There were more fantastic records this year than I expected. And as usual, my tastes seemed to stick with artists with a combined age of 1893 years old. But I make no apologies. I'd have been thrilled to have a Top 20 of new, or newish at least, singers, songwriters and bands. Alas, this is what I like best.
Some records I loved but just didn't quite get the push to the Top 20:
Paul McCartney-Kisses On The Bottom
Bob Mould- Silver Age
Kelly Hogan- I Like To Keep Myself In Pain
Bonnie Raitt- Slipstream
Divine Fits- A Thing Called Divine Fits
In ascending order...
20- RIVAL SONS- HEAD DOWN
With a few digital releases and one full length behind them, L.A. rockers the Rival Sons hit paydirt with "Head Down," a record that is right in my wheelhouse. The comparisons to classic rock bands Free and Led Zeppelin will be obvious. When they get their garage instincts flowing, Rival Sons sound like "Headquarters"-era Monkees with their guitars on ten. Very fresh and very exciting.
19- BOB ANDREWS- SHOTGUN
The bigger news may be the Graham Parker & The Rumour reunion, but I prefer "Shotgun," the brilliant release from Rumour keyboardist Bob Andrews more than the GP record. "Shotgun" features New Orleans greats Alex McMurray on guitar, whose "How To Be A Cannonball" was one of my favorite records of 2009, Cornell Williams of Jon Cleary's Absolute Gentlemen on bass, and Johnny Sansone on harmonica, whose "The Lord Is Waiting & The Devil Is Too," was a favorite of 2011.
"Shotgun" the CD, is based upon "Shotgun" the book. You can read a bit about that HERE. "Shotgun" the CD is a 40 minute, swamp and roll romp that captures the pub rock vibe of both of Andrews' places of dwelling, London and New Orleans.
The title track kicks things off nicely with a Brinsley Schwarz groove, followed by a bit of funk on "Man In The Man Position." I've highlighted Jon Cleary on these pages a number of times, but rarely if ever, have I given props to his longtime bass player Cornell Williams. One listen to "Man Position" and you'll see why I should have a long time ago. "Black Alligators" has a dirty little groove that is more New Orleans than Leeds, thanks to the soulful sound of Sansone's harp, while "Local Lover" & "Hit Me With A Bus" both sound like long-lost Nick Lowe tracks. There are no bad songs on this record.
18- THE DOUGHBOYS- SHAKIN' OUR SOULS
Jersey garage-rockers turn in one helluva record on "Shakin' Our Souls." One friend said, "I have a new favorite song each time I play it." ME TOO! The Beatles, the Stones, the MC5, Iggy and The Animals all make spiritual appearances here. This is a big time blast!
17- VAN HALEN- A DIFFERENT KIND OF TRUTH
I don't care if the songs were written 35 years ago. I don't care if David Lee Roth is a boob. I don't care if the lyrics to the first single "Tattoo" are some of the stupidest ever put to paper, this record is exactly want I wanted from Van Halen. If you're not a fan, this won't make you one. But I am a fan of those first records with DLR, and Eddie can still play the guitar just like a'ringin' a bell. This record makes me very happy.
16- JON CLEARY- OCCAPELLA
New Orleans treasure Jon Cleary's tribute to New Orleans legend Allen Toussaint, is not just another collection of cover material. Cleary, an accomplished piano player, is also an accomplished guitar player (his first instrument, I believe) and a more than capable percussionist, as well. On "Occapella," Jon handles almost everything, with an occasional guest spot from Bonnie Raiit, Dr. John and some friends from the Crescent City. What he brings to this table are sweet renditions and fine rearrangements of some not-so-obvious choices from Toussaint's repertoire, and the results are just wonderful. The vibe throughout "Occapella" just kills me.
15- JEFF LYNNE- LONG WAVE
A Burning Wood reader, unimpressed with "Long Wave," commented when I first posted a review, "It's a bunch of soundalikes." Kind of a ridiculous comment, unless you think Charles Aznavour, Etta James and Doris Day all sound like ELO.
Yeah, I know. A 28 minute collection of random covers that sound like ELO shouldn't be a consideration for Best Of The Year, right? Well, too bad. Jeff Lynne is a genius. I love ELO. I love Jeff Lynne. I love this record. Beautiful layers of harmony and some truly unique interpretations should not be considered a throwaway.
