Top 10 CDs of 2011

So 2011 has finally come and gone and now I can sit down and take stock of what music really worked for me this year.  It was a strange year for music, one where some sounds were going back 20 years, some 40 years and some even further back.  I’m not sure if this is a reflection of artists finding ways to fuse the past and the present, if they are letting their influences shine through or if they have just been lazy, but a lot of it worked.  Maybe that’s because I’m getting old enough to be able to connect all of the dots between the different periods…I dunno…anyway, on with my favourite releases from 2011.

10. Luke Bryan – “Tailgates & Tanlines”

Luke Bryan has been around country music for a while (this is his third album) and his last album went gold in the States, but for me, this is the first complete CD he has released.  The lyrics aren’t anything special (and sometimes they are a bit cliched), but what the CD lacks in lyrics, it makes up for with just plain old catchy hooks.  When you hear “Country Girl”, you can’t help but keep repeating that chorus in your head all day.  In a year where a lot of country albums really sounded like plain old pop songs, just sung with southern accents, Luke Bryan’s release felt like it went back a few years for some flavour.

9. Florence + The Machine – “Ceremonials”

Off the top of my head, the only female artist in today’s mainstream music with as powerful and moving voice as Adele is Florence Welch.  We have been lucky to hear her perform live on various shows (including SNL, where the purity of her voice rose above the traditionally subpar NBC studio sound).  There are all sorts of comparisons to Welch and Kate Bush, which I don’t completely agree with, but what I do like about both artists is that their songs quite often create a feeling of empowerment for the listener.  When I listen to “Ceremonials”, I feel like I am listening to anthems or hymns.  It could also be the great production that went along with this CD, but whatever the reason, it was a great release.

8. The Dears – “Degeneration Street”

The Dears have been through so many ups and downs, it’s hard to believe the band still exists.  Thankfully, they do.  After their 2006 release “Gang of Losers”, I didn’t think The Dears were going to ever release anything better.  Gang of Losers had everything you could want in an album and Murray Lightburn was at his soul-wrenching best.  When The Dears followed with “Missiles”, I figured I was right.  While Missiles had some fantastic tracks, it lacked cohesion and to be honest, was sometimes boring.  Degeneration Street has been accused of leaning more toward to an arena-rock feel, which I don’t hear (why does it seem like I am listening to different albums than everyone else?).  These sound like carefully crafted songs that  range from melodramatic (in a good way) to radio-friendly (again, in a good way)…and that combo worked for me in 2011.  Good to see The Dears back on track.

7. The Strokes – “Angles”

“What happened to The Strokes?”  Seriously, how many times have you heard people ask that question over the past five years?  Is it a result of bursting onto the scene at the turn of the century and receiving more praise than they really deserved?  Could it be a result of their strong album, weak album, strong album release trend?  Whatever the reason, the one time when I think The Strokes actually deserved credit for a really strong album, it didn’t seem like they got it.  Maybe all of the delays on the release of the album caused critics to get tired of it and start applying a Chinese Democracy attitude towards it and if that’s the case, that’s too bad.  Angles sounds like the band is enjoying themselves, like they got past their side projects and finally decided to get on with things.  While they have always typically turned back the clock with their sound (to the 70s), Angles seemed to have more of a 70s and 80s feel…and it feels pretty good.

6.  Foo Fighters – “Wasting Light”

I’ve always felt the same about Foo Fighters: every album is going to have a couple of great songs, but there is also going to be a lot of stuff that I just don’t care for.  This could be the first FF album where I didn’t have that feeling.  Dave Grohl was looking for a more raw and scaled down sound on “Wasting Light”, but I don’t hear it.  These are big power rock songs that are meant to fill arenas and they make me wonder how Nirvana would have ended up had Cobain not taken his life.  Would they sound like this?  Would they have split years ago with Grohl wanting a more complete sound?  Who knows?  All I know is that I enjoyed this album.

5.  The Black Keys – “El Camino”

The first time I listened to this CD, I thought there was a chance it could be my favourite release of 2011.  It had a lot of the different aspects I like in an album: heavy guitar riffs, Led Zeppelin similarities, tons of fuzz…even some stuff that sounded like Jack White had joined the band.  “Little Black Submarines” remains one of my favourite tracks of the year and there are all kinds of highlights on the CD, but after a while, I started to think that some of it sounds forced.  They have definitely found a way to rework blues-rock on each of their releases, which isn’t easy to do.  As their popularity has increased, they have moved more away from the raw sound they had when they first came out.  If you listen to “Thickfreakness” and then listen to “El Camino”, it almost sounds like two completely different bands.  But as I think about it even more, just because they may sound like two different bands, that doesn’t mean they can’t be two great different bands.

