11 FROM 2011 – Team Honest Tune’s Top Albums of the Year
It has been another fine year in music, so good that it would have been a disservice to follow the tried-and-true top 10 format. Instead, Team Honest Tune has decided to recount the Top 11 of 2011. And given the varied interests of our writers and editors, we have compiled individual lists that will surely pique your interests.
From Wilco to Mastodon to Bad Meets Evil, these lists cover a lot of ground. Please kick back and dig in – you will surely come across some gems that you may not have heard.
We hope you enjoy our Top 11 of 2011 lists as much as we enjoyed putting them together.
Cheers to a great 2011, and the promise of an even better 2012!
Tom Speed – Editor in Chief
1) Wilco: The Whole Love – Here, America’s greatest band continues to do what they do best: experiment with effects-laden art-rock (“Art of Almost”), thrive in meandering pastoral jams (“One Sunday Morning”) and provide scrumptious pop songs (“I Might”). The Whole Love is not so much a departure from their recent work as a culmination of it.
2) Portugal. The Man: In The Mountain In The Cloud - For their major label debut, the psych rockers plow forward with aplomb.
3) Blitzen Trapper: American Goldwing – Rootsy rock with irresistible hooks and deft musicianship make the latest release from Blitzen Trapper a keeper.
4) North Mississippi Allstars: Keys To the Kingdom – The Allstars turned in their most poignant (yet still rocking) set of songs this year, ruminating on life, death and the party on other side.
5) My Morning Jacket: Circuital – Not MMJ’s best record by a long shot, but the fact that even a let-down of a release can make a significant mark and continue to swell their fan base is quite a feat.
6) Jimbo Mathus: Confederate Buddha - Jim Dickinson called him the “singing voice of Huck Finn,” and for all the musical mischief Mathus conjures up on a consistent basis, the moniker is apt. That’s nowhere more apparent than on this latest release.
7) Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit: Here We Rest – Since his departure from the Drive-By Truckers, Isbell’s songwriter has remained strong, while his sound has swayed more and more toward the soul and gospel sounds found herein.
8) Iron & Wine: Kiss Each Other Clean – Sam Beam becomes less introspective and expands his musical palette even further with this collection, and it feels something like a rebirth.
9) Ryan Adams: Ashes & Fire – Remember when Adams “quit” music? Yeah, we knew it wouldn’t last too. He hasn’t missed a beat and this post-Cardinals collection benefits from tasteful playing by top-notch studio musicians, including Adams’ wife Mandy Moore on vocals, Noah Jones on keyboards and Cardinal Neal Casal on guitars.
10) Shannon McNally: Western Ballad – McNally used a Kickstarter campaign to raise the funds to head to New Orleans and record with Mark Bingham. The two collaborated on the songs here, which propel her self-styled “American Ghost Music,” including the title track that was based on an Allen Ginsberg poem.
11) 11. Alabama Shakes: Alabama Shakes - It’s only an EP, but the emergence of the Alabama Shakes this year was such a jarring and joyful introduction that it deserves to be celebrated with the giddy anticipation of knowing there is so much more to come.
Josh Mintz – Managing Editor
1) Dawes: Nothing Is Wrong - Simply put, Dawes unleashed the catchiest blend of great harmonies, songwriting, and solid musicianship released in 2011 on their sophomore effort. Americana at its very finest, Nothing is Wrong is a diverse batch of songs with a common thread running through them – the human spirit. With songs that cover nearly every emotion — love, loss, hope, despair — I’ve listened to Nothing Is Wrong too many times to count in 2011.
2) Bon Iver: Bon Iver – As good as I thought For Emma was, the self-titled follow-up is better. Justin Vernon came back with a more polished effort that delivers across the board, from his still-haunting vocals to instrumentation that really shines.
3) Ryan Adams: Ashes & Fire – A no-frills, back-to-business album full of the best aspects of Adams. Here’s to hoping that he stays out of retirement for good this time.
4) Iron & Wine: Kiss Each Other Clean - From the opening squeaks and squonks of “Me & Lazarus,” it’s clear Sam Beam has come a long way from his stripped down, acoustic days. There are few whispers here, as he’s incorporated the best elements of previous albums, mixed them together, and created what would probably have been the year’s best release in any other year.
