Black Keys mildly interesting when they were in their bluesy mode, but this album is the pop masterpiece they always seemed capable of making. Bouncy, interesting, and fun.
- Dum Dum Girls, Only In Dreams – When DDGs’ first album came out a year or so ago, it seemed like a mildly interesting lo-fi surfer grrrl band. Not sure what has happened with Dee Dee’s voice in the meantime, but in their EP and full-length in 2011, Dum Dum Girls have an unforgettable power of presentation akin to Dusty Springfield in her Memphis album. If you can make it through ‘Heartbeat (Take It Away)’ without shivering, you’ve got a tough exterior.
- Wye Oak, Civilian – Jen Wasner’s songwriting has always been mystical and exceptional in a Crazy Horse kind of way, but the new album Civilian is a concept work of sorts that puts all the power of her intense lyricism and strange musical phrasing to maximum advantage. Songs like ‘Plains’ and the title track are great masterpieces of mystery.
- The Joy Formidable, The Big Roar – Ritzy’s exceptional EP work over the last few months raised the expectation levels for this album, and she and JF rose to the challenge. A powerful debut with plenty of unforgettable songs, and a stirring finale in ‘The Greatest Light is the Greatest Shade.’
- Low, C’mon C’mon – As majestic as albums like Drums and Guns have been, they have been crafted in the shadow of Alan Sparhawk’s continued behavioral demons. Low returns to a simpler, happier sound in C’mon C’mon, and the results not only sound great, but are a relief of sorts.
- Iron and Wine, Kiss Each Other Clean – Sam Beam really tries to push his band in extended directions from its first couple albums, which works to smashing effect in albums like The Shepherd’s Dog, and to more hit or miss results in Kiss Each Other Clean. Despite a few minor misfires, still a major work for Sam.
- Le Butcherettes, Sin Sin Sin – Native New Yorkers will insist that Shilpa Ray should take the punk poetess queen title from Patti Smith. I love Shilpa Ray, as you’ll see below, but the lyrics are a little too street-walker predictable. I’d rather go to the West Coast and get the freshness of Le Butcherettes. Exciting and strident work, beginning to end.
- Lydia Loveless, Indestructible Machine – Not many women are making true shitkicker country punk these days, but Lydia Loveless is the real deal. Be sure to get vinyl for the bonus song.
- Death Cab for Cutie, Codes and Keys – Considering that this might be called the first post-Zooey Death Cab album, this is pretty damned happy for Ben Gibbard. And despite a few points where the music gets maudlin, a happy Death Cab can be a worthy Death Cab.
- Smoke Fairies, Through Low Light and Trees – Seeing as how Katherine and Jessica had pulled together so many interesting songs in the unofficial Ghosts compilation of early recordings, I thought the first proper studio album would have had a lot of overlap with Ghosts. Instead, it’s a long and complex album of all new material, which admittedly has a common bluesy folk-duo sound throughout, but goes through a lot of variations due to the musical talents of the women involved. Great work. Bonus Edition Handicap: Even though the bonus CD is mostly remixes, it’s worth it due to the different talents you get to hear.
- REM, Collapse Into Now – Even though there was talk of a post-Collapse studio album, I wonder if the members of the band really figured this might be their last album, because the songs have a wider scope and a greater sense of retrospective than did Accelerate. The contributions of Peaches and Patti Smith are particularly important, and if we include the three new songs from the November 2011 compilation, the last batch of recorded work from REM proves to be one of the most important.
- St. Vincent, Strange Mercy – I have to admit to never being quite sure how to take Annie Clark, as she sometimes gets too precious for her own good. I had my doubts with the video for ‘Cruel,’ but was pleasantly surprised to learn this album wasn’t too cutesy-pie at all, it simply sounded like Frank Zappa composing for a Busby Berkeley musical. And that’s a very good thing.
- Bridget Hayden, A Siren Blares in an Indifferent Ocean – Refreshing to find that the best work this year from a Vibracathedral Orchestra alumnus came from the reserved and understated Bridget Hayden, who has given us a varied and expansive work recalling Inca Ore at her best. Worth several listens.
- P.J. Harvey, Let England Shake – Because her intent was to make an antiwar concept album, some P.J. fans have moved this near the top of all albums this year. I had it down slightly because some of the compositions didn’t work for me as well as others, but it remains one of my favorite and most ambitious P.J. albums ever. Maybe if it had included another riff-heavy guitar number, it would have moved higher.
- Gillian Welch, The Harrow and The Harvest – First, let’s just give thanks to David and the powers that be that Gillian is in the studio again, composing fresh and odd songs. After a hiatus of writing, her composition is not quite up to the Time the Revelator level, but these songs are finer than much of her strict 1930s nostalgia work.
- Manchester Orchestra, Simple Math – Why do some critics seem to dismiss MO? Is it Andy’s over-emotive angsty presence at times? Hell, Conor Oberst was that way for years. Each Manchester Orchestra album gives me something to look forward to, and this label change has brought the band once again to new frontiers and new heights. And if they sound at times like a slightly dumb Americana band, at least they get to that space through honest endeavors, rather than deliberately trying to sound like Southern Rock a la Blitzen Trapper.
- Bardo Pond, s/t – After all the scores of musical experiments this band has given us in a psychedelic haze, the self-titled album with the silvery eyes on the cover turns out to be the quintessential Bardo Pond to give to relatives and newcomers when you’re proselytizing the work of this criminally neglected band.
- Adele, 21 – We can tear Adele apart for bitchy diva-ness and canceling her shows for vocal cord nodes, but really, the quality of ‘Rolling in the Deep’ and ‘Rumour Has It’ demands this presence. Her voice may give out, but at this point, she’s unlikely to follow an Amy trajectory, at any rate.
- Bill Orcutt, How the Thing Sings – Depending on how you count, this could be the second or third album since the reincarnation of Harry Pussy founder as an experimental Delta blues musician. This is the Bill Orcutt album you must own. The tics, the guitar bursts, the flow of notes are incomparable.
- Mars Classroom, New Theory of Everything – Another of Robert Pollard’s endless series of supergroups, this one deserves special attention due to such captivating songs as ‘Wish You Were Young.’ A very special and exceptional performance.
- The Mountain Goats, All Eternals Deck – From a production standpoint, this is right up there with the Tallahassee trilogy, but it seems that John’s lyrics are a little more uneven than the last few years, otherwise this might have made Top Ten. Bonus Edition Handicap: The cassette-only acoustic demos session, called All Survivors Pack, is probably the least essential of all of The Mountain Goats’ recent rarities, but it’s still fun, if you can find it.
