Will Carroll was my writing partner at our former site, The Juice Blog. He’s the author of 3 books and has written for many different publications like the New York Times and Sports Illustrated. We started doing these year-end music lists quite a few years ago. Here is Will’s version for this year. Only 2 releases made both of our lists.
The Guitar Song, Jamey Johnson
Double albums are the bane of the music industry. It’s usually an indulgent affair, topped off with filler or worse. There’s the occasional one that works, but for an artist that’s not established like Jamey Johnson, it takes some serious balls to sell this. There’s a “dark” album and a “light” album, but it’s a bit tough to tell which is which. The album pivots on a song that could become a modern “Okie From Muskogee” called “California Riots.” Johnson isn’t jingoistic or patronizing in the way of a Toby Keith, but one look at his shaggy hair or long beard would be enough to tell you that all the talent in the world isn’t going to have him on stage with Kenny Chesney and Carrie Underwood. He can start the album with a Keith Whitley cover and a heartbreaking ballad that includes the line “I may just be a name on your phone’s screen” that’s all that’s keeping it from being a Kris Krisotofferson song. Johnson’s voice echoes Waylon Jennings, almost too close at times, but he’s also got a powerful speaking voice that he pulls out from time to time. A duet with Whispering Bill Anderson on the title song reminds everyone just how old school Johnson is, but he’s also a man out of time. The songs go from redneck anthems to angry recession blues with only a gapless thread of a tight band tracing through the songs. If there’s any flaw in any of the twenty-five songs, it’s that Johnson can be, of all things, a bit too sentimental. It can feel a bit like a great night of drinking and telling stories, but by the time the bar closes, there’s nowhere else to go.
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Kanye West
For all the gallons of ink and pixels that have been put to use in discussing Kanye West over the past few years, a period of time that will be defined by the loss of his mother, a very public meltdown, and the release of an album that might end up being his masterwork, we don’t know much about the man. It’s funny because he might be the most open of the modern superstars. Like his mentor, Jay-Z, he shows just enough to keep people interested, as willing to play the villain as he is the star, or even just to be in the news. There’s an element of Lady Gaga to him, the pure calculating musical sense and theatricality that’s still going to make you bob your head. West “leaked” most of his album, a genius of marketing that’s sure to be followed by many. It’s a mashup of Napster, the hip-hop mixtape ethos, and social media that won’t be pulled off quite as well by others. Yes, Kanye West is good enough that I’ve barely mentioned this album or even music. Fact is, modern musicians aren’t as much about the music and in ways, that’s ok. It’s about snippets, iTunes, and the like, especially in hip hop. Everyone wants to be the next Jay-Z or even the next Ice-T. That makes it even more of revelation. It’s utterly revelatory and about two big steps forward for an artist that needed 808 And Heartbreak to get out of the rut. Guests like Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, and John Legend might make this seem like every other hip-hop album when looking at the liner, but no one – and I mean no one – has put together a hip-hop album this strong since Jay’s Black Album. Songs like “Power” and “Runaway” will be played loud and for years, sadly in situations where the irony will be completely lost on the drunk frat boys toasting themselves. Know what? Even that won’t ruin it for you. It’s that good, maybe better.
Black Ribbons, Shooter Jennings & Hierophant
There are lots of things that could have gone wrong with this album. It’s a rock album at it’s core by an artist who’s still identified both as a country artist in his own right and the son of a legend in the field. It’s a concept album. It was marketed under the name “Hierophant,” which is Jennings’ backing band and also the band at the center of the concept’s storyline. It’s tied together by some kind of paranoid conspiracy theory that goes well beyond the worst fantasies of the Fox News watchers. Stephen King bridges the songs as a kind of last days DJ, though his voice and his words work well here. Yet with all that, it just flat works. Jennings holds the tone of ominous paranoia from the first note through the last. There is a problem that in isolation, the songs aren’t standouts, but few concept albums have that, with the notable exception of The Wall. Jennings and his band really hit their stride near the middle, feeling true regret in “All This Could Have Been Yours” and looking to children as the only hope in “God Bless Alabama.” (It’s not the state. Jennings’ daughter’s name is Alabama.) Jennings’ artistry has never been stronger, making me wonder if freeing him from the expectations of his name and legacy helped everything else. CMT’s show “Crossroads” usually pairs a rock artist with a country artist, such as the surreal episode between Taylor Swift and Def Leppard, but the Jennings and Jamey Johnson episode was the closest to kindred spirits I’ve seen them try. These are two great artists moving in opposite but parallel directions. Jennings is comfortable being a bit Hollywood – he’s married to Drea De Matteo of Sopranos fame – and can sing a song like “California Via Tennessee” without irony while waving to Jennings as he heads back along that same worn road to his more comfortable South. Black Ribbons demands more from the listener in terms of thought, of immersion, and even of time than most albums could today. This one is worth every second of the last hour.
