Once again, it comes down to this. I’ve spent days pouring over the hundreds of reviews I’ve written in the last year (I wish I were kidding), distilled it down to a list of 71, then pared it down to this. As Gonzo Online gives me more elbow room than a traditional print rag, I’ve decided on a top 15 list.
What follows is a list of the albums I’ve heard in the last year and enjoyed the most. This list, as you will shortly see, has not been influenced by popular trends or sales figures. You will find no rap, hip-hop or urban albums anywhere here. Oh sure, the record companies sent me dozens of such releases hoping for reviews, but life is too short (especially in my family) writing about things I don’t like. If that makes me uncool then fine, I can live with that.
These are the 15 albums I enjoyed most in 2011, plus a number of discs and DVD’s that didn’t make the list yet still deserve recognition. So read on, agree, disagree, or argue… and enjoy!
THE BEST ALBUMS OF 2011
#15: SMALL SOURCE OF COMFORT Bruce Cockburn (True North)
Bruce’s first album in 5 years returns him to what many prefer- a socially conscious folkie. “Comfort” is insightful lyrics and great playing, one of the best things he’s done since 96’s “The Charity Of Night”- this will stick with you for quite a while.
TOP TRACKS: “Call Me Rose”, “Bohemian 3-Step”, “Lois On The Autobahn”, “Each One Lost”
#14: BALLS OUT Steel Panther (Universal)
“Balls Out” is one of the best sounding rock albums I’ve heard in a long time- filthy lyrics, great riffs, and a rhythm section tighter than a cat’s vagina. All smart-assy critical mumbo jumbo aside, “Balls Out” is simply one hell of a rock & roll record.
TOP TRACKS: “Gold Digging Whore”, “Supersonic Sex Machine”, “Just Like Tiger Woods”
#13: TO BEHOLD Monkey Junk (Stony Plain)
The second album from this Ottawa based blues trio proves that these Maple Blues Award winners are the real deal. They describe their sound as “swamp rhythm & blues, soul boogie and bedroom funk” and after a spin through “To Behold”, I can say they ain’t lyin’.
TOP TRACKS: “Let Her Down”, “Mother’s Crying”, “Right Now”
#12: BETTER DAYS Dolly Parton (Dolly/ Warner)
Say what you want about Dolly but she’s a great songwriter, surrounded here by great musicians. One of the reasons her songs connect so consistently is she sings about things we’re all thinking about. I haven’t liked everything she’s done but track for track, this is just a great record.
TOP TRACKS: “In The Meantime”, “Shining Like The Sun”, “Together You & I”
#11: LET YOUR HAIR DOWN The Steve Miller Band (Space Cowboy)
The Steve Miller Band’s 2nd album in about a year is a blues feast. If you liked last year’s “Bingo!” you’re going to LOVE this. Recorded during the same sessions as “Bingo!” but if anything it’s the stronger album, and I severely dug last year’s effort. Worth the wait!
TOP TRACKS: “Sweet Home Chicago”, “It Hurts Me Too”, “Snatch It Back”
#10: WASTING LIGHT The Foo Fighters (Roswell. RCA)
Color me pleasantly surprised to be openly enjoying this, their 7th album, an old school rock record in more ways than one. “Wasting Light” is hard driving and has been rightly praised as arguably the strongest and most cohesive effort of the band’s 15 year career.
TOP TRACKS: “Bridge Burning”, “Rope”, Miss The Misery”
#09: STILL BLUE Bill Johnson (Independent)
This follow up to 2007’s magnificent “Work Songs” was released in 2010, and is supple and magnificent, likely his breakout album. I’d put him in the same league as Duke Robillard, he’s that good. If you’re into the blues but don’t yet know Johnson, visit CD Baby.
TOP TRACKS; “Half The Man”, “Worked To Death”, “300 Pounds Of Heavenly Joy”
#08: TIM BASTMEYER Tim Bastmeyer (Grassfire)
This is the follow-up to 2010’s sparse, solo acoustic and darkly beautiful Graveyard. Bastmeyer has come up with another winner. Despite the fact that this self-titled album is a band record, the songs are simple and spaciously arranged. It’s elegant, sparse and intimate, a fine blues record
TOP TRACKS: “Hell Of A Ride”, “Cancer Blues”, “What ever Happened To?”.