- The Roots, Undun – A fine effort at a concept album to chronicle the trajectory of a brilliant mind gone sour, the only reason this is lower than similar hip-hop concept studies like Jay-Z/Kanye, is that The Roots seem to go for clichés from time to time. But that doesn’t mean this isn’t a fine, fine album.
- Tom Waits, Bad As Me – Yeah, this is a carefully crafted work that combines the drunken splendor of Small Change, and the weirdness of Swordfishtrombone. A classic Tom work. Bonus Edition Handicap: Even if the three songs in the bonus disc aren’t absolutely essential, the book format and artwork you get in the expanded edition makes it a worthy investment.
- Lucinda Williams, Blessed – So great to see Lucinda put together such a beautifully crafted work. Many great songs here. Bonus Edition Handicap: I love discs that come with a demo acoustic version of the studio work. Members of the Lucinda listserv also got four extra live cuts, making the super-duper Blessed edition a bountiful blessing of Lucinda.
- Brian Eno and Rick Holland, Drums Between the Bells – One of Eno’s more interesting projects in years, as his musical manipulations work very well with spoken-word poetry. Ideally, I would have liked to see this album and the EP The Panic of Looking released as a single unified work, but who’s complaining?
- The Feelies, Here Before – When new bands like Real Estate are riffing off that breezy sound that Bill Million and friends have been offering up sporadically since 1980, it’s a crime when perhaps the best-ever Feelies album is as criminally ignored as this album was.
- Alvarius B, Baroque Primitiva – This has the feel of a Sun City Girls covers album, the same loving attention to detail of others’ work, but the greater attraction in this album comes with the dazzling cover packaging, in both LP and CD edition, of nude flower arrangements. A work of amazing beauty.
- Bev Barnett and Greg Newlon, Love Can Change the World – San Jose’s finest duo make the effort at stretching song styles in their most ambitious studio effort. Glad that the bonus track at the end gives us two versions of Greg’s song to his daughter.
- Abigail Washburn, City of Refuge – When you’re a bluegrass expert, and married to Bela Fleck, and an occasional resident of China, everything you do in traditional music veins is going to be shot through with originality and tinges of weirdness. Abigail deserves a lot of credit for keeping old-timey music relevant.
- Gang of Four, Content – It’s nice to see our friends in Go4 can reunite with an album that not only sounds like it has some 21st-century relevance from a socio-political perspective, but has updated its sounds and beats for a new era as well.
- Thurston Moore, Demolished Thoughts – We all know that Thurston’s breathy voice can’t make for a multi-octave pop album, but what is surprising is that he can make a very accessible and beautiful pop album when he adds some strings courtesy of Samara Lubelski, and some production tweaks courtesy of Beck. This is a romantic Thurston Moore album, and who ever thought that might be possible?
- Girls, Father Son Holy Ghost – Reviewers who went completely gaga over this album simply hear a different Girls than I do. They talk about the band’s ability to fuse sounds of the 1970s, which I wholeheartedly agree with, but the band chooses reference points from that decade I find irrelevant – say, the arena-rock sounds of Yes, for example. The people who like Girls would be the same people who find Pink Floyd’s best work to be Dark Side of the Moon or Wish You Were Here. Make no mistake about it, I find Girls creative and clever, I occasionally want to listen to them, but they’re much more predictable and snoozy than some would suggest. Bonus Edition Handicap: The early vinyl LP copies with the bonus song on flexidisc were worth it just for the novelty of the physical medium.
- … And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, Tao of the Dead – While the album occasionally has the same problem with pompous overkill that limits earlier Trail of Dead albums, as well as bands in a similar genre such as Mars Volta, this album crystallizes the good parts of Trail of Dead into a fascinating if perplexing whole. Bonus Edition Handicap: The two-disc version has fine artwork and extras, but the only difference between the two discs is the way the songs are separated and tracked. An odd experiment, not sure of its purpose.
- Marissa Nadler, s/t – I love all of Marissa’s bootleg works, and was happy to see a proper studio release, but I find myself listening to her two volumes of cover songs she released in 2011. The reason is that her own songs for the new album are intriguing, occasionally hypnotic, but they don’t grab me as much as some of her earlier works.
- Beirut, The Rip Tide – This is a more traditional and thoroughly enjoyable suite of pop tunes than the double-EP March of the Zapoteca, which had Zach Condon and gang sounding a little too much like Calexico. Some of these songs are among Beirut’s finest. But at nine songs and barely more than 30 minutes, and a few songs that sound similar, there’s a bit of an unfinished feel.
- Laura Marling, A Creature I Don’t Know – An interesting name for the album, given that it sounds far different and more adventurous than her first two. She is obviously growing in both songwriting and arrangement craft, and she’s on her way to being one of the UK’s most important songwriters.
- Crooked Fingers, Breaks in the Armor – I’m enough of an Eric Bachmann fan that I’d normally put any CF work in the top ten automatically. But he set a fairly high bar with Forfeit/Fortune and Dignity and Shame, to the point where the new album sounds a bit uninspired. Maybe a few more listens will inspire me.
- Cage the Elephant, Thank You, Happy Birthday – Of all the new young bands out there that get wildly uneven promotion, CtE probably deserves more hype than the likes of Foster the People. Maybe not miles deep, but certainly unabashed fun.
- Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues – If I was to judge by excellent craftsmanship, this album would be a lot higher. FF have figured out ways to mix sounds recalling old minstrel tunes and barbershop quartets, and merging them with CSN&Y-style harmonies. But somehow, I find FF to be a cold, beautiful jewel that has to be admired from afar, without finding any heat within. Maybe it’s just me, but FF impresses me without stirring my soul.
- Sarah Jarosz, Follow Me Down – Based on the heavy promotion from Garrison Keillor and Tim O’Brien, Jarosz is the 20-year-old savior of bluegrass. In many ways she is, and her talents shine on this one, with help from Vince Gill, Bela Fleck, Darrell Scott, and other friends. But her experimentalism isn’t quite as adventurous as Abigail Washburn’s. But given her age, she can only get better.
- Okkervill River, I Am Very Far – Here’s an example of what happens when a band tries to grab the best of several of its earlier styles. In the new albums by Wilco and Bardo Pond, the results are a powerful synthesis. Here, Will reaches to bring Okkervil elements together, with only partial success. Note that this is higher than the new Bright Eyes, though.
- Lifeguards, Waving at the Astronauts – Coming at midpoint in the 2011 Robert Pollard releases, this duo effort with Doug Gillard includes my vote for 2010’s single of the year, ‘Producthead.’ It has a few other top-notch songs, but the effort is sort of uneven, more an occasional lag by Pollard than any slip by the always-excellent Gillard.
- Radiohead, King of Limbs – One of the more pleasant and accessible Radiohead albums of the last few years, this one still meanders a bit, displaying the sort of chaotic random walk Thom Yorke has taken us on over the last five years or so.
