Here's my "Top 25" (only because I just don't have the time or energy to do 50). This was harder to do than it's ever been, and frankly I nearly gave up and just threw them all out there alphabetically. Most of Rocksteady's disclaimers apply to me as well - if you asked me again in a week, the rankings might be different, and there is admittedly a lot of good music I just didn't have the time to give proper attention (or any attention). It was just about a year ago that I reached out to Rocksteady, JD and Hardy. The request was nebulous: "hey, want to help me write a music blog? You don't have to review anything you don't like and you have complete control over what, when and how much you write." To my great joy, they all three assented and have supplied some of my favorite recommendations over the last year. From the comments I've received, it seems they've done the same for our readers, too.
The reviews we've linked to should contain links themselves which will allow you to find the artists' websites, soundcloud pages, etc. where you can listen to more, usually download a track or two for free, and buy it. Or you can go to your local record store... like Grimey's (and check out their 2011 favorites for a few more suggestions).
1. Centro-matic - Candidate Waltz: My favorite record since Love You Just The Same from these guys, I'll just point you to my review and ask: Too effusive? WYMA Review.
2. Boston Spaceships - Let It Beard: It was the best thing of the six records that Bob Pollard Rock Industries put out this year. Keeping the customers satisfied is a high priority, and nothing works quite like a double album full of the four P's, humor and great guest spots by fellow rock travelers like J Mascis and Steve Wynn. Chris Slusarenko has made the transition from playing in a GbV cover band to co-writing a sprawling collection of 29 songs, every single one of which is listenable and most of which are delightful… and John Moen’s power rock drumming helps the band bring back memories of a time when rock could fill arenas with bands from Boston who made you think of Spaceships… “Let it beard, let it beard, let it beard, and get all weird…” Well said, as usual. WYMA Review.
3. Jim Lauderdale - Reason And Rhyme: A musician's musician, a songwriter's songwriter, a leader of a regular country music revue and sometime radio host, it would seem Jim Lauderdale has more on his plate than one man could handle. And yet he was able to find the time to sit down and write another album (bluegrass this time) with lyricist Robert Hunter and put together a crack bluegrass band. Is there a place where the Carter Family meets the Grateful Dead? If there is, this is it. Not a meandering jam band uttering the same old standards with a watered-down boogie, but a crisp bluegrass band with a super-talented lead man, playing smartly-written turns on Americana. WYMA Review.
4. David Kilgour & The Heavy Eights - Left By Soft: While my fellow bloggers gave (and deservedly so) massive praise to the Bats record, I want to call attention to the other corner of the New Zealand guitar rock pantheon, David Kilgour of The Clean. I loved this record when it came out and as I listened to other things, I sort of put it aside. When I took some of the earlier stuff out to listen in December, this thing just moved right back up – where it belongs. The guitars on “Diamond Mine” are pure joy. WYMA Review. When I reviewed it, there were no videos available. They’ve since released this one:
5. The Semis - Decapitator Blues: This is a hardworking and talented Florida band, playing everything from sunny power pop to full-on Stones raunch, that really ought to be better known. If anybody from a label reads this list, get down to Tampa and see if there is some apparent reason Billy Summers isn't already famous. Because reckoning by his music, he should be. WYMA Review.
6. JEFF The Brotherhood - We Are The Champions: Heirs to the Stooges/Ramones “school” of rock so stupid it’s smart. Or so smart, it's stupid... They throw a little bit of Beach Boys-style harmonies in, too. Part of a burgeoning garage/punk scene based in Nashville consisting of bands like Turbo Fruits, Pujol and the Ettes, and benefiting from a part time association with Jack White’s Third Man Studio, JEFF the Brotherhood just keep getting better. WYMA Feature. Here's a later video for a long single they released on Third Man Records... that's Jack on keyboards:
7. WATERS - Out In The Light: To be honest, I never heard (or remember hearing) Port O’Brien, Van Pierszalowski’s previous band. But I’m glad he broke it up so he could make this record… very much in the indie spirit of bands like the Pixies – terrific guitars. WYMA Review.
