I have not heard every great record this year, not by a long shot. As a music journalist and pain-in-the-ass critic, I understand that. Even though I haven’t heard every record, I still found it tough coming up with only ten records I considered to be a cut above the rest. So what did I do? I came up with fifteen. Hey, at least it’s not like other lists that have thirty or forty albums on them, 2011 was a solid year for music; each month gave screaming birth to one or more records that kept our faith in an art form that is often corrupted.
How did I come up with these fifteen golden examples of rock’s indestructability? First off I played the simplest card in the deck, which was what records have yet to leave my Ipod. Then I put on my Lester Bangs thinking cap and tried to isolate what made those records so damn good. My fifteen each managed to elevate different parts of my emotional make up. I wanted to fight, dance, fuck, drink, scarf down mind altering substances and even try to jump start a band of my own. When records motivate you to go out and do damage, then they deserve to be remembered as the best.
Surprises also came about in 2011 for me.
The first was a couple of local artists who made me step back and appreciate where I lived. Smoke Signals, a Newport, Kentucky based trio are nothing short of kick ass. They take the spirit of Sunny Day Real Estate and fuse it with dash of The Refused. Live they absolutely kill. The other local jammers are Hot For Alice, a five piece of strange swirling guitar tones and punk aesthetics. Hot For Alice is topped off by the magical vocals of Alisha Milacki who is pretty close to show stopping. The Ohio/Kentucky music scene is a bitch to even exist in so the fact that these bands excel is pretty astounding. It’ll be even harder for the bands to rock now that Southgate House is closing. Another awesome venue bites the dust. Both Smoke Signals and Hot For Alice have Facebook pages so check ‘em out.
Now, without further ado, here are my fifteen best albums of 2011.
Album: Path Of Totality
Why I Chose It: This is a massive record, a slab of stone with sharp digs and grooves etched into it. Path Of Totality is an elemental blend of instruments that call out the darkest parts of our imagination. Tombs understand the difference between weight and heavy. Weight doesn’t just exist within riffs; it exists within the intangible construct of the song. Each slam of the guitar, each punch of the drums, every move is heavy, the riffs are almost secondary to the whole experience. Unlike other heavy acts, even doom metal, Tombs creates a shelter against a storm they’ve created. It’s a dark shelter, a cavernous one with little light, but it is there. With that core you can feel the rest of Paths Of Totality and drink each note in.
Album:Hardcore Will Never Die But You Will
Label: Sub Pop
Why I Chose It: Mogwai returned in 2011 with another notch in their never-ending journey to defy the genre. Outside of having one of the best titles all year, Hardcore Will Never Die But You Will is a fucked up mess of ideas that should not work. Mogwai takes their droning guitar sound and lays into some danceable jams, slow and melancholy songs and the occasional track that sounds like it was captured accidentally during rehearsal. Hardcore Will Never Die But You Will sounds as much like lightening in a bottle as it does planned. Mogwai don’t so much write songs as they stitch together ideas into a quilt of sound you either understand or you don’t. You have to be involved with Mogwai and Hardcore Will Never Die is no different. If you get past the “shoe gaze”, “math rock” or “post-whatever” tags, and really dig into this record, you’ll find yourself constantly turning over gorgeous nuggets of sound that make the world a better place.
Label: Caldo Verde
Why I Chose It:Yes I am incredibly amped that Jesu mastermind Justin Broderick has announced there will be a new Godflesh album. However, let’s not allow that news to overshadow the accomplishments of Jesu, his ambient, heavy and eclectic salad spinner of influences. With an impressive catalog, 2011 saw Jesu release one of their greatest albums with Ascension. I really don’t care if the metal masses are pissed this isn’t heavier, or more ambient or whatever. What Ascension is has to do with despair, sadness and the soundtrack to the darkness within all of us. Parts Nick Drake, parts Sonic Youth, parts random melancholy brushes with guitar greatness, Ascension builds an impenetrable wall of emotion that draws on those thoughts we wish we didn’t have. An album of such painful beauty like Ascension can almost turns suffering into joy.