- Lou Reed and Metallica, LuLu – Some critics put this at dead last, calling it an exercise in overindulgence that is scarcely worth a listen. Others treat it very seriously, and place it near their top albums of the year. On different days, I can feel either way, so I placed it at about midpoint. Here’s what I will say though: I ranked it lower because of the mere presence of Lars and James, because I have never forgiven Metallica and still do not forgive them for their constant support of corporate interest in metal music. But I gave it some degree of genuine credit, because I don’t think Lou was trying to make some sort of faux-art joke. His poetry and spoken-word efforts here are intriguing, with moments of brilliance. You’ll just have to come to your own conclusion on this one.
- Drake, Take Care – So many people want to give this a rave ranking because Drake can combine R&B and hip-hop with weirdness, but there’s nothing Kid Cudi or Kanye West hasn’t done better. Decent, but predictable.
- Maria Taylor, Overlook – A few reviewers have chided the shortness of this album, saying it has an unfinished feel. Its brief nature prevents it from being a masterpiece, but the songs here are very finely crafted, and some of Maria’s best – ‘Masterplan,’ ‘Matador,’ ‘A Bad Idea?’ If you whine about a 30-minute album, maybe it’s best to just download a few individual tracks. But don’t miss it.
- Mike Watt, Hyphenated-Man – Here’s one of those annual picks that should have been higher, but was hard to peg. Watt goes for a thematic set of short songs with a bluesy, chaotic quality that hints of Captain Beefheart or The Residents. A remarkably different and fresh album from the ex-Minuteman.
- Yo-Yo Ma, Goat Rodeo – The world’s favorite cellist moves into a jazz-influenced bluegrass that recalls David Grisman. Many of the songs are fun, but Yo-Yo Ma deliberately avoids too much crossover in order to keep its popularity and listenability. More’s the pity.
- Eleanor Friedberger, Last Summer – The only reason Eleanor suffers on the list as compared to her brother, is that Matt elected to compose eight separate albums of special instrumentals that belonged on my ‘Specials’ list, while Eleanor went for straight pop where the competition was tougher. Do not be deceived – if you love her crazed word salad in The Fiery Furnaces, she applies the same rules to personal reminisces of wild summer days and nights as a teenager. Really quite lovely.
- Van der Graaf Generator, A Grounding in Numbers – One of the more intriguing Hammill and Company releases of recent years, with short tracks, powerful delivery, and a vibrant sense of fun that outpaces much of PH’s recent solo works.
- Bill Callahan, Apocalypse – After his exceptional live album last year, Bill returns with a nice studio piece that is not really about any global apocalypse, but more along the line of his usual personal and wry musings. Nice stuff, but nothing to blow your socks off.
- Feist, Metals – Another release that may be ranked way too low, but I couldn’t quite get my arms around it. I appreciate the fact that Feist did not try to simply re-make her hit album, The Reminder, and instead went for fresher sounds. It’s just that those sounds didn’t grab me, a feeling I sort of had for Let It Die, as well. But give Feist credit where credit is due – the fact that she is doing a split single with Mastodon shows that the woman never sits still.
- Juliana Hatfield, There’s Always Another Girl – Juliana probably won’t be making a work as striking as How to Walk Away any time soon, but this album represents a partial return to form from the largely lackluster “acoustic folk” album Peace & Love. While some songs on this album are throwaway, there are enough good ones here to make me continue to believe in Juliana with all my heart.
- Shilpa Ray and Her Happy Hookers, Teenage & Torture – There are many New Yorkers who consider Hindu goddess Shilpa Ray the next Patti Smith. I love her stage presence, her use of traditional Indian instruments, her “sex as power, sex as a business” lyrics, but ultimately, the lyrics rarely escape the boundaries of sex-worker laments. As I mentioned above, Le Butcherettes come a lot closer to grabbing the Patti mantle.
- Foster the People, Torches – I actually love to listen to this album when I need a pick-me-up, and think the heavy promotion it got from the label was at least partially deserved. But watching these guys on Saturday Night Live convinced me that Foster the People still is predominantly dance-friendly pop-lite. OK if you need a sparkly song or two, but not much of lasting value.
- Circus Devils, Capsized! – It’s another great Pollard release, so of course it’s necessary, but I’m used to the Circus Devils collaboration exploring weirdo or Western themes, and this is mostly Guided by Voices under another name. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
- My Morning Jacket, Circuitous – Jim James tried really hard to make a more pop-friendly album, and songs like ‘Holdin’ on to Black Metal’ certainly are fun to listen to. But after many songs, I found myself asking, “So what?” Definitely a great car-driving album, but not much to startle.
- Gang Gang Dance, Eye Contact – Those who have followed this list for a while know that I have a mad crush on Liz, and that I consider GGD to be the perfect mix of experimentalism and hypnotic dance. So why is this low? Maybe because they tried too hard to be accessible, and ended up sounding like any other techno-dance-oddball group. I liked their ‘Kamakura’ EP a lot better.
- Lady Gaga, Born This Way – Don’t be fooled, I really do like Lady Gaga, and the title cut is excellent in many ways. But each succeeding album becomes more calculated in its presentation, which of course increases Lady Gaga’s popularity, but makes her less interesting in many ways.
- Wild Flag, s/t – Isn’t the coming together of Carrie Brownstein, Mary Timony, Janet Weiss, and Rebecca Cole in one band the greatest idea in the world? Yes, on paper. I still want to see a performance of Wild Flag, especially playing Television’s ‘See No Evil.’ But Carrie’s a bit thin on vocals without Corin Tucker, and Carrie and Mary together are still getting their songwriting talents in order. I sure hope this band stays together, though, because Wild Flag has the potential to be great.
- Eddie Vedder, Ukulele Songs – This only ranks a bit low because a suite of ukulele solo songs is self-limiting. Maybe this album should have been in the Specials section. But the mere fact that Pearl Jam’s lead singer tried something so unique, and executed it beautifully, is worth a thumbs-up.
- Wire, Red-Barked Tree – This started off with the promise of being a Wire reunion bringing the band back to the quality of Chairs Missing. But after a few songs, it started to meander. Any Wire album is a good album by definition, but this one lagged after a while.
- The Wild, Set Ourselves Free – This was a short work that might have been better off in EP’s, but the Atlanta cluster of hootenanny punks known as The Wild should not be ignored. There’s a similarity to the trajectory of X and Knitters here, in that the band members sound like they started out wanting to play 1978-era punk and listened to a lot of Peter, Paul & Mary along the way. Fascinating and wonderful.
