It’s Time to Play B-Sides Top 10 Albums of 2011

Here we are in the final month of 2011 and it is time for the Top lists. I started this last year for the first time, and I think it was a pretty good exercise. 2011 for me personally was a time of change– I was laid off from a job I had for over 13 years and spent most of 2011 unemployed. As I write this, I’m happily employed, though I’m having to deal with the fallout of being unemployed for so long.

If it wasn’t for the friends and contacts I made through this blog, the time I spent unemployed would have been unbearable. As people found out about my family’s situation, they reached out with concern, help and well-wishes. Frankly, writing for this blog and the other places I sometimes contribute gave me a much-needed distraction as I experienced first-hand the employment conditions and lack of hiring in the U.S. It seems like things are turning around, but we are far from recovery, I’m afraid.

So, I look at this list of albums as being kind of a soundtrack for my unemployment– sometimes expressing hope, sometimes expressing despair, but 2011 was a good year for music. As 2012 brings new hope and opportunity for me, I look forward to bringing my music blog into its sixth year.

While there were a lot of notable releases in 2011, these are the ones that spent the most time in rotation for me– had more staying power.

1. Hiss Golden Messenger – Poor Moon – M.C. Taylor’s post Court & Spark band makes my list for the second year running– Poor Moon is a full-band companion-piece to last year’s Bad Debt in that they share a few songs. You can read my summary and review here. Mike’s in the running for 2012, too, as he has started work on his next album already!

2. Bon Iver – Bon Iver – Like last year’s The Suburbs from Arcade Fire, this is an album that will make a lot of 2011 “Top” lists. Already the album has been nominated for a few Grammys. I was not a fan of the first album from Justin Vernon, but this album quickly has found a seat in my regular rotation and gets played often at my house. The fact that it shares common DNA with the brilliant album from Eau Claire-Minneapolis supergroup GAYNGS helps, too.

3. Pieta Brown – Mercury – With a boost of moral support from her new label home Red House Records and continued support from her musical family and friends, Pieta Brown has created what is her best recorded statement to date. I wrote a review of Mercury for Little Village here.

4. Ryan Adams – Ashes & Fire – In some regards this album can be heralded as the triumphant return for Ryan Adams whose last new studio effort was 2008′s swansong for Lost Highway as a label and The Cardinals as a band, Cardinology. Life has changed pretty dramatically for Ryan who seems to have embraced his life and career with new perspective. Ashes & Fire is a return to the simpler sound of Easy Tiger– arguably a sound he has refined and polished. For a guy whose love of metal and punk are public record, he has the ability to make some of the most beautiful folk-rock-country songs this side of Neil Young. He is on a sold-out solo acoustic tour at the moment as he re-familiarizes himself with his legacy and live performing in general. I hope he gets the itch to bring a band on the road with him in the near future.

5. Dawes – Nothing Is WrongDawes is back and their sophomore release is even more confident than their first album, Taylor Goldsmith is embracing his role as lead guitarist and this album features some very polished guitarwork. In 2011 we saw more of the indie space contributing videos to VH1′s Top 20 and Dawes spent a week or two with “Time Spent in Los Angeles.” I think that the almost-universal embrace of Dawes’ own spin on 70′s singer-songwriter classic rock is showing that people are looking for strong melodies and honesty in the face of mostly manufactured pop music. The songs for Nothing Is Wrong got a lot of mileage on the road, many songs were familiar to dedicated fans like me, it will be interesting to see what the next songs will be like. I don’t expect any dramatic change in the band, but I would like to see some envelope pushing– maybe a change in production.

6. Kelly Pardekooper – YonderKelly cut his songwriting teeth here in Eastern Iowa writing and recording his first five albums while he lived here. A brief jump to Wisconsin and a permanent displacement to the yonder of L.A. seemed to silence the songwriter, but after some recognition by the new tastemakers that assemble soundtracks for TV shows he was kickstarted to record his most Iowa-sounding release to date with Bo Ramsey and a band of Backslider regulars. Relased in the fourth quarter of 2011, I’m hoping the album gets some legs in 2012 before returning to the lockers.

7. Canasta – The Fakeout The Tease and the Breather – Technically this release from Chicago band Canasta came out late in 2010, but I heard it in February when they made a stop in Iowa City.  This quote from my article for Little Village says it all, “There nestled in the extensive list of influences is what appears to be the nearly 30 years of my record collection. While this list seems impossibly diverse on paper, the thing that unifies all of these artists is a strong knack for melody and composition that Canasta brings in spades.” Watch their great video for “Mexico City” here.

8. Chicago Odense Ensemble – self-titled – This album– a meeting of members of Tortoise and Isotope 217 and Causa Sui– had been announced for months before it was eventually released this year by French label AdLuna. A sliced and diced approach to assembling a record from hours of improvisational recording by the group a la In A Silent Way resulted in a beautiful record with gorgeous packaging to match. You can read my article about the release here.

9. Kerosene Circuit – self titled EP – This was an EP that really reached out of the stereo and shook me. Rockin’, diesel-powered bar chords. You can read my review for Little Village here.

10. The 4onthefloor – 4×4 – Minneapolis stompin’ bar-blues band The 4onthefloor may seem on paper to be tied to a schtick with each member of the band playing a kickdrum on stage, but the formula of 4/4 time heavy blues is one that works. Lead singer Gabe Douglas transforms to the on-stage personae of the possessed while riding the chugging rhythm provided by the rest of the band. The album captures a lot of this live energy, but catch them live if you can.

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