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.


wwolfe said...

Nice to see both Fountains of Wayne and the Buddy Holly tribute on your list. I somehow managed to miss Foster and Lloyd's reunion album, despite the fact that "Texas in 1880" was one of my favorite singles of its era. I'll have to track down the new work for a listen.

Merry Christmas, Holly, and thanks for another year of music talk.

TwennydollaBill said...

Thanks for the inspiration, Holly. I'm happy I only have 5 of the 15 that made your list--that means 10 new possibilities!

Beat Girl said...

It looks like I will have to check out FOW. I've been debating how to spend the rest of a gift certificate. (I have the Nick, natch.)

Happy listening and happy holidays.

NickS said...

Thanks for the summary. There are a couple albums there that I'm happy to be reminded of.

(I definitely buy music thanks to this blog. Over the last year I can think of The Lost Songs of Lennon & McCartney which I very much liked and a couple of Dave Alvin albums which I also liked, with a couple reservations -- speaking of which, I do think Eleven Eleven is a solid album and I'm somewhat surprised to not see it on your list).

I would put in a word for one other album. With the caveat that I don't buy much new music so my options for "albums from 2011" are few, I really liked the Jill Scott From the Vaults collection. She's somebody that I've read good things about for a while but haven't listened to so I was excited to see a release that was less produced and more stripped down and it didn't disappoint. Philly Soul is on the periphery of my musical tastes but she is clearly really good.

Holly A Hughes said...

Been meaning to get Eleven Eleven, so thanks for the reminder, Nick. I'm sure I've missed others, so I'm grateful for the feedback. And I will definitely check out the Jill Scott; she's quite a talent, and I didn't know there was a new album out. It's so hard to hear about these things, with the music biz so fragmented.

NickS said...

"It's so hard to hear about these things, with the music biz so fragmented."

You do a much better job of keeping up with new music than I do. I only noticed the Jill Scott because it showed up as an Amazon recommendation at one point. Speaking of which I also got Sarah Jarosz's second album based on an Amazon suggestion and, while I've only listened to it once, it also seems like something you might like.

On a related topic, having finished my annual mix CD, I was thinking, as I have in the past) that it might be of interest to you. If you would like a copy, e-mail me.

Paul Mullen said...

I'd like to recommend "Chateau Revenge" by The Silver Seas, it seems right up your street. They are starting to get some recognition over here in England, don't know if they are well known in US yet. Great album.

Holly A Hughes said...

Thanks for the recommendation -- their iTunes samples sound very good indeed, I plan to listen more. They're not yet a household name in the US, but then, that's in their favor!

NickS said...

By the way, I've been listening to the Jill Scott again and I am completely convinced that you will like that album -- whenever you get to it.

In addition to anything else you might say it displays an impressive level of pop craftsmanship.