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I was born at a relatively young age. Growing up consumed the better part of my childhood. As a young man I chased a lot of girls. But they kept getting away. Then I got older and even slower, so I got married. I've lived in New York City almost since before I moved here. I summer in Manhattan, which is like New York City, but with more humidity.

Here's me, without baby, thinking big thoughts. (Actually, what I'm thinking is, "Hey, these aren't Pringles!") I think I look better with baby.

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My Top-20 Albums of 2011
Saturday, January 07, 2012
I think the theme this year is, "Hey! You kids! Get off my lawn!"

Overall I have to say 2011 didn't thrill me, new music-wise. But seriously, 2011, don't lose your shit. it's not you, it's me. Next year I promise to do a better job of embracing current stuff with a better attitude. Part of the reason I'm so dreadfully late with this is that I had such a hard time fleshing out the list from 15 to 20. I could have just cut it off at say 18, but then that wouldn't have been fair to you now, would it?

One thing that becomes abundantly clear is that at this point, for the most part, I like what I like. I do make a point of checking out new music, to really listen to it and give it a chance. I want to discover new artists and hear new things. But so many of today's supposed buzz bands leave me cold. Fleet Foxes remind people of the Beach Boys and CSN? Really? Go listen to Endless Summer and the first CSN record and then tell me so; to me Fleet Foxes sounds more like Gregorian Chants. Again, Foxes, I'm sure it's not you, it's me. And Radiohead's King of Limbs? For the most part it's like a dog whistle to me; my ears just don't pick up that frequency. Like their last one, it mostly just reminds me of cell phone ring tones.

Conversely, I sheepishly admit there are artists in their 70s on this list. I don't think I'm a pushover for any old '60s-era rock'n'roll hall of famer-- I skipped both Cream and Clapton/Winwood at the Garden without batting an eyelash. But my ears know what they like, and I've come to trust them implicitly.

I'm pretty sure a lot of this has to do with when I was born and the technologies prevalent during my formative musical years. Radiohead sounds like these times. Well, you know what Brian Wilson said about these times...

Often when I do like a new artist, it's precisely because that artist doesn't sound like now. (He or she doesn't have to sound like yesterday either; good music is timeless, records that endure tend not to sound like the year in which they was made.) On this list, Ryan Adams, Tedeschi-Trucks, Jonathan Wilson, and the Dawes are all good examples.

But when someone does break through the sonic clatter, who sounds like right now-- hell, who sounds like a year from now-- and who manages to perk up these tired ears and change the way I hear music, that's a special thing. And so hats off to Danger Mouse, my new favorite record producer. In this space last year I described him as "...half of Gnarles Barkley, a producer of some recent renown, a member of the pretend band Gorillaz, and I guy I really have to pay more attention to." Since then I've been paying attention, and snapping up the records he's done. For the Rome record and for his work with the Black Keys, he's one of three guys I want to call out this year.

Another is Benmont Tench, keyboard player for the Heartbreakers, an old musical pal who graces the Dawes and Ryan Adams records. Let's call him sideman of the year.

Finally, Jonathan Wilson. I hadn't even heard of him till June, when I think perusing Amazon I came upon a description of his pending debut. I ordered it based on that description, then promptly forgot about it, until it came in the mail (yes kids, I buy the CDs and download them straight into my mail box.) That record, Gentle Spirit, became the one I played most this year. Then I found out he produced the Dawes, who's record I thought was just gorgeous. And that can't be a coincidence.

Everyone seems to like 2011 releases from Girls, Yuck, tUnE-yArDs, and Wild Flag. Maybe-- probably-- I would as well, but I haven't heard any of them. I'll probably give them all a listen on Spotify soon. Also, my friend Henry says his favorite record of the year was the Decemberists, so I checked it out on Spotify, and it is really good (especially for all you R.E.M. fans out there.) But I didn't go and buy it, and as a rule if I don't buy it I don't consider it eligible for my list.

As always, RIYL stands for "Recommended If You Like."

