This is not a traditional year-end best-of list. Most lists like this list the best albums and songs that came out during the year. However, due to the lack of available funds, the proprietors of this blog were not able to buy all the new albums that came out this year. If you want to help change this, send us money. This list is of the best albums and songs that I have listened to this year. It does not matter when the song or album was first released, only that I listened to it this year. In many ways doing a best-of list is challenging. It’s easy to pick out the number-one best song of the year, but incredibly hard to pick out number eight, and to decide whether it should be eight, or perhaps nine, or maybe even not on the list at all. I hope you will bear with my inconsistencies and faults.
Best Albums of the Year
Album of The Year: Tie American VI: Ain’t No Grave, Johnny Cash, and VH1 Storytellers: Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson, by the above.
American VI: Ain’t No Grave: Whenever Johnny Cash releases an album, it is automatically the best album of the year. Despite the inconvenience of no longer being on this earth, Johnny Cash posthumously released his sixth installment in the American series, billed as his final studio album. The record starts off with the haunting rendition of the old spiritual “Ain’t No Grave Gonna Hold My Body Down”, complete with chains and a banjo played by The Avett Brothers. The song is at once beautiful and haunting. Go buy this record and go deaf listening to it.
VH1 Storytellers: Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson. Two legends on one stage with just their acoustic guitars. Johnny and Willie swap stories and songs during the whole performance. Listening to the record is almost as good as being there.
2. It’s all crazy, it’s all false, it’s a dream, it’s alright, mewithoutYou
I really wanted to give the second place to a certain band of heroes who sang about the suburbs (No, not the Arcade Fire). But after listening to this record, I had no choice but to put it second. mewithoutYou has come a long way from screaming hardcore punk to American folk. I was afraid at first when I heard Aaron Weiss switch from his trademark talking during the song to actual singing, but no more. The melodies are beautiful, but they don’t take away from the rest of the songwriting. Musically, the album is flawless, without any of the annoying bits that would come up in mwY’s earlier albums. The album blends American rock-and-roll, folk, and classical music with mewithoutYou’s signature songwriting. Every song is great.
3. Suburba, House of Heroes.
The best new melodic band would have taken 2nd place with this record if mewithoutYou hadn’t swooped in and stolen it from them. Suburba redefines everything you know about pop, rock, and modern non-indie music in general. The music sounds like updated classic rock, blending elements of great classic rock bands (Zeppelin, Queen, Mellencamp), without falling into the trap of making every song sound the same. The shining moment of the album, though, is the vocals, both Tim Skipper’s lead, and the five-part background vocals that back him up throughout. House of Heroes is a fresh, new face in the tired world of modern rock, and will soon be defining the genre.
4. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Lennon, McCartney, Harrison, Starr, &co.
It takes some really good albums to dethrone the Fab Four from first place. The best melodic band ever gives their best and most defining performance on this album. Sgtt. Pepper’s introduced so many new techniques and ideas to the mainstream audience. The first, self-titled track combines American blues jamming with English pomp, and the rest of the album follows suit. The Beatle’s defining moment, and one of the most momentous albums ever. Nothing would ever be the same afterwards.
5. Revolver by The Beatles
While not quite on the level of Sgt. Pepper’s, (What is?), this album shows them dipping their toes into the musical ocean they would come to dominate. The album ranges from the rock to raga, with everything from a somber piano ballad (“For No One”), a soul tribute (“Got To Get You Into My Life”), an extremely weird psychedelic journey (“Tomorrow Never Knows”) and the greatest conservative rock song ever, “Taxman”. Dig that groovy solo!
6. Stockholm Syndrome, Derek Webb.
Derek Webb is probably the best Christian songwriter of today, and he always keeps it fresh. In this album, he makes the leap from the retro-sixties rock of The Ringing Bell to an electronically based, beat-heavy, futuristic sound. It’s what you’d expect to hear in the Jetson’s flying car, except that the lyrics are anything but pop. Derek Webb doesn’t settle for smarmy breakup songs or overdone worship lyrics. Instead, he tackles everything from the government to abusive relationship to the church, firing on all cylinders. For those looking for nice, tame, inoffensive Christian music, look elsewhere. If you want something that will make you think, look here.
