Monday, December 19, 2011

The Yearvolution: 2011 In Review

By: David Schultz

30. The Occupy Wall Street “Concerts”

This fall, New York City's Zuccotti Park became the literal and spiritual home base for the Occupy Wall Street movement. The presence of the protesters, their message and goals as well as their modus operandi sparked significant debate and the vociferous nature of the movement and reaction from various law enforcement agencies drew comparisons to the protests that were emblematic of the Sixties. Agree with the comparisons or not, Occupy Wall Street did awaken the activist spirit within a number of musicians that picked up their guitars and entertained the protesters in lower Manhattan. Over a two month period, noted rabble-rousers Michael Franti and Tom Morello (in his Nightwatchman persona), Woodstock relics David Crosby and Graham Nash and non-sequiturs Jeff Mangum, Jackson Browne and Dawes kept the rebel spirit of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger alive for a new Millennium. For those who can’t concede that anything cool came out of the OWS protests, take solace that someone did convince their braintrust that Radiohead would show up and play for them.

29. Wild Flag: Wild Flag
Carrie Brownstein’s announcement that she would be leaving her tastemaking post at NPR to form Wild Flag, a supergroup of sorts, with former bandmate Janet Weiss, Mary Timony and Rebecca Cole resulted in a great number of people rejoicing over two-thirds of Sleater-Kinney once again playing together and an even greater number of people pretending that they knew who Mary Timony and Rebecca Cole were. Wild Flag’s self-titled debut delivered a tidy modicum of straightforward rock and roll devoid of any reliance on gender as a curio or a crutch. With the exception of extended takes on “Glass Tambourine” and the finely wrought “Racehorse,” on which Brownstein channels a young Patti Smith, Wild Flag keeps thing nice and simple, banging out one riff after another and playing a fresh brand of modern rock with the mastery of old hands. For those getting antsy for the inevitable Sleater-Kinney reunion, Wild Flag should provide a suitable interim fix.

28. BuzzUniverse: Living Breathing Magic
With feet firmly planted within the worlds populated by progressive rock audiophiles, jamband festival denizens, world music aficionados and Americana folk traditionalists, BuzzUniverse strives to provide the soundtrack for the party they might all attend. On Living Breathing Magic, the band’s first studio album with violinist Meredith Rachel and vocalist Rosie Lazroe, BuzzUniverse accomplished the feat with in a cohesive and polished manner. Displaying their aptitude for melding elements of rock and soul into their groove-based mien, “Another Way” soars on its optimistic vibe and “Rock” showcases Lazroe’s stunning power as a lead singer. The strength of Living Breathing Magic lies in its diversity: lead singer/guitarist Alex Garay draws on his Colombian heritage to give depth and authenticity to the infectious beat of “Caballo Viejo” and BuzzU’s earnest interpretation of the Buena Vista Social Club’s “El Carretero.” The band’s dexterous musicianship is on full display amidst the twists and turns of “Jive” and “Catbootz,” their faithful cover of The Band’s “Evangeline,” the electronica-inflected “Round And Round” and the Jersey boardwalk feel of “In The Nighttime.”

27. Aaron Lazar’s Farewell Show With The Giraffes
Reverberating little outside of the Tri-State area, The Giraffes bid farewell to their lead singer Aaron Lazar in a manner most befitting his legacy with the hard rock stalwarts: headlining a drunken late-night set at New York City’s Mercury Lounge. Upon taking the stage for his final performance, Lazar stood passively while the crowd showered him applause, cheers and a deluge of beer, dousing him before the first note could be sung. Where many bands would find a crowd’s emulation of the “Gimme Some Lovin’” scene from The Blues Brothers to be dire turn of circumstances, it’s simply the way The Giraffes’ fans have learned to express their love. Wildly unpredictable, Lazar was one of the rare frontmen whose every move was worth watching. With a confident, Elvis-quality swagger and an impervious demeanor, Lazar would be just as likely to eat the pages of a book handed to him on stage as he would read from them. For one last night, Lazar lassoed guitarist Damien Paris and bassist John Rosenthal with his mike cord, flipped off the audience with mock condescension and sang of the joys of having fun with assholes. For a band that’s able to rifle through lightning quick metal riffs while never losing the Kurt Weill feel of a song like “Medicaid Benefit Applique,” losing a singer with the presence of Lazar is a truly significant event. If he never sets foot on stage again, Lazar still accomplished what many that have come before him have not: everyone who ever saw him perform will always remember that they did.

26. Gregg Allman: Low Country Blues
After wiping years of rust off the likes of John Mellencamp and Leon Russell, T-Bone Burnett shifted his focus to Gregg Allman and engineered the finest effort of his solo career. On Low Country Blues, Allman lends his world-weary Southern mourn to a well-vetted selection of blues rarities. An original and founding member of one of the hardest-living Southern rock bands, Allman could easily look back at forty years of life on the road and craft blues epics out of his own insightful reflections. Low Country Blues, with its bevy of deep cuts from the songbooks of Skip James, Otis Rush and B.B. King, is not that album. No matter though, even if the lyrics didn’t originate with AllmanBramhall II, Burnett makes every note count. Notwithstanding the breezy charm of “I’m No Angel,” Gregg Allman hasn’t been this interesting in nearly three decades.

