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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.