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Best CDs of 2011

Posted by NumberSix , 11 March 2012 · 1,479 views

As one of the sixty different Americans who still look forward to new CDs, and one of the three who refuses to settle for the selection at Wal*Mart, I feel compelled to uphold the Casey Kasem tradition of arranging my music in subjective lists and forcing bands to compete in a dog show not of their own making. I'm not a professional music critic, hardly even qualified to call myself an amateur critic. I buy what seems worthy of my own cash, and let the rankings fall where they may. If someone wants to send me thousands of dollars' worth of stuff every year so I can have more excuses to write, maybe then I could provide a broader sampling. They don't, so I don't.

In 2011 my attention was caught often enough to warrant eleven new CDs and one reissue, after a pitiful 2010 that had me buying less than half that. On with the countdown!

11. Beastie Boys, Hot Sauce Committee Part Two -- After skipping their last two albums, I thought "Make Some Noise" was the kind of confident single that might herald a clichéd "return to form". For other fans, it possibly was. Other than one mandatory punk track (the standout "Lee Majors Come Again"), the overall vibe came off to me as a mellow stupor laden with just enough F-bombs to keep their target audience from nodding off and face-planting in their hookahs. Not my thing.

10. The Cars, Move Like This -- Twenty-four years between studio albums is bound to dull the reflexes. The legendary guys who made Heartbeat City one of my all-time favorite New Wave albums as a kid finally reunited to record ten new tracks that can best be summed up as mostly harmless. None contain the same level of invention as, say, "Magic" or "Hello Again", but they're not quite doomed to relocate to a Branson dinner theatre, either. "Too Late" is the only track with a chorus I can recall without cheating, but when the CD is popped in, it's a pleasant time-passer.

9. They Might Be Giants, Album Raises New and Troubling Questions -- One of my compulsory-purchase bands released an outtakes collection whose hard copy was available only for a limited time online. I'm not much interested in digital albums, though a full digital copy was provided to me for download three weeks before the CD finally arrived by mail. It was nice of them, but I listened to maybe three tracks until the mailman eventually completed me.

That being said, this particular set is even more inessential than their past outtake collections, albeit with a few strong exceptions. "Marty Beller Mask" reveals the secret behind their drummer's ferocity, which takes on an unintended new level of meaning after a recent celebrity death. Four old tracks are rearranged and rerecorded for kicks, including the still-incomprehensible "Boat of Car" from their debut album. Most notable of the batch is their cover of Chumbawumba's "Tubthumping", recorded with backing vocals by staffers from the Onion AV Club. I'm not sure whose idea it was to bury Dan Miller's guitar in the mix and shove Danny Weinkauf's bass line to the forefront, but it's a fun lark nonetheless. On the opposite end in every way, "Electronic Istanbul" is a classic turned purposeless effrontery.

8. She & Him, A Very She & Him Christmas -- It was a 2011 CD release. Just as Annie Lennox's 2010 Christmas album padded last year's list, so do Zooey Deschanel and some hipster chum show up here. When the New Girl stays front and center and quirky, the album accomplishes exactly what a secular Christmas album should. When she takes a break, it's intermission snack-time.

7. Social Distortion, Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes -- Mike Ness turns 50 this coming April 3rd, but still plays a mean punk guitar. He's not afraid to incorporate sounds that feel out of sorts on a Social D disc -- lady backup singers on "California (Hustle and Flow)", the ballad of "Bakersfield" -- but it's still a soundtrack fit for an avant-garde biker with just enough country in him to lend the right touch of gravitas to his licks.

6. Owl City, All Things Bright and Beautiful -- The Internet says I'm not allowed to like this. I don't care. Granted, I can't stomach "Alligator Sky", which has the worst featured-guest-rap of the century (you can actually predict the exact moment he'll shout "Unh!" and "Owl City!" between verses to no one in particular). And sure, our young one-man band should stop shout-singing as he attempts on "Kamikaze" and "Galaxies", because he sounds like he's trying to lose his temper but has no idea how. I forgive him. Frankly, as contemporary Christian music that dislikes revealing itself as such, it well outshines 98% of its always-Tebowing competition, taking a back seat only to that one Skillet song that sounds like most other Skillet songs and is probably called "Skillet" and might even be about a skillet. If Ben Gibbard wants to go crank out that stillborn second Postal Service album and try to put Owl City to shame, he's more than welcome to try. I'm not waiting.

