In many ways 2011 was like most other recent years. There was a LOT of music released. Included in the massive pile was some really great stuff, but as usual, you had to wade through a lot of crap to find it. The arrival of Spotify in the US definitely made the process easier, at least for me, and the new Spotify apps indicate another step forward.
Anyone who says that Spotify isn’t helping with new music discovery just isn’t paying attention. Recently I’ve heard some really good music by M83, Other Lives, Twin Atlantic, Jonathan Coulton, Big Pink, and We Are Augustines that I assure you I would not have heard otherwise. None of these promising artists made my list this year, but at least I’m paying attention to what they’re doing, and maybe their next albums will find their way into the mix.
Of course there are still big holes in the Spotify catalog. Dylan, Pink Floyd, and Arcade Fire come to mind. They’re adding more than 15,000 tracks a day though, so who knows when some of these holes might be filled. There are complaints about the small monetary rewards for Spotify streaming, but it seems to me that those complaints are coming from artists who are not living in the new world.
Spotify has unquestionably put a dent in piracy, which was the primary intention. The days of purchasing CDs seem to be behind us. It’s time to come to grips with the fact that these days it’s small payments or no payments for artists. If your music isn’t on the streaming services, people will purchase it in ever smaller quantities, or steal it. Sad, but true. Very few artists are getting rich. The go-go ’70s are over. Simply making a living playing music is a great goal to shoot for these days.
Oh I could go on pontificating all day, but this is supposed to be about my favorite albums of 2011. Notice that I didn’t say that these are the best albums of the year. I’m not sure how anyone can make that particular claim. These are simply the albums that I liked the most, and all of them, with the exception of the Tom Waits album, are available for you to listen to on Spotify right now.
The Roots – Undun
The rush to be first. Several online publications felt the need to get their year-end lists out there very early. Those who did missed my favorite album of the year. Last year the Roots were in my top ten with two albums, this year they own the top spot.
Undun is the band’s first concept album and uses reverse chronology to tell the sad story of the life and death of a small time drug dealer. The Roots are at their rocksteady best, but it is the lyricism of rapper Black Thought that makes Undun a classic.
The Twilight Singers – Dynamite Steps
The perennially underrated Greg Dulli has now been a part of three of my favorite albums of the last five years. First there was the Twilight Singers Powder Burns. Then Dulli teamed up with Mark Lanegan to form the Gutter Twins and they released Saturnalia. And now Dynamite Steps. It’s dark, it’s dense, it’s loud, it’s undeniable. If you’re not on board already, get on the Dulli train. It’s an amazing journey.
Steve Cropper – Dedicated: A Salute to the 5 Royales
The legendary guitarist pays homage to the group, and in particular the guitarist who inspired him as a young man, and he brings on a stellar cast to help him do it. A joyous, romping, soulful classic.
Ha Ha Tonka - Death of a Decade
One of the great joys of my job is watching a band grow from album to album. Ha Ha Tonka is such a band, and their 2011 release is their best yet. This time out the Missouri band has put together a wonderfully homespun album rooted in the great Americana tradition.
Kate Bush – 50 Words For Snow
I have to admit that I’ve never given Kate Bush’s music more than a cursory listen. For some reason I decided to give this one a try on Spotify (another example of music that I probably would never have heard if it wasn’t right at my fingertips), and I was knocked out. I understand from long-time fans that this one is fairly stripped back for Bush, but to me is sounds soaring, majestic, romantic, and otherworldly. Beautiful music for a winter’s day in New England.
The Revelations featuring Tre Williams – Concrete Blues
Here’s another group that I’ve been championing for a few years, and they continue to reward my faith in them with great music. The word soul is thrown about a lot these days, but there are few groups who are presenting it through songwriting that often grabs the morning headlines for inspiration. Add the voice of Tre Williams, who can stand toe-to-toe with the giants of the genre and you have the perfect blend of the modern and the classic.
The Felice Brothers – Celebration, Florida
I’ve often called these guys America’s greatest band. That message usually comes via Twitter when I’m being blown away at one of their shows. But even when the show’s over and I’ve had time to divorce myself from the emotion of the moment, I find myself prepared to back up that statement. There is just something so genuinely authentic about them. They’re so real that even when they add some modern technology to the mix they still impress with the honesty of it all.
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit – Here We Rest
Simply a lovely album with the ability to warm your heart on the coldest day of the year. From wistful country rambles to hard-bitten roots rockers, there is seemingly beyond the grasp of the ex-Drive By Trucker.
Dawes – Nothing Is Wrong
It feels so good to be right. It doesn’t’ happen often, but once in awhile the world catches on to something that I’ve been shouting about since early days. That happened this year with Dawes. I’ve been singing their praises for a couple of years now as a young band with unlimited potential, and with this album they began to live up to it. Great songs delivered with honest emotion, and exceptional craftsmanship. Don’t miss the live show when it comes to your town.
Tom Waits – Bad As Me
This is what you might call automatic. Tom Waits releases an album, it’s on my list. I guess that’s because he’s never made a bad one, and he’s never stood pat. That said, this is one of strongest albums in quite a few years. Sacred, profane, endlessly fascinating. You know what to do.
Ryan Adams – Ashes & Fire
Don’t call it a comeback. Ok, but didn’t he retire a couple of years ago? In any event, it’s great to have Ryan Adams back, doing what he does best. Ashes & Fire is a mostly low-key collection of powerful songs that stay with you long after the music ends. Welcome back.
Lucinda Williams – Blessed
As an old guy, I love it when a veteran delivers the goods in a big way. Smells like … victory. Blessed is Lucinda’s best album in many years, maybe going all the way back to Essence. When it comes to direct, poetic, and passionate songwriting, there are few who can stand with her. An American treasure.
Paul Simon – So Beautiful Or So What
Simon is, of course, one of the great American songwriters of the last 50 years. Of course there are those who think he’s an artifact of the ’60s and ’70s, and that his career ended with Graceland. Guess what? His new album sets out to prove them wrong and succeeds on every level. Sophisticated songwriting that delivers on every level.
Shelby Lynne – Revelation Road
Her most personal album yet. Shelby is an utterly fearless artist. Whether that means dumping the promising career that the music industry had laid out for her, or bringing up painful childhood memories in song, she is simply unafraid. The fact that the can deliver the songs in one of the most soulful voices you are likely to find doesn’t hurt either.
Matthew Ryan – I Recall Standing As Though Nothing Could Fall
Consistency must be recognized. Matthew Ryan is on the list because not only is his new album terrific, but because his entire body of work is deserving of much wider recognition. Heartbroken, heartbreaking music from one of America’s most unique voices.
Tommy Keene – Behind the Parade
I love power pop. Somehow I lost track of this guy after his great late ’70s record “Places That Are Gone.” So this album was a very pleasant surprise. Full of the melodic songwriting and chiming guitars that are the hallmarks of this genre.
The Beach Boys – The SMiLE Sessions
There is not much that I can add to the scholarship that has already attained to SMiLE. I approached this whole thing tentatively because it was my opinion that Brian Wilson had released the definitive version of SMiLE in 2004. Nothing here diminishes that achievement. Everything here embellishes it.
I treasure every moment of each of the five discs in the deluxe box. That said, the two LP vinyl is the way to go in terms of hearing the original album. Is SMiLE the greatest album ever made? That is one big enchilada, isn’t it. We tend to resist anything being called the best ever. I tend to resist the word ‘best.’ So much as I did with the other albums released this year, I’ll just say that SMiLE is my favorite album ever on my ever-changing list.