25. Jeff Mangum Reemerges
At the close of the nineties, Neutral Milk Hotel released In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, which would have a profound impact on the next decade, influencing the likes of Arcade Fire and by the transitive property of music, all the Arcade Fire wannabes that followed. In a cinematic twist, NMH broke up within a year of the album’s release and, its creative force, Jeff Mangum spent the next decade as a Salingerish hermit, avoiding the acclaim he had rightfully earned. In 2011, Mangum emerged from his self-imposed seclusion to perform a handful of solo dates at which he embraced his Neutral Milk Hotel legacy and teased a potential reunion sometime in the future. On the scale of unexpectedly pleasant surprises, this battles Ian Brown and John Squire patching up their differences and announcing a Stone Roses reunion for the top spot.

24. Cloud Nothings: Cloud Nothings
Rock and roll has travelled many miles on the fuel provided by the angst of the young. Echoing the shambling glory of The Replacements, Cloud Nothings revel in raw, unfiltered guitar riffs and the high, nasally pleadings of its leader Dylan Baldi. Looking like a distant relative of Elvis Costello, the benignly self-aware Cleveland, Ohio teenager funnels all of the confusion and grievances of the youth into direct plaints that convey a uniform message: “Being 19 Sucks.” A linear descendant of The Goo Goo Dolls’ Hold Me Up, (that may not seem like high praise but it is – stunning to believe, The Goo Goo Dolls were once awesome), the Cloud Nothings’ self-titled effort streamrolls ahead economically, neither dallying nor tarrying with a song once they are done with it. Songs like “Rock,” “Heartbeat” and “On The Radio” needing little more than two minutes to memorably establish themselves. As long as he doesn’t orchestrate a one hour special on MTVU to announce he’s taking his talents to Brooklyn, Baldi could emerge as one of Cleveland’s favorite sons.

23. Hayes Carll: KMAG YOYO (&Other American Stories)
Outside of Nashville and other areas that worship reverently at the doorstep of the Grand Ole Opry, country music remains an odd curio, subject to constant condescension from those who like their music to be of the more urbane variety. Nonetheless, the music of the Heartland has its allure: it could be said that Grace Potter’s biggest success this year wasn’t reaping the benefits of GPN’s breakout performance on VH1Divas’ Salute To The Troops but rather a guest appearance on Kenny Chesney’s “You And Tequila.” Helping to dispel the myth that country music is solely for red state mouth-breathers, Hayes Carll’s KMAG YOYO – an acronym for an army expression “Kiss My Ass Guys, You’re On Your Own” – displays a wit and charm not usually associated with Stetsons and cowboy boots. The subterranean homesick feel of “Stomp And Holler” and “KMAG YOYO” complements the more traditional fare like “Hard Out Here” and “Bottle In My Hand” while the homespun pone of “Grateful For Christmas” is counterbalanced entirely by the hate-fuck negotiations of “Another Like You” on which Carll and Cary Ann Hearst comically revolutionize Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn’s folksy banter for the 21st century.

22. The Strokes: Angles
At the beginning of the aughts, The Strokes released Is This It, the album that would serve as the template that defined the decade. Not only did every band try to sound like the quintessential New York hipsters, with the advent of the Internet, every label, publicist and blogger hyped their latest act as “The New Strokes.” At the start of whatever we shall end up calling this decade, the founding members of The Strokes reconciled to record Angles, laying waste to the imitators by unleashing the straight dope. In a delightful way, meeting these new Strokes is a lot like meeting the old Strokes: Julian Casablancas wry detachment remains the definition of hipster cool and guitarists Albert Hammond, Jr and Nick Valensi still pluck out guitar riffs with Slash-like precision. The mellowness of “Life Is Simple In The Moonlight” and “Games” may not have sat well with comfortably with the restlessness of “Last Night” or “Take It Leave It” but they have the Strokes’ signature laissez-faire attitude. The rest of the album, most notably “Under Cover Of Darkness” and “Metabolism,” will make you feel 10 years younger.

21. Real Estate: Days
Real Estate’s second full-length album is a peaceful stroll, ambling along airily, rarely accelerating from its leisurely pace. Over the course of its ten songs, the now-Brooklyn based Jersey denizens effectively and pleasingly weave light psychedelic-folk elements amongst and between the acoustic guitar strumming of Martin Courtney and Matthew Mondanile. Hazy musings like “Younger Than Yesterday” and “All The Same” float along on a simple melodies, branching off into limpid pools where the guitars flourish and Jonah Maurer’s keyboards add texture. Real Estate’s greatest skill is fishing from the same waters as the Fleet Foxes and their psych and freak folk brethren without ever sounding derivative or cliché. On Days, Real Estate proves that subtlety can be just as alluring as wearing your influences on your album sleeve.

