I remember a moment in March of 2011 as if it were yesterday. The grey skies of Seattle were taking their toll on me and I was thinking to myself how much of a disappointment 2011 had been so far for new releases. I wasn’t crazy about much of the new music that had been released so far, and the list of upcoming releases to look forward to seemed a little thin. I was thinking about how much of a bummer it would be, at that point, to write about my favorite new releases of 2011. That was all about to change dramatically, as it often does. Suddenly, there was amazing new music from some pretty unexpected sources―PJ Harvey and The Civil Wars, then Wye Oak, The Joy Formidable and James Blake―and I knew that I was going to make it through another northwest winter.
In the end, 2011 was flush with quality, and new releases from some of my favorite artists―Iron and Wine, Radiohead, Wilco, The Black Keys, The Decemberists, Bon Iver, Ryan Adams―as well as some amazing introductions to new (at least to me) bands such as Tuneyards, The Weeknd, Campfire OK and Real Estate, had to be left on the cutting room floor, even after the list grew beyond the planned top ten. I finally had to cut it off at a baker’s dozen for this list of the best albums of 2011 with the intention of visiting my favorite local releases of the year in a later feature.
This list was compiled both from my heart and from my head. Some of the input came straight from online tracking sources that tell me what I listen to the most and some just felt like it couldn’t be left out. There is music here that makes me think about my life and what I’m doing with it, music that makes me laugh and dance, and music that makes me cry because it’s so beautiful. Somehow, the diversity of music on this list blows me away. I always think that my musical taste centers around “indie/alternative”, whatever that means today, but my favorites from this year range from folk/americana to electronica & dubstep with forays into hip hop, R&B and pure pop. My hope is that you’ll find some new music here that you will grow to love and that it will in some way add some beauty & pleasure in your life. That’s what I’m here for…
Tom Waits – Bad as Me
“When you wear that real tight sweater/ You know I can’t resist”
“It’s been that way forever baby/ Ever since we kissed”
The first true studio release from Waits since 2004′s political and frustrating Real Gone (he released Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards, an extensive 3-CD set of lost-and-found tracks in 2006), Bad as Me is a return to the manic and tortured growling form that we all have grown to love over the years. It is also Waits’ return to the influences of classic r&b and rockabilly, thanks in part to studio work from Keith Richards and Marc Ribot on guitar and Charlie Musselwhite on the harmonica.
Bad As Me is a bracing and defiant saloon-inspired attack against the status quo, and it’s Waits’ best work since Rain Dogs a quarter century ago. Full of combative clash and clatter, it’s cogent and threatening, but in the end—and here’s where Waits’ talent truly shines—awkwardly elegant, like a cheetah taking down an antelope in slow motion. stream it here…
The Civil Wars – Barton Hollow
It’s hard for me to imagine Joy Williams and John Paul White of The Civil Wars as anything but a romantic couple. They’re not, but Barton Hollow has somehow they have worked together to create one of the more passionate releases of 2011. They somehow seem to make even heart-wrenching breakup songs like “Falling” sound romantically provocative. This is gorgeous, rich and organic country influenced folk-pop that seems straight from the heart, even if they aren’t singing about each others hearts.
Wye Oak – Civilian
Combining progressive lo-fi swells and classic indie loud/quiet/loud dynamics, the Baltimore duo of vocalist/guitarist Jenn Wasner and multi-instrumentalist Andy Stack known collectively as Wye Oak have created with Civilian, their third full-length release, their most complete and haunting album to date. Wasner’s powerfully husky, yet smooth and sultry vocals vie for attention with her crunchy and pleasantly distorted guitar and create a perfect balance of tension and release on this mysterious and melancholic collection of songs.
The Head and the Heart – The Head and the Heart
“Oh the songs people will sing for home
And for the ones that have been gone for too long
But,oh, the things people will do for the ones that they love”
The Head and the Heart undoubtedly take the award for the most dramatic rise of any band on this years list. Just 18 months ago, these relatively unknowns were hosting open-mic nights and busking at folk festivals around Seattle. Today, after a year living out of suitcases, they’re scoring main-stage festival gigs and spots on Letterman, Conan and Austin City Limits.
Their songs are centered around themes of youthful uncertainty and longing… for home, love long lost or another chance to get it right. Their sing-along choruses and alliteration are irresistible. They have three extremely talented singers and are not afraid to drop the three-part harmonies and let any of the three take the lead.
Judging by what I’ve heard of their newest material, the audience reactions at their live shows, and that the fact that the label bigwigs at Sub Pop are cooing over them at every chance, I don’t doubt that the Head and the Heart are just getting started. I expect to be seeing a lot more success for this band in 2012 and beyond. Read more…
James Blake – James Blake
“I don’t know about my dreams. I don’t know about my dreaming anymore.
all that I know is I’m falling, falling, falling, falling, falling… might as well fall in.”
22 year old British singer-songwriter and producer James Blake’s eerie and haunting dubstep debut LP lives up to its substantial pre-release hype. At moments, this impressionistic reincarnation of Blake can be overindulgent or over-processed, but his funky, grooveless harmonies are to die for, focusing on his pensive voice with sparse backing. A phantom touch of piano here… off-beat rim shots there… Blake has really found his space here and this album has been in my subconscious all year, like a shadowy deja-vu that I couldn’t shake in a dream.