Dirty Impound's 20 Favorite Albums of 2011

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Once again, we offer a hearty Takeshi Kitano style slap to anyone who says, “There’s no good music coming out anymore.” 2011 was a flood of great rock and the bigger concern was keeping up with it all. We gave at least cursory listens to 500-plus new albums this year, trimming down 50 stellar candidates to this final list, and we’re fully aware we still missed amazing new music. The mainstream remains what it is – an industry driven lapdog that designates winners for the most part – and yes, we spent time with most of the much-ballyhooed records that seem to be on nearly every Best of 2011 roundup. We just think this lot is better – it’s not a lot more complicated than that.

The primary criterion for Dirty Impound’s annual list is artists who honored and creatively worked in the ALBUM medium – not a random assortment of new songs, not 2-3 good singles surrounded by filler, not nearly complete visions. We search out the truffles in the mud because we know the best music can be easy to miss in the modern climate, and we pursue this aim with the fevered intensity of a very hungry hog. Music is too important and dear and almost-too-wonderful-for-words to do it any different. Rock is our church, our guiding star, our reason for getting up some days, and for myriad reasons these selections made the world seem better, brighter, more intense, beautiful, sad, meaningful and fun, or maybe just plain ‘more’ than it was before they existed.

Black Country Communion: 2

Yes, they sound like Led Zeppelin. That said, they sound like LED ZEPPELIN! Actually, an evolved Zep, the sound of what might have been had Bonzo lived filtered through the varied experiences – modern blues, Deep Purple, Dream Theater, Foreigner – of veteran pros Glenn Hughes (bass, vocals), Jason Bonham (drums), Derek Sherinian (keys) and Joe Bonamassa (guitar, vocals), who manhandle the same gruff, intense energies present in Zep, Thin Lizzy and the like into modern form. Nothing else quite like them right now. (original review)

A Taste of the Album: “Man In The Middle”

Centro-matic: Candidate Waltz

It’s not as if Will Johnson (songwriter, singer, multi-instrumentalist) – who some may know as the fifth touring member of Monsters of Folk – Scott Danbom (keyboards, violin, harmonies) Matt Pence (drummer, producer) and Mark Hedman (bass, guitar) haven’t made incredible records before, but Candidate Waltz adds hooks and refinements that make it their finest hour. While it will still take years to spelunk the crazy depths and poetic leaps of Johnson’s utterly unique lyrics, this one embraces the listener sonically from go and then proceeds to show how a traditional rock four-piece can make music that’s both comfortingly familiar and quite unique. The production sets this one apart in subtle yet highly tangible ways, the chitter-chatter of modernity working at the edges of some catchy-ass songs. It’s a goddamn shame they haven’t reached the same hipster, every-critic status as pals like My Morning Jacket and Drive-By Truckers but it ain’t for lack of quality in what they do.

A Taste of the Album: “Iso-Residue”

Colourmusic: My __ Is Pink

With this one these Oklahoma innovators snatched the torch from The Flaming Lips to carry weird rock into the 21st century. This is the band Animal Collective wishes they were. Colourmusic does all the crackly strangeness but makes sure the flutter & wow is attached to memorable tunes and haunting, just-out-of-reach words. Every last thing about My __ Is Pink is switched-on, animated like Frankenstein’s monster or some lab gene splicing experiment run amuck. A befuddling spray of sounds hits you when press play and doesn’t let up until the last hissing gasps. It’s exhilarating, a little scary, and altogether grand.

A Taste of the Album: “You For Leaving Me”

Dawes: Nothing Is Wrong

Without frills or trickery, Dawes reminds us how personal and potent meat-and-potatoes rock can be. This is four musicians singing and playing their hearts out, and if they dropped cold in the act they’d die happy. Nothing Is Wrong offers up vignettes full of hard earned understanding and sometimes painful honesty. All the comparisons to The Band, Jackson Browne, Eagles, et al. are apt, though they don’t really try to sound like any particular ancestor. Humanity’s tenderness and damaged truth show their face in these tunes filled with lovely melodies and wise-Everyman-ready lyrics. The album from 2011 most often reached for when all other music felt wrong or too much to take in, and never did it let my weary soul down.

