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The top dozen albums of 2011 are...
Assembling the annual best of the year list is a vexing exercise.
The good and bad news is there are always more than a Top 10 or 20 or however many you choose. Say what you will about the state of music or the erosion of the album in a song-oriented download market, but also rest assured that it’s still being pursued, seriously, as an art form and yielding plenty of excellent titles.
It was, of course, the year of Adele, the British singer whose sophomore album, “21,” has become a consensus pick as the year’s best album. Past that, however, music was all over the place; 2011 proved a relatively weak year for rap and country; while beyond Adele, pop was also left looking for a hero (sorry, Gaga). Americana was the most consistent genre of the bunch, while electronica had its best year in a while thanks to Skrillex, David Guetta, tUne-yArDs, Panda Bear and others.
Hard rockers from Foo Fighters to Mastodon kept the bar high at the high-volume levels, while the likes of Paul Simon and Robbie Robertson represented well for the veteran (not geezer) wing of the music world.
Here, then, are the 12 best albums of the past year, in alphabetical order. Review. Consider. Argue. But in building a 2011 library, they’re the essential starting points.
Adele, “21” (XL/Columbia): It’s been a while since there was a consensus top album for a given year, but Adele Adkins scored just that in 2011 with a rich and soulful chronicle of the pain of a bad and broken relationship. Emotive, heart-wringing ballads such as “Someone Like You” may be her calling card, but “Rumour Has It” and “Rolling in the Deep” showed Adele’s rock has plenty of emotional roll, too. And the subsequent “Live at the Royal Albert Hall” CD/DVD set proved all that was no mere studio creation.
Black Keys, “El Camino” (Nonesuch): Coming off its first blockbuster commercial success (2010’s “Brothers”), the Akron duo’s seventh album delivers again, keeping the success on its own terms and continuing its fruitful association with producer Danger Mouse. The sound continues to grow with keyboard accents and full backing vocal arrangements, but the garage grit is still evident on the likes of “Lonely Boy,” “Money Maker” and “Mind Eraser.”
Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, “Kings and Queens” (FU:M/Dramatico): The understated and vastly underrated country trio could have been overwhelmed by the concept of joining forces with a cadre of all-star Queens — Lucinda Williams, Rosanne Cash, Emmylou Harris, Cassandra Wilson and others. But the strong original songwriting and tasteful covers more than served the stellar company the Rodeo Kings kept.
Glen Campbell, “Ghost on the Canvas” (Surfdog): As Warren Zevon did to heartbreaking effect on “The Wind” in 2003, Glen Campbell faces mortality with stoic resolve and a moving sense of mission. With Alzheimer’s disease gradually taking him out of the game, Campbell — with songwriting help from Jakob Dylan, Paul Westerberg and others, as well as a slew of guest performers — leaves on a winning note with a collection of lush, sweeping, grateful and even optimistic pop songs that in spots recall his seminal work with Jimmy Webb.
The Decemberists, “The King is Dead” (Capitol): After the conceptual opuses of “The Crane Wife” in 2006 and “The Hazards of Love” in 2009, the Portland quintet got back to the country (literally, recording in a converted barn) and made a simpler and more direct album that’s every bit as pleasing as its predecessors. Colin Meloy’s songwriting clearly doesn’t require a thematic hook to hang on, while Gillian Welch and R.E.M.’s Peter Buck make crucial and welcome contributions.
Foo Fighters, “Wasting Light” (Roswell/RCA): Dave Grohl and company do the Big Guitar Rock thing like a ’70s throwback with a late ’80s punk twist through a ’90s alt.rock filter — they do it well, in other words, and make it sound both contemporary and wholly their own. The personal lean of Grohl’s lyrics, meanwhile, as well as his reunion with Nirvana mate Krist Novoselic on “I Should Have Known” only gives the album more heft.
Imelda May, “Mayhem” (Decca): Jeff Beck shined a light on this Irish spitfire and her hell-on-wheels band, but left to their own devices May and company take on rockabilly, blues, surf and swing with fierce authority — and slows down convincingly on “All For You” and “Too Sad to Cry.” It’s one of the few times you’ll hear a song called “Psycho” that lives up to its title.
North Mississippi Allstars, “Keys to the Kingdom” (Songs of the South): Luther and Cody Dickinson mourn their father, legendary producer and artist Jim Dickinson, on a 12-song celebration filled with sonic references to his work with the Rolling Stones, Big Star and many others, as well as plenty of the group’s trademark Hill Country stomp. Probably the happiest album about death you’ll ever hear.
Robbie Robertson, “How to Become Clairvoyant” (Macrobiotic/429): The onetime guitarist for The Band isn’t exactly prolific — this is his first solo album in 13 years — but he usually makes the wait pay off. Insightful and confessional songs and guests such as Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood, Trent Reznor, Tom Morello, Dawes’ Taylor Goldsmith and others make clairvoyance sound like a worthwhile aspiration.
