Well I am 28 years old today, you guys. Man I am getting old. Just the other day a kid outside my house said, “Hey dude, nice beard. You look like Brian Wilson.” But did he mean this Brian Wilson?…
Or did he mean the much older Brian Wilson from the Beach Boys (Although here he’s rather young)?…
Either way, I’m POSITIVE he meant it as an insult meaning ‘You’re old, guy!’ It’ll be interesting to see what 28 holds. I’m planning on graduating in May from the University of Iowa. It’s been a decade of destruction in the making to get my bachelor’s degree. Although several factors were beyond my control and I also took a four year hiatus from school and worked full-time. BUT I’M BACK! Everyone thinks once I get my degree I’m going to sky rocket to a different job that pays better and one that I actually like. I don’t see it that way, especially with an English degree. I just wanted to get it done and to stop paying 200 dollars a month in student loans for essentially nothing. Plus maybe it’ll look good on a future résumé, who knows. Other than that, looking forward to the summer and the rest of the year and not having to worry about Spanish anymore. Either way, I just hope the rest of my year doesn’t end up like this guy’s…
Now onto the meat and potatoes of this post my friends. This is really late again, way more late than my top 25 albums of 2010, but here it is, my top 30 albums of 2011, only three months late! I did a Top 25 albums of 2010 in which I wrote extensively about all 25 albums (Sometimes very extensively). This year, chalk it up to lack of time during the Fall and Spring due to returning to school, unending overtime at work from October through January or sheer laziness as factors for me not getting this done sooner. I did extend the field of albums from 25 to 30. Mainly because as I was pouring over which albums to include in the top 25 and where to rank them there was another handful of records where I thought it would be criminal if I left them off the list and didn’t write about them as well. Enjoy!
TOP 30 ALBUMS OF 2011
30. British Sea Power- Valhalla Dancehall
For their fifth LP Valhalla Dancehall, British Sea Power continues with their big-hearted stadium-rock championed sound that has yet to break out of the pubs and taverns near you. That’s not taking anything away from this ambitious sextet though as there are several fantastic cuts like the rafter-rattling call-to-arms opener, “Who’s in Control”, soaring “We Are Sound”, noodling electronica of “Living is So Easy”, propulsive “Observe the Skies” and the thundering atmospheric “Cleaning Out The Rooms” all capture the band at its most epic. Whether or not British Sea Power eventually get to the grand stage they seem to be seeking remains to be seen, but the masses will surely settle for consistently grandiose and more importantly good records.
29. The War on Drugs- Slave Ambient
Perhaps the album cover of Slave Ambient is a perfect summation of the sound of The War on Drugs’ second full-length record. A depiction of a Northern Lights-like dreamscape is exactly what Slave Ambient has to offer. The record is packed full of shimmering soundscapes and driving jangling guitars. Standouts like the superb first four tracks “Best Night”, “Brothers”, “I Was There”, “Your Love Is Calling My Name” as well as the record’s finest moment “Baby Missiles” show that Adam Granduciel is comfortable at the helm steering the band himself and that the departure of Kurt Vile hasn’t hurt the future prospects of The War on Drugs. Slave Ambient actually generates a much different reaction than shoegazing. Instead it’ll leave you with a euphoric astral taste in your mouth, staring straight up into the night possibly while sharing a spliff with your mates.
28. Arctic Monkeys- Suck It And See
The wonder boy lads from across the pond the Arctic Monkeys have had to live up to enormous expectations before anyone had really heard of them outside of the UK. Sir Mick Jagger first declared himself a big fan of theirs and then their debut album Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not became the fastest selling debut album in British history surpassing the mighty Definitely Maybe by Oasis. Now four albums in, it seems like they are skilled veterans of their craft. And front man Alex Turner is only 25! After two great first albums, the boys stumbled on the rather mundane Humbug but get back on track with Suck It and See. The one element that they seemed to have adapted to Suck It And See is a melodicism combined with their frenetic and spurred late-night indie-rock attack of Whatever… and their second album Favourite Worst Nightmare. Look no further than the opening track “She’s Thunderstorms”, “Don’t Sit Down ‘Cause I’ve Moved Your Chair”, the title track and the closer “That’s Where You’re Wrong” for showcasing a band rapidly maturing and adding more weapons to their arsenal with each passing album.
27. Blitzen Trapper- American Goldwing
After some of their most bizarre, freak-folk adventures on Destroyer of the Void, it sounds as if Blitzen Trapper have wondered out of the desert after ingesting large amounts of peyote with Destroyer… and have taken off down the highway on their Honda Goldwings for a rootsier back-to-basics Americana approach of American Goldwing. Actually, back-to-basics may not be the right term for it as this is perhaps the largest departure from a standard-issue Blitzen Trapper record as American Goldwing is their most straight-forward foray of Americana music yet. Acoustic-strumming and harmonica are rampant and none is more prevalent than on the title track with a “The Weight” like vibe that could’ve climbed its way onto the Easy Rider soundtrack as well had it not been made 42 years too late.
26. Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears- Scandalous
Scandalous has to be the consummate party record of 2011. Its gritty sweaty infusion of R&B, soul and funk could’ve been cranked at a house party on turntables in the mid-70’s just as it could be blasted on an iPod dock at a party now (Maybe minus some of the high fidelity). Lewis is a chameleonic smooth operator passing through and blending these genres effortlessly such as the Motown “get busy livin’ or get busy dyin” shuffle of opener “Livin’ in the Jungle”, the plodding blues of, “I’m Gonna Leave You” or the jive-talk rock ode to a brothel of “Mustang Ranch”. Even songs as ridiculous as “Booty City” are sung with such James Brown show-stopping conviction that you feel that you should be there to drape a cape over Lewis after Scandalous concludes as he has poured buckets of sweat onto record.
25. Bon Iver- Bon Iver
The self-titled sophomore effort by Bon Iver is the most gorgeous record of 2011. Although not near as minimalist sounding or isolated as the debut For Emma, Forever Ago which was more or less played like a Justin Vernon solo record, Bon Iver still maintains a significant level of desolate beauty and intimacy despite the addition of things like horns, strings and synths. Still though it’s Vernon’s wounded-wing falsetto that’s the greatest weapon in their arsenal. Bon Iver explodes out of an isolated cabin in Wisconsin to lofty places on cuts like, “Holocene”, “Towers”, “Wash.” and “Calgary”. Vernon and the boys sound like they’ve come outside to join the rest of the world with this record. Let’s hope they hang around for awhile.
24. William Elliott Whitmore- Field Songs
From his sparse and archaic banjo-driven arrangements, gruff baritone, native stomping grounds of Lee County, Iowa, album title of Field Songs, right down to the album cover itself suggests that William Elliott Whitmore is the greatest dust-bowl depression-era balladeer… that was born about seven decades too late. That’s part of Whitmore’s musical charm though in the sense that no one really sounds this rustic and rural yet fresh and revitalizing as well these days. These songs could be plucked on the back porch of a farmhouse, a century apart. Whitmore continues to be a protest singer of sorts. Not against any specific type of institution or tyrannical government, but the general idea of defeat itself. Endurance is the key no matter how difficult the struggle is and nowhere is this more prevalent than the defiant stomp of the album’s closer “Not Feeling Any Pain”. He’s reassuring us and raising a glass to all of us for just getting through our days. Everyone will gladly raise a pint back to Whitmore for Field Songs, even if we were in prohibition times too.
23. Iron & Wine- Kiss Each Other Clean
Iron & Wine ringleader Sam Beam has been slowly progressing away from the subtle quiet, almost whispered folk indie-rock that he first made a name for himself with. With Kiss Each Other Clean this is his most radical departure from the stripped hushed acoustic music of his first few records. That’s not to say there still aren’t the stunningly tender moments with the lovely soulful opener “Walking Far From Home” the gospel-tinged angelic “Godless Brother in Love”. Then there are songs that are far from his usual comfort zone that work as well with the atmospherics of “Monkeys Uptown” and the funky sax-drenched “Big Burned Hand”. With Iron & Wine now sounding like an actual full band outfit, it’s interesting where Beam will steer the ship next.
22. Coldplay- Mylo Xyloto
Coldplay have in-part been tethered to U2 for creating records filled with celestial gigantic sweeping songs that tug at the heart strings. Perhaps it is interesting then that they would try to break their own mold on Mylo Xyloto similar to how U2 first did so with their record Achtung Baby. Although this is a far cry from the groundbreaking heights of Achtung Baby, Mylo Xyloto is perhaps the most interesting record in Coldplay’s catalog. Producer Brian Eno is back at the helm providing lush orchestral arrangements, hip-hop rhythms and electronic loops. However as U2 also discovered, Coldplay will never be able to completely stray from huge anthems no matter how much they’re dressed up in studio clicks and whistles. Songs like “Hurts Like Heaven”, “Paradise”, “Charlie Brown” and “Every Teardrop is a Waterfall” are sure to stand up against any of the other epics in their catalog. Maybe next time though Coldplay can cast their nets a little further away from Ibiza and leave the dance-club Rihanna duets off the record.
21. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart- Belong
After creating a great amount of buzz from their self-titled debut album, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart capitalized on their momentum with their follow-up Belong. The Pains sound like they could stand shoulder to shoulder with some of the great 90’s alternative-rock bands and none more so than the Smashing Pumpkins. Even front man Kip Berman sounds like he’s cut from the exact same cloth as Billy Corgan. With his angst-riddled whimsical vocals they almost suggest leaning towards shoegaze music, that is until the guitars smack you right in the face. The guitars are equally metallic and dreamy with echoes of brit-pop especially on “Heaven’s Gonna Happen Now”. With a wide-range of influences on Belong The Pains have brought a 90’s vibe into the new millennium and they’ve done it better than almost anyone else.
