And if you’d like to…jump on in the fun…
- Foo Fighters – Wasting Light
One small family garage converted into a rock studio. Two of the best drummers in rock. Three guitars plugged in. Four half-decades since Nevermind producer Butch Vig produced a Dave Grohl LP (bonus points for re-enlisting Nirvana/Former Foo Fighter Pat Smear, and a cameo from Nirvana bassist Krist Noveslic on “I Should Have Known”). Five minutes is never eclipsed on a track. The sixth song on the album, “One of These Days,” was proclaimed by Grohl himself to be “my favorite song I’ve ever written in my life.” Seven albums into a hall of fame career, we approach a band that continues to defy odds, find new life, and maintain the Zen expectations of being the worlds best rock band (this is really no longer just my opinion).
Perhaps, I took the counting intro too far, but I believe this to be the best collection of songs for 2011. There are eleven of them for anyone still counting.
Technology was invented for a reason. The overuse of digitalization, layering techniques, Protools, and other unnecessary enhancements is frustrating for music purists who care enough to remember when people could actually perform their recordings. For me, it’s all about hearing the soul of a scream rather than a pitch bar set by a Macbook. Click.
The Studio 606 (state of the art studio Grohl & company usually use) TO THE family garage TO THE art of synchronizing rock music without a safety net TO THE I-Tunes TO THE device you carry with you these days for music TO THE headphones of varying performance…seems like an insane plotline—most likely to be tackled in next Tenacious D movie. Although, I’m sure at times it was painstaking, the music flows conscientiously raw, yet seared for your juicy consumption.
According to Grohl’s Biography This is a Call: the Life and the Times of Dave Grohl by Paul Branningan there was a moment in the process that went approximately (I’m paraphrasing) like this...
*they start rewinding the tape and it starts shedding oxide…
Butch Vig: We should back everything up to digital
Grohl: If I see one fucking computer hooked up to a piece of gear, you’re fucking FIRED!! We’re making the record the way we want to make it, and if you can’t do it, then fuck you!!!
Vig: What if something happens to the tape?
Grohl: WE’LL PLAY IT AGAIN!?!?!? God forbid we have to play a song one more time…
It’s a punk rock album from a bunch of guys who are in their 40’s, married, and have been in the business a long time now (scary) fighting the gravity of becoming a non-relevant classic rock hits-parade spectacle.
I’m quite confident with Wasting Light the Foo Fighters covered the spread of my bias. Apparently they’re ALREADY working on a follow up. Care to parlay for album eight?
Key tracks: “Bridge Burning”, “White Limo”, “Arlandria”
- Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues
This handy-dandy list is a celebration of passion and pizzazz about things we love. My Best Albums of 2008 review of the Fleet Foxes (their first album) is my favorite review (I’ve ever done), of an album, ever. In the spirit of favorites, indulge me by reading (perhaps RE-reading?) what I said back then as it remains true pertaining to my feelings on the earthy jamming of Fleet Foxes.
“From the first time I heard this collection of heart anthems I wanted to trace back to my Native American ancestry, live in the wilderness with only enough power to play this album. It will move you. It will sooth you. It'll make you want to wait for a rainy day, jet over to Cedar Springs, MI and dig for worms. Once you get the worms you will then sell them for a penny a piece to fisherman on Lime Lake like my father used to make me do when he was at Steelcase pawning filing cabinets. Once you sell about 1,500 worms – which will take you a few days – you have earned the right to listen to this…
--Ryan C. Zerfas (from www.sportsnwhine.blogspot.com 1.28.09)
Non-sequitur – I MUST mention they have a song called “Sim Sala Bim”, which reminds me of one of my favorite all-time cartoon characters Hadji from The Adventures of Jonny Quest.
Lead singer and the windmill generator powering Fleet Foxes, Robin Pecknold almost killed himself making this album. From everything I’ve read he poured all he had (money, relationship, sanity, etc) into making a masterpiece. And if you’re lucky enough to have snatched it, you’re reaping the benefits. Lucky you.
