Saturday, December 31, 2011


Wayne's 12 and 12 Best Albums of 2011

by Wayne Robins

Every day for the last month as I sipped my coffee, I have thought, today is the day. The day that I will collect, write and post my 10 best albums of 2011. I had done this just about every year since the early 1970s. First, as an early contributor to Robert Christgau's Village Voice Pazz and Jop (a typically witty Christgavian solution to the unreliability of categorization) Critic's Poll, and probably to Creem end of year lists as well. Then, beginning in 1976 or 1977, and for the next 18 or 19 years at Newsday and New York Newsday, I ran my own 10 best albums list and solicited responses for a readers' poll. Compiling the readers' poll was a favorite activity, as it bonded me with those who were engaged with my enthusiasms and (average) three day a week critiques of pop, or jop, music.
Many listeners still identify, as I do, with the album or CD or full-length MP3 as the eminent measure of artistic achievement in pop music. Many don't, as near universal access to an expanding universe of free or almost free music streams has made each person their own DJ and A&R executive, able to listen to songs of their own choosing on demand. This limits the element of accidental discovery. It also makes it evident that in 2011, the three dominant elements required for breathing on this planet are nitrogen, oxygen, and Adele's "Rolling in the Deep."
Anyway, enough prelude.

Number one: The Janks: "Hands of Time."
So who are the Janks, and why is "Hands of Time" number one? A trio from Los Angeles consisting of siblings Dylan Zmed and Zach Zmed, and Garth Herberg. (All play guitars and keyboards and sing; check out the acoustic version of "Dead Man" on Jam in the
"Dead Man" is the most arresting song on "Hands of Time": It has some of the soul-piercing wail of Rick Danko and Richard Manuel. Kate Mossman of the must-read U.K. magazine The Word may have been thinking of "Dead Man" when she wrote that the Janks sound as if "The Band were singing at you from the pages of a John Updike novel." (Actually, that is my life Mossman is describing, but that's OK: I'm not unique in that regard.)
The Janks can also power it up, as on "Rat Racers," which updates Rush and Queen with just enough bombast to make the point. There are also of hints of "Countdown to Ecstasy"-era Steely Dan in "Separation From Your Body," and echo whispers of Fleet Foxes CSN revivialism in "Echo Whispers." Songwriting, musicianship, singing, and spirit: It's all here.

2. Dave Alvin: Eleven Eleven. Progressive working man's blues ("Gary, Indiana 1959"; "Harlan County Line"); California history ("Murrietta's Head"); great moments in rock history ("Johnny Ace is Dead"); and even a reconciliation ("What's Up With Your Brother?") with Blasters' co-founder Phil Alvin, all show Alvin's continually evolving mastery of musical storytelling. The guitar playing is pretty good, too.

3. Caitlin Rose: "Own Side Now." She grew up in a musical Nashville family (mom Liz Rose writes with Taylor Swift; dad Johnny Rose is an accomplished road warrior and music biz veteran). But 23-year-old Caitlin Rose defies easy categorization, as if she absorbed every piece of music she ever heard at home, and using only the best ingredients, figured out how to roll her own. A recording a few years ago of the Rolling Stones' "Dead Flowers" offered a developmental glimpse. On "Own Side Now," she smokes, she drinks, she gets her heart broken, she gets even. As a result, she has been the toast of not just bohemian East Nashville, where she lives, but similar enclaves from Portland to London. "Shanghai Cigarettes" is the killer app, but all the songs are so smartly crafted that she reminds me of a still-developing Guy Clark.

4. The Decemberists: "The King is Dead." Colin Meloy has gotten significant acclaim for "Wildwood," his first book of young adult fantasy fiction. His songwriting is blossoming too on "The King is Dead," perhaps the Portland band's most consistent, mainstream album. Peter Buck of R.E.M. appears on three tracks, and it doesn't seem to be accidental that "Down By the Water" and "This is Why We Fight" could have been great lost R.E.M. songs from the 1980s, and pretty much surpassed anything on R.E.M.'s 2011 farewell album "Collapse Into Now."

5. Paul Simon: "So Beautiful or So What?" Good news for the sexagenarians among us worried about diminishing capabilities: 70-year-old Paul Simon's 2011 album is his best since "Graceland." The wit is mordant, especially when the songs deal with mortality and belief: "The Afterlife," in which the hereafter is drawn as a bureaucracy akin to the motor vehicle bureau, is a Louisiana shuffle that had me wondering, "Is that a Randy Newman song?"

6. Danger Mouse and Danielle Luppi: "Rome." Spaghetti western instrumentals share space with off-center but delightfully dark cameo appearances by Norah Jones ("Black") and Jack White ("Two Against One").

7. Wilco: "The Whole Love." Creatively restless yet sounding at peace with itself, Wilco's variety on "The Whole Love" requires time to absorb. The opening seven minute art-rock ramble "Art of Almost" gives way to tightly focused pop songs ("Dawned On Me"); the closer is a 12-minute spiritual folk-rock excursion, "One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley's Boyfriend)." Fans of pure pop will appreciate the version of Nick Lowe's "I Love My Label" on the deluxe edition; fans of anthemic rock will love the kinetic energy of "Standing O," a song about not living up to expectations that wildly exceeds expectations.

8. Jay-Z and Kanye West: "Watch the Throne." Speaking of expectations, this could have been a mess, a Kobe Bryant meets LeBron James battle of ball hogs with bodyguards. Though it rarely reaches the level of their best solo work, the high-level of consistency and occasional moment of transcendence ("Otis," sampling "Try A Little Tenderness") must be applauded.

9. Miguel Zenon: "Alma Adentro: The Puerto Rican Songbook." Zenon's third album exploring the artful, melodic side of his Puerto Rican musical heritage is at turns spirited, meditative, lush and forceful. The alto saxophonist's quartet is augmented by a 10-piece wood and brass ensemble—flutes, clarinets, French and English horns, oboe and bassoon—conducted with elegance and restraint by Guillermo Klein.

10. Tony Bennett: "Duets II." There's something miraculous about the chemistry between Bennett and Lady Gaga on the swinging opener "The Lady is a Tramp." But it's quite real, as Gay Talese's New Yorker portrait of that recording session attests. Nothing else quite hits that mark—I would love an entire album of Bennett and Gaga—but very little falls short, thanks to the blue-chip song selection and deft arrangements. You don't need to have an opinion about John Mayer, Michael Buble, Josh Groban, Queen Latifah or Sheryl Crow to know that whatever the track, the 85 year old Bennett remains the master of classic American songs.

11. Poncho Sanchez and Terence Blanchard: "Chano Y Dizzy." The birth of Latin jazz in mid-1940s New York is celebrated by conga player Sanchez and trumpeter Blanchard in a tribute to the music of Chano Pozo and Dizzy Gillespie; it looks forward as enthusiastically as it looks back.

12. P.J. Harvey: "Let England Shake." And shake it she does, in her best album in the nearly 20 years since her 1992 debut, "Dry."

Here are 12 more records that I enjoyed quite a bit in 2011: The War on Drugs: "Slave Ambient"; Ryan Adams: "Ashes and Shake"; Fleet Foxes, "Helplessness Blues"; Gregg Allman, "Low Country Blues"; Alison Krauss and Union Station, "Paper Airplane"; Lady Gaga, "Born This Way"; Acrylics, "Lives and Treasure"; My Morning Jacket, "Circuital"; Radiohead: "King of Limbs"; Timber Timbre, "Creep On Creepin' On"; Red Hot Chili Peppers: "I'm With You"; Vijay Iyer with Prasanna and Nitin Mitta: "Tirtha."

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