A Taste of the Album: “Time Spent In Los Angeles”

Dumpstaphunk: Everybody Want Sum

There have been many contenders for the “next Sly & The Family Stone” but in their spirit, philosophy, talent and execution Dumpstaphunk may be the ones to finally snatch the title. What’s frequently forgotten about the Family Stone is how they were as much rock as they were funk-soul, a band fully capable of smoking most of the other big names at Woodstock. As anyone who’s ever played a festival with Dumpstaphunk knows, these New Orleans bred killers possess the same kind of muscle ‘n’ hustle. While they haven’t yet made their own There’s A Riot Goin’ On, this set punctures the party anthems with a sly inquiry into modern life in all its want and dumbness. Everybody wants some ass, some money, some new drug, etc. and most people are frenziedly grabbing what they can without a lot of thought for their fellow man. Dumpstaphunk calls folks out on that shit even as they raise a ruckus that demands movement, literal and figurative.

A Taste of the Album: “Everybody Want Sum”

Gang of Four: Content

Littered with deal makers, vacuous revelers and sheep simply waiting for slaughter, the latest from the band that made us love a man in a uniform in the 80s schools acts like Hot Chip and LCD Soundsystem about where agit-prop modern rock with a good groove came from. This seventh studio outing rivals their first two blazing albums, Entertainment! and Solid Gold, for sheer smarts and greasy sway. Only two original members remain, singer Jon King and guitarist Andy Gill, but they seem appropriately stirred up by the vacuity and casual nastiness of the new century, channeling their disgust into some of their slinkiest and most subversive work yet. (original review)

A Taste of the Album: “Who Am I?”

Iron and Wine: Kiss Each Other Clean

Kiss finds Sam Beam straying far from his comfortable, pastoral niche with a sound more suited to the gleam and clatter of big cities, modernity dripping off everything from the whirring, crisp production to the Tron-ed out cover art. Bluntly, this is as surprising and powerful an artistic reinvention as what Paul Simon accomplished with Graceland. Beam operates free of his reputation here, swearing eloquently amongst fizzling wires and smoking buildings. His ever-rich themes – God, redemption, temptation, love – continue to ping around his songs, which now seethe, scratch and howl under a neon moon. (original review)

A Taste of the Album: “Monkeys Uptown”

Ivan Julian: The Naked Flame

The jostle and unmistakable attitude of NYC permeates this long awaited solo debut from the Richard Hell and the Voidoids shredder and New York music production guru. What’s awesome is how it vibrates on the same frequency as Patti Smith, Television, The Ramones, etc. while still being achingly timely, an urgent cry from the boulevard of broken and breaking dreams that seeks connection and understanding as most of us try to stretch a dime into a dollar and wonder how so many things we thought solid and real have turned out to be smoke and mirrors. (original review)

A Taste of the Album: “The Waves”

Mastodon: The Hunter

Heavy rock had no finer band in 2011 than Mastodon. During their recent Warfield show in San Francisco it was decided amongst my trusted peanut gallery that these guys have surpassed Metallica as the premiere metal outfit, and this fifth studio effort cements this feeling as the boys show that they don’t need high concepts or sweeping, interconnected themes to shake one’s foundations. Producer Mike Elizondo (Eminem, Fiona Apple, 50 Cent) may have seemed like an odd choice initially but he’s brought a taut immediacy to Mastodon’s sound and helped them produce the thickest hard rock single of the year in “Curl of the Burl.” The choices made on The Hunter show a band willing to go wherever their muses take them, unafraid of stepping outside of accepted boundaries to keep their music lively and exciting. Stunning. (original review)

A Taste of the Album: “Curl of the Burl”

Megafaun: self-titled

Brothers Brad and Phil Cook and buddy Joe Westerlund make quiet magic together. Megafaun, particularly on this mission-statement-feeling album, chase down wonderment in a world more and more willing to concede that it’s over and done. More practically, Megafaun has sharpened their compositional edge considerably with this set, and while they still meander off-leash from time to time, it’s done in such an easy going, winning way that it fits even better than usual with their increasingly spot-on pop acumen. In a year where Megafaun buddy (and former bandmate in DeYarmond Edison) Justin Vernon was everywhere praised to high heaven for his latest Bon Iver album, these guys made a much better record that has much of the same glow and tenderness. Every element – singing, playing, songwriting, production – took a happy leap forward with this eponymous release, only fueling the sense that Megafaun is just now starting to reveal their best work. (original review)

A Taste of the Album: “Real Slow”