20. TV on the Radio- Nine Types of Light
After going their separate ways for a variety of solo projects, the members of TV on the Radio reconvened in 2011 for Nine Types of Light. The band’s signature sound continues with an amalgamation of several different genres, which in essence they’ve created a sub-genre all their own. Elements of pop, funk and rock rolled up into electronic grooves that sound like seasoned veterans effortlessly cranking out catchy prism-drenched tunes. This is the most cheerful the band has been on record which is too bad that bassist Gerard Smith died just nine days after the release of Nine Types of Light. If there is one thing that Smith can take with him though it’s the sense of knowing he went out after making yet another great TV on the Radio record.
19. The Felice Brothers- Celebration, Florida
On their fifth studio album Celebration, Florida The Felice Brothers broaden their palate and move far beyond the standard pure-folk revivalist movement that so many new bands have attempted to hang their hat on these days. Instead the band achieves a more eclectic sound by embracing hip-hop rhythms and textures taking them perhaps beyond realms they thought never to achieve. There are still plaintive stark ballads such as “Oliver Stone” and “Dallas” where Ian Felice cuts through the atmosphere with a distinctly Dylanesque, nasally croon. Elsewhere it’s a grab-bag of standouts like the rave-up bops of “Fire at the Pageant” and “Honda Civic” as well as “Cus’s Catskill Gym” which may be the only sympathetic ode to Mike Tyson ever written. There’s diversity on the record that’s inescapable and penetrates deeper with each listen.
18. Dropkick Murphys- Going Out In Style
Time changes everything… and then there’s the Dropkick Murphys. The Murphys have a firmly entrenched fan base and they aren’t out to change or cater to the masses. Get in or ship the fuck out. Pint-sloshing anthems with shout-along (Literally!) choruses have been the blue print for Boston’s rowdiest sons for over 15 years now, and on Going Out In Style there’s more where that came from. The thing with this seemingly by-the-numbers formulaic approach to making albums is that somehow nothing ever feels stale or that the records are past their “sell by” date. Take your pick of litter of chest-beating fist-clenching mosh-pitting songs, they’re all classics by the Murphys standards. After this album and a few pints you’ll be in the mood to rumble with McGreevy or the Fitz brothers or old Fat Mike. Or just go whip a Yankees’ fan’s ass.
17. The Head and The Heart- The Head and The Heart
With their debut self-titled album, The Head and The Heart have officially entered the fray of a budding and promising Seattle folk-rock movement. The ensemble already sounds like polished veterans on their first album which may be staggering to think about how much higher they can go. The harmonies are rich and warm and have a new-age Americana feel to them, similar to that of The Jayhawks. The key weapon in their arsenal though may be pianist Kenny Hensley. His piano is buoyant and profound throughout the key tracks of the album such as “Couer D’Alene”, “Down in the Valley”, “Rivers and Roads” “Sounds like Hallelujah”, “Heaven Go Easy on Me” and the unbelievably catchy “Ghosts”. A song that you can easily listen to 15-20 times in a row without even knowing it. A fantastic song, a fantastic album, and a great start for The Head and The Heart.
16. Smith Westerns- Dye it Blonde
The Chicago “power” trio the Smith Westerns take the angst of their garage rock debut, and shoot for a much grander stage on Dye It Blonde. Producer Chris Coady must be a big fan of Ian Hunter’s because the record has glossy textures that sound like the band is aiming for the glam rock stratosphere chasing anthems like “All the Young Dudes”. The thing with that is that the band pulls off their bigger sound with stunning confidence, maturity and swagger. The band has a huge 70’s glam rock pomp & circumstance sound, while maintaining their youthful indie-cool from their debut. With T. Rex guitars, twinkling pianos, and swirling organs there are countless catchy standouts on the record that get into your head with their relentless hooks and big top choruses like, “Weekend”, “Imagine, Pt. 3”, “All Die Young”, “End of The Night” and “Dance Away”. A big future is in the works for these lads. The young dudes do carry the news and the hits too apparently.
15. Hayes Carll- KMAG YOYO (& Other American Stories)
You have to sift through a huge pile of manufactured fake bubblegum “Country” bullshit to find anything good. Sad thing is, you’ll probably reach the bottom of that fecal heap and come up with nothing but E. coli. Then there are genuine gunslingers like Hayes Carll who breathe a much needed authenticity into a flaccid Country scene with his blend of gritty Texas outlaw rockers and barroom blues. Carll goes full-throttle right out of the gate with “Stomp And Holler” which sounds like it was cut in a roadhouse right off Highway 61. Carll strikes the hot iron again with his own “Subterranean Homesick Blues” on the bluesy revved-up title track that is just as impressive of a lyrical tour de force and puts him well ahead of any of his peers. Elsewhere Carll yelps like a wounded coyote pouring whiskey on the gash then drinking the rest on 3am laments like “Hard Out Here”, “Chances Are”, “Another Like You” and “The Letter”. Carll closes the album with the an affectionate and vulnerable “Hide Me” that adds a gospel flavor that cuts deeper than any phony bible-thumping, church-going processed Country “star” ever could.
