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Albums of the Year: 2011

December 27th, 2011 6 comments

With Christmas out of the way, and the year almost over, it’s time I finally get around to compiling my Top 20 albums of the year of 2011 (in fact, there are 21 entries). Each album is represented on the mix with a song, and each entry has a link to the artist’s homepage or other outlet where the album can be ordered from. Because this list is intended not only to show off my impeccable taste, but also to showcase artists, all data files in the mix have been downscaled to 128kbps. This is not really a chart, but we’ll be counting down from roughly 20th to first. Other than the top 5, all rankings have a margin of error of a couple of places. The playlist of the mix counts up, from #1 to #21.

21. Michael Kiwanuka – Tell Me A Tale EP
This is supposed to be a Top 20 of albums, but I am breaking a rule by making it 21 and including this three-track EP. If Michael Kiwanuka’s debut, due for 2012, includes just three tracks as good as those on this EP, it will be a contender for next year’s list. The Ugandan-born, British-based  singer recalls the sounds of mid-’70s soul, with flutes, strings and rhythm guitar, and lovely melodies. And still, the sound is contemporary, with a jazz saxophone getting all funky on lead track Tell Me A Tale. Homepage
Michael Kiwanuka – I Need Your Company

20. Maria Taylor – Overlook
It is been a while since Taylor’s great debut albums, 11:11 and Lynn Teeter Flower, both of which were consistently excellent. Overlook is more like an old friend coming to visit; at first, the conversation is animated and a little exciting, then you settle down on the couch with a bottle of wine and just enjoy each other’s company, even if the level of communication is more comfortable than inspiring. In this way, Maria Taylor is a most welcome visitor. HOMEPAGE
Maria Taylor – Happenstance

19. Sarah Lee Guthrie & Johnny Irion – Bright Examples
Arlo’s daughter (and therefore Woody’s granddaughter) and her husband channel Fleetwood Mac, The Magic Numbers and a dash of Emmylou Harris on their second country-folk album. This is by no means edgy stuff, but it’s pretty much perfect over a cup of strongly brewed coffee on a Sunday morning. And sometimes that all we can ask of music. BUY ALBUM
Sarah Lee Guthrie & Johnny Irion – Seven Sisters

18. Säkert! – På Engelska
Or otherwise known as Hello Saferide. It’s a bit confusing: Swedish singer Annika Norlin is otherwise better known by the moniker Hello Saferide, by which she became something of an indie darling a few years ago. In 2007 and again in 2010 she recorded Swedish-language albums as Säkert! (which apparently is Swedish for “yeah, right”), selected tracks of which she then re-recorded in English, maintaining the Säkert! name. And just to mess with us, and rob the album of any commercial prospect, the album’s title is rendered in Swedish. It has no tracks as instantly catchy as The Quiz or High School Stalker, but this is an engaging set, with Norlin’s personality and appealingly idiosyncratic lyrics the real star. HOMEPAGE
Säkert!  – The Lakes We Skate On

17. Lori McKenna – Lorraine
Lori McKenna is better known as a songwriter for the likes of Alison Krauss, Tim McGraw, Carrie Underwood, Keith Urban and Faith Hill than she is as a performer. That’s a shame, because her performance is preferable to the corporate gloss of a LeeAnne Rimes. The strength here reside in McKenna’s emotional honesty as she introspects on her life and relationships (touchingly also with her late mother, also named Lorraine). BUY ALBUM
Lori McKenna – You Get A Love Song

16. Ralph Stanley – A Mother’s Prayer
Some 64 years after making his first record, bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley releases an album of Christian music that will make even the most hardened atheists wish, at least momentarily, that they had religion. His once smooth but now worn octogenarian voice might betray Stanley’s age, but he has the confidence to do four of the present 14 tracks a cappella style, including a rousing version of Blind Willie Johnson’s ‘John The Revelator’. HOMEPAGE
Ralph Stanley – I’ll Not Be Afraid

15. OK Sweetheart – Home
One of two self-released albums in this lot, which suggests that there is much talent that is going unrecognised. Thank goodness for the Internet, through which fans can spread the word. So I got to hear of OK Sweetheart – the moniker singer Erin Austin operates under – and this very lovely debut album, which calls to mind Regina Spektor in a calm mood. HOMEPAGE
OK Sweetheart – We’ve Got Love

14. Ron Sexsmith – Long Player Late Bloomer
After a dozen beautifully crafted albums, the acclaim awarded by the likes of Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello and Michael Bublé (hey, you would take it), and a memorable surname, the Canadian singer still is no superstar. Long Player Late Bloomer won’t change the injustice, even if it is another quite excellent album. Here Sexsmith scores his mostly downbeat lyrics with upbeat guitar, keyboard and strings, all gorgeously arranged. Sexsmith has an extraordinary warm sound (and, indeed, warm voice), which provides for a most welcome antidote to the autotuned stylings of current mainstream pop. BUY ALBUM (incl. special editions)
Ron Sexsmith – Michael And His Dad