Nathan Moore: Dear Puppeteer

Simply put, Moore is one of the finest singer-songwriters of this generation, a modern equivalent to firebrands like Townes Van Zandt, Tom Rush, and kindred spirit (though rarely mentioned touchstone) Fred Neil. Dylan’s in there, too, but like all these folk-rock icons Moore hums uniquely, and this has never been more apparent than on Dear Puppeter. The songs and his infinitely human voice are the stars of this artfully spare album, co-produced by gifted up & coming singer-songwriter Bryan Elijah Smith, a multi-instrumentalist with an astute ear for bringing out the best in Moore. Dear Puppeteer showcases Nathan at his bittersweet best, a wooden boy in search of incarnation and understanding willing to engage with his maker in a most brave manner. (Baby You’re A Star article)

A Taste of the Album: “Dear Puppeteer”

North Mississippi Allstars: Keys To The Kingdom

What might have been a funereal experience inspired by the death of master producer/musician Jim Dickinson, father to two-thirds of NMAS, turns out to be one of the cleverest, funniest, and ultimately moving song cycles about mortality and what the living do with this inescapable reality that anyone has produced in 20 years or more. All the classic elements of Southern music are here, misbehaved blues and dirt field country French kissing nasty rock and homespun gospel. The trio has never played better or had an overall finer set of tunes to serve. Anyone who’s lost someone dear to them will find succor here. (original review)

A Taste of the Album: “Hear The Hills”

Opeth: Heritage

Easily the bravest, boldest album in this Swedish’s band’s 21-year history. With Heritage, mastermind Mikael Åkerfeldt all but jettisoned the metal underpinnings that have made Opeth a worldwide beloved of the black t-shirt crowd. What we get instead is a beguiling, hugely melodic album that’s much more Traffic than Testament. Åkerfeldt finally releases the songbird that’s been nesting in his throat for years, and the songs themselves are complicated yet swiftly engaging journeys full of pastoral splashes of flute and acoustic guitar. There’s a lovely tribute to Dio, some Satie-esque piano, and the whole thing is a Technicolor experience for one’s ears – engineer Janne Hansson (The Hellacopters, Robyn, Peter Bjorn and John) and mixer Steven Wilson (Porcupine Tree) have outdone themselves. There’s no telling where Opeth will go from here, and isn’t that the most exciting thing a band heading into their third decade could offer true fans?

A Taste of the Album: “The Devil’s Orchard”

Red Fang: Murder The Mountains

Red Fang stir a non-cerebral reaction, a physical urge to crawl inside their heavy, heavy monster sound and writhe around a bit. What their sophomore album does is add some brain candy to these Portland head-bangers’ recipe. Producer Chris Funk (The Decemberists) focuses their music into a chest slamming, undeniable whomp – vintage Sabbath definitely comes to mind – and the playing and songwriting jumps up to the occasion in kind. As much of a blast as their self-titled debut was this is the one where Red Fang showed their a major contender for hard rock’s top tier, grabbing the attention of giants like Mastodon and Motorhead, who both had the band open major tours this year. While it’s patently obvious that this quartet is “all in” in their live performances, Murder The Mountains brought that vibe into the studio for the next step forward for a band that’s only moving onward and upward at a quick step.

A Taste of the Album: “Wires”

Rival Sons: Pressure & Time

If you need concrete proof that the mainstream rock establishment has their heads up their butts it’s right here in the general absence of coverage of this stunning Los Angeles quartet’s sophomore joint. No Rolling Stone rave, no regular rotation next to the Bad Company and Rolling Stones staples on radio that they’d handily hold their own against, no Letterman or Leno appearances, no VH1 Countdown omnipresence – too bad because these cats have ALL the ingredients that spell a new classic in the making. No nostalgia act, Rival Sons wields the same mountaintop storming mojo as their famous forefathers with a youthful, modern feel, a bunch of very talented lads anxious to flip your skirt up and show you how the West was won. (original review)

A Taste of the Album: “Pressure and Time”

Rose Hill Drive: Americana

Boulder, CO’s finest trio grew to a quartet with this intensely pleasurable third album, and the lot of them takes a series of wicked, winding twists on their way to being a modern day Stooges – unruly, wiry, proudly seditious and most certainly salacious. Just the right amount of mess infiltrates their ceaselessly tough sound along with two or three generous scoops of strangeness on Americana. Rock ‘n’ roll has become too polite and codified for its own good, and Rose Hill Drive rejects all that, giving madness a reach-around and dancing in dresses while growing out moustaches any 70s drug dealer would have been mighty proud to sport. Weird and wonderful stuff.