#07: SO BEAUTIFUL OR SO WHAT Paul Simon (Universal)
Like the best of Simon’s music, “So Beautiful or So What” makes you certain about some things and question the truth of what you really believe. I find this a deeply satisfying listen and am thoroughly enjoying the return trips required to unlock everything it has to offer.
TOP TRACKS: “Love Is Eternal Sacred Light”, “Dazzling Blue”, “Questions For Angels”
#06: ALLIGATOR RECORDS 40TH ANNIVERSARY COLLECTION Various Artists (Alligator)
The most celebrated of independent blues labels celebrates their 40th birthday with a double disc compilation that really kicks out the jams. It’s the hottest blues set I’ve heard since I started writing album reviews in 1990.
TOP TRACKS: “I’m A Woman” (Koko Taylor), “Mojo Boogie” (Johnny Winter), “It’s My Own Tears” (Shemekia Copeland), “Speak No Evil” (Tinsley Ellis)
#05: SOUL BENDER David Gogo (Cordova Bay)
Tape down the breakables and for God’s sake strap yourselves down, this is one blues album that will set the night on fire. It’s a mix of solid originals and interesting covers as he takes on songs by Robin Trower, The Doors, Wilson Pickett and Michael Jackson- GREAT stuff!
TOP TRACKS: “Time Is Killing Me”, “Please Find My Baby”, “The Way You Make Me Feel”
#04: WORLD WIDE REBEL SONGS Tom Morello: The Nightwatchman (Universal)
It’s the 4th release for the alter-ego of the Rage Against The Machine and Audioslave guitarist, a Bob Dylan on steroids, if you will… and it’s excellent. Morello describes his music as The Nightwatchman as “half Dylan and half Hendrix”, and that feels close to the truth of it.
TOP TRACKS: “Black Spartacus Heart Attack Machine”, “Speak And Make Lightning”, “Stray Bullets”
#03: DYSTOPIA Iced Earth (Century Media)
Jon Shaffer and Iced Earth have meticulously constructed a stone cold masterpiece. One word to describe the sound and feel of “Dystopia” is ‘crushing’. At a time when people download single tracks, Ice Earth demand and deserve your full attention for an hour
TOP TRACKS: “End Of Innocence”, “Anguish Of Youth”, “Dark City”
#02: WELCOME 2 MY NIGHTMARE Alice Cooper (Universal)
Sequels- movies, books, even music- are usually queasy business- but Alice Cooper’s new album is hands down one of the best records I’ve heard all year. It combines modern pop elements with classic rock muscle along with occasional melodic reminders of the original, Alice’s typical cheek, and great songwriting. This isn’t a good album, it’s a GREAT one
TOP TRACKS: “A Runaway Train”, “I’ll Bite Your Face Off”, “What Baby Wants”, “Disco Bloodbath Boogie Fever”
#01: BRIGHTER DAYS JJ Grey & Mofro (Alligator)
These Florida bluesmen mix swamp rock, raw funk, blistering blues and deep soul in a moving blend that must be heard to be believed. As good as this band is in the studio- and they are very good indeed- they are devastating live. The accompanying DVD is live footage mixed with band interviews and insightful commentary, more ‘rockumentary’ than straight concert film. This album has affected me deeply and continues to do so, more than a dozen listens and views later
TOP TRACKS: DVD: “Slow, Hot & Sweaty” CD: “Lochloosa”, title track, “Country Ghetto”,
BEST BLUES ALBUM:
ROOTS Johnny Winter (Megaforce/ Sony)
This far into music career, Winter goes back to visit some of the songs that inspired him as a young Texan to become the blues guitar God he is now. With help from some good friends, Johnny has turned out his finest album in a couple of decades.
TOP TRACKS: “Further On Up The Road” (with Jimmy Vivino), “Last Night” (with John Popper), “Dust My Broom” (with Derek Trucks)
BEST INDEPENDENT ALBUM
MADE FOR DARKER THINGS The British Columbians (Independent)
“Made For Darker Things” is the band’s second release, a grinding mix of The Cult with a touch of Zeppelin, maybe a hint of early Stones too, with the soul of Muddy Waters. This is good- maybe even great blues.