- Boston Spaceships, Let It Beard – True confessions – despite Chris S.’s cool arrangements and drumming from Decemberists’ John Moen, I’ve always found Boston Spaceships the least interesting of Robert Pollard’s projects, perhaps because it’s so hard-rock normal. This was a sprawling self-described concept album, and in something so broad, there’s bound to be several cool songs. But at the end of the day, I found it one of the less interesting of Pollard projects in 2011.
- The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, Belong – Hey, wait, this album is really good! Kudos for crunching up the guitars a little more to be less twee – it makes Pains a better band. I guess the issue remains that the band is a too-cute group in the Belle & Sebastian mode, but without the B&S richness in instrumentality. Still, this album is worth your attention.
- Danger Mouse and Daniele Luppi (w/ Norah Jones and Jack White), Rome – Many people have this album up high, and I can appreciate the effort to pull in some Jones and White talent to the basic tracks. But it’s time for another confession: Morricone-style spaghetti-western soundtracks have never interested me, so I found this version of the style to be merely mildly interesting.
- Paul Simon, So Beautiful So What – Yes, the arrangements recall Graceland, and yes, the lyrics are wonderful, but even Paul will admit he’s an aging guy, maybe a little out of style, just having fun. So maybe he’d be perfectly OK with this ranking – because the album really is worth hearing. Bonus Edition Handicap: The CD/DVD combo is very much worth the price, as we see video jams of Paul at home, much better option than another “how this album was made” nonsense.
- Arctic Monkeys, Suck It and See – I was one of the few who really liked AM’s last album, Humbug, because it was such a different sound – almost like The Doors’ Soft Parade. This album might be called a return to form, resembling AM’s first two albums, but I thought it was less interesting as a result.
- Astral Social Club, Generator Breaker – Since this seems to be a live recording, maybe it should be in Specials, which should give it a higher ranking. I like the fact that Neil Campbell is attempting a little more popular accessibility, and there are elements of the dance sensibility we heard in ASC’s Happy Horse, though overall, I don’t find this album as compelling as the last one.
- Coldplay, Mylo Xyloto – Just to be clear, I am not a member of the “Coldplay always sucks” club. Eno’s manipulations are put to good use here, and some of the hooks are good. But Chris Martin is often clichéd in his lyrics, and this album simply can’t keep up with the grandiosity of Viva La Vida.
- Glen Campbell, Ghost on the Canvas – What a brave act, to complete a studio album in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. And what a choice of songs, including a Guided by Voices cover. Glen may be fading, but he’s leaving us with a stellar final legacy.
- The Dodos, No Colors – Fascinating rhythms and structural fun on these songs, but without Neko Case singing on many songs, would the overall album be as fascinating? Maybe I’m underestimating this, but then, look what I’ve done with Dan Bejar and Destroyer below.
- John Doe, Keeper – Doe played a great set in my neighborhood back in May, it’s great to see him find new relationship and song-duo potential with Jill Sobule, and this album definitely is a keeper. But it’s sort of predictable in many ways.
- Real Estate, Days – This one was way up the list for many people, but I keep hearing something mid-way between The Feelies and a country-rock band like Souther Hillman Furay Band. Not bad, certainly, in fact pleasant, but what’s the big deal with Real Estate? Bonus Handicap Edition: Early vinyl editions came with a cool bonus LP of Real Estate playing the Days songs live – Cool, to be sure, but the songs are played in the album order, with no extra tracks. Just for fans.
- Chad Vangaelen, Diaper Island – Chad is one of those slightly quirky indy songwriters like Lou Barlow that you can’t help but love. Hard to categorize, but this album is cool in its own strange way.
- Steve Earle, I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive – Earle deserves credit for attempting an album on death and mortality, and it obviously is a labor of love, but nothing grabs me in the way Jerusalem does, for example.
- Fountains of Wayne, Sky Full of Holes – Fountains are on Yep Rock because they’re adopting a very interesting alt-country-Americana sound. Makes for intriguing listening on occasion, but nothing as jolting as their earlier sparkly-pop sound.
- Jackie-O Motherfucker, Earthsoundsystem – We have to at least give Tom Greenwood credit for partially leaving his cowboy-ballad period in favor of a mixed jazz-cowboy bag. But Jackie-O has been lost in a less-interesting genre for the last five years than it had been in the decade or so previous, and Earthsoundsystem does little to move the football forward.
- The Jayhawks, Mockingbird Time – Ooo, Jayhawks fans might be mad at me for this one, since this album has some of those great high harmonies that made the band such as integral part of the 1990s. But this reunion sounds forced somehow – cool as far as it goes, but little that was unexpected.
- Steve Malkmus, Mirror Traffic – Again, Pavement/Malkmus fans are likely to beat me up (and many people had this album way up high), but I didn’t catch a lot of exceptional Malkmus work here. Any album Janet Weiss plays drums on is worth hearing, but notice that Janet has left Steve’s stable to go play drums for Wild Flag.
- Tapes ‘n’ Tapes, Outside – I feel sorry for Tapes ‘n’ Tapes, with all the reviewers saying their third album is lackluster and lacks originality. I think their sound of a twangier Phoenix or even early Talking Heads remains intact. Maybe their creative juices were a little lagging on this one, but I’d still rather listen to TnT than half the new music out there.
- Six Organs of Admittance, Asleep on the Floodplain – Ben Chasny has released so much great work under the Six Organs name, some are bound to be more meandering than others. This is nice background music, but not an astonishing album in the Six Organs portfolio.
- Motel Beds, Tango Boys – Extremely likeable and jangly pop, recalling GbV and even Uncle Tupelo. Fun stuff.
- Robert Pollard, Space City Kicks – In January 2011, this album sounded pretty bright and poppy. But Pollard ended up releasing so much exceptional material in 2011, this one ended up almost at the 100 level.
- Blitzen Trapper, American Goldwing – After Dylanesque compositional weirdness in the last two albums, BT returns with a tribute to 1970s Southern rock. It’s interesting, particularly if you’d like someone to sound like Lynyrd Skynyrd for the 21st century. I enjoy hearing it from time to time, but it doesn’t bowl me over.
- New York Dolls, Dancing Backwards in High Heels – Give David Johansen credit for realizing that as rock queens hit their 60s, it makes little sense to keep cranking out brassy hard-rock novelty numbers. Instead, the Dolls turned to 1950s doo-wop for this album. At least it preserves their integrity, it simply is less interesting.
- Ryan Adams, Ashes & Fire – I’ve always been sort of lukewarm on Adams, but his growing Crazy Horse-like sound is worth hearing. This album pushes all the buttons, but doesn’t necessarily stake out new ground. Fun, though.
- Foo Fighters, Wasting Light – Dave Grohl went to great efforts to give us a unique studio effort, and I appreciate all that went into this album. Maybe the low ranking is a sign that I’m just getting a bit tired of Foo Fighters. But there’s hope. I still find this album a lot more interesting than new efforts by Jane’s Addiction or Red Hot Chili Peppers, listed below.
