Best Albums of 2011: Two Views

For the second consecutive year I’ve invited my friend and fellow music lover, Larry Van Cleve, to join me in making a list of the best CDs released during the past year. No one sent us any free CDs to review, so our lists are made up of what we bought, borrowed, and burned.

Best CDs of 2011 by Larry Van Cleve

 1.)   “Some Girls” (Bonus Tracks Disk) – Rolling Stones. Here we go again. Last year it was the Exile bonus disk on the best of list. This year it’s the “Some Girls” bonus disk. More cohesive as a whole than the Exile set, one could see how these tracks would have leaned the album more towards a rockabilly, country, blues vibe. This disk sounds like a missing 70s Stones album (“Some Boys”?). They can do this every year if the results are similar to this collection.

 2.)   “Europe ’72 Vol. 2” – Grateful Dead. Personal not-so-guilty pleasure here. The three lp “Europe ’72’ released in late 1972 documented their 22 show European tour from that year and for this fan was a touchstone look what the band was up to. New tight tunes and soaring jams combined with classic “Workingman’s Dead” and “American Beauty” songs to recreate that Dead experience. This 2 disk follow up (39 years later!) repeats none of the titles and further gives you the feel for the band at what is arguably one of their great peaks. For the true fan with a spare $450 you can get the entire 22 concerts on 72 disks in one big box. Sigh.

3.)   “The Whole Love” – Wilco. As of late Wilco’s output has had a more low key, somber sound. Good but not great. “The Whole Love” changes that and stands up there with “Being There” and “summerteeth.” This is the first Wilco I’ve been excited about in a while. Eclectic as usual they can rock out or strut with the best of them. This one is fun to listen to. May be the best new album of the year. Note: the bonus tracks release has some excellent tunes. Second note: Does Jeff Tweedy sound more like John Lennon as time goes by?  

4.)   “Bad As Me” – Tom Waits. Talk about eclectic. Waits is definitely an acquired taste. Those who aren’t bothered by (and even entranced by) his growling vocals seem to have their favorite periods of this music. I enjoy the “Bone Machine”, “Mule Variations” bluesy dissonance sound that is in evidence here. Combine that with some introspective ballads and you have a feast for Waits fans who’ve been waiting for new material for seven years.

5.)   “How Do You Do?” – Mayer Hawthorne. Mayer’s second album (and major label debut) covers similar ground to his first effort…and that’s all right with me. His first effort was Northern Soul reborn, this one stretches a bit further. The Motown and 60s influence is definitely still there but he more successfully ventures into 70’s soul and pop this time around. Hawthorne seems to understand the details in the music. Those little touches that make a track memorable. Of course there are the hooks that are in abundance. Whether you consider the structures borrowed or stolen or a tribute…the bottom line is that they work. Very pleasurable listen.

6.)   “American Goldwing” – Blitzen Trapper. Back in 2008 I was entranced by the Classic Rock sound of Blitzen Trapper’s “Furr.” The follow up a few years later (“Destroyer of the Void”) seemed a bit more spotty. With this new release the band seems to be back on track. The overall sound is more of the 70s California country rock with a touch of southern boogie but they are also capable of delving into diverse influences like Mountain or even Bob Dylan on some tracks. Tying all this together is singer Eric Earley’s distinctive voice whether solo or in harmony with the others.

 7.)   “Odd Soul” - Mute Math. When I first heard this techno rock band something caught my ear that distinguished them from the pack. Could have been the vocals or the odd hook that grabbed me. Alas, ultimately their albums seemed to settle into a certain sameness. Not anymore. Listen to “Blood Pressure” or the title track from the new album. They’re the kind of tunes that would jump out of your car radio and make you an instant fan. The rest of the album is up to a similar high standard. The 80s synth band influence is still there but with a higher production value and a musical ability to stretch the sound they move way out in front of their earlier efforts. Singer Paul Meany stands out but the rest also shine. Worth a listen.

