Tuesday, December 20, 2011

My 2011 Holiday Album Buying Guide

Always a bit bogus, these year-end "best of" lists. To start with, they're based on a completely false premise: Who says you have to stick to 2011 releases when buying holiday presents for your nearest and dearest?  Still, there's something about a glossy new CD under the Christmas tree that's very alluring . It says, "I know you love music, and you're probably just as lost as I am in finding really worthwhile new stuff. So here are the newest tunes you've been too busy tweeting and Facebooking to learn about..."

In no particular order:

John Hiatt:  Dirty Jeans and Mudslide Hymns:  Hiatt's best work in years -- a searing suite of vignettes about the forgotten 99% and the dying American Dream. It starts out with a howl of frustration ("Damn This Town") and ends up with two unflinchingly poignant elegies ("Adios To California" and "When New York Had Her Heart Broke"). Unpreachy, authentic, and full of rockin' righteous rage.    

The Wood Brothers: Smoke Ring Halo: This brother act side-project for Oliver and Chris Wood has turned into something bigger than the both of them, situated at a country crossroads where jazz and bluegrass and Southern rock come to share a drink, swap tall tales, and eventually bay at the moon.  There's a sort of rumpled ease about this album that belies their incredible musicianship; I love it when guys this good don't take themselves too seriously.  Buy, buy, buy.

Black Keys: El Camino: How good are these guys! Their trademark sound -- pulsating R&B-flavored rock, with a gritty low-fi edge -- just makes me bliss out.  It's a recent release, so I'm still wandering around inside its sound, but expect a blog post soon. And as the sticker on the cover insists (yes, I still buy physical product), this album should be played LOUD.

Nick Lowe:The Old Magic: Nick. Magic. And, yes, old, at least as in retro-styled.  Nick's suave songwriting is as usual right on the mark, working that familiar territory of letdown, loss, and heartbreak (that voodoo that Nick does so well), but the more I listen, the more I'm impressed by the richness of Nick's vocals, ripening as never before in this crooner groove. Just because these songs are instantly enjoyable doesn't mean they don't grow on you. The more I listen, the more I . . . well, I was already in love, but this just twists the knife.      

Fleet Foxes: Helplessness Blues: No sophomore slump for these guys -- their second effort takes those haunting reverbed harmonies to a new trippy level. It's more ambitious and less spare than their debut album, as Robin Pecknold and company take a step or two away from their folky roots, but never fear, that melodic gorgeousness is still in full flower.  

Nikki Jean: Pennies in a Jar: A great discovery, this album by Philly-based singer-songwriter Nikki Jean reminds you why you first fell in love with pop music. Not the yippy cheesy kind, but the classics, written by the great master pop songwriters who co-wrote these songs with Nikki.  Cool concept: cooler album.

Fountains of Wayne: Sky Full of HolesFour years since Traffic and Weather,  FoW's first entry on the YepRoc label was worth the wait. Thirteen finely crafted short stories in song, with wistfulness and whimsy in equal measures; you'll laugh, you'll cry, and you'll definitely want to sing along. 

Fionn Regan: 100 Acres of Sycamore: The Irish have always been great poets; singer-songwriter Fionn Regan just sets his to music, that's all.  Wonderful folk-inflected music with a bit of Brechtian cabaret thrown in.  I loved his first album End of History, and this follow-up is just as whimsical and existential.  It takes a listen or two, but then it gets under your skin, like a long draught of Jameson's on a chilly autumn night.

The Jayhawks: Mockingbird Time: The long-awaited Jayhawks reunion album (has it really been eight years since Rainy Day Music?).  The good news is: It's a Jayhawks album, and it picks up right where they left off.  Did you expect new frontiers?  Even Mark and Gary's wonderful 2009 duo album Ready For the Flood stuck to the brand: rich harmonies, melodic hooks, laidback tempos, and more than a touch of twang. Why tamper with a sound -- and a sensibility -- this soul-satisfying?

Foster and Lloyd: It's Already Tomorrow: Waiting eight years is nothing -- try waiting 21 years for Radney Foster and Bill Lloyd to record together again. (Not that I haven' t been perfectly happy, mind you, with Bill Lloyd's somewhat more pop-oriented solo stuff in the meantime.) But this reunion album is a gem, with tuneful, well-honed songwriting. It stays on the right side of the border between Americana and country music; just enough twiddle and twang but never a trace of cornpone.   

HONORABLE MENTIONS: Albums I thoroughly enjoy by artists I love, though not groundbreaking efforts:
Keb' Mo': The Reflection
Ron Sexsmith: Long Player, Late Bloomer
The Decemberists:  The King Is Dead
Death Cab for Cutie: Codes and Keys

Ben Folds: The Best Imitation of Myself: Love, love, LOVE Ben Folds; this 3-disc retrospective is packed with rarities, live tracks, and a sampler of Folds' most memorable tunes.   

Various Artists: Rave On: A Tribute to Buddy Holly: How could this not be a treat, with such talents as Nick Lowe, The Black Keys, Zooey Deschanel, Cee Lo Green, Patti Smith, and My Morning Jacket on board?

Only a few shopping days left until Christmas -- what are you waiting for?  And if you just happen to pick up a few of these for yourself...well, I won't tell.