Like I did for 2010, I'm providing my take on this year's best albums.
Although I have the top ten ranked, all are solid albums, and those rankings could easily move according to the shifting scale of my mood at the moment when I want to listen to some tunes. The second ten are simply placed in the "honorable mention" category.
If you enjoyed some albums that came out in 2011 that aren't included in this post, feel free to relate ones you think are worth mentioning.
So here goes the Top Ten/Twenty albums of 2011:
1. Amanda Shires, Carrying Lightning
For me, 2011 was the year I discovered Amanda Shires.
Lawd, I've seen the light.
What a talented musician, an artist who lists Octavio Paz, Marianne Moore, Theodore Roethke, and Sylvia Plath as her favorite writers on her FB page.
From start to finish, this album is excellent. From a song about wanting nooky in "Shake the Walls" to contemplation of suicide in "When You Need a Train, It Never Comes," from lyrics of awakening and reflection in "Ghost Bird" to the straightforward nature of "Detroit or Buffalo," this opus features beautiful fiddle playing, solid guitar, and haunting lyrics. Favorite songs: "Ghost Bird," "Shake the Walls," "Sloe Gin," and "Swimmer, Dreams Don't Keep."
2. Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit, Here We Rest
No surprise here.
At first listen to the new album, I instantly liked a number of the songs ("Alabama Pines," "Go It Alone," "Codeine," "Stopping By," "Never Could Believe," and "Tour of Duty"), but the others took some time to grow on me. To be honest, when I first heard the cover of Candi Stanton's "Heart on a String," I thought, "Why is hell is Isbell trying to sound like John Mayer?" But I've come to like the song since it features a Muscle Shoals R&B vibe. Here We Rest is not as much of a rock-oriented album as the band's previous effort, which is fine and I like it, but I tend to enjoy Isbell's songs that have a bit more grit to 'em, whether it's his solo stuff or DBT tunes. Regardless, the guy is a storyteller. "Stopping By" delves into the psychological effects of not having a dad in one's life, and I think many folks would appreciate "We've Met." Favorite songs: "Alabama Pines," "Go It Alone," "Never Could Believe," and "Stopping By."
3. Glossary, Long Live All Of Us
It's hard to do better than Glossary's fine album, Feral Fire, but Long Live All Of Us approaches that greatness. The recent release from the guitar-oriented, no nonsense rock-n-roll band hailing from Murfreesboro, Tennessee is different from previous albums, but I like it a lot. In the mini-documentary that I linked a short while back about the album, the lead singer and guitarist of the band describes the album as one that is positive and does not ape the cynicism and negativity that surrounds us. That's true. Let me put it this way: if I'm in a grumpy mood, listening to this album makes me feel better. Favorite songs: "A Shoulder Left To Cry On," "Trouble Won't Always Last," "Everything Comes Back," and "When We Were Wicked."
4. The Bottle Rockets, Not So Loud: An Acoustic Evening
These guys have been around a long time, yet I don't see 'em getting a ton of critical acclaim. They should. If there's ever a band that writes songs about the working (or not working so much anymore) class, this band is it. And they do it well. This album made me appreciate their studio stuff even more and got me wanting to see them live. The standards are there--"Gravity Falls," "Smokin' 100s Alone," "Rural Route," etc.--but the song that really got me is the one that closes the album, "Mom & Dad," which is obviously about the death of the mom and dad of the lead singer that he briefly discusses in the intro of "I Don't Want to Go Home." For those of us with parents getting later on in age, it's a tear-jerker. Favorite songs: "Mom & Dad," "Rural Route," and "1000 Dollar Car."
5. Dawes, Nothing Is Wrong
This is an outstanding follow-up to the band's first album, North Hills. Over a couple of weeks last year, this band just kind of clicked for me, and there for a while I was listening to North Hills all the time. On Nothing Is Wrong, the lyrics are stronger, the arrangements are more diverse, and what the critics call the "Laurel Canyon sound" permeates the work like the first album. This band reminds of a baseball pitcher when I get to thinking about it--a starting pitcher who has a really solid rookie season, and then he establishes himself as a number one or number two starter for a team quickly hereafter. Dawes is no Clayton Kershaw yet, but they could be. Favorite Songs: "A Little Bit of Everything," "Fire Away," "If I Wanted Someone," and "So Well."
6. American Gun, Therapy
A strong guitar-oriented sound, interesting lyrics, and no bullshit rock-n-roll, that's how I would describe these talented fellows. If you don't like American Gun, you're un-American. Not really, but I thought I'd write something stupid like that. All the songs are good, but ... Favorite Songs: "1500 Jessicas," "Lie to Me," "Procrastination," "Therapy," and "No More Friends."
7. Sarah Jarosz, Follow Me Down
If you ever want to motivate yourself to get it together, consider the case of Sarah Jarosz. She's a college student (New England Conservatory of Music) and an accomplished musician on the mandolin, fiddle, and guitar. She's a great singer too. And, oh yeah, this is her second album, and she's already played on Austin City Limits. You're lazy, aren't you? Get back to work, clown. Favorite songs: "Old Smitty," "Run Away," "Here Nor There," and cover of Dylan's "Ring Them Bells."
