Best Albums of 2011

The album is still king for me. In an age of singles, these albums were my favorites of 2011. I heard plenty of other good records beyond this top 50, and I don’t doubt for a second that I missed a myriad other worthwhile recordings.

1. BILL CALLAHAN: APOCALYPSE (Drag City) — Bill Callahan speaks as much as he sings. It’s as if he’s telling you something important in a private conversation. Something important, and yet cryptic. Afterward, you find yourself asking: Just what did he mean when he told me, “Hey, no more drovering”? This recording lets you play back the conversation, and the next time you hear it, it sounds as if he means something different than you’d thought before. The words become more and more musical with each listen, until the lines that seemed like monotone spoken word become indelible melodies. His sentences transform into songs, and the songs themselves seem to morph as they go along, dancing from one shape into another, trembling and buzzing as they go. A strange and singular masterpiece.

2. GILLIAN WELCH: THE HARROW & THE HARVEST (Acony) — Old-fashioned musical idioms — mountain folk songs and murder ballads — become timeless and somehow even contemporary when channeled through the intertwined voices and guitars of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. Welch’s rustic tales of woe are as evocative as ever, and there’s no need to add effects or other instruments when the music is this perfect and beautiful.

3. THEE OH SEES: CARRION CRAWLER/THE DREAM (In the Red) — They turned it up to 11. Everything is cranked up to almost alarming levels of intensity on this California band’s newest record, with one rampaging garage rock tune after another. When Thee Oh Sees get into a groove and keep it going for a while, it pummels you into a trancelike submission. It all crackles with electricity, while the constant male-female harmonies emit a spooky, ethereal atmosphere.

4. BONNIE “PRINCE” BILLY: WOLFROY GOES TO TOWN (Drag City) — The latest in a string of very, very good records by Will Oldham. No further proof was necessary that he’s a genius singer-songwriter, but here it is anyway. Gentle folk rock with a sense of stillness and introspection at its core, the music is punctuated with a few of Oldham’s typically shocking lyrics, as well as some beautiful harmonies with a spiritual air about them. The sacred and profane are both in abundance here.

5. TOM WAITS: BAD AS ME (Anti-) — So many of Tom Waits’ strengths as a storyteller, musical craftsman, songwriter and singer — yes, a singer! — are on display here. It’s a well-rounded collection of memorable new songs by one of the all-time greats, with poetic and funny turns of phrase, a little bit of the Spanish tinge, roadhouse rock ’n’ roll, wistful ballads, and even a touch of Waits’ early Beat-poet-hanging-out-at-the-bar vibe. On songs like the opening track, “Chicago,” Waits channels one of the great American musical genres, the blues, into a dark, churning form that’s all his own. And when he breaks out into a chorus of “Auld Lang Syne” at the end of the album — well, haven’t we all been waiting years for him to do that?

6. YUCK: YUCK (Fat Possum) — So they sound like some other band. Or a bunch of other bands. So what? Who doesn’t sound like someone else? Influences and resemblances don’t matter as much as whether the songs stand up on their own. And Yuck’s songs were among the year’s catchiest, filled with wonderfully loopy guitar riffs and power-pop choruses. What an enjoyable listen this album is.

7. P.J. HARVEY: LET ENGLAND SHAKE (Vagrant) — The always-inventive P.J. Harvey did something novel on her latest record: She sampled. Not the sort of sampling heard in hip-hop, but borrowing some unexpected musical elements. A xylophone melody lifted from the old novelty tune “Istanbul (Not Constantinople.” Some Russian folk lyrics. A line from Eddie Cochrane’s “Summertime Blues” (“I’m going to take my problem to the United Nations”). A bugle call grafted onto one of Harvey’s songs, sounding at first like it’s jarringly in the wrong key and out of tempo with the song, but then gradually defying logic and seeming like an indispensible part of the track. These mash-ups seemed to inspire Harvey to make one of her most diverse and unusual sets of songs, with a lyrical point of view that’s both expansive and introspective.

8. MICKEY: ROCK ’N ROLL DREAMER (HoZac) — Garage rock was hot in 2011, especially in Chicago, where the HoZac record label is the center of an exciting scene. One of the bands in this scene, Mickey, plays fun but frequently sloppy live shows, filled with drunken energy. The band tamed that rambunctious recklessness just enough to let the strength of its songs shine through on this debut studio album, which sounds like a lost classic of the ’70s era of proto-punk and glam. Long live rock ’n’ roll dreamers!

