The Best Music of 2011
By Scott Regan ~ Posted Thu, 12/29/2011 - 8:06pm
When first considering the best music of this year, I posed the question to the facebook community. After all the music I had heard over the year, it was surprising how much of it I hadn’t, and how much of that shows up as favorites to those who have heard it.
I look forward to, but never got the chance to hear the new releases from Tom Waits or The Black Keys. Sorry guys.
Women songwriters made a real impression while compiling this list. Gillian Welch, Sarah Jarosz, Eliza Gilkyson, Pieta Brown, Amy Lavere, Jenny Lowe Stearns all would make my top 25. Lucinda Williams makes my list one day, and slips to number 11 the next. If this is Spinal Tap she’s in.
Songwriting, curiosity, production qualities all make me listen. Where emotion, intellect and intuition meet. These are the albums I found at that place over the past year.
1.Wilco – The Whole Love
I became a Wilco fan when Yankee Hotel Foxtrot started making sense to me. It took a few listens. The Whole Love has the same effect, shifting from electric, distorted washes to ballad rockers. It sounds familiar and foreign at the same time, leaving territory yet undiscovered. Opening with the crackle and rumble of the foreign, the familiar shifts in and out with the voice of Tweedy in Almost. It’s good to hear a Wilco album that keeps the many sounds of the band alive.
2.Eilen Jewel – Queen of the Minor Key
Eilen Jewel continues to expand the rich territory of her songwriting, refining ideas, adding characters and odd, dark places for them to reside in. Shaped by the precise guitar of Jerry Miller, driving rhythm section of Jason Beek on drums, and Johnny Sciascia on upright bass, there are added notes of horns, fiddle and organ woven neatly into the arrangements. They play with the rugged sparseness of the touring band they are. It is Eilen’s voice and songwriting that raise the bar though, and the little bit of harmonica she discreetly throws in.
3. Ry Cooder – Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down
This is a collection of songs Woody Guthrie would be proud of. Humor, insight, great musical diversity, emotional, personal, quiet, loud, angry, spiritual. Tex-Mex, gospel, blues, chunky rhythms that only Ry Cooder comes up with. Could be the most thoughtful album of the year, and he never lets the thoughtfulness get in the way. It is a great bunch of songs.
4. Buddy Miller – and His Majestic Silver Strings
Psychedelic, atmospheric, country music by one of the great collaborations of the year; Mark Ribot, Bill Frisell, Greg Leisz (and some female vocalists) join producer, director, guitarist, vocalist Buddy Miller on unique versions of familiar and not so familiar songs. He corralled some mighty fine music here. Oh, the female vocalists include Patty Griffin, Shawn Colvin, and Lee Ann Womack.
5. Ray Bonneville – Bad Man’s Blood
I saw Ray play in a small courtyard behind a used clothing store to 12 people in Austin at one of the “unofficial venues” at SXSW in 2011. It was free. They also had beer and wine with a suggested donation. He plays with great focus, voice, and honesty. There is nothing false. His songs all resonate with an acoustic rhythmic punch that drives the lyrics, songs that penetrate and pulse. This is a complete album. Strong songwriting, performance, good production, and most importantly, it rings true and honest.
6. Ana Egge – Bad Blood
An assembly of short, psychological balancing acts in song. Escape from, and journeys through the emotional landscape. Shifts between the major and the minor chords of life guided by the stark direction of Steve Earle. There is a delicate brutality in this album you don’t often find.
7. Ryan Adams – Ashes & Fire
I just like the sound of his voice, the quiet songs. Some people have a knack for certain things, making them feel easy. Ryan Adams is that way with songwriting. I’ve enjoyed his past albums, but I’m a sucker for the soft side he brings to this album.
8. Lucinda Williams – Blessed
Lucinda Williams writes in the raw hours. Brings shadows to light, and light to the shadows.
9. Gregg Allman – Low Country Blues
Opening with Sleepy John Estes’ Floating Bridge, Allman moves from near death through a world of the blues. Produced by T-Bone Burnett, this album draws from the artists that inspired Allman early on. Songs by Skip James, Muddy Waters among others, and one Allman original, provide rich material for Allman to work with.