13. Death Cab For Cutie – Codes And Keys
There’s nothing new here; Death Cab pretty much do what they’ve been doing since 2003’s excellent Transatlanticism (and Underneath The Sycamore sounds to me a bit like that album’s New Year), with the layered, textured arrangements and polished production which form little indie-pop symphonies. And like that album, the best track comes right at the end: Stay Young, Go Dancing.  Like the band’s previous three albums, Codes And Keys is best heard through headphones while tuning out, letting the texture of the sounds and Gibbard’s gentle singing cascade over the listener. HOMEPAGE
Death Cab For Cutie – Stay Young, Go Dancing

12. Buddy Miller – The Majestic Silver Strings
It takes two minutes and 10 seconds before the gentle opener Cattle Call launches any vocals. From then, things pick up, with a succession of guest vocalists, including Emmylou Harris, Patti Griffin, Shawn Colvin, Lee Ann Womack, and Miller’s wife Julie. Even Marc Ribot, like Buddy Miller a great session guitarist, chips in on a couple of numbers. And that’s how The Majestic Silver Strings sounds: a great studio romp with friends popping in and out to sing new material and lots of covers of lesser-known songs by country greats such as Lefty Frizzell and George Jones. It’s great fun and musically pleasing, even when the concept fails (cf. Roger Miller’s Dang Me!). And for an album featuring four highly rated session guitarists — Bill Frissell and Greg Leisz also feature – there is a commendable absence of guitar solo wankery. One for those who enjoy the A History of Country series. BUY ALBUM
Buddy Miller feat Julie Miller – God’s Wing’ed Horse

11. The Pierces – Thirteen Tales Of Love And Revenge
You have to love an indie-pop band that can sound vaguely like TLC, as The Pierces did on 2007’s Lights On, and who can riff on the Pet Shop Boys as they did on Boring (“Menage a trois? Boring”), from the same album. On their fourth album they play it a bit more straight – and more commercially viable. The sensibility is here is catchy indie-pop: imagine The Cardigans passing through Nashville (with a nod to The Mamas and the Papas, especially on Kissing You Goodbye). It’s unfailingly engaging. I love the cover design which gives the appearance of a well-worn LP sleeve. HOMEPAGE
The Pierces – Glorious

10. Josh T. Pearson – Last Of The Country Gentlemen
A man of gloomy outlook and plaintive voice, Josh T. Pearson is not likely to cheer you up. There is so much sadness and anger here, Last Of The Country Gentlemen might well be Pearson’s primal whisper. With four of the seven melancholy songs longer than ten minutes, this is an intimidating album. But becoming immersed in it, the genius of this exceptionally powerful set will reveal itself. BUY ALBUM
Josh T. Pearson – Thou Art Loosed

9. Tom Rhodes – Better Son
Screw old the system of musicians being at the arbitrary mercy of record companies; Tom Rhodes sells his self-financed albums on the Internet and at live gigs. His sophomore album of alt.country should by rights sell enough to pay the singer’s bills and more. In sound and in merit, it recalls one of the best albums of 2010, Ryan Bingham’s Junky Star. Bourbon-voiced Rhodes must have had confidence in his set of songs: he keeps the album’s best track, the title number, for the finale.  BUY ALBUM
Tom Rhodes – Better Son

8. Alison Krauss and Union Station – Paper Airplane
It took Alison Krauss seven years to record a new album that didn’t feature grizzled old Robert Plant, and the result feels like a long, warm hug by somebody who really loves you — and you might need that hug after Dan Tyminski’s angry vocals on Dust Bowl Children. Crystal-voiced Krauss and her band of maestros on mandolin, fiddle and banjo offer little that is new, but with such great material performed so beautifully rendered, who needs innovation? HOMEPAGE
Alison Krauss & Union Station – My Opening Farewell

7. Over The Rhine – The Long Surrender
Understated, warm and gorgeously slow-burning, Over The Rhine’s The Long Surrender gets under the listener’s skin with its raw, introspective lyrics delivered by Karen Bergquist in her torchsong-folk voice (from which the overhyped and overrated Adele could learn) to a sensitive but textured production by Joe Henry. The production was funded by fans and supporters of the Cincinnatti group, and alt-country legend Lucinda Williams pops in for two songs. HOMEPAGE
Over The Rhine – Sharpest Blade

6. Amos Lee – The Mission Bell
It’s hard to pin a genre on Amos Lee, but on The Mission Bell he is emphatically in the alt-country camp. Produced by Calexico’s Joey Burns, The Mission Bell channels The Band, without really reaching their depth (as if many ever do), and then descends to the pedestrianism of Jack Johnson. It’s an uneven album, to be sure. But when it works, it is quite impressive. The songs deal with songs of discovery and redemption, and Lucinda Williams and Willie Nelson (who provides an elementary maths lesson) drop in for duets. BUY ALBUM
Amos Lee – El Camino

5. Nicole Atkins – Mondo Amore
Nicole Atkins’ excellent 2007 album Neptune City drew from eclectic influences; on Mondo Amore she cast her net even wider and, counter-intuitively, arrives at a more coherent sound. The result is an energising, self-produced album (by force, her former label unaccountably dropped this wonderful talent) which details, with no exaggerated bitterness, her break-up with a boyfriend. On the lovely Hotel Plaster (which might have been a Richard Hawley song), Atkins sings: My pain could learn to play the violin, but it might not bring you back. But at least we’d have a pretty soundtrack.” And that’s just what we got. HOMEPAGE
Nicole Atkins – Cry Cry Cry

