My 10 Favorite New Records Of 2011

Had I been more organized, I would have had this post ready to go on New Year’s Eve or Day, but as it is, I was busy and just didn’t have the time or wherewithal to get it together. I have been doing my research over the past few weeks and have come up with not one, not two, but three music-related best of lists for 2011. Like last year, I will list my favorite new music of 2011 as well as the older records I discovered in the year, but I’m also adding a new section about bands that I really go into this year. I’ll get into more detail when I get to that post, but there will be some albums on that list that could or would have been on this list, so technically, I had more than 10 favorites this year. As always, this list is in no particular order, so here we go.

There was a time in my life when I would have looked at the cover of this kid with hipster glasses and flowing red hair, immediately dismissed him and moved on to the next $5 MP3 album on Amazon (the main source of my expanding record collection this year). Actually, that time was this year and I did just that. It wasn’t until a week or so later that I saw Brett Dennen on one of the late night shows. I’m guessing it was Conan or Jimmy, but I also might have caught the end of the ridiculously boring Tonight Show and seen him play. Dennen’s look is very decieving because this dude can play. It’s kind of like a modern kid was given his grandfather’s record collection and created music based in the old days with some more modern lyrics (“Comeback Kid (That’s My Dog)”). While his voice can get a little too nasally at times like on “Walk Away Watch Me Burn,” Dennen has enough funky white boy soul and solid guitar chops to keep me into Loverboy for the duration (though it got a little tiresome at the end). Highlights include “Dancing At A Funeral” and “Sydney (I’ll Come Running).”

Bela Fleck and the Flecktones’ Rocket Science was another Amazon $5 purchase. I’d heard of Fleck for years and read about his reunion with drummer Future Man, bassist Victor Wooten (one of the best around) and Howard Levy on harmonica and piano, but this was the first time I’ve ever sat down and listened to his music (aside from a show or two at the original Bonnaroo I attended). I’m so glad I bet the five bucks on this being a quality record because it really is amazing. I guess you could call this elctro jazz funk bluegrass or something along those lines. It reminded me of John Paul Jones’ solo record Zooma a lot with it’s fast paced instrumental nature.The synthesis between the different genres and the expert-level musicianship is what makes Rocket Science such a sonic treat. You’ve got the funky flare-meets-old school sound of “Prickly Pear” to the epic sweep of “Storm Warning.” I noticed while listening to the record–which I haven’t done nearly enough times–that if you try to focus too hard on one element, you lose focus of the whole piece, so at least early on it’s best to let it just flow over you and absorb what you can. In that way it’s like my favorite movies, the ones that demand repeated viewings and provide you with all kinds of treats when you do so. Here’s the thing about the Red Hot Chili Peppers. I’m a fan. I like them a lot and I know that their last five or six albums have been really impressive from a music perspective, especially considering the band’s party boy roots. However, I like the funk. I miss the funk. Sure, they always throw in a bass heavy rap-ish track here and there on the albums, but we haven’t had an Uplift Mofo Party Plan in a while. I’m With You doesn’t really bring the funk in full force. There’s bits and pieces for sure and, again, the songs are all good, but it’s kind of like hanging out with that friend who used to be really, really funny and now only tells the occasional joke. I’ll be honest, I haven’t listened to this record–which features new guitar player Josh Klinghoffer–a lot. Maybe one or two listens. I like it and I want to listen to it more, but I still miss some of that old magic. Some bands are just genetically made to be liked by certain people. I like traditional Irish music, punk rock and gang vocals, so guess what? I’m a big fan of The Dropkick Murphys’ Going Out In Style. Like Bela Fleck, I’ve known about the Murphys for a while, but never really dove into one of their records until this year. I don’t really have much else to say, honestly. I enjoyed this record on a very visceral level, so much so that it felt like punk rock should have been born in Ireland because their traditional instruments sound so damn organic in the fast paced world of power chords and fast drum beats.

Last year my pal Jesse sent me a copy of Stephen Kellogg & The Sixers’ The Bear, an album I loved and wrote about as a favorite of the year. This year, I added a few more Kellogg records to my collection, but really didn’t dive into them aside from their new release this year Gift Horse. When preparing for this list I first went through and noted all the 2011 released albums I had in my iTunes and then went through and listened to the candidates. While giving Gift Horse another listen, I first thought that it wasn’t hitting the same emotional buttons that The Bear did. Maybe Kellogg was writing differently or maybe I was just in a different place emotionally. That didn’t mean it was a bad record by any means, but just not as impactful on me. Then I got to “Watch You Grow” and my heart strings were plucked. Then came “Noelle, Noelle” and “You Can Not Escape This Love.” Devastatingly personal and honest and directly in my wheelhouse. Now I’ve got to listen to those other records I downloaded! 