20. Fleet Foxes: Helplessness Blues
The collection of reveries found on Fleet Foxes’ Helplessness Blues drift comfortably apace upon the resounding strum of acoustic guitars, a bevy of rustic harmonies and a homespun, gather-round-the-campfire joie de vivre. Even when not bucolically waxing rhapsodic or echoing Pecknold’s voice back onto itself, the Foxes’ sophomore effort never strayed far from the form of vibrant folk rock synonymous with Crosby, Stills & Nash. From the bouncy violins of “Bedouin Dress” to the medieval lark of “The Cascades” through the amiable rambles through “Helplessness Blues” and “Lorelai” (the invocation of hippie imagery for more than three years without mentioning or naming a song after a wood sprite, German muse or Gilmore Girl violates a little-known rock ordinance), Fleet Foxes broaden their range while further carving out their niche as masters of the pacific folky vibe. Helplessness Blues has its overly cute pretensions - unavoidable in the wake of the universal acclaim for their 2009 self-titled psych-folk benchmark - but overall, it’s a rewarding listen and supports the theory that it’s probably not that bad an idea to encourage, indulge and ladle effusive praise upon the precociously diffident artistes.

19. Deer Tick Transforms Into DeerVana
With 2011 commemorating the 20th anniversary of the release of Nirvana’s Nevermind, many artists found ways to incorporate songs from the grunge rock opus into their set lists. In an inspired bit of PR, Deer Tick opted to close out SXSW at Lustre Pearl with a set of Nirvana covers, billing their showcase as DeerVana and resurrected the gimmick with an impromptu late night outing at Bonnaroo and at the Brooklyn Bowl to conclude the Northside Festival. Unlike a tribute band that tries to replicate the experience of seeing a certain band, Deer Tick acted as a medium and tried to channel the grunge rock ghosts of yore. The dedication to their subject material extended to set lists: DeerVana emulated Nirvana’s penchant for shying away from their greatest hits, most significantly keeping true to Cobain's disdain for Nirvana's biggest hit and omitting "Smells Like Teen Spirit" from the playlist. Amidst faithful retellings of "In Bloom" and "Lithium," DeerVana included the Meat Puppets influenced "On A Plain" and "Scentless Apprentice." Lead singer John McCauley admirably captured Cobain's pained and tortured vocals, revealing a surprising aptitude for the unrestrained throat-scraping primal howls. Many who think of Deer Tick as a laid back, Americana folk outfit would have their ears pinned back by their foray into grunge, especially the eruption of the rhythm section of Christopher and Dennis Ryan. If the spirit of Kurt Cobain deigned to catch one of the DeerVana sets, he probably just shook his head at the whole affair and wished that everyone involved – band and audience - should just piss off and leave him alone. Were that to occur, it would be the unnecessary validation that DeerVana got it absolutely right.

18. Smith Westerns: Dye It Blonde
Drowning pop songs in a haze of reverb, the post-adolescent Smith Westerns travel roads once paved by The Beatles but walk down the paths taken by Badfinger and the Electric Light Orchestra. In straddling the line between Seventies pop and glam rock, the Smith Westerns aren’t shy about flaunting their influences and there’s a certain irreverent cockiness to naming one of your bouncier songs “Imagine Pt. 3.” They may hide themselves on stage by playing behind their hair like a live-action version of The Wayouts, but they aren’t shy about throwing in a Beatles-inspired chord change whenever the inspiration strikes. On Dye It Blonde, the Chicago, Illinois youngsters seem to embrace the restrictions of the three minute pop song solely to test the strength of the shackles. The synths and builds on “Smile” reach the majestically gorgeous heights it strives to attain and “Dye The World” seems to want to right the wrongs of Tears For Fears style excess. Saving the gravitas for the music, the Smith Westerns don’t spend too much time worrying about the future; their lyrics are rooted very much in the present. “End Of The Night” discourses on everybody’s desire to be a star on a Saturday evening, “Dance Away” praises the joys of doing just that and “Weekend” is not much more than a sweetly innocent love song. The depth of the writing will come with age but in the meantime there’s no reason not to enjoy the simple joys celebrated on Dye It Blonde, especially when they’re wrapped in such a nice Day-Glo package.

17. Bon Iver: Bon Iver
In attempting to follow up on For Emma, Forever Ago, Justin Vernon oddly found himself in a comparable position to Alanis Morissette, who struggled to capture the same level of anger and scorn that fueled Jagged Little Pill. The lightly tormented beauty of songs like "Flume" and "Skinny Love," ethereal melodies teased from the recesses of the soul, seemed birthed from a convergence of circumstances that were unlikely to reoccur. Unless, Vernon ended up in another doomed romance and accelerated its disintegration, a worthy sequel seemed out of reach. On Bon Iver, Vernon didn't quite reinvent himself or his band. Rather, he took the music in its logical direction, coming up with a set of symphonic meditations that reach deeply into the wintry crevasses of memory; a collection of hauntingly gorgeous songs that reverberate with an elegant grace. After following up his intensely personal debut with the jazzy soul diversion of Gayngs and a year-long dalliance as part of Kanye West’s Beautiful Twisted Fantasy, Bon Iver let everyone know that the poet that captivated the world hasn’t lost his muse. Of course, the Grammys rewarded this effort by nominating Bon Iver for Best New Artist. We can all commence sharpening the edges of our For Emma, Forever Ago CDs to fling at them as Frisbees of death.