10. Eva Cassidy – Simply Eva
Originally I was going to include this in the section below of cover albums and tributes, since it is a retrospective collection of songs recorded years ago. Eva Cassidy passed away in 1996 at the age of 33. When she died NPR (yay! NPR) did a memorial to her, though she was relatively unknown. I remember where I was, listening on a old, beat up, low-fi radio. I was transfixed. She sang Over the Rainbow, a song I had grown very tired of, and it was stunning. This collection of songs is just she and her guitar recorded in concert or solo in a studio. I’ve heard other versions of her singing some of these songs, but it is always her voice that moves me. This album is just her voice, her guitar is the perfect accompaniment. Simply Eva it is. It could be my album of the year. It is my album of the heart.
The next ten, in no particular order:
Thao & Mirah - Thao & Miral (self titled): Quirky folk-pop of the imagination. Rhythmic, odd, and catchy.
The Decemberists - The King Is Dead: This year's batch of cerebral songs. I was disappointed to learn one lyric refers to "the war of the end times" and not "the war of the enzymes". Still a good album, though.
Amy LaVere - Stranger Me : From the one who wrote "Killing him didn't make the love go away..." (from Anchors and Anvils, her previous album). She gets stranger, and stronger. Dark songs of love, entanglements, and beauty.
George Thorogood and the Destoyers - 2120 South Michigan Avenue, tribute to artists and songs from Chess Records. This had me smiling from start to finish. Thorogood pays tribute to the artists and songs of Chess Records. From Bo Diddley, Sonny Boy Williamson, and Muddy Waters to Chuck Berry. Songs right in his wheelhouse.
Gillian Welch - The Harrow and the Havest: Another batch of cerebral songs, this time acoustic. At Newport this past summer, David Rawlings, her guitarist, made a comical reference to the fact that they only do slow, depressing songs, and it just gets slower. Everyone cheered. An album to let seep into your resting space.
Sarah Jarosz - Follow Me Down: The young multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, moves farther away from the center. Acoustic jazz folk.
Bela Fleck & the Flecktones - Rocket Science: Defies description. Part bluegrass, part classical, part jazz, and none of either.
Dave Alvin - Eleven Eleven: Even as just a reason to listen to Alvin's deep, resonant voice, this album is worth a listen. I didn't have enough time get full feel, but enough to know it deserves to be here.
Pieta Brown - Mercury: Another women songwriter driving the backstreets, back roads, and changing skies in the acoustic landscape. A beautiful mix.
Tapes 'N Tapes - Outside: Just for a song called Badaboom I'd include this, but it's filled with curious songs I was drawn to. Is Indie still a useful description? I'm not the one to answer that, but I'll use it anyway. It's my Indie inclusion.
And the tributes, various artists, and alternative projects:
1. Rave On Buddy Holly – Various artists tribute to Buddy Holly
The Black Keys do a great version of Dearest, Fiona Apple & Jon Brion on Everyday. Hard to miss with the songs of Buddy Holly, and most don’t. Some try a bit too hard, but mostly thoughtful interpretations of one of finest songwriters.
3. Chris Thile & Michael Daves – Sleeping with One Eye Open
When I heard the soundtrack to the documentary High Lonesome, The Story of Bluegrass Music, I realized I actually did like bluegrass. Thile and Daves cover 16 classic songs of bluegrass legends with energy and crisp playing.
4. Playing for Change Band – Songs from Around the World, vol. 2
The unique project bringing musicians and cultures together, making for some unexpectedly wonderful versions of the Stones’ Gimme Shelter, and Stevie Wonder’s Higher Ground, among others.
5. Yo-Yo Ma, Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer, Chris Thile – The Goat Rodeo Sessions
You most likely recognize at least one of these virtuosos. A sideways take on an instrumental, chamber quartet featuring three Nashville bluegrass based players and a world famous cellist. A classical twist to the hill country music you drink beer to. I think the beer still works, or wine, coffee, who knows? If you’re thirsty for instrumentals, this could be just the cup of tea.