9. CHARLES BRADLEY: NO TIME FOR DREAMING (Dunham/Daptone) — Charles Bradley’s bio was one of the year’s most moving stories, and he had a terrific debut album to match — a debut album he recorded at the age of 62. Like Sharon Jones before him, Bradley is a soul singer who performed for decades without getting much attention until being discovered by the folks at the Daptone label. The songs are inspired by the frustrations and tragedies Bradley has dealt with in his life, including the murder of his brother, and they sound like classic ’60s soul. Despite the retro sound, the record is a searing and powerful statement on today’s America, a plea for a better world delivered with passion by a man who really, really means it.

10. RADIOHEAD: THE KING OF LIMBS (TBD) — Radiohead carries on with its transformation, heading further in the direction of experimental and ambient art rock … and yet, underneath all of the pulsing sonic haze, the band is still making songs that stick with you. Somehow, Radiohead manages to sound chilled-out and twitchy at the same time, and the results are consistently intriguing, whether you’re dancing or supine as you listen.

11. The Feelies: Here Before (Bar None)
12. Sam Phillips: Cameras in the Sky (self-released)
13. Wild Flag: Wild Flag (Sub Pop)
14. Wussy: Strawberry (Shake It)
15. Mekons: Ancient & Modern: 1911-2011 (Sin/Bloodshot)
16. Drive-By Truckers: Go-Go Boots (ATO)
17. Wilco: The Whole Love (dBpm/Anti-)
18. Chad VanGaalen: Diaper Island (Sub Pop)
19. Cults: Cults (Itno)
20. Cave: Neverendless (Drag City)
21. Low: C’mon (Sub Pop)
22. Cass McCombs: Wit’s End (Domino)
23. Woods: Sun and Shade (Woodsist)
24. John Luther Adams (performed by Stephen Drury, Scott Deal and the Callithumpian Consort): Four Thousand Holes (Cold Blue Music)
25. St. Vincent: Strange Mercy (4AD)
26. The Skull Defekts: Peer Amid (Thrill Jockey)
27. Lyyke Li: Wounded Ryhmes (Atlantic)
28. I Was A King: Old Friends (Sounds Familyre)
29. Tinariwen: Tassili (Anti-)
30. Eleventh Dream Day: Riot Now! (Thrill Jockey)
31. Heavy Times: Heavy Times (HoZac)
32. Marissa Nadler: Marissa Nadler (Box of Cedar)
33. Fungi Girls: Some Easy Magic (HoZac)
34. My Brightest Diamond: All Things Will Unwind (Asthmatic Kitty)
35. The Go! Team: Rolling Blackouts (Memphis Industries)
36. Mannequin Men: Mannequin Men (Addenda)
37. Raphael Saadiq: Stone Rollin’ (Columbia)
38. The Singleman Affair: Silhouettes at Dawn (Cardboard Sangria)
39. A.A. Bondy: Believers (Fat Possum)
40. Bodies of Water: Twist Again (Secretly Canadian)
41. yMusic: Beautiful Mechanical (New Amsterdam)
42. The People’s Temple: Sons of Stone (HoZac)
43. Boston Spaceships: Let It Beard (Guided By Voices)
44. NRBQ: Keep This Love Goin’ (Clang!)
45. Girls: Father, Son, Holy Ghost (True Panther)
46. White Hills: H-p1 (Thrill Jockey)
47. Tune-Yards: Whokill (4AD)
48. Disappears: Guider (Kranky)
49. Nick Lowe: That Old Magic (Yep Roc)
50. Fleet Foxes: Helplessness Blues (Sub Pop)

Favorite concert photos of 2011

These are my favorites out of the photos I took at concerts in 2011.

SCREAMING FEMALES Jan. 14 at Lincoln Hall
HANDSOME FURS Jan. 15 at Lincoln Hall
LITTLE DRAGON Jan. 16 at Lincoln Hall
KINGS GO FORTH Jan. 21 at the Double Door
BUDDY GUY Jan. 23 at Buddy Guy's Legends
YO LA TENGO Feb. 4 at Metro
THE DRIVE-BY TRUCKERS Feb. 26 at the Vic
RON SEXSMITH March 22 at Schubas
WHITE HILLS March 23 at the Empty Bottle
WHITE HILLS March 23 at the Empty Bottle
SKULL DEFEKTS March 31 at the Hideout
SILVER ABUSE April 16 at Permanent Records
LOW April 21 at Lincoln Hall
ELEVENTH DREAM DAY April 22 at Lincoln Hall
THE SPITS May 27 at the HoZac Blackout Festival
NONES May 28 at the HoZac Blackout Festival
EARTH June 8 at Mayne Stage
GRUFF RHYS June 9 at Schubas
HANGGAI June 9 at the Pritzker Pavilion
SWORD HEAVEN June 11 in the Neon Marshmallow Fest at the Empty Bottle
CENTRO-MATIC July 3 at Schubas
EMA July 15 at the Pitchfork Music Festival
TUNE-YARDS July 15 at the Pitchfork Music Festival
GUIDED BY VOICES July 15 at the Pitchfork Music Festival
NEKO CASE July 15 at the Pitchfork Music Festival
ZOLA JESUS July 16 at the Pitchfork Music Festival
OFF! July 16 at the Pitchfork Music Festival
KURT VILE July 17 at the Pitchfork Music Festival
ODD FUTURE July 17 at the Pitchfork Music Festival
ODD FUTURE July 17 at the Pitchfork Music Festival
ODD FUTURE audience July 17 at the Pitchfork Music Festival
ARIEL PINK'S HAUNTED GRAFFITI July 17 at the Pitchfork Music Festival
HEALTH July 17 at the Pitchfork Music Festival
GILLIAN WELCH July 22 at the Vic

WILD FLAG July 23 at Wicker Park Fest
WILD FLAG July 23 at Wicker Park Fest
FOOTBALL July 24 at the Illinois Centennial Monument
THEE OH SEES July 24 at the Illinois Centennial Monument

THEE OH SEES July 24 at the Illinois Centennial Monument
ANATOMY OF HABIT Aug. 7 at the Empty Bottle

MY BRIGHTEST DIAMOND Aug. 8 at the Pritzker Pavilion

MAGIC KEY Aug. 21 at the Illinois Centennial Monument
TERRY ADAMS with NRBQ Aug. 27 at FitzGerald’s
SCOTT LIGON with NRBQ Aug. 27 at FitzGerald’s
SOUL TRAIN CONCERT Sept. 5 at the Pritzker Pavilion
THE EMOTIONS Sept. 5 at the Pritzker Pavilion
BILL CALLAHAN Sept. 16 at Brilliant Corners of Popular Amusements

CHARLES BRADLEY Sept. 17 at Brilliant Corners of Popular Amusements
WHITE MYSTERY Sept. 24 at the Hideout Block Party
WHITE MYSTERY Sept. 24 at the Hideout Block Party
BOOKER T. JONES Sept. 24 at the Hideout Block Party
MAVIS STAPLES Sept. 24 at the Hideout Block Party
LE BUTCHERETTES Nov. 4 at Subterranean
ROCKET FROM THE TOMBS Dec. 7 at the Empty Bottle
ALABAMA SHAKES Dec. 15 at the Hideout

Best concerts of 2011

These are my favorite musical performances that I saw in 2011, with quotes from my original blog posts.

1. ALABAMA SHAKES (Dec. 15 at Hideout). “Wow, did Alabama Shakes live up to the hype. This was the most joyous, energetic and lively musical performance I’ve seen in 2011, and a Hideout crowded with enthusiastic fans was the perfect place to see and hear Alabama Shakes. … The crowd was shouting for more at the end — even if it meant playing some of the same songs over again.” (Original blog post and more photos.)

2. CHARLES BRADLEY (Brilliant Corners of Popular Amusements festival Sept. 17). “Some of his soul shouts gave me chills. … His feelings clearly came out of real experience as he belted the chorus, ‘Why is it so hard to make it in America?’ As the curtain closed on the stage, Bradley jumped down and hugged everyone he could.” (Original blog post and more photos.)

3. THEE OH SEES (Nov. 23 at Empty Bottle). “Somehow, Thee Oh Sees manage to make everything sound like it’s turned up and sped up a notch beyond expectations. … The fantastic, charged music of Thee Oh Sees … sent the crowd into a writhing frenzy.” (Original blog post and more photos.)

4. WILD FLAG (Oct. 9 at Empty Bottle). This was the second time I’d seen Wild Flag perform in 2011, following a July 23 set during Wicker Park Fest. That was a great set, but the four members of Wild Flag were really on fire on the second night of their fall return to Chicago, lifting their songs to another level as they jammed out with joyous abandon.

5. GODSPEED YOU! BLACK EMPEROR (March 26-27 at Metro). “The eight musicians … said barely a word to the audience over the course of the last two nights, concentrating intently on their dark, brooding and apocalyptic music. … The visual accompaniment added to the sense that these ‘songs’ (if that’s even the right word) tell stories, despite the lack of lyrics. And no singing was necessary to convey emotion, either. It was music capable of raising goosebumps.” (Original blog post and more photos.)

6. ELVIS COSTELLO & THE IMPOSTERS (May 15 at Chicago Theatre). “It was truly a ‘show,’ not just a typical concert. Reviving a gimmick he featured in a 1980s tour, Costello gave audience members a chance to come up on stage and spin the big wheel, which had about 40 songs or ‘jackpot’ slots on it … Costello put on a top hat and grabbed a cane … (and) guided Sunday’s audience through a diverse set of songs…” (Original blog post.)

7. MY BRIGHTEST DIAMOND WITH THE CHICAGO YOUTH SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA (Aug. 8 at