Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Cynic's Musical Side: top 10 of 2011

9. Let Them Talk- Hugh Laurie
Is there anything Hugh Laurie can't do? Unlike other actors who decide to make music, Laurie has made sure to do justice to the style of New Orleans blues he so loves. For the sake of authenticity, Laurie has surrounded himself with great New Orleans musicians such as Irma Thomas, Dr. John and the great patriarch of N'awlins himself, Allen Toussaint. Add in a great guest spot from Tom Jones and Joe Henry (who's own newest album is also featured on this list) adding his considerable talents to the producing end, and you've got a pretty cool album. Laurie rightly emphasizes his band more than himself; I dig his singing voice, but the real star here are Toussaint's wonderful arrangements. Let them Talk sets itself apart from other actors' musical vanity projects by keeping it real and nailing a gritty, down-home authentitcity that most similar albums are sorely lacking. Hugh Laurie's music heroes would be proud.

8. From Africa With Fury: Rise- Seun Kuti
Seun Anikulapo Kuti is the youngest son of Afrobeat legend Fela Kuti, and that's about all you really need to know. If you aren't familliar with Fela Kuti, please stop reading this and go listen to "Zombie"; trust me, you'll be thanking me later. For those of you who are fans of Fela, you'll love Rise (assuming you don't already own it): Seun is about as perfect a reincarnation of his father as you'll get, with one exception- all the songs on this album are under 10 minutes, making Rise the perfect introduction to afrobeat for people who aren't used to twelve plus mintutes of pure, no-holds-barred funkiness.

7. For True- Trombone Shorty
Hey, speaking of funk...

The bad news is that For True isn't nearly as insane as Troy Andrews's debut, Backatown. There are no death metal guitars here, and you stand a slightly smaller chance of losing your hearing when plaing this album. The good news is that, despite polishing their sound, Orleans Avenue hasn't sold out;For True is still the funkiest album of the year, and is stuffed full of horn-driven jazz-meets-rock-meets-soul-meets-soul-meets-funk-meets-hip-hop goodness. Andrews lays the grooves on strong- take it from an awkward dweeb like myself, this album will make you move. You can't not boogie down when this album is blasted. You can't repel funk of this magnitude. For their next album, I'd like to see Orleans Avenue's rythm section stomp back on the distortion pedal like they did with their last album, but For True is still a keeper- a rollicking, fun, blast-until-your-ears-fall-off keeper.

6. The Bright Lights EP- Gary Clark, Jr.

Yes, this is just an EP. Yes, it's just four songs long. But when you hear someone like Clark, you gotta pay tribute. The full album is slated to come out in 2012, and I couldn't be more excited. The first time I heard "Bright Lights", I was hooked. It was pure magic. Taking as much from Jimi Hendrix as from Muddy Waters, Clark has crafted a sweet set that's part John Lee Hooker and part Black Keys. With only four tracks, he's already setablished himself as one of modern music's greatest riffmakers, if not it's greatest. A less mummified Keith Richards; an alternate universe Bill Withers who actually gets the recognition he deserves. Gary Clark, Jr. has shown us that he has the ingredient that sets a great musician apart from a good musician: that little spark of madness that makes his sound a little bit wild, a little bit scary, and a little unlike anything else you've ever heard.

5. Don't Explain- Beth Hart and Joe Bonamossa

It's often said that old ideas don't get worn out, but only the musicians who play them wrong. Much as I proze individuality, there's something special about high energy traditionalism.Don't Explain Is a perfect example of this phenomenon. Hart and Bonamossa set up a line of ballsy covers and knock 'em out of the park. Bonamossa is a formidable axeman and Hart has a voice that would make Janis Joplin cower. Together they make a killer record. No, it's nothing new, but it's a great example of how to do soul and blues right.

4. Dust Bowl- Joe Bonamossa

I don't know what madman asked for a blues album you can headbang to, but I am forever in their debt. Wheras Don't Explain was full of solid traditionalism, Dust Bowl shows that Bonamossa isn't afraid to get a little freaky. And then get much, much more freaky. And then get freakier still. Sonically speaking, Bonamossa has released what is unequivocally the nuttiest album of the year that didn't involve Tom Waits. Fusing Chicago blues and delta blues with a touch of hard rock, Joe Bonamossa leans on the distortion pedal and pumps up the amps for the party of the year. It's been a good year for the guitarist, and I really hope that this is an indication of more to come.

3. Reverie- Joe Henry

While this is very much a thematic follow up to 2009's Blood From Stars, musically speaking Reverie is a completely different beast. Joe Henry is a true original, unrestrained by genre conventions, and a man whose only concern is if the sound fits the lyrics- in short, he is an honest to god singer-songwriter's singer-songwriter. Every bit as brilliant a composer as he is a lyricist, Henry has made a folky, stripped-down light at the end of Stars's long, dark, bluesy and dense tunnel. I still can't decide which album I like more, but they're hard to compare; Henry sound is eclectic, strung together by his ethereal production. Henry, who is a cracking producer to boot, has created a sound that is both dreamlike and very real. This is how you make a great album.

2. El Camino- the Black Keys

Last year, the blues-rock duo went down to Muscle Shoals and added a Stax soul vibe to their sound, sort of like Al Green crossed with Albert King. Now, the band picks up where they left off with Brothers and steps on the gas. The result is their most fully realized album yet. Over the last 10 years, the Black Keys have honed their sound into a perfectly imperfect mashup of genres. This is the sound that they've been searching for their entire career, and it's a sound that has already had numerous imitators. Everyone wants to be the Black Keys- a sign that they'll someday rest among the pantheon of rock gods.

1. Bad As Me- Tom Waits

No surprises here: of course I'd pick a Tom Waits album. But I assure you that this spot is well deserved. Bad As Me is the best album Waits has released in years: raw and powerful, and full of the downtrodden characters that made him famous. Waits is a first rate poet and a first rate soryteller, and he's made the perfect album for our time. It makes sense; Waits has been the patron saint of the unlucky misfit since his career began in the early 1970s. Most musicians who reach 62 years of age tend to slow down, but Waits has never, ever been "most musicians". If anything, he floors it, diving head first into the climate of discouragement and uncertainty seen throughout the nation. Waits doesn't usually get political, but he does here, and with a vengeance- the military chant "Hell Broke Luce" is a flooring, deeply affecting portrait of a soldier going mad, and "Chicago" plays to the uneasy voice of many people who, finding themselves down on their luck, find they need to move on but don't know where to go. The album is also full of classic Watsian stories full of classic one liners and fascinating weirdos. He surrounds himself with a killer band, too: riffing with Flea, Les Claypool, Marc Ribot, and Keith Richards, Tom Waits created a true classic.

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