1. Jonathan Wilson, Gentle Spirit.
So apparently there's this "New Laurel Canyon" movement or scene or, like you know, whatever, with musicians living in the Canyon making music that evokes the first singer-songwriter wave from there circa the early '70s-- Joni, Crosby, Nash, the Eagles, Jackson Browne, Neil Young. In fact, some of those old geezers even sit in with the new guys on occasion, probably sharing war stories and showing them the chords to "Wooden Ships." Wilson is at the forefront of this movement. OK, that's just context. In a year when not a lot of new music really caught my attention, this record made me sit up and take notice. While the instrumental and lyrical influences of the Canyon's first wave are all here, I'm hearing more of a Pink Floyd's Animals, Big Star's Third kinda vibe-- music that is built on acoustic guitars, with lots of breathing room, while at the same time sounding dorm room spacy. This is not a work for shuffle; the songs flow into one another as a seamless whole, and you want to listen to it straight through. I don't know where I'll be on this in a year, but in a sort of "meh" year, nothing else piqued the curiosity of my ears quire this much. RIYL: Neil Young's Harvest, Third, Animals, David Crosby's If I Could Only Remember My Name.

Dude, seriously, welcome back. Adams was my artist of the decade for the first decade of this century, and his Cardinals were one of my favorite live bands ever. But after getting both sober and married (coincidence?) he's pretty much been retired from music for 3 years (III/IV, a Cardinals record released last winter, was culled from tracks recorded circa Easy Tiger, which came out in 2007.) Here he works with producer Glyn Johns, who's credits include a bunch of oldie acts like the Stones, the Beatles, Clapton, and Led Zep, and who's son Ethan had produced Ryan's Heartbreaker and 29. Pops does Adams a good turn here, helping him to mine the songs he'd written. The result is an instantly likable record, kind of in the singer-songwriter vein of Heartbreaker but without all the, well, heartbreak. Although there is a Heartbreaker on board-- Benmont Tench on keyboards, who along with occasional Adams crony Nora Jones provides a richness of color and texture throughout (personally I think Adams brings out the best in Jones, and probably vice versa. They should do a duet record one day.) RIYL: Heartbreaker, classic folk rock.

3. Tedeschi Trucks band, Revelator.
When Derek Trucks-- probably the best guitar player of his generation-- and wife, soccer mom-Blues Mama Susan Tedeschi, shut down their respective solo projects and threw in together, it was a mixed bag for us fans. For one thing, such a merger means you get one record a year, not two. And too, as part of an 11-piece rock'n'rhythm'n'blues revue, there was some concern that Derek's wings would be clipped. ("They're not going to go into "Afro-Blue," noted my friend Johnny Flash at the band's September Beacon show.) But live, the Tedeschi Trucks band turns out to be fantastic and easily likable, less a jamband than a song band, blending soul, r'n'b, blues, rock, and a smidge of the jam. Tedeschi is a great front woman, and while Derek's ethereal sojourns are less prominent than they had been in his own band, the overall soulful feel of the music takes you to that same place. The magic is nicely captured on
Revelator, the band's first release. The players have managed to write some new songs that sound like lost early '70s soul classics; the first time I heard "Midnight in Harlem," I googled it to see who did the original, because I was sure it was an old Bobby Womack song or something. Anyway, check it out here; it's my favorite song of the year, and exquisite (apologies in advance for the pre-roll ad, but somebody has to pay for the Internet.) RIYL: Sly and the Family Stone, Delaney and Bonnie and Friends, Mad Dogs and Englishmen.

4. Lindsey Buckingham, Seeds We Sow.
For over 30 years Buckingham was the prototypical mad reclusive studio genius, recording by himself, but putting out all of three solo records (although two others were essentially morphed into Fleetwood Mac releases.) Now in his sixties he's turned prolific; this is suddenly his third album in five years, and his first independent release. He says it's his best ever; as is often the case with such artistic self-assessments, he's wrong (see also, Springsteen's opinion of his last 3.) Buckingham calls his 4-piece touring band the small machine (F-Mac being the big machine), and while his first three solo records were lush multi-tracked gems, he's settled into a style exemplified by his breathy vocals and fancy acoustic finger picking (live at Town Hall, he opened the show with seven solo acoustic numbers before bringing out the small machine.) The template for this style, as he explains in concert, is his solo voice-and-guitar version of the Fleetwood Mac single "Big Love." But when he cranks up all cylinders in the studio (as on "Illumination" or "When She Comes Down") he's still the closest thing to vintage Brian Wilson California sunshine pop there is, and it's still sublime. Originally I didn't feature this record much, judging it too harshly by comparing it to Go Insane and Out of the Cradle. But revisiting it for this list, I realized it was one of the best things I've heard all year. RIYL: "Big Love," SMiLE, breathy vocals and fancy finger picking.