16. Warren Haynes: Man In Motion
One of the hardest working men in rock and roll, Warren Haynes spends the majority of his time out of the direct spotlight. He garners the lion’s share of the attention while fronting Gov’t Mule, but as a member of the Allman Brothers and frequent special guest of a bevy of classic rock and jamband titans, Haynes is truly one of rock and roll’s consummate team players. On Man In Motion, Haynes steps forward and puts together a rarity: a true classic rock album that revives the R&B of the Stax/Volt era and burns with soul of Otis Redding and Sam Cooke. Smoother, slicker and incorporating a smokier horn section than his Gov’t Mule output, Haynes transforms the blues and soul with his guitar as well as his voice, which couldn’t be better suited for this variety of classic rock. Moreso than on most studio albums, the guitar solos on Man In Motion deliver the same kick as their live counterparts. While “Your Wildest Dreams” incorporates the slow burn of “Bring It On Home” and “Save Me” transforms “Nobody Loves You When You’re Down And Out” into an elegiacally soulful confession, Man In Motion doesn’t relive the past as much as it keeps a circle unbroken. Sadly, not many artists make albums like this anymore.

15. Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears: Scandalous
On the opening track of Scandalous, Black Joe Lewis gives a wry spin on Axl Rose’s salacious greeting, welcoming everyone to his jungle in his signature skittishly-tight howl. Unlike Guns N’ Roses gritty world, Lewis' jungle has all the elements of a happening club where he can go and find his groove. Austin, Texas heroes, Lewis & The Honeybears mix the brash attitude of James Brown and Little Richard with the soul of Otis Redding and the Stax/Volt all stars. This may have been de rigueur back in the Seventies when every band seemed to have access to killer horns and top-notch rhythm sections; nowadays, it's revelatory in its brashness. On Scandalous, Lewis & The Honeybears go on a randy tour through old school funk, soul and rock and roll, making stops along the way at "Booty City," their version of the mansion on the hill and "Mustang Ranch," where Lewis explores his limited purchasing power at an upscale brothel. The title track dives deep into steamy soul, ""Stop Breakin Down" is a straight-up blues stomp, "Messin,'" a slice of front porch blues and "Funny Bone" could pass for a long lost Booker T & The MGs track. With their dedication to the songcraft from another era, Lewis & The Honeybears may have come around a generation late.

14. Radiohead: The King Of Limbs
It’s no longer enough for Radiohead to simply release an album. Beginning with the pay-what-you-want pricing scheme of In Rainbows, Radiohead continues to challenge the conventional wisdom of music distribution and place into the question the need for any middleman to come between them and their fans. With every Radiohead announcement, record company executives must get chills down their spine and evaluate whether the skills they’ve learned translate to other non-dying industries. Early in 2011, Radiohead cavalierly announced the release of The King Of Limbs less than a week before its digital release, proving there is no longer any need for Paul Revere quality advance publicity to pave the way for a new album or that a band needs any other mechanism but than their own Website to sell it. (In all fairness, The Raconteurs proved the first point with the insignificant lead time for Consolers Of The Lonely and Radiohead had already proved the second). As for the music itself, The King Of Limbs has a hypnotic, clubby feel to it, the looping riffs as appropriate for a hair salon as an after-hours rave. This time out, Thom Yorke’s signature warbling falls just short of full articulation creating a dreamy, ethereal quality. When compared to some of the lusher soundscapes of their earlier releases, the less textured The King Of Limbs could easily be confused for a leaked demo tape, which would be a phenomenal strategy for 2012: anyone can release a completed album, without a record company involved, why not sell the raw mixes for everyone to complete at home.

13. Yuck: Yuck
Do you sit awake at night wondering whether the Silversun Pickups have become too mainstream? If so, Yuck is the band for you. On their self-titled debut on the Fat Possum label, Yuck brings back the malaise and apathy of the mid-Nineties and all its ambivalent, shoegazing splendor. They even manage to pay homage to Daniel Johnston’s simplistic line drawings with their cover. With high-pitched, pained vocals reminiscent of Stephen Malkmus, Daniel Blumberg adds lush context to Yuck’s tightly wrought oeuvre while making you wonder if he would exhibit the same awkward stage presence and bashful affectations mastered by the faux-shy, attention averse frontmen that somehow ended up in the forefront of every photo shoot. (Unsurprisingly, he does). From the acoustically pleasing “Suicide Policeman” to the plaintive bleat and intoxicating guitars of “The Wall” to the Gavin Rossdale-ish “Suck,” the British troupe of youngsters displays a fine ear for what made the indie-rock of the Nineties compelling. And, on “Rubber,” the album’s feedback drenched closing number they demonstrate Sonic Youth’s ability to drench any song in the roar of distorted guitars and a wash of bombast and feedback.