He paired bluesy-Earth folk that sounds like Simon & Garfunkel rented a cabin and actually got along for a few years and added Pet Sounds percussion (I want this to be a quantifiable music term? Is that ok?), with instruments that I’m not sure what I’m hearing, but it doesn’t sound like a dude with a guitar and an acapella rhythm section anymore. It sounds like a continent travel video. Come to (the country of…) Fleet Foxes where we will plant your heart in the soil and give you a basket full of mouth watering bosc pears until you learn how to function on only OUR ridiculously enchanting music. The Helplessness Blues.
I thought blues music was supposed to make one sad?
Key Tracks: “Sim Sala Bim”, “Lorelai”, “Blue Spotted Tail”
- Halos – Living Like Kings in Confined Spaces
Don’t worry I’ll take you there…”
This is the first line you hear on 2011’s most complete album. It’s an intro for the catapult ride you’re about to take from a band that’s been a long time in the making. EP’s of most of these songs have been floating around the greater Long Island area for years and finally, a break, finds the band residing out in California with a chance to create some buzz nationwide.
The blood, the sweat, the sinking stench of possibly living life in a van down by the river is not lost in the slicker, finalized, yet ready to consume production of Living Like Kings. Song after song burrows into the depths of your soul’s soul, finding your inner core at the intersection of inspiration and rock-a-bility. You’ll find yourself overwhelmed by the sheer amount of memorable fist pumping, borderline cult-like chants like, “Without faith it’ll bring you down” and “This is where I go to clear my head, this is where I go, this is where I goooooo.”
Big hooks, clean guitars, rip-roaring drum fills and near-irritatingly catchy melodies make you wonder how long Halo’s living space will be so confined.
When I say this is the year’s most “complete” album, I mean it plays like a lost art. Like an LP. I’m not saying the sound is retro, but the concept that songs light each other up like a chain cigarette has been lost in the digital generation. The introduction of “Hekla” weighs in like a polar bear, enough to break the ice, and the ballad finish of “Land Mine” tucks you in at night, leaving a gift basket with enough fruit for breakfast. Halos reach out their hand, sit you down, ask you to buckle up, be safe and give you a working man’s multi-hit, rock-band version of That Thing You Do.
Only THIS is something you seriously should do. Buy this now.
Key tracks: “Breaking Windows”, “A Rowboat in a Perfect Storm”, “Never Never Land”
- Feist – Metals
All hail the return of Feist!? The Canadian singer-songwriter returns after a four year hiatus (seemed more like seven) with a collection of songs ponderous enough to make you wonder if she’s been working on Metals tirelessly since 2007’s breakout The Reminder.
Layered like a crafty poutine the arrangements of Metals weave quiet dripping shower ballad melodies, in the same bluesy breeze of Cat Power, seamlessly with many songs progressing into full choir chamber (perhaps a full choir of Feists? Yummy.) Earth-thumping pandemonium howls. The percussion is fantastically tribal. The lyrics and tone are drenched celestial moonshine. It’s the work of a writer who’s found her progressive swagger. Each song individually leaves me emotionally exhausted by the time the build is conceived and executed with feisty (zing!) grandeur.
The hooks don’t need horns, xylophones, marimbas, harpsichords, etc, but I’ve never been one to turn down a camp fire jamboree.
Apparently, neither is Feist, eh?
Key tracks: “Graveyard”, Pine Moon”, “Comfort Me”
- Mute Math – Odd Soul
Towards the end of a typical George Thorogood blues-rock set you’ll often hear him say something along the lines of “we’re going to get DIRRRTY on this OOoonnnnnnne!?” I was never quite sure what to make of that. Though not the most linear way to make a point, the point is made, because you know EXACTLY what he’s talking about.
Bearing almost no resemblance to their Police-sounding first two albums, Mute Math perched down in New Orleans for six months shaving themselves down to a three-piece (after guitarist Greg Hill left the band). The result features more emphasis on the Keith Moon chaotic sweat slathered drumming of Darren King (holy SHIT!), blues-rock arrangements that find singer Paul Meany resembling the Black Keys rather than Sting and a collection of BBQ laced beats and grooves that make you kink your damn neck. Tell the waitress to bring you some wet naps and a list of chiropractor practitioners.
The synchronization of “Odd Soul”, “Prytania”, and “Blood Pressure” to open the album seems ubiquitous, leaving nowhere to go but down, only to be upended mid-album by the uphill bayonet charge of “Allies”, “Cavalries”, and “Walking Paranoia!?” It’s enough to make you enlist in McHale’s Navy as long they stay anchored off the Louisiana coast.