8. Middle Brother, Middle Brother
So let's get this straight. The band Middle Brother is a "supergroup" of lead singers of three bands--John McCauley of Deer Tick, Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes, and Matthew Vasquez of Delta Spirit--that got together and produced their own record with the help of a number of outstanding musicians. Sounds like an elaborate marketing ploy hatched in a tavern, doesn't it? But it's a damn successful musical project inspired by booze if that's the case. From McCauley's lyrics about daydreaming while hungover in "Daydreaming" to Goldsmith's plaintive missive of "Thanks for Nothing," from the gritty, slow nature of "Theater" to the tag-team nature of the final song "Million Dollar Bill," it's a fun ride. Favorite songs: "Daydreaming," "Blue Eyes," "Wilderness," and "Me, Me, Me."
9. Centro-matic, Candidate Waltz
Will Johnson and the fellas got back at it again with another fine release this year. For me, their sound is addictive -- hypnotic at times. The lyrics venture often toward the willfully obtuse, but in that sense, they remind me of R.E.M., and that's high compliment coming from this guy. The album has one song, "All the Talkers," that is a satirical description of club-goers, which you shouldn't miss. Favorite songs: "All the Talkers," "Mercedes Blast," "If They Talk You Down," and "Against the Line."
10. Rod Picott, Welding Burns
I originally recognized Picott as "that guy who's always playing guitar" with Amanda Shires. In fact, they did a collaborative album a few years back that I need to investigate. I finally got nudged into buying Welding Burns because of emmylunatic's comment on the July 15th Music Friday post: "It's worth some effort to see Amanda live, many shows you get a great twofer as she's joined by Rod Picott who has a great album out now - Welding Burns."
Huzzah unto you, emmylunatic.
While I provided love to The Bottle Rockets about singing for the working person out there in America, this Rod Picott fella is doing the same. The persona of "Sheetrock Hanger" contemplates that if he doesn't go to heaven, he'll be hanging sheetrock in Hell. "Rust Belt Fields" provides a perspective on the effects of globalization. "410" is a rollicking tune about starting trouble. Heck, the whole album is solid, and Shires plays fiddle. Buy it. You can thank me later by buying me a beer. Favorite Songs: "Welding Burns," "Rust Belt Fields," "Your Father's Tattoo," and "Sheetrock Hanger."
Honorable Mentions: The Next Ten
R.E.M., Collapse Into Now
It had to happen sometime. That little band that did from Athens, Georgia called it quits this year, but not without offering a fine coda to their discography. Favorite songs: "All The Best," "UBerlin," "Walk It Back," and "That Someone Is You."
Blitzen Trapper, American Goldwing
Blitzen Trapper, one of the darlings of the alternative music press, put out a fine album this year. When I first got introduced to this band and started listening to them, I remarked to the person who recommended them that when I listen to their stuff, I feel like I need to be eating granola and burning incense (and I don't mind both, by the way). That comment brought a decent laugh.
But this album is different. I think it's the band's best because the guitars have a harder edge to them, and all of the songs seem to hang together effectively as an album. The record has coherence. American Goldwing has kept me much more interested than their other releases. Favorite songs: "Street Fighting Sun," "Taking It Easy Too Long," "American Goldwing," and "Might Find It Cheap."
Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues
Speaking of granola and incense, I offer the highly praised release by the Fleet Foxes. Lush harmonies and intricate arrangements take listeners for a reflective ride. The comparisons to Simon & Garfunkel will always be there, but I find them to have more of a "wall of sound" style. Favorite songs: "Helplessness Blues," "The Shrine/An Argument," and "Montezuma."
Ha Ha Tonka, Death of a Decade
their appearance at the end of the Ozarks episode of Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations. Of the band's three albums, this is my favorite. The mandolin is a prominent on the record, and like their previous effort, Novel Sounds from the Noveau South that ends with "Thoreau in the Woods," this album closes with a song I'm pretty sure is about Mark Twain: "The Humorist." Favorite songs: "The Humorist," "Westward Bound," "Lonely Fortunes," and "Hide It Well."
The Decemberists, The King Is Dead
I originally checked out The Decemberists because a fellow recommended The Hazards of Love to me since he knows I like concept albums. That album is okay, but The King Is Dead is right in my wheelhouse--more straightforward, not trying to do the rock opera thang. Favorite songs: "This Is Why We Fight," "Down By the Water," and "Don't Carry It All."
Ben Harper, Give Till It's Gone
Alison Krauss & Union Station, Paper Airplane
Another solid outing by Krauss and the boys. While the new Gillian Welch album garnered a great deal of noise this year (and it's a good album), it's hard to beat these folks. Favorite songs: "Dust Bowl Children," "Miles to Go," "My Opening Farewell," and "On the Outside Looking In."
Trombone Shorty, For True
This a solid sophomore release from a guy who I'm told is acting a bit on HBO's Treme. Since I haven't watched that series, I had no idea. Favorite songs: "The Craziest Thing," "For True," "Dumaine St.," and "Big 12."
A. A. Bondy, Believers
In Bondy's third album, he keeps up the atmospheric alt rock. If you go by how iTunes classifies this guy's music, one album is classified as "folk," another is classified as "blues," and this one is classified as "rock." And I don't see any major differences among them. Regardless, it's a good record. Favorite songs: "Rte. 28/Believers,""123 Dupay Street," "Surfer King," and "The Heart is Willing."
Chris Thile & Michael Daves, Sleep With One Eye Open
Punch Brothers. As you can see by the cover, one guy plays mandolin. The other guy plays guitar. It's bluegrass. Favorite songs: "Loneliness and Desperation," "If I Should Wander Back Tonight," and "My Little Girl in Tennessee."