Tops in 2011

Late, but still a lot to share. Some swell music clips to check out.

While March Madness rolls on, here I am with my year end list. Finally! Why do I do this again? My love for a great song, well sung and produced. And there are plenty of those to name. Each year brings new treasures. New discoveries. And yes, I am late. But not being a writer, without an editor and deadline, I do the best I can. If I can turn a couple of music fans on to something new, well then it’s worth the effort. And remember, music will never let you down. It will never break up with you. It will always be there for you. As my ex-wife said during our divorce, “You’ll be fine. You have your music.”
So let’s do this:

1] Fountains of Wayne – “Sky full of holes” – Did not see this one coming. I’ve always enjoyed their albums. Great pop tunes. Funny, sad, tons of tongue in cheek references. Always dependable. But I ‘m pleasantly surprised by their commitment on this release.  The tunes are excellent. The band is crisp and tight. Chris Collingwood is singing better than ever. Songs like “Richie and Ruben,” “Someone’s gonna break your heart,” and “Action Hero” are sweet and snappy. “Road song” is about songwriting, one of my favorite themes [and one that shows up in other releases]. The album builds up to two final folk rock songs that have become my favorites: “Firelight Waltz” a lilting drinking song, and the solemn “Cemetery Guns” with military drums. Both feature Chris’s most effective singing. Perhaps a new direction for the band?
“Cemetery guns go bang bang bang. Shooting up the sky full of holes…”
This is a mature album by a great pop band.

2] Glen Campbell – “Ghost on the canvas”
“One thing I know. The world’s been good to me…” from “A better place”
The emotional tug of the year. Here, as stated by Glen, is his last album. The sad news that he is a victim of Alzheimer’s hit me hard. But he has delivered a masterpiece to go out on. Songs written by himself, Paul Westerberg, Jacob Dylan and others fall right in line with his best work. Of course nothing can top all those early Jimmy Webb tunes. I was deeply affected by those songs. And while Jimmy is missed here, the songs here are very strong. I love all the instrumental interludes, and marvel at how strong and moving Glen’s voice is. The title tune, “A better place,” and “It’s your amazing grace” are gorgeous. I thrill each time Glen’s little falsetto swings “It’s your amazing grace.” And how eerie is the line in Robert Pollard’s “Hold on Hope,” “Here rides the cowboy…”  This is not a new song. Did he know one day it would be sung by the “Rhinestone Cowboy?” This album has given me many tears and chills. It has a special place in my heart.

3] Fleet Foxes – “Helplessness Blues” – This group instills me with a state of wonder. Mythical narratives, sung with Gregorian-like harmonies – all played on mandolins, hammer dulcimer, pump organ, harpsichord, and woodwinds etc.  The poetry of Robin Pecknold and his lovely tenor evoke childhood memories and dreams. There is no group doing anything quite like this. If you are uncertain about them, just take the time and listen to the title song: “If I know only one thing, it’s that everything that I see of the world outside is so inconceivable, often I barely can speak…”  Pretentious? Maybe so. But for me it is the song of the year.  Other key tracks: “Montezuma”, “The Plains/ Bitter Dancer”, “The Shrine/An Argument” [brilliant!], and the windswept beauty of “Grown Ocean.” I thought their debut was riveting. This is better.

4] Girls – “Father Son Holy Ghost” – Moving way beyond their lo-fi debut simply titled “album.”  Girls have expanded their retro sound with a more produced and musically layered affair. This band loves all types of pop music, and has the ability to turn that admiration into exceptional music. The center of attention is talented Christopher Owens, who does heartbreak as good as anyone. Album kicks off with the surf rock “Honey Bunny,” detours through hard rock with “Die,” and country rock “Saying I love you.” Then it settles in for the three best tracks in a row. “My Ma” begins with Christopher’s weary vocals singing “Oh God, I’m tired. My heart is Broken.” Next is a song about “running around looking for you, baby,” which is slowly repeated to create the dizzy feeling of the title, “Vomit.” Unfortunate title, but who can’t relate to heart sickness. The sad trio concludes with its darkest yet, “Just a song.” After a classical guitar intro, the tender vocal whispers “It feels like it’s gone, oh it’s gone away…” Chris’s partner in the group, Chet JR White plays amazing guitar throughout, matching all the styles perfectly. Perhaps the best new group in several years, Girls have made one of the most impressive sounding albums of the year. Check out the second clip – Girls live in Singapore doing Whitney Houston upon hearing she had died. Raw and emotional with the crowd joining in.