14. Portugal. The Man- In The Mountain In The Cloud
MGMT exploded onto the scene with their synthy neo-psychedelic type pop rock with Oracular Spectacular, but indie-workhorses Portugal. The Man have done it more consistently and arguably better than MGMT since 2009 with three stellar albums. The Satanic Satanist, American Ghetto, and now their latest effort In The Mountain In The Cloud. The record flows effortlessly, coddled in an addictive dreamscape as John Gourley’s spacey falsetto navigates a Milky Way of catchy intergalactic boppers like “Floating (Time Isn’t Working My Side)”, “Got It All (This Can’t Be Living Now)”, “Senseless” and “All Your Light (Times like These)”. The gentle closer “Sleep Forever” only furthers the case Gourley’s voice is smooth enough to serenade the dead wrapped in the vibrant kaleidoscope of In The Mountain In The Cloud.
13. Frank Turner- England Keep My Bones
Someone should warn Frank Turner that he may be in danger of becoming a powerful social conscience. Part Woody Guthrie, part Joe Strummer armed with a weapon that can cut down any fascist, a guitar. Although if you asked him, he’d probably tell you he’d rather be spilling pints on a bar pissed as a fart rather than spilling blood like a bold countryman. On England Keep My Bones Turner bears his teeth in a bedlam of insurgent proclamation with shout-a-longs like “I Still Believe”, “One Foot Before the Other” and “If I Ever Stray”. Turner also ponders gut-wrenching loneliness and isolation veiled in a beauty that only a master troubadour could achieve on cuts like “I Am Disappeared”, “Nights Become Days” and “Redemption”. Then the closer “Glory Hallelujah” hits. A jubilant hymn for the atheists (There are even hand claps!) that could shake the most devout Catholics into swapping “Their confirmation for their dancing shoes”. “There is no God, so ring that victory bell!” So much for 12-years of Catholic schooling. Turner could set the record straight for you then make you forget what that record even was at the pub across the street.
12. Red Hot Chili Peppers- I’m With You
The Red Hot Chili Peppers took a lengthy hiatus following the expansive bluster of their 2006 double album Stadium Arcadium and world tour. Then they were dealt the serious blow of guitarist John Frusciante leaving the band once again. Enter long-time Frusciante friend and collaborator Josh Klinghoffer as the Chili Peppers’ replacement guitarist. I’m With You is a much leaner attack than Stadium Arcadium (Which is saying something because the album is still nearly an hour long). Klinghoffer’s guitar serves the record as a companion rather than delving in too much virtuosity. The band has been sort of redefining their sound as more of a conventional rock band and less of a rap-rock punk band ever since Californication. Make no mistake about it though, they’ve made a sound all their own. What is conventional for the Chili Peppers is incredibly unorthodox for anyone else. The fantastic disco-ball rock of opener “Monarchy of Roses”, funked-out greats like “Factory of Faith”, “Look Around” “The Adventures of Rain Dance Maggie” “Happiness Loves Company” and “Even You Brutus?” are complimented by wonderful ballads like “Brendan’s Death Song”, “Police Station” and “Dance, Dance, Dance”. A balanced and focused attack by veterans of the craft that can still make middle-age rock filled with the youth angst they’ve always been so good at.
11. My Morning Jacket- Circuital
My Morning Jacket’s brain-trust Jim James has always been a Zen-master for the weird with the band’s ever-evolving shape-shifting sound and with their latest installment Circuital, My Morning Jacket may have struck their weirdest nerve yet. Things go interstellar and extraterrestrial pretty quickly as James goes A cappella on a horn intro with opening track “Victory Dance” followed by the mammoth jam of the title track which begins as a gentle creep before exploding into crushing Who-style power chords. My Morning Jacket have echoes of past lives, from their At Dawn era with slow-burning numbers and gentle folk ballads like, “Wonderful (The Way I Feel)”, “Slow Slow Tune” and “Movin’ Away”. Then there’s their most terrifically bizarre song yet with “Holdin’ On To Black Metal” which may be the furthest away from sounding like Black Metal as all the disco globes and lasers in the world couldn’t hold in the funkadelic of this track. Circuital is perhaps My Morning Jacket moving gracefully into a new phase of their career. Despite their melting pot of styles and genres, album after album My Morning Jacket showcase perhaps their most important trait as one of the best and most consistent bands in America, as well as the world.
10. Deer Tick- Divine Providence
Deer Tick are known for their rowdy and raucous live shows they’ve put on over the years, and yet that’s never really transitioned to record. Then the boys decided to wear their hearts on their sleeves by capturing the feral ferocity of their live act and appropriately name their fourth album after their hometown of Providence, RI with Divine Providence. Front man John McCauley and company sound like they came barreling into these sessions at 200 mph fully lubricated, ready to tear the house down. Only instead of a stage in your local taverns and theatres, it’s your own living room. Divine Providence is full of bar room blitz and bravado as McCauley sneers and snarls through bawdy braying numbers like, “The Bump”, “Funny Word”, “Let’s All Go To The Bar”, “Something To Brag About” and “Make Believe”. Where Deer Tick started mainly as a solo project for McCauley, here they sound more unified than ever as guitarist Ian O’Neil delivers a couple shinning cuts including the ballad “Now It’s Your Turn” complete with a Slash-like pyrotechnic guitar solo and drummer Dennis Ryan delivers a surprisingly delicate tale of serial killer John Wayne Gacy with “Clownin Around”. It was last call hours ago, you’re black and blue with cracked red eyes, howling at the moon… but hey you’re young, you’re alive, and you’ve still got Divine Providence on your side while you lick your wounds. Deer Tick have finally captured their accurate self-portrait. A loud, abrasive picture soaked in beer and covered in cigarette ash.
