More ‘Best Albums of 2011’

We already compiled the Top Albums of 2011 that we reviewed, so let’s round out our Top 25 albums of 2011 with 15 more that we didn’t get around to writing proper reviews for. It’s a good thing we left our final list undun until now. Looks (sounds) like 2011 saved the best for last as December saw (heard) the release of two of the years’ best from The Roots and The Black Keys.

The Roots – undun
The masters of album making strike again. The Roots have been so consistent and set the bar so high that seemingly every year or so they drop another classic on us and we put them on our year-end lists and talk about how great they are, and yet it still feels like we somehow take them for granted. Saving the best for last and releasing it in December, The Roots’ stark narrative, with the accompanying musicality well beyond just the beats, stands as perhaps the best album of the year.


Ryan Adams – Ashes & Fire
The return of Ryan Adams features not only his best set of songs since 2005, but his voice sounds better than ever. His co-MVP’s here are legendary veteran producer Glyn Johns and keyboardist Benmont Tench (of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers).


P.J. Harvey – Let England Shake
Maybe the most unique and interesting albums of the year. Stark and fluttering, subtly explosive, beautiful yet blunt. This one took home prestigious awards and topped a lot of other lists, and it’s way high up on mine as well. Engaging and as urgent as she’s always been, but perhaps her most musical album to date.


Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues
I once described Fleet Foxes as a soundtrack for doing yard work at a Renaissance festival. And while that doesn’t make a lot of sense, I meant it in the best possible way.


Megafaun – Megafaun
Impossible to describe. Somehow manages to sound like both CSNY and Hot Chip. Comes off weird and eclectic, but still full of hooks.


Paul Simon – So Beautiful or So What
Not quite right up there with Graceland or The Rhythm of the Saints, it’s certainly still a “return to form,” as the press releases like to say. And in between the spots where it bounces like those albums, he sprinkles in a few mellow numbers reminiscent of his 1970’s ballads.


The Decemberists – The King Is Dead
This time they tone down the lush, orchestral emo-pop sound of their previous album, Hazards of Love, and return with a rustic and rootsy affair, with a solid assist from Peter Buck on guitar.


Middle Brother – Middle Brother
Collaboration of lead singer/songwriters (Deer Tick’s John McCauley, Dawes’ Taylor Goldsmith, and Delta Spirit’s Matthew Vasquez) team up for a simple but stunning record that underscores each of their (potential) places in the next generation of great American songwriters. It’s like if Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, and John Mellencamp recorded an album together, but did so in 1981-82, around the time they were each making Nebraska, Hard Promises, and American Fool. Actually it’s not really like that at all. Where was I? Oh yea, back to the list.


The War On Drugs – Slave Ambient
Droney and addictive.


Radiohead – The King of Limbs
People either love Radiohead and swear by them as the best and most important and innovative band on the planet, or they don’t “get” them and think they’re overrated. There’s no point in me writing about them, other than to say The King of Limbs was a slow burn, took a while to grow, still one of my favorites from this year.


Kurt Vile – Smoke Ring From My Halo
This is a great record that took me a while to actually dig. I’d hate to cheapen it with a string of bullshit music-critic buzzwords and catchphrases… but the retro anti-folk of Smoke Ring From My Halo successfully mixes Dylanesque phrasing with Lou Reed-style street poetry, and somehow comes out smelling like indie rock.


Dawes – Nothing Is Wrong
I like this better than their much-acclaimed debut. Full of subtle hooks and natural emotion, this has a crispy 70’s feel with all the guitars up front in the mix.


Explosions in the Sky – Take Care, Take Care, Take Care
Instrumental rock experts hit us with another dynamic set.


The Antlers – Burst Apart
Another one that is kinda hard to describe. At times a bit odd, but mostly beautiful.


The Black Keys – El Camino
This is right behind The Roots’ undun in the “Best for Last” category. Dropping in December, this one brings the heat right outta the box. Once it’s given more time to sink in, it might end up being the best album of the year.

Don’t Say a Word: The Passion of the Instrumentals

Assessing instrumental music can be an especially challenging endeavor for some reason. Seems more difficult to wrap our heads around this stuff, perhaps because we’ve been trained to rely on labels and descriptions and an overt “this is what it’s about”-ness that is often provided by the lyric as well as the vocal performance of those lyrics.

One might try to argue that it’s “easier” to write/record great instrumental records, because you don’t have to finish it. You don’t need to write words or find a good singer. But the flip side (there’s always a flip side) is the challenge of holding a listener’s attention with just instrumentals. And nothing here sounds “unfinished” by any means. I’m a fan of the kinds of albums flexible enough for a roadtrip or for sitting around a fire, indoors or out. And many instrumental albums fit that bill, the kind of records that are welcome company on both Saturday nights and Sunday mornings. We’ve not included jazz or classical for the purposes of this list, only because they are obviously major genres of their own and their most famous works would easily fill several Top 10’s before we got to any of the other “instrumental albums” we’ll be listing here. And, with apologies to Jeff Beck and King Crimson and Dick Dale, this is not a comprehensive list of the most important or influential instrumental recordings, simply my favorites.

Peter GabrielPassion: Music from The Last Temptation of Christ
One impetus for making this list was Peter Gabriel’s Passion, the music he did for Martin Scorsese’s film The Last Temptation of Christ. At the time (and since), Gabriel was known as the man who made hits with his “Sledgehammer,” the former Genesis singer who’d given us quirky modern pop gems like “Games Without Frontiers” and “Shock the Monkey.” By the time John Cusak lifted that boom box above his head and blasted Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” in the movie Say Anything, it was obvious that Peter Gabriel was capable of being a goose-bump giver. [And yes, Cusak’s character lifted a boom box over his head with intentions of impressing and winning over a girl.]

Enter Scorsese and his bold new film project based on the book by Nikos Kazantzakis. The subject matter and hype around the movie passed for controversial at the time (portraying Christ as a human man I guess? Is that what the fuss was?), but the film itself turned out to be a beauty, for those of us not offended. And the ebbs and flows of the film are not only captured and accentuated by Gabriel’s rustic, tribal score, Passion can stand on it’s own as a musical work, it’s pacing and dynamics worthy of repeated listenings whether you’ve ever seen the film or not. Interestingly enough, Passion managed to not only further popularize world music, it also landed a Best New Age Album Grammy award. Continue reading →