Wilco, always the go-to for Americana experimentation, roar back with The Whole Love. Jeff Tweedy reigns supreme as the most daring and fruitful songwriter of these times and with a crack professional band backing him up, another page turned in their history. From the blast-off of “Art of Almost” to the quiet, stirring confessional “One Sunday Morning (Song For Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend)” Wilco cement their feet in the palace of rock and roll.
Tom Waits is baaaaack! The scrap metal blues are alive and well in 2011 with Waits grumbling and moaning of leaving wherever he is right now. Bad as Me is all about unrest and anxiety and with two and three minute songs, it sounds that way too. Enlisting the help of Keith Richards, Les Claypool, Flea and Marc Ribot, Waits crafted a funky, brash, junkyard treasured album for these monolithically troubled times.
Yo, throat cancer ain’t nothing but a bitch to the Beastie Boys. Put on hold after Adam "MCA" Yauch discovered a cancerous tumor intruding his salivary glands, Hot Sauce was finally released this year and I almost trashed my entire room by the end of opener “Make Some Noise.” After experimenting with instrumentation on The Mix-Up, the B-Boys returned, a little older and more grizzled, to their trademark goofball raps. All you crab rappers, you’re rapping like crabs.
Words that have described Fleet Foxes: pastoral, melancholic, folksy, harmonious. After the wild success of their first album it’s easy to get frightened that expectations will get the best of them. Not so with Blues. They made a record that sweetly illustrates the struggle of today’s common man: dragging oneself to work while dreaming of the peaceful woods and searching for moments of tranquility and acceptance. The harmonies are prevalent and folk strumming comforting. This is home, wherever that may be.
The greatest girl-boy duo since those siblings in red and white stopped production, The Kills return with the very fine Blood Pressures. The songs are quick, to the point, drenched in reverb and tinged with that subtle nostalgia that keeps you coming back. Alison Mosshart vocals slice through the distortion of guitarist Jamie Hince creating end-of-the-world black ballroom music.
Beyonce very well could be the supreme diva of our time. It’s so refreshing she didn’t take the electronic pound-it-in-your-head dubstep route other divas (Lady Gaga, Rihanna) have taken to broaden their sound. Each song touches on different genres of pop music to create a well-rounded album. It starts with a downcast mood reflecting on troubled relationships (c’mon Jay!), but pulls itself from the mud to emblazon the speakers with songs like “Love on Top” and “Countdown.” Get it girl!
Kurt Vile woke himself up long enough to record this layered acoustic gem. Still less hazy than his previous albums, Smoke Ring is the soundtrack to the marijuana-laced dreams you can never remember. He takes Kurt Cobain’s angst-fried snarling and pours cough syrup all over it. There’s a comfort in lethargy as the world swoons all around your bedroom.
3. THE KING OF LIMBS-Radiohead
The most challenging record of the year is also the most rewarding. Radiohead raise their ceiling of creativity with each new release and The King of Limbs, certainly, is no different. At first you’re not sure if the drum tracks are lined up with the electronic tracks and then you’re wondering what Thom Yorke is saying and before you realize it the song is splashing in glorious ponds of connectivity and all is right with the world. Inside of 38 minutes, but demanding repeat listens, Radiohead prove, once again, why they are skyscrapers above the rest of the pack.
Docked from the top spot only because “Made in America” is a terrible song and totally disrupts the mood, Watch the Throne, fulfilled its promise to be the biggest release of 2011. Jay and ‘Ye get deep dissecting what it means to be black, rich and successful in America—pretty fucking fun, but also lonely and disengaging. Their thoughts move past bling and supermodels just long enough to reveal a landscape of paranoia, distrust and insecurity that may give its white audience something to think about before they mutter ‘nigger’ to their friend in the passenger seat. Let’s hope these fuckers never leave their zone.
England’s angel soars above the clouds to deliver the most poetically scathing portrait of her homeland. Dreamlike on arrival, but haunting in tone, England captures the drifting prominence of the United Kingdom as well as America and the rest of the E.U., for that matter. Harvey reflects on the atrocities of war and the unrelenting aftermath that follows. “The Words That Maketh Murder” offers a soldier’s deathly perspective as he walks the battleground filled with an unknown regret. It’s national pride gone awry, turned inward and defensive, and it comes through on the haunted breeze that is Harvey’s voice.