Raphael Saadiq, “Stone Rollin’” (Columbia): When it comes to vintage soul music, the former Tony! Toni! Tone! frontman is the real deal — several real deals, actually, as he grooves his way through ’50s Chess R&B, Motown, Stax and ’70s psychedelia. This one’s a bit more raw than 2008’s “The Way I See It,” but an unpolished gem is still a gem.
Paul Simon, “So Beautiful or So What” (Hear Music): At 70, Simon is in prime — occasionally rhymin’ — form, writing from a perspective that’s seen a lot but isn’t weary and singing with the same purity he’s displayed throughout his career. And you won’t find many wiser pop songs by artists of any age than “The Afterlife,” “Rewrite” and “Questions For the Angels.”
Wilco, “The Whole Love” (dBpm): The Chicago sextet bookends its eighth album with two of its longest songs — the dynamic “Art of Almost” and the quieter 12 minutes of “One Sunday Morning (Song For Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend)” — which sandwich a mixture of shorter but no less ambitious rock and folky Americana-tinged tunes. One of our most consistent groups keeps its record intact.
... And A Dozen More That Hurt To Cut: Ryan Adams, “Ashes & Fire” (PAX AM/Capitol); Bon Iver, “Bon Iver” (Jagjaguwar); Coldplay, “Mylo Xyloto” (Capitol); Danger Mouse and Daniele Luppi, “Rome” (Capitol/EMI); Jay-Z and Kanye West, “Watch the Throne” (Roc-A-Fella/Roc Nation/Def Jam); Lykke Li, “Wounded Rhymes” (LL); Tom Morello: The Nightwatchman, “World Wide Rebel Songs” (New West); Pistol Annies, “Hell on Heels” (Columbia Nashville); The Roots, “Undun” (Def Jam); Tedeschi Trucks Band, “Revelator” (Sony Masterworks); tUne-yArDs, “whokill” (4AD); Wild Flag, “Wild Flag” (Merge)
DETROIT’S TOP 20 FOR 2011
Bad Meets Evil (Eminem and Royce da 5’9”), “Hell: The Sequel” (Shady/Interscope)
Bear Lake, “If You Were Me” (Bear Lake Music)
Black Dahlia Murder, “Ritual” (Metal Blade)
Dennis Coffey, “Dennis Coffey” (Strut)
Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr., “It’s a Corporate World” (Quite Scientific/Warner Bros.)
Doop & the Inside Outlaws, “What Am I Supposed to Do?” (Blood River)
Electric Six, “Heartbeats and Brainwaves” (Metropolis)
Stewart Francke, “Heartless World” (Blue Boundary)
Howling Diablos, “Ultra Sonic Gas Can” (Funky D)
Mayer Hawthorne, “How Do You Do” (Universal Republic)
Jim McCarty & Friends, “Live From Callahan’s” (Cally’s)
The Muggs, “Born Ugly” (Bellyache)
Outrageous Cherry, “Seemingly Solid Reality” (Alive)
Royce Da 5’9”, “Success is Certain” (Gracie)
The Sights, “Twelve in the Bar” (Fountain)
Staggolee, “Dirty World” (Funky D)
Ty Stone, “American Style” (Top Dog/Atlantic)
The Paul Warren Project, “Round Trip” (Three Chord Music)
We Came As Romans, “Understanding What We’ve Grown to Be” (Equal Vision)
Alex Winston, “Sister Wife” (Heavy Roc)
2011’s LUCKY 13 DETROIT (AREA) CONCERTS
Kid Rock 40th Birthday Party, Jan. 15, Ford Field (Detroit)
Robert Plant and the Band of Joy/North Mississippi Allstars, Jan. 21, Hill Auditorium (Ann Arbor)
The Stooges/Ron Asheton Tribute, April 19, Michigan Theater (Ann Arbor)
Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings and Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears, March 14, Crofoot Ballroom (Pontiac)
Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band, March 26, Dow Events Center (Saginaw)
U2, June 26, Spartan Stadium (East Lansing)
Paul McCartney, July 24, Comerica Park (Detroit)
Sade and John Legend, Aug. 3, The Palace of Auburn Hills
Sing The Truth! (Angelique Kidjo, Dianne Reeves, Lizz Wright), Sept. 2, Detroit Jazz Festival (Detroit)
The Raconteurs, Sept. 16 at MI Fest, Michigan International Speedway (Brooklyn)
Paul Simon, Nov. 18, Fox Theatre (Detroit)
Jay-Z and Kanye West, Nov. 26, The Palace of Auburn Hills
Wilco, Dec. 11, Fillmore Detroit
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