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Music 2011: The Rockologist’s Top Ten Album Picks

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Ladies and gentlemen, we don’t have a winner.

As the year in music 2011 draws to a close, the biggest news is that — unlike 2010’s near universal anointing of Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs — there was no such unanimous consensus amongst music critics, regarding a clear-cut choice for the year’s best album.

No matter.

Adele’s 21 was of course, still the biggest story of 2011. The come-from-nowhere chart dominance of “Rolling In The Deep” alone all but guaranteed that.

But Adele was only one of several new talents — including Florence Welch of Florence And The Machine — to emerge in a big enough way this year, to lead some veteran observers to label 2011 as being “the year of the big voice.” Somewhere out there, a guy living alone in his Mom’s basement was heard saying “Oh, Snap!” to that.

The untimely death of Amy Winehouse no doubt played at least some role in this. In 2011, both critics and fans searched far and wide, in the hopes of finding that fresh, new voice ready to fill the surprisingly huge void that Winehouse left behind. Meanwhile, a mostly older generation of classic rock fans mourned the year’s other biggest loss — that of saxophone player Clarence Clemons, otherwise known as the “Big Man” of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band.

But even with Adele’s huge commercial and critical breakthrough this year, this was still not enough to solidify 21 as the odds-on choice for Album of the Year. Instead, when one scans through the various year-end lists already making the rounds out there, several names seem to pop up repeatedly. Some of the most often mentioned, also made my own top ten this year (Kate Bush, Tom Waits), while others (most notably PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake) did not.

The best news about 2011 though, was that once you managed to get past the seemingly endless string of mindless pop-candy out there from Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and the like, there was still a surprisingly ample amount of great music. Other than the fact that Springsteen is touring with the E Street Band, and Bon Jovi is thankfully alive and well (ditto for Bon Iver), we still don’t know a lot about what 2012 will bring yet.

In the meantime, these were the ten albums that spent the most time in heavy rotation on my CD player. Sorry, the Rockologist doesn’t do iPods.

10. The Black Keys – El Camino

A very late entry, from a nonetheless very worthy contender. Guitar. Drums. Danger Mouse. Big Ass Sound. Any Questions?

9. The Beach Boys – SMiLE

After much deliberation and gnashing of teeth, I’ve reluctantly decided to include this here, even if the music — originally recorded for an unreleased 1967 Beach Boys album that has long since gone on to mythical status — doesn’t technically qualify as being exactly “new.”

The most common gripe about the 2011 SMiLE box, is that much of the music has been around for years (at least in bits and pieces), and available on various Beach Boys reissues and bootlegs. But up until now, it has never been pieced together with this much loving care on an official release.

Sure, the endless outtakes of “Good Vibrations” are a bit much to take (unless you’re a diehard completist, anyway). But for sheer warmth, this beats the pants off of Brian Wilson’s 2004 studio recreation of SMiLE. It will be interesting to see if the Beach Boys try any of this stuff out live on their reunion tour with Brian Wilson next year.

8. Adele – 21

I didn’t feel the love for Adele quite as much as the rest of the world did in 2011. But there was simply no denying that voice, and especially that damn song. As I recently said to a commenter on Blogcritics Top Ten Best Albums list, you had to have been living in an igloo, if you weren’t “Rolling in the Deep” in 2011.

7. Radiohead – The King Of Limbs

Radiohead’s full-on return to the minimal, icy sound of 2000’s Kid A, and its 2001 companion album Amnesiac hasn’t stuck with me quite the same way that 2007’s In Rainbows did, nor does it have that album’s same “big-time statement” feel and resonance.

Even so, The King Of Limbs has more than its share of great moments. If anything, the songs here feel more like unfinished fragments, than anything resembling the grand sonic sweep of “Reckoner” from In Rainbows. On this album, Thom Yorke’s voice is as hypnotic an instrument as ever. And when Yorke sings “don’t…hurt…me” on “Give Up The Ghost,” it’s impossible not to be sucked in by it.