8.)   “Blood Pressure” – The Kills. Dark rock duo’s last album was 2008’s “Midnight Bloom” a very successful foray into dark places indeed. Since then Alison Mosshart joined Jack White in the band Dead Weather and they did two albums and two tours. The Kills then reformed. The experience with Jack White expanded Alison’s vocals and overall she seems to exude a new confidence. The sound of the Kills has also expanded into new territory. The swamp rock and early Bad Seeds (or current Grinderman) is still there but the influences have expanded without losing their sense of danger.

9.)   “Let England Shake” – PJ Harvey. As political an album as she has ever done, PJ Harvey is treading difficult but ultimately successful ground here. Not as stripped down as her last (“White Chalk”) it still emotes a spare background. The production is immaculate presenting a mysterious distant environment that only adds to the overall experience. This is one talented lady who refuses to be labeled.

10.) “21” – Adele. Immense talent. A voice so good that it’s scary. Hard to pass on an album with tunes such as “Rolling In The Deep” (best single of 2011 by far), “Someone Like You” and “Rumor Has It.” Some slow spots here and there but overall a very emotionally involving effort. I certainly expect future work from this singer/songwriter to make this list many times. She has that kind of potential.

Didn’t quite make the list but worth looking into: “Father, Son, Holy Ghost” Girls, “Angles” Stokes, “Yuck” Yuck, “Slave Ambient” The War On Drugs, “Wild Flag” Wild Flag. And oh yeah, the Black Keys latest (to be released after this list) is sure to be on next years list.

Dr. J's Best CDs of 2011

01.) “Miss You” (Bonus Tracks Reissue) – Rolling Stones. I didn’t think it possible that the Stones could put together a better reissue package than last year’s “Exile On Main Street”, but I think “Miss You” tops it. The bonus disk of 12 songs is like getting a new Stones album chock full of unheard classics. If that was not enough, the band simultaneously released the DVD Some Girls Live In Texas ’78; a concert film of a red hot show in a small venue in Ft. Worth in which they perform seven of the then-new songs from the album, and display in spades why they are called “the world’s greatest rock and roll band”.

02.) “Go-Go Boots” and “Ugly Buildings, Whores & Politicians” – Drive-By Truckers. Rolling Stone writer David Fricke calls the Drive-By Truckers “the best American band a lot of people still need to know.” The group released two excellent CDs this year. “Go-Go Boots” is the great new album in which the Truckers explore their country rock roots, while “Ugly Buildings, Whores & Politicians” is a terrific collection of past tunes that features the best of the band’s recordings through 2009.

03.) “Move Like This” – The Cars. After an absence of twenty-four years, The Cars, minus the late Benjamin Orr, have returned with a fabulous new album that sounds like it could have been the long lost follow-up to 1984’s classic “Heartbeat City” LP. Every song sounds like it could be part of a Cars’ greatest hits collection.

04.) “Tell Me” – Jessica Lea Mayfield. Featuring a plaintive voice that sounds like a young Lucinda Williams, Mayfield’s second album was produced by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys.  He adds a lot of tasty electric guitar touches that help illuminate her dark and haunting songs.

05.) “The Whole Love” – Wilco. With the release of their last 4 or 5 CDs, Jeff Tweedy and company have established themselves as one of the best bands in the country. “The Whole Love” is the band’s eighth and possibly its finest album, and it is filled with the variety of songs and great writing that are Wilco staples. The Deluxe Version CD offers five bonus tracks.

06.) “Codes and Keys” – Death Cab For Cutie. I think of them as America’s answer to Radiohead, only with songs that are more tuneful. With “Codes and Keys” , the band has produced its most accessible album yet, and they have expanded their sound by adding analog synths to the guitars that have propelled Ben Gibbard’s songs on prior Death Cab For Cutie releases.

