Saturday, December 24, 2011

The 20 Best CDs of 2011

This was a good year in music. There were some great new releases, including new discoveries and solid output by some old favorites. This year’s list – again, presented in loosely ranked order – is perhaps even more diverse than previous years’ eclectic collections, not just across the 20 titles, but within most of them, too. And, in my book, that’s both fine and fitting. So without further delay …

WhoKillTune-Yards – Worldly white girl Merrill Garbus keeps it real on this sophomore release. It is not always the easiest listen (by the artist’s own admission), but it is a highly musical and remarkably inventive offering. It’s one of the most original albums I’ve heard in years. That’s not to say I could listen to it all the time. It’s not going to appeal to everyone, and I have to be in the right mood to enjoy it. But there is much to love about this album – even when many of its touchstones fall outside many people’s normal sphere of listening.

It’s Afropop, jazz, folk fusion with a touch of punk dissonance and hip-hop rhythm and attitude. Garbus’ impressive vocals are multi-layered conduits of clever, socio-politically charged lyrics – and the little vocal asides that she drops in here and there are flavorful embellishments that add a lot. The funky music is surprisingly dynamic given that it’s propelled by just drum loops, distorted ukelele (you wouldn’t even guess it most of the time) and bass. Some horns and other instruments make occasional cameos. (Read more about this intriguing release in my full review from earlier in the year.)

The Whole LoveWilco – Upon first listen, it’s tempting to refer to this as Wilco’s “electronica” album. The first few songs certainly have that “feel,” but that idea is belied by the fact that many of the electronica sounds are actually guitars, not synthesizers. And while electric keyboards do figure a bit more prominently than on other Wilco albums, at least in the first half of the album, overall this record is characteristically Wilco. The familiar changes and quirky turns remain in tact. And, despite the somewhat raucous start, the CD features the typical Tweedy melancholy, too.

In fact, this collection of songs can be parsed into three categories of tunes: buoyant and noisy guitar rock with pop touches, fairly straight tunes driven by strummed acoustics and weeping pedal steel, and melancholic folkie fare. Those three parts add up to one of Wilco’s best records yet.

As good as this eclectic collection of songs is as a whole, the mellower pensive tunes are the true standouts, especially “Black Moon” (with its haunted strings and minor key chords) and “One Sunday Morning ” (a truly great ballad with a wonderful acoustic guitar hook, subtle piano embellishments and understated pedal steel supporting Tweedy’s confessional tone). At the same time, the opening track, “Art of Almost” shows the band in prog-rock, freakout mode like never before. And further still, “Born Alone,” with its Editors-like guitar riff, “Dawned on Me,” “I Might” and the title track (with its bright, jangly guitar licks countered by backward tracks that add a hint of psychedelic menace) are quintessential radio-friendly Wilco pop rock.

As with many Wilco albums, this one is a grower. I liked it upon first listen and I quickly came to love it. And many Wilco fans – me included – have come to rank it among their favorites in the band’s catalog. And that’s saying something!

Wild FlagWild Flag – Despite the initial critical acclaim, and my liking Sleater-Kinney well enough, for some (now totally inexplicable) reason I didn’t think I’d like this album; I just didn’t think I’d find it appealing. Boy – or perhaps more fittingly, Girl – was I wrong! This is a great record. It’s a perfect marriage of pop-rock melody and indie-rock energy and edge. What’s more, the uniting and rejuvenating power of music is a central theme. How cool is that?!

Not only is this a great debut release from an exciting new foursome of rock vets (but don’t call them a “super group,” indie or otherwise), it offers a female take on everything I’ve long liked about other primal garage-rock bands, some of whom are clearly influences on these gals. Among the Wild Flag’s contemporaries, this record calls to mind The Figgs, who share a similar songwriting sensibility and love for vintage guitar tones. But the more obvious reference points are the grungy pop-rock riffage and flair of The Replacements, Husker Du, The Pixies, The Pretenders, The Skids, Television and even a bit of The Cars; not to mention the vintage pop-art songcraft of the early Who and Kinks, with warm harmony vocals reminiscent of the Beach Boys. Of course, the Sleater-Kinney references are there, too – after all, half the band members (Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss) are alums – but this is more mainstream with more sophisticated melodic hooks, less screaming and better harmonies.