- Deerhoof, Deerhoof vs. Evil – Sometimes, Deerhoof’s eclectic odd rhythms and Satomi’s unique vocals work in perfect ways, as in Runners Four and Offend Maggie. Other times, the songwriting falls flat, and the new album seems to fall into the latter category. Still, Deerhoof could record an album of gargling and I’d still suggest a listen.
- Cut Copy, Zonoscope – As we enter the realm of Cut Copy, Battles, and Architecture in Helsinki, you’ll have to understand that I’m not a huge fan of the electronic dancey-dancey style. A lot of techno and dub-step simply isn’t reviewed here. But Cut Copy deserve some respect for their lively interpretation of the early 80s dance sound. Fun if you like such things.
- The Atlas Sound, Parallax – Another confession – I don’t think Brad Cox of Deerhunter, Atlas Sound, etc. is all that damned clever. Deerhunter bores me. Atlas Sound is sort of an improvement through its informal, longe-lizard style, and a couple songs like ‘Angel is Broken’ are great. But I’m still not getting Cox.
- Architecture in Helsinki, Moment Bends – See note above with Cut Copy. A band that often falls victim to its own uber-cuteness, AiH is saved by the wonderful presence of Kellie Sutherland, who I would love to serenade with a rendition of The Partridge Family’s ‘I Think I Love You.’
- Destroyer, Kaputt – OK, Pitchfork ranked this #2 (check #1 below), and I don’t get it. I like New Pornographers’ Dan Bejar, and I like Destroyer. I think these songs were fascinating in their compositional originality, and I credit Bejar with trying new things stylistically. But the style employed in this album is yacht-rock of the Christopher Cross variety. And at the end of the day, I can’t get past the yacht-rock style. Maybe ten years from now, I will find Kaputt to be a heartbreaking work of staggering genius. Right now I scratch my head.
- The Bangles, Sweetheart of the Sun – Hey, even if this is in the hundreds, I’m glad The Bangles are back. Hoffs has some good new ideas, and the Peterson sisters sound as tight as ever. They sound a little bit rusty – some critics said Vicki Peterson sounded slightly flat in many songs, but I’m sure glad she didn’t use AutoTune. Still, it’s worth it to welcome The Bangles back to the land of reunion tours.
- Barn Owl, Lost in the Glare – I find Barn Owl to be one of the most consistently interesting drone/improvisational instrumental groups out there. Their work with Tom Carter and others is phenomenal. This album, however, fell a little bit flatter than the vinyl-only EP that came out in 2011.
- Bright Eyes, The People’s Key – This had such a cool packaging and conceptual base, that I thought I’d like this album better. I guess the issue is that Conor Oberst had come out with such fine solo albums, the reunion of Bright Eyes had a forced feel. Maybe if I spend more time with this album in 2012, I’ll learn to appreciate it more.
- Bon Iver, s/t – I actually got mad when Pitchfork awarded this album #1, and it garnered several Grammy nominations. I like Justin as much as anyone, loved the first album, was glad he went with this geographical theme for the new album, but….. nothing stuck with me in the whole album, except for unusual song titles like ‘Michicant.’ What do you do when the music that is supposed to be the creative pinnacle of the year simply sounds like ethereal Muzak?
- Kathryn Calder, Bright and Vivid – OK, this hurts, because I like New Porns member Kathryn Calder perhaps more than Neko Case, and I love her work with her own band, Immaculate Machine. Her first solo album from last year was an acoustic album in honor of her mother, and I gave it some space. This one has some interesting poppy and ethereal moments, but frankly, Kathryn tries to sound like Enya too often, and her solo work can’t touch her work with Immaculate Machine or New Porns.
- Exene Cervenka, The Excitement of Maybe – Hey, I kick myself for ranking John Doe low, but here I put his former partner Exene down in the 100s. This is a straightahead sorrowful love-song album, and it might improve greatly if I gave it more time and space, but right now, it just doesn’t grab me that much.
- Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Hysterical – Most reviewers picked on Alec Ounsworth for trying too hard, after coming out with a fantastic first album, a dreadful second album, and then putting Clap Your Hands on temporary hiatus until this year. That’s not the problem I have. I don’t hear a lot of analytical navel-gazing on this album. I hear a turn to high-energy pop that starts out strong, but then fades away after three or four songs. Seems like the real sticking point of Clap Your Hands is Alec’s lack of much to say.
- Explosions in the Sky, Take Care Take Care Take Care – Here’s an example of how finely balanced an instrumental album of the Godspeed/Mogwai style is. Mogwai’s latest shot way up to the top, while Explosion’s newest, despite some interesting riffs, was largely a snoozer.
- Devotchka, 100 Lovers – Since Nick is a cool actor and vocalist and Devotchka is a Denver band, I always give them special dispensation for all their theatrical efforts. There are some good tunes on this album, but the majority of it falls somewhat flat compared to earlier albums.
- The Mekons, Ancient & Modern, 1911-2011 – It’s fair to say that this is The Mekons best return to form since the late 1990s, but it’s still a meandering work. Mekons function best when they boil everything down to country-punk or pure country. This one is worthy, but with many throwaways.
- Oneida, Absolute II – Despite the fact that this concludes the trilogy of work the band started three years ago, this seems a dark and somewhat sludgy instrumental work that isn’t nearly as interesting as the last two installments.
- Anna Calvi, s/t – Her mix of occasional soprano runs and strident alto can be very compelling, but her work can try too hard to be melodramatic. I like what she’s trying to do, though, and hope for more.
- Ben Harper, Give ‘til It’s Gone – Ben can be very uneven – some of his recent work with the Relentless 7 has been exceptional, but this work falls into the trap of hard-rock ordinary, and suffers thereby.
- Urge Overkill, Rock and Roll Submarine –- This is actually a fun album as far as it goes, but folks who say UO have always been rock’s greatest parody act, have failed to show me where the joke resides. A keen and fun album, but it functions more as hard-rock straight story than self-conscious comedy.
- They Might Be Giants, Join Us – It’s wonderful to see TMBG doing grown-up albums again, and this album started out sounding almost as majestic as 1990’s Flood, but the energy quickly started to wane and my attention started to wander. Still, it’s TMBG! Rejoice!
- TV on the Radio, Nine Types of Light – This ranking hurts more than TMBG’s, particularly given the death of TV’s Gerard Smith last spring. I am a fervent fan of all of TV’s work, but this album just seemed lackluster after the marvelous Dear Science.
