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Favorite Albums of 2011

We did it last year, so lets do it again. This isn’t necessarily a “best of” list, just my personal favorites. Obviously I did not listen to every single album released. If you think I missed something, I would love to hear it.

Here we go (in no particular order):

The Black Keys, El Camino

The Black Keys have certainly done it again. Brothers was easily my favorite album of 2010, and one of the best albums released in the past ten years. El Camino isn’t quite that good, but it’s still pretty great. Most of the albums on this list are mellow. This one is not.

Listen if: You like the Black Keys. At this point you should know what you’re getting from these guys. Hard rocking blues with solid melody and a true sense of momentum. This album may be a little “poppier,” but that’s not always a bad thing.

Don’t listen if: Rock music scares you. You’re one of the 15 people who still argue the Black Keys are just ripping off the White Stripes. I was once one of these people, but gave up on that idea long, long ago.

Best Song: I’m going to go with “Little Black Submarines” here. It starts off slow, but the section beginning around the 2:14 mark is one of the hardest rocking things you’ll here this year outside of some strange death metal song.

Gillian Welch, The Harrow and the Harvest

Harrow and the Harvest is Gillian Welch’s first album since 2003’s Soul Journey. It was worth the wait. If not for the Decemberists below, this would be my favorite album of 2011.

Listen if: You enjoy Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss, or any other well-known female singer-songwriter with a wonderful voice. Gillian Welch belongs on that list. You enjoy wonderful guitar playing (kudos, Dave Rawlings). You enjoy hearing what two people can do with nothing but two guitars and an occasional banjo.

Don’t listen if: You’re turned off by the mere mention of the word “banjo” or “bluegrass.” You need, just need, electric instruments.

Best Song: Tough call here. “Hard Times” is probably my favorite, but you can’t go wrong with “The Way the Whole Thing Ends” or “Down Along the Dixie Line.” What am I saying? They’re all good. Just listen to the freaking thing.

The Decemberists, The King is Dead

When this came out in January I thought it had a chance to eventually be the best album of 2011. Turns out I was right.

Listen if: You want to hear The Decemberists best album. I love Castaways and Cutouts and Picaresque, but The King is Dead far surpasses them. This is easily one of my favorite albums of the past few years.

Don’t listen if: Can’t come up with a good reason here. If you gave up on The Decemberists after the kindsa-sorta terrible Hazards of Love, then I suggest you come on back. You won’t be disappointed.

Best song: I’d start with “Down by the Water.” Gillian Welch sings background vocals so you get that extra bonus. The first song, “Don’t Carry It All,” is one of the best openers you’re likely to find on an album, well, ever.

Ryan Adams, Ashes and Fire

There have been times when it seemed that Ryan Adams was cranking out an album every two weeks, often with mediocre results. This is the first in a long time that made you remember how great he can really be. It’s certainly his best since 2007’s Easy Tiger.

Listen if: In my October review I lamented the fact that many people, even those whose opinions I value, seem to completely ignore this guy. If you are one of those people, there’s probably nothing I can type here that will change your mind, but I’ll try. Please listen to Ryan Adams. He’s one of the best songwriters of the past decade. Yes, he sometimes puts out crap, but he also puts out albums like this one, Gold, or Heartbreaker. The great far outweighs the bad.

Don’t listen if: See “Listen if” above.

Best song: Dirty Rain” would have fit right in on Heartbreaker or Gold. That’s a compliment.

The Civil Wars, Barton Hollow

This is definitely the most mellow album on this list and the one that I readily admit may not be for everyone. It’s pretty basic “harmony sung over an acoustic guitar” kinda stuff, but it’s done better than most.

Listen if: You enjoy great harmonies. You enjoy somewhat simple and mellow acoustic guitar playing. You just want to hear a fairly original sounding album of slow thoughtful music.

Don’t listen if: You know how I mentioned above that if you need electric instruments, you probably wouldn’t like Gillian Welch’s album. Well triple that for this one. Harrow and the Harvest doesn’t sound half as sparse as this one. That’s neither a good or bad thing, but it may certainly turn off some.

Best song: Probably “Poison and Wine.” If you know of the Civil Wars at all, it’s likely because of the title track, but that song doesn’t really sound like anything else on the album. The rest of the album is better. For a look outside the album check out their wonderful covers of “Billie Jean” or the Smashing Pumpkins’ “Disarm.”

Adele, 21

I’m slightly ashamed to put this out for public consumption, but I think this album is pretty fucking great. Just an incredible voice with real actual instruments backing it up. This is the best album of this type since Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black.

Listen if: You enjoyed Amy Winehouse’s music. You appreciate pure talent, no matter where it’s coming from.

Don’t listen if: You’re an adult male easily prone to shame. You’re one of those that believes Beyoncé brand of pop music is as good as it gets. It’s not. Beyoncé wishes she could put out an album half as good as this. She can’t and never will.

Best Song: No song has been fucked out in 2011 more than “Someone Like You,” but there’s a reason for that. Despite the fact that it makes me want to choke myself out when I hear it now, it’s a pretty damn good song. My favorite song that hasn’t been played one gazillion times too many is “One and Only.” Try that one.

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One thought on “Favorite Albums of 2011

  1. Totally concur about The Black Keys’ “El Camino”. Love the way the band draws on the sound of vintage 60s garage rock. Such great band; such an overlooked genre. What’s not to love?

    2011 saw a growing number of new bands, essentially garage rock purists, who are not-so-quietly focused on preserving the original sound of 60s garage.

    A good example is Chapel Hill NC’s THEE DIRTYBEATS ( 2011 debut ep free download ). They specialize in recreating the tough, primitive, aggressive vibe of early to mid-60s garage rock and psychedelia — the sound that inspired proto-punk pioneers like MC5 and The Stooges.

    To get that sound, THEE DIRTYBEATS make use of sometimes unwieldy period gear, including vintage KAPA, Mosrite, Rickenbacker and Fender guitars, Fender and Ampeg amps, Big Muff fuzzes, Morley wahs — even coiled guitar cords. The result is prickly, gritty, unpredictable… and (if you are into that pure vintage garage rock thing), utterly glorious.

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