There are at least four songs on this CD that are strong single material: the great opening track, “Romance,” “Boom” (a slightly more punky Cars sound with Mary Timony’s Lena Lovitch-like hiccupy vocal phrasing), “Short Version” (with delicious lead guitar licks) and the frenetic “Racehorse.” Ironically, the song the band did release as its debut single, “Glass Tambourine,” is probably my least favorite song on the release. It’s not a bad song, though.

Overall, Wild Flag is a delightfully colorful banner of melodic guitar licks woven into catchy pop songs with great harmonies, propulsive rhythms and lyrics that are meaningful, if not necessarily deep. Another special thread throughout is Weiss’ drumming, which is spot one, prominent and powerful, but never overdone. And the addition of Rebecca Cole’s keyboards to Brownstein’s and Timony’s tandem guitars adds a dimension that was missing in Sleater-Kinney. I can’t wait to hear more from this band.

Tassili Tinariwen – After becoming increasingly popular with Western audiences, these North African nomads have pulled in the reins on their electrified desert blues and returned with a less overtly modern, less electric offering that seems more authentic, yet just as powerful. Interestingly, the instrumentation has less in common with American blues than some of the band’s previous releases, but the vocal choruses (almost pop-like at times) come across as much more Western influenced, though less produced, than earlier efforts. There are even some snatches of English lyrics here and there.

But make no mistake, there’s a reason these guys have been dubbed the “guitar poets of the desert.” Tinariwen’s music is full of six-string riffology and primitively pulsating rhythms that provide a captivating undercurrent for their sophisticated, multi-part harmonies and mantra-like lyrical chants. They are the clear leaders in bringing the sound of the Sahara to the masses and this latest effort nobly furthers the cause. (Read my review of Tinariwen’s Boston performance from November.)

The King Is DeadThe Decemberists – More country than I expected, and more focused on songs as stand-alone entities than the Portland, Ore., quintet’s previous theatrical and thematic albums, this early 2011 release features a potpourri of finely crafted, succinct pop songs.

Critics have jokingly referred to it as the best R.E.M. album since Automatic for the People and, slight jab at the now defunct Athens elders aside, the comment is not far from the mark. Not just because Peter Buck adds some jangle to the guitars in a guest turn. The King Is Dead does evoke the heyday of those indie folk-rock pioneers in all the best ways. And Gillian Welch furthers the Southern gothic charm with her backing vocal contributions. But this record’s attributes aren’t limited to well-chosen reference points. Colin Malloy and Co. deliver what is still very much a Decemberists’ record. (With that voice, how could he not?) But it’s one that relies on succinct songs rather than lengthy, rambling narratives.

The predominantly folky, acoustic songs are simple and straightforward compared to the lush (some would say overblown) arrangements on previous outings. Here the instrumentation simply seasons the savory sounds rather than thickening the broth. The country violins paired with poppy folk-rock tunes also suggest not just R.E.M., but some of Matthew Sweet’s best, early 1990s work. Without a weak song in the lot there are a handful of bonafide stellar tracks: “Calamity Song,” “Down By the Water” and “Don’t Carry It All” among them.

Here BeforeThe Feelies – Listening to this, you can’t help but think: “This sounds pretty much like every other Feelies’ album.” For most bands that would be the kiss of death, but for this band – especially given the 20-year hiatus since the last record release – it’s perfectly fine. And I bet most Feelies’ fans agree.

That’s because Feelies’ albums are understated exhibitions of penetrating melodies, propulsive rhythms and spare harmonies, and because of the way in which, throughout their career, they explored the sonic terrain first traversed by early NYC scenesters like the Velvet Underground and Television. But, most important, it’s because they do this while managing to retain a wholly original and very identifiable sound – which also includes snatches of early R.E.M., Neil Young and The Beatles.

