NOTE: These albums are arranged in no particular order. I love each of them, and however I might rank them today, I’d probably do it differently tomorrow. I’m just saying you should definitely hear them all.
Damnwells, No One Listens to the Band Anymore
I enjoyed the Damnwells‘ last album, One Last Century, and because I downloaded it while the band was giving it away through Paste Magazine, I felt like I owed them one when their next record came around. So I didn’t think twice when the band announced it was teaming up with PledgeMusic to release No One Listens to the Band Anymore — and I haven’t stopped listening to it since it was released on March 3.
There are too many Popdose writers with too many divergent tastes for us to have an official “album of the year,” but No One Listens to the Band Anymore came as close as any record could in 2011 — my love for this album was shared by Tall Editor Michael Parr, Infrequent Editor Matt Wardlaw, New York Times Bestselling Editor Dave Lifton, and Largely Invisible Editor Jason Hare, just to name a few of the staff members who were captivated by these songs. They’re catchy, they’re funny, they’re rousing, they’re smart, they’re heartbreaking — sometimes all at once.
How many songwriters would namecheck Dionysius and drop an f-bomb in the same chorus? How many can make you feel like you’ve got the best seat in the friendliest bar while the coolest band is rocking a perfect set on a Friday night? How many can sum up the bone-deep fear and stubborn refusal to abandon love that grips us all in post-9/11 America? Not many. Maybe only Alex Dezen of the Damnwells.
Paul Simon, So Beautiful or So What
After the crushing disappointment of 1996’s The Capeman and a pair of lukewarm efforts in the aughts (You’re the One and Surprise), I’d stopped expecting much from new Paul Simon records — and when he left Warner Bros. after 30-plus years to sign up with Hear Music for his twelfth studio release, So Beautiful or So What, I lowered my expectations further. (Hear loves signing heritage artists, but doesn’t always know what to do with their music.)
“Return to form” is an overused phrase when it comes to new albums from artists of Simon’s generation, but in this case, it’s hard to avoid — after spending 20 years seemingly on the outs with his muse, Simon took his songwriting back to basics, abandoning the rhythm-first approach he’d used since Graceland. The result is an album of memorable melodies put to good use: Simon’s telling stories again. So What‘s best tracks are part pop song, part short story, and after a string of records that found him more interested in crafting sounds than sharing a point of view, here he proves he hasn’t lost his gift for trenchant observations, or his eye for heartbreaking detail.
After serving him so well for the first 15 years of his solo career, Simon’s restlessness crippled his last few records. Does he really have his mojo back, or was this album a happy accident? I don’t know. I’m just glad to hear him back on track, if only for a moment.
David Mead, Dudes
I’m always excited to hear a new David Mead record, but I think he often struggles to find a balance between his gift for toe-tapping Technicolor pop and his fondness for plaintive ballads, so even though I barely hesitated before contributing to the Kickstarter campaign for Dudes, I did have a few doubts about the final product.
I needn’t have worried — Dudes is my favorite David Mead record since 2001’s Mine and Yours (perhaps not coincidentally, both albums were produced by Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne). The album hits you like a sunrise, with the warm optimism of the gentle opening track, “I Can’t Wait,” giving way to the bright ‘n’ snappy “King of the Crosswords,” and proceeds to present a perfect cross-section of Mead’s still-growing gifts as a songwriter and recording artist.
Dudes was recorded guerrilla-style, with Mead and crew banging out the sessions in a few days, but you’d never be able to tell from the finished recordings — this is one of the more sonically full-bodied records I had the pleasure of hearing in 2011, with smart arrangements to match. It also boasts some of Mead’s best lyrics, from the heartbreaking holiday divorce story of “The Smile of Rachael Ray” to the profane middle-aged musician’s lament of “No One Roxx This Town No More.” When’s the next Kickstarter campaign, David?
Lindsey Buckingham, Seeds We Sow
After the long wait to see the damn thing officially released, I thought 2008’s Gift of Screws was something of a disappointment — after all these years of listening to Lindsey skronk out, once I heard him plunge into layers upon layers of acoustic guitars for 2006’s Under the Skin, I was hooked on the softer side of Buckingham.