9. Fleet Foxes- Helplessness Blues
The Seattle-based Fleet Foxes are still relatively new to the scene but they craft music that sounds so enchanting, so sacred and shrouded in the intrigue of the wilderness that they sound like hymns that could’ve been around for decades buried deep in a forest or up in a little mountain village somewhere. The engine of the Fleet Foxes, Robin Pecknold took an extremely cerebral approach, relentlessly pouring his time and heart into their second record, the brilliant Helplessness Blues (Even costing him a relationship at one point, until she heard the record and they got back together!). With a barnyard owl falsetto as haunting as it is beautiful, only Jim James of My Morning Jacket could possibly match him in this area. On Helplessness Blues Pecknold blends in with harmonies that are as powerful as the highest peaks of Crosby, Stills, and Nash. The songs this time out are bigger and bolder. An amazingly enriched, deeper sound particularly in the drums that on multiple tracks sound like massive tribal war drums. Songs like “Sim Sala Bim”, “Battery Kinzie”, “The Plains/Bitter Dancer”, and “Grown Ocean” are shook into thunderous vitality with the elemental pounding. Then there is the centerpiece of the record, the title track. A stop-the-clocks song with a mighty building arc and lyric that is built for the silver screen even to the point where Pecknold closes out the song with the line, “Someday I’ll be like the man on the screen”. The song as well as the rest of the record sits as a timeless piece of art in the folk scene and may have catapulted the Fleet Foxes to the front of the pack.
8. The Decemberists- The King is Dead
The Decemberists have sort of been the like the lost fishermen in the sea of the indie-folk rock scene. They’ve always been on the verge of breaking through to commercial mainstream success before being cast back underneath the waves in seemingly self-sabotaging fashion. Their major record label debut The Crane Wife was a rare hit despite its sprawling complex narrative. The band tried to strike while the iron was hot with an equally expansive The Hazards of Love. The album was met with a tepid, at best lukewarm reaction. Front man Colin Meloy had perhaps grown a bit too self-indulgent in their heady progged-out art rock. Then comes a complete curveball with The King is Dead (Even the title suggests yet other lengthy prog-rock tale). This is their breeziest, loosest record, and also their best. One key weapon joins the foray on this album, R.E.M.’s guitarist Peter Buck. He plays on three songs and nowhere else is he more prevalent than on the terrific “Calamity Song” with its chiming sound soaked in R.E.M. DNA it could’ve been a track left off Reckoning. It’s one of the popiest Armageddon songs you’ll ever hear. Meloy takes his band deeper into the thicket of Americana than anyone probably ever thought they’d go. There’s the harmonica drenched stomp of opener, “Don’t Carry It All”, the nocturnal duet with Gillian Welch, “Down By The Water” and the defiant, “This is Why We Fight”. The King is Dead is an interesting record in a completely different way than its two predecessors The Crane Wife and The Hazards of Love. Capturing the dark chiming jangle that made so many R.E.M. records great and combining it with a rural Americana vibe adding up to an irresistibly addictive record. This is saying something for a band whose leader sounds like he’s usually got his head buried in Victorian literature. It should be noted that Meloy stated the band would be going on indefinite hiatus following this record and tour. A great record to go out on, but it also has people salivating for more.
7. Middle Brother- Middle Brother
They may not have as impressive resumes as the cumulative sum of say the Traveling Wilburys (Yet!), but Middle Brother is one of the better “super” groups in recent memory. And unlike another youthful super group deceptively titled Monsters of Folk which actually had a more spaced-out vibe, Middle Brother actually stays closer to the rocks, roots and gravel of folk. The trio of John McCauley of Deer Tick, Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes and Matt Vasquez of Delta Spirit combine into a pool of young incredibly talented songwriters. What’s staggering is that they gel so well together it’s like they’ve been playing together for years as the chemistry on record comes off as an established vet. rock act rather than a side project or a super group. Each member contributing batches of great tracks to make the summation of the record that much better. John McCauley’s cuts include the fantastically delicate opener, “Daydreaming”, the shuffling Paul Westerberg cover of “Portland”, and barnburners like the title track and “Me, Me, Me”. Matt Vasquez provides the rugged “Blues Eyes”, as well as “Theater” and “Someday” while Taylor Goldsmith’s songs are the more subdued heartbreakers like, “Thanks For Nothing”, “Blood And Guts” and the tremendous “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” style closer “Million Dollar Bill” where all three take turns on lead vocals. All three men stay busy cranking out records with their other bands which makes it even more impressive that they could fit an album this good into their schedules.