12. Paul Simon: So Beautiful or So What
One of America’s most distinctive singer-songwriters, Simon has long learned that he often needs nothing more than his soothing voice, an acoustic guitar and a simple beat to get his point across. On So Beautiful or So What, Simon returns to the fount of the greatest success of the second act of his storied career, infusing the African music that underscored Graceland and The Rhythm Of The Saints into “Dazzling Blue” and “So Beautiful Or So What.” However, it’s the concession that he’s amidst the third act, the meditations on age and mortality like “Rewrite” and “Love And Blessings,” that mark So Beautiful or So What as Simon’s best in more than twenty years. Far from depressing fare, on “The Afterlife,” Simon’s wry and perverse sense of humor serves as the basis for his ruminative comparison of The Great Hereafter to a visit to the DMV and ever the iconoclast, “Getting Ready For Christmas Day” seemed destined to be a pervasive presence over the holiday season but Simon seemed loathe to even play it on stage.

11. The Beastie Boys: Hot Sauce Committee: Part II
When Licensed To Ill became a bone fide late-Eighties sensation, it remained unclear whether The Beastie Boys were cruelly mocking the hip hop scene they were helping define or shattering the color barrier as the Jackie Robinsons of rap. No one thought back then that a quarter century later, Adam “MCA” Yauch, Adam “Ad Rock” Horowitz and Michael “Mike D” Diamond would still be around, much less produce something as fresh as Hot Sauce Committee Part 2. Where once they would fight for your right to party, the Beasties now party for your motherfuckin' right to fight. As pleasingly old-school as they were when the institution received its charter, the Beasties pepper Hot Sauce Committee with minimalist beats, uncomplicated guitar riffs and choice samples weaving pop culture references, mostly passé, smart-ass quips and a self-confident sense of humor seamlessly into the narrative. Perhaps the only nod they make to the current cultural landscape are guest appearances from Nas and Santigold. The newly inducted Hall of Famers are still full of stupendous sound and fabricated fury and with the exception of a proclamation that there's too many rappers and not enough MCs, still remain a rappers’ delight by miraculously signifying nothing. Older, wiser and hipper, the Beasties remain the ultimate testosterone-fueled party band.

10. Rob Tannenbaum & Craig Marks: I Want My MTV
In putting together their oral history on MTV’s formative years, former Blender editors Rob Tannenbaum and Craig Marks interviewed more than 400 people to assemble the definitive tome on the network that can lay claim to being the single most influential force on music in the Eighties. Replete with juicy stories about the decadence endemic to the music industry during one of its fertile period, Tannenbaum & Marks give ample space to the emergence of the era’s superstars - Michael Jackson, Madonna, Duran Duran, Van Halen and Prince - detail the network’s’ reluctant embrace of black artists, rap and hip-hop and memorialize the conflicting accounts of who properly deserves credit for MTV’s success. Making this more than a colorful history of sex, drugs, lies and videotape, the narrative resonates beyond the simple story of MTV’s golden years (1980 – 1992). In shining an unflinching spotlight on the mindset of the music business in the 80s, Tannenbaum & Marks unfold a story that presages a music industry doomed to repeat their historic blunders because they fail to remember the past. Many of the same missteps that resulted from the failure to grasp the benefits of MTV were repeated in the digital age: in the same way the major labels gave the house to MTV because they didn’t recognize its potential, they did it two decades later when Steve Jobs knocked on their door.

9. The London Souls: The London Souls
The classic rock era has always providing ample source material for any young group willing to mine its depth for the proper doses of psychedelic blues, R&B and soul. It can be a simple formula but for every Let Love Rule, there’s pretty much the rest of Lenny Kravitz’ catalog. Reinvigorating a period where funk and soul didn’t rule out the incorporation of blistering guitar riffs or permitting a power trio to frenetically shred within the studio, The London Souls’ full length debut starts out a breakneck pace and never once eases up on the throttle, making a bold, confident statement. In addition to putting their own imprint on the power trio formula, “She’s In Control” offers an idea of what Rubber Soul would have sounded like had it been recorded by Prince, updating George Harrison’s guitar riff from “The Word” for a new generation while “Under Control” offers a different take on “Walk Away,” Joe Walsh’s James Gang era rocker. Image, chops, Brooklyn; the building blocks are there for The London Souls to break out on a large scale.