Yet, the true essence of Here Before does emerge with repeated listening. And while true to its title it does suggest familiar sounds, there are substantive differences in the details. There’s a maturity of perspective on Here Before not present in the earlier albums. This is most evident on the title track.

The handful of songs from this release that the band featured during its gigs last spring were undeniably among the highlights of those shows, even when nestled amid the well-loved tracks of the back catalog. (Read my review of their May 2011 Cambridge, Mass., performance.)

Kiss Each Other CleanIron and Wine ­– The newly rocked-up sound on this album is a welcome expansion for Sam Beam. For the first time, Iron and Wine sounds like a band as opposed to a solo act hidden in the guise of one. Best of all, this latest effort is interesting, engaging music that stays true to Beam’s gestalt while broadening his sonic palette – considerably. It’s a bit reminiscent of Blitzen Trapper and even Little Feat, at points, for it’s funky rhythm guitar and percussive groove.

But, overall, it’s an evolution rather than a grand departure. The familiar stamp of Beam’s soft-yet-powerful vocals (like a less languid Nick Drake) is still the focal point even in the midst of the added instrumentation and vocal harmonies. Standout tracks, “Lazarus and Me,” “Big Burned Hand” and “Tree By the Rover” are as good as anything Beam has done over the years. It’s impressive that a decade or so into his career, this accomplished singer/songwriter not only continues to excel at this level, but to diversify, too.

White MagicSteve Kilbey & Martin KennedyThis album takes some hunting to find, but it’s a very worthwhile catch when you do. Besides his ample solo output, Churchman Kilbey has a lengthy track record of successful duo dabblings. This effort, his second with Kennedy (of All India Radio), hints at fellow Aussie pop-art rockers The Go-Betweens’ majestic melodies and catchy hooks. (Not surprising really, considering that SK put out two albums with the late Go-Betweens singer/guitarist Grant McLennan under the band name Jack Frost in the mid 1990s).

On White Magic, the music and lyrics are sophisticated, driven not just by the lush instrumentation, but also tight arrangements. Almost orchestral at points, almost folky at others, the sum is very engaging atmospheric pop – highly dynamic with plenty of hooks. There’s the slow burn of “Intense,” the Floydian “Unfocused,” the new agey “Mountain,” and the elegiac pop croon of “Messiah Around.” Kennedy proves a powerful musical foil for the ever-prolific Kilbey, who delivers strong vocals and, more significantly, thoughtful lyrics.

Kilbey can be a masterful wordsmith when he puts his mind to it. Known for his on-the-spot (aka, spontaneous) approach to writing, his words can be deep explorations of ancient history, esoteric philosophy and religion or far-out futurism and sci-fi themes – that’s when his off-the-cuff approach works. But when less successful, the result is a litany of clichés and forced rhymes. Here though, Kilbey seems to have given the effort fully considered thought and the results are not only more consistent, but top notch, too.

The Harrow & The HarvestGillian Welch – In a mid-year NPR interview, Gillian mentioned that this album features 10 songs – and 10 variations of sad. That may be so, but few do sad (“melancholy” might be a more fitting characterization) as well as Welch and her partner in sorrow, Dave Rawlings.

Every song on this CD is good, and some are superb – in a maudlin kind of way, of course. “The Way It Goes” (with a spirited groove despite the sense of resignation) and “The Way It Will Be” (with its languid sorrow reminiscent of “April the 14th, Part 1” from the duo’s classic 2001 album, Time the Revelator).

As one would expect from this veteran pair, the singing (both lead and harmony) and pickin’ (guitar and banjo) are phenomenal. For his part, Rawlings makes so much out of so little. He is one of the most evocative players in contemporary folk/bluegrass and his guitar melodies are perfectly paired with Gillian’s authentic lyrics (Ralph Stanley would be proud) and unique vocal delivery. Never has old thymey sounded so modern, or vice versa.

AgadezBombino – The fact that there is a second album of North African guitar-driven Tuareg tunes on this year’s list not only speaks to my love for this kind of music, but also the quality of this young Nigerian’s Western breakthrough. He’s clearly walking in Tinariwen’s and Ali Farka Touré’s foot steps, but he’s doing so in his own shoes.

