My favorites jumped around a lot this year but the two at the top– despite one’s “newness”– are easily ahead of the rest.  2011 wasn’t the best year ever for music, but it produced a small number of records that I really like.

*1. Foo Fighters, Wasting Light
I called this my record of the year halfway through 2011.  “If there is a better second half of the year release I’ll console myself with that hypothetically brain-punchingly excellent album.”  Bands get sharper over time; few have hit the running peak of passion and musicianship the Foos are on right now.

*1. The Black Keys, El Camino
Good news, there’s a tie!  Obviously, the Foos’ album drips with passion and raw power. El Camino rocks for sure, but there is a swagger [Dangermouse] to it.  It is not just foot-stomping fun but also hand-clapping cool.  It doesn’t matter how much that song sounds like “Stairway to Heaven” [“Little Black Submarines”] or that the lyrics are at times ambiguous at best [why and what is gold on the ceiling and how are people trying to take it?].  This is a fun record to listen to and, much like the Foos, no one is going to take the ubiquitous bathroom break when they are playing new material on tour.

2. Hayes Carll, KMAG YOYO 
Never heard of him. Saw two Carll on my way out of a show (Jason Isbell).  Bought the album out of left field.  Alt-country, straight-up country, straight-up rock, and a bunch of overt Dylan influence. Reflections on the current state of everything interspersed with damn funny lyrics set to nice good tunes equal great (and fun) album. Favorite line, “I’m like James Brown, only white and taller”.

3. Ryan Adams, Ashes & Fire
It is slower with no upbeat numbers and the songs mainly deal with relationships.  Usually this is the Ryan Adams stuff that gets boring–and pretentious–quick.  But Adams continues to get better, somehow, as a song writer and his slow jams are just that-they’ve finally got rhythm.

4. Steve Earle, I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive
This album grew on me.  Yes, I’m a huge Earle fan. A very solid effort from the elder and bearded Earle.  ‘The Gulf of Mexico” is the best song about the region I’ve heard Post-Katrina.  Also, can we just talk about how he is basically just playing an uncredited version of himself on HBO’s Treme?  Thanks.

5. The Joy Formidable, The Big Roar
I am not even sure why I like this.  I don’t normally like stuff like this. It is just good.  The lyrics, the sound, the cohesive delivery.  It does a fantastic job of pushing the ball to the edge of interesting without getting too weird or to unfocused.

6. Jason Isbelland the 400 Unit, Here We Rest
Isbell’s enhanced comfort with the 400 Unit on their 2nd album together and his ability to pen a pop tune coupled with his sharp story-telling style is a beautiful thing.  “Heart on a String” is the only miss here.  It sounds like a lost 1980s car commercial, it’s omission would likely have bumped this above touring-mate, Carll, but I don’t have to skip any songs on Carll’s album.

7. Justin Townes Earle, Harlem River Blues
I’ve always been a casual follower because I am a HUGE Steve Earle fan.  This album made me a Justin Townes Earle fan.  He loses the not quite country/not quite folksy shtick and just plays some good modern rockabilly (WTF is that?).  You would think dropping the underachieving son of a legend into Brooklyn would only turn up the pretense, right? Well it did, but it still sounds awesome.  This is a countrified love letter to New York City in vein of Ryan Adam’s Gold (which is a great album, too). “Harlem River Blues” for song of the year.  AMA nominated for record of the year, too.

8. Steel Panther, Balls Out
All I can say is wow.  This former Van Halen cover band rips through ridiculous lyrics in the vein of Tenacious D set to pitch perfect 80s rock/metal tunes.  Basically, they actually sing what every David Lee Roth song was alluding to.  As two friends mentioned, you have to wonder 1) what would happen to someone if they actually followed the singer’s instructions and 2) if any one has alerted Tiger Woods to the debauched song “If You Want To Be Like Tiger Woods” — and what his reaction was.

9. Tom Waits, Bad As Me
I’ll keep this short: Tom Waits records always sound weird.  Tom Waits records sometimes sound good. This one sounds weird and good.

10. Dropkick Murphys, Going Out In Style
If you know these guys and don’t like ‘em then move along, nothing new here. There is nothing with the mass appeal of “I’m Shipping Up To Boston”, yet this raucous new Dropkicks effort GOIS is the parking lot soundtrack to every MLS stadium with an Irish crowd tailgating. Bruce Springsteen pops up on “Peg o’ My Heart”, a real surprise if you didn’t know it was coming on the second to last song.

11. The Strokes, Angles
The Strokes have a lot of influences and can pay for very good production. We get it. The best songs sound like vintage Undercover of Darkness Strokes.  “You’re So Right” comes off as a wanna be Radiohead track, no good papi. “Gratisfaction” is an attempt at a Billy Joel-ing, and surprisingly it works. A friend recently told me about the time Drew Barrymore gave him attitude while ordering drinks at a bar on Avenue B back when they were the NYC Strokes. “What the hell has she done lately?  I own a bar down the street now!” I want to hear Angles played loudly at his bar so I can decide for sure if they’ve done anything lately.


* The White Buffalo, Prepare For Black & Blue
Technically, this was an EP (and may have been released in late 2010) — but I don’t care, you should listen to it.

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