Being There

Ruminations on Music, Film and Culture


Best Albums of 2011

Adam & Violet Miller at Amoeba Records, San Francisco (June 2011)

In January, my wife Cari and I welcomed a daughter, Violet. In the months since, some of my passions – writing being one of them – have fallen by the wayside. Slowly, I am getting back into it but in the case of other things, like going out to shows and movies, we simply have to curb our outings knowing that a babysitter is now part of the equation.

That’s not to say we haven’t been to some great concerts this year. On my birthday I was treated to Paul Simon, who was touring in support of his fantastic So Beautiful Or So What. At the same venue, Massey Hall, we recently saw Wilco and their iconic support act, Nick Lowe.

On the feature film front, Cari and I remained in attendance at the Toronto International Film Festival, taking in the latest offerings from Morgan Spurlock, Sarah Polley and Ian Fitzgibbon. We also had some entertaining outings to the cinema to see Bridesmaids, 50/50, The Muppets and Young Adult, all great films in very different ways. We also caught up on the home video front with Horrible Bosses.

So what am I getting at? Despite having to pare down my other passions, staying up-to-date with recorded music over the past year did not prove a challenge in the slightest. The albums on the below list were my soundtrack while my wife and I first got acquainted with our daughter, my morning and afternoon commutes when I returned to work, playtime with Violet, road trips and vacations. I may not have had the time to write about any of these albums since The King Is Dead in February, but make no mistake – I am still hopelessly devoted to music and albums in particular.

So, consider this list a celebration of the album. This list finds perennial favourites like Wilco and Paul Simon meeting new discoveries like Dawes and The Belle Brigade. Music is the passion that ignites me, and I can’t wait to share it with my daughter.

Violet discovers her dad's vinyl (October 2011)

So without further ado, here’s my list of the Best Albums of 2011.

10. Middle Brother by Middle Brother

Before I discovered the incredible band that is Dawes (you’ll read more about them later), I came about Middle Brother. Having played their first show at SXSW in 2010 (with the name MG&V), Middle Brother took about a year to release their self-titled debut. A supergroup of sorts – featuring John McCauley of Deer Tick, Matt Vasquez of Delta Spirit and Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes – Middle Brother follows the lineage of albums like Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1 and Monsters of Folk in its ability to present each artist’s individuality while allowing them to bring something new to the table. Even “Million Dollar Bill,” which would later turn up on Dawes’ Nothing Is Wrong album, takes on a completely different meaning when its lyrical aspirations are delivered by not one but three different voices. Key cuts: “Portland,” “”Someday,” “Million Dollar Bill”

9. So Beautiful Or So What by Paul Simon

Leading up to the release of Paul Simon’s 10th studio album, it was hard to ignore the buzz. Paul Simon’s Time Out Of Mind? His best since Graceland? Thankfully in this case, the hype was legitimate. Sure, it’s no Graceland. It’s no Paul Simon or There Goes Rhymin’ Simon either. But it’s still a great album, full of the mix of balladry and rhythm we’ve come to expect from one of America’s greatest songwriters. And you’ve got to give props to Simon for starting an album released in spring with a song called “Getting Ready for Christmas Day.” Key cuts: “Getting Ready for Christmas Day,” “The Afterlife,” “Rewrite”

8. The Belle Brigade by The Belle Brigade

Who are these kids? The “fun fact” trivia answer is two of the grandchildren of Academy Award winning composer John Williams. But the real answer is the incredibly talented brother and sister team of Ethan and Barbara Gruska. Whether it’s their strong musical lineage or just an ear for the perfect pop song, The Belle Brigade have delivered one of the strongest debut albums in years. Echoes of Fleetwood Mac and Simon & Garfunkel permeate throughout this delightful record. Speaking of Paul Simon, close your eyes during “Sweet Louise” and you’ll swear you were listening to his debut record and not theirs. Key cuts: “Sweet Louise,” “Losers,” “Fasten You To Me.”