A Taste of the Album: “Telepathic”

Luther Russell: The Invisible Audience

While folks ran around hooting about the brilliance of Wilco and Ryan Adams’ latests, this Los Angeles-based musical lifer released a double album better than either of these much-touted critic’s darlings. Same basic ingredients – i.e. classic song structures with sweet singing, nice arrangements, good musicianship, and lyrics that bite into life with gusto – and yet Russell, mostly working solo, conjures up a 25-track journey that’s just plain more satisfying, grounded and enjoyable than his more famous peers. Russell has been lobbing out good work for decades but this self-described “glimpse into the jukebox of my psyche” bears the fruit of all his hours on club stages and hunkering down to create astute, bedroom intimate writing and recording, producing an artist that recalls greats like Fleetwood Mac, Badfinger’s Pete Ham and Elliott Smith in his depth, sensitivity and imagination.

A Taste of the Album: “Ain’t Frightening Me”

Paul Simon: So Beautiful So What

Melding the best elements of his working-musician-wise One Trick Pony period with the globe-trotting tendencies he’s exhibited since the 80s, Simon produced his most enjoyable, nuanced slab since Graceland. Darkness winds through these expertly sculpted tunes, which is only appropriate in these apocalyptic-feeling days, wondering aloud, “Will there be a happy ending? Maybe yes, maybe not,” while still offering up more laughs than may be polite given the subject matter. His lifelong obsessions – mortality and human fragility, complex rhythms, border shattering instrument combinations, gospel for the skeptical – are all in place but wielded with a subtle wisdom and dexterous touch that’s jaw-dropping. Face it, most musicians are simply outclassed by Simon, and if you’ve forgotten this fact So Beautiful So What will bring it home with the sudden thwack of an arrow striking a bull’s-eye.

A Taste of the Album: “Love Is Eternal Sacred Light”

Southeast Engine: Canary

Much like Centro-matic, Ohio’s Southeast Engine are contemporary titans amongst modern rock pigmies. Seriously, toss on this ambitious, hugely engaging album and tell me honestly if it doesn’t beat the living crap out of most of the omnipresent music press darlings. There’s so much heart, intelligence, and just plain interesting musical stuff happening at every turn that one can’t absorb it all in single sittings. God and the Devil wrangle in Southeast Engine’s work, and all bets are off much of the time about who’s gonna walk out of the ring and who’s gonna get carried. Good usually wins but these guys know what a wicked, selfish, dumb world it is, and they give it to one straight. This set looses canaries into the coal mines of 2011 America, finding lines of connection with the Great Depression, Appalachian traditional music and other lofty notions, all brought down to an embracing common man perspective. Their work – in feel and content – is an uplifting boon to those eking out a living in fields and work houses where humanity is stolen and stomped down.

A Taste of the Album: “Curse of Canaanville”

White Denim: D

The third official studio long-player from this pleasantly possessed Austin band is simply stunning. D embodies both intense bravado and all the root level quality one could want. Hyper-gifted forefathers like Talking Heads and Ween float like a fog in their music, but once it clears one realizes that White Denim isn’t a faker, they’re a maker and this sound only feels familiar because it has the same abundant energy and flowing creativity. Some of the time signatures and turn-arounds on D are kinda ludicrous, but this is no jazzbo, cerebral skill contest. The songs are the core, and each is memorable in its own way, a moment one revisits to be charmed and stimulated by with surefire reliability. Think the winding, brawny flair of early Yes stripped of its cosmic goofiness and you’re moving in the right direction, but White Denim is so multilayered and eager to engage with pretty much everything that they’re steadfastly creating a catalogue all their own. D is their best yet, but also just a harbinger of amazing things to come.

A Taste of the Album: “Street Joy”

4 thoughts on “20 Favorite Albums of 2011

  1. Nice list! I haven’t made mine yet, but I’ll tell you that mine will include these:
    – Givers = “In Light”
    – Young the Giant = self-titled
    – Ryan Adams = “Ashes & Fire”

    + several of those you’ve got here.

  2. I dig that Colourmusic record, but your statement about Animal Collective is laughable. Heard one of their albums a couple times, have you? Then again, it makes sense if Flaming Lips are your standard-bearer. It’s definitely one of those years where consensus is tough to find, mainly ’cause there weren’t many superb records, but the White Denim album is definitely a top-tenner.

    The rest of the albums on this list that I’ve heard: meh. Except for the Paul Simon, which is awesome, and the Black Country Communion, which is godawful.

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