Key tracks: “Allies”, “Calvaries”, “Walking Paranoia”
- The Civil Wars – Barton Hollow
2011 found me pining after a gaping White Stripes/Jack White void. I did enjoy Jack White’s production on 73-year old rock-a-billy legend Wanda Jackson’s The Party Ain’t Over. Coincidentally, this singer-songwriter duo features a man with the same last name, John Paul White with a shared female vocalist, Joy Williams. The irony doesn’t end there as the band hails from Nashville and John Paul White looks exactly like what you’d expect if Johnny Depp put on the red pants and white shirt for a White Stripes biography. And, really, who could do Jack White better?
Oh, and there’s music. The setting is as quiet as an abandoned den with a cracking fireplace and enough space for a male and female with guitars on the couch. Some of the harmonies can be found on sappy love soundtracks such as Grey’s Anatomy, but my favorite moments come from whiskey rock-a-rolla’s like “Barton Hollow” and winding finger twittering sonnets in the vein of “20 Years.”
The accessibility and urgency of these scintillating symphonies are as simple as running into a friend, colleague, and/or enemy who plugs you into their I-Pod with a “listen to this chief…” and the next thing you know you’ve made a purchase you certainly won’t regret. You think I’m bullshitting you? That’s EXACTLY what happened to me. It could happen to you?
Special thanks to The Chad for this one.
Key tracks: “Barton Hollow”, “20 Years”, “Birds of a Feather”
- The Goat Rodeo Sessions – Self Titled
If I were a more refined soul this album would be higher on the list for its musicianship, song craft and all-world dexterity. I, however, don’t find enough use for (mostly) instrumental music no matter how uplifting, sensitive and/or beaming it may be. It’s like books I force myself to read (unfortunately, this is most books) as I find myself locked in momentarily, only to crave something with words—even if I don’t know/remember/understand what they are. I don’t know why. I don’t know why I don’t read more books rather than plopping down and zoning out to ESPN. I know it’s wrong, but I continue on. It is what it is.
What is a “Goat Rodeo?” According to Urban Dictionary is about the most polite term used by aviation people (and others in higher risk situations) to describe a scenario that requires about 100 things to go right at once if you intend to walk away from it. This is certainly a title in reference to the chaotic, uber creative deliverances between THIS lineup:The Goat Rodeo
· Yo-Yo Ma – cello
· Stuart Duncan – violin, banjo, mandolin
· Edgar Meyer – bass, piano, gamba
· Chris Thile – mandolin, guitar, gamba, vocals (on two tracks)
· Aoife O’Donovan – vocals (on two tracks)
In other news, what the fuck is a gamba?
If you’ve seen Chris Thile live, you have some idea what you’re in for when you mix his ridiculousness in with other virtuosos of the sport. It makes the perfect soundtrack to a wine/cocktail party where you want the music to spectacular and memorable without being overbearing. Like Matt Damon’s assignment in Ocean’s Eleven.
Random thought: How cool would it be to have a mandolin Olympic event? Can you see Chris Thile in a dress vest with the American flag television name plaque? I’d watch that. Somebody get the summer Olympics on the phone!
I can tell you they didn’t mail this in. Well, figuratively anyway.
Key tracks: “Where’s My Bow?”, “Here and Heaven”, “Less is Moi”
- Young the Giant – Self Titled
I don’t think I’ve watched the MTV Video Music Awards since Kurt Loder was a regular part of my day and cranking one out to The Grind was an after school routine (dial-up porn was actually an inconvenience). However, for some strange reason, I tuned into the latest offering of the show this fall. Amongst the sea of boringness that ensued they featured a “little band” in the show giving them the “big stage” for an uplifting ditty titled “My Body,” because for some reason they deserved it. I don’t remember the specifics and don’t care to do the research to come correct, but the point is it moved me. And, apparently, it moved others as well. Those little spots are effective after all. Imagine that. If only there were a place that played videos of bands like this all day?
Throughout the last few months, I’ve had this conversation with a number of people and a handful of others had the exact same experience. In fact, the exposure propelled them onto the Billboard 200, and sales of “My Body” on I-Tunes skyrocketed 220 percent after the show. It’s a high energy song that belongs in any gym mix and deserves to be seen live by the masses. They’ll be in NYC this March!?