5] David Mead – “Dudes” – Another fine effort by one of our best pop stylists. Fan funded, “Dudes” is theme oriented. All the songs are from a male point of view. What is clear, no matter what David is singing about, the music is going to be exquisite. Fun tunes like “King of the Crosswords” and “Bocce Ball” stuck in my head for days. You can always look forward to great melodies and pop hooks a plenty. Two of the best tunes show up in the second half. “The smile of Rachael Ray” is a bittersweet holiday song: “may the season keep you warm, may your memories never fade…”
And there’s the sheer infectiousness of “No one roxx this town no more” with stellar falsetto and sweet background vocals. Co-written by another pop great, Bill DeMain, “Roxx” is Mr. Mead at his pop best. Whatever David and Bill write, sign me up. I’m there.
Before the release day, David blogged daily about a song from his past, describing its creation. The result is “25 Days to Dudes,” a 25 song collection that is essential to any fan. Great music and an invaluable read.  Listen to the music in the second clip, “Key West morning.” It is an unreleased David and Bill tune, “Sweetheart Sorrow.” Just beautiful.

6] Okkervil River – “I am very far” – “we need a myth, we need a path…”
Will Shef is one intense dude. After 4 concept albums. he has released one with no concept. He secluded himself and wrote songs filled with dreams, memories, and rock and roll [of course]. Then he recorded with an expanded band, on some songs as many as 7 guitarists, 2 bassists, 2 pianists, and 2 drummers with several background singers. The result: a wall of sound, and one incredible sounding album. There is a thrilling 4 song arc beginning with “Rider” and ending with “We need a myth,” that is as strong as rock music gets. “Myth” is particularly haunting. The album ends with “The Rise,” filled with echoing lyrics and a lush conclusion of harmonies and drums.
I could not tell you what any of these songs mean. They sure sound wonderful. The cover with dogs guarding the title, “I am very far” is an eerie image. This album takes you to places far indeed.

7] Wilco – “The whole love” – Listening to a new Wilco album is like visiting an old friend. You want to catch up on what they’ve been up to. And as expected with Wilco, they have a lot to share. The 7 minute opener, “Art of Almost” is full of disjointed rhythms and snarling guitar, reminding one of Radiohead [just a bit]. “I might” is punctuated by Memphis soul. Great harmonies and more stinging guitar help the pop smart “Dawned on me” along. Two stand-out tracks elevate this album. “Born Alone” is simply classic Wilco with warm Jeff Tweedy vocals, and a sing-along melody. The instrumental wind down to end the song is brilliant. And the lovely folk rock finale, “One Sunday morning,” is an 11 minute tour de force that becomes the album’s “Sad eyed lady.”  This is their first release on their own label, and they celebrate this on the deluxe second disc with a sharp cover of Nick Lowe’s “I love my label.” Jeff’s voice just gets better and better, and Nels Cline is some kind of monster on guitar. America’s best band delivers!

8] Low Anthem – “Smart Flesh” – “Songs of fear, cruelty, and redemption” [from the cd booklet]. After stumbling onto a live clip of this band performing Tom Waits’ “Home I’ll never be,” and later catching them on Letterman, I was lead to this stunning album. Recorded mostly in a vacant pasta sauce factory which was supposed to be quite cold, this chamber folk quartet unfolds its chilled beauty. Their high and lonesome vocals are backed by pump organ, harmonium. melodeon, guitars and banjos to name a few. Stand out cuts include a George Carter cover from the 20’s, “Ghost Woman Blues.”  The slow down home “Apothecary Love,” and “Hey all you Hippies,” are 2 tracks that show the range they are capable of. “Wire” is solo clarinet music by the extremely talented Jocie Adams. In contrast, “Boeing 737” is a pounding guitar anthem, described by the BBC as “Dylan fronting the Arcade Fire.” The lyrics include images of 911 and Philippe Petit, the man who walked a tight rope between the twin towers. Simply astonishing. This wonderful album is filled with stark harmonies, and songs evoking rural Americana, and the mystery of life.

9] Tom Waits – “Bad as me” – From Tom’s wicked grin on the cover, you might expect a crazed set. But mostly we get a focused journey through Tom’s career. There’s smokey torch “Kiss me,” Howlin Wolf growl “Bad as me,” and Gypsy accordion backed “Pay Me” ending with Tom playing bar room piano. Tom’s in great voice. Less gruff, more croon. My favorite is “Kiss me” straight out of a 50’s film noir.
“I want you to kiss me like a stranger once again…” Also must mention the brutal anti war song, “Hell Broke Luce.” The album ends with more accordion and Tom crooning “Auld lang syne” on the cinematic “New Year’s Eve.”
With his son Casey on drums. the impressive Marc Ribot on guitar, Larry Taylor on bass, and several guests [David Hidalgo, Charlie Musslewhite, etc.] This is a heck of an entertaining album.

