It's that time of year, so here my picks for my favorite music of 2011, in alphabetical order:
Beirut, “The Rip Tide”
Sometimes sad is good, and Beirut does wonderful sad. Imagine Morrissey if he'd loved world music and brass bands. Zach Condon is only 25, but his music sounds like it's been around forever, steeped in old-world charm. Beirut's third disc, "The Rip Tide" is all sweeping melancholy and Condon's mournful voice, but it's the kind of sad that feels good to listen to. The jaunty "Santa Fe" is perhaps my favorite song of this year, while the title track is beautiful, broken-hearted and grand. If you like Arcade Fire or the National, you need to listen to this one.
Ben Folds, “The Best Imitation of Myself: A Retrospective”
OK, technically it’s a box set, but it’s got new stuff, too. And what a treasure trove for fans of Folds and his wry, witty piano pop – three discs of hits, rarities and live versions. Folds’ tunes straddle the line between Elton John and They Might Be Giants, with a song able to break your heart and crack you up in the same verse. The Ben Folds Five were one of the great underrated acts of the 1990s and Folds’ solo career has been pretty winning. This set offers a whole new chance to appreciate the hooks and harmonies, and discover rare gems.
Fabulous/Arabia, “Unlimited Buffet”
New Zealanders Lawrence Arabia and Mike Fabulous have collaborated to create a dreamlike and gorgeous piece of Kiwi pop. Arabia's last album "Chant Darling" is one of the best Kiwi records of the last few years -- in that same creative, vibrant zone bands like Phoenix Foundation and Liam Finn are operating in -- and this record is nearly as good. High harmonies, floating hooks, a bit of winking irony and an undercurrent of funk swim together in an album that is perfect for listening to on a New Zealand summer's day, watching the waves roll in at the beach.
Kanye West & Jay-Z, “Watch The Throne”
It’s a gaudy and cocky monument to consumerism, with barely an ounce of subtlety – but still, the two titans of hip-hop deliver a caffeinated, hook-filled romp of an album. While less epic in its reach than Kanye's last album, it's still a pretty dazzling mix of ego and invention, with some of the best uses of samples in a long time. Most “event” albums -- like Lady Gaga’s latest -- fall short, but this one manages to deliver.
Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, “Soul Time!”
Unabashedly retro soul-funk, which may not be particularly groundbreaking but sure lights up a room. I've been on a big classic soul kick lately -- Otis, Aretha, Stax -- and Jones is one of the few folks today who carry on that tradition in a way that doesn't just seem like a tribute act. Top-notch musicianship and utter sincerity abound in songs like "Genuine" and "What If We All Stopped Paying Taxes?" I'd take the well-seasoned, passionate voice of Sharon Jones over the staggeringly dull Adele any day of the week, myself.
Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks, "Mirror Traffic"
Ah, Malkmus. Don't ever change. On the heels of the great Pavement reunion tour comes another slab of Malkmus' quirky, goofy rock, this time produced by Beck. Full of jammy guitar riffs, wacky lyrical asides and hooks that burrow into your brain, "Mirror Traffic" is good partly because it seems so damned effortless for the band. Only Malkmus could deliver the chorus to "Senator" with a straight face: "I know what the senator wants / what the senator wants / is a blow job." Awesome!
My Morning Jacket, “Circuital”
Some fans hated MMJ's last album, the experimental "Evil Urges," but I kinda dug it. The myth-drenched Southern rock combo return with an album that sums up all their parts. "Circuital" combines the spooky, reverb-filled feel of MMJ's first few albums with the free-wheeling charm of their later work -- got to love a song called "Holdin' on to Black Metal," which is defiantly tongue in check. But then album opener "Victory Dance" is a slow-building thunderbolt of a song, knocking you flat with its building power.
Unknown Mortal Orchestra, “Unknown Mortal Orchestra”
Out of the ashes of New Zealand’s punk-pop band The Mint Chinks comes this groovy psychedelic funk rock outfit, now based in Oregon. There’s a kind of alien, trippy loose-limbedness to this record, which blends solid grooves to space-cadet melodies. A bit like MGMT or Of Montreal, it’s a band giving a hipster take on well-worn genres with true adoration. It’s seasoned with a strange dash of melancholy that only makes the beats dig deeper.
Tom Waits, “Bad As Me”
After nearly 40 years of doing this, isn’t Tom Waits’ schtick old by now? But “Bad As Me” is as fresh and strange as anything else in the master’s cellar, and like many other critics have said, it plays almost as a “lost greatest hits” album. Waits saunters through every style in his book – the mournful ballad, the warped road song, the tub-thumping rant. I remember Waits being a bit of a cult figure when I stumbled across him in the late 1980s. But icon status, and even admission to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, hasn’t dimmed his distinctive weirdness one bit.
Wilco, “The Whole Love”
After two lovely but mellow albums, there’s a welcome return of tension and experimentation to Wilco’s latest. There’s less of the anguish that marked the band’s classic “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” but there’s a resurgent curiosity and sense of play. The band’s secret MVP is astounding guitarist Nels Cline, whose textural clangs, chords and riffs give frontman Jeff Tweedy’s lyrics added space and mystery.
Bubbling under: Florence + The Machine, “Ceremonials”; PJ Harvey, “Let England Shake”; Bon Iver, “Bon Iver”
Songs of the year
Beirut, "Santa Fe"
The Drab Doo Riffs, “Juggernaut”
Bon Iver, "Perth"
Liam Finn, "Cold Feet"
My Morning Jacket, "Outta My System"
Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks, "Senator"
Urge Overkill, “Thought Balloon”
Florence + The Machine, “Never Let Me Go”
Tom Waits, “Hell Broke Luce”
Unknown Mortal Orchestra, “How Can You Luv Me?”
Show of the year
I've been a total slacker on the concert scene the second half of this year, because I'm an old man in my 40s, after all. But I did see some excellent stuff earlier this year, including the sprawling traveling review of George Clinton & P. Funk - the big man may be past his prime but he was backed up by a great all-star cast. A '90s fave of mine, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, were also garage-rock fun, but the real highlight for me was seeing the post-punk combo Gang Of Four tear it up, and energetic front man Jon King ripping the Powerstation apart like it was 1979 all over again.