5) Fleet Foxes: Helplessness Blues – Robin Pecknold and company pulled no punches on a sound that really brings folk rock to a new level. It’s easy to get lost in the swelling, reverb-filled harmonies and guitar picking on songs like “The Shrine/An Argument.”
6) The Jayhawks: Mockingbird Time – Oh, they’re back, and in a big way. With the original line-up reunited, it’s like the band never missed a beat, let alone nearly two decades. Mockingbird Time is a triumphant return to the forefront of Americana for the Jayhawks.
7) Tedeschi Trucks Band: Revelator – The album fans have been waiting for ever since the slide guitar genius and blueswoman got hitched, and it doesn’t disappoint. Taking elements of the diverse music backgrounds and influences of the players, Revelator is a great building block for a “young” band.
8) Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit: Here We Rest – In most cases, an album that features violin and later dives into barrelhouse piano means complete lack of focus, but few can spin a tale like Jason Isbell, and his way with words ties the diverse musical styles together. If the album was a tad more focused, it would have been stellar.
9) The Decemberists: The King Is Dead – R.E.M. may have hung it up this year, but The Decemberists are there to carry the mantle (Peter Buck even shows up on the album). The King Is Dead is the fork in the road where Americana and Indie rock meet, and the songs get better with every spin.
10) Bad Meets Evil: Hell: The Sequel – Kanye and Jay-Z may have released the more heralded rap collaboration of 2011, but there isn’t a better lyrical delivery than Eminem’s, and Royce da 5’9″ keeps up as well as anyone. Whether you like hip-hop or not, Marshall Mathers has ridiculous verbal skill and it’s on full display here.
11) Death Cab for Cutie: Codes and Keys – There’s something to be said about consistency, and Death Cab is consistent as it gets. Codes and Keys may be more straight-forward rock than previous releases; instead the listener just gets a fun group of songs.
Jamie Lee – CD/DVD Reviews Editor
1) Tedeschi Trucks Band: Revelator – The talent is overwhelming in Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks, and the couple recruited a crack collective this year to produce a stunning collection of blues and soul songs. If you only listen to one song from an album on this list, make it “Midnight in Harlem.”
2) Drive-By Truckers: Go-Go Boots – Comprised of tracks recorded during the sessions that also produced 2010’s The Big To-Do, Go-Go Boots rises above the band’s recent releases with astute songwriting and further confirmation of the recently-departed Shonna Tucker’s essential contributions to this band.
3) Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit: Here We Rest – Three albums into a solo career after parting ways with the Drive-By Truckers, Jason Isbell continues to hone his craft. Here We Rest is the most refined collection he has delivered with support from the 400 Unit. Isbell continues to confirm his status among the songwriting greats.
4) Wilco : The Whole Love – Wilco have been nothing but consistent since their breakthrough Yankee Foxtrot Hotel, but The Whole Love is the most inventive album since that release. The icy dissonance of the opening “Art of Almost” is tempered with the closing 12-minute acoustic opus “One Sunday Morning,” bookending one of this year’s best.
5) Mastodon : The Hunter – These Atlanta, Georgia headbangers known for sprawling prog-metal scaled back on The Hunter with glowing success. “Curl of the Burl” is so good, it will make you want to get a neck tattoo.
6) Death Cab for Cutie: Codes and Keys – Noted by Ben Gibbard as the happiest album that his band has put out, Codes and Keys ripples with a sonic clarity and tonal depth that makes it a worthy addition to the Seattle quartet’s canon.
7) James Justin & Co.: Dark Country – James Justin Burke followed up his debut, Southern Son, So Far, with an album that confirms his ascent to the frontlines of a new wave of Americana. Melding folk, bluegrass, and good old rock and roll, Burke can turn a lyric with the best of them.
8) Booker T. Jones : The Road From Memphis – The Road From Memphis dispels any doubt that soul man Booker T. Jones is partial to his hometown of Memphis, Tennessee. Featuring guest appearances from Yim Yames (My Morning Jacket) on the sunny “Progress,” and a stunning collaboration with Matt Berninger (The National) and Sharon Jones on “Representing Memphis,” Booker T. supports his status as a living legend.
9) Foo Fighters : Wasting Light - Life after Nirvana only gets sweeter for David Grohl who can’t help but churn out heavy rock and roll with new twists and turns and lasting appeal.
