Thursday, December 29, 2011

My Favorite Albums of 2011

Not a bad year at all for rock music. Thanks to my friends at Big Takeover magazine (hundreds of reviews via two issues a year) and's weekly releases emails, I discovered PLENTY to enjoy. Few of these were major commercial hits (The Cars on sale at Starbucks being the biggest exception) but are the albums that made it onto my iPod's "repeat playlist" most often.

Florence + The Machine: Ceremonials

This one blew me away. London-based singer Florence Welch has a voice that shines like a fog beam to lead us out of the darkness. She’s where Kate Bush could have gone after Wuthering Heights, or Annie Lennox if she really pulled out all the stops. Multi-tracked and grandiose, her UK gospel is made to lift the spirits. A song like "Shake It Out" is there to cheer you when you're down. What pushed this album toward the top was that I couldn’t stop from singing along, adding my own voice to the harmonies. She made me want to participate and create, not just listen. It’s a rare piece of art that does that nowadays. The only downside is that all 12 tracks are so huge, it’s hard to take them all in at once. A couple of quieter songs would give the ears and heart a chance to rest, for the ecstasy to follow.

White Denim: D

Austin trio White Denim has only been around a few years but they’re already near the top of my “must listen” list when they release something new. Creative, talented, multi-genre capable, they surprise my ears with every release. This latest effort, simply titled “D” is my favorite so far: The songs are melodic but with surprising twists to keep it interesting, the dynamic range is big, tempos change constantly, and yet it all holds together. Something so eclectic should lack cohesiveness, but these guys pull it off magnificently here. The closest I can compare to is Ween, but without their level of jokiness. Where do they go from here? I can’t wait to find out.

Gruff Rhys: Hotel Shampoo

Another solo album from the Super Furry Animals singer and front man. This Welshman has a voice like maple syrup (sweet and smooth) that perfectly matches the slightly melancholic but highly tuneful tracks. In many cases, solo albums never quite live up to their full band’s efforts, but in the case of Gruff vs. SFAs, I’ve been finding myself listening to his albums at a ratio of about 2 to 1. My favorite so far.

The Cars: Move Like This

Waaay better than I could have hoped. Okay, so they don’t really rock out like they did back in 1978-79 on their first two albums, but would that have sounded credible 32 years later? This feels like an honest, tuneful effort by the remaining original members (gathering together at last after Ben Orr’s sad death in 2000). Nothing earth shattering, but I was really happy to hear an old favorite making good music again. It’s a pretty rare thing for bands that have been away so long to come back with anything near up to par with their past catalog. I don’t know whether I’m hoping for more or that they just say “well done; we proved we could do it” and call it a day.

The Joy Formidable: The Big Roar

At last, another Welsh band I can get excited about! Big and noisy with huge washes of guitars, this band is fronted by a pixie-sized female singer with a voice that can cut through the din. This amazing three person band has a huge sound that is “darkly joyous” (coined in The Guardian magazine) which energizes instead of enervates. Check out this live version of "Whirring" where they show how well they rock out live. A wonderful first album! I hope they can keep this going for a long time.

Peter Murphy: Ninth

I was late to the Bauhaus party. Goth never appealed to me much (my disposition is a little too sunny to dwell on such darkness for long), but when I did discover this early 80’s band, I was immediately taken by Peter Murphy’s clear, dark, yet oddly comforting voice. He has put out quite a list of solo albums, many of which I have yet to hear, but this year’s “Ninth” is a winner. Strong songs, no weak tracks, and the real triumph for any artist at this stage: He leaves me wanting to explore his back catalog.

The Smithereens: 2011

Best album of original songs by The Smithereens since 1988’s “Green Thoughts,” though without any standouts that say “this could be a hit.” Still, this is muscular pop/rock with good melodies. I’ve missed Jim Babjack’s great guitar sound and unique high baritone voice of Pat DiNizio doing their thing. It’s nice to hear them writing originals again, but I have to make special note of 2009’s cover album of (selected songs of) The Who’s “Tommy.” Their version of “Sparks” was 3:31 of pure stadium-rock bliss, the most stereo-crankable moment in my house in several years! (Here's a live version that ain't bad.)

The Black Watch: Led Zeppelin Five

These Californians have nothing to do with the legendary Scottish Black Watch Guard (who have contributed to some compilations of wonderful bagpipe & drums over the years). This persistent group has been releasing indie albums fairly consistently since 1991, but I'm just discovering them now, and their latest cheekily titled release. I say “cheekily” because this doesn’t sound anything like a theoretical follow-up to Led Zeppelin’s classic 1971 “ZoSo” album. It’s smooth, atmospheric, slow building indie rock, but well-produced and easy on the ears. As I listened I was wishing for a few more up-tempo songs to balance things a bit, but there was an emotional depth that made up for that in intensity of feeling. Like Peter Murphy’s latest, this album has gotten me digging into their back catalog to see where they’ve been and how they got to this point musically.

Battles: Gloss Drop

After a four-year wait since their first album, refreshingly creative, primarily instrumental Battles returned with a full set of fun and challenging rock to give my ears an amusement park fun-ride. Several tracks feature collaborations with other artists, including vocalist Kazu Makino of Blonde Redhead, but my favorite is new wave fave Gary Numan featured on “My Machines,” which had a very good funny/disturbing video to go with it, too. (Best thing he’s done in years!) Another band to watch (that is, listen for) and hope that they keep growing in musically surprising ways.

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