TOP TRACKS: “Evil In The Pines”, “A Fine Mess”, “Coldest Winter”
BEST TRIBUTE ALBUM:
TAKE IT OR LEAVE IT: ATRIBUTE TO THE QUEENS OF NOISE Various (Main Man)
Over the years, this label has put out a pile of tribute albums- that’s their thing, mostly- but with this long overdue tribute to The Runaways they’ve hit one out of the park.
TOP TRACKS: “Queens of Noise” (The Donnas), “I Love Playing With Fire” (The Binges), “Saturday Night Special” (Care Bears On Fire & Earl Slick), “Born To Be Bad” (Toilet Boys)
BEST HOLIDAY ALBUM
SONGS OF DECEMBER Paul Anka (Universal)
Not too many of the old crooners left these days, perhaps that’s why I enjoy this lush collection of Christmas classics as much as I do. It’s almost melancholy, as if Anka is remembering holidays past with some regret. Buble’s Christmas record is good- this one is better..
TOP TRACKS: “I’ll Be Home For Christmas”, “Christmas Song”, “It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year”.
THE CENTENNIAL COLLECTION Robert Johnson (Columbia Legacy)
Johnson’s music has been issued on CD before, but the sound quality was rarely better than the acetates of the 30’s. “The Centennial Collection” gathers every version of his songs known to exist on this 2 disc set. Virtually gone is the background hiss, crackles and pops that we’ve had to put up with on previous issues, faults that plague virtually all recordings of the period. He is the single most influential figure in blues history, and this is ESSENTIAL listening.
Hot Spots: “Terraplane Blues” (his biggest hit while alive), “Crossroad Blues”, “Hellhound On My Trail”, “Drunken Hearted Man
MOST INTRIGUING ALBUM
THE LOST NOTEBOOKS OF HANK WILLIAMS Various Artists (Sony)
Hank Williams left behind several notebooks with fully written songs, partial lyrics, and song ideas- this is an attempt to make sense of that unfinished work. I’m not surprised, given the artists involved, that it REALLY works. Performances are faithful and spirited.
TOP TRACKS: “Ther Sermon on The Mount” (Merle Haggard), “I’m So Happy I Found You” (Lucinda Williams), “You’ll Never be Mine” (Levon Helm)
BEST DELUXE ALBUM REISSUE
SOME GIRLS The Rolling Stones (Universal)
Following the success of the similarly treated “Exile On Main St.” The Stones have re-mastered their biggest selling album 33 years after that fact, and thrown an embarrassment of riches in by way of 12 (!!) bonus tracks to make the package irresistible. I advise trading up to this deluxe reissue. Bonuses are usually demoes or weaker tracks but these, with some new overdubs, amount to get a 2nd album- just as good or better- thrown in for free.
TOP TRACKS: Shattered, Beast Of Burden, The Girl With Far Away Eyes, Keep Up Blues,
BEST LIVE ALBUM:
“Live At Montreux 1973” Canned Heat (Eagle)
Canned Heat is a legendary band that started in California in 1965. They’re probably best known for the hit “On The Road Again”, but they were a blues band of surprising depth. This disc, documenting their sole appearance at the legendary festival, was recorded (according to the liner notes) a couple of years after the passing of founding member Alan Wilson. Standing in his place for this show, for 4 songs at least, was the legendary Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown”. Few live blues records can match the firepower in these grooves.
Sweet Spots: “Please Mr. Nixon”, “Shake ‘N’ Boogie”, “On The Road Again”
BEST ROCK DOCUMENTARY
“Look Through Any Window: 1963-1975” The Hollies (Eagle Vision)
Wow- I’ve seen a lot of rock documentaries in my day but this is one of the best, most enjoyable I’ve ever seen. I remember the big hits on the radio; “Carrie Anne”, “Long Cool Woman in A Black Dress” and so on, and acknowledge their importance to The British Invasion, but having now seen the band from the inside, I like them even more. Over the course of two hours here we are treated to clips from 22 television appearances (the sole bonus feature here, and it’s a good one, is the option to watch these TV appearances in their entirety), vintage interviews from the 60’s while their career was sky rocketing, and current interview sessions with the band members, who all look back fondly. This has increased my appreciation for the band ten-fold.