- Strokes, Angles – Seems like everyone loves to pick on Julian and The Strokes these days, heroes of punk-pop ten years ago, and left out with the trash in 2011. I tried hard to really like the new one, it’s a toe-tapping work to listen to while driving, but not a lot of magic herein.
- Idea Fire Company, Music from the Impossible Salon – Graham Lambkin did some great production, Scott and Karla try some interesting instruments outside their usual domain, but this album meanders more than IFCO’s Postcards, listed under Specials.
- Battles, Gloss Drop – Many hear echoes of the former instrumental band Don Caballero in Battles. Since vocalist Tyondai Braxton left the band, I mostly hear mildly interesting dancey electronica, all right in its own way, but doesn’t bowl me over.
- The Gin Blossoms, No Chocolate Cake – Many will be glad to see their Phoenix heroes return to bring the years of mid-90s greatness. And they do, to some extent, but it seems as if there’s too much of an intent to mimic the earlier Gin Blossoms sound, a common problem in reunions this year.
- Tennis, Cape Dory – OK, this band is from Denver, they’re channeling the new interest in beach music, but with more of a nautical theme. The problem is, the sound is a little thin, both Alaina’s vocals and Patrick’s guitar. You can only blame that on “lo-fi” so long. I’ll be anxious to hear more Tennis music, but this one didn’t grab me a whole lot.
- Ages and Ages, Allright You Restless – This band has some interesting singalong and harmonic things going on, but they often descend into a mix of campfire sincerity and Rusted Root wannabe consciousness. Perhaps a bit more sarcasm would help.
- Art Brut, Brilliant! Tragic! – Many people thought the producers made a mistake by letting Eddie’s vocals take over more of the album. I don’t have a problem with that. It’s just that the manic humor of Art Brut doesn’t shine through on this one as much as earlier albums.
- Bjork, Biophilia – Many reviewers say, “Oh, the music is all right, but it’s the iPad and iPhone apps that really make this a classic.” Excuse me, this is a music album. Bjork’s heart is in the right place, as usual, but there’s too much that is silly or inconsequential in this album.
- Deer Tick, Divine Providence – This one is right above the tie-for-last-place for a reason, having to do with anger or annoyance. I’ve always been a believer in John McCauley’s work, and have been pleased to see the band hit new heights of popularity. A drunken loose jam session was a good idea – heck, I thought that was what The Black Dirt Sessions was supposed to be – and I was expecting something like the Stones’ Exile on Main Street. But this album is sophomoric and silly, sort of like your college drunkard friend who never grew up and says “fuck” too much and passes out. Deer Tick, it’s time for a reset.
- Red Hot Chili Peppers, I’m With You
- Jane’s Addiction, The Great Escape Artist (tie) – These two albums are tied at the bottom for a reason. I don’t think they’re worthless. If you’re a fan of Anthony or Perry, you’ll find something worthwhile here. But for two acts that defined the 90s so well, both these albums are lacking a lot of energy. Go ahead and enjoy what is there to appreciate, but don’t expect a lot of nuances.
Special Albums (Live, Compilations, Splits, CD-Rs, MP3, etc.)
- Various Artists, Japan Recovery Benefit – Since this involves some of the same musicians that took part in Jack Rose’s tribute last year, which captured #1 on the 2010 Specials list, it’s no surprise this one takes a similar position, since it’s so good. Plus, it’s a benefit for a tsunami- and nuclear-ravaged land, so there’s the feel-good component. Although this is dominated by experimental artists, you’ll hear melodic groups like Parts & Labor and Sam Prekop, which means this is cool in every possible way.
- Output Noise Ensemble, Soundtrack for the DSM-IV – This is in Specials because most of the performance are live, but the concept behind this album, named after the reference guide for behavioral disorders, is beyond cool. All the tracks are named for Tourette’s, schizo-affective disorder, etc. And in the realm of experimental jazz and improvisational music, the results are way beyond cool.
- Pere Ubu, Lady from Shanghai Demos – These are not leaked demos, but ones placed on sale deliberately at the Hearpen web site, to give listeners an idea of a new Ubu work in progress. Wow and double wow. All indications are that this is one of Pere Ubu’s most important works in gestation.
- Various Artists – Sing for Your Meat, A Guided by Voices Tribute – Some well-known artists and some very unexpected ones get together for a one-of-a-kind tribute. And No Fake Record Labels gave us a vinyl version on colored vinyl. Whoopsters.
- Graham Lambkin – Amateur Doubles – An intriguing suite of sounds recorded inside a Honda Civic by Graham, Adris Hoyos, their kids, and any assorted person who might have been around, with haunting results. Interesting that Adris is photographed but not credited anywhere in the marvelous gatefold packaging, and since she is behind the wheel in the photo, one wonders if there is a hidden meaning of “in the driver’s seat” implied. Or not.
- Christina Carter, Trickster Who is Like God – Even if Christina’s spacier, breathier albums don’t do much for you, this limited release finds her making a long, pointed composition and asking direct questions of the listener. A frank and beautiful work.
- Marissa Nadler, Covers Vol. 1
- Marissa Nadler, Covers Vol. 2 – In some ways even more intriguing than her solo studio work of 2011, Nadler in this work explores songwriters ranging from Townes Van Zandt to Neil Young, with some superb renditions.
- No-Neck Blues Band, YTIU – As usual, this vinyl-only limited release has almost no information on the band lineup or the date of recording, though it appears to be a fairly recent live set. Don’t ask questions, just appreciate the existence of more No-Neck.
10-17. Matthew Friedberger – Eight Solo Works (Napoleonette, Meet Me in Miramas, Old Regimes, Cut It Out, Death-in-Life, Arrested on Charges of Unemployment, Goodbye Forever, Artemisia) – This was always a fairly ambitious project by half of the band Fiery Furnaces, and Matthew’s intent to make one album featuring one instrument was bound to make for a mixed bag. Rather than rank them all over the places, I’ve ranked them together. The last two are perhaps the fullest, but it’s surprising what does and doesn’t work. I’d rank the first and third as most interesting. The fifth, while sporting the best cover, has some of the most meandering compositions. But at any rate, the mere effort to come out with something like this leaves other multi-instrumentalists in the dust.
18. Magik Markers, Mother Was Magik
19. Magik Markers, Isolated from Exterior Time – Even in off years, Elisa and Pete manage to come up with noisy, creative albums that at times recall King Crimson, when not collapsing into chaos. The two 2011 releases are particularly worthy.
20. Gil Scott-Heron and Jamie Xx, We’re New Here – Jamie, of course, had no idea when initiating this project that it would end up being Gil’s last, but how fitting that Gil could work with modernists on remixes as a final unexpected way of saying goodbye.