6. The Strokes- Angles
The Clash were once known as, “The only band that matters”. Ever since then, there hasn’t really been a band to be able to stand up to that moniker. Enter the dilapidated music scene of the early 2000’s. Boy bands and bubble gum pop ruled the charts. The only thing that’s getting over in what’s considered Rock & Roll is the heaping pile of bullshit of nu metal, rap-rock, and post-grunge. Gross. The Strokes crashed the scene like a hypodermic needle straight to the heart with their debut album Is This It. Itwas a breath of fresh air, and The Strokes sounded like a genuinely dangerous revitalization for Rock that hadn’t been felt really since Guns ‘N’ Roses first broke onto the scene and initiated a shockwave that was as essential as The Clash hitting the scene. They continued to ride the buzz of their phenomenal debut with two more stellar albums in Room on Fire and First Impressions of Earth. Just as the band was hitting their stride however, everything unraveled and the band disintegrated. A few years and solo projects later, The Strokes patched things up and were able to make another fantastic album with 2011’s Angles. A few years apart, it’s clear that the members of the band have brought in and pooled together new ideas and influences while maintaining the sleek stinging presence of their first three records. The hypnotic swagger of opener “Machu Picchu” blends new sonic layers to The Strokes formidable attack of serrating guitars gnashing and snarling like predatory teeth while front man Julian Casablancas occasionally hits Axl Rose worthy notes. The Strokes indulge successfully in blending pop and punk in songs like “Two Kinds of Happiness” before giving way to more incendiary bursts of screeching guitar. Perhaps their most extreme departure to date is the dance floor synths of “Games”. That’s not to say The Strokes don’t have their trademark slashing indie-rock still in tow. Look no further than the sure-fire instant classic Strokes song, “Under Cover Of Darkness” along with other greats like the ominous “You’re So Right”, and the deceptive buoyancy of “Taken For A Fool” and “Gratisfaction”. The Strokes show hints at exploring new territories in the future but it still feels distinctly rooted in the their elements of aerodynamic danger.
5. Wilco- The Whole Love
Although 2009’s Wilco (The Album) was another strong album in the band’s catalog, band leader Jeff Tweedy might’ve sensed minor rumblings and billowing clouds from some of their elitist critics and snobbiest fans that they were perhaps playing it a little too safe on their self-titled effort. Whereas Wilco (The Album) was an amalgamation of their entire career, a Wilco by-the-numbers, 2011’s The Whole Love plays much more like a hybrid of their loftiest peaks. One being the sprawling double album of Americana in 1996’s Being There and the other being the electric fusion android rock of their career-defining 2002 masterpiece Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. The Whole Love jumps back and forth between these peaks with terrifically reckless abandon and both Wilco and their fans wouldn’t have it any other way. The album opens with the masterful seven-minute “Art Of Almost” which begins with gurgling bubbling synths that pulsate in anticipation until a crescendoing atmosphere bomb of strings explodes and clears the clouds for Tweedy to calmly proclaim, “No, I froze, I can’t be so far away from my wasteland”. It’s a song that surely has Foxtrot marks salivating till the very end when guitar virtuoso Nels Cline kicks in with a buzz saw attack that erupts into the finale of a furiously agitated solo until the waves break back into a sea of electronica. This is followed by “I Might” bringing with it a toe-tapping fuzzed-out 60’s groove punctuated by gnashing guitars and keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen indulging in Ray Manzarek-like organ while Tweedy spits lines like, “It’s alright. You won’t set the kids on fire, oh but I might.” Other standouts include the power pop (Well, pop for Wilco) of tracks like “Dawned On Me” and “Born Alone”. “Black Moon” which sounds like a brooding nocturnal trot across a desert with a swell of Arabic strings colliding with pedal steel for a lush back drop. The title track is a catchy vibrant Celtic number followed by the 12-minute voyage, “One Sunday Morning (Song For Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend)”. The lengthy closer coasts on effortlessly with the sure-handed rhythm section of John Stirratt and Glenn Kotche shuffling along like a train rattling across the Midwest while Jorgensen’s gorgeous piano filters through the cracked boxcars like gentle interjections of rain beautiful enough to conjure the lovely soundscapes of Roy Bittan. If there was ever a Wilco song perfect for a road trip soundtrack, this is it. Even the more subdued country-tinged numbers have small hisses and fits of robotic tension woven into them. This is the third album with this sextet outfit of Wilco and it sounds like they’ve really hit their stride. The Whole Love is another great album in their catalog, but truth be told there is yet to be a bad Wilco album… period. Wilco’s been in their golden years for 16 years now.