07.) “Belong” – The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart. The New York band’s second album was co-produced by Flood and Alan Moulder. The breathy vocals take a couple of listens to get into, but the catchy tunes and big guitar sound clamp on tight and won’t let go.

08.) “How Do You Do” – Mayer Hawthorne. It seems weird that the best purveyor of retro soul and R&B music is a white guy from Ann Arbor. Hawthorne’s excellent second album picks up where his debut left off with great vocals and a batch of Motown-influenced songs, one of which is an ode to the city of Detroit. The iTunes version has a cool bonus cut.

09.) “Mockingbird Time” – The Jayhawks. The long-awaited comeback album from one of the early stars of alt-country does not disappoint. The harmonies of Gary Louris and Mark Olson evoke both the Byrds and the Buffalo Springfield without imitating either. The iTunes version has two bonus songs.

10.) “Collapse Into Now” – R.E.M. The members of R.E.M. announced their retirement earlier this year. This last official collection of new songs by one of the best bands of the past thirty years is also R.E.M.’s finest album since Bill Berry left the band in 1997. The Deluxe Edition of the album contains three live in the studio bonus tracks.

11.) “Panic Of Girls” – Blondie. Since they reformed in 1999, Blondie has produced three very good albums. Led by the vocals of the amazing Debbie Harry and the great drumming of Clem Burke, “Panic Of Girls” offers a varied blend of punk, girl group, new wave, and reggae that sounds very much like one of their classic disks from the 70’s and 80’s.

12.) “Only In Dreams” – Dum Dum Girls. The second album by this all-female band has a sort of “girl group meets the wall of guitars” sound. Lead singer Dee Dee Gundred is the star of the show, and she sounds like she could have been Debbie Harry’s love child. “Only In Dreams” was co-produced by Richard Gottehrer (Blondie, Go-Go’s) and Sune Rose Wagner of the Raveonettes. The iTunes version has a nice bonus track.

13.) “Low Country Blues” – Gregg Allman. I was never much of an Allman Brothers fan after the death of Duane, but I always liked Gregg Allman’s vocals. His new album, produced by T Bone Burnett, gives him the chance to explore the blues genre on a dozen classic tracks.

14. “Boogie 4 Stu” – Ben Waters. Tribute albums often don’t seem to work that well because of the wide variety of participating artists. This CD an exception in that the tribute to Ian Stewart is built around the boogie-woogie piano of Ben Waters and is supported by Stewart’s former mates in the Rolling Stones. Although Waters’ playing in the style Stewart loved is the focus of the CD, the two songs featuring lead vocals by Keith Richards and Mick Jagger are the highlights.

15. “Aphrodite” – Kylie Minogue. Guilty pleasure alert! I like good disco/dance music, and Minogue’s new CD sounds very much like one of the great Madonna albums of the 80’s. This is her best release since 2001’s “Fever, and it’s filled with irresistible dance grooves and Kylie’s sexy vocals.

Honorable Mention:

  • “Science & Faith” – The Script.  What passes for pop music these days leaves me pretty cold, but I did like the songs, the group’s lead singer, and the guitar-based backing on the Script’s newest CD.
  • “The Party Ain’t Over” – Wanda Jackson. Jack White produced the latest release by the original “Queen of Rockabilly”. Although I didn’t care for the effects on the opening cut, “Shakin’ All Over”, White’s attempt to update Jackson’s sound works very well on the whole.
  • “I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive” – Steve Earle. Even though I don’t think this is one of Earle’s best, it’s still better than most CDs that are out there. The album contains a wide variety of songs that make it seem a little like a collection of left-overs, but it does have its moments of greatness.
  • “Harmony” – Leslie Sisson. This is the solo artist debut for the lead singer and guitarist of the Wooden Birds and the part-time guitarist and female backing vocalist of Matt Pond PA. Sisson writes and performs songs that are an addictive blend of pop, rock, and folk. Her self-released CD is not on iTunes, so you have to go to her web site at