7. Rave On Buddy Holly by Various Artists

Anybody who knows enough about my taste in music knows that I have a soft spot for cover tunes. The only problem is that too many artists either try to hard too deliver note-perfect renditions of classic songs or take the alternate approach of changing the melody and tempo to the point that the song is no longer recognizable. Rave On Buddy Holly does a good job at striking a balance between loyalty and liberty, and the artists on hand for the festivities are top-notch: The Black Keys (“Dearest”), Florence & The Machine (“Not Fade Away”) and Cee-Lo (“(You’re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care”) to name just a few. There are only a few duds, including Paul McCartney’s incredibly over-the-top and borderline offensive version of “It’s So Easy.” And why do they keep putting Kid Rock on tribute albums? The rest of the tracks more than make up for these lesser cuts, and the power of iTunes means you’ll never actually have to listen to them if you choose not to. Key cuts: “Everyday” (Fiona Apple & Jon Brion), “I’m Gonna Love You Too” (Jenny O.), “Changing All Those Changes” (Nick Lowe)

6. Barton Hollow by The Civil Wars

One of the best bands to hit the scene in 2011 are The Civil Wars. I’m not sure whether it was a conscious effort or not, but it’s almost as if the sound Alison Krauss and Robert Plant crafted with T-Bone Burnett on their Raising Sand album sparked an entire musical genre. Elsewhere, it seems like influence is owed to The Swell Season. Barton Hollow is a truly stunning album; folksy, countryish but mainstream enough to potentially attract some mass appeal. Joy Williams and John Paul White have immediately proven themselves to be capable singers, songwriters and performers. I’m looking forward to hearing more from them. Key cuts: “Poison & Wine,” “Barton Hollow,” “Falling”

5. How To Become Clairvoyant by Robbie Robertson

Robbie Robertson is known best for his tenure as leader of The Band and writer of most of their songs (including “The Weight,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and “Up On Cripple Creek”). As a solo artist, Robertson has released just five albums. Unlike his bandmates Levon Helm, Rick Danko and Richard Manuel, Robertson was never known as a lead singer. His voice is raspy and sounds limited at times. He’s also mostly given up rootsy Americana for something a bit more atmospheric (think Daniel Lanois). But that hasn’t stopped him from trying to push the musical envelope. With How To Become Clairvoyant, Robertson has some pretty high-profile help in Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood, Trent Reznor and Tom Morello. If that list of musicians intrigues you, so will the album. Key cuts: “When The Night Was Young,” “He Don’t Live Here No More,” “Fear of Falling”

4. Helplessness Blues by Fleet Foxes

Fleet Foxes became critical darlings with their self-titled debut in 2008, and anyone who saw them live could attest that their strong vocal harmonies were just as strong in person as they were in the studio. Helplessness Blues is more than a worthwhile sophomore effort. It doesn’t stray very hard from the formula, but has some truly wonderful songs that are almost hypnotic at times. Key cuts: “Bedouin Dress,” “Sim Sala Bim,” “Helplessness Blues”

3. The Whole Love by Wilco

I know, a Wilco album close to the top of this list is predictable for Being There and for me in particular, but for my money The Whole Love is the their best since Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. It seems that the band has finally found the perfect balance between the avant garde, pop and rock ‘n’ roll. Some Wilco purists are a bit critical of the tendency of throwing loud guitars and white noise into the mix, but they seem to have scaled that down – at least in the studio. Most of the time. Key cuts: “Dawned On Me,” “Born Alone,” “One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend)”

2. Nothing Is Wrong by Dawes

Dawes have built up their street cred by backing Jackson Browne and Robbie Robertson on recent live tours and television appearances, but don’t be mistaken – this Los Angeles-based quartet can hold their own against the veterans. Their 2009 debut North Hills attracted quiet acclaim before the 2011 release of Nothing Is Wrong. The songs are fresh and performed well by a competent group of young musicians. As far as I’m concerned, this is the young band to watch. Key cuts: “Time Spent In Los Angeles,” “Coming Back To A Man,” “Fire Away”

1. The King Is Dead by The Decemberists

The Decemberists follow the rich tradition of artists like Neil Young and Beck by offering one album that is about as far removed from its predecessor as possible. In a recent interview, frontman Colin Meloy called 2009’s The Hazards Of Love his favourite album, but critical reception was mixed at best. 2011’s The King Is Dead trades the dense instrumentation and heavy-handed conceptual songwriting of Hazards in for an extremely rootsy blend of songs. The results are immensely satisfying, in large part because of just how simple and catchy the music is. The lyrics are still very much Meloy’s, but the sound is fresh and unlike anything The Decemberists have done before. Cameos from Gillian Welch, David Rawlings and R.E.M.’s Peter Buck work to enhance these songs even further. Key cuts: “Rox in the Box,” “Down By The Water,” “This Is Why We Fight”

Honourable Mentions:

The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams by Various Artists
The Road From Memphis by Booker T. Jones
Volume 2: High and Inside by The Baseball Project
The Harrow & The Harvest by Gillian Welch

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