Once again, friend and fellow music fan Andrew Careaga asked me to participate in his HigherEd Music Critics combined countdown this year. I submitted a Sweet 16 for him, but have since caught additional new music to expand to a Top 20.
20. Wilco, “The Whole Love.” Jeff Tweedy’s most self-indulgent work since “A Ghost Is Born,” but at least the new album is more listenable.
19. Rachel Yamagata, “Chesapeake.” I keep waiting for Yamagata’s material to catch up with her voice, which is warm and sweet as honey. Still waiting, but it’s not the worst wait in the world.
18. Death Cab for Cutie, “Codes and Keys.” This is a comfortable and tidy record, which is to say fairly uninteresting in Death Cab for Cutie terms. Is it wrong to muse that Ben Gibbard’s breakup with Zooey Deschanel may bring DCfC back to better material?
17. Lenka, “Two.” Lenka’s follow-up to her smashing self-titled debut is a bit of a step back. In shooting for an album of love songs with more electronica/dance touches, she still brings a fine voice but some of the material comes across as lightweight.
16. The Roots, “Undun.” This will garner a lot of critical raves, and it has some very good moments, but Us3 and Digable Planets were crafting similar brands of hip hop fusion nearly 20 years ago. And arguably doing it better.
15, The Rural Alberta Advantage, “Departing.” I generally liken them to a Canadian version of Neutral Milk Hotel, and while the RAA’s second full-length album isn’t as good as their debut “Hometowns,” it’s an intriguingly offbeat effort.
14. Drive-By Truckers, “Go Go Boots.” Any album by the Athens, Ga. roots rockers is bound to contain wonderfully twisted storylines, cheating lovers and dead bodies. In that context, this album does not disappoint.
13. Ryan Adams, “Ashes and Fire.” It takes some getting used to, this happier and mellower Ryan Adams, but the outstanding songwriting and songcraft remain. “Lucky Now” is easily one of the top singles of the year.
12. City and Colour, “Little Hell.” With gems like “We Found Each Other in the Dark,” “Grand Optimist” and “Northern Wind,” singer/songwriter Dallas Green continues to excel.
11. Feist, “Metals.” Her follow-up can’t match the sterling standard set by “The Reminder,” but listening to her voice deliciously treat words like cherished lovers is always a pleasure.
10. Mother Mother, “Eureka.” This album from the quirky Canadian band features two superlative tracks — “The Stand” and “Baby Don’t Dance” — plus enough other good songs to warrant attention.
9. Augustana, Augustana. This band just seems to get better every album. And if “Wrong Side of Love” sounds like a Killers song and other tracks appear to veer into Jayhawks territory, well, I don’t consider that bad at all.
8. Dum Dum Girls, “Only In Dreams.” I’m a sucker for the retro-girl-band-rock sound, and few acts do it better. The Dum Dum Girls deliver the goods with “Bedroom Eyes,” “In My Head,” “Coming Down” and other tracks that shake, shimmer and shine.
7. Big Talk, “Big Talk.” As much as I love Brandon Flowers, this album by Killers drummer Ronnie Vannucci Jr. shows talent runs deep in the band. Big Talk delivers relentlessly Killeresque catchy riffs drawing influences ranging from Big Star to the Cars, pulsing through top tracks like “Katzenjammer,” “Replica” and “Girl at Sunrise.”
6. Colin Devlin, “Democracy of One.” Whether in the Devlins or on his own, Colin Devlin offers lightly tinged Irish vocals and often deceptively dark lyrics over cinematic backdrops. “The Heart Won’t Be Denied,” “Raise the Dead” and the title track show this combination in fine form.
5. Matthew Good, “Lights of Endangered Species.” One of Canada’s best singer-songwriters never stands still, as this album injects strings and horn sections into his brooding, captivating material. He’s done better albums, but new songs like “Zero Orchestra,” “Extraordinary Fades” and “Non Populus” have become fan favorites.
4. The Damnwells, “No One Listens to the Band Anymore.” I have a bias with this album, since I supported it via their Pledge Music fund drive, but the results speak for themselves. Not a bad track here, and in a fairer world, marvelous melodies like “Feast of Hearts,” “Werewolves” and “The Monster” would easily merit plenty of airplay.
3. The Wiyos, “Twist.” How can you NOT love a rocking retro-jazz-blues-Vaudeville album nodding to “The Wizard of Oz” and opening with the lines “Last night my house came down on the witch/Now Munchkinland round here’s got one less b*tch.” The songwriting, musicality and atmosphere on this whole effort just deserve so much attention, and even admiration.
2. Florence + The Machines, “Ceremonials.” The combination of Florence Welch’s tour-de-force vocals and the imaginative arrangements on this set can be breathtaking. Captivating tracks such as “Only If For A Night,” “Shake It Out” and “Never Let Me Go,” among many others, show that Flo has leapt to the top ranks of female singer-songwriters on today’s scene.
1. Frank Turner, “England Keep My Bones.” My favorite discovery of the year (thank you, Lindi Himes) also released what I consider 2011′s best record. Could be best described as a young Billy Bragg with a better voice. The simple-wisdom set opener “Eulogy,” hometown paean “Wessex Boy” and rousing “I Still Believe” are among many standouts. The version with a half-dozen bonus tracks is worth it for the stunning “Balthazar, Impresario” alone.