5. They Might Be Giants, Join Us -- I'm dispirited to see this rank so low, yet encouraged that so many other acts besides TMBG put in such a great 2011 showing. This year's studio album has a typically killer side A in "Can't Keep Johnny Down", "You Probably Get That a Lot", "Cloisonne", "In Fact" (which stuck the phrase, "I got tripwires to finesse," in my head for weeks), and the morbid "When Will You Die", in which the band insists that you, The Listeners at Home, should hurry up and kick the bucket. Past the short, sharp shock of "Judy is Your Vietnam", the last seven tracks, alas, nosedive into obscurity.

4. Foo Fighters, Wasting Light -- Everyone already knows what this sounds like, so no real need to expound at length here. I can only emphasize that "Walk" is an exemplary anthem of a closing track, and hearing Dave Grohl jam with the one and only Bob Mould on "Dear Rosemary" was the musical highlight of my year. I imagine this is how the previous generation felt when Superman teamed up with Spider-Man.

3. John Wesley Harding, The Sound of His Own Voice -- One of the best folk-rock troubadors from my college years teamed up with the Decemberists for the kind of good-natured, off-kilter Brit-witted power pop I never get to hear on commercial radio. My favorites include the subtly scathing post-divorce satire of "Uncle Dad", the encouraging song-about-songwriting "Sing Your Own Song", the swirling guitars of "Calling Off the Experiment", and the infectious "There's a Starbucks (Where the Starbucks Used to Be)", which isn't YouTube anti-Starbucks jingle #8,000 so much as it's a simultaneously earnest and tongue-in-cheek protest against arbitrary renovation and questionable modernization.

2. Childish Gambino, Camp -- In which Donald Glover from Community, the greatest TV show you refuse to watch because you hate all that is good in the world, makes the best rap album I've bought since the 1990s. Whether autobiographical heartbreakers like "Outside" or standard braggadocio like "Bonfire", Abed's BFF Troy proves that he's not just a famous black actor convinced by his ego that he should rap. Glover actually has the skills, the beats to back them up, a nonstop stream of nerd-pandering pop-culture references (yay The Wire! Four mentions of Facebook, maybe a little less yay), and only a little angst about how sometimes fame sucks. Fortunately talent and family helped see him through the harder years that inform his best cuts, not to mention a little show called Community, returning this Thursday on NBC.

1. Fountains of Wayne, Sky Full of Holes -- The merry pranksters who rode "Stacy's Mom" into future 2000s-oldies rotation are all grown up, still catchy and occasionally sardonic, but somehow connecting with me more than ever, despite putting less power and more pretty into their pop as they age. The investors' cautionary tale of "Richie and Ruben", the road-trip love song fittingly titled "A Road Song", the blue-collar paean "Workingman's Hands", the TMBG-esque pogo-beat of "Radio Bar", the elegiac march of "Cemetery Guns", and especially "Action Hero", the new ironic theme song for any family man who chafes against the constraints of a pedestrian life while dreams recur unachieved. Emotional hills and valleys abound throughout all the other tracks as well, but copying-and-pasting the full track listing seems overboard. Fountains of Wayne may just be the very first musical act to age alongside me at just the right pace.

I also bought one 2011 reissue: Nirvana's Nevermind, which replaces my original decaying cassette. Unlike today's aging revisionists who've forgotten the context of the times, I can still remember that first time I heard "Smells Like Teen Spirit" on the radio in 1991 -- driving home 'round midnight after an otherwise average shift -- pulling up to my place halfway through the song, sitting there until it finished, and thinking to myself in all meaningful sincerity, "Cool." I can't do justice to explicating the magnitude of that "Cool", which was not something I thought to myself lightly or often. I'm delighted that it's been dusted off so nicely.

She and Him are pretty cool. I don't have their Christmas album, only Volume Two, but I like the oddness of Zooey Deschanel's voice.

I love the Foo Fighters for their consistency. They are the meat and potatoes of rock and as such they are delicious when consumed on a day when you just want something familiar and warm.
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