21. Starving Weirdos, Rolled in the Midst of Never-Ceasing Currents Flowing Without a Rest Forever Onward – Many feel that this is the quintessential Starving Weirdos live set to own, but I feel it’s not as interesting as, say, Self-Hypnosis, or studio works like Into An Energy. Nevertheless, it’s new Weirdos, which is really all you need to know.
22. Dismemberment Plan, Live In Japan 2011 – With a snappily-produced, expansive two-disc live set marking their reunion, the only question for DP fans was, would it capture their energy as well as the 2000 Crocodile Café live set? Not completely. Perhaps it’s too polished. The new live album has all your favorites, might be the quintessential work, and has newer songs not on the 2000 release, like ‘Ellen and Ben’. But reunion tours always leave out a little bit of the original spark. Still, this might be the one Dismemberment Plan album to own.
23. Glands of External Secretion, Reverse Atheism – Hooray! Barbara Manning and Seymour Glass are back together, with freak-out compositions dealing with faith, belief systems, and odd people. You know it’s essential. Bonus Edition Handicap: Early LP copies come with a bonus CDR of extra Barbara and Seymour studio work. Of course it’s fabulous.
24-26. Sunburned Hand of the Man, Gum Arabic, Agony, The One You Forgot to Forget – Hell, often the detritus and leftovers of Sunburned are more interesting than the official releases of other bands. In this case, all three are intriguing, particularly the Agony set that got them thrown out of a club for employing a four-year-old boy to play drums. Oh those crazy Sunburned Hands, always in trouble, always displaying staggering genius.
27. Green Pajamas, Green Pajamas Country – One could call this a regular studio album, since the songs are all Jeff Kelly originals, but it had such a specific intent of producing a country album, I’m listing it in Specials. A much better album than one might expect, this is a suite of serious, beautiful country songs from the experts in all that is folkie-psychedelia. Fun.
28-29. Grouper, A1A (Dream Loss, Alien Observer) – Who would have guessed that this odd, ambient, two-album instrumental concept suite would garner Liz Harris more fame than anything she had done before under the Grouper label? Both the first and second vinyl printings of this album sold out immediately, which may be a sign of fanaticism more than anything else. The two records are beautiful background piano-driven music, to be sure, but no particular earth-shattering advance over anything Grouper has done before.
30. Call Back the Giants, The Rising – Tim Goss of Shadow Ring provides electronic strangeness of a type similar to his former band, with help from his daughter and Rob Stewart, though CBTG is more ambient and gentle than anything from The Shadow Ring.
31. Tom Carter, All Ahead Now – This cassette may be all we get from Tom this year, but it’s a nice acoustic set that is very accessible for those just being introduced to the Charalambides stable.
32. Amy Winehouse, Lioness: Hidden Treasures – You’ve no doubt seen the reviews by now that say this compilation is no great undiscovered work of posthumous material, but rather a gathering together of all the material that is left. But that does not mean this is a thin collection. With covers of odd numbers like ‘Our Day Will Come’ and ‘Girl from Ipanema, this is an essential work, and a reminder of all we have lost.
33. Sonic Youth, Simon Werner a Disparu – A sweet but only partially essential soundtrack from SY, but what with Thurston and Kim calling it quits as a couple, this might be the last SYR release we will see from the band’s archives. Then again, there might be dozens more.
34. Idea Fire Company, Postcards – This unique cassette-only release collects IFCO live sets from a variety of times and cities, giving us a cross-section of Scott Foust and Karla Gay Borecky that is missing from this year’s official IFCO studio release.
35. K. Flay, I Stopped Caring in ’96 – A suite of downloadable remixes and parodies that shows just how much a genius as poet and DJ that K. Flay really is.
36. Mars, Live at Artists Space 1978 – Let’s remember, Mars only wrote about eight or ten songs through their short and volatile career. This LP is bootleg quality, and offers the same songs in the same order in two different sets that took place in May 1978. Still, it’s Mars, and this is an important chronicle of the No New York period.
37. Brandi Carlisle, Live at Benaroya Hall with the Seattle Symphony – Worth hearing if only for the unusual orchestral arrangements, this set was unexpectedly good.
38. Fucked Up, David Comes to Life – Live – The audio recording is offered by NYC Taper from Day Two, while an HD video is available from Day One, complete with cellist. In either event, a life performance of the complete ‘David’ work is important.
39. Ben Folds, Anthology – Does this collection mean that Ben is going to show up mostly on TV music judging shows and on the occasional variety show from now on? I have a bit of a problem with the new Ben Folds, but that’s his decision to make. This two-CD collection combines a best-of suite with some cool B-sides and unreleased sets for the Ben Folds completeist.
40. Neil Young, International Harvester – I’ll admit it, I didn’t much like the 1983-84 Neil Young, since he was promoting Ronald Reagan and being grumpier than usual. Still, this set shows what wonderful country tunes the master could crank out when he wished to do so.
41. Stephen Merritt, Obscurities – Yeah, sure, you’ll want this one if you’re a Magnetic Fields fan, there’s some unreleased numbers and unusual takes, but it seems only worth picking up if you can get it on a discount.
42. Taylor Swift, Speak Now World Tour Live – Fun to own if you have a kid who’s a Taylor fanatic, but also a guilty pleasure if you’re just gaga over one of the nation’s finest songwriters. The DVD isn’t that necessary, unless that’s you’re preferred medium. Nice to hear ‘Hey, Soul Sister’ performed, but I might have opted for including a couple of her Tori covers.
43. Foo Fighters, Live – This underscores the problem I had with FF’s studio album this year. Dave Grohl seems to enjoy the 70s-era double-album live set, with overblown versions of popular songs. OK, I suppose, but predictable – although better than Soundgarden.
44. Tim Buckley, First Album Plus – It’s good to see the extended re-releases of all the Tim Buckley work, and this one includes some very early acoustic work, but I think with Buckley, as with Pavement and other artists, there’s a point of diminishing returns that can be reached.
45. Sigur Ros, Inni – Not sure why I put this below Foo Fighters, since the principle is the same, but maybe it’s due to SR’s added pomposity. The B&W artsy DVD is cool, the audio CD is a nice cross-section of Sigur Ros’s work, but all the reviewers calling this special and essential ignore the fact that it’s yet another live album.
46. Frightened Rabbit, Demos – This was a cool little cassette item released on Record Store Day, containing very early demo versions of Frightened Rabbit songs. More good for novelty than anything else.
47. Kate Bush, Director’s Cut – Given that she came out with a decent studio album of new material this year, it’s uncertain why Kate felt she had to release re-recorded versions of her 1990s albums, Sensual World and Red Shoes. In most cases, the new versions are not all that great. Still, an interesting experiment.
48. Sun City Girls, Gum Arabic – Mostly a repackaging of previous material, but interesting in being a beautifully packaged edition of Arab-associated music, released in Tunisia.
