Not a bad year for music. I had started compiling my year-end list back in August and assuming there are no stellar December releases, I think this list is pretty final.
There is no order to the following faves, but I did leave my Top Three of the year for the end.
Also, when all is said done, there are some samples of most of what was written about.
BURNING WOOD'S BEST OF 2011
BOOKER T. JONES- THE ROAD FROM MEMPHIS
With ?uestlove from The Roots at the controls and drum kit, the legendary Booker T. delivers an upbeat, funky and organic collection of tunes that could very well be just what his MGs would have recorded if they had still been making music together. Yim Yames of My Morning Jacket handles the lead vocals on "Progress," one of my very fave tracks of the year.
THE CO-OPERATIVE-THE CO-OPERATIVE
80's Brit-pubrockers Nine Below Zero team up with Squeeze leader Glenn Tilbrook for an album that rocks until it can't rock no more. "The Co-Operative" recalls the very best of Rockpile while offering a smattering of perfect pop tunes that would not have seemed out of place on Squeeze classics like "Argybargy" and "East Side Story."
EILEN JEWELL- QUEEN OF THE MINOR KEY
Boston-based, but sounding more like someone raised in a Nashville suburb, Eilen Jewell's follow-up to her superb Loretta Lynn tribute "Butcher Holler" of 2010, is a collection of tunes, some haunting, others purely magical, that pull from all of Jewell's influences. Country-gospel, to the surf sounds of The Ventures, to Hank Williams and Patsy Cline all make an appearance on this very fine record.
JANE'S ADDICTION- THE GREAT ESCAPE ARTIST
I spent most of the last 20 years actively despising Perry Farrell. The sound of his voice, especially on the tune that opens every episode of HBO's "Entourage," is just something my nerves refuse to handle. So how did his band's new record end up on my year-end list? I'm a sucker for classic rock and "The Great Escape Artist" delivers in spades. Riff after riff, rhythm upon rhythm, Jane's Addiction has acquired some focus and for this release, have decided to do away with the long, meandering all-style-no-substance of previous records, and go right for solid and often very melodic rock and roll. Simply put, this is one catchy record.
JOHN HIATT- DIRTY JEANS AND MUDSLIDE HYMNS
John Hiatt's made a lot of good records, though few if any have ever equalled the brilliance of 1987's "Bring The Family." I know plenty of you might disagree, and that's okay. I'm a fan and I recognize Hiatt as one of America's greatest living songwriters.
That said, almost every song on "Dirty Jeans..." is an instant classic. I picked that up after the first run, just as I did when I first heard "Bring The Family." When he offers up heartbreak as he does on "Don't Wanna Leave You Now" and "When New York Had Her Heart Broke," a song written and performed just days after 9/11 but never recorded, few can match Hiatt's emotional delivery. On tunes like "Damn This Town" and "I Love That Girl," Hiatt shows his skill for the hook. If we still had real radio, "I Love That Girl" would be blasting out of every car window for the rest of the summer.
JOHNNY SANSONE- THE LORD IS WAITING, THE DEVIL IS TOO
For years I thought Sansone was New Orleans, born and raised. Boy, was I wrong. This king of the blues harp was born in Orange, New Jersey, but it wasn't until he found work in the Crescent City that he became a bit of a local legend.
Blues records are a dime a dozen, so when you hear one that finds it way out of the cliche-ridden grooves where your "baby left you," you hold on tight. "The Lord Is Waiting..." is that record. With Anders Osborne on guitar as well as producing, and New Orleans' treasure Stanton Moore on drums, Sansone delivers some heavy-duty swamp. Think Led Zeppelin, 1968 but with a little less bombast and a lot more soul.
LAURA MARLING- A CREATURE I DON'T KNOW
The comparisons are easy to make. Sandy Denny, Joni Mitchell, even Fiona Apple at times, all appear in spirit on Marling's third solo release. But do not think for a minute that this 22 year old phenom is strictly riding on the coattails of the aforementioned trio. Laura Marling is a brilliant songwriter with a voice that is both delicate and intoxicating. The instrumentation on "A Creature I Don't Know" goes a bit further than the mostly acoustic sounds of her previous two. I like that, and because of that, I find this to be her best record yet.
PAUL SANCHEZ & COLMAN DEKAY- NINE LIVES
Based on Dan Baum's best-selling book about nine people whose lives and experience through two major storms in New Orleans intertwine, this brilliant musical adaptation is certainly one of the most important and musically enjoyable releases of the year.
There are few people in the world with a heart the size of Paul Sanchez, and with his writing partner Colman deKay, not to mention every relevant musician from New Orleans along for the ride, he has created a masterwork that will not only play like a greatest hits of New Orleans music, but if you are so inclined to follow the book and story, might just move you to tears.
There is a Bon Iver connection with Megafaun and that should have been enough for me to just keep moving along. If there's one thing that I have not bought into, one thing that I find so completely overhyped, shallow and phony, it's the lifeless and soulless indie-pop and folk scare that has turned such nothing like the Fleet Foxes, Bright Eyes, Jonathan Wilson, St. Vincent and the aforementioned Bon Iver into critics' darlings. I know I'll get a few nasty letters over this, but I'll deal.