They’ve been around since 2004, but haven’t made an impact until now. This is very surprising, because EVERY song on the album is good. They have the accessible urgency of Coldplay, yet the complex melodies of a more rockin’ version of Vampire Weekend. Songs like “I Got” channel the mid-tempo balladry of Peter Gabriel, “Cough Syrup” sounds like what I’d like rock radio to sound like if it were still a profitable genre and “God Made Man” starts like an hippie Oregonian coffee shop time filler and builds into a pent up shaken champagne explosion.
The fizz here doesn’t need to be sealed and kept cool. There will be plenty of celebrating to go around when these pop giants return with a follow up. I can’t wait!
Key tracks: “Cough Syrup”, “My Body”, “I Got”, “Granada”
- Polar Bear Club – Clash Battle Guilt Pride
Polar Bear Club is considered a post-hardcore/punk rock band, but to me they sound like Gaslight Anthem with the vocals of the Dropkick Murphy’s. The title of this album could easily be exchanged for a Dropkick Murphy’s placard and nobody would flinch, however, the music could not. When I think of this brand of music, many times I just think of blending guitars crunching together and screaming I can’t understand—leading me into a world of discombobulating confusion.
Clash Battle Guilt Pride may not be as strong all the way through as their earlier album I’ve been obsessed with (Sometimes Things Just Disappear), but there are moments of absolute brilliance in “Killin It”, “Kneed On Nails”, “My Best Days”, and “Bottled Wind.” It’s a straight forward rock album, but the hooks are legit. The end of the album has couple acoustic cuts and I was impressed at how the stripped down version of the songs held up, without the thrash and scream that dominates my ears on typical hard-edge music.
At its best Polar Bear Club resembles, scarily close, the smooth voice/scream voice seamless transition I love some much on my favorite all-time Foo Fighters album The Color and the Shape. At worst, you get a great band to follow up “Shipping Up to Boston” for those of you that still make mixes.
- Ryan Adams – Ashes & Fire
I thought Ryan Adams was dead, well, as a musician that is. I honestly had blocked him out of my mind as I was so crushed he departed the scene and stopped releasing 2.5 albums, a girlfriend and a dog, annually. I was one of the few people that enjoyed (critically) the drug fueled days when he’d post 100 new songs a night with varying album titles like my personal favorite Hillbilly Joel under the band name Werewolph (yes, spelled like that). Every song on those Werewolph albums seemed to end with a crowing rooster. Classic stuff. I want it back. Good times, great oldies.
I’m not saying I want Ryan to do drugs again, but, let’s be honest, it was entertaining. So, anyway, when I heard he was making a triumphant return I was quite curious. Could this be good? I even discovered the double-disc Cardinals album III/IV I missed after his announced hiatus from music and apparently my life. I will note that particular Cardinals album is actually my favorite album of this year, though it wasn’t released in 2011, therefore it’s not eligible for this list. The “plays” tab in my I-Tunes knows the real truth.
Ashes & Fire is a welcomed return to the intimate style of Heartbreaker. Now that time has passed, the press shenanigans are no longer relevant, and Ryan Adams can become an artist, rather than a spectacle, he should/could/would be judged as so. This time around he received fairy high praise critically. Norah Jones, whose contributions in the past have been at the very worst, a highlight, joined quietly (not joking) for some piano and backing vocals, albeit somewhat non-memorable. Even Pitchforkmedia sautéed a poignant review, “…rather than equal Heartbreaker, here he might have accomplished something more difficult: making it somehow seem underrated,” before giving it a favorable 6.5.
I love the style of the album, but I have to kind of parallel myself with Pitchfork, which always makes me cringe a tad. I just don’t identify with it like I have in the past. It’s very close to being as masterful as his early work, but it just seems to be missing something. Perhaps…drugs, depression, alcoholism, sorrow, dark corners of bars, New York City, etc, etc, to name a few. I’ll keep my finger on the pulse, so I don’t miss out on the next wave, because inevitably, something interesting will happen, and for a songwriter with this much talent—that’ll be all it takes.