4. Zahara – Loliwe
A surprise hit, this is South Africa’s top-selling album of the year. In a musical scene in which her best shot at stardom was to do dance music of vocal jazz, 24-year-old Bulelwa Mkutukana took her acoustic guitar to create a bi-lingual album that references the great South African female singers of past and present – legends such as Miriam Makeba, Dolly Rathebe, Busi Mhlongo, Letta  Mbulu and, especially, Brenda Fassie, but also contemporaries such as Judith Sephuma and Simphiwe Dana. And yet she manages to sound fresh and entirely relevant. BUY ALBUM
Zahara – Ndize

3. Wilco – The Whole Love
Alas, poor Wilco, you shall never satisfy all your fans. Nobody can say they hate The Whole Love, but lots of people pronounced themselves a little disappointed. These are the hazards of being masters at different styles. On The Whole Love, Wilco offer a duo of opening tracks that should satisfy the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot fans of distorted sounds, and then go on to keep Sky Blue Sky devotees like me happy (and I firmly believe that one day Sky Blue Sky will be regarded as an all-time classic rock album). The sequencing is risky: the first half is not easy to navigate; it takes repeated listens to really appreciate them. The superb Born Alone rings in a series of instantly catchy numbers – but by then the casual listener might have switched off already. BUY ALBUM
Wilco – Born Alone

2. Brandi Carlile – Live At Benaroya Hall
Brandi Carlile should be a massive star, but if she was, she probably would have to make compromises. So it’s just as well that she’s big enough to get Elton John duetting with her on an album, to appear on Austin City Limits and to record a live album with orchestra, but retaining some artistic control. Not having to compromise means having your backing singers perform “the creepiest and most beautiful thing you’ve ever heard” on your live album, and it means that you can close the set with a couple of cover versions. Of those, bloody Hallelujah is so overworked, I can’t work up interest in Carlile’s version; Alphaville’s Forever Young is a surprising choice; nicely executed, but hardly going out on a high note – the set would have climaxed well with the final original, Pride And Joy. The original songs are performed with power where appropriate and restraint when necessary, with barely a dud note. The orchestra adds little to most songs, and on some tracks keeps quiet altogether, but gets going on the two stompers, The Story and – the album’s revelation – Dreams. HOMEPAGE
Brandi Carlile – Dreams

1. Gillian Welch – The Harrow and The Harvest
Gillian Welch’s first album in eight years is mesmerising. It draws the listener into its world of mystery and melancholy, modern Americana and old Appalachian sounds. Welch’s clear and expressive voice, supported by collaborator Dave Rawlings’ close harmonies, glides effortlessly over the lovely sparse arrangements, which pay a respectful tribute to country’s rich legacy. This album is a monument to the majesty of restraint and simplicity. BUY ALBUM
Gillian Welch – Tennessee
Gillian Welch – Hard Times
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Previous Albums of the Year

Caught up in the rapture

May 21st, 2011 5 comments

The world is ending today. In fact, it might end before I get to post this, or before you get to download these five songs. It’s the day of Rapture. And we tend to get a lot of those these days. Yesterday Any Minor Dude said to me: “You can’t predict the end of the world.” Like the pedantic shit that I am, I reponded: “Oh, you can predict. You can always make a prediction, but most likely you’ll be wrong if you try and predict the last day of the world.” So whichever crazy cult said the world would end on 21 May will probably have made a wrong prediction. They’ll certainly feel pretty stupid if the world ends on Monday.

In any case, if the world were to end, it would be the Good News, because Jesus would come to save the righteous — and by mere dint of reading this blog, you are righteous. The Rapture thing is really what others call Judgment Day. So here are a few songs riffing on that theme, in lieue of Blondie and Anita Baker.

The Rance Allen Group – There’s Gonna Be A Showdown (1972)
Great stomper by gospel-soul/funk guys who turned The Temptations Just My Imagination into Just My Salvation on Covered With Soul Vol. 5.

Johnny Cash – Redemption Day (released 2010)
Recorded shortly before his death, the devout Christian Cash gets ready for the Judgment. “There is a train that’s heading straight to heaven’s gate… And on the way, child and man and woman wait, watch and wait, for redemption day.”

Over The Rhine – The Trumpet Child (2007)
“The trumpet child will blow his horn, will blast the sky till it’s reborn. With Gabriel’s power and Satchmo’s grace, he will surprise the human race.”

The Carter Family – When Our Lord Shall Come Again (1939)
The original Carter Family turn up on radio in 1939 to sing a hymn by Johnson Oatman Jr.(1856-1922) with music by R.L. Ferguson. “When upon the clouds of heaven Christ shall come to earth again; will the world be glad to see Him, when our Lord shall come again?”

Arizona Dranes – He’s Coming Soon (late 1920s)
Early gospel-blues legend makes a prediction. If the world ends today, she’ll be just 80-something years late.