7. God And Guns, Lynyrd Skynyrd
The new Lynyrd Skynyrd doesn’t hold a candle to the old Lynyrd Skynyrd. Once you get over that fact, the album is pretty good. Sure, it seems geared toward modern country and Three Doors Down fans, and there are a few clunkers, such as the self-praising “Skynyrd Nation.” But for the most part, Skynyrd, or what’s left of it, delivers solid Southern Rock, from anthemia ballads like “Unwrite This Song” or “That Ain’t My America” to the guitar-heavy “Still Unbroken.” What truly makes the album, though, is “Floyd”, the swamp-rock collaboration between Skynyrd and Rob Zombie. The song pairs a haunting ghost story with a riff as powerful as Ozark moonshine.
8. Hearing Voices, Will Ackerman
Will Ackerman is not a pop artist by any standard. His songs are ambient, minimalist guitar compositions. On this album he enlists the help of a slew of singers in multiple languages. It’s relaxing and ethereal without descending into gooey, New Age-y nothingness. It makes great music to listen to exploring the ruins of a lost temple somewhere, but if you can’t do that, listening to it while drinking coffee in the morning will do. This album soars effortlessly where others thud.
9. En Concert, Jack Johnson.
Who wouldn’t want to be Jack Johnson? Not only is he a surfer, a musician, and a really nice guy, he also makes a great live album. Jack Johnson’s live show is so relaxed and chilled out, it feels like he would perform the same way whether he was playing in front of ten people or ten thousand. Jack plays all of his classic hits, blends them with songs from artists like Jimi Hendrix and Paul Simon, sings a song with Eddie Vedder from Pearl Jam, and sings an even better song with Paula Fuga, one of his opening acts. The record has enough of a relaxed, jam feel without descending into ten-minute long solos. Bottom Line: Everything Jack Johnson does is good.
10. Love Loss Hope Repeat, Carbon Leaf.
Carbon Leaf pulls of the tricky feat of being at once fresh and familiar, sounding like you’ve heard them before without sounding like you’ve heard them before. The band delivers solid, folk-influenced pop/rock, which ranges from heartfelt (“Block Of Wood”) to driving (“A Girl and her Horse”). The best track is “The War Was In Color”, where a Grandfather tells his Grandson the story of his WWII experience through pictures. It is powerful.
Honorable Mentions: Fair to Midland came from out of nowhere, or, more correctly, out of the Friends of the Library sale, with their indie-flavored brand of hard rock. Darroh Sudderth’s huge vocal range couldn’t help the album from dragging in the last few tracks, but it gave a few good moments of high-pitched glory, and reinvigorated a tired genre. The Avett Brothers have a good thing going with I and Love and You, with piano-driven folk-rock. The Avetts have not only played with Johnny Cash, but they are also the only folk group I know of that screams. New Zealand worship band The Ember Days’ first album is a tad too heavy and repetitive, but the group’s passion for Christ is evident, and Janell Belcher’s voice shines when she sings on the album. Landon Pigg, best known for the song on that commercial, sings in a jazz-tinged singer-songwriter style, with some influences from U2 thrown in. In a sane world he would dominate the radio. The only major downside to his album is the pink color to the inside of his album. Alison Krauss and Robert Plant seem like an unlikely pair, but their voices blend so well that often you can’t tell them apart. On Raising Sand, they sing a mix of ambient folk, rockabilly and roots music, with an Appalachian ballad to top it all off.
Best songs of the Year
1. Song of the Year: “Ain’t No Grave” Johnny Cash. Johnny Cash’s rendition of this classic American spiritual is spectral and frightening. Johnny’s haunting voice is matched by the clanking of chains for the rhythm section, bringing up mental images of ghosts rattling chains. Crank it up!