Still, there is something about Megafaun that transcends all of this. This record offers more, both in style and substance. What I'm hearing is early Wilco with more than a little bit of Pink Floyd's "Meddle" as an influence. It is a very musical record, which is important. It isn't just breathy vocals and layered harmonies, trying and failing to evoke the sounds of Laurel Canyon. It's much more exciting. And I love it.
PAJAMA CLUB- PAJAMA CLUB
This is a record that took a bit of time. I stayed with it because I love Neil Finn, though a project that started in his basement with his wife on bass and Finn on drums didn't sound promising. But as one friend said, "It's a grower."
"Pajama Club" will not smack you silly like the big pop sound of Split Enz or Crowded House once did, but that doesn't make it any less infectious. Its many layers of sound fit nicely around Finn's inability to write a bad melody. I'd be lying if I said this wasn't a bit experimental, but if you've ever loved anything by Neil Finn, whether in a band or solo, you will find plenty to embrace on the "Pajama Club."
RON SEXSMITH- LONG PLAYER, LATE BLOOMER
Ron Sexsmith is a songwriter's songwriter. Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello and Steve Earle are just a few who have been singing his praises for years. I like the man, but I found most of his records uneven. Plus, he has a very distinctive, love it or hate it voice, that I sometimes love and sometimes hate.
"Long Player, Late Bloomer" is not a masterpiece, but it may be Sexsmith's masterpiece. It's as good as a pop record gets, full of hooks and harmonies. Songs like "Every Time I Follow," "Love Shines" and one of my fave tunes of the year, "Believe It When I See It," beg you to feel good.
TEDESCHI TRUCKS BAND- REVELATOR
Plain and simple, this is Delaney & Bonnie 40 years later, and man...does it work! Susan Tedeschi doesn't quite have Bonnie Bramlett's balls, but hubby Derek Trucks is a master on slide guitar, and this killer band featuring the great Maurice Brown on trumpet is triumphant on just about every track. Southern soul, gospel and blues, as well as some good-old fashioned rock and roll can be found in spades on "Revelator."
WYNTON MARSALIS & ERIC CLAPTON- PLAY THE BLUES
Sure, it's easy to dismiss this as uncool, but you'd just be denying yourself some of the greatest music ever written played by some the greatest musicians who ever lived.
With Marsalis' band behind him, Eric Clapton takes on traditional blues and jazz and as usual, when he's not the leader, he rises to the occasion. The arrangements are fresh. The playing is stellar. And the version of "Layla," reimagined as a New Orleans funeral dirge, is one the greatest things you'll hear all year.
WARREN HAYNES- MAN IN MOTION
Warren Haynes is one of the hardest working men in show business, juggling his time with the Allman Brothers, The Dead, his own band Gov't Mule, not to mention the countless hours of live performing and guest appearances. How he managed to pull this solo record off is a feat in itself? But it's a dandy!
Inspired by one of Haynes' musical idols, Little Milton, and featuring a New Orleans rhythm section of George Porter Jr. and Terrence Higgins, Haynes delivers the perfect combination of Southern R&B, with just a taste of the extended jamming all of his employers are known far. He never takes it too far, and that is what makes "Man In Motion" work.
RY COODER- PULL UP SOME DUST AND SIT DOWN
I'm not sure this record will resonate with everyone, but by song #4 I was hooked, and by the finale, I was mesmerized. "These times," says Ry Cooder, "call for a very different kind of protest song. "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" We're way down the road from that." Boy, he ain't kidding. Cooder pulls no punches and minces no words, as he pretty much tells off everyone from Dubya to God, on this powerful new release.
Musically, Ry Cooder visits all of the places he likes best from acoustic blues (check out his dead-on John Lee Hooker impersonation on "John Lee Hooker For President") to mariachi and jazz, to pop and folk, and all of it works. Some of it even shocks, like "Christmas Time This Year," a song you won't be playing while stringing tinsel.
"Pull Up Some Dust..." is a keeper. Could be his best record since "Boomer's Story."
SOME OTHER THINGS I LOVED
The Strokes put out their best record since their debut, but it was the single "Taken For A Fool" that really knocked me out. Here are two versions--the album version and a killer live version with Elvis Costello guesting.
Lindsey Buckingham's "Seeds We Sow," Wilco's "The Whole Love," Buddy Miller's "The Majestic Silver Strings," Garland Jeffreys' "The King Of In Between" and Marianne Faithful's "Horses & High Heels" all made me very happy and are all worth checking out, as is:
V/A- THIS MAY BE THE LAST TIME SINGING: RAW AFRICAN-AMERICAN GOSPEL
This is a fantastic collection of spirituals, raves, sermons, rockers and Pentecostal jams from the people who brought you "Fire In My Bones." You don't need to be religious to appreciate what's happening on these two stellar collections. And the price is right, too. 3 CDs for $28. Or both for $50.