10] Bon Iver – “Bon Iver” – Expanding on his low key debut, Justin Vernon has released an intimate dream soundtrack. Layered vocals featuring Justin’s lovely falsetto, sensitive guitars, and cathedral like keyboards mix with horns and strings, all contributing to the cryptic dream. Although there are many lyrics, the songs are almost wordless the way they play out. It is a bit of a relief when The Who nod “I could see for miles” is sung in the stand out “Holocene.” I thrill to little moments like in “Towers” when the song takes a left turn into drum driven pop. And closer “Beth/Rest” reminds me of days spent listening to Peter Gabriel. Someday I will sit and follow the lyrics, but I am content to let these songs wash over me. The closest musical analogy I can relate is the music of Sigur Ross, where the mood is the main deal. In the end, I admire the fact that music like this can be conceived and played so beautifully.

11] NRBQ – “Keep this love goin’ on” – Terry Adams finally felt comfortable enough with his current musical mates to revive the famous group name. They’ve been playing together for several years as Terry Adams Rock and roll Quartet. They deserve the nod. Scott Ligon from Chicago is a terrific vocalist/ guitarist as well as composer, and bassist Pete Donnelly also writes and sings a couple. The “Q” magic is present in the sweet title track, “I’m Satisfied,” and especially “Animal Life.” Terry misses his friend, the late Boozoo Chavez in “Boozoo and Leona,” and writes a pop tune around Tchaikovsky’s 1st piano concerto. Just like magic they cover the theme to “Gone with the Wind” and make it their own.  And Terry’s low growl in “Sweet and Petite” keeps up their playful musical tricks. I am a lifelong “Q” head, and this is worthy of their name. Fresh, sweet, funny. and at all times extremely musical.  With the Spampinato Brothers releasing the excellent “Pie in the Sky,” we now have two groups getting it done. I’ve been lucky to see both bands in the past year and I was grinning from ear to ear on both occasions. If you have never seen Terry play piano, please watch the second clip, a live version of a 30’s tune by Speckled Red. Watch the master at work.

12] Mike Viola – “Electro De Perfecto” – Like Bill DeMain and David Mead, songwriters I admire, add Mike Viola to the list. He always shows up with a boatload of hot tunes. The simplicity of a tune like “Get you back” just gives you that good time feel that only pop can elicit. Guess that’s why they call it power pop. By the time you arrive at cut 5, “Soundtrack of my summer” you just want to stand on your roof and scream “I love pop!’
“I will hear your voice in three part harmony…”
Classic Viola hooks abound in “Here’s the Rub.” When the fun ends with closer “When the stars are against you” [swell title], “Whoo hoo” and all you are left wanting more. I could take 10 more of these any day. You get the feeling these guys write songs for breakfast.
Note: Adam Schlesinger keeps popping up on these albums either as a player or producer.
Thank you, Mr. Viola. Wherever you go, I will be sure to be there. Like one comment under the Youtube video below – “Power pop will never die”

13] John Paul Keith – “Man Time Forgot” – A Memphis musician whose second album sounds a lot like Rockpil e- and that’s a very good thing. Great melodies and a fine crackin’ band show many influences. There’s Beatles, blues, country and jazz flowing through these songs. There’s a Mose Allison tribute. “I work at night,” and 2 songs about songwriting, a subject I dig. Memphis soul flavors “Somebody ought to write a song about you” which is full of pretty organ. And the best of the lot, breezy “Songs for Sale.” A couple other key tracks are the Nick Lowe like “Never could say no,” and the sly “You devil you.”
In “Songs for sale,” he sings “Please get ’em away from me…” I think he is a major talent, and pray he gets to share these songs with lots of people.

14] Cass McCombs – “Wit’s end” – Here’s an artist who’s had a bunch of releases, but this is my introduction to him. Of course I had to check into him during his dark period. This is a quiet, slow moving song cycle about loneliness. And it doesn’t let up. Starting with the moody “Count Line” and ending with the 9 minute long “A knock upon the door,” that after the final “knock” is sung literally ends in silence.  But for all its darkness, there is a comfort to the stillness contained here.  Cass’s vocals are quite lovely, and his musical backing is hushed and elegant. If you are in the mood to really listen, there are many rewards here. Now that I’ve found him I want to explore more. Toward the end of 2011 he released another well received album, “Humor Risk.”