This is a very accessible album – more so than Tinariwen’s, in fact – even if you’re not into this “world music” stuff. Yes, the influence of the North African elders is undeniable, but the evidence of other influences – Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page and myriad Delta blues musicians – is even more prominent. And the Western touchpoints go beyond that.

At times, “Tar Hani (My Love)” and “Iyat Idounia Ayasahen (Another Life),” for example, echo the epic jam on the Stones’ “Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’.” Other songs sound a lot like Page and Plant’s No Quarter album – without Plant, leaving just the strong tribal rhythms, the rising and falling guitar melodies and the desert chant of the lead and harmony vocals. Just give a listen to “Kammou Taliat” and tell me you disagree!

These dessert dudes not only rock the groove, but also throw down some killer melodies and embroider them with engaging harmony vocals – particularly effective even when you have no idea what they are singing about (know any Tuareg translators?).

Since this release is more rock-like than Tinariwen’s sound, it’s probably that much more more listenable for many. The flip side is that it’s slightly less varied and nuanced than Tinariwen’s more sophisticated, perhaps, more mature sound. But while Bombino (né Omara Moctar), sticks to a more confined palette of colors, he’s masterful with them.

(A nod to KCRW’s great “Morning Becomes Eclectic” program for introducing me to this impressive, emerging artist. Check out KCRW’s coverage of him.)

Slave AmbientThe War on Drugs – Immediately conjuring up similarities to Robyn Hitchcock in vocal tone, phrasing and even musical mood, not to mention Mr. Tambourine-era Dylan (especially on the album’s opener, “Best Night”), this CD was one of the pleasant new musical discoveries of 2011 for me.

It’s the fourth release and second full album from the Philadelphia band led by Adam Granduciel. Founded in 2003 by Granduciel and Kurt Vile, who appears on a few Slave Ambient songs despite having departed the band in 2008, The War on Drugs’ sound also features hints of Wilco and a whole lot of late ’80s/early ’90s Brit pop. Rich instrumentation and production bolsters the mostly folkie song constructs, at times giving it an interesting Lanois-like sound and vibe.

Sometimes the sound swirls, driven by keyboards and effects (“Your Love Is Calling My Name”), and at other times it’s all about multilayered guitars weaving in and out of atmospheric keyboards and over the rhythmic undercurrent. “Come to the City” represents the furthest adventure in this direction, conjuring U2’s anthemic Joshua Tree vibe. Then “Baby Missles” returns to jaunty Nick Lowe-ish pop. Despite the lush sound, there’s little flamboyance. The musical chops are sharp, but mostly understated. The emphasis remains squarely on the melodies, which makes for an alluring brand of atmospheric, folk-influenced rock.

Smoke Ring for My HaloKurt Vile – This record was my first deep exposure to this Philly folk rocker and I quite like it. I prefer the haunting, melancholic and almost pseudo-trance instrumentation of the full band sound on songs like “Society Is My Friend,” “Ghost Town” and even the title track over some of the simpler, finger-picked, folky, pop tunes – but those aren’t bad either.

In fact, “Peeping Tom” is one of the best tracks, boasting some jaunty picking around the sly humor of the wordplay (“She was a tom boy, and I was a peeping tom”). Even the mid-tempo tunes that land somewhere in between those two extremes – “Runner’s Up” and “Baby’s Arms,” for example – are engaging and part of what makes this one of the continually rewarding musical offerings of 2011.

Paper AirplaneAlison Krauss & Union Station – The cover depicts Krauss and her bandmates looking like they just walked off the set of Little House on the Prairie, but how can you go wrong with her straight-from-the-ethereal-heights vocals and the serious chops these boys throw down seemingly without effort. This veteran outfit works like a finely tuned machine – albeit perhaps one dating back to the Reconstruction.