2. Song of the Year that isn’t performed by Johnny Cash: “The King Beetle on The Coconut Estate.” mewithoutYou. Aaron Weiss tells this parable about beetles, his vaguely Celtic melody accompanied by beautiful orchestral arrangements and climaxing in a frenzy. It must be heard to be believed.
3. “Old Enough”, The Raconteurs featuring Ricky Skaggs and Ashley Monroe. Anything that has Jack White is good. Anything that has Ricky Skaggs is good. Anything with Ricky Skaggs and Jack White performing a bluegrass song together is automatically great. The fact that the song was amazing in its own right makes this recording excellent.
4. “Wishlist” by Pearl Jam. The music is a simple, repeated riff, acting as an unassuming stage upon which the lyrics play their part. And the lyrics are amazing. The 90s were one of the best decades for rock music, and music in general.
5. “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” by Nirvana. No matter how many times “Smells Like Teen Spirit” has been parodied, the fact remains that Nirvana was a revolutionary band. This track, from their Live Unplugged CD, is actually an old Appalachian ballad that Kurt Cobain learned from the lead singer of The Screaming Trees, who in turn learned it from Leadbelly. Incarnations of this song have been done by artists as diverse as Bob Dylan and Bill Monroe, but this version holds its own. The cello adds a touch of major in the song before it dives back into minor, and Kurt’s vocals go from whispering to a full-throated scream of anguish at the song’s close.
6. “Independence Day For A Petty Thief”, House of Heroes. This song is the guitar anthem of my generation. That’s all there is to say.
7. “Floyd”, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Rob Zombie. A southern ghost tale straight from the bayou. The banjo fits in perfectly with the heavier guitars. Just try to listen to this song without singing along with the “aye-aye-aye’s.”
8. “Firecracker” by Frazey Ford. Another Southern Gothic song with a banjo, albeit a bit more subdued than “Floyd.” Frazey’s weird vibrato adds to the strange atmosphere of this song, with its dark overtones.
9. “Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise”, The Avett Brothers. The best Avett Brothers song, taking the familiar theme of a journey, and making it into something strangely beautiful. Check out the video, too.
10. “Amaranth”, Nightwish. This song is perfect. The gothic choir and strings never clash with the heavy guitars. It sounds like the soundtrack to the greatest fantasy never made. A mix of fierce guitars and beautiful piano, topped off with Annette’s powerful vocals. Every part fits in perfectly with the rest.
Honorable Mentions: Grace Potter and The Nocturnal’s are beloved of indie-rock fans, but their music sounds like a mix of Cream, Pat Benatar, and Jefferson Airplane. “Paris (Ooh La La)” is a blast from the past, with Grace Potter’s loud vocals competing against the funky guitars. Fair To Midland’s magnum opus “Dance of The Manatee” shows off Darroh Sudderth’s amazing bass-to-alto range, going from quavering to guttural screaming. Best Coast’s song “Boyfriend” sounds what you might listen to late at night. The music is top-notch but the lyrics are kind of corny. Real men listen to songs that have the chorus “I wish he was my boyfriend.” Occasionally. Alison Krauss and Robert Plant’s standout track from Raising Sand is “Polly Come Home Again”, which has about the heaviest bass ever heard in an ambient song. Those looking for subtle, intellectual, lyrically based music will be disappointed by Dragonforce. Those looking to have their mind blown by amazing guitar solos will not be disappointed, especially by tracks like “Heroes of Our Time”, “Operation Ground and Pound”, and “Through The Fire And Flames.”
Best New Artist: Israel and For Dreams Alike.
I must confess that I am a little biased in this case, as the lead/singer songwriter of this ever-changing band is a friend of the author. The elusive Israel of the band’s title has yet to put out an official recording, but occasionally puts on live performances throughout Texarkana for his (mostly female) fans. The time I saw him and his band in one of their incarnations, they put on an amazing show, so much that they drew a bigger audience than the headliner band. Israel’s music brings in influences like U2 and Mutemath, and then turns them upside down, incorporating every kind of twist and turn imaginable. Rumors say that the band’s direction has now turned toward synthesizer music. Hopefully there will be some recordings coming out soon, but in the maelstrom of Texarkana music, who can say?