15] St. Vincent -“Strange Mercy” – “I make a living telling people what they want to hear…”
Third album from St. Vincent [Annie Clark] which continues her intoxicating brand of mystery. Mixing gorgeous singing with inventive guitar shredding, switching from tender to fury, this is one of the year’s most adventurous musical trips. Standout tracks include “Cruel,” “Cheerleader,” and “Champagne year.” You have to admire an artist who names a song after an Eric Rhomer film, “Chloe in the afternoon.” Clever girl! Ending with the sweeping “Year of the tiger,” this dramatic music leaves a lasting impression –  always very musical, and never boring. And yes, there are those guitars. Did I mention that she is stunning to look at? Check out her guitar playing on the second clip,”Surgeon.”

16] Feist – “Metals” – Leslie Feist certainly works hard on her albums with her core producers Mocky and Chilly Gonzales who also play a lot of the music. If you listen to this album closely and repeatedly it will offer rich rewards. I know because I resisted it at first. But the rhythms and melodies got to me in a big way. But it’s her voice that is the center of attention, and magically infuses songs like “The bad in each other,” “How come you never go there,” and “Bittersweet melodies.” Strings and brass color the songs full of lyrics invoking nature. The album ends with two laid back stripped down beauties, “Comfort Me,” and “Get it wrong get it right.” I have enjoyed all of Feist’s albums, but this is the one I will return to the most.

17] Lykke Li -“Wounded Rhymes” – Heavy drums. Big choruses. This album is a study in contrasts: Strong yet vulnerable, tough and sweet, sex and heartbreak. Lykke takes on the characters of her songs, some dark, and some sentimental. She likes to shock a bit with “Get some.” Over tribal rhythms she sings “I’m your prostitute. You goin get some…” The upbeat “Youth knows no pain” packs some power, but it is the slow songs that really define her. The moody “I know places” with its lovely ending, and “Sadness is a blessing” with its Shangri-La’s beat. The almost a cappella closer “Silent my song” finishes the album with plenty of heartache. “You see pain like it is pleasure like a work of art…” The album is produced by Bjorn of Peter Bjorn and John. Lykke Li has an amazing voice and true vision to share. And she’s just getting started. A star is born!
Check out this stunning live clip of “I Know places” followed by the lusty “Get Some”

18] The Decemberists – “The king is dead” – The tree tops of Oregon [I’m guessing] and a bright sun is the cover art. Colin Meloy is a big fan of Americana music, and that’s the direction he takes with his band this time out. Rousing choruses, sweet pedal steel, and lonesome harmonica color these clean country folk tunes. Colin shines in cool songs like “Calamity Song” and Celtic flavored “Rox in the box.” We get a “January Hymn” as well as a “June Hymn” and two standouts: “Down by the water” and “This is why we fight.” Both of these stack up with the group’s best. Gillian Welch sings on a bunch, and Peter Buck plays on a few. This is a terrific direction for the group, and they respond with a fine sounding set. Like the early Band, this is top drawer.

19] Beady Eye – “Different gear, Still speeding” – “I’m going to stand the test of time, like Beatles and Stones…” With music this good I would have to agree. No surprise that 3 ex-Oasis members would release an album full of booming guitar and Lennon sounding vocals. What is a surprise is how much I love it. Starts right out with a guitar blast and “Four letter Word” gets it going, one of several fab Andy Bell tunes. He is clearly the strong songwriter. Liam is in excellent voice and the band kicks. “The Roller” is total Lennon and very cool. “Foe anyone” is sweet Mersey pop. And my favorite is “The Beat goes on” with its big chorus: “Someday all the world will sing my song…” Can’t get enough of that one.
This is a very impressive album and man does it sound cool in a car. I am so glad I gave it a go.

20] Brent Cash – How strange it seems” –
“I wish I were a song to sing a catchy tune that fills the earth and sky
Forever whistled and listened to ,even birds would want to give it a try…”
Like a lost pop masterpiece, Brent Cash releases this amazing album. A lavish set of 60’s sunshine pop with orchestrations played by close to thirty musicians. Jimmy Webb, Burt Bacharach, and The Free Design are some of the obvious influences. “I wish I were a song” acts as an overture and epilogue. “Just like today” showcases those sunshine pop vocals. “I just can’t look away” adds Brian Wilson to the mix and is almost 7 minutes of pop bliss. Songs about raindrops, stars, and my favorite theme, the art of songwriting. Written, produced and arranged by Brent, who is from Athens, Georgia, and a true dreamer. This is his second release, both on the fabulous Marina label [where else?]. So glad I found it.