Key tracks: “Kindness (feat. Norah Jones)”, “Chains of Love”, “Invisible Riverside”
The Next 10:
- Man Man, “Life Fantastic” – A continued maturity from a band that suffers from a silly shadow, gulping the spotlight from their musical, and more specifically percussion virtuosity. Stunning songcraft finds this as Man Man’s finest moment. A song like “Piranhas Club” belongs as a theme song to an Adult Swim version of Sponge Bob Square Pants. Key track: “Life Fantastic”
- The Strokes, “Angles” – Don’t listen to critics, your friends, other Strokes fans or even the band itself that dismissed this album. There are enough driving beats to warrant playing it on infinite repeat. It sounds like the Knack, high on crack, celebrating New Years in pink jumpsuits at Max Fish in the Lower East Side. Key track: “Taken For A Fool”
- Gillian Welch, “The Harrow & the Harvest” – Beautiful, drawn out, slow folk songs for kids that like boring music. If you can’t find Mark Kozelek in an empty dive bar juke box, Gilllian Welch will certainly clear out the remaining tumbleweeds. More for me I guess. Key track: “Dark Turn of Mind”
- Wilco, “The Whole Love” – Everyone’s favorite living classic rock band tribute’s itself with a non-sequitur greatest hits collection of new songs for their 184th album. It’s already been three albums with jazz super guitarist Nels Cline and I find myself pining for the 185th. There are a few clunkers, but these Chicago studs have enough wax to make antique sandpaper shine with luster, gloss and shredding folky-jazz solos. They can do no wrong with this lineup. Key track: “One Sunday”
- Coldplay, “Mylo Xyloto” – There are very few moments in their new music that remind me of what made me fall in love with this band during the Parachutes and Rush of Blood era, but I find myself carrying on. Most of the new music is upbeat and sounds good played loud, and although this album doesn’t have the scenic time changes Viva La Vida pleasantly surprised me with, it does build purposely off its uncovered ground, which still contains vast green pastures. Key track: “Charlie Brown”
- Mister Heavenly, “Out of Love” – An unveiled supergroup that actually sounds like the sum of its parts. Man Man + Unicorns/Islands + Modest Mouse = Mr. Larson (giant guy with nail in his head from Happy Gilmore) stomping on pigeons, filmed in black and white with added projector sounds. It mixes retro ballroom dance rock n’ roll (Nicholas Thorburn) with raspy piano thrashing melody (Ryan Kattner aka Honus Honus) over punchy (Joe Plummer) palpitations. Key track: “Bronx Sniper”
- Old Wives, “Tidal Tales” – Jason Gleason has the best voice in rock music (think Jeff Buckley meets Roger Daultry) today and belongs in a rock band. End of story. Key track: “Rip Van Winkle”
- The Decemberists, “The King is Dead” – A perfect mix of what the Decemberists have done so well throughout their career with the added rock backbeat their major label albums have sprinkled in. It’s almost as if Colin Meloy had a maudlin reminiscent desire to bring back Tarkio and return to Montanan form with this title for a self-aggrandizing finale. Fair enough. Key track: “Down By the Water”
- The Lonely Island, “Turtleneck & Chain” – Guest appearances by Snoop Dogg, Rihanna, Akon, Michael Bolton, Beck, Nicki Minaj and of course JT doesn’t totally define this album. The fact that these seemingly not serious spoof songs are actually legit is the biggest surprise and that’s no joke Mr. Big Nose. Key track: “Threw it on the Ground”
- Wanda Jackson, “The Party Ain’t Over” – Wanda Jackson bids to be the Clint Eastwood of the industry producing some of her best work in her mid-70’s, quips coincidently fitting, because much of Jack White’s production sounds like spaghetti western Ennio Morricone horn arrangements. Although, I would argue her cover of Amy Winehouse’s “You Know I’m No Good,” is nothing less than chilling, if not the damn best song of the year. And I typically resent covers. Rasp away Grandma Wanda. Key track: “You Know I’m No Good (Amy Winehouse Cover)”
I don’t necessarily think these were bad albums. In fact, I could make a case for putting them up, and onto the “top shelf” list, but I just can’t due to the depression they inflicted on my gentle heart. Everything is about expectations, and I hate to be let down, especially by some of my favorite bands.
