Saturday, December 17, 2011

Music Roundup: My Top 10 Albums of 2011

My (Always Subjective) Top 10 List:

Apocalypse - Bill Callahan
I've said it before, and I'll say it again: If Bill Callahan puts out a new record, it will be my favorite record of the year. That's not mere dedication to a songwriter I've favored for two decades, but rather an acknowledgment that he gets better with each passing year. I would argue that Apocalypse, the latest from Callahan, is as evocative and frankly spellbinding as any work in the artist's catalog.
Standout tracks: "Baby's Breath" and "Riding for the Feeling"

Undun - The Roots
A percussive, soulful concept album that somehow, impossibly, improves upon the band's prior successes. By my count, this is the tenth Roots record that is an unequivocal classic. Tenth. Can you name another contemporary group with those credentials? I can't.
Standout tracks: This is such a cohesive work, there's little point in highlighting specific tracks.

Bad as Me - Tom Waits
Arguably less ambitious than your average Tom Waits album (there's no song-cycle or high-concept narrative on this one), Bad as Me still offers just about everything you could possibly want from the artist at this stage of his career: guttural crooning, dusty blues, early R&B, rockabilly, and, yes, Keith Richards and Marc Ribot on guitar.
Standout tracks: "Raised Right Men", "Get Lost", and "Hell Broke Luce"

House of Balloons/Thursday - The Weeknd
House of Balloons is The Weeknd's proper full-length debut, and it justifiably received most of the accolades. But the mix-tape that followed it, Thursday, was a compelling listen in its own right. I'm including both in my top ten list, because I can. The lyrics on these recordings range from amusing to clumsy, but the sound is guaranteed to make you woozy. In a good way. (These two albums are only available as digital downloads from artist's Tumblr page.)
Standout tracks: "What You Need", "The Party and the After Party" and "Lonely Star"

Bon Iver - Bon Iver
This self-titled album is the proper follow-up to Justin Vernon's critically acclaimed debut, For Emma, Forever Ago. Vernon's gentle voice and impressionistic lyrics are still the focal point, but this record features a much fuller sound. I think I favor the intimacy of the earlier album, but Bon Iver has some excellent songs that benefit from the enhanced instrumentation.
Standout tracks: "Calgary" and "Minnesota, WI"

Black Up - Shabazz Palaces
Remember the '90s rap group Digable Planets? Doesn't matter. Even if you were familiar with that group, you'd probably never have guessed that Shabazz Palaces is the current project for former Digable Planets rapper Ishmael Butler. This is an astoundingly relevant and forward-looking album, particularly as it comes from an artist who has been in the business since the Clinton Administration.
Standout tracks: "A Treatease Dedicated to the Avian Airless from North East Nubis"

Demolished Thoughts - Thurston Moore
A solo outing from Sonic Youth singer/guitarist Thurston Moore, Demolished Thoughts is essentially a singer-songwriter album that sounds a lot like Sonic Youth. I find that to be a pretty irresistible combination. The songs are uniformly strong on this record, but they reach greatness thanks to the gorgeous production, courtesy of Beck.
Standout tracks: "Circulation" and "Orchard Street"

W.A.R. (We Are Renegades) - Pharoahe Monch
This may be the most focused, concise Monch album yet. His lyrical delivery is always a thing to behold, and his work on W.A.R. just might be up there with his revered solo debut.
Standout tracks: "W.A.R." and "Black Hand Side"

Hot Sauce Committee, Part 2 - Beastie Boys
I never thought I'd be including a Beastie Boys album in my top ten, but here we are. I've enjoyed Hot Sauce Committee more than any Beasties record since...the '90s? This is a record by a group of guys who know their strengths and actually sound like they're having a good time. Bonus points for collaborating with Nas on "Too Many Rappers". I would endorse an entire of album of Nas rhyming over Beastie Boys beats.
Standout tracks: "Make Some Noise" and "Too Many Rappers"

Father, Son, Holy Ghost - Girls
I'll be honest, the big over-the-top climaxes on Father, Son, Holy Ghost don't always pay off. But when they do... If you can appreciate the idea of a decidedly idiosyncratic songwriter going all out, you owe it to yourself to give this a listen.
Standout tracks: "Honey Bunny" and "Love Like a River"

Runners Up/Honorable Mentions:

The Family Sign - Atmosphere

El Camino - Black Keys

Deerhoof vs. Evil - Deerhoof

The Book of David - DJ Quik

No Kings - Doomtree

I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive - Steve Earle

Ceremonials - Florence + the Machine

Tell Me - Jessica Lea Mayfield

The Only She Chapters - Prefuse 73

Fear of God II: Let Us Pray - Pusha T

Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang - Raekwon

The Whole Love - Wilco

Wild Flag - Wild Flag