Every year for almost a decade now I’ve been putting out my favorite records, albums, downloads, whatever they are called now. The end of the year is my most busy time so sometimes my list comes out a little later than I wish. Like this year.
Let me begin by stating that this wasn’t a year for great albums, but there is a lot of depth. Like one of those NFL drafts where it’s best to not be picking at the top, as there isn’t much of a gap between 2 and 15. The best way for me to review a year is to look back a year later and see how much I still listened to the stuff in my top 10. Using this method I can tell you 2010 was really a great year for music, as I still listen to last year’s releases from Eminem, Mumford and Sons, Black Mountain, Black Keys, Arcade Fire, Constellations, Gaslight Anthem, Roots (with John Legend), Broken Bells, and the Thermals. That was my top 10 (check it out here if you want some examples) from last year and I think it all holds up really well.
Not so sure this year’s list will do as well. As I said, I liked a lot of moments in music this year, but to find artists that had a quality album was a lot harder. The change that has been going on with the advent of Itunes has made the single way more powerful. With that in mind, I’m weighing a few great songs more than I usually have, even if the rest of the record is little more spotty. Here is my top choices for 2011. Hope it turns you on to something new.
1. Adele: 21
In 20 years I suspect this record will still be considered a classic. Kind of like Carole King’s Tapestry or Aretha Franklin’s Soul, it will seem timeless. Part of that is because of the great 60’s style production of 21. While Amy Whinehouse and Marc Ronson seemed to set the tone for this vintage sound, it is Adele who filled a record without a weakness. While I would argue that singers like Joan Osbourne and Joss Stone have had the pipes to hang with Adele, they never have put out a record of the consistent tone and quality that 21 possesses. There is an avant garde feel to her voice at certain moments, like Nina Simone, which makes her never seem like she’s making a paint by numbers song. Every once in awhile the general public gets it right in regards to sales matching quality. The success of 21 is completely deserved. Here is a live version of the Cure classic, Love Song.
2. Black Keys: El Camino
While this record lacks a great song, it just might be my overall favorite from the band. The record starts out with a T. Rex vibe and then moves into a 60’s sound which I’m sure Producer Danger Mouse helped develop. This is the first Black Keys record where I think drummer Patrick Carney steals the show. I thought the Black Keys might struggle to top what they had done before, but I think the band gets better and better the more they step out of their comfort zone. The only record outside of Adele which is good from beginning to end.
3. Head and the Heart
I’m not going to pretend that this is revolutionary music. It’s probably not as accomplished as Mumfords and Sons from last year, but the harmonies and musical interplay is beautiful. There is a timeless quality to this band that makes me believe it will sound great to me 2 decades from now. Check this video out below and also check out the gorgeous Down in the Valley, which adds great violin touches.
4. Cage the Elephant: Thank You
I’m not one of those types who laments that music was better when I grew up then it is now. That might partially because I grew up in the 80’s, but I will say that it’s hard to find current bands that rock the way I like them too. When I need that fix, I turn my iPod to my 90’s grunge playlists and enjoy the sounds of Soundgarden, Pumpkins, Toadies, etc. Well, this year Cage the Elephant, a band from the rock capital of Southcentral Kentucky (Bowling Green) put out a grunge-y record that completely holds up to those bands. This record is the best Pixie-like album since Frank Black’s Teenager of the Year. Below is a song that has more of Flaming Lips-vibe, but check out Aberdeen and then go from there.
5. Awolnation: Megalithic Symphony
This is a hard one to explain. Not sure if this one will hold it up, but I keep coming back to this record, as I love the industrial funk meets 80’s flourishes. Have you been looking for Prince record fronted by Wang Chung, if it was produced by Trent Reznor ? I guess I was. Below is the more entertaining video, which is for Burn it Down. I should mention that Sail is the first song you should check out if you dig this.
Last year I highlighted Gaslight Anthem who have added a spin on classic Springsteen. Here comes Dayton, Ohio’s version of early U-2. Mona seems a little too cocky, a little to in your face, and it all works. Looking forward to where this band goes from here. After watching this sexy mess of a video, check out Shooting the Moon.
7. Robin Thicke: Love after War
At one point my favorite rock band was Living Color and my favorite rock guitarist is Jimi Hendrix, so I’m not going to feel badly that my favorite rapper is Eminem and my favorite soul singer is Robin Thicke. Who would have guessed that the Dad from Growing Pains would have Mr. Sex as his son? You listen to a Robin Thicke record and your realize why Justin Timberlake went full-time actor. Thicke is a modern day Marvin Gaye. 2007’s Evolution of Robin Thicke is his classic, but this is damn close. Sexiest video since George Micheal’s Freedom just might be the one below. Thicke is with his red-hot wife, Paula Patton. Now where is their sex tape?