12. Betty Wright & The Roots
Album: Betty Wright The Movie
Label: S-Curve Records/Ms B Records
Why I Chose This: I have a soft spot for true soul and Betty Wright has been kicking out the jams for thirty years. With this record she proves that her magical voice and incredible presence is still a force to be reckoned with. Earthy, soulful and completely intoxicating songs that help get their groove together through producer Ahimir “Questlove” Thompson of The Roots. This isn’t an old school singer trying to become hip or relevant by recording a Neo-Soul (I hate that term) album, this is the real deal taking some help from one of the few modern hip hop/soul acts that matter. Betty Wright The Movie walks the line between the modern and the old school without bowing to either one. This album could be bumping in any ride today or playing on American Bandstand in the mid-sixties soul explosion. I hope all the new acts, the Neo-Soul garbage out there and those looking to enter this genre listen to this record as well as Betty Wright’s complete catalog to understand what the true nature of soul is.
11. TV On The Radio:
Album: Nine Types Of Light
Label: Interscope Records
Why I Chose It:This was a pleasant surprise because I am not a TV On The Radio fan. I find a lot of their earlier work to be boring. It also seemed unable to overcome it’s own sense if self-importance. I was not ready for an album like Nine Types Of Light. There is no pretention here, no self-importance. Instead TV On The Radio has crafted a record with real soul and, for lack of a better term, elegance to it. Nine Types Of Light creates the same reaction in me that David Bowie’s Young Americans does, the idea of a soul album from a band that shouldn’t make a soul album. The rhythms and guitars are open and smooth on this album, the music is inviting, like the sounds from an old 78 or a tiny speak easy. Adding into that mix are vocals that feel world weary and experienced, even reaching heights of gospel. These are the ramblings of a man singing about his trials and tribulations to anyone who is willing to listen. TV On The Radio has made a record you can vibe to, get high to, make out to or just study and dig on the music. Nine Types Of Light may have its influences in everything from Smokey Robinson to Devo to the Pixies, but what’s happening here is uniquely TV On The Radio.
10. The Black Keys:
Why I Chose It:There’s a lyric by Lou Reed during his Velvet Underground days that goes “Hey white boy, what you doin’ uptown?” That’s how I feel about The Black Keys’ El Camino record. Two white boys from Akron, Ohio shouldn’t be able to drop this kind of dirty, groovy and soulful blues. They do though and they do it with great style. The Black Keys are one of the few bands that survived the hype of the “The” bands (THE Strokes, THE Hives, THE Vines) and continued to make quality music. El Camino is flat out fuzz rock bastard blues played with passion, grit and fire. This is music that makes you want to smoke, drink, start a fight and fuck until the cops chase you out of town. Whether busting out fat riffs or crooning over an acoustic guitar, The Black Keys write exception songs rather than riding a crest of riffs. Don’t get me wrong, the riffs are nut-kickers, but Black Keys bring a lot more to the table. You can’t not groove to this album, it’s a human impossibility. If you find yourself unable to get down to El Camino then you’re probably too lame for rock n roll anyway.
Album:Angels Of Darkness, Demons Of Light
Label: Southern Lord
Why I Chose It:There is a record store in Cincinnati called Shake It Records. In the basement of that store is the vinyl section. Running that vinyl section is a man named Billy and he had the best line about Earth’s Angels Of Darkness, Demons Of Light. He said, “”Most heavy music is about riffs, this is music about notes”. Yep, Billy pretty much summed up what makes the first part of Earth’s two-part opus so incredible. Every single note matters; every single bend of the guitar or movement of the bass is exactly what it needs to be. The drums, instead of just backing the music up, are inextricably connected to those notes. Angels Of Darkness, Demons Of Light is less a rock album and more a classical piece. These are instrumental movements that bring out feelings of beauty, melancholy, reflection and sadness. I don’t mean to imply that the record is rigid, more that all the sounds operate exactly how they need to. Imagine the Angels Of Darkness, Demons Of Light as a living entity and each musical note is some firing synapse or moving brain cell. If the music doesn’t work together perfectly or the whole project falls apart. One slight note out of place and triumph becomes failure. The bravery it takes to make an album like this is admirable. The fact that Earth made it so damn good is staggering.