THE TOP THREE
3. TOM WAITS- BAD AS ME
Hey, Tom Waits fans. Do you remember the first time you heard "Swordfishtrombones" a little over 30 years ago? I sure do. It wasn't pleasant, but only because the transition from the previous records that featured piano-based, Tin Pan Alley songs about losers and heartbreak, sung by a man whose voice sounded as if he hadn't slept for week to exactly the same thing only clankier and noisier, was less than smooth. Once I adjusted, maybe two years later, when his masterpiece "Rain Dogs" was released, "Swordfishtrombones" sounded every bit as wonderful as anything I'd ever loved by Tom Waits.
But then things got out of hand. Starting with 1987's "Frank's Wild Years" and continuing on through 2004's "Real Gone," that latter of which threatened to put me off Tom Waits for good, the releases became more unlistenable, with his sandpaper voice now choosing between a moan and a growl if we were lucky, or a megaphone if we weren't, kitchen-sink production, that at times actually used kitchen sinks for drums, and an overall clamor that just made the listening experience not much different than standing next to a traffic jam on the West Side Highway, while construction workers, each armed with jackhammers, tried digging their way to China.
(1999's "Mule Variations" is the exception. A fine record indeed.)
This brings me to "Bad As Me," the new Tom Waits record.
We have a winner!
"Bad As Me" sounds like the record that could have come out right after "Rain Dogs." There are still a few songs, like the openers "Talking At The Same Time" and "Raised Right Men," for starters, that employ the bang, screech and growl attack of the post-"Heart Attack & Vine" Waits albums, but what makes "Bad As Me" so much better is that things no longer "go to 11." Everything, including Tom's vocals, has been toned down. Softened, just ever-so-slightly, if you will. And what has returned in spades is the ability to hear the great stories in the lyrics and the melodies that harken back to Waits' best and most musical.
I love this record. It's the record I've been wanting Tom Waits to release for years. Songs like "Kiss Me" and "Last Leaf," the latter sung with Keith Richards, are slow and effective. These are ballads that hit like a right hook. And how about these lyrics from the title track:
You’re the wreath that caught fire
You’re the preach to the choir
You bite down on the sheet
But your teeth have been wired
You skid in the rain
You’re trying to shift
You’re grinding the gears
You’re trying to shift
And you’re the same kind of bad as me
(Just a personal fave. That's all.)
"Bad As Me" is a pretty damn perfect record.
2. NICK LOWE- THE OLD MAGIC
I recently picked up a copy of Nick's "Party Of One" release on vinyl. I don't think I ever owned this on vinyl. (Remember when we didn't have to say "on vinyl?") I was surprised to see, thanks to the nice big print on the 12" inner sleeve, that it was produced by Dave Edmunds, and pretty much featured the John Hiatt "Bring The Family" dream band. That's right. Ry Cooder, Jim Keltner, John Hiatt. Blah blah. I did not know that.
I also realized that "Party Of One" was the true beginning of the Nick Lowe transformation, and not 1994's "The Impossible Bird," like so many, including yours truly, have been thinking. "Party Of One" is a bit of a lost classic. It is a near-perfect collection, mixing up the young and restless Nick Lowe with the older/wiser/mellowed Nick Lowe. This is a record where you will find Nick "shting-shtanging," as well as wondering "What's Shakin' On The Hill." "Party Of One" was the sign of things to come.
Today, Nick Lowe releases "The Old Magic," another in a series of absolutely resplendent records, starting with the aforementioned "Party Of One," and continuing on with "The Convincer," "At My Age," and "Dig My Mood," where the rock and roll legend delivers some of the most personal and heartbreaking songs of his career.
I know some will pass on the less is more, melancholy Nick, still holding on to the days of "So It Goes" and "Cruel To Be Kind." (I've always wondered why the artist can age gracefully but the fan cannot.) But songs like "Stoplight Roses," "I Read A Lot," and "Checkout Time" come out of the box as standards. These are songs so perfectly constructed and at times, so brutally honest, you may feel uncomfortable enjoying someone's confession as much as you do. It is still worth your time.
1. GLEN CAMPBELL- GHOST ON THE CANVAS
It's hard to ignore the back story. Glen Campbell has Alzheimers and he is saying goodbye. If that's not setting a table for the last supper of music, then I don't know what.
With the genius of Julian Raymond's production, and help from such musicians as Jellyfish alum Roger Manning Jr. & Jason Falkner, Chris Isaak, Brian Setzer, Wendy Melvoin, Rick Nielsen and Steve Hunter, Glen Campbell's swansong is impossibly both sad and uplifting.
Every song evokes Campbell's best work that came before "Ghost On The Canvas." Paul Westerberg's title track, Jakob Dylan's "Nothing But The Whole Wide World" and Campbell's own "Strong" and "A Thousand Lifetimes" find Campbell singing in a voice that belies his age and illness. This is a masterwork from a legend, who has accepted what he's been given, and on "A Better Place," sings of how he knows it will all be ok.
We should all be thankful for this truly stunning record.