10) Fucked Up : David Comes to Life - What happens when a Canadian hardcore band writes a rock opera? David Comes to Life, a feral collection that surpasses its ambitious concept and features the most melodic compositions this collective has ever nailed together.
11) The Deep Dark Woods: The Place I Left Behind – Mellow, textured and pastoral, the fourth album from these Canadian folkies is a dreamy song set that emanates a rustic feel. It is good enough to make you want to pull a Thoreau, and head out into those Deep Dark Woods.
David Shehi – Live Music Editor
1) My Morning Jacket: Circuital – In my estimation, 2011 was the year of the Jacket and Circuital was the centerpiece of it all. In true Kentucky fashion – and by my conveniently leaving out Tennessee Fire – Jim James and company have achieved the coveted status of Secretariat with this, their third jewel of the MMJ Triple Crown. Succeeding side projects including Monsters of Folk and Carl Broemel’s trip down solo lane, Circuital finds and showcases the band matured and in its finest hour – with the polished and focused feel of Evil Urges coupled with the experimentation and coming of age of Z.
Circuital is explosive at times and refined at others; all the while, it maintains a warm, inviting and personal appeal that is just as suited for a stadium as it is a large club. From the anthemic “Victory Dance” opener through the introspective “Outta My System” and the ominously celebratory “Holdin’ on to Black Metal,” this forty-five minute effort has solidified what many a Kentucky boy dreams of … My Morning Jacket has won the Belmont and completed what, at one time, was a very unlikely trifecta.
2) Gary Clark, Jr.: The Bright Lights EP – While it seems sort of odd to place an EP on a “best of” list, this EP is simply too good to omit. It opens with chilling licks from the intensely gifted Clark on guitar, but subsequently exposes Clark the songwriter. The opening track, “Bright Lights” is worth the price of admission alone, but the remaining twenty or so minutes prove that Clark is no longer just some cat that will be known around Austin. The Bright Lights EP is big; it begs chills and grabs attention.
3) Bright Eyes: The People’s Key – Call it a guilty pleasure, but accomplishing songwriting that is this personal and anthemic is quite the accomplishment. With the Bright Eyes moniker now being retired, Conor Oberst has left an indelible mark with this “all grown-up” collection of gripping vocals, that come with an undertone of redemption and just the right amount of self-loathing and anger to keep the Bright Eyes patrons’ thirst effectively quenched.
4) Warren Haynes Band: Man in Motion – To put it bluntly and at risk of sounding like captain of the obvious, Warren Haynes has always grabbed me as an impressive player. This said, his playing has also grabbed me as being a tad overbearing. Then there is Man in Motion, Haynes’ homage to slow cooked soul with a deeply southern twist. Though Warren definitely maintains his position as conductor, he sounds as comfy in the backseat — behind horn splashes, hearty backing vocals and a pocketed groove — as he ever has at the helm. With a supporting cast that was as well thought out, the chemistry is organic and doesn’t possess even a hint of orchestration.
5) Eddie Vedder: Ukulele Songs - It is funny, but at face value, the idea of an album that features an aging “grunge” rocker and his ukulele – an ostensible instrument if not in the hands of Jake Shimabukuro - simultaneously seems both idiotic and endearing. After listening, it is clearly the latter. If you are bargaining for an album that has a 20-something year old dude dancing on a barstool and scrawling “Pro-Choice” on his arm during the “Porch” improvisational bridge, you have come to the wrong place. The album is not stripped down or unplugged Pearl Jam. It is stripped down Eddie Vedder and is chock full of the deep Vedder voice crooning lovelorn and pained lyrics that are unmistakably Vedder-penned (sans “Dream a Little Dream”). Ukulele Songs is juxtaposition in its finest hour … painful songs sung over the happy instrument that Tiny Tim made famous.
6) Tedeschi Trucks Band: Revelator – While the duet of husband and wife power blues couple, Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi, is nothing really new in regards to the live setting, this album solidifies them as an ensemble and incorporates the large band and full sound for which they are known, albeit appropriately subdued for a studio release. It also lets their enthusiasts know that these players are no longer for hire… they have a full-time job.
