Last year I did mini-reviews of every album I listened to in 2010. However, given that I listened to over fifty new albums which were released in 2011, I figured I'd just make a list of the 25 best. All of these are good albums, but only three achieve greatness. It was a solid year, but light on the eventual classics.
25. Crooked Still - Friends of Fall
Just an EP, but a solid one. Aiofe O'Donovan was involved in three of the albums on this list, but this is the one that is carried by her delicate, whispery voice. Can't wait to see her open for Punch Brothers in March.
24. Noam Pikelny - Beat the Devil and Carry a Rail
Punch Brothers banjo player Noam Pikelny made this record in October, which I bought mostly because of his hilarious pitch in the Punch Brothers email newsletter urging me to do so. Fairly standard, but expertly arranged, bluegrass fare, and all instrumental besides a contribution from Aiofe O'Donovan.
23. REM - Collapse Into Now
This was the first REM record I listened to in some time, and I enjoyed it quite a bit. And truthfully, I'd probably move it up if I got around to listening to it more.
22. Opeth - Heritage
Mikael Akerfeldt's music keeps getting more and more complex, but for some reason, it doesn't seem to have quite the impact it had back in the Blackwater Park days. The loud/soft dynamic that made them so awesome as recently as their previous album is missing here. Even so, it's a very good progressive rock album.
21. Chris Thile & Michael Daves - Sleep With One Eye Open
Never before had I thought anyone could do so much with just a guitar, a mandolin, and two voices. This album is not groundbreaking, but very, very fun.
20. The Head And The Heart (self-titled)
These indie-folksters had a fair amount of attention there for awhile. Solid, melodic folk balladry with a pleasant piano-heavy sound, but may not survive the test of time.
19. Dawes - Nothing Is Wrong
2011 will go down in my personal history as the year I fell in love with alternative country. This alternative country/rock band from LA made a solid record here with a bit of a jangly pop feel.
18. Paul Simon - So Beautiful Or So What
Paul Simon always writes solid music, but this is said to be his best since Graceland. Admittedly, I haven't heard any of his work during that stretch, so it's true by default.
17. Greensky Bluegrass - Handguns
This is a recent find for me, a result of their being revealed as part of the 2012 Telluride Bluegrass lineup. Starts out OK, and gets better and better as the album progresses, and ends with a solid 12 minute jam.
16. The Jayhawks - Mockingbird Time
These guys were pioneers in the alternative country genre, and they're back together, and stronger than ever.... Well, maybe not ever, but at least since Tomorrow The Green Grass. It's almost criminal how good they are at vocal harmony.
15. Old 97's - The Grand Theater, Vol. 2
Confession: I haven't even listened to Vol. 1. That's weird, right? Either way, more solid alternative country from another influential alternative country band. This one seems, to me, to be a little more artful than the two above similarly-styled albums.
14. Dead Man Winter - Bright Lights
What do you get when you take much of Trampled By Turtles, and add drums and electric guitars? You get Trampled By Turtles-flavored alternative country. A few of the songs have a nice TBT flavor (and one doubles as an actual TBT song), and a few others are closer to being alternative rock. At any rate, they're better as a progressive bluegrass band, but this is still thoroughly enjoyable.
13. Blackfield - Welcome to My DNA
I was really tentative about this album before it came out, but it turns out that everything Steven Wilson touches sounds good (this is one of three albums on this list with which he was involved). This time around, Aviv Geffen was almost solely responsible for writing the songs, but what makes this record great is not the writing, but the recording and production. Wilson did his usual phenomenal work here.
12. The Dodos - No Color
This progressive indie-folk duo has a sound that is all their own. It is fairly minimalist, but they use acoustic guitars in a way I've never heard them used before. For their minimalist instrumentation, their songs can actually be somewhat complex. I like it.
11. David Lowery - The Palace Guards
It's really difficult to pinpoint what exactly Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven frontman David Lowery's first solo album is... Is it art rock? Whatever it is, it's Lowery's best work since Greenland, with more mellow and introspective music than what we get from his bands. Well, maybe "All Those Girls Meant Nothing To Me" isn't introspective, but that's the exception...
10. The Roots - Undun
I always kind of respected the Roots, but I was never one to sing their praises. But this album is good. One of the most intelligently-penned rap albums I've heard. It's nice to have rappers who actually have something interesting to say, which hasn't been mainstream since Public Enemy (maybe an exaggeration...).
9. Bela Fleck and the Flecktones - Rocket Science
For this album, the Flecktones reformed their original incarnation, with piano player Howard Levy. The result is one of their best albums ever. These guys are one of the most entertaining instrumental bands around, and they're doing their part to keep jazz music alive.
8. Pain of Salvation - Road Salt Two
It's not as good as Road Salt One, but it still has enough stellar tracks to make it a worthy record. My favorite is the mandolin tune "Healing Now." Gildenlow is doing a great job alienating his prog-metal fanbase, but I always respect a musician who makes music for music's sake.
7. Steve Earle - I'll Never Get Out Of This World Alive
This is my pick for country record of the year. Earle's country-folk style comes across as incredibly authentic, and he actually has something to say here. Steve Earle is an excellent songwriter and a man with something to say, and that combination often results in timeless works.
6. Okkervil River - I Am Very Far
Okkervil River have managed a very long string of good-but-not-spectacular records. It's nice when a rock band has this much instrumental depth. It gives them a sound much richer than most bands around, and Will Sheff's overly narrative vocal style adds some valuable uniqueness.
5. Laura Marling - A Creature I Don't Know
This album is like crack. I get one of the catchy melodies from this record stuck in my head, and I absolutely must listen to it. The usual culprits are "Sophia" and "Salinas." Her writing is accomplished and intelligent, and her sexy British accent certainly doesn't hurt her cause.
4. The Decemberists - The King Is Dead
For half the year, this occupied my top spot. This is not The Decemberists' most interesting album, but it is very accessible and likable. It is well documented that they're paying homage to REM here, but they do it in a way that maintains their own unique style.
3. Yo Yo Ma, Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer and Chris Thile - The Goat Rodeo Sessions
What happens when you take three of the best bluegrass musicians in the world, and add the world's most accomplished cellist? This. You get this. This is the most recent of the three great records to come out this year, and it is simply thoroughly enjoyable and impressively performed progressive bluegrass instrumentals, with two tracks with vocals by Chris Thile and Aiofe O'Donovan. I constantly have the urge to listen to this disc.
2. Abigail Washburn - City of Refuge
This album came out in January, but never struck me until I saw her perform the material live in Telluride. After that I was hooked. This record is sheer beauty and texture, and her voice fits like a glove.
1. Steven Wilson - Grace For Drowning
Steven Wilson has spent the past few years remixing old King Crimson records, and here it finally manifests itself in his songwriting. Grace For Drowning is the best all-around package I've run across in some time; the music is up there with his best work, the visual artwork (both the physical packaging and the music videos) is stunning, and the sound is better than any other I've heard. The Blu-ray version has a clarity I never thought possible. If you're someone who likes to immerse yourself in your music, rather than relegating it to rhythmic background noise, you have to listen to this record.