Best Albums of 2011

Barn Owl - best albums of 2011
Barn Owl

I threw together a Top Ten list of the best albums of the past year for the CBS site Street Date. It’s a fun task, but not always easy, as anyone who’s done it knows–you inevitably miss a few things, and weeks or months (or more) later, you may come to regret your choices. Either way, though, it stands as a capsule of where your head is at at a specific point in time. Here’s where mine’s been at lately.

Barn Owl, “Lost in the Glare”
Spooky, dark, sometimes abrasive, other times gentle, but always seductive, this San Francisco group is redefining the possibilities of instrumental rock (or, you might say, post-post rock). “Lost in the Glare” pushes well past the boundaries and cliches of ‘soundscape’ music.

Josh T Pearson, “Last Of The Country Gentlemen”

With his long beard, old-world twang, gaunt face, and Old Testament-twisted sentiments (“Sweetheart, I Ain’t Your Christ,” “Woman When I’ve Raised Hell”), Pearson initially comes off like a ghostly backwoods poet–or a ripe parody. Yet his music proves chilling to its core–sparse, disturbingly quiet, and unapologetically slow, like ancient gospel slowed to 16 RPM. At the same time, though, redemption awaits for those who take the journey–and damn if Pearson doesn’t turn out to be a helluva guitar player, and, despite the grueling length of some of his songs, a captivating performer as well.

Kurt Vile, “Smoke Ring For My Halo”

“Smoke Rings” is dreamy folk-rock-flavored indie music…if, that is, those dreams were starting to warp and curl like a vinyl record on a hot dashboard. Still, you can’t deny the joy.

Girls, “Father, Son, Holy Ghost”

I wish all indie-pop/rock bands were as unafraid as Girls. The songs here are addictive, at times retro, and yet still weirdly complex. The sweeping, epic (and unfortunately titled) “Vomit” is hair-raisingly beautiful (courtesy among other elements of a gospel-inspired chorus). “Honey Bunny” signals Beach Boys in just the right amounts, “Just a Song” is weepy neo-folk, and “Die” is Deep Purple run through a fuzzbox. This is a record you’ll come back to over and over.

The Feelies, “Here Before”

The godfathers of indie rock return with their first album of new material in 20 years. They sound (and look) like they’ve barely aged since their earlier landmark albums “Crazy Rhythms” and “Good Earth.” “Here Before” shows them picking up where they left off in ’91 — rhythms still light and tight, energy drive still positive, and songs still as groovy, focused, and infectious as ever.

TV on the Radio, “Nine Types of Light”

Smart, hip, full of jagged edges and just enough snappy funk, TV on the Radio produced another beauty this year. It’s intellectual rock and roll for book nerds who love to dance.

Mountains, “Air Museum”

Shimmering yet full of tension, instrumental duo Mountains creates a multilayered sound out of instrumental loops and electronics that is immensely gorgeous.

Wilco, “The Whole Love”

Jeff Tweedy made a smart move in hiring Nels Cilne, who is easily among today’s best lead guitarists, adding fire to Wilco’s arrangements and giving Tweedy’s compositions a new, sharp edge. This is among the best live rock bands working today, and “The Whole Love”–their best album in years–straddles the border between pop clarity and avant-garde edginess…and makes it look easy.

“To What Strange Place : The Music Of The Ottoman-American Diaspora, 1916-1929”

A collection of vintage recordings from the early 20th century that speak to the life of newly arrived U.S. residents–all they left behind, and all they were now facing. Almost more like a novel than an album, it’s strange, wonderful, and fascinating.

Beach Boys, “The Smile Sessions”

Funny how, when we finally get to hear this long-lost and legendary album in its fully formed glory, it sounds so completely familiar. No surprise, really, as so many of the songs (“Heroes and VIllains,” “Good Vibrations,” “Surf’s Up”) have already seen daylight in various. What a treat to get the full package.

If you want even more picks, you can check out the full list of the best of 2011 from all my colleagues in these Street Date posts.