The past 12 months have, musically speaking, been a time for old favorites to return to form and for old forms to return to favor. Whether it was simple soul songs given a contemporary twist or arena rock feeling relevant for the first time in years, 2011 was a year when the most forward-facing acts seemed to be the ones that acknowledge their musical forebears. Here are my Top 10 releases for 2011:
CHARLES BRADLEY – NO TIME FOR DREAMING: Chalk up another victory for Daptone Records, the musical home of North Augusta’s own Sharon Jones. This time, it’s Charles Bradley, a soul singer who conjures memories of Otis Redding and the hard funk of James Brown. This isn’t a record you listen to. It’s one you feel.
PJ HARVEY – LET ENGLAND SHAKE: For nearly 20 years, PJ Harvey has set herself apart from other artists by conspicuously refusing to compromise, to do what is expected. Music, in her world, is not for the well-behaved. Let England Shake is a particularly potent example of the Harvey ethos. A harrowing examination of the toils and tolls of war, it’s a powerful, and seemingly personal, collection. Not light listening, but well worth the time.
RAPHAEL SAADIQ – STONE ROLLIN’: Some argue that it’s too easy to identify this soul swinger’s influences, the Sly Stone and Bo Diddley, Isaac Hayes and Curtis Mayfield show up too frequently in his complex R&B arrangements. And while it’s true that Saadiq often pays tribute to those that have come before, his uncanny skill as a songwriter elevates everything he does beyond tribute to true art.
STEPHEN MALKMUS AND THE JICKS – MIRROR TRAFFIC: Clearly, Malkmus’s time touring with his old band, the seminal Pavement, did him some good. He returned to his Jicks project with a set of songs that feature his growing maturity as a songwriter while retaining the barbed energy of his earliest work. It’s good to see him back and great to see him moving forward.
ST. VINCENT – STRANGE MERCY: Looking for euro-styled art rock, equal parts innocence and menace? Start your search deep in the heart of Texas. Annie Clark, who records under the name St. Vincent elevates her already ample game on her latest album. Filled with uncomfortable scenes rendered in the most accessible way imaginable, it both hypnotizes and stings in a way only truly great art can.
THE FOO FIGHTERS – WASTED LIGHT: After nearly 20 years in the what should have been, by all accounts, his rebound band, former Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl has produced the finest collection of his Foos career by keeping things simple. Recorded on tape – no digital allowed – in his garage, Grohl recruited old friends, including Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic and producer Butch Vig, to make something completely honest. Mission accomplished.
THE BEASTIE BOYS – HOT SAUCE COMMITTEE PART 2: Held back for more than a year after group member MCA was diagnosed with cancer, Hot Sauce didn’t seem stale after so many months on the shelf. On the contrary, it’s as fresh, funky and imaginative as anything the notoriously far-reaching trio has recorded in years. It’s good to have them back and seemingly unfazed by either time or illness.
THE BLACK KEYS – EL CAMINO: Although this dynamic duo has relocated from Ohio to Nashville, Tenn., only the address seems to have changed. El Camino continues to mine barroom blues, slinky soul and the anxious energy of punk to produce a sound that is infectious and irresistible. It seems now that the Keys are widely acknowledged to be authentic rock stars. So it should be. They’ve rocked long and hard for that honor.
THE DECEMBERISTS – THE KING IS DEAD: Concentrating less on the folk and more on the rock, the Decemberists chose to eschew their famously long-winded ballads in favor of a collection of four-minute tunes that move rather than meander. Some have compared the album to early R.E.M. They aren’t far off the mark. I’m interested to see what direction this talented act heads next.
ADELE – 21: It seems as though there’s been no escaping this young Londoner’s music – not that that’s a problem. Her beautiful break-up album is certainly soulful, but it’s also smart and often painfully honest. In short, it’s everything truly affecting music should be, but rarely is.