4. Dawes- Nothing is Wrong
Dawes created a big buzz for themselves mining the rich Laurel Canyon sound on their debut LP North Hills. Now it’s only their second album, but Dawes have advanced and matured years if not decades beyond their experience. Front man Taylor Goldsmith is rapidly morphing into a world-class songwriter as Nothing is Wrong sounds like a series of forlorn love letters. The blood of a heartbreak poured out onto paper written on a countryside journey and put into song. While the record is well-polished its core sound still delves deep into the creaking old-guard Americana they were raised on. Robbie Robertson and Jackson Browne are among the legendary folk/Americana vets solidly behind Dawes as Robertson requested them as his backing band on his 2011 World Tour, and Browne leant backing vocals to the album’s anthemic track “Fire Away”. Although Dawes are great on numbers like the chiming Byrds-ian opener “Time Spent in Los Angeles”, the ragged Crazy Horse guitar work of “If I Wanted Someone” or the rollicking Celtic-tinged, “The Way You Laugh”, it’s their ballads where they truly break ground. They’re stunning in depth and devastating in beauty. Suddenly America unfolds in cinematic scope. There’s “A ballerina in Phoenix” there’s “The pines up North”, there’s a young man “With his back against the San Francisco traffic”. “The Way Back Home” plays like a cross-country train ride narrative with Goldsmith having his sights set on one destination, the heart of his young lover. “So Well” contains sublime Crosby, Stills, & Nash-worthy harmonies and “Million Dollar Bill” is so great in its break-up majesty that Goldsmith decided to include it on this album even though he also put it on the Middle Brother record as well. And there’s the closer, “A Little Bit of Everything” that’s so gorgeous sonically with its twinkling piano that it may lead you astray when you listen to the lyrics. It’s masterful aching storytelling, that makes you think Goldsmith’s songwriting and leadership could take Dawes to legendary heights and longevity. If this record is one big kiss-off, you’d hate to be the girl that left Goldsmith and his mates behind because now they’ve got Nothing is Wrong, now they’ve got the momentum, now they can bowl anything over. There may be individuals who believe in the “Sophomore slump” in terms of making records, but clearly Dawes don’t because Nothing is Wrong is incredible. Dawes are ready to carry the torch of Americana for years, maybe even decades to come.
3. Noel Gallagher- Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds
Rock & Roll thrives off conflict. And sometimes, having an arch-rival can stoke the flames, be your muse and be the greatest driving outlet for creativity. But how often is it that your arch-rival is your own brother? For 90’s brit-pop God Noel Gallagher, that’s exactly the case with the devil incarnate manifested in his brother Liam. Oasis was the biggest band in the mid-90’s. Their popularity decreased significantly over the years but they still released strong albums up until their split in 2009. And to say the split between Noel and Liam was nasty is an understatement. Mudslinging in the press continued and it was only matter of time before Noel and Liam released post-Oasis records for the fans to choose their side. Liam struck first with his new band Beady Eye (All of the members of Oasis BUT Noel) with Different Gear, Still Speeding. Then came Noel’s turn with Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds. Noel is arguably Britain’s brightest burning beacon (And most arrogant) musically, and NGHFB is every bit as massive and grandiose as you’d expect, playing like a long lost Oasis record. In fact, with no one to butt heads with and no one to answer to but himself, there may be more over-indulgences on NGHFB than any other Oasis record. But if there is one man who can pull that off, it’s Noel Gallagher. Look no further than the stirring opener “Everybody’s on the Run”. Noel’s still crooning with his golden pipes as the song builds into a goliath crescendo with an outro of sweeping cinematic strings. Gallagher showcases his top craftsman form with other shoot-for-the-moon mammoth ballads such as “If I Had a Gun…” and two Oasis leftovers, “(I Wanna Live In A Dream In My) Record Machine” and “Stop The Clocks”. There’s still the classic Oasis Manchester-attitude brit-pop of jangling stompers like “Dream On”, “The Death Of You And Me”, “Soldier Boys and Jesus Freaks” and “(Stranded On) The Wrong Beach”. Hell, he even throws in a disco tune (Or at least that’s what he calls it) with “AKA… What A Life!”. NGHFB is every bit as epic as anyone would expect and whether or not Oasis get back together, Noel’s future looks bright. Liam hit first with Beady Eye, but Noel’s record is far superior.