8. My Morning Jacket: Circuital
No one could ever have faulted My Morning Jacket if they chose a career path in which they served up delectable morsels of Southern stoner rock every other year and built their legend with buzzworthy Bonnaroo appearances that set tongues awagging. To their credit, with the exception of Jim James’ persistent affection for capes, the Kentucky rockers have refused to remain complacent. While they’ve never ventured tremendously far from their comfort zone, they’ve experimented enough to remain intriguing. With Circuital, My Morning Jacket revisits the pulsing rock of Z on “Circuital” and “The Day Is Coming” as well as transplants the pseudo-electronic heartbeat of Evil Urges into “Victory Dance” and “First Light.” On the other hand, they infuse “Outta My System” and “Holding On To Black Metal” with the sly sense of humor that the band has shown on stage but not really in the studio. Over time, Circuital may not have the same impact as any of MMJ’s last three albums. No matter though, the fact that Led Zeppelin III isn’t thought of with the same reverence as I, II or IV doesn’t make it any less of an album.

7. Tune-Yards: WhoKill
On BirdBrains, Merrill Garbus put together a triumph of the ProTools age, concocting a heady mix of swirling rhythms and looping beats within the confines of her proverbial bedroom. If there was anything missing, it was the ability to deliver the music on stage with strength and confidence. On WhoKill, Tune-Yards’ follow-up, Garbus makes gigantic leaps and strides forward as a composer, arranger and especially a lyricist, tackling issues of inequity and speaking for the societally and emotionally oppressed. “My Country” offers a wry twist on the dogma of blind allegiance, “Bizness” expresses the fear of being victimized with no opportunity to rebel and “Gangsta” addresses the existential question of what to do when you aren’t as tough as you think. While she no longer relies on hypnotic loops as her main hook, Garbus has not regressed or skimped on the sound. The forceful beat on “Powa” betrays the fragility of the message within and “Riotriot” constitutes Garbus’ jazziest exploration to date. WhoKill succeeds absent of context but its greatest triumph is the extraordinary growth of Garbus as an artist.

6. The Decemberists: The King Is Dead/Long Live The King
The hyperliteracy of The Decemberists reached its tipping point with the 2009 release of The Hazards Of Love, a concept album that told the tragedy of shape-shifting wildlife, a scheming mother and a murderous rake. Once you’ve gone rock opera, you either move to Broadway or retreat to simpler ground. For The King Is Dead, the Decemberists weren’t satisfied with just emulating the script written by R.E.M., they brought Peter Buck on board to lend his distinctive guitar to “Don’t Carry It All,” “Down By The Water” and “Calamity Song,” the latter resulting in one of the greatest videos of the last decade, a depiction of the Eschaton from David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. (Gillian Welch appears on most of the album but if no one mentioned it, you would never know). The Decemberists bookended the year with the appropriately titled Long Live The King on which they made a slight return to form with “E. Watson,” an economical little murder ballad and delighted Deadheads worldwide with a fine cover of “Row Jimmy.” More than just interesting storytellers, in 2011, The Decemberists reestablished themselves as a vital rock and roll band.

5. The Black Keys: El Camino
Released after Thanksgiving, The Black Keys’ latest proves why pundits and bloggers should wait until mid-December to compile their year-end lists. (At least those who still acquire music on release dates like the common people). On El Camino, Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney beat a not-so-hasty retreat from the soul-tinged, fuller band sound they explored on Brothers without regressing to the feral guitar and pounding drums of their earlier days. Playing around with the other music that might have been left in the storage bins of Akron, Ohio, the Keys return to rock and roll’s roots, unleashing fuzzy nuggets like “Lonely Boy” and “Gold On The Ceiling,” Tom Pettyish rockers like “Run Right Back” and “Little Black Submarines” and the slithering boogie of “Stop Stop.” History will record that Brothers brought The Black Keys to the attention of enough people to fill Madison Square Garden sized arenas - twice over. With its collection of robust, full-bodied rockers, El Camino will be the album that dazzles those people once they arrive.

4. Raphael Saadiq: Stone Rollin’
Show of hands. At the height of Tony! Toni! Tone!’s popularity, who thought to themselves “Hmm, self. I think that Raphael Wiggins guy will someday come the closest to picking up the gauntlet Stevie Wonder dropped when he ankled himself with that telephone song.” You with the hand up – shame on you for lying to the rest of the class. Sit in the corner and go listen to Rebecca Black for one hour and think about what you’ve done. Stone Rollin’ isn’t just the best album Stevie Wonder album that he never recorded, it’s the best album Motown album that thee label never released. “Go To Hell” and “Stone Rollin’” percolate with righteous Seventies soul, the shoop-shoop innocence of “Movin’ On Down The Line” and “Good Man” echoes from a past generation and “The Answer” demonstrates that we may still not know exactly what’s going on. Saadiq offered glimpses that he had this type of album in him on The Way I See It. That doesn’t make Stone Rollin’ any less of a revelation.