14- BAD BRAINS- INTO THE FUTURE
As Ira Kaplan said in the liner notes of the Bad Brains' debut LP, "It's loud (though not always) and it's fast (though not always)." I loved that album from day one and I've loved the Bad Brains ever since. These guys are the best at what they do. No other band can play neckbreaking hardcore & punk and then speedbump it so gracefully into reggae & dub, always with jazz fusion chops This is their best record since 1986's "I Against I."
73 years young! Hunter is still relevant and has delivered yet another solid recording. He is aging gracefully, but still kicking the proverbial butt with smart songwriting and the ability to rock out when necessary. Stronger than ever.
12- DWIGHT YOAKAM- 3 PEARS
Dwight Yoakam is another one who has been quietly and consistently releasing fantastic albums since his debut in 1986. Some are better than others, but none are bad. I will go on record and say "3 Pears" is his best. Better than his spirited debut, "Guitars, Cadillacs..." and better than the somewhat legendary "Buenas Noches From A Lonely Room." Dwight is in fine form vocally, and in a just world, these songs, from the killer opener "Take Hold Of My Hand" to the E-Street Band-inspired title track, would all be blasting from your '78 Pinto's car radio. "3 Pears" is a collection of hit songs if there ever was one.
11- BOB DYLAN- TEMPEST
I'm not looking to start another debate, though I'm happy to have one regarding Bob Dylan. As one friend put it, "Tempest has 38 of the greatest minutes in Dylan's career and 30 of the worst." It's an extreme, of course, but I have to tell you that those first 38minutes really moved me to the point that I could ignore the last 30. 38 solid minutes is an achievement in these days of iTunes remixes and MySpace E.P.s. Dylan's "Tempest" belongs here.
THE TOP TEN!
10- JOHN HIATT- MYSTIC PINBALL
In the words of Max Bialystock, "When you've got it, flaunt it baby! Flaunt it!" John Hiatt's "Dirty Jeans & Mudslide Hymns" was one of my faves of that year and one of my faves from Hiatt. Period. "Mystic Pinball" feels like that record's twin sister. The two seem to shadow each other, and I am okay with that. Simply another killer release from Mr. John Hiatt.
9- BUDDY MILLER & JIM LAUDERDALE-BUDDY & JIM
Rush-released for Record Store Day and getting a proper release on the 11th, this collection took no time at all to shoot to the top of my faves list for this year. These two guys have talent pouring out of every hole and crevice on their bodies. When Buddy and Jim are featured on other people's records, those records instantly become bigger and stronger. Together, they've created a heartfelt blast of country, blues and all things in between, with harmonies to die for.
8- MICHAEL KIWANUKA- HOME AGAIN
I knew when I first heard this stunning record back in January it would have the lasting power for a seat on my year-end list. Kiwanuka really nails it most of the time on "Home Again," with the essence of Richie Havens, Bill Withers, Todd Rundgren and Nick Drake affectionately haunting the grooves, and yet he feels like a complete original. Each melody sticks to your brain instantly. Beautiful.
7- THE DARKNESS- HOT CAKES
It is just not possible to sit still, not play air guitar, not sing along and not lose your mind to this collection of tunes that keeps the best of 70s and 80s classic rock alive. Yeah, maybe we've heard it all before, but in a musical world that is currently suffering from too many sufferers, this blast of hook-filled head-banging is a welcome shot in the arm. Go ahead, play "Everybody Have A Good Time" and not love it. I dare ya.
6- DR. JOHN-LOCKED DOWN
Many of the good Doctor's recent releases have tried to recapture the magic of the early New Orleans voodoo found on classics like "Gris Gris" and "Gumbo," and though records like "City That Care Forgot" and "Tribal" have their moments, they feel forced. Not "Locked Down." This is the one! Credit must be given to Black Key and producer Dan Auerbach. The band is big, the grooves are serious, and Dr. John's mojo is a major presence. Just fantastic.
5- BRYAN FERRY ORCHESTRA- THE JAZZ AGE
Wacky career move or small slab of genius?
Sorry you purists, but I'm going for the latter.
My first reaction upon reading that the new Bryan Ferry album featured a collection of Roxy Music tunes reimagined as depression-era jazz instrumentals, was a painful, medulla-damaging eyeroll. But as a longtime fan of pre-Avalon Roxy, and the occasional Ferry solo album, I went in, benefits given to all doubts. Doubts that have been sitting firm in my memory thanks to Ferry's recent craplike reimaginings of Dylan tunes and the semi-snoozefest that was his last, "Olympia."
No matter how cynical you may be, it's hard to dismiss this record as anything but brilliant. You don't need to be a Roxy fan to enjoy this, especially if you love this type of jazz. But if you happen to be a fan of both, what Bryan Ferry and his bandmates have created here is something truly special.