2. Foo Fighters- Wasting Light
As big and successful as the Foo Fighters have become, Chairman of the Board Dave Grohl has seemingly still been searching for that signature Foo Fighters record. They’ve had several very good records, but not one that has really reached that classic album level. Grohl himself may have in part still felt like he was constantly chasing after the genre-defining masterpiece with his former band Nirvana in Nevermind. It was seemingly destined to cast a monolithic shadow over anything else Grohl would accomplish. Enter 2011’s Wasting Light. Grohl set a high water mark for Wasting Light when he stated before the record’s release that it was their Back In Black. A huge expectation indeed, but Grohl and company crush any naysaying. Wasting Light is their most galvanizing and most synthesized purest form of hard rock. Putting it more simply, it’s their best. And to conjure the magic once more, the Foos called upon the services of Nevermind producer Butch Vig as well as an old school method of recording, meticulously manipulating reel-to-reel tape machines. The old school approach gave it an aggressive rawness, beginning with the engine-revving guitar riff intro of opener “Bridge Burning” with Grohl howling, “These are my famous last words!”. Wasting Light grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go with the pedal to floor. It’s a Murderer’s Row onslaught afterwards with terrific cuts like the ballsy rocker “Rope”, the piledriving “Dear Rosemary”, the unforgiving “Arlandria” and the pummeling “Miss The Misery”. Those enough brutal adjectives for ya? Even the so-called ballads “These Days” and “I Should’ve Known” begin as gentle serenades before exploding into raucous forays. The latter being a paean of sorts for Kurt Cobain made even more imperative with a guest spot by former Nirvana band mate Krist Novoselic on bass providing an extra ominous rumble. Then comes the closer “Walk”, which is the band’s loftiest peak yet. A song that’s custom-built for arenas and stadiums around the world, but so massive that no structure may be able to contain it. A narrative that unfolds like the consummate road dog song as Grohl sings, “A million miles away/ Your signal in the distance/ To whom it may concern/ I think I lost my way/ Getting good at starting over/ Every time that I return”. During the bridge they kick it into overdrive, a relentless assault with Grohl wailing, “I never wanna die/ I never wanna die/ I never wanna die/ I’m on my knees/ I never wanna die/ I’m dancing on my grave/ I’m running through the fire/ Forever, whatever/ I never wanna die/ I never wanna leave/ I’ll never say goodbye/ Forever, whatever/ Forever, whatever”. Hanging out with guys from Led Zeppelin and Queens Of The Stone Age in Them Crooked Vultures must’ve really rubbed off on Grohl. This is undeniably the heaviest Foo Fighters record by a longshot as well as their greatest achievement to date. Grohl has been chasing the ghosts of glory for the nearly two decades, but now the Foo Fighters have a defining moment in modern hard rock. In a time when rock radio is struggling mightily, the Foo Fighters have boldly become the torch bearers for no frills hard rock with a juggernaut in Wasting Light, a 21st century hard rock masterpiece.
1. The Black Keys- El Camino
2010 was a sea-change year for The Black Keys. There was life before the release of their album Brothers and life after. They began their 2010 tour playing ballrooms and theatres before charging onto main stages at music festivals like Lollapalooza and Madison Square Garden. If 2010 and 2011 were monster years for The Black Keys, they’re somehow poised for an even bigger and better 2012 following the release of the brilliant El Camino at the tail-end of 2011. The dynamic duo of Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney have done it again, and they’ve managed to top their breakout record Brothers. Where Brothers was influenced by R&B and old soul, El Camino is a custom-built vintage muscle car polished to a mirror shine tearing down a Delta blues highway ready to rumble. For El Camino The Keys reunited with record producer guru Danger Mouse (Brian Burton) who they teamed with on 2008’s Attack & Release as well as their hit single “Tighten Up” from Brothers. El Camino has a wide range of influences, owing as much to glam rock fore-fathers Marc Bolan and T. Rex as it does to the gritty Mississippi Delta blues of Junior Kimbrough. The term “All killer no filler” gets tossed around a lot, but if there was ever one album that suits that phrase, it’s this one. At only 38 minutes long the record is that much more addictive providing a stout, compact knockout uppercut. El Camino is full of pump-up anthems designed to be blasted at hockey rinks, basketball arenas, and football stadiums alike. As for the individual tracks, which ones are the stand-outs? Try all 11 tracks, there’s not a weak track on the album. All of them are welcomed Chelsea-boot stompers and instant classics in their canon. The Keys come barnstorming through the speakers with the opener “Lonely Boy” powered by a propulsive high-octane barrelhouse riff. There’s the smooth operator charm of “Dead And Gone” and ridiculously catchy glam-rock guitar and Gary Glitter bombast of “Gold On The Ceiling” where it feels like a wave of marauders are coming to pillage and burn your village to the ground then dance through the ashes as a disco globe descends from the sky. The only brief reprieve from the bold rhapsody is in the beginning of “Little Black Submarines”. The track begins as a delicate yet troubling acoustic lullaby before its titanic outro explodes into towering Zeppelin-esque guitar hero ecstasy capable of soaring all the way to Valhalla. The inescapable cuts continue with the no bullshit rocker “Money Maker”, the soulful “Run Right Back” with its swarming stinging guitar licks, the Rolling Stones Some Girls/Emotional Rescue-era swagger of “Sister” and the pounding “Hell Of A Season” all guaranteed to burrow deep into your Cerebrum. Songs like “Stop Stop” and “Nova Baby” go for the jugular and anyone sitting in the nose-bleed seats before the closer “Mind Eraser” hits. Auerbach croons, “Oh, don’t let it be over” and anyone that’s listening to the record could share the same sentiments, because you don’t want the album to ever end. There’s so many slick studio tricks packed into El Camino: hand claps, foot stomping beats, female backing singers, and layers of fuzzy guitars and rave-up organs. And yet, nothing feels bloated or clunky which is even more impressive. The Black Keys use the studio as their main weapon and the result is an overwhelming success. El Camino is an opus that can still fit in your back pocket. It seems every rock band not of the old guard is reluctant to be the next act to take up the mantle of biggest rock band in the world. Judging by the sound of El Camino, The Black Keys are ready to grab that brass ring, and damned if anyone is going to stop them.