3. The Antlers: Burst Apart
On their follow-up to Hospice, their 2009 breakout album, The Antlers didn’t shy away from transforming more existential worries on the need for intimacy into another set of cerebrally satisfying metaphorical contemplations. With his haunting falsetto, lead singer Peter Silberman wallows in uncertainty and waxes philosophical about the emotional complexity of relationships without reducing himself to an irredeemable wuss. Darby Cicci's hypnotic keyboards pair with Silberman's strident guitar chords to flirt with the same ethereal realms as Bradford Cox and Deerhunter. Unshackled from the chains of providing traditional rhythm, drummer Michael Lerner and bassist Timothy Mislock provide the propulsive heartbeat upon which the music pulses. The soothing vibe of “Rolled Together” and “No Widows” come from the same realm traversed by Pink Floyd as does “Parentheses,” which skates along on a vaguely punkish drumbeat. Silberman’s achingly operatic, oftentimes wordless vocals echo Jeff Buckley and are The Antlers’ most distinctive calling card. His delivery isn't all window dressing; on "Putting The Dog To Sleep," Silberman mimics the great soul singers of yore, stepping aside like Van Morrison or Wilson Pickett to let the music provide the emotive punch. Burst Apart’s lush and gorgeous meditations are simply beauties to behold.

2. Fucked Up: David Comes To Life
Surprisingly, the greatest meta-masterpiece of the year wasn’t found within the unfinished David Foster Wallace novel (although one chapter comes damn close). Rather, it unfolded across a double-album punk rock opera from a profanely named Canadian hardcore band that hosts the likes of Pink Eyes, Concentration Camp and Mustard Gas. Amidst a glorious aural assault that, at times, emulates Jimmy Page on crystal meth, Pink Eyes screams out a fascinatingly literate opus of a hero that accidentally kills his girlfriend and busts out of his existential ennui by learning he’s a fictional character and taking umbrage against the narrator whose simply living up to his villainish nature. Literacy rarely presents itself so loudly and incomprehensibly; it’s easy to lose the narrative within the visceral miasma of incendiary guitar solos, Tommy-era instrumental breaks and Pink Eyes’ guttural howl (which really isn’t the most intelligible vehicle for storytelling). Where most conceptual albums attempt to engage the intellect, Fucked Up’s momentous rock opera attacks baser instincts, seeking to accelerate the pulse and unleash endorphins with its primal scream.

1. White Denim: D
White Denim’s D could easily have served as the soundtrack playing within Casey Jones’ head while he sped out of control on his mythic railroad tracks. Moving along at renegade pace, the Austin, Texas outfit’s fourth studio album is their finest, most satisfying yet. It’s the closest they’ve come to harnessing the energy of their lives shows and captures the essence of what makes White Denim the most exciting band in the country. Firing off guitar riffs as if they've bought them wholesale, D moves at a lightning quick pace, moving the band’s sound from crisp, angular, psychedelic garage-rock to full-on aural assaults that maximizes everything in their arsenal. On "It's Him" and "Bess St," James Petralli and newly added Austin Jenkins ratchet up the intensity with visceral delight, weaving their guitars around the strident drumming of Joshua Block and the thunderously powerful bass of Steve Terebecki, one of the great young unheralded bassists. If Phish or any iteration of the Grateful Dead unleashed "At The Farm" on an unsuspecting audience, they would lose their collective shit and crash phantasytour praising its genius. The measured psychedelic exploration of “Is And Is And Is” builds to a passionate vocal eruption from Petralli; “River To Consider” works around a conga beat and the right amount of jazz flute and “Drug” and “Anvil Everything” aspire to the arena rock heights of the most acid-fueled Dead jams.

Like them, love them, hate them, feign recognition of them, live in ignorance of them; it doesn't change the fact that White Denim is the freshest, most invigorating rock and roll band in America and D stands out as the best of 2011.

Bafflements & Disappointments

Peter Gabriel: New Blood
Despite stepping out of the spotlight after the release of 2002’s Up and a fantastic in-the round world tour, Peter Gabriel has never been in danger of fading into obscurity. His interweaving of African rhythms into American rock has influenced a slew of young bands like Vampire Weekend, who namechecked Gabriel on “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa,” and he makes headlines with near-annual public dispelling of the persistent Genesis reunion rumors. In 2010, Gabriel embarked on a moderately interesting project: on Scratch My Back, he would cover the likes of Arcade Fire, Bon Iver and Radiohead and they would return the favor on I’ll Scratch Yours by covering songs from his catalog. Unlike the wit shown in his cover of “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” with Hot Chip, Gabriel decided to leave the guitars and drums at home and employ a 46 piece orchestra. Gabriel’s half of the bargain turned out to be moderately interesting. However, musicians being suspect organizers, the return project never came off. Instead of moving on to whatever would come next, Gabriel took the term classic rock a little too literally and re-recorded some of his old songs with his touring orchestra, essentially putting the live show’s second set on record. Other than an interesting adaptation of “Digging In The Dirt,” Gabriel didn’t make any effort to radically reinterpret any song that didn’t already lend itself to orchestral accompaniment. Instead of a visionary reimagining, the end result was a set of relatively tepid rearrangements.