7) Jim Lauderdale: Reason and Rhyme – When I first popped in this record, my immediate response was not positive. It has a deep twang and seemed more fit for the “never leave Nashville club” than for the road of an unwavering hippie’s CD player. But contempt prior to investigation has not been my thing for a while, and the fact that Robert Hunter was the man behind the lyrics led me to the conclusion that I, not Jim Lauderdale, was the one who was missing something. By spin number three, I was thoroughly captivated and the realization that this album was not only some of Hunter’s best recent writing, but that it had a feeling of “Ripple” revisited – and was being sung by the most suitable voice – slapped me across my biased space-face. It has not left my car’s disc changer since.
8) Paul Simon: So Beautiful or So What – I am not sure what I was expecting when I popped in Paul Simon’s first album after a five year break, So Beautiful or So What, but what I got was quintessential Paul Simon. It is as though Simon has taken what has worked best from all eras of his illustrious career. Whereas on Surprise, there seemed to be a forced attempt of breaking free of the chains of Graceland, on this record, it seems that Simon just went in and was who he is and what is best is its beautiful familiarity. Elementally, it draws from Simon’s admitted love of world, gospel and R&B music but what is most pleasing is the way that he continues to have the unique ability to blend the diverse ingredients into the catchy, spry pop sound for which he has become a legend.
9) Greensky Bluegrass: Handguns – If there is one complaint about this album, it is that its title track doesn’t open the proceedings. Nitpickiness aside, this is Greensky’s culmination piece, an arrival album if you will. The effort seizes on the hard-won experience of a group of guys who have been hard at work and evolution for a decade now. The stellar and non-competitive musicianship behind the golden voice of Paul Hoffmann stays true to the group’s improvisational roots and begs the phrase, “long live the dobro.”
10) The Wood Brothers: Smoke Ring Halo – Smoke Ring Halo is the kind of album that I will just randomly start humming when doing mundane tasks. The production is pristine, best evidenced by the tonal capture of Chris Wood’s heavy bass plucking and Oliver Wood’s southern cooked vocal flavor. Smoke Ring Halo is refreshing with its song diversity – some foot-stomping and fun (“Shoofly Pie”), others thought provoking and nostalgic at others (“When I Was Young”) – Chris and Oliver Wood have avoided what could have been an easily taken direction by not simply continuing in the direction of 2006′s critically lauded Ways Not To Lose.
11) North Mississippi Allstars: Keys to the Kingdom – Sometimes an album can hook you in the first track on the first listen. This is what Keys to the Kingdom does with the opening “This A’Way.” It is the kind of album that you would swear that you heard somewhere before. To quote Bad Blake (Crazy Heart), “that’s the way it is with good ones.”
Tim Newby – Features Editor
1) Wye Oak: Civilian – Wye Oak used to live deep in the noise, their fleeting flourishes of sublime beauty hidden between walls of thunderous guitar and crushing distortion. But on their third album, Civilian – by far their greatest triumph yet – Wye Oak has emerged from the noise. They can still ramp it up and bring those deftly timed sonic explosions, but now those fleeting moments of sublime beauty have taken over the duo’s songs and the results are stunning.
2) Radiohead: King of Limbs - The King of Limbs is a much deeper, personal, and intimate experience than anything Radiohead has released. Painted on a broad sonic canvas, carving huge swashes of sound through the album’s ever-undulating landscape, The King of Limbs is the sound of a band at the top of its powers that are shaking off the warm comfort of all they have done before.
3) TV on the Radio: Nine Types of Light – TV on the Radio have softened the edges of the shimmering dance-floor rock of 2008’s Dear Science, into a groove laden, mellow affair that just might be the band’s most mature effort to date. After years of shredding-guitars, post-punk wonder, and crazed disco beats re-imagined through the band’s adventurous spin, Nine Types of Light, finds TV on the Radio still digging deep into their experimental past creating weird stuttering blasts of joy, but doing so now with a masterful relaxed, confident touch.
4) Tedeschi Trucks Band: Revelator - It’s a simple, no-brainer formula. Take the best young guitar player in the world, add his wife who is a shredding blues-singer (and no slouch on the guitar herself), combine with a 10-piece band of hot-shit players, write songs, record. The result is a mesmerizing slice of ‘70s inspired soul and funk.