American Slang, The Gaslight Anthem
There’s a pattern that’s held true for most American bands in the modern era. They explode with the first album, fall back with the second, and then the third decides the direction they’re headed longer term. It’s probably been around longer than Pearl Jam, but PJ perfected the formula. The Gaslight Anthem got some mainstream attention with it’s last album, the breakout The ’59 Sound. The easy comparison to Bruce Springsteen made it possible for even the non-hipsters to listen in. I always heard more Social Distortion than The Boss, but with American Slang, GA has found a comfort zone in their own sound. The influences are still there, to be sure, but listening to them is less a game of spot the influence than the two previous records. It didn’t get a lot of radio traction, surprisingly, but this isn’t a band that’s going to wait years between releases. They’re very likely to explode as they mature, much the same way that Kings of Leon has. Get to know them now, if you already haven’t, before everyone calls them sell outs. You can just quote lines from “Boxer”, a song that goes deeper than most of the fans at the club will ever delve.
Interpreting The Masters, Volume I, The Bird and The Bee
There’s not much about this album that would be a classic on paper. Cover album of an act that’s, shall we say, a bit out of style and taste these days. Unknown duo with one well received original album. A musical style that verges on kitsch with a lounge vibe and classic female crooning. Yet, like with Shooter Jennings, this one all pulls it together. Inara George (daughter of Little Feat’s Lowell) has a timeless, perfect voice and while she’s a far cry from the timeless, perfect voice of Daryl Hall, it works and works well. The tone-perfect thinness of her voice – and I mean that as a compliment – contrasts to Hall’s soulful rasp like yin and yang. The opening original, “Heard It On The Radio”, is so good that you’ll go looking for the Hall and Oates version and be genuinely surprised that it’s not there. (Seriously, Daryl Hall — cover this now.) Cover albums can either play it perfectly straight or try to go the Simon Cowell route and “make it their own.” By allowing the songs to be the stars, B&B also manage to not be overshadowed by them. It’s a perfect mashup of talent and art, of artists across the years finding a common ground, and a reminder that while originality counts, authenticity counts for more.
Junky Star, Ryan Bingham
I’m not sure that Junky Star is as good as Mescalito or Roadhouse Sun, Bingham’s first two albums. That’s less a comment on this work than the strength of the other two, which stand with some of the best albums of the last decade and had I discovered him sooner, I guarantee this wouldn’t be his first appearance on this list. Like many, I discovered Bingham after hearing “The Weary Kind”, his Academy Award winning song from Crazy Heart. I’m sure many expected more like that on the album that was going to build on that opportunity. Instead, Bingham and the ubiquitous T-Bone Burnett stay understated, letting Bingham’s gravelly voice carry along the exquisitely written songs. This is a dark album from beginning to end, perfectly suited to Bingham’s world weary sound. There are echoes of Bob Dylan, Steve Earle, Ryan Adams, and Jeff Tweedy here, but Bingham has always had his own voice, figuratively and literally. The centerpiece of the album, “Depression”, could be as much the start of something as Uncle Tupelo’s “No Depression” and as much an anthem of the times as that was. Bingham could well be the artist who becomes the voice of a generation if this keeps up.
On Approach, Everest
The whole “discovered by Neil Young” thing is nice mythology, but it’s also tough to overcome. There’s not really anyone else doing this kind of post-California Rock right now, which makes it all the more interesting that it just feels so comfortable when you hear Everest play. They’re not derivative, just comfortable in the same way that the Eagles once were. There’s a little bit of Young in there, maybe a little Gram Parsons, but it’s all done in a clean, modern way. Someone I played the album for called it a poppier Wilco and that, to me, is the closest modern comparison. A song like “East Illinois” is almost begging for the comparison, but they’re not buried by homage or parody. The band seems to be a bit all over the place at times, as if you’re listening in on rehearsal, but really it’s more that this band can go in so many directions that they often try going in all of them at once. It’s never too messy, instead suggesting that once they really lock in, they’re going to be amazing and not just great.
How I Got Over, The Roots
They didn’t sell out, not even a little. When NBC first announced that The Roots would function as the house band for Jimmy Fallon, I thought that at most, this would work out the way that Branford Marsalis did for Jay Leno’s original incarnation of his Tonight Show. Instead, ?uestlove and the boys have become an integral part of the show. The show has even enhanced them, somewhat, giving them the chance to do things like the amazing version of “Straight Outta Compton” earlier this year in addition to greatly raising their profile in the mainstream. Sure, it’s a bit frustrating to see a great, great band known more for “Slow Jam The News” than The Tipping Point, but maybe the Fallon crowd will now listen to How I Got Over. It might not be the best Roots album but this band at their worst does things that no other band has ever done. Their live ethos for hip-hop still works on records, though the endless stream of guest MCs does make it a bit less organic. It’s not quite as in your face as Game Theory or Rising Down, perhaps a bit more evidence of taming, but The Roots haven’t been gelded. They’ve been smoothed out and the effortless grooves they find make it seem a bit easier than it is. The fact that there’s not only no one else doing this, but no one else even trying reminds us just how good they are. Oddly, their work with John Legend on a more retro work didn’t fare nearly as well. The Roots seem able to do anything, but they’re better doing their own thing.
