The Best Albums Of 2011

Best Albums Of 2011
Although I didn’t buy as many cd’s as I usually do there were a few real standouts, in both the “new” category and the “reissue” category that deserve serious turntable (or, cd/mp3 player) time. Some old guys redeemed themselves after previous lackluster efforts, some legends released or re-released some classics with copious extras, and overall I would say that it was a pretty decent year. As always, please let me know what I’ve missed.

#1. My Morning Jacket: Circuital
Just edging out Wilco, MMJ’s Circuital is the true follow up to 2005’s critically lauded “Z”. Evil Urges had it’s moments, but some severe missteps (“Peanut butter pudding surprise?” Really?) made it feel like a step backwards. Circuital has got enough sonic experimentation and enough organic elements, and enough beauty and balls to have it rank right up there with It Still Moves and Z, yet moves this restless band even further down the rabbit hole, as is their wont. Can’t wait for the next one.

#2. Wilco: The Whole Love
Thank God they came back from the dreary melancholy dourness of Sky Blue Sky (read: boring) and the “Wilco-by-numbers” of Wilco: The Album. The Whole Love shows that Tweedy’s testicles did, in fact, descend and that his new-ish band has finally gelled as a creative unit. They could always play, but here they sound comfortable and restless, but in a great way, and this album stands up with the best of their catalogue. It’s a good stew of Summerteeth pop and YHF experimentation. The best comeback album of the year, by far.

#3. M83: Hurry Up We’re Dreaming
This one’s a real grower. A double album by LP standards, 70 minutes of synth pop grandeur, a singer that sounds both hurt and euphoric at the same time and production that sounds HUGE even by Trevor Horn standards. Hurry up…will take you back to the 80’s, of course, but it also a very forward looking album too.

#4. Nick Lowe: The Old Magic
How it pains me not to rate this one higher. I was really hoping that Nick would have a few left turns on The Old Magic, but alas it’s simply another very decent Nick Lowe album, keeping in the tradition of his last three or four crooner disks. A decent Nick Lowe album is still miles above most everything else, though.

#5. Fleet Foxes: Helplessness Blues
A band influenced by the pastoral side of My Morning Jacket, the difference being the upfront harmonies. This is better than their first, which was pretty darn good. This is certainly the “prettiest” sounding album of the year, if not the most exciting or groundbreaking.

#6. Mastodon: The Hunter
I must be getting old, in that this is the only kick-ass, guitar crunchin’ album on my list this year. It took me a while to latch on to Mastodon, but I’m going to make up for lost time in 2012 by working my way through their back catalogue. Progressive metal at it’s finest, folks.

#7. The Cars: Move Like This
No one, including myself, had very high expectations for this “comeback” album from the Boston new-wavers. And, in truth, it came and went with, other than a boost for being on The Colbert Report, little to no fanfare. Reunion albums are almost always pathetic, lonesome creatures. This is different. For the most part it takes the band back to the sonics of the first three albums, which in my opinion were the best. If you liked The Cars, Candy-O or Panorama, you’ll dig this!

#8. Neon Indian: Era Extraña
Another real grower, Era Extrana is sonically similar to M83, but instead of ABC and Trevor Horne it’s more about the sound of Dazzle Ships era OMD and the Jesus and Mary Chain and has Dave Fridmann in the producers chair polishing the hazy vibes. It’s a beaut, sounding as some have described as “electro-shoegaze”, but the pop hooks and lack of navel gazing make this a purchase worth making. Dreamy and powerful. Oh, and it’s my favorite cover of the year!

RUNNER UP: Sloan, The Double Cross

Remasters, Best-Of’s and Re-releases

#1. Beach Boys: The SMILE Sessions
All I can say is: “Well it’s about F$#kin’ time! Only took you 45 years, Brian!”
I could have very well placed this in the “New release” category, but since most of this material appeared on various Beach Boys albums up ‘till the mid 70’s I decided to put it here, under the re-releases. Better than the “re-do” Wilson did with the Wondermints a few years ago, and more revealing via the 2nd disk of outtakes and studio chatter which highlights Wilson’s frame of mind. Wilson exclaiming, “You guys feelin’ the acid yet?” and “Come on Danny, I know you’ve got more hash!” should give you a pretty good idea. The packaging: now this is what I’m talkin’ ‘bout! Beautiful and plentiful with excellent liner notes, a SMILE button and a poster. Love it, love it love it! This album wouldn’t have changed the world of music; as a matter of fact it probably would have been just as ignored as was its predecessor, Pet Sounds, but that still doesn’t take away what a wonderful, warped, psychedelic recording this was/is. Jimi Hendrix once called the Boys a “psychedelic barber shop quartet”. He wasn’t wrong.

#2. The Kinks: Deluxe Editions–Wonderful 2-disk reissues of some of the classic ’60’s albums by the Kinks. Great notes, sturdy digi-pac packaging, lots and lots of photos and the music sounds tons better than my original cd versions. Each one has the mono and stereo versions with oodles of bonus tracks, b-sides and rarities. My favorite of these reissues is “Arthur”, which needs some serious reevaluation as one of the very best albums of the decade. Amazing!