5) Fleet Foxes: Helplessness Blues – Faced with the unenviable task of living up to all the hype and praise heaped on them following the release of the self-titled debut album, Fleet Foxes – who rely on their lush, choir-like harmonies to create unwavering ambiance – came out swinging on their second effort and show no sign of the dreaded sophomore slump. Picking up where their first album left off, Helplessness Blues, expands on all the ideas and themes first hinted at on their debut album. The result is deeper, darker, more complex album that is a truly challenging reward.
6) The Bridge: National Bohemian – This Steve Berlin produced effort is far and away The Bridge’s best album yet. It is the perfect culmination of their previous ten years on the road. All the elements that they have become known for, a sound born in the backwoods and the mountains, but raised on the streets of New Orleans, led by intense guitar work and heartfelt songwriting are present. It is an album built as equally upon the intense, psychedelic freak-out of “Sanctuary” or the high energy of “Rosie”, as it is the quiet beauty of “Dirt on my Hands” or “Long Way to Climb”. With the announcement that the band will be calling it quits at the end of the year, this swan song album is quite simply the perfect capstone to the band’s decade long run.
7) Dawes: Nothing is Wrong – A sublime take on ‘70s inspired So-Cal canyon rock, instantly recalls the engaging mellow-mood songwriting of Jackson Browne (who guests on the album).
8) Low Anthem: Smart Flesh – Smart Flesh is pure stripped down beauty. A deeply thoughtful album, full of sadness and despair delivered in heartbreakingly beautiful harmonies that demand the listener to be engaged. Recorded in an abandoned pasta factory in Rhode Island, Low Anthem translated the vast, emptiness of their recording environment into a perfect sound that relies as much on the silence and space in between each and every slow, fading note as it does the rich, moody, texture found at the heart of each song.
9) Bombadil: All that the Rain Promises – After a nearly two year forced hiatus due to bassist Daniel Michalak’s health issues, Bombadil is back. All That The Rain Promises stays true to the band’s uniquely addictive take on folksy-Americana, Piedmont blues, and rocking gypsy rag-time. Bombadil’s genius has always been in how they create complex beauty out of such a simple sound. All That The Rain Promises is an 11-song musical adventure weaving stories and tales about such diverse topics as bread making, leather belts, ponies, crushes, and the joy of one-wheeled bikes that are full of lyrical twists, odd instrumentation, and immediately unforgettable harmonies, that moves from sparse ballads to quirky rockers, and is quite simply a glorious, welcome return for the band
10) Wilco: The Whole Love – Another masterpiece in a string of constantly shape-shifting albums that find that band veering from the experimental bent of A Ghost is Born, to the lush country-fried rock of Sky Blue Sky, to the brooding Wilco (The Album). From the opening Radiohead inspired freak-out “Art of Almost” to the 12-minute acoustic album closing journey of “One Sunday Morning”, The Whole Love merges all those elements they have played with before into one of the band’s strongest albums yet.
11) Cave Singers: No Witch -The Cave Singers mine a deeply rooted vein of country-rock tinged with folk that seems to be taking over the Northwest. The band attacks their music with a simple approach, relying on more straight-forward, bluesy Americana sound that uses loose, basic drumming and dirty, finger-picked guitar ripped from the back-porch to give lead singer Pete Quirk’s voice a dark, shaman-esque quality. Their songwriting that finds the near-perfect balance between pop accessibility and soulful realism, and No Witch treads this razor-thin line with balanced perfection.
Dave Stallard – Contributor
1) Jonathan Scales Fourchestra: Character Farm & Other Short Stories - The term “genius” is not a platitude I bandy about regularly, but it fits here. Jonathan Scales is to the steel pans what Bela Fleck is to the banjo or David Grisman is to the mandolin – instrumental innovator and brilliant composer – and his Character Farm & Other Short Stories is a mindbender of pan-driven jazz, with guest spots by Jeff Coffin and Kofi Burbridge. My favorite record of the year for its sheer virtuosity and pure inventiveness. It’s unlike anything else I heard in 2011.
2) Various Artists: This One’s For Him – A Tribute To Guy Clark – So, you take a cadre of America’s best singer/songwriters and get them to record a two disc collection of tunes from, perhaps, America’s best singer/songwriter? Yes, I’ll take it. Iconic singers like Lyle Lovett, John Prine, Kris Kristofferson, Emmylou Harris, James McMurtry, and more take their turns on poet/singer Guy Clark’s timeless tunes. This record is an Americana time capsule, for the scope of its assembled talent and the honor it bestows up on Guy Clark.
