Despite my appreciation of music and almost-unhealthy habit of listening to it while doing just about anything, I am often accused of not appreciating newer music enough. However, my complaint is not with new music in general; I just wish that the most popular artists were also the best. Unlike in the 1960s and early 1970s, when the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Bob Dylan, Marvin Gaye, the Rolling Stones and Black Sabbath were among the biggest artists in the world as well as the best, nowadays it seems that one has to cut through much more in order to find the diamonds in the rough. That being said, there are plenty of great artists releasing albums today. They aren’t all over the radio, and don’t expect them to win many Grammys (not that the Grammys ever knew how to reward the best bands even when they were the biggest), but there’s no shortage of talent if you just know where to look. And with it being award season and all, I figured I would honor my top albums of 2011. They’re not ranked, and they don’t need to be. Do yourself a favor and check all of them out; each album is amongst the best of the year and can stand tall without a numerical ranking.
The Beach Boys: “Smile”
I guess I’m cheating already. The holy grail of unreleased albums, The Beach Boys’ “Smile” isn’t really a new album, since many of these songs have been on the market for over 40 years. That being said, the final release is every bit the album everyone hoped it would be. Setting aside the production of the album, which drove then-de-facto leader Brian Wilson to insanity and forever changed the band, Smile is a simply gorgeous album that succeeds entirely on its own merits. Its impact is blunted somewhat by the 2004 release of Wilson’s version of the album, but familiar staples such as “Good Vibrations,” “Heroes and Villains” and “Cabin Essence,” which is beautiful beyond words here, are as brilliant as ever. Lesser known songs such as “Child is the Father of the Man” and the intense, uncommonly heavy “The Elements: Fire (Mrs. O’ Leary’s Cow,” are well worth individual looks as well, but the album really is more than the sum of its parts. It’s not quite as consistent as “Pet Sounds” (commonly referred to as the greatest album ever), but it’s still uncommonly good, and its peaks rise about as high as any album could hope for.
Mastodon: “The Hunter”
The past decade’s best metal band changes things up on “The Hunter,” which is less brutal than their earlier albums and less expansive than 2009’s “Crack the Skye.” While that effort remains their best, “The Hunter” still sees the Atlanta metal quartet at the top of their game. Here, they shorten their songs and add an extra dose of sweetness to reveal a new side to their work, one which is just as heavy but has far more radio-appeal. Some efforts such as the dark, melancholic “Creature Lives” add a previously nonexistent variety to the album, but by and large this is simply a great, straightforward hard rock album, filled with pummeling riffs, layered solos and a propulsive rhythm section, ruled over by alternately melodic and guttural vocals from all three singers (the band is surprisingly democratic, managing to double up on guitar duties, as well, despite only having four members). Singles “Curl of the Burl” and “Black Tongue” rock righteously and provide the two most obvious highlights, but this is an incredibly consistent offering from the champions of modern metal.
My Morning Jacket: “Circuital”
One of modern rock’s most unique and hypnotic bands, My Morning Jacket is a consistently fascinating, exceptionally tight psychedelic Southern rock band. Their sound is simultaneously challenging and layered, but simple and evocative. Clearly owing as much to Neil Young as Lynyrd Skynyrd, they’re one of the few bands that can punch you in the gut while lulling you to sleep at the same time. The album navigates multiple different styles with ease, whether it’s unleashing a propulsive, sonic punch on the album’s best song “Holdin’ On to Black Metal,” delivering a dark, haunting soul search on “Victory Dance,” rocking out on the hard-hitting “First Light,” or revealing a majestic, shimmering, yet world-weary ballad on “Wonderful (the Way I Feel).” No matter what they’re delivering, My Morning Jacket has shown that they remain one of the band’s to watch throughout the coming years.
The Roots: “Undun”
An emotionally-charged, intense, harrowing album that feels full of fire and anger, “Undun” sees the Philadelphia hip-hop band delivering a true classic of the genre. Musically, it’s undeniably on firm footing, with the band locking it to several great grooves and experimenting with new styles and rhythms. A neo-soul influence in particular is notable throughout the album, and prominent male and female backing vocals deliver some of the album’s most emotionally-charged highs. “Undun” is one of those rare albums where just about every song is a winner, which is fortunate because this album’s lone flaw is its conceptual nature. The album’s central storyline of a young African-American man growing up in poverty is ripe with potential, but it never quite seems like they pull it off as well as they could. Concept albums are difficult, and, as far as they go, this is an ambitious one (they choose to tell the story in reverse order, as well), but, like many albums, the story ultimately strains to work beyond the level of a collection of songs. Again, this is a common fault with concept albums and isn’t a big deal by any means because, quite honestly, the songs here are nothing less than great, and many of them provide powerful in-the-moment looks at life in America. And regardless of the overall narrative’s success, MC Black Thought raps like he means it, delivering an impassioned, direct performance that’s refreshing from beginning to end.
Tom Waits: “Bad as Me”
Feeling instantly at home with his 1985 classic Rain Dogs, this album sees a once great artist at the top of his game again. Adopting much the same sound as he always has, Waits keeps things interesting here by crafting an album that is more intense, blunt and confrontational than his previous work. It’s both consistently fun and frequently sobering, with the title track and “Satisfied” sounding like lost classics of the genre (assuming Tom Waits fits into a genre that is). Both also provide a glimpse into the mind of a singular artist, and the album riotously changes tones throughout, often within the same song. It’s sometimes difficult to discern whether Waits wants us to party or warns against it, or more likely both, but that seems like the point and Waits darn sure makes us believe him no matter what.
TV on the Radio: “Nine Types of Light”
Another consistently-challenging, almost-impossible-todefine album from the Brooklyn based indie-soul-blues-rock … I don’t even know how to describe them. Like the band at the helm, “Nine Types of Light” throws everything together (I’d be surprised if the kitchen sink isn’t in here somewhere) to create an inventive, fascinating, and truly singular experience. There’s really no one that sounds quite like them, especially considering how they’re unwilling to even sound like themselves. From the upbeat, poppy “Caffeinated Consciousness,” to the appropriately bluesy “New Cannonball Blues,” to the harrowing, emotionally-affecting “Will Do,” every song here is its own unique entity, and the album is all the better for it. There’s no single song here as monumental as “Wolf like Me,” and I do wish that the band would rock out more often (they’ve shown they can), but this is another undeniable winner that rewards anyone up to its challenge.