#2.5 Nick Lowe: Labour Of Lust
Ever since the exemplary remaster of Jesus Of Cool came out in 2008 I have been waiting for YepRoc to do the same for Labour Of Lust. It happened, and let’s just say I was a little underwhelmed. Not by the music, of course, which rates a 5/5; the packaging was as plain-jane as it gets, including sparse liner notes and but one(!) bonus track. They could have included the documentary “Born Fighter”, but maybe there were licensing issues there. Oh well, still a joy to listen to from start to finish.

#3. Primal Scream: Screamadelica
As with the above Labour Of Lust, I expected more from the 20th anniversary remaster of Screamadelica. A bonus EP (Dixie Narco) is a great bonus but only contains 4 songs, one of which (Movin’ On Up) is on the album proper. Out of the three that remain, two are essential and one so-so. They needed to take a page out of Cherry Red’s remasters (The Boo Radley’s had amazing packaging and copious, educational liner notes). The packaging here is slight and cheap, and liner notes are almost non-existent. Still, the remastering did it’s trick; it sounds fantastic compared to my old 1991 version.

#4. The Queen Remasters
I’ve only purchased three so far: Queen II, Sheer Heart Attack and News Of The World, ‘cause those old Hollywood reissues sound horrible and cheap. The sound here is much improved, the old artwork is restored, but I feel a little gypped at the “bonus” EP, most being 4 or 5 songs or snippets. Buy it for the restored sound.

#5. Mercury Rev: Deserter’s Songs
Excellent deluxe edition of one of my favorite albums with fantastic packaging and bonus material. Although I can’t detect any major difference in sound quality, it’s still worth it. Or am I just a sucker for these types of things? Probably the latter, but this recording is a baroque masterpiece of modern day, psychedelic Americana. Every house should own one.

#6. Rush: Moving Pictures
Again, the last remaster did a great job, and the DVD is no great shakes (buy “Beyond The Lighted Stage” documentary), but I couldn’t pass this one up. I’ll buy any new version of this 1981 landmark record, even it’s on one of those old massive laserdisc thingamajigs!

#7. Band On The Run: Paul McCartney/Wings
I’m kind of cheating here because I haven’t bought the latest version of this. I’m still content with my old “hard box” deluxe version I got a couple of years ago. But that doesn’t change the fact that this is still a welcome remaster of Paul McCartey’s finest post-Beatles hour (or, 43 minutes or so…).

#’s 8 and 9. Music From the Unrealized Film Script: Dusk at Cubist Castle/Black Foliage: Olivia Tremor Control. When folks talk about the revered Elephant 6 Collective they usually drop names like Neutral Milk Hotel or The Apples IN Stereo, but there was one band that, IMO, beat them all and it was The Olivia Tremor Control. NMH’s opus, In The Aeroplane Over The Sea is rightly lauded, but it’s a bit impenetrable, especially at first. OTC’s albums, while maintaining that brash Brian Wilson Smile-era experimentation, are more easily swallowed. There are more pop hooks than you can shake a Magical Mystery Tour wizard wand at here, folks, but be warned that there are also a few sound experiments a-la-Revolution #9 that are difficult listening. Take some time and immerse yourself in these two reissues and it should transport you to a very psychedelic, and very rewarding, place.

#’s 10, 11 and 12. This Is The Hour, This Is The Day, This Is This/ Cure For Sanity/ The Looks Or The Lifestyle: Pop Will Eat Itself. These reissues really rank higher than where I’m placing them here. The truth is I just forgot about them while compiling this list. PWEI is one of the defining bands of my youth, and although they are most often described as a “British Beastie Boys” I’d describe them as a cross between The Pet Shop Boys and The Red Hot Chili Peppers. Perhaps that sounds abhorrent to you, but back in 1989 they were groundbreaking. Listen to the first two albums and you’ll notice the immense influence they had on the reinvention of U2’s Achtung Baby and Zooropa, as one example. These two disk sets come with bedroom demos and remixes galore, along with some very entertaining liner notes from one of the original band members.  One of the guys, Clint Mansell, would go on to become a highly regarded film soundtrack guy, the others…well, they just went away, with one original member flying the PWEI flag to this day and even releasing a new album in November that was, to put it mildly, a disappointment.

RUNNER UP: Ben Folds, The Best Imitation Of Myself; Deluxe remaster of THE WHO’S Quadrophenia; Pink Floyd Remasters

Golden Oldies On Heavy Rotation For 2011

Alice Cooper (Billion Dollar Babies, School’s Out, Love It To Death and Killers); The Beach Boys (Friends, 20/20, Sunflower, Surf’s Up); The The, Mind Bomb; Supergrass, Life On Other Planets; Stereolab, Emperor Tomato Ketchup; Stooges, Raw Power and Funhouse.