The Deification Of Amy Winehouse
Amy Winehouse fulfilled a space in most people’s lives where the absence of schadenfreude leaves them feeling empty. Over the past couple years, we all merrily checked out the various YouTube clips of the drug-addled singer’s on-stage breakdowns, chuckled with interest over stories of her legal troubles and tumultuous relationship with Blake Fielder-Civil and periodically noted the growing irony that Winehouse came to the forefront of our collective consciousness with a song professing her belligerent refusal to go to rehab. When Winehouse died this summer at age 27, a singer with one solid album to her credit started to getting mawkish comparisons to Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin since they all died at the same age. The death of any 27 year old – whether possessed of the talent to sing or not - is never a laughing matter but the revisionist history that immediately altered her place in the rock and roll pantheon bordered on ridiculous. Sadly, Winehouse’s death facilitated the release of a new album which would never have occurred within her lifetime. Sure Amy Winehouse could sing but were we really pinning any credible hopes on someone who thought her arm would be a great spot to get a tattoo of a topless woman showing off her great rack? Then again, maybe I just wasn’t paying attention when Aretha Franklin inked herself with soft-porn.

Lou Reed & Metallica: Lulu
When Lou Reed joined Metallica on stage at Madison Square Garden as part of the concerts to celebrate the 25th Anniversary of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame to cover a pair of Velvet Underground songs, no one, even them, foresaw that this would set down a path that would result in a 90 minute concept album based upon the sadomasochistic work of German playwright Frank Wedekind. To say Lulu wasn’t well received would drastically understate its reception. Far beyond negative reviews, LouTallica inspired critics to reach deep into their comedic reserves to heap scorn on the project. (Chuck Klosterman’s piece for Grantland deserves mention for being both funny and well-reasoned). In the arrogance and playing nice with reporters categories, Lou Reed and Metallica rate quite low if not rock bottom. Anyone put off by the album’s opening line of tearing body parts off when thinking of Boris Karloff or the fact that Reed doesn’t seem to pay attention to his cues, making him sound like he’s ranting beat poetry over Metallica’s riffing, clearly hasn’t paid any attention to Lou Reed over the past few years. After spending the last year making Metal Machine noise, his pairing with Metallica is exactly what could be expected. Lulu has its faults. It also isn’t anywhere near as bad as people are making it out to be.

R.E.M. Bids A Savvy Farewell
With his pronouncement that “all things must end” Michael Stipe announced the dissolution of R.E.M. and brought a sense of closure to the storied career of the Athens, Georgia band that helped define alternative rock in the late Eighties and early Nineties. The band’s formal declaration accomplished something that R.E.M. had been unable to achieve in the past five or ten years: it inspired people to talk about them. Anti-climactic in its import, it resulted in critics, pundits, bloggers and fans returning their gaze towards R.E.M. to take stock of the band’s significant accomplishments as alt-rock godfathers and unlikely MTV superstars. It may not have been boosted sales of Collapse Into Now, a fine finale, but it did till the soil for Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage, a career retrospective in stores in time for the Christmas shopping season. Most significantly, there can’t be a reunion tour in 2017, if the band never broke up. Far from an acceptance of the inevitable decline of any significant artist, R.E.M.’s 2011 “breakup” is just another savvy step in a career marked by shrewd and perceptive decisions.

Rolling Stone Turns Into American Idol
There was a time when Rolling Stone took pride in scouring the country to find the hottest new bands and the most deserving new musicians to feature in their magazine. To be on the cover of Rolling Stone used to be an accomplishment as it signifying the attainment of a superstar level critical recognition and popular success. While a magazine that’s featured N’ Sync, Jessica Simpson and Snooki on its cover can no longer be said to have the cachet that’s implicit in the Dr. Hook song, the decisions could be defended on the public recognition factor alone. This year though, Jann Wenner completely abdicated the magazine’s role as a trusted rock and roll tastemaker by ceding editorial control to a Garnier Fructis sponsored contest that would award the Rolling Stone cover to an unsigned band that survives an American Idol style voting process. There used to be a time when Rolling Stone could tell us whether a band like The Sheepdogs was worthy of its attention. Now, in a world full of overblown talent contests, Rolling Stone seems to have just given up.

A Look Ahead To 2012

Leroy Justice
If you spend any amount of time listening to the crowds that flock in droves to see Bob Dylan, The Allman Brothers Band or any project featuring a former member of the Grateful Dead, you can’t help but get an earful from aging fans who won’t stop bitching and moaning about the fact that no current band truly knows how to play rock and roll. Given their vocal nature, it’s surprising that the writers of The Simpsons haven’t lampooned these folks by giving Comic Book Guy a brother in a crusty old Z O S O T-shirt that pompously pontificates upon the genius of Grand Funk Railroad. (Homer does that but he wears a white collared shirt). As if in answer to these well-intentioned Philistines, Leroy Justice has consistently shown that real rock and roll is not a relic of the Seventies. For anyone who thinks rock and roll is dead, 2012 should be the year that they realize Leroy Justice is keeping it alive and kicking.

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Grace Potter Rocking The Gear circa 2006!