08. Wild Flag
Album: Wild Flag
Label: Merge Records
Why I Chose It:I have always loved the harmonies of Helium and the jangly guitar saturation of Sleater-Kinney, so when news came that those bands would be pulling a Wonder Twin powers activate on a new band called Wild Flag I was in. Not only did the self-titled record rock me, it blew my expectations right through my chest and into the next state. The album is not just jangly guitars and harmonies; it has more hooks than a bait and tackle shop. Wild Flag take their base of alternative rock, which is flavored from the nineties, and add generous helpings of sixties power pop. Thumping bass lines, slick keyboards, hooks, harmonies, and riffs all distilled into upbeat nearly danceable rock jams. Who wouldn’t be on board for this album? Let the haters hate and the hipster dicks stand unimpressed, Wild Flag has released one of the catchiest and best records of 2011. I just hope it inspires a wave of alt-rock not seen since the days of 120 Minutes.
07. Death Grips
Why I Chose This: Currently Hip Hop is fucked. The most exciting thing that happened this year for most was the Kanye West/Jay-Z collaboration, another ego driven bragging fest outlining how much money and chicks both men have acquired. Meanwhile, the beginnings of a revolution came in a little heard but incredibly brilliant hip hop album titled ExMilitary. Death Grips bring the conflict and punk rock vibe back to the genre. Take Public Enemy and add a generous dose of Black Flag and you get Death Grips. Clever beats, sample additions that are as clever as anything the Bombsquad ever put down and lyrics that drip with humanity, desperation, rage and introspection. ExMilitary rips lyrical bullets through anything that the genre of Hip Hop released this year. This record should embarrass all the wanna-be thugs and bullshit hip hop gangsters out there who exist to run down their resume and keep Hip Hop pigeonholed as some toss away genre that doesn’t matter except to make money. While those rappers pour out champagne and swing their bling, Death Grips sneaks aboard their yachts and slits their throats. Welcome to the future of Hip Hop.
Album: New Brigade
Label: What’s Your Rupture
Why I Chose This: Fourteen years ago The Refused released The Shape Of Punk To Come and it looked like punk/hardcore had a road map for true evolution. Well, that didn’t happen. Instead we got tough guy bullshit and a rise in the sale of basketball jerseys. From then on punk and hardcore have all but collapsed under the weight of its own ridiculousness. Rocketing from the void with the power to heal these gaping punk rock wounds is Iceage, a band from Denmark made up of teenage boys who remember how fucked up rock can be. Noisy, harsh, angry and so good you’ll give up even trying to get your stupid band off the ground; Iceage’s album New Brigade is the punk version of Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew. A violent concoction that mixes the aesthetic of Goth the power of hardcore and the ripping guitar sound of punk rock. This is the future of punk my friends, this is our second chance to do it right, lets not blow it!
Album: Endless Midnight
Label: Translation Loss
Why I Chose This:A lot of people slept on this record and those people missed out. The first solo release from Jeff Caxide of Isis, Endless Midnight is an ethereal dream, an ambient soundscape of peeks and valleys all created from small bits of sound. Like Earth, Crone is about notes and each note connects to another so the whole becomes so much more than the sum of its parts. I love that Endless Midnight is a headphones album. Nobody does that anymore, nobody makes a record that you can sit and listen to with headphones on, eyes closed, sinking into the sound. This is the audio equivalent of being on hallucinogens that present you with a good trip, a trip without fear or reservation. Music is supposed to touch you both intellectually and spiritually. Endless Midnight does both. While you’re working to figure out exactly what Jeff Caxide is doing, you’re surrounded and penetrated by his music. Without warning you’re lifted up and moved to a better place.
Album: The Hunter
Why I Chose This: Yes! This is the monster bad ass super rock incredo jam out fuck you album I have been waiting for from these guys. People can play the “it’s not as a good as” card all they want but The Hunter is a game changing record for Mastodon. This is the album where they leave any and all metal trappings behind and start down the road of growing from band to an institution. The Hunter has bits of seventies space rock, thrash, arena rock, rock of ages, rock shit hot, fucking blister pack dinosaur murder rock, whatever kind of rock you can think of, Mastodon has crammed it into this album. Mastodon sized riffs, drums that defy imagination and a super dirty bass sound that anchors the whole thing, The Hunter is an audio juggernaut. Remember the Monolith from 2001 A Space Odyssey? Yeah, well deep inside that bitch was Mastodon playing and rocking the shit out of the universe. You will not find a better full on crushing rock album this year.