Brothers, The Black Keys
If you’ve noticed any recurring theme in this list of ten albums, it’s that the artists are all painfully authentic. From Kanye West’s lack of filter to the gravelly voice of Ryan Bingham, you’re not going to mistake any of the artists here for anyone else. The Black Keys always get compared to The White Stripes, but what’s intriguing to me is that other than setup, the bands really aren’t alike in any way other than their own authenticity. Dan Auerbach doesn’t have the overreaching ambition of Jack White or the self-promotion chops, but in his hands, the guitar screams. He doesn’t caress his instrument; he chokes the life out of it, squeezing out the last drop and just a little more. They’ve slickened up things, despite only using Danger Mouse on a few tracks and even gone to some retro moves like covering Isaac Hayes, yet it works. Auerbach’s voice has found a new gear, going from Delta Bluesman to Memphis Soul with equal skill. They’re not a two piece rocking an abandoned factory any more, but what they do now is just as urgent and just as alive.
Ironiclast, The Damned Things
Late albums – this one was released on December 14th – make putting together this list tougher. I actually had it all written up, had decided on the order, but from the first listen, there was no question that this was going to be a contender. A couple more listens locked it in. The Damned Things are a supergroup of sorts, but you won’t hear any CSNY or Asia in here. Members of Anthrax, Fall Out Boy, and Every Time I Die (a band I wasn’t familiar with) came together and the sound falls closer to Fall Out Boy than you’d expect without Pete Wentz and Patrick Stump (who has my most anticipated album of 2011 queued up.) There’s only flashes of Scott Ian’s guitar skills as he shows another one – restraint. The real stars here are the songs, however. Descriptions of the music by the band include a lot of blues rock, like Led Zeppelin and Thin Lizzy. I’ll be honest, I don’t hear that at all. It’s power-pop-punk with a bit of an edge and dark lyrics. You can call it whatever you want, but it’s damned catchy. If there’s any knock on the album, it’s that there’s not a ton of range. If you like the first song, you’re going to like the last one. You can call that consistency if you like, but it’s actually that word again – restraint. This isn’t an organic band and there’s always a slight tension to either blow the past up and scream to the heavens the way Audioslave did on it’s first couple albums, or to hold back, just let things happen. The latter is where The Damned Things have gone. This is a very solid album, start to finish, with enough to keep me interested despite the lack of range. Moreover, it really makes me hope there’s a second album.
(This one goes to 11, since I already had it written …)
Danger Days, My Chemical Romance
Ignore Justin Bieber and Katy Perry. Like bubblegum pop heroes going back to bobby sox wearers, it takes a second act to really take hold. Frank Sinatra might have been a teen idol at one time, but it’s not what defines his legacy. Quick – anyone remember one of Sinatra’s early songs? Maybe Justin Timberlake’s renaissance act will stick or maybe he’ll make another album someday. The thing is, teen idol pop is transitory. If anything defines the last decade, it’s the utter over the top, almost glam style that we’ve gotten from the stretched genre we try to tag “emo.” Some, like Fall Out Boy, have made classic power pop music with smart lyrics at the same time they’ve gone from the pages of Pitchfork to the pages of People. My Chemical Romance made one of those genre-defining albums last time out (The Black Parade) and while many didn’t get the fact that Gerard Way was first and foremost telling a story and not leading a movement, it was an amazing piece of music and an emotional catharsis broad based enough to scare the shit out of even teenagers. With their next album, they went a complete different direction, inhabiting some loose storyline of a band called the Fabulous Killjoys. It’s brighter, sure, but it’s still smart, still loud, and still great songwriting. Some will call it a sell out, but it’s more like buying in – taking things in a new direction, unafraid that ‘new’ might be considered less than what people were used to, and completely commiting to it. Way and his band might have left the eyeliner behind, but they found pieces of Bowie that promise more great things for them. It’s a significantly better followup than what Green Day did after their seminal work, American Idiot. I can’t imagine My Chemical Romance playing on Broadway or even getting covered on Glee, but stranger things have happened.
The Next Nine: Harlem River Blues, Justin Townes Earle: Earle stands in the shadows of giants, but seems to be emerging as his own man.
The Besnard Lakes Are The Roaring Night, The Besnard Lakes: The new Brian Wilsons do it again.
eponymous, Grace Potter and the Nocturnals: Classic blues, sexy and solid.
Chasing After Shadows, Hammock: Post-rock’s ambient masters continue to evolve.
Of Men And Angels, The Rocket Summer: Mixing Geddy Lee, Michael Jackson, and emo doesn’t sound like a winning mix. It is.
Dirt, Kids In Glass Houses: The Brits have done emo before, but KIGH finally nails it as more than just a formula.
eponymous, Steel Train: Jack Antonoff learned lessons from his time with fun.
Reimaginator, Rock Sugar: You’ll laugh the first time, but this mashup is as much musicianship as homage.
No Better Than This, John Mellencamp: More a T-Bone Burnett album than Mellencamp at times, but still his best work since Human Wheels.