Adele – 21
I HATE this album. I honestly don’t like it at all. It just screams look at me, I’m sad, but I’m very talented (this is undeniable) and showing off my sadness for piles of your money. Then, I’m laughing all the way to the bank, because you’re crying, vulnerable and holy shit how easy is this?
I think it boils down to this interview I read when she made two points that turned me off. 1) She said she’s “never had a problem with the way she looks.” 2) She said she “smokes 30 cigarettes a day.” Ok, (1) you kind of should…and…(2) yuuuuuuuuuqqqck. Jesus. So disgusting.
These things aren’t an issue by themselves, but when I start hearing tear inducing balladry, marketed at my heartstrings, and think of an overweight singer who “claims” to not care about her body with pompous confidence in an interview that reeks of cigarettes stench—I just can’t get into it.
I can’t imagine why a guy wouldn’t want to deal with that? Right? Let’s hear 11 more songs about THAT!?I don't feel sorry for you at all, Adele, by the time you release 23, let's all hope the flash in the pan we hear is broccoli and the fresh scent of an open window.
Red Hot Chili Peppers – I’m with You
In preparation for the release of this album I read Anthony Keidis’ biography Scar Tissue which, for me, turned out to be a huge mistake. The book makes him sound like the biggest douchebag I’ve ever heard. For those of you that love the Keidis, the Chili’s and want it to stay that way, don’t read this book.
Scar Tissue by Anthony Keidis summary:
- I’m really fucking cool because I did a lot of drugs
- I’m still really fucking cool because I relapsed so many times and lived to tell the tale
- I write lyrics like “the day my best friend died I could not get my carpet cleaned.”
- Grand Rapids, Michigan…SUUUUUCKS.
The needle and the damage is done. I don’t hate Keidis, but that was a tough pill for me to swallow for 300+ pages. John Frusciante, my favorite member of the band, departed, again, after the last album. Flea and Chad Smith still rock, perhaps harder than ever. The new guitarist, touring backing guitarist John Klinghofer, continues to do really neat, backing guitar effects—only he’s the lead guitarist. So, there really isn’t any lead guitar, which is a blessing and a sin throughout the album.
With that said, there are still some classic stand out tracks like the Pure Funk worthy “Look Around”, disco-dance hall throw down (once you get through the fuzzy noise intro, bridge and versus) “Monarchy of Roses” and the grinding relatable tale of age, “Annie Wants a Baby.”
It was cool to hear some piano rock from the Chili Peppers, and read about Flea expanding his musical means, but this should be an EP and the band should quit A) while they’re still ahead B) until John Fruciante rejoins the band.
That harshness aside, I still value this album and continue to enjoy to its catawampus sonic fortitude.
My Morning Jacket – Circuital
“Victory Dance”, “Circuital”, and “Holdin’ on to Black Metal” are simply BOSS songs. Phenominal. Yes. There are a couple of other good songs, but mostly everything else makes me wish I didn’t have ears.
Especially “Wonderful (the Way I Feel)!?!?!” If that’s not bad enough, they play it LIVE!? It’s a live staple!?!? They could just say, “yeah…probably should have listened to that one closer,” but they insist on pressing on and playing that shit live!!?!?! I don’t get it. I don’t get it one bit. You have to trace back to 1999’s Tennessee Fire to find such haphazard, psychedelic painfully-slow folk slop. Believe you me; if you put this in the pig’s trough, they’re not going to eat it.Death Cab for Cutie – Codes and Keys
There are a couple of classics like “Portable Television”, “Doors Unlocked and Open”, “Underneath the Sycamore” and “Unobstructed Views,” but other than that, everything sounds like a bad Postal Service cover band. What happened to the rock band that wrote “We Laugh Indoors?”
This is a solid album; don’t get me wrong, it’s still very listenable, but well short of my lofty expectations. I feel like one of the few people that genuinely enjoyed Plans and Narrow Stairs with the later rivaling Transatlantism for Zerfas market share.
Sounds like a distracted, unfocused, and notably happier, lead singer. Hmmmmmm…what could lead to something like that!?
Yeah, I would be too.
Black Keys – El Camino
WHAT THE FUCK!?!?!?!?!
I honestly want to go on a ridiculous rage, much like crazy black mercenary guy in The Rock when General Hummel changes the rocket’s coordinates, dumping the weapon into the ocean.