5. The Dawes, Nothing is Wrong.
Like Jonathan Wilson, the Dawes are part of that new Laurel Canyon scene (oh, and small world, Wilson produced this one.) This is their second record. The first one showed promise, but this one's got the mojo. Maybe it's Heartbreaker Benmont Tench, who plays keyboards here and has never been on a record he didn't make better (and he's been on a bunch of good ones.) Nothing is Wrong is one of those records that sounds like you already know it the first time through, all harmonies, chords, swelling organ, plus a little beach, a little desert. (Oh-- and it made the top-50 lists of both Rolling Stone and Paste. How hip am I?) RIYL: Mudcrutch, the Wallflowers, Zuma, Running On Empty.

6. Danger Mouse and Daniele Luppi, Rome.
Ostensibly a soundtrack album to a non-existent movie (how very Eno!). The concept is a conceit, sure, but for me, now, Danger Mouse is sort of in a can't-do-wrong zone. The music is eerie and moody, and features many of the musicians who played on the soundtracks to the original spaghetti westerns (e.g. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly). This album is billed as starring Jack White and Norah Jones, who each sing a few tracks. I pretty much love everything Jones does, with the possible exception of her own records; she graces 2 of my top-6 selections this year. And White sounds oddly like Robert Plant. RIYL: Angelo Badalamenti, Eno, spaghetti western soundtracks.

7. Jayhawks, Mockingbird Time.
The Jayhawks were one of my favorite bands of the '90s, and their Rainy Day Music was a top-5 pick of mine among the best records of the aughts. One of the pioneering "alt.country" bands of the early '90s, the Jayhawks Mach I were very much about the exquisite harmonies and interplay of Gary Louris and Mark Olson, but Olson split in 1995; they made two decent but less interesting records, then the stellar Rainy Day Music in 2003. Louris and Olson had been circling each other for several years-- touring as a duo, recording a duo record-- before finally succumbing to gravity and reforming the band this year. I saw them perform Hollywood Town Hall (1992) at Webster Hall in January, which was exquisite. Mockingbird Time was a little disappointing to me, but that's because of the high expectations I brought to it; I was hoping for more country rock and less actual rock. But it passes a very important quality test-- when I play it around the house, my wife idly sings along with the songs. A welcome return to form and I hope a harbinger of things to come. RIYL: Gram Parsons, Neil Young & Crazy Horse, the Eagles, the Byrds.

I've been sort of iffy on Paul Simon since reading Steve Berlin's account of how Simon stole "Myth of Fingerprints" from Los Lobos. (The story is across pages 3 and 4 of this interview if you're interested.) Unaccountably though, in his 70s, Simon is still really freaking good, and this is easily his best record since Rhythm of the Saints. This record is very much of a piece with that one, and with Graceland, full of Simon's world music textures and rhythms. And it's Paul Simon after all, so you know the words are great. According to my ears, one of the most appealing albums of the year. And Rolling Stone had it in the top 5, so there you go. If there's a criticism, it's that there are almost no fast songs; no "Diamonds on the Souls of Her Shoes" this time out. Check out "Dazzling Blue" here; that's a pretty one. RIYL: Graceland, Rhythm of the Saints.

I've been buying their records for 16 years, and now Wilco is starting to grow on me. The consensus on The Whole Love is, they synthesize their two sides-- the avant garde sound collagists of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and the weepy alt.country rockers of Being There. To me Wilco is not instantly likable, which means you have to hear the music a few times before it seeps in, which is a good thing. They rumble and buzz, making songs of strange beauty and sounding like a rickety, highly charged machine that maybe someone left running too long. The album closer, "One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley's Boyfriend)," is so gently beguiling that I must have listened to it 10 times before I realized the damn thing is 12 minutes long. RIYL: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Being There, and also New Pornographers; I think they occupy a similar twisted-version-of-pop universe.