Bubbling Under:
21] Destroyer – “Kaputt” – Cool and jazzy musical time warp.
22] My Morning Jacket – “Circuital” – A return to earlier sounds.
23] Death cab for Cutie – “Codes and keys”
24] Iron and Wine – “Kiss each other clean” – Leaning more towards pop, but still nice.
25] They Might be Giants – “Join Us” – Always a safe bet. Pure pop for fun people.
26] Paul Simon – “So beautiful or so what” – Still vital after all these years.
27] Peter Bjorn and John – “Gimme some” – Lots of guitars. One blast became the theme for “2 Broke Girls.”
28] Strokes – “Angles” – Speaking of guitars, there’s some impressive solos to go with Julian’s familiar singing.
29] Tristen – “Charlatans at the Garden Gate” – New pop discovery that was a Christmas gift from Nashville. Really cool!
30] Low – “C’Mon”

Recording of special merit: Brian Wilson – “In the key of Disney”
As he did with Gershwin, Brian and his current musical mates have turned to Disney. Doing old and new songs in his style turns out to be an inspired idea. Brian is in excellent voice and his band has a lot of fun here. Dig the Randy Newman tunes, my wife sings along to “Kiss the girl” [she knows the whole song], and songs from “Snow White” are just some highlights. My 2 faves are the final songs, “When you wish upon a star,” and “A dream is a wish your heart makes” with it’s pure Wilson coda. This is lots of fun.

Special mention: Rumer – Since her “Seasons of my soul” came out in 2010, I didn’t put it on the list. But it was this year that I discovered her, and what a discovery. She has a clear beautiful tone, and her music is heavily influenced by pop greats, like Carole King and Burt Bacharach. The album is a huge hit in England, and was released here as a result. She is so secure in her pop grasp that her next album is going to be a covers set. But it is her own compositions that took a hold of me. Songs like “Slow” and “Aretha” are wonderful. I love female vocalists, and Rumer is the best new one in a long time. The covers she has been doing on tour point to that next release being special. Just check her out performing a Bacharach classic with the Metropole Orchestra backing her. Fabulous!

Songs of the year:
1] Fleet Foxes – “Helplessness Blues”
2] Low Anthem – “Boeing 737”
3] Girls – “My Ma”
4] Okkervil River – “We need a myth”
5] Lana del Rey – “Video Games” One hit wonder? Maybe, but when this song broke it was something.
6] Wilco – “Born Alone”

Re-issue of note: The Bible- “Walking the Ghost back home-25th Anniversary Edition”
Terrific sounding master of Boo Hewerdine’s impressive early pop group, sounding  a bit like Steely Dan at times [that’s a good thing]. Finding such groups back then was pure magic. This stands the test of time. Still delights. The best part , this was my introduction to wonders of Boo . He really is quite good indeed.

I need to hear:
Elephant Micah, Hiss Golden Messenger, Lightships, Cults, Youth Lagoon, Tennis, Dawes, Jonathon Wilson, Anna Calvi, Caretaker, Tame Impala, Real Estate, Laura Marling, Allo Dalin’, Laura Gibson, Pepe Deluxe

Looking forward to: M. Ward, Shins, Beach House, Best Coast, Cotton Mather re-issue, Paul Weller, Rufus Wainwright, Loudon Wainwright, Magnetic Fields, Swan Dive [please], Eleni Mandell, Magnetic Fields, Kathleen Edwards, Craig Finn [of Hold Steady], David Myhr [ex-Merrymakers], Cleaners from Venus re-issues [anything from Martin Newell is worth hearing].The Move [one of the greatest bands ever] Live at the Fillmore 1969.

I can dream can’t I – New material from Prefab Sprout, Roddy Frame, Pearlfishers, and Gary Clark [of Danny Wilson}.

Shout outs:
David Mead – I wanted to re-mention his “25 Days to “Dudes” collection. If you enjoy his music, and the creative process as I do, his blog entries for each song is essential reading. Seek it out.
The Flaming Lips – Another wild year. They recorded a 6 hour song, a 24 hour song, and performed a New Year’s Eve show with Yoko Ono. Already in 2012 they performed with Jackson Browne at a Woody Guthrie tribute, and are recording with Nick Cave, Bon Iver, Kesha, Jim James, and Erykah Badu.
The Roots – For making Late night music on TV exciting.
Mojo Magazine – Where would I be without my monthly fix. The cd’s always have something worth hearing.
Matinee Records, Darla, and Kool Kat Music for keeping the Pop dream vital.

Hope one of those musical clips sparks an interest, and you add some new music to your life. Please let me know if that happens.
As always thank you to my wife for allowing this music freak in our home.

Warm regards. Keep on rocking in the free world.

Gene Good