Albums I Loved in 2011: Fifteen Favorites (Give or Take)

I’ve been noticing a lot of complaints from my fellow critics and bloggers, who seem to think year-end list-making is something of a chore. I don’t really blame them, but also don’t really agree. I love doing this, because I love celebrating the albums that have offered me truth and beauty, revelation and sheer enjoyment, over the past dozen months or so.

And what a year this one has been. The short version of the story: Joe Henry wins my hypothetical awards for Songwriter and Producer of the Year, as well as 2011 MVP. My favorite performance by a band in 2011 would be either Over the Rhine or The Roots, and, not too coincidentally, my favorite performance by a singer this year was from Over the Rhine’s Karin Bergquist, while my favorite bit of MC-ing was from The Roots’ own Black Thought. I’ll also give The Roots the year’s best album cover.

Favorite concert I saw in 2011? Take your pick between Trombone Shorty, Joe Henry, Elvis Costello, Gillian Welch, and Over the Rhine.

Favorite old music released in 2011? It’s gotta be either the This May Be My Last Time Singing gospel music box set, or else the superb single-disc Sinatra The Best of the Best.

The year’s biggest surprise? Maybe it was Hugh Laurie’s blues album turning out to be so good. Maybe it was Ry Cooder ditching his usual guitar heroics and making one of his best-ever albums in the process. But it was probably the fact that three of my all-time favorite musical entities have made, after 20+ years in the game, albums that probably stand as their career-best.

And that brings us to my favorite albums of the year. I’m going to run down my top fifteen, more or less in the right order, but with the caveat that the top three albums are, again, exemplary works from peerless musicians—so who really cares which one is two and which one is three?

I’ll also list just a handful of very honorable mentions before getting to the list proper. Your 2011 listening experience is not complete if you haven’t heard Raphael Saadiq’s Stone Rollin’; The Black Keys’ El Camino; Meshell Ndegeocello’s Weather; DeVotchKa’s 100 Lovers; or The Decemberists’ The King is Dead.

15. Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down
Ry Cooder

in which the man who taught Keith Richards to play the blues takes us on a tour of ancient musics and modern maladies, turning in the funniest, angriest, most ferocious protest album I’ve heard in a good while. Plus: The title is an old softshoe joke from the Great Depression era. Kids these days have a lot to learn—we all do, I reckon—and Ry Cooder is just the man to teach us.

14. Let Them Talk
Hugh Laurie

Louis Armstrong’s rendition of “St. James Infirmary” is a ragged and darkly comical delight—one of the greatest recordings of all time, I’d say. Hugh Laurie does it here as an epic, grave and grandiose, and the highest compliment I can pay him is to say that I have no interest in comparing his version with Louis’. I’m glad they both exist, and overjoyed that the rest of Let Them Talk is similarly passionate and professional, a labor of love from a moonlighter who takes the blues as seriously as his day job.

 13. The Old Magic
Nick Lowe

This is a master class in songwriting, especially on the ballads: “Stoplight Roses,” “I Read a Lot,” and “House for Sale” prove that nobody’s better than Lowe at saying a whole lot with very little, and at speaking volumes with what’s left altogether unsaid. Meanwhile, “Restless Feeling” was described in the press release as a roller rink anthem, and it’s amazing to me how apt—and how surprisingly pleasant—that description turns out to be.

 12. The Road from Memphis
Booker T. Jones and the Roots

Regular readers will know that I have a soft spot for “legacy” artists—Jones is 67, and a legend by any standard—doing fine, fresh work; for soul music and for small-ensemble spontaneity; and for the crisp sound of ?uestlove’s snare and hi-hat. For these reasons and more, the Booker/Roots collaboration is a finer-popping good time, and a vibrant example of a music that never goes out of style or out of season.

 11. Let England Shake
PJ Harvey

I can’t deny that this album might mean more to me if I were a Brit—but I also can’t deny that Harvey’s assessment of toxic nationalism and a violent human condition are anything but universal. My favorite thing about this album isn’t the precision and compassion that inform her indignation, but rather the way she makes this sound like a collection of spooky old folk songs, as if to say that this story is nothing new.

10. So Beautiful or So What
Paul Simon

God the Father and God the Son are walking the earth, and one says to the other that he thinks it’s time to leave. Ah, but then what will these people be left with, the other responds. Love and hard times, the answer goes. For this scene and many others, Simon’s album remains one of my favorite examples of bold and beautiful songwriting from the past year—or the past several.