49. Casper and the Cookies, Live – A free download from the CC site provides a recent live set from Athens. OK but not superb sound quality, but a spirited set.
50. The Mountain Goats, All Survivors Pack – I mentioned this as an adjunct to the main 2011 studio release, All Eternals Deck. An interesting exercise in that it was only released as a cassette, but the acoustic songs are only re-spins of the Eternals tunes, with no bonus songs, thus making this the least interesting of any recent Mountain Goats rarity.
51. Thinking Fellers Union Local 282, Live at ATP – Sure, the recording is muddy, sure the songs are sloppy at times, but it is the return of TFUL282, and greatness is thereby implied.
52-54. The Weekend, House of Balloons, Thursday, Echoes of Silence – I love the free download ethic, but don’t see a lot of other useful hip-hop creativity coming out of The Weekend, which seems to be everyone’s favorite new star. Still waiting to figure out what I’m supposed to be astonished by.
55. Soundgarden, Live on I-5 – What was Chris and Company thinking? Even some strong, clear renditions of ‘Black Hole Sun’ would have held off fans until a new reunion album was out, but this live collection was muddy, sludgy even.
Singles and EPs
- Polvo, Heavy Detour – Apparently, there is more to come from the reconstituted Polvo in 2011, but we got two songs on a 7-inch record in 2011, and that was enough to get them single of the year.
- Future of the Left, Polymers Are Forever – I still am not convinced that FotL walks on water, and a couple of the songs on this EP are a bit unfocused, but in general, this band is exciting, and the new EP extends FotL’s work in unexpected ways.
- Brian Eno and Rick Holland, The Panic of Looking – My only gripe is, wouldn’t this have been better combined with the Drums Between Bells album to begin with? Oh well, it extends Eno’s spoken-word poetry work with several writers, and is thereby worthy.
- Deerhoof and Jeff Tweedy, Behold Jeff Tweedy in Darkness – Deerhoof almost redeemed themselves for their lackluster Deerhoof vs. Evil album this year, by releasing this weird-as-hell single with Jeff from Wilco. Huzzah.
- Beth Ditto, s/t – The best thing to come out of Record Store Day was this 12-inch vinyl EP of Gossip lead singer Beth Ditto going all-out 80s Madonna on us. You could tell the dance direction from the last Gossip album, but on this EP, she belts it – even more than Adele with her vinyl remix EP.
- The Decemberists, Long Live the King – This EP of leftovers from The King is Dead sessions contains more heavy-on-the-sea-shanties numbers, which sounds like earlier Decemberists, and raises the question – Was Colin trying to purge more traditionalist Decemberists numbers on the studio album to get a poppier sound? It’s OK, we get our fix here.
- Mogwai, Earth Division – An essential companion to Hardcore Will Never Die, absolutely essential in many ways.
- Guided by Voices, ‘Human Race’/’Fats Domino’
- Guided by Voices, ‘Doughnut for a Snowman’
- Guided by Voices, ‘Chocolate Boy’ – One thing is immediately apparent from the three singles pulled from the new Let’s Eat the Factory LP. GbV is giving us plenty of strange, lo-fi 1-minute tunes and plenty of Tobin Sprout material, which fits the Classic GbV mode more than the late 90s/early 00s period, when GbV tried to get more professional. I love this quirky stuff, which is replete in the new album and will be reviewed on next year’s list.
- Bill Orcutt, ‘A King or Something’
- Bill Orcutt, ‘Tic Fit’
- Bill Orcutt, ‘All Tongues’ – These three singles are great for giving us more of the spastic, tic-heavy acoustic anti-blues that Bill plays on his full-length albums. And he also brings back the whimsy he displayed when releasing Harry Pussy singles – the singles are impossibly limited and difficult to find, they have no information on the music inside, and they have random pictures of people who have nothing to do with the music – in this case, Michael Jackson and Eric Clapton. Welcome back, Bill!
- Terra Naomi, To Know I’m OK – Terra called her first work with producer John Alagia a full-length album, but I’m not going to rank it that way, because it’s eight short songs with some bonus live tracks on the end. Still, that should not distract from the marvelous singer-songwriter work she continues to release. EP or not EP, this one is another keeper from Ms. Naomi.
- Air Dubai, Day Escape – Denver’s Air Dubai is a rhythm and poetic powerhouse, reminiscent of Sly and the Family Stone in some ways. While not every song on this EP is up to the incredible opener, ‘Soul and Body’, this is a great cross-section of their work.
- Astral Social Club, ach ach ach – Neil Campbell’s coolest work of 2011 was a cassette single produced through cutting, pasting, and splicing longer ASC works. The results are hilarious and exciting, a Neil original.
- Pinback, Sherman – Another great Record Store Day special, a concept single on sunken treasure and deep dark maritime secrets, a wonderful work.
- The Wild/Run Forever – I’ve become a fan of everything Atlanta’s punk-folk-hootenanny band The Wild releases, including this split.
- Adele, ‘Rolling in the Deep’ remix 12-inch – Can’t get enough ‘Rolling in the Deep’? Seek this sucker out. Yes, it’s worth your while.
- Bon Iver, Bonnie Raitt covers single – This 12-inch single of covers not on the 2011 album is as good as anything from the album itself.
- Gang Gang Dance, Kamakura – An eerie and cryptic extended dance single that is more memorable than anything from the band’s 2011 album.
- The Civil Wars, Tracks in the Snow – Partially a Christmas album, with an original song and a cover of ‘O Come O Come Emanuel,’ and partially a live release with two unique live cuts. This one is produced on 10-inch all-white vinyl, so it’s inherently cool.
- Barn Owl, Shadowland – An extended vinyl-only EP from the very prolific improvisational duo, more intriguing than their full-length.
- Paul Baribeau, Unbearable – Baribeau is back with more quirky songs of loss and longing. What more do you need to know?
- Dum Dum Girls, He Gets Me High – Just as with the full-length DDG release this year, the band takes things up a notch with this EP, which includes a cover of The Smiths’ ‘There is a Light That Never Goes Out’. Dee Dee is becoming one hell of a vocalist.
- Broken Bells, Mayrin Fields – Cool in its own right, but James Mercer and Danger Mouse leave me scratching my head as much as they did with their self-titled full-length release of last year.
- K. Flay, s/t – This woman just amazes me with the mix of rap, poetry, DJing, and mash-ups she puts out.
- Dead Fingers, s/t – Maria Taylor’s sister Kate and her husband Taylor Hollingsworth are cooking up all kinds of southern-fried hell. I can hardly wait til the full-length comes out in the spring of 2012.
- Shilpa Ray and Her Happy Hookers, Venus Shaver – A single from the new album, and a sure keeper.