Album: Glass Drop
Label: Warp Records
Why I Chose This: I said it earlier this year and here I am saying it again, Battles’ Glass Drop is a pure slice of brilliance. Part instrumental rock fusion, part world music free-for-all, Glass Drop can be pure confectious pop and then change on a dime into a master blaster of rock goodness. This wasn’t an easy album for Battles to make. Coming off the loss of their kind-of frontman Tyondai Braxton, the band stood at a crossroads. Instead of breaking up, Battles said “fuck it: and wrote an album that is an honest evolution to what they do. Working as a trio hasn’t slowed down Battles at all. Guitarists Ian Williams (Don Caballero, Storm & Stress) and Dave Konopka (Lynx) drain every single drop of whatever they can out of their instruments. Weird circus sounds, swinging good time keyboard work, free-for-all rock, space sounds, anything and everything the two can think of. Holding down this experimental jamboree is John Stainer on drums. Battles could easily slip away into an excessive mess but Stainer’s ruthless and tasty attack keeps any and all mess away. Stainer is like the Mr. Clean of Glass Drop; he keeps the songs sparkling so the real beauty can shine through. If you love rock, if you love funk, Latin and jazz, then Glass Drop will be the kick in your ass for sure!
02. Tom Waits
Album: Bad As Me
Why I Chose This:For his 22nd album Tom Waits decided to unleash his greatest array of songs since 1992’s Bone Machine. This is not just vintage Tom Waits; this is vintage Tom Waits to the nth degree. Bad As Me is more than just a record, more than just a brilliant Tom Waits record; it’s a walk through time and history. Waits takes the elements from all his records and applies them to his newest crop. This isn’t nostalgia; this is a documentation of what’s come before and where it might go next. With the release of Bad As Me, Tom Waits has become the past present and future of music.
“Chicago” and “Raised Right Men” is straight from the Bone Machine and Blood Money era. “Face The Highway” and “Pay Me” come from the Heart Of Saturday Night and Raindogs era, while “Back In The Crowd” and “Last Leaf On The Tree” has a feel from the earlier work such as Closing Time or Heart Attack And Vine. I can’t stress enough that the songs here are completely original, they just allow us glimpses into what has come before. As always Waits is a master with words. Only a real poet could write a simple song about the end of a relationship (Back In The Crowd) and have it resonate with such honest sadness. Waits world-weary voice makes every song a small trip, like the road map of a man who has seen too much, lost too much and loved too often. People like Waits don’t exist anymore. He’s a dying breed and we can all be thankful that he consistently puts out incredible music. Bad As Me is another soundtrack of pain and humanity from a man who has been translating the heart of the disenfranchised for nearly four decades.
01. Russian Circles
Label: Sargent House
Why I Chose This:In reality Russian Circles and Tom Waits have tied for first. I place this instrumental album ahead of Waits simply because he’s a fucking legend and these guys aren’t…..yet. Russian Circles have completely outdone themselves with Empros. They have made a perfect record, an album so flawless that every time I listen to it I discover something else I missed. Emprosis not a perfect record because the songs are so good, which they are or because the musicianship is above reproach, which it is. Empros is the best record of the year because there is no easy way to figure it out. You can’t just listen to this album and get it, you have to scratch, you have to listen and embrace the experience
Don’t let my pretentious rock musings fool you, Russian Circles still bring the rock. The grooves are huge onEmpros, menacing and pit stomping fun. However, that’s not all that goes on. There are also bits of electronica, delicate notes and even some nods towards dance and funk. These other elements combined with the huge rock are what keep Empros from being easily defined. You can pick out the elements of a song, but now how they work or how one song bleeds into another even when they are so different. That lack of definition is what keeps you coming back to Empros and trying to figure out why it makes you feel the way you do. Russian Circles have written an album that will confuse you, rock you, confound you and, above all else, make you feel. Empros forces you to think while it nourishes your soul and that’s what makes it record of the year.
Well, that’s it. Musically 2011 is in the bag and I’m moving on to 2012. This was a great year for music, no matter what your preference is. This is my list but it’s not gospel. Make your own list, argue about mine, come together and have an open discussion about music and art. In the end that’s what these lists are really good for, they get people talking. I hope mine gets you talking and I hope 2012 is as good a year for music as 2011 was.