8. Circus Devils - Capsized! And so begins the flood of Robert Pollard projects. He made our 2011 so much better than it would otherwise have been, and he did it seemingly effortlessly. Circus Devils is an outlet for Bob’s wicked sense of humor and darker musical impulses… if you’re not familiar, this is a great place to start (and of course, you ought to proceed immediately to the great Harold Pig Memorial). WYMA Review.
9. Mars Classroom - New Theory of Everything: Pollard plus Big Dipper (Gary Waleik) plus Pell Mell (Robert Beerman) equals ridiculously catchy indie rock. This record consisted of jangly power pop, wistful ballads, a terrific rhythm section, a variety of great guitar sounds and one of Pollard’s best vocal turns ever. WYMA Review.
10. The Lifeguards - Waving At The Astronauts: Pollard plus Doug Gillard equals Lifeguards, a band that embodies in its name Pollard and Gillard’s apparent fixation on the concept of the hero. Quoting myself (I think I can do that, it’s my blog): Pollard and Gillard are clearly interested in the concept of the hero: astronauts, volunteer firemen, lifeguards... and I would put them in that category, at least in spirit, for doing their part to save rock's flaming ass from itself. While the industry continues to founder and lurch from one kid-friendly trend to another, there are guys like Pollard and Gillard, working in places like Dayton, Ohio, to deliver rock excellence to folks like us. Speak kindly is the least I could do. WYMA Review.
11. Robert Pollard - Space City Kicks: Maybe the best example of all four P’s released by Mr. Pollard this year, this record is short but sweet (and also salty). In my review I cited influences from Roky Erickson, Bowie, Beefheart and The Who. Synthesis can be fun! WYMA Review.
12. Robert Pollard - Lord Of The Birdcage: This was billed as “Robert Pollard’s poetry put to music”. You could definitely sense the poetic impulse and how it affected the song structure. While his lyrics are always a strong point, I think he intended these to stand either with or without music, and they do. “I tried to stop the rock. You can’t stop the rock.” WYMA Review.
13. The Black Keys - El Camino: More Nashvillians making great down and dirty rock and roll. I like the glam sounds, and the Danger Mouse input. I’ve been “on board” for the whole ride with these guys, ever since one of my old buddies at Grimey’s pushed the vinyl copy of The Big Come-Up my way. We didn’t review this record on WYMA, but everybody else did, and there was plenty of publicity.
14. Booker T. Jones - The Road From Memphis: How this record, featuring a dream collaboration of Booker with The Roots, Dennis Coffey on guitar and a guest lineup of indie rock and soul greats, flew under the radar is a mystery to me. There should always be a place in the world for music this good. My favorite song is “Progress” – it really swings and Jim James (My Morning Jacket) is clearly enjoying the opportunity to work with these guys. But there are a lot of highlights – a nice soul workout “Down in Memphis” featuring Sharon Jones and Matt Berninger, and "The Bronx", with Lou Reed on vocals, among them. WYMA Review.
15. Yuck - Yuck: Great young British band on Fat Possum puts together one of those records. You know those records? "This sounds like... it sounds like..." and to finish the sentence you're coming up with Dinosaur Jr., Sebadoh, Sonic Youth... If you haven’t heard one of those in a while, get to know this one. Charming and well-played, it held up very well over the course of the year. WYMA Review.
16. The Feelies - Here Before: As with any band reunion after a long time apart, there are questions – the Feelies themselves ask if the “Time is Right”… and the answer is yes. It’s both unexpected and wonderful to have had R.E.M., The Bats, David Kilgour and The Feelies all release good guitar rock albums in 2011. WYMA Review.
17. The Joy Formidable - The Big Roar: I like the truth in packaging of the album title. Almost every song builds up to a roar, with the drums and guitars turned way up. It almost has to be that way to supply proper backing to Ritzy Bryan’s voice. They rock ridiculously hard- check out this live clip of “A Heavy Abacus”! WYMA Review.
18. Mogwai - Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will: Here’s the point at which I thank our resident Scots-phile, Rocksteady74, for letting me carry on about Mogwai. So, thanks. Mogwai haven’t disappointed me yet. Every one of their records has contained a new favorite song of mine… here it’s “San Pedro”. WYMA Review.