Krauss’ phenomenal fiddling takes a bit of a back seat to her angelic vocals – she really has assumed Emmylou’s mantel at this point – but renowned dobro and lap steel player Jerry Douglas, guitarist Dan Tyminski and banjo/guitar player Ron Block lead the charge on this collection of country and folk tunes with tinges of bluegrass.

The songs are strong, the production is crisp (without any schmaltzy sheen) and the playing is resonant and impeccably tasteful. Stand out tracks include the title track, the twangy stomp of “Dust Bowl Children,” the sweet dobro-driven “Miles to Go,” the languidly beautiful “Dimming of the Day” and the haunting “Lie Awake.” And, as incomparably beautiful as Alison’s voice is, Tyminski really shines on the handful of songs he sings, particularly “Dust Bowl Children” and “Bonita and Bill Butler.”

Honey Mink ForeverNoctorum – The third studio release from the Northern English duo of Marty Willson-Piper (of Aussie band The Church renown) and his boyhood chum Dare Mason (producer/collaborator of Paul McCartney, Queen and other musical heavyweights) is a richly textured, eclectic mix of chiming melodies, raucously biting guitar riffs, soaring vocal harmonies, jangly 12-string strumming and gentle piano and string parts. It makes for majestic music that is artistically rich (almost Broadway-esque at points), but which never strays too far from its rock spirit.

It’s easy to hone in on MWP’s always tasteful, alternately chiming and riff-ripping guitar work, which is in abundance here (at times there’s an orchestra of six string interplay). But it’s bolstered by Mason’s multi-instrumental excursions and seasoned arranging skill. This album wouldn’t be what it is without his formidable contributions. (The fact that MWP has worked with Mason repeatedly in different incarnations for nigh on 30 years is testament to that.) In addition, Mason contributes two of the strongest lyrics on the album: the opener “False Flag,” an epic story of imperialistic misadventure, and “Victorian Vignette.”

While anything involving Willson-Piper is as much about songcraft as flashy guitar playing, “Better Hope You’re Not Alone” does feature some of his most searing fret work found on record in recent years (more exemplary of what you’re likely to hear at a Church concert rather than from a recording studio). The siren wail of the guitar in the track’s climax gives way to the gentle McCartney-meets-Floyd piano juxtaposition on the acoustic ballad “Cry,” which starts out as a beautifully simple melody and unfolds into a grand vista of soaring sound and emotion.

Need more evidence of the varied fare offered on Honey Mink Forever? There are hints of U2 (“Mao Tse Tung Kiss”), pure pop (“Tora, Tora, Tora”) and, surprisingly, even a Santana-meets-Chick-Corea vibe (“The New Scientist”). If you appreciate finely crafted, well-played, artistic music, you can’t go wrong with this one.

ROMEDanger Mouse & Daniel Luppi – This homage to the Spaghetti Western film soundtracks of Ennio Morricone (The Good, The Bad and the Ugly among others) is not only a respectful and well-executed tribute to the genre, but also remarkably listenable as modern pop. This is in no small part due to the contributions of Norah Jones (on the smoothly languid “Season’s Trees,” the jaunty pop of “Black” and the spacey jazz of “Problem Queen”) and Jack White (on “Rose with the Broken Neck,” the Raconteurs-esque “Two Against One” and the operatic “The World”).

But the foundation of the whole affair – and thus its ultimate success – is laid by Danger Mouse (né Brian Burton of Gnarls Barkley and Broken Bells) and Daniel Luppi. The duo proves impressively adept at merging the cinematic soundscapes you’d expect from such a project with contemporary pop. The fact that they went to Rome and hired many of the original musicians (now septuagenarians) who played on those 1960s and ’70s sessions speaks to their resolve to do it right. The resulting instrumentals are much more than mere interludes between the star-powered pop songs. And though the latter are strong enough to stand alone (which I suspect they have as iTunes downloads for many), they truly shine as gems in the meticulously crafted setting of the album as a whole. (What a concept!)

All We Are Saying Bill Frisell – No matter how good the musicianship, instrumental covers of Beatles’ songs always run the risk of sounding like muzak, especially if there’s a tinge of jazz or new agey-ness to the approach. Fortunately, fretmaster Frisell and Co. avoid this trap and deliver a wonderfully realized sampling from John Lennon’s canon that not only pays tribute to the bespectacled one’s songwriting genius, but also extends the compositions.