6. The Jayhawks – Mockingbird Time

Although the reunion of principal songwriters Gary Louris and Mark Olson was one that long suffering Jayhawks fans pined nearly two decades for, the results as heard on Mockingbird Time proved well worth the wait.

From the first few moments that the power chords of the opening “Hide Your Colors” come thundering through your speakers, it’s clear that the Jayhawks have lost nary a step. On Mockingbird Time the Jayhawks continue the great tradition of their nineties classics Tomorrow The Green Grass and Hollywood Town Hall, with uncommonly great songwriting, and the sweetest sounding harmonies this side of the Burrito Brothers.

5. – Neil Young & The International Harvesters – A Treasure

Okay. Another cheat here.

But one well worthy of inclusion on this list. This compilation of live performances from one of Neil Young’s many genre-hopping experiments during the “lost eighties” — for his ongoing Archives Performance Series — actually lives up to its name as a lost treasure of sorts.

Performing with the expanded International Harvesters band during his country phase, Neil Young offers up surprisingly radical takes on obscure chestnuts like “Southern Pacific” and “Flying On The Ground Is Wrong,” in addition to previously unreleased gems like “Amber Jean.” The song “Grey Riders” also rocks as convincingly as anything from Crazy Horse.

4. Steven Wilson – Grace For Drowning

On his second solo album, the two CD Grace For Drowning, Porcupine Tree’s Steven Wilson serves up little bits and pieces of everyone from Joy Division and King Crimson, to Brian Eno and Radiohead in the mix.

Wilson also gets a little help from Dave Stewart and original Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett. But what you mostly hear on this record is Steven Wilson himself, offering up a crash course in modern-day prog-rock, that ranges from the swelling mellotron, wildly swirling saxes, flutes and clarinet of “Reminder The Black Dog,” to the epic Crimson-esque prog of “Raider II.” This is textbook modern prog, and absolutely great sounding stuff, courtesy of Wilson’s expert production.

3. Kate Bush – 50 Words For Snow

Kate Bush’s first album of new original material since 2005’s Aerial is one of those weird little records that creeps up on you slowly, and then really starts to get under your skin. Taken on its surface, the seven songs on this album are quietly reflective pieces — either performed solo by Kate on piano, or with a small trio of bass and drums — revolving around the central theme of snow.

But a deeper listen reveals a more layered lyrical experience, where the songs are populated by ghosts — not to mention a certain snowman — stranded in a purgatory of romantic longing, and almost impossible loneliness and regret. Since the first time I heard it, I have yet to get the simple, but hauntingly catchy “Misty” out of my head. Damn you, Kate.

2. Tom Waits – Bad As Me.

Despite being one of our greatest songwriters, Tom Waits hasn’t made an album with this many great and unexpectedly accessible songs in years. On what is easily his best record since Rain Dogs, Tom Waits revisits many of the same questionable haunts, inhabited by the usual cast of shady characters, that he has for going on a half century now. But there are some surprising new twists.

On the gorgeous sounding “Talking At The Same Time,” Waits’ trademark cigarette and whiskey laced rasp, is transformed into an unexpectedly lilting falsetto. But on this album’s best track, “Hell Broke Luce,” Waits, backed by an all-star band including Keith Richards and Flea, takes on the persona of a severely damaged war veteran, returning home from a tour of duty marked by listening to the “big fucking bomb made me deaf” and “the general every goddamn word.”

This amazing song — which is easily the most overtly political of Waits’ career — simply has to be heard to be believed.

1. Wilco – The Whole Love

It’s no secret that I love me some Wilco, and why not?

Jeff Tweedy may be the best songwriter of the post-Dylan/Springsteen/Neil Young era, and Nels Cline is quite possibly the most bad-ass guitar player on the planet. But there are at least twelve other reasons why The Whole Love is the year’s best album, and they are the twelve great songs on this album.