19. Glen Campbell - Ghost On The Canvas: The debt that any current rock singer or songwriter owes to Glen Campbell and Jimmy Webb is hard to calculate, but not often acknowledged. Campbell's Farewell Tour has given a lot of folks the opportunity to do this, and the results are magnificent. Campbell has been a top session singer and guitar player in both rock and country (once touring with the Beach Boys as a fill-in for Brian Wilson), a TV and movie star, but on this record he received support from a lot of the artists he helped pave the way for… and he covered a Guided by Voices song! My favorite track on here – and the one to buy if you only have 99 cents – is a cover of Teddy Thompson’s “In My Arms”. It’s upbeat, really beautifully sung, and features guitar pyrotechnics by Campbell, Dick Dale and Chris Isaak. We didn’t review it on WYMA. Maybe we should have… Glen Campbell Website.
20. Tom Waits - Bad As Me: Just a wonderful record. Waits gets inside his characters and the songs that result are rich, full and very entertaining. Collaborating with David Hidalgo was a great idea… there’s always seemed to be a certain kinship between the sounds of Waits and Los Lobos. WYMA Review.
21. Richard Buckner - Our Blood: A typical, which is to say, outstanding and affecting, album from Richard Buckner. He's so consistent and his songcraft is so strong that he is one of the few artists whose work I will purchase before listening. Here's a link to an earlier post I put up to announce the release.
22. Joe Henry - Reverie: I wrote our review on this record and I will point out that it was not an easy record to get into. You know how you trust certain artists? Henry is somebody you can absolutely trust. If he wants to go in a new direction - say, from blues influenced singer to blues singer, go with him. The trip is a rewarding one. The themes on this record vary from old jazz to Delta blues to Bogart, Cooper or Fonda movie soundtracks - fitting for an artist who steeps himself in the history of "old L.A." WYMA Review.
23. Laura Stevenson & the Cans - Sit Resist: A truly delightful record from a young artist backed by a talented postpunk band. Which is not to say that it's a postpunk album. It's a singer/songwriter album - by a great vocalist - with a great variety of sounds and tempos. This is a very "human" record, for want of a better descriptor. Do yourself a favor and see what I mean - the video for "The Healthy One" is below. WYMA Review.
24. Apex Manor - The Year Of Magical Drinking: Here's a title that's become less ironic since the album's release, as Apex Manor's website indicates frontman Ross Flournoy has entered treatment in August. I wish him the best and want to once again state for the record that this record joins the Broken West records as some of my favorite pop/rock albums. The guy's really got a way with a song. WYMA Review.
25. Wye Oak - Civilian: Another female vocalist with a big voice and some strong guitar work backing her up... Wye Oak is a Baltimore duo I just discovered this year, and they quickly became a favorite. Wish I could rank this higher... but then I wish I could add the next 20 albums to this list, too. WYMA Review.
HONORABLE MENTION (Really hated to leave these off, or need to spend some more time with 'em - some we wrote about, some we didn't):
David Bazan - Strange Negotiations
Elba - Elba
Foo Fighters - Wasting Light
Gardens - Gardens
Henry's Funeral Shoe - Donkey Jacket
I Was A King - Old Friends
J Mascis - Several Shades of Why
James Pants - James Pants
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit - Here We Rest
Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter - Marble Son
Joey Ryan and the Inks - Dennis Lane
Lydia Loveless - Indestructible Machine
R.E.M. - Collapse Into Now
Radio Moscow- The Great Escape of Leslie Magnafuzz
Sad Face - Gosh Darn!
Strong Killings - Strong Killings
The Bats - Free All The Monsters
The Big Sweet - Ultraviolet Rain
The Drive-by Truckers - Go-Go Boots
The Janks - Hands of Time
The Midgetmen - Loud Enough
The Milk Carton Kids - Prologue
The Pack a.d. - Unpersons
The War On Drugs - Slave Ambient
Unknown Mortal Orchestra - Unknown Mortal Orchestra
Wilco - The Whole Love
Youth Lagoon - The Year of Hibernation
I guess the lesson here, if there is a lesson, is: there is plenty of really good music out there. Don't settle for whatever "the man" wants you to listen to. The gang at WYMA is always happy to help. Thanks so much for reading, and for sharing our site with friends. Here's to even more music and harder decisions in 2012...