3) Dead Man Winter – Bright Lights: Best way to beat the cold northern nights in Minnesota? Listen to Bright Lights, the release from Trampled By Turtles front man Dave Simonette and his side project, Dead Man Winter. This record has the distinction of holding what I believe is the greatest single track of 2011 – “A Long, Cold Night In Minneapolis.” Somber and aching, it’s exactly what Americana from the Northern climes should sound like.
4) Various Artists: I Love: Tom T. Hall’s Songs of Fox Hollow – I’m a dad three times over, and I am a sucker for a children’s record that doesn’t sound like a children’s record. This remake of Tom T. Hall’s classic 1974 recording Songs of Fox Hollow, actually recorded on the farm in Fox Hollow that Hall still calls home, features performances by Buddy Miller, Patty Griffin, Duane Eddy, Jim Lauderdale, and even Tom T. himself. The record also has garnered a Grammy nomination for Best Children’s Album – kudos to my good buddies Eric Brace and Peter Cooper.
5) Noam Pikelny: Beat The Devil And Carry A Rail - The best young banjo player in America? If not the outright holder of that title, Pikelny is most certainly a contender in the discussion. His most recent solo release showcases his virtuosic abilities on the five string banjo – there are moments during this record when Pikelny’s rolls are mind blowing. Pikelny is joined on the record by fellow Punch Brothers Chris Thile, Gabe Witcher, and Chris Eldridge, and fellow all-star musicians like Tim O’Brien, Jerry Douglas, Bryan Sutton, and Alex Hargreaves. This could be the best progressive acoustic album of the year.
6) Todd Grebe & Cold Country: Until Tomorrow – I don’t know where the bluegrass country is in Alaska, but Todd Grebe sure as hell does. This North Country guitar player took some time off from his duties with Alaskan bluegrass outfit Bearfoot to put together this equally grassy and old country offering. It isn’t hard to see Grebe pickin’ and singin’ in front of a single mic in the heyday of the Grand Ole Opry – his music rings with vintage country soul.
7) The Infamous Stringdusters: We’ll Do It Live - My favorite live record of the year. We’ll Do It Live so amply showcases the continued evolution of one of the best bands in acoustic music – sure, they are still bluegrassy, but now they jam. Extended renditions of longtime favorite tunes, dynamic interplay between some of the best pickers in the game, and instrumental runs that lead the crowd into a stratospheric frenzy - it’s almost as good as being there.
8) The Deep Dark Woods: The Place I Left Behind - Apparently, cold, wintery climates and stunning songwriting go hand in hand. It works for Dead Man Winter, and it certainly works for The Deep Dark Woods, the best band out of Canada that I have heard in a long, long time. Though they hail from Saskatoon, I often hear a distinct ripple of my own Appalachia running through their tunes – subtle banjo, an acoustic riff here and there that, though plucked a thousand miles away, just sounds like home.
9) Girls, Guns & Glory: Sweet Nothings - I am firmly convinced that the Northeast is pumping out some of the best alt-country on the scene. Boston-based Girls Guns & Glory are bound to put Beantown in the same league with Brooklyn when it comes to boot stompin’ honky tonk nouveau. Singer Ward Hayden is a mesmerizing mélange of Chris Isaak, Dwight Yoakam, and Roy Orbison, and the band rolls with a swagger most often seen wrapped behind chicken wire in a smoky Texas roadhouse.
10) Danny Barnes: Rocket - When is a banjo record not a banjo record? When Danny Barnes is the banjo player. At times, this a roots record, at other times a rock record, but at all times it is Barnes as total bad ass, shifting genres and sounds like a chameleon, just as he has done throughout his storied career.
11) Kenny Vaughan: V - Country music’s got a hold on me. To be honest, I can’t even believe I ripped the title of the first track of this record to kick off this entry, but it’s true – I have been smitten by country music. Shocking, I know, but I am in love with guitar wizard Kenny Vaughan’s take on the genre. Vaughan is a maestro on the six string guitbox. For evidence, just take a listen to the instrumentals on V. They roll and moan like a dusty country landscape, just like country music is supposed to sound.