8. Airborne Toxic Event: All at Obce
There is one friend who can talk me into giving a band a second chance and that is my long-time writing partner, Will Carroll. I liked their debut record, but had kind of glossed over this one. On his recommendation I gave it more listens and damned if I wasn’t seeing his point. Great grooves, fresh sound, and a singer at moments sounds like a rocking Neil Diamond. I also hear echoes of the underrated modern rock band, Stroke 9. A more poppish Arcade Fire might be a good description to sell Airborne.
9. Roots: Undun
Hey bands out there, get up off your asses. The Roots are working 5 nights a week as Jimmy Fallon’s TV band and have been putting out great records each year, too. The music is genius, especially the kickstand Questlove is stomping on. Oh the lyrics are dope, too.
10. James Blake
Here’s the most difficult pick for me that is on my list. The first time I heard James Blake he completely blew me away. This was something unlike anything else I had ever heard. It’s not something I’m up to listen to that often, but catch me in the right mood and it would sit at the top of my iPod. I could be swayed with the argument that 10 years from now it will be the most influential record of 2011 or that it will be the one of this list I never listen to again. It’s stark, it’s soulful, it’s jazzy, and I’m knocked out it’s unique sound. Reminds me of what I felt when I first heard Portishead more than a decade ago.
11. Lady Gaga: Born this Way
I have problems about how much Lady Gaga takes from the Madonna playbook, but the musical moments where she’s transcendent make up for it. I don’t rag on Katy Perry or Rhianna, as they have some great hooks and grooves, but their best never touch the place that a You and I, Edge of Glory, or Born this Way does. It’s like she’s melded Elton John, Madonna, and Carole King. I appreciate that she understands music’s past and brings it to her best songs. No need to put up a video, you’ve heard the songs.
12. Alabama Shakes
If they would have put out a full record of the quality of this EP, I’m not sure it wouldn’t have been Number 2. I believe Jack White was the most important figure in music during the first decade of this century and Alabama Shakes appear to have been listening. It’s been a long time since I’ve heard a blues song as good as You Ain’t Alone. Check out the other 3 songs off their EP.
13. Decemberists: The King is Dead
I’ve always liked this band, but this is the first complete record I’ve gotten completely. Jangly, REM-type guitars are complimented with accordions, Hammond organs, and harmonicas. The singer reminds me some of the guy who fronted the underrated 80’s band, Wire Train.
14. Low: C’mon
I’ve enjoyed a couple cuts from each of this lo-fi bands music, but this is the first whole record that connected with me. Low is a band from Duluth and they actually sound like a band that would come from their climate. Kind of like the Beach Boys sound like California. It’s dark and kind of quiet, but beautiful, much like the city of Duluth. Lead singer sings like Bob Mould if he fronted American Music Club instead of Husker Du.
15. Dawes: Nothing is Wrong
Singer sounds like Jackson Browne some times, band has a Neil Young’s Horses kind of thing. Tasty stuff. Right behind Head and the Heart for Americana Record of the year. Tasty stuff.
16. Wilco: The Whole Love
While Wilco has been a regular on many lists each year, they haven’t been on mine since their classic Being There double disc. This is my favorite since then, as it shows Jeff Tweedy embracing his Americana roots a little more. Like the psychedelic touches that appear in moments and even when they go Kid A, they still have a hook.
17. Radiohead: King of Limbs
Speaking of Kid A, Radiohead comes back with a record that has a great groove. The difficulty this band has for me is that it’s produced 3 of the 50 best records of the past 15 years (Bends, OK Computer, and In Rainbows), so it’s hard for me to imagine this record would be something I would be listening to you by even next year. The challenge of being a great band is making music that can hold a candle to your past classics.
18. Tedeschi Trucks Band: Revelator
One of the highlights of my musical life was stumbling into a hotel bar outside of Chicago where Susan Tedeschi got up and sang with the blues band playing there that night. She has the voice and added to husband Derek Trucks blues licks it is all good on this record.
19. Pistol Annies
The best country record is this new band fronted by Miranda Lambert. I always felt Lambert stepped into the void that the Dixie Chicks left when country radio turned their back on the Chicks because of Natalie Maines political stands. While not of the quality of the Chicks, Pistol Annies blend great harmonies with real country music.
20. Foo Fighters: Wasting Light
While not a perfect record, this comes out the gate strong. I’m especially partial to Rope, which might be the best later days Rush groove since Grace Under Pressure.