Frisell’s deft touch and transcendent tones are never far from front and center, but they are expertly complemented by Greg Leisz’s weepy pedal steel and Jenny Scheinman’s haunting violin, both of which play more than co-starring roles in this venture.

Early on, the band brings forth the subtleties and nuance of the melody of “Revolution.” The same can be said of “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away,” “In My Life,” “Please, Please, Me” and others. Most tracks are immediately recognizable, but a few are lesser known or simply take longer to arrive at the recognizable refrain. For example, it’s a few measures before the melody emerges on “Nowhere Man,” but when it does it’s irrepressible as Frisell’s characteristic harmonics and chorused guitar chords frolic alongside the fiddle and propulsive percussion. The less familiar tones of “Hold On” lead into a nice extended jam.

Several songs are truly transformed – though not so many as to be off-putting en mass. “Imagine” features a slow, atmospheric, country flavor thanks to Leisz’s pedal steel licks. “Come Together,” one of the standout tracks, becomes a funky, avant-gardish, jazzy, blues. The band’s take on “My Girl” brings a little more pop/rockabilly flare to the melody and prompts contemplation of what a similar Frisellian take on the songs of Buddy Holly would sound like. Meanwhile, “Beautiful Boy” and “Mother” actually surpass the originals (IMHO).

Not only does All We Are Saying once again remind us of Lennon’s fine and varied song-writing, but in the hands of superlative string players such as Frisell, Leisz, Scheinman and bassist Tony Scherr, it also highlights the importance of the contributions by the other three-quarters of the Fab Four to those songs we all know and love – particularly George’s splendidly understated guitar work.

Setzer Goes Instru-MENTAL!Brian Setzer – It’s not easy for an all-instrumental album to make this annual list (let alone two of them!) – even a guitar extravaganza like this one. But this is a spectacular album, even if you don’t go ga-ga for superlative six-string slingers like Setzer. Tasty chops abound in an orgy of styles that undoubtedly has Les and Chet smilingly down approvingly from their heavenly bandstand.

Setzer’s multi-hued sonic palette runs the spectrum from country and rockabilly fingerpickin’ to swing and jazz noire. Right from the start, Setzer’s sportin’ right hand electrifies the jaunty country/rockabilly of “Blue Moon of Kentucky.” He lets loose ripping licks and dexterous fingerpicking against tasteful chording in ways that surpass anything Sam, Elvis or Scotty ever envisioned. He gives another standout track, “Cherokee,” the Les Paul treatment. Then on Gene Vincent’s classic “Be-Bop-a-Lula,” his guitar “speaks” the melody so clearly that you don’t even miss the vocals.

Setzer has his Bigsby-outfitted hollow-body Gretsch racing along with a prominent banjo part to great effect on “Earl’s Breakdown.” Then on “Far Noir East” he switches gears yet again, downshifting to a sultry dark, mysterious mood, complete with tremelo’d chords and bluesy riffing. But he revs it up and goes again with the suped-up Link Wray riffs on “Go-Go Godzilla,” the disc’s hardest rocking tune. Meanwhile, “Hillbilly Jazz Meltdown” not only defines “tasty chops,” it’s title is an apt summary for the album as a whole. Crazy listening, indeed!

Bad As MeTom Waits – OK, Waits’ voice is an acquired taste. But like Bob Dylan, it’s not about the singing, it’s about the songs – and the performance thereof. And ol’ Tom once again nails it. As usual, you know what to expect with a Tom Waits album, the question is which side of the raspy barfly troubadour divide does each outing fall on (i.e., is it totallly over the edge and simply become a genre exercise or does it successfully, albeit perhaps drunkenly, sashay its way along the precipice, creating an engaging theatrical view into a familiar yet foreign slice of life?).