 09. Passenger
Lisa Hannigan

There are lots of references to air travel on this one, so of course I’ve found that it’s a perfect soundtrack for plane rides. Surprisingly, it is also good for dancing, at least on the upbeat songs. Given how many singer/songwriter albums are either too leaden or too airy, this is a significant accomplishment, but it’s hardly the only thing I love about Hannigan’s album. This is a savory concoction of passion and craft, a thoroughly modern album that feels like a timeless classic.

 08. For True
Trombone Shorty

I really think he’s the hardest working man in showbiz today—certainly, the most righteous flag-bearer for modern New Orleans swagger. Shorty’s albums are very different from the epic jam sessions that are his Orleans Avenue gigs, but no less impressive; here he keeps things short and sweet and song-oriented, showing that he’s not just a party animal and horn boss but also an ace soul singer and a non-stop good idea machine.

07. Bad as Me
Tom Waits

How apt: There’s been a Tom Waits album for the saloon, a Tom Waits album for the back porch, a Tom Waits album for the graveyard… and whatever Real Gone is, of course. Now we have a Tom Waits album for the roadhouse jukebox. For anyone who thinks Waits is just an eccentric weirdo—or that American roots music has to be boring and well-mannered—Bad as Me should prove a real mind-expander.

 06. What Were You Hoping For?
Van Hunt

This one wins the award for most perfectly coy album title of the year—because nobody possibly could have expected this album from Van Hunt, nor could any listener’s response to it be anything other than pure delight. I remember when Hunt was still singing for Blue Note, corralled in with the neo-soul scene. Now he’s making freakish funk monsters that channel Prince, Sly Stone, and D’Angelo in equal measure, but ultimately prove Van Hunt to be in a league of his own.

05. 50 Words for Snow
Kate Bush

Nobody else this year delivered such truth in advertising. The title song here is, indeed, a litany of precisely fifty words for snow. Some are matter of fact; others, whimsical and silly. All are delivered by Stephen Fry, of all people, who, along with Bush, seems to relish the chance to celebrate rhythm and poetry and simple beauty, linear meaning be damned. And that’s to say nothing of the star-crossed Elton John duet, or the dreamy 35-minute, snow-drift opening act! All told, there’s never been a record like this, but for me, its patience and slow-burn sensuality make it a delight.

 04. The Harrow and the Harvest
Gillian Welch

I saw Welch and her partner Dave Rawlings play almost all of these songs, and plenty others, to a packed theater. They stood on a naked stage, armed with only acoustic instruments and songs, and kept us entranced. This is their darkest album, but also their most seductive. It’s an album about reaping and sowing—about “all the little ways I’ve found to hurt myself,” Welch sings—but its pleasures are so many that it’s impossible not to simply give in to its sway.

03. The Long Surrender
Over the Rhine

It opens with a song about pressing on in spite of, or maybe even because of, failure; that it’s so soulful and sublime makes it, and the whole record, a glorious monument to a band that has been inviting and enabling quiet mysteries and simple beauty for two decades and counting. They’ve still got stories to tell; in fact, this is their best album, and not only because of their perfect camaraderie with producer Joe Henry. When has such an unassuming and intimate album so shaken and rattled the soul? For me, maybe never.

 02. Reverie
Joe Henry

This was, and is, a special record for me; its allure was enough to get me on a plane and fly across the country just for the honor of hearing Joe and his Garfield House players perform it. I’ve called it his Basement Tapes and his rock and roll album, but really the scrappiness of Reverie is a bit of a canard. It is just disheveled enough to initially obscure the fact that it’s the most thoughtful, mystery-abiding and –embodying album he’s ever made.

01. undun
The Roots

Fate and free will meet on the corner, but that’s not the only cosmic collision on undun; there’s also an epic pileup of hip-hop past and future, with the Roots drawing from disparate sources—gospel hooks, soulful beats, a free-jazz explosion, even a string quartet—and somehow pull them into the hardest, toughest, most streetwise album of their career. But more than anything, it’s the words that enliven undun. It’s hip-hop mythology done as anti-heroism, and I confess to finding it riveting, disquieting, and profound. The Roots have made a rap masterpiece of and for the times, but its political and philosophical resonance never gets in the way of the thing just bangin’—the sound of veterans finding new inspiration and zeal in their craft.


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4 responses to “Albums I Loved in 2011: Fifteen Favorites (Give or Take)”

  1. david kern says :

    Knew you liked “Undun” but didn’t know you liked it THIS much.

    The more I listen the more I appreciate it. It’s climbing my list for sure.

  2. Richard Fohrenbach says :

    I certainly agree with your words on Over The Rhine

  3. Wilson Smith says :

    I was a big fan of All Eternals Deck, the new album by The Mountain Goats. Other than that (and I would put “Stone Rollin” higher on my personal list) this is a great list of choices.

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