Which is not to say I still don’t appreciate a good uptempo cut from him every now and again, and that’s part of why I loved Seeds to Sow so much: not only is it built with infinite spirals of elaborately constructed guitars, stacked on top of Lindsey’s trademark pancake-thin bottom end and layers of multitracked vocals, but it does a pretty solid job of balancing his need for bugeyed weirdness against his gift for absolute, tear-squeezing beauty.
What else do you need to know about the major label economy in 2011 than that Seeds to Sow came out on “Buckingham Records,” and probably sold a hundredth of what it should? If you’re a grown-up music consumer bemoaning the apparent lack of worthwhile choices for your ears, and you don’t own this album, I can only shake my head at you and the record industry in sadness.
Joe Henry, Reverie
Usually, when you say an album is a “headphone record,” it’s because of the impressive audio trickery applied after the fact by talented producers and engineers — pristine sound, with tricky stereo separation, or maybe a nifty sound effect or two. Joe Henry‘s Reverie is a headphone record for the opposite reason. He recorded it with the windows open, letting all sorts of ambient noise bleed into the songs: the hiss of wind, a barking dog, stray voices.
Life, in other words. Artists used to worry and debate about whether recording technology was a blessing or a curse, and question the wisdom of putting something on tape that you couldn’t possibly perform, but our mad pursuit of flawless sound has sucked all the life out of the audio landscape. Henry revels in it with Reverie, taking his audience on another staggering, woozy journey through this world of terrible, terrible beauty.
Like most of Henry’s records, Reverie isn’t easy listening — it isn’t an album that comes rushing at you with open arms. It seduces you quietly instead, soaking into your pores and working on you from the inside out; it’s the kind of music you feel as much as you hear. And if you haven’t heard it yet, you need to change that now.
Julian Velard, Mr. Saturday Night
I made a concerted effort to listen to less new music this year — to slow down and spend more time with the songs I already loved, and really get to know the new discoveries I was lucky enough to hear. Julian Velard‘s Mr. Saturday Night fell squarely into the latter category. Velard traverses the delicate balance between confessional singer/songwritering and pure pop craft with a showman’s aplomb, delivering song after song of sharply observed lines and instantly hummable hooks.
What really sets Saturday apart for me, though, is the way the thing sounds — this is one hell of an album, with a round, warm, live feel and thick arrangements that keep things interesting without being too busy. It’s just a pleasure to hear. And if you grew up in the ’70s and ’80s, Saturday‘s sonic aesthetic will offer a delightful reminder of the days when trends had only a passing effect on traditional songcraft, a singer was a singer, and a band was a band.
Is there still a market for this kind of stuff? I don’t know, and I know Velard has his doubts. But if you’ve ever complained that they don’t make music like they used to, Mr. Saturday Night serves as eminently tuneful proof that they do.
Emmylou Harris, Hard Bargain
There will never be another Wrecking Ball, but even after the thrill of hearing Emmylou Harris veer off the country charts and onto her own personal red dirt road subsided, she’s kept releasing albums of haunting, elegiac, deeply personal music — and Hard Bargain fits beautifully into that tradition. In fact, for folks who have been hoping for a Harris/Lanois reunion, Bargain is just about the next best thing — producer Jay Joyce burnished these tracks to a fine, sepia-toned sheen, and Harris’ world-weary sigh is as affecting as ever.
If anything, Harris’ main problem is that she’s elevated expectations to the point where another solid effort from her is no big deal. I know I bought Hard Bargain when it was released, gave it a few spins, enjoyed it, and promptly forgot about it until I was jotting down contenders for this list. Her target demographic is so small, and her work is so reliable, that I think Harris is largely taken for granted, which is a shame — songs as sharply sketched as “The Road,” “My Name Is Emmett Till,” and this album’s title track don’t come around very often, and we should cherish them when they do.
Matthew Ryan, I Recall Standing As Though Nothing Could Fall
Over the years, I have written repeatedly about Ryan’s music, so if you’ve followed me and/or Popdose at all, seeing I Recall Standing on this list shouldn’t surprise you.