In answer to that, Bad As Me is definitely one of Waits’ more “commercial” offerings, but no less “artistic.” The songs have a bit more pop sensibility than much of his work, though the rummy balladeer meets old thymey hootenanny vibe is never too far from center. And that’s the way you like it if you’re a fan of Tom Waits.

Yes, it’s twisted Tin Pan Alley fused with a marginally modernized evocation of a Kurt Weil/Bertolt Brecht kind of collaboration as sung by Mr. Hyde, but it works. “Raised Right Man” and “Chicago” are as good as anything in Waits’ recent catalog, thanks in no small part to guitarist Marc Ribot’s continued – and essential – contributions. This is a consistently strong set that also sees guest appearances by fellow musical reprobates such as Keith Richards, Flea and others.

Mirror TrafficStephen Malkmus and The Jicks – It took me quite a while to get into this album. The first time I listened to it I wasn’t quite sure what to think. I certainly wasn’t blown away by it; in fact, I wasn’t sure I even liked it all. Yet something about it compelled me to keep coming back to it. With each listen, its appeal grew. Maybe it took me a while to get past some of the Weezer-esque moments, and I’ve always been a bit on the fence about Malkmus’ work. (I prefer Pavement to his solo stuff, but I’m not particularly enamored with either.)

This album is all over the map stylistically – and, as you’ve no doubt gathered by now, that’s usually a positive attribute in my view. Perhaps the sonic wanderlust is unsurprising given that it’s Beck Hanson’s hand on the production rudder. But despite the variety of sounds and styles, the songs are consistently well-crafted indie-rock pop, with strong melodies, impressive guitar hooks and catchy lyrical turns, which together unify the disparate pieces to some degree.

The first half of the album evokes The Flaming Lips, while the second half is something yet again, with hints of Wilco, T Rex and others. And while I’m not a huge fan of Malkmus’ singing, the guitar work – frequently calling to mind Television’s catchy, clean-toned melodies set amid jangly, and occasionally distorted, chords – more than makes up for it. And Janet Weiss’ drumming (former Sleater-Kinney, now of Wild Flag) adds some rock force, ensuring that these pop tunes pack some punch.

Dynamite StepsThe Twilight Singers – This time around, these largely under-the-radar Midwestern art-pop rockers channel shades of 21st-century U2, The Brian Jonestown Massacre, Pearl Jam and even, occasionally, Nine Inch Nails on this compelling collection exploring the polarities of celebration and resignation, dream and reality, life and death, and the sinister undertones lurking beneath the surface of romance and modern life.

While perhaps not wholly original sounding, this fifth Twilight Singers release from former Afghan Whigs leader Greg Dulli and cohorts – including guest spots by Mark Lanagan, Ani DiFranco and Joseph Arthur – is consistently engaging. At times aggressive (the N.I.N.-sounding parts) and at others atmospheric and almost ambient (thanks to the cello, violin and Phantom-esque piano parts), it’s a well-crafted modern-sounding offering with compelling hooks and lyrical excursions that yield standout songs on both the rockin’ and ethereal ends of the spectrum.

Honorable Mention:

Last Words: The Final RecordingsScreaming Trees – I can’t rightly include this with the rest of this year’s releases on the list above because, although it was put out in 2011, it was recorded in the band’s last days at the end of the previous century. That said, it compares quite well with the best of this year’s releases (probably meriting a place in the top dozen or so on this list). Proof that the best music truly is timeless.


Others that were strongly considered but, in the end, didn’t make the cut this year include: Welcome to My DNA, by Blackfield (featuring Porcupine Tree’s Steven Wilson), Ben Harper’s Give Till It’s Gone, PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake, Bright Eyes’ The People’s Key, The Black Keys’ El Camino, Robbie Robertson’s How to Be Clairovoyant, Le Butcherettes’ Sin, Sin, Sin, Dave Alvin’s Eleven Eleven, Steve Earle’s I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive, Buddy Miller’s Majestic Silver Strings, Lucinda Williams’ Blessed and Airborne Toxic Event’s All At Once.

Like History?

See my previous years’ Top 20 annual round-ups:

The Best Albums of 2010

The Best albums of 2009

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