Recorded to sound vintage, the arrangements might baffle those familiar with the material and looking for an easy entry into the melodies. It was a demanding listen at first, but once I caught on, I was not only pleasantly surprised, I was blown away. The takes on "Love Is The Drug" and a song I've never really cared for, "Avalon," are worth the price of admission alone.
4- JOHN CALE- SHIFTY ADVENTURES IN NOOKIE WOOD
After reading reviews of this new Cale record, I went into it with a bit of trepidation. Now John Cale is one of my favortite artists of all time, and I have been particularly gaga over his last few releases. But reading words like "trip hop," "dance," "falsetto," "Prince," and "autotune" put me off a bit. I like to dance, I love(d) Prince, and who doesn't melt with a good falsetto. But is this what I want from John Cale? Let me say, all of those reviews, though mostly positive, are a bit misleading. Yes, there is autotune on one track. And yes, he employs a bit of falsetto on one track. But "Shifty Adventures..." is NOT a trip-hop record, nor is it a dance record, though to each his own. What this record is, is one of Cale's strongest of his long and storied career. It is a record that to my ears, is most reminiscent of classic Cale like "Fear" and "Honi Soit." There are many textures and layers, and the instrumentation is not always your standard guitars, keys and a rhythm section. But songs like "Scotland Yard," "Mary", "Mothra" and "Living With You" are stunning, kind of like an updated and less orchestral "Paris 1919." This is a brilliant release from a brilliant musician.
3- CHUCK PROPHET- TEMPLE BEAUTIFUL
Prophet has been making fine records his entire career and I fully admit to getting on the bus late.
The thing with Prophet's music is, and I say this in the best possible way, it is all over the place. It's as if the man has released 100 different singles and released them 10 at a time, spread out over 20 years.
This is not to say his albums have no cohesion. They do. The man is beyond capable. He could punch out perfect power pop, southern soul, swamp blues and plain ol' rock and roll with a shift of his capo.
"Temple Beautiful," released back in February, works best for me as a whole. His words cut, occasionally Dylanesque, and every song is musical, whether U2 moody like "Museum Of Broken Hearts, or the title cut, which sounds a bit like Iggy Pop doing Motown.
This album killed me, especially the single "Castro Halloween."
2- BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN- WRECKING BALL
Another man who can spark thousands of words on my blog from even the most famous lurkers, Bruce Springsteen had the haters hating and the lovers loving soon after "Wrecking Ball" was released. I loved it from the get-go, and as I stayed with it and saw it performed live, it only grew more important to me. Looking back at my original review, I saw this:
"Though "Wrecking Ball" is a powerhouse, not everything works. "You've Got It" is weak. It's a lyrical speed bump with a melody on the verses ripped right from "All Or Nothing At All," a song found on not everyone's favorite "Human Touch." "Shackled & Drawn" works on its own, but in this case, it follows "Easy Money," a song very similar in sound, so for me, it gets lost in a haze of sameness. A minor quibble."
A minor quibble, indeed, and something I don't agree with anymore. This album works for me. Completely. Through and through.
"And hard times come and hard times go and hard times come and hard times go and hard times come and hard times go and hard times come and hard times go and hard times come and hard times go yeah, just to come again."
1- KEN STRINGFELLOW- DANZIG IN THE MOONLIGHT
As The Posies, Jon Auer & Ken Stringfellow have released some of the finest pop music of the last 20 years. But you can feel underneath the chunky guitars and shimmering harmonies & melodies of those records, just a little bit more happening when Ken takes over the songwriting. "DITM" is a fine example of just how deep Ken can go.
There are so many layers of genius on this record, it may take a few spins to fully appreciate what it has to offer. On the most recent spin, the band 10cc came to mind. Not so much the quirky side of that band, but the manner in which those classic 70s records were created. The boys in 10cc were scared of nothing and embraced all genres of music. Stringfellow shows that same daring approach. This is a record for people who love records.
From the tastefully country-fied beauty of "110 or 220V" to the southern soul pastiche of "Pray" featuring a gorgeous Stringfellow falsetto to the blissful Wilson Brothers harmony of "Superwise" and continuing with "Even The Forgers Were Left Fingering The Fakes," a song with a chorus you will be singing for days, "Danzig In The Moonlight" is a showcase for the very best of Ken Stringfellow, a jack of all trades, and from the sound of "Danzig In The Moonlight," a master at most of them.