Wilco’s best album since their 2002 masterpiece Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is also their most stylistically diverse. But beyond that, this is also the album where Wilco’s strengths as a band are proven to go far beyond the sum of their individual parts as Tweedy’s mere backup crew. From the avant-sonic freakout of “Art Of Almost,” to the Doors like keyboards of “I Might,” to the lyrical poignancy of “One Sunday Morning (A Song For Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend),” Wilco’s The Whole Love was track for track, the single greatest record I heard this year.

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About Glen Boyd

Glen Boyd is the author of Neil Young FAQ, released in May 2012 by Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard Publishing. He is a former BC Music Editor and current contributor, whose work has also appeared in SPIN, The Rocket, The Source and other publications. You can read more of Glen's work at The Rockologist, and at the official Neil Young FAQ site. Follow Glen on Twitter and on Facebook.
  • http://www.writeonmusic.com/ Donald Gibson

    But even with Adele’s huge commercial and critical breakthrough this year, this was still not enough to solidify 21 as the odds-on choice for Album of the Year.

    What are you drinking??? What more could Adele have done, knock on ten million doors and sing for each and every one of them? She’s not “one of many” female artists who basically did much of the same thing. She’s one woman who far surpassed what any other woman or man had achieved this year.

    She’s the rare artist who achieves massive commercial success with critically acclaimed music. (I’m one of those critics acclaiming her.) How often does that happen?

    I think your year-end survey must go something like this: no Springsteen this year, no (new) Neil Young this year, no (new U2) this year… “There were no winners this year.”

  • http://trinimansblog.blogspot.com/ Triniman

    Good list. Did you manage to hear the new Destroyer album? It stood out for me as one of the year’s best.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Donald,

    Yes, she (Adele) was the odds-on artist of the year. No question.

    BUT…(and this is a big “but”), in scanning all the year-end critics lists out there, she doesn’t top that many of them. She makes them, yes. But PJ Harvey’s album tops a lot more of them (and, she didn’t even make mine).

    It’s nowhere near the runaway for Adele in 2011, that it was for Arcade Fire last year (at least not in terms of a music critics landslide).

    Did she make the biggest impact this year? I would say without question that she did. But her impact was also multiplied by the other big female voices out there like Florence Welch (which is why I mentioned her in this article). This is, in my view, is definitely a good thing by the way. Anything that will get music out of its present state of pop candy hell has to be considered a good thing.

    Not that either Adele or Florence was a constant on my own CD player this year. But in no way do I minimize their impact.

    -Glen

  • http://www.writeonmusic.com/ Donald Gibson

    But are you making your Top 10 list based on what you believe the best were of 2011, or just what you agree on with the largest consensus of critics? You shouldn’t have to can other critics’ lists if you know what you liked and what you believe what among the best of the year.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    My list is based solely on what I liked the most in 2011. Agree or disagree, that’s the criteria here. Which is why I included the Beach Boys and Neil Young albums, even though they were made up of what can only be described as “old” (if previously officially unavailable) music. That’s how I did my list. People like Steven Wilson and the Jayhawks for example barely registered a blip in the larger universe of music and pop culture. But they did rock my world.

    On the other hand, as a “music critic,” I would certainly be remiss (at the very least) of not recognizing a phenomenon like Adele.

    But did she spend the same hours on my personal playlist this year as Wilco, Kate Bush, or Tom Waits? No, she did not.

    -Glen

  • http://cinemasentries.com El Bicho

    I don’t know. Adele’s album came out in January and Rolling in the Deep last year. Both were smash hits before Winehouse died in July. Not sure I see the connection nor how any other female had an influence on Adele’s success. Foster the People’s song did more than anything by Florence.

    Beach Boys and Stones 50th anniversaries next summer are much bigger news then Bruce going out yet again.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    I would agree with your assessment about the Stones and the Beach Boys, Bicho. But I’m much more intrigued with how Bruce plans on pulling off the E Street tour without the Big Man. Color me a fan that way, I guess.

    -Glen

  • http://thrasherswheat.org thrasher

    Always nice to see Neil Young on a Top 10 list. The Treasure is a nice tribute to the late Ben Keith and a treasure indeed looking back at another time & place so far away from the music of today.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    thanx Thrasher.

    -Glen