Like its predecessor, 2011 finds its top ten evenly divided between industry veterans and fresh-faced newbies.
But before I delve into new releases, heaps of archival live albums appeared last year. Neil Young, Pink Floyd, Fairport Convention, Pearl Jam and the Rolling Stones uncorked vintage shows either as stand-alone releases or to round out expanded and remastered packages.
And there were some important re-issues, as U2, the Kinks, Frankie Miller, the Rolling Stones and the Beach Boys had landmark material re-visited and re-released.
I’ll attempt to sort-out this mess o’ product and, in the best-case scenario, provide a guide for the year just ended. Displaying the impeccable manners that are the hallmark of this blog, I’ll start with the old stuff first.
Were it not such a widespread and well-known bootleg, the Rolling Stones’ Brussels Affair would be the hands-down favorite of the vintage concert releases. It’s a resounding and unforgettable show. But it’s hard to get newly worked-up over something you’ve been listening to since the Carter administration.
Which is why I’m naming Fairport Convention’s Ebbets Field 1974 as the year’s best. Snobs may decry the absence of Richard Thompson, but only until they hear it. If you’re lucky, songs like “John the Gun” and “Matty Groves” will act as a gateway drug to what could become a full-blown addiction.
Picking the year’s best re-issue is a little more-difficult. The two-disc Kinks’ re-releases were powerful candidates, especially Face to Face and Arthur. But by the slimmest of margins, I’m picking the Frankie Miller box set, if only because his material has been unavailable in the United States for so long.
While not a box set in the traditional sense (there’s only a couple of B-sides and no previously unreleased material, demos or one-off concert recordings), it presents the entirety of his output for Chrysalis in his seventies prime plus an alternate version of High Life.
For all intent and purposes, Miller should’ve been rocking arenas throughout the late-seventies and into the eighties. But commercial success is a nebulous thing, dependent on many things utterly unrelated to music. At least the catalog of one of rock’s great voices has been restored.
Now to 2011.
1. PJ Harvey – Let England Shake
This isn’t the howling vocalist of yore, but one that uses marimbas, autoharp and muted brass to sculpt striking songs of war and mortality. The inspired "Call to the Post" sample on "The Glorious Land" suggests war is a horse race, and just as consequential.
Check "The Glorious Land" and "Written on the Forehead".
2. TV on the Radio – Nine Types of Light
No one writes intricate melodies (complete with counter melodies) that coalesce into sublimely funky pop overtures the way TV on the Radio does. If Nine Types of Light appears to tail off in the second half, that’s only because four of the album’s first five tracks are absolutely brilliant.
Check "You" and "Killer Crane".
3. Raphael Saadiq – Stone Rollin’
The former Tony! Toni! Tone! front man finds his voice on this towering fusion of rhythm and blues, soul, pop and blues. From the razor-edged strut of the title track to the smooth soul of "Movin’ Down the Line", Stone Rollin’ is all good, all the time.
Check "Go To Hell" and the title track.
4. The Black Keys – El Camino
This is the album I wanted Brothers to be; fuzz-toned stomp that is as habit-forming as Spicy Nacho Doritos. And unlike its forebearer, Messrs. Auerbach and Carney have herewith worked-up eleven indelible and indestructable melodies on El Camino for your listening pleasure.
Check "Dead and Gone" and "Gold on the Ceiling".
5. David Kilgour and the Heavy Eights – Left by Soft
The Clean’s David Kilgour has received much belated recognition for his singular guitar-playing, and it’s duly highlighted on the six-minute epic "Diamond Mine". But it’s Left by Soft’s more-modest pleasures that land the album here.
Check "Pop Song" and "Diamond Mine".
6. Fairport Convention – Ebbets Field 1974
Along with the Move, Fairport Convention were one of the most unjustly ignored (in the U.S., anyway) bands of the late-sixties and early-seventies. This 1974 concert proves that ultimately, the strength of any band is its songs. For even sans RT, they cast a haunting, unforgettable spell.
Check both tracks listed above.
7. Nicki Bluhm – Driftwood
This album really shines when Bluhm and husband Tim pair-up for their plaintive and heartfelt harmonizing. Even when they don’t, its country-ish Americana is fine. But in the tradition of George Jones and Tammy Wynette, it’s best when they do.
Check "Women’s Prison" and "Wall of Early Morning Light".
8. The Feelies – Here Before
Reunion tours and reunion albums usually make me squeamish. But leave it to the Feelies to upend convention. Here Before sounds like a year or two passed since their last, and not a couple of decades. Does this mean the Feelies are timeless? Probably.
Check "Should Be Gone" and "Way Down".
9. James Walbourne – Drugs and Money EP
While his earlier full-length was completely competent, Drugs and Money raises Walbourne’s craft to a whole new level. Be it the weathered Americana of "Drugs and Money" or the highland hoedown that is "Hillbilly Crack", this EP reeks of soul and fire.
Check both of the aforementioned tracks.
10. Tune-Yards – Whokill
The jagged jump-cut musicality of Whokill can be as startling as it is fractured, but when it works, it’s as bracing a breath of fresh air as was heard in 2011. And the buoyant undercurrent of Afro-Pop that holds it all together is just a bonus.
Check "My Country" and "Powa".
Admiral Fallow - Boots Met My Face
The Bats – Free All the Monsters
REM – Collapse Into Now
Neil Young – A Treasure