Alice Cooper is one of those older rock and roll guys that should actually be a lot more popular and relevant than he is. I first came to know him through my dad as we listened to Welcome To My Nightmare and School’s Out in his car, but we also go into some of his more recent records like Brutal Planet and Dragontown. Listening to those two records made me realize that just because a singer is singing a song doesn’t mean they necessarily are relaying their own feelings. Sometimes they take on a character like an actor or sometimes they attack a subject from a sarcastic angle like a comedian to make you think about it. He did that on those records and he does it again on Welcome 2 My Nightmare, the follow-up to his classic record. As with any latter day effort by a classic act, I was worried going in, but Cooper proved that he’s still got the biting wit he’s always had and surrounded himself with musicians who can mimic other sounds from the fairly restrained opening track to the Tom Waits-esque “Last Man On Earth.” Cooper and company adopt those familiar settings to tell interesting stories that I think hold up as well as his initial releases even if they might not match the intensity. He’s one of the few old rock guys who seems to have adapted well without completely losing his identity in his 40-plus year career. Speaking of Tom Waits, I’m not nearly as well versed in his music as I should be. Back in my Wizard intern days, my roommate and fellow intern Brian Warmoth was really into him, so when I got home that summer I picked up one of his records and have since done a little exploring into the ouvre, but nothing major. When Bad As Me came out this year, I wasn’t sure if I would get into it, not because I don’t like the music or his style, but because I just haven’t been listening to as much music as in previous years. I’ve got dozens of albums I’ve downloaded that I just haven’t given enough attention to and this one was actually on that list until I started working on this post. Listening to it, though, quickly made an impression and reiterated why people like my pal Brian are such devotees. The man is amazing. He transports you to this dark, dirty corners of the world and squats you firmly in the corner as he explains through words and song what’s happening to some mostly unfortunate people. What surprised me, though, was the stylistic differences in the songs. When I think of Waits, I’ve got a profile he fits into: gruff voice over an acoustic guitar, but he stretches and plays with that on this record which is a lot of fun. Just look at “Hell Broke Luce.” That song is nuts, it’s based on a pun, has a clapping rhythm track and yet it’s a damn good song. Waits is like one of those junkyard inventors who takes broken, dirty things and makes beautifully complete new dirty things with maybe just a little polish. Also, his take on “Auld Lang Syne” in the final track “Happy New Year” makes me think that he actually time traveled back to 1788 and wrote it under the pen name of Robert Burns because you can feel him in the song’s DNA. Now that I think about it, I really wish I had played it on New Year’s Eve. Ah well. Cage The Elephant’s self titled debut was one of my favorite records of 2009, so I was excited when I heard that had a follow up earlier this year called Thank You Happy Birthday. I was hoping for more of the same room shaking rock songs that I had come to know and love from the previous record, so when things got loud and weird and crazy right off the bat, I was a little put off. There’s a larger discussion to be had here about expectations versus reality, but the truth is that I didn’t really bother listening to this record for the better part of the year. Once I gave it another chance, though, I was back in love with this band. Expectations aside, I can not fault a band for wanting to grow and evolve even if I want more of the same. I like evolution and the results this time around reminded me of some of the grunge bands I got into well after they first became big like Sonic Youth and Mudhoney. This is a raw record that still has some of the chugging rock I was looking for, I was just thrown by the opening track “Always Something,” but now I feel like “Aberdeen” and “Shake Me Down” are old favorites. I’ve documented my love of Fountains Of Wayne already on the blog, so I can skip a lot of that this time around. I had heard that Sky Full Of Holes was going to be a more mellow record with more introspective songs, but I think it’s actually got a good mix of pop and thought. It actually wound up being more upbeat than I thought. “A Dip In The Ocean” has that familiar pop feel of classic FOW songs. They also haven’t lost their story song chops. I love “Richie and Ruben” and “Action Hero.” Those are experiences I can relate to. Who doesn’t want to be an action star? None of the songs get into the rock territory of Welcome Interstate Managers, but even a more mellow FOW record is better than most others.

This is the second year in a row that a Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings record has made my favorite album of the year least. Had I done one in 2008 100 Days, 100 Nights would have been on there too. Unlike those other records, though, Soul Time is a lot more up beat and swinging. While the other albums tended more towards a downbeat soul sound, these get the swing and funk grooves flowing which is exactly what I like to hear from one of my favorite back-up bands around. Jones might be most known for her soulful tales of heartbreak, but it’s also nice to see her have a little more fun. This is fantastic work music for me because it gets me grooving and before I know it, I’m done with a story or research and didn’t even realize how long I was working on it. Also, this record is the perfect example of why I wait to do these lists because it just came out a week or two ago and quickly rocketed onto the list.

If you’re interested, I also listened to some records that didn’t really do much for me. Katy Perry’s second record was okay, but not nearly as fun and catchy as the first. I also didn’t really get into Watch The Throne, mostly because it didn’t feel like it was trying to hook listeners whatsoever. The Superheavy record was hilariously bad, but I’ll get to that in a Supergroup Showcase. On the more positive side I really liked She & Him’s A Very She & Him Christmas, but it didn’t seem like top 10 territory. And, as a preview of the bands I really got into this year, look for appearances by The Black Keys and The Roots!

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