4. Ryan Adams – “Ashes and Fire”

I’ve stated a few times on various posts that Ryan Adams is one of my all-time favourite artists, so it’s always tough for me when he puts out a solid album and I want to include it in my Top 10.  I keep wondering if the release is in there because of its merit of because of my bias…but then I get over it, because this is my blog and I can do whatever I want.  But all kidding aside, there are so many different versions of Ryan Adams, you never really know what you are going to get.  He is stronger in some areas compared to others and I find he’s at his strongest when he has a little bit more country in him.  I don’t know if I would say that this is a country album, but there is a slant to it at times that has a little twang.  He doesn’t have the Cardinals behind him this time, but that seems to have worked.  There is a nice mix of the various Ryan Adams personas, but they all mesh very smoothly.

You can’t deny his ability to write a good song and on Ashes and Fire, there are some great lyrics (some of which are heartbreaking). For example, in “Dirty Rain”, we hear “Last time I was here you were waiting / You’re not waiting anymore / The window’s broke and the smoke’s escaping / All the books scattered across the floor / And the churchbells are ringing through the sirens / And your coat was full of bullet holes / Last time I was here you were waiting / You’re ain’t waiting anymore”.  Great stuff.

3.  Saigon – “The Greatest Story Never Told”

The first time I listened to this CD, I was working out.  I had a great workout, one of those ones where I felt like I could lift anything…I felt like I should have been walking into the ring for a fight with this CD playing as my entry music.  The beats are aggressive and catchy and Saigon raps with a certain sense of urgency that we haven’t heard from an artist in a while.  From previous posts, it’s not a secret that I love albums with a theme or a story behind them and obviously, this CD has a story weaved into its title.  The Greatest Story Never Told covers everything from corrupt priests to the nature of friends and enemies and does so with strong lyrics.  Hip-hop is nothing without great storytelling, so when you have a skilled rapper along with a great storyline, there is an opportunity for something great to happen and that’s what we have here.  We were truly lucky that after 4 years, this album was finally released.

2.  The Roots – “Undun”

How is it that The Roots are able to keep producing consistently solid hip-hop albums?  While some have been better than others, one of the best things you can say about The Roots is that you can purchase one of their releases without hearing a single track and know that you aren’t going to be looking for your money back.  The strange thing here is that I have my number 3 and number 2 CDs not only as hip-hop releases, but ones that are built on a storyline.  It’s surprising that this far into The Roots’ career, they are only now getting around to doing a concept album (not sure if I like that term).  They have the talent within the group to not only create lyrics along a timeline, but also to create different forms of music to keep things interesting and relevant.  They do that on this release, keeping things just under 40 minutes.  It’s a nicely tied together release, concise and focused…and how often do we hear hip-hop CDs that are lacking in both of those areas?

1. Wild Flag – “Wild Flag”

There were a lot of solid releases this year in various genres, but Wild Flag really got me going the first time I heard it.  This is one of those albums that reaffirmed my faith in music.  There is so much garbage that has to be sifted through in order to get to the really good stuff out there, sometimes you have to wonder if it is really worth it.  When I heard this release, I remembered that it really is worth sorting through the garbage to get to the quality.

The only thing I didn’t like about Wild Flag is that it got stuck with this “supergroup” tag.  Yes, Sleater-Kinney, Helium and The Minders were great groups and to have members from each band come together to form Wild Flag is something special, but once anyone attaches the word “supergroup” to a band, I immediately think “overhyped, overproduced, wayward shit”.   I get a feeling that somewhere, somehow, Sammy Hagar is going to show up.

There is a certain level of raw energy this CD emits that just can’t be explained by typing words out on a page.  This might sound cliched, but you just have to listen and feel this CD to appreciate it.  The great thing about it is that even if you were a big fan of any of the bands Wild Flag is comprised of, you’re hearing something completely different.  I considered myself a Sleater-Kinney fan and while there are some echoes of SK in this release, it doesn’t really sound like one of their old albums. The quality of each of the songs on this album shows a certain level of maturity and mutual respect each band member has, because nobody is looking to dominate.  There is cohesion and fun on this album…I can’t wait for more.

Honourable Mentions

Eric Church – “Chief”

Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks – “Mirror Traffic”

TV on the Radio – “Nine Types of Light”

Phonte – “Charity Starts at Home”

Glen Campbell – “Ghost on the Canvas”

George Strait – “Here for a Good Time”

No Comments »

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment