Sure, there have been plenty of "Glee"-esque moments of soul-crushing, cringe-inducing shlock this year, but amidst the detritus have landed meaningful, thoughtful and even spiritual new albums - many of which are defying all sales expectations. Looks like the fire started in 2010 by Mumford & Sons is burning on.
1. "Ashes & Fire," Ryan Adams This stunning album reveals much about Adams that has seemingly been clouded by addiction and underlying demons thus far. Rich, warm, soulful, honest and ultimately inspiring, "Ashes & Fire" points to the new growth of a personal forest of emotions after the necessary but painful fire it took to clear the brush out. In order for a seed to grow first it must fall to the ground…
2. "Wasting Light," Foo Fighters Absolutely the best rock album of the last year - or two - Foo Fighters are in their prime and are showing all other bands what the new standard in the genre is. Every song on this disc matters. They may be doing for rock what U2 did for alternative music 30 years ago. Clearly the band of the '00s, at this rate the Foos may be making a run for the teens as well.
3. "I Love: Tom T. Hall’s Songs of Fox Hollow," various artists Buddy Miller, Patty Griffin, Duane Eddy and others recorded this tribute to Hall’s classic 1974 album "The Songs of Fox Hollow" as a tribute for his 75th birthday and I smiled like an idiot the first several times through it. If you have kids, or ever were a kid, you really need to hear this record, and the one that inspired it. Remember childhood before video games and Sponge Bob? I do.
4. "The Whole Love," Wilco If there is a better 2011 argument for the survival of the LP as a format I don’t know what it is. Wilco is simply amazing and "The Whole Love" may be their best yet. Cold, dead religion may be on the chopping block here, but something much better waits to be born.
5. "Mission Bell," Amos Lee The first time I heard this record it wrecked me. Lee has perfected his unique blend of folk, blues and gospel and has unleashed some of the best songs of the year. “Windows are Rolled Down” might be my favorite individual song of the year, but the disturbed meditation of “Jesus” comes in a close second. I just can’t tire of this album no matter how many times I spin it.
6. "Ghosts Upon The Earth," Gungor Definitely the most artistically excellent album to be released in the Christian market this year, Gungor’s "Ghosts Upon The Earth" should be heard by any fan of atmospheric, progressive, modern rock. The music is intrinsically spiritual and creatively jaw-dropping. Yes, it’s that good.
7. "Barton Hollow," The Civil Wars I’ve said it all before. Though certainly not the first to draw upon this formula (I hear Over the Rhine and Richard and Linda Thompson echoing in the background), John Paul White and Joy Williams really captured lightning in a bottle with this stunning LP.
8. "Dirty Jeans and Mudslide Hymns," John Hiatt "Dirty Jeans and Mudslide Hymns" sees Hiatt in his best element. The lead track, “Damn This Town,” is as good a meditation on personal pain and self-destructive blame as I have ever heard. When it comes to matching wit, wisdom and faith with the best of American roots rock and country, no one can touch Hiatt.
9. "Move Like This," The Cars Sadly overlooked by all but their most avid fans, Ric Ocasek and the surviving members of The Cars released a fantastic collection of modern pop-rock gems this year. Smart, catchy and emotionally true, it’s frustrating that so few noticed this one.
10. "O Black River" (and accompanying singles), Hannah Miller Hannah Miller’s textured blend of classic pop and Americana is developing rapidly as she releases indie EP after EP. "O Black River" is a slow-burning collection of soulful, southern Gothic meditations on sin, redemption, failure and solace that may be my favorite indie record of the year and should win Miller many new fans.
What were your favorite albums of 2011? Share your thoughts/lists below.
“JJT” has been chasing the thread dangling between eternal truths and temporal creative experiences for nearly three decades. He is a writer, a businessman, a father, an artist and a seeker. His Best of 2011 playlist on Spotify can be heard here.
(Illustration by Schuyler Roozeboom.)