So maybe its inclusion is to be expected. But that doesn’t make this music any less impressive, or meaningful, or soul-searing. You never know what you’re going to get from Ryan in terms of sonics — he can bash it out with a live band or give you a hushed electronic ballad — but you can bet he’s going to wrestle his muse until he doesn’t have any blood left to give, and Recall is no exception.
These are songs about reaching out to your fellow man, about allowing yourself to feel, no matter what the cost, and about never, ever giving up. We’ve all listened to our share of populist rockers, but I’m not sure you’ve heard a fiercer advocate for his fellow man. Matthew Ryan wants you to succeed. With I Recall Standing As Though Nothing Could Fall, he carves out a new success of his own.
Brandon O. Bailey, Memphis Grooves
You don’t hear many albums by harmonica players these days, and you’ll find fewer still by 19-year-old talents. Looking for a teenage phenom who’s developed a new style of playing called “harpboxing”? Well, now you’ve narrowed the field down to one guy and one LP: Brandon O. Bailey and Memphis Grooves.
I discovered Bailey’s work through a rapturous writeup in NPR, bought the album without delay, and have spent the last five months happily marinating my ears in his finely seasoned neo-traditional take on soul, rhythm, and blues.
A large part of Grooves‘ appeal for me is the fact that I’m a sucker for a nice, fat harmonica (no pointlessly busy John Popper solos for me, thanks) — if you’re not a fan of the blues harp, you needn’t apply here. But there’s something else at work in these songs: the sound of a singular young artist finding his footing on new turf, and confidently bringing traditional sounds into a new era. It doesn’t hurt that you can dance to it, either.
Preservation Hall Jazz Band and Del McCoury Band, American Legacies
The hell with Jay-Z and Kanye’s Watch the Throne — this is the all-star mashup I was most excited to hear in 2011, and it managed to surpass even my most fevered fanboy expectations. As Dave Lifton said after listening to American Legacies: “This is the sound of the America I want to live in.”
This is living, breathing roots music, all gap-toothed and sweaty and shaking with the power of hundreds of years of tradition, steadfastly refusing to lay down in the past. These are guys who know how to play. This is an album that will shine a light on the spindled, folded-up corners of your soul and bring you a relief you didn’t know you needed. There’s no overarching message here, no grand statement of purpose — just the sound of brilliant musicians showing up to do what they do, simply for the joy of doing it. That’s more than enough.
Canon Logic, Rapid Empire
I was 13 in 1987, the Year of Our Lord The Joshua Tree, so I have a soft spot for pretty much any record that sends big, Edge-style guitars pinging between my headphones. The Canon Logic‘s Rapid Empire does that so successfully that it verges on pastiche, but unlike a lot of bands who do this sort of thing, they’re smart enough to know the difference between real songs and hollow bombast. The net effect is a weird sort of economy of sound — Rapid Empire might make you feel like you’re striking a Jesus pose on the edge of a black-and-white cliff, but there aren’t any superfluous parts; the songs are punchy and smartly arranged, with hooks that will ring in your ears for days.
And speaking of economy, Empire is a five-song EP that will set you back a measly $4.95 at the Amazon MP3 store; weighing in at a tight 20 minutes, it’s just long enough to leave you wanting more (and, in my case, take up a monthslong residence on your iPod). I’d never heard of Canon Logic before listening to these songs, and they provided five of the year’s most pleasant surprises for me. Maybe they’ll do the same for you.
Honorable Mention goes to the Roots’ undun, which I’m enjoying a great deal — but I’ve only spent a little over a week with it, and putting it on a list of albums I’ve listened to dozens of times over the last 12 months didn’t feel right. I’d also really love to tell you all about the upcoming new album from MyNameIsJohnMichael, but it won’t be available until sometime next year, so I’ll wait. (In the meantime, you can read my interview with band frontman John Michael Rouchell right here.)
And finally, if you’re in the mood for a year-end mix, I’ve assembled a list of some of my favorite songs from 2011 over on Spotify — including tracks from Correatown, the Barr Brothers, Fool’s Gold, Michael Kiwanuka, and more. Click here to listen!