This was a hard choice. I was faced with the anthemia pop of Carbon Leaf, the technical rock of Remy Zero, the folksiness of The Avett Brothers, the high-pitched frenzy of Fair To Midland, and the classic rock revival of Grace Potter and The Nocturnals. However, for the highest level of artistic achievement, I must choose Will Ackermann, the guitar virtuoso. Ackermann’s music is unassuming and unpretentious. Instead of wowing the listener with highly technical solos, he prefers to take a minimalist approach, instead playing a simple pattern over and over. In the hands of a lesser artist this would be mindless monotony; but with Will Ackermann, this becomes amazingly beautiful music.
Best Really New Artist that I didn’t Discover at Goodwill: Abel.
This New York arena rock group combines soaring pop in the vein of Coldplay or U2 with indie and post-hardcore influences. The band outdoes Coldplay on many counts, with challenging songwriting matched with indie-flavored vocals. The lyrics leave many other similar Christian pop groups in the dust. Also, they now give their music away for free online. Watch for Abel slowly start to take over the musical world, then suddenly start doing collaborations with Lady Gaga and various rap stars once they become famous.
Weirdest Artist of the Year: It’s a Beautiful Day. A true hippy band. This band holds the dubious distinction of being weirder than Jefferson Airplane. The band, which was sort of a second-tier psychedelic rock act from the west coast, had a small popularity in California, and even had Jerry Garcia play on one of their albums before they broke up. Their self-titled debut is a jumble of pseudo-Indian melodies, a five-string violin, female vocals, and atonal sounds. The music screams, howls, and sounds, frankly, like nails on a chalkboard, occasionally going into ballad mode, like the spooky “Girl With No Eyes.”
Band Of The Year: House of Heroes. What can I say? Modern rock music is tired, negative, and increasingly cliché. Out of mass of uninspired emo bands crawled House of Heroes, a band that decided that the best way to do new, original music was to go back to classic band such as the Beatles and Led Zeppelin. House of Heroes’ three major albums all have a different sound to them, unlike many bands whose songs even all sound the same. This band has the talent to become legendary.
|Isn't it weird how much Chad Butler looks like Keith Urban?|
Most Anticipated Albums of 2011: Switchfoot is slated to release Vice Verses this year; that is, if Jon Foreman doesn’t come up with another side project, and they don’t spend a year-and-a-half in studio recording it. Symphonic metal band Nightwish is in studio recording another epic album; no word on when it will be done. U2 may release Songs of Ascent this year. No one is quite sure what the album will actually be like, or if U2 will just talk about releasing an album instead of actually releasing one. The bearded Seattle indie band Fleet Foxes is set to release the follow-up to their self-titled debut. Progressive screamo band We Came As Romans is also coming out with a follow-up to their record To Plant A Seed. Whether they will stay with their semi-symphonic hardcore sound or branch out into something different remains to be seen. House of Heroes will possibly be releasing another album--I’m not so sure on the details, and bluegrass diva Alison Krauss is also set to drop another album of who-knows-what on the public this year. Kanye West will follow up his latest hit record, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, with his next landmark album, It Ain’t Easy Being Stupid. Lady Gaga will release her second album, The Search for More Money, in which she will dress up as a sofa, a plate of spaghetti, and a 1989 Ford Explorer. Britney Spears will have her fifteenth comeback with Hey Guys, Remember Me?. The widely anticipated album by Blind Alroe Dylan and The Microwaves, Music to Patch Bicycle Tires To, has been put on hiatus again, but will hopefully be released sometime in the summer or fall. Weezer also plans to release five albums this year. When lead singer/songwriter Rivers Cuomo was asked about this plan, he replied “We’re Weezer. It’s what we do.”
Currently Listening: The Spirit of the Radio: Greatest Hits 1974-1987, Rush.