2011’s best records
Man, this job must have been so much easier 30 years ago. You had a few dozen albums released on a couple of dozen labels. You could stack them all up nice and neat – cassette or vinyl, your choice – over the year, then just go through that pile come early December. These days? Thousands of recordings, sent on CD, download, stream, podcast, what-have-you, coming from labels, p.r. companies, the artists themselves, the artists’ street teams. Does a list such as this make any sense in these days of EPs, singles sent by email blast, Youtube videos, iTunes playlists and all the other ways of listening to music that don’t involve an album? (My short answer: yes, although that might be just my self-interested perspective because I really like coming up with an annual list of best albums.)Best albums of the year? Maybe. Here is – at least – what I could keep track of, wrap my mind around, and maintain an interest in.Fleet Foxes, “Helplessness Blues”After hitting it big with their 2008 debut, the Seattle group, led by singer-songwriter Robin Pecknold, hits it even bigger and better with “Helplessness Blues.” Starting with ’60s folk-rock – Simon & Garfunkel, Beach Boys, and the influence I hear a whole lot of, Donavon – Fleet Foxes make the music denser and more structurally complex, energized, baroque, grand and mysterious.TV on the Radio, “Nine Types of Light”So this is what soul music has evolved into in 2011 – arty, thumping, constantly shifting in emotional, sonic and rhythmic tone, but still holding onto a core of beauty, sexiness and, in the sweet “Will Do,” even romantic. Five albums in, and the Brooklyn quartet remains on top of the mountain, but still looking for more creative peaks.Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer, Chris Thile and Stuart Duncan, “Goat Rodeo Sessions”String music taken to the next level by four absolute masters. The playing is, of course, remarkable. But what distinguishes the album, the first by this quartet, is the attention paid to composition, and to making sure the compositions add up to an expansive, pioneering statement on contemporary acoustic music.Ryan Adams, “Ashes & Fire”I never completely bought into the idea that folk-rocker Ryan Adams was sacrificing quality for quantity – the fact that he made three really good albums in one year (2005) made that hard to see. But Adams took basically took a couple of years off to give his mind a rest, and he has returned with “Ashes & Fire,” which is notable for its song-to-song consistency. Adams sings in a tender, humble voice that is endearing throughout; writing is exceptional, and “Ashes & Fire” ends on a high note of “Kindness,” “Lucky Now” and the sublime “I Love You But I Don’t Know What to Do.”Radiohead, “The King of Limbs”For years, I held onto my Radiohead CDs (“OK Computer,” “Hail to the Thief,” “Kid A”) not because I liked them, but because I figured one day I would. That day came with 2007’s “In Rainbows” (and “The Eraser,” the 2006 album by lead singer Thom Yorke), and “The King of Limbs” is their first release during my time as a Radioheadhead. (What else would you call us?) It is no letdown at all; the spaciness, airiness and synthesizer sounds strike just the right amount of weirdness for me, becoming oddly seductive.Gillian Welch, “The Harrow & the Harvest”Since 2003’s “Soul Journey,” Gillian Welch has been promising a new album – as soon as the songs and the recording of them were up to her standards. High standards, indeed, but “The Harrow & the Harvest” was worth the wait. Welch (and her full partner, guitarist David Rawlings) didn’t spend the eight years changing their approach, but perfecting it; the songs here still sound like they came out of 1920s rural Tennessee, unadorned but brilliantly recorded.Iron & Wine, “Kiss Each Other Clean”Iron & Wine – otherwise known as Texas-based musician Sam Beam – takes something that sounds an awful lot like mid-’70s FM radio music (I keep hearing hints of Gerry Rafferty) and making it hip. Which is an awfully tough task right there. But “Kiss Each Other Clean,” Iron & Wine’s biggest-sounding album to date, is also catchy, colorful – and will endure in my mind, I bet, like those songs I heard over my mom’s car radio 35 years ago.Wilco, “The Whole Love”Ho-hum, another album by Jeff Tweedy & Co. that is rocking, smart, balanced between familiar ideas and new inventions. And, like all Wilco albums, finds a whole bunch of new musical corners to explore.Feist, “Metals”Canadian singer-songwriter Leslie Feist travels across a variety of tones on “Metals” – jittery to warm, hard-edged to comforting – and the transitional moments can be unsettling. But there is a constant intelligence in her voice, full of yearning and meaning in all of it, and she always seems to land gracefully after the more jarring moments. At the end of the album she repeats the lyric, “Get it right, get it right, get it right.” She has. “Metals” becomes an album that rewards close listening, and full-immersion attention.The Low Anthem, “Smart Flesh”In search of that old, weird America? Rhode Island quartet the Low Anthem has found it in this collection of creaky, lo-fi folk songs. Knowing that the album was recorded in an abandoned spaghetti sauce factory adds to the appeal, right?tUnE-yArDs, “whokill”Merrill Garbus, who records under the name tUnE-yArDs goes on a wild ride here, pounding her way through Afro-beat, metal, reggae, rock and folk, always with an emphasis on the pounding – and on her cool, jazz-like voice. After 10 listens, “whokill” is still mesmerizing; after another 20 listens, I think I’ll have a grip on it – about the same time I figure out why she spells her stage name the way she does.Over the Rhine, “The Long Surrender”Over the Rhine mixes the piano of Linford Detweiler and the voice of his wife, singer Karin Bergquist, beautifully; on “The Long Surrender,” it comes off as clean, uncluttered, a little country, a little jazzy, and filled with melancholy beauty. Extend some major credit to super-producer Joe Henry, whose usual cast (drummer Jay Bellerose, bassist David Piltch, steel guitarist Greg Leisz) lends their sympathetic, subtle touch.Tedeschi Trucks Band, “Revelator”The married couple of singer Susan Tedeschi and guitarist Derek Trucks focus fairly tightly on old-school soul here, and make it sound as though no excursions outside the style are necessary.Bill Frisell, “All We Are Saying”Jazz guitarist Bill Frisell takes the most familiar of source material – John Lennon’s songs, from “Please, Please Me” to “Mother” – gets deep inside, explores everything that makes the songs great. And that adds his own harmonic and rhythmic touches. The melodies might be Lennon’s, but Frisell brings a wealth of imagination and love to the project. (Worth mentioning: Frisell put out two other excellent albums this year: “Lgrimas Mexicanas,” with Brazilian Vinicius Canturia; and “Sign of Life,” with his 858 Quartet.)Danger Mouse & Daniele Luppi, “Rome”Super-producer Danger Mouse (who has been behind albums by the Black Keys, Gnarls Barkley and Beck) can do no wrong. So when he decides to hook up with an Italian composer of film scores named Daniele Luppi, to make a pop album inspired by music from spaghetti Westerns, best to trust him. “Rome,” which features Italian musicians and American singers Jack White and Norah Jones, is sumptuous, classy and modern.