10. Josh Rouse, Josh Rouse and the Long Vacations.
I've enjoyed watching the evolution of Josh Rouse. His breakthrough record, 1972 (2003, and you should totally get it) established him as a certified soft power pop genius. Then he made a series of largely acoustic, breezy, insanely likable records, while meeting and marrying a Spanish girl and moving to the Valencia countryside. So as all this was going on, his music has gradually been reflecting the Spanish influence, sparse and gentle and unhurried. One of the absolute best things about this record is that it is short-- you listen to it, you like it, and when it's over you're sorry it went by so fast. Like the days before CDs, when a classic album was apt to be 10 songs and 34 minutes, not 19 songs and over an hour. I tend to find that one of the lessons of the digital age of music is that often less is more (although that applies to content, not bit rates.) RIYL: samba, walking barefoot on the beach in the late afternoon, colorful breezy acoustic music.

11. Dave Alvin, Eleven Eleven.
Alvin was the songwriter and lead guitarist for the Blasters, the Slash Records neo-rockabilly band that was one of my favorites during the Great '80s Roots Rock Revival. He put out his first (great) solo record, Romeo's Escape, in 1987 (I still have my vinyl copy. In storage.), and since then has pretty much unobtrusively put out great Americana rock'n'roll ever since. Like Alejandro Escovedo, it's uncanny how consistently high quality his output has been, and how little attention it seems to gather. Which is fine, because clearly this stuff is far out of vogue. But as Tom Petty said in 1999, "Rock'n'Roll will never go out of style-- the design is flawless." Yet another piece of classic engineering by Alvin, marrying Chuck Berry and country music in as natural a fashion as you could imagine. One of his better records. You can't go wrong. RIYL: The Blasters, Chuck Berry, the Bakersfield style.

Walter Salas-Humara-- like Alejandro Escovedo, with whom he teamed up for the one-off (two-off if you count the super-rare live album) band the Setters-- is one of America's great underrated songwriters. He writes adult, manly rock'n'roll songs in plain English (and sometimes Spanish) that are immediately recognizable as the stories of our lives; by energizing them with pure rock'n'roll drive, he manages to make all us everyday Joes into heroes. This is the first Silos record since the death of bass player Drew Glackin, and they've expanded to a 5-piece, with Salas-Humara's and Jason Victor's guitars snarling at each other like two coyotes howling at the moon. Amy Allison's vocals on four tracks layer in a nice feminine counter-balance that harkens back to some of their best stuff (she's all over Cuba and some of the other early ones.) These songs make heartbreak into a dance, and leave you happy. RIYL: Alejandro Escovedo, Lucinda Williams when she rocks, Los Lobos, the BoDeans.

13. Gillian Welch, The Harrow and he Harvest.

This record sounds like it could have been made in the '70s. By which, of course, I mean the 1870s. As usual with Welch and her musical partner David Rawlings, it's a collection of Celtic-sounding newly-written but ageless folk songs, beautifully played and sung, generally just their two voices and two guitars. I want to use the term "murder ballads," even though that isn't exactly apt; but this is one grim collection of songs. "That's the Way" starts like this: "Becky Johnson bought a farm / Stuck a needle in her arm / That's the way that it goes / That's the way." And that's the feel good hit here. RIYL: Oh Brother! Where Art Though?; making your own soap.

A late release (December), and while I've been trying, I don't seem as crazy about this as everyone else, which surprises me, because I really liked their last release (in 2010). And this one is produced by Danger Mouse, and I seem to love everything he touches. Although it is starting to grow on me. They've moved from the heavy Junior Kimbaugh influence to more of a rock influence, mining many of the tropes of '70s hard rock. I wanted to include it here since Black Keys have basically unseated Kings of Leon as Rock Band of the Moment. Big, noisy, primal, and smart. People have said they hear Led Zep in there, but then, I thought I heard Led Zep on the last one (if you don't believe me, just look up selection #4 here.) RIYL: Danger Mouse, hard Led Zep, Foghat, Raconteurs.

The Sun in this case being Sun Studios,where in the '50s Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison and Johnny Cash made rock'n'roll history. Isaak has always worn these influences on his sleeve, but here he just dives right in and takes a big ol' bubble bath in his influences. He's made the pilgrimage to Memphis and actually recorded a slew of those old classics in Sun Studios. Maybe the covers are a little too faithful, but I've always loved this stuff, and Isaak hits just the right note, and he certainly can't help the fact that he inhabits these songs like a second skin. Of course you want the deluxe version, which is 2 CDs instead of just the one. RIYL: The Original Sun Sessions; One for the money, two for the show, three to get ready now go cat, go!

Who would have thought that a couple of 70 year-old ex-acid rockers would, after 50 years playing together, come out with their best album? In their heyday Hot Tuna (guitarist Jorma Kaukonen and bassist Jack Casady, both ex-Jefferson Airplane), made crazy-loud, electric psychedelic blues. The first time I saw them (11/26/77, the midnight show at the Palladium, and I have a crisp soundboard recording thank you very much) it was the loudest thing I ever heard, and when the show ended it was light out. I've always far preferred them acoustic. Here, augmented by Skoota Warner on drums, they are joined by Barry Mitterhoff on mandolin, with jack-of-all-trades Larry Campbell (Dylan, Phil Lesh & Friends, Levon Helm) producing and playing tons of stuff, and Theresa Williams providing a welcome feminine presence helping out on vocals. There are a couple of electric tunes here, but nothing with that overt heaviness. Everything is tasteful and beautifully played; the songs less blues-based and more classic rock than usual. RIYL: Front porch jams, midnight rambles.

17. Iron and Wine, Kiss Each Other Clean.
On their first record, Sam Beam (who basically is Iron and Wine) created a trademark sound with hushed, almost whispered vocals; he's said that this was a result of recording at home at night after he and his wife put the baby to sleep. On Kiss Each Other Clean he's largely broken with the breathy minimalism. The music still sounds man-made and organic, but there is a rich diversity of sounds, more rock elements than I've heard from them before, and lots of really pretty backing vocals, almost Beach Boys-esque in places. It's nice, and it wears really well. RIYL: Beach Boys-influenced folk, breezy '70s radio pop.

18. Warren Haynes, Man in Motion.
I've been of two minds about this record since it came out. Supposedly Haynes was making a real soul, R'n'B record. But honestly, it just sounds like a solo Warren Haynes record to me; you'd confuse this with Gov't Mule way before you'd confuse it with, say, Solomon Burke. It has Haynes's trademark blistering guitar lines, although it is more nimble and swinging than the typical Mule record. Once I listened to it for what it was, though, and stopped expecting Solomon Burke, it started getting under my skin. When I saw the show at the Beacon in the spring I was disappointed; it seemed long. But it was the first of the tour, and I write that off to poor pacing (all new songs in the first set; then opening set two solo acoustic.) Haynes assembled a great band for the record-- including George Porter Jr. on bass, and Ivan Neville and the Faces' Ian McLagan on keys (I wish these guys were in the touring band as well). It cooks. My favorite song is "River's Gonna Rise," which he also performed with the Allman Brothers at the Beacon earlier in the year. RIYL: Gov't Mule, the blooz, Albert King.

19. Robbie Robertson, How to Become Clairvoyant.
Robertson's self-titled 1987 solo debut, with Daniel Lanois producing, remains a classic and one of the touchstone records of that era (late '80s.) For me this is the first thing he's done since that strikes at that same visceral level. I pretty much glossed over it when it came out, but as I've been racking my brain trying to flesh out the remainder of this list, I keep coming back to this, and it sounds better each listen. He's helped by some pretty high-level guest stars-- notably Clapton, Winwood, and Trent Reznor-- although when Clapton takes over a song, you realize how vibrant and dynamic the Robertson ones are in comparison. He's got a great, reedy raspy voice that sounds like it has the wisdom of a thousand smoky bars, because it does; and he's got great musical taste. Heck, even Rolling Stone put this in the top-10. RIYL: Voodoo, Robbie Robertson, smoky bars.

If you've got even a passing interest in the things that can be done with, to paraphrase my friend John, stringed instruments in the right hands, this is a record for you. The Silver Strings are Buddy Miller (who has made Emmylou Harris records sound good for years); Greg Leisz (his resume is insane, and includes k.d. lang, Matthew Sweet, and three records on this very list); jazz stud Bill Frisell; and Tom Waits/T-Bone Burnett crony Marc Ribot. That's some serious pickin'. Together they roll in the collaborators (Patty Griffin, Shawn Colvin, Emmylou) and lay down a lovely tasteful country record that will put you in mind of your favorite summertime barbecue by the third song. To be fair, it does get a little droopy after a while. RIYL: Summer barbecues, fancy pickin'.


These were my daughter's favorite songs of the year: "Born This Way" by Lady Gaga; "Who Says," Selena Gomez; "You Make Me Feel," Cobra Starship; "Pumped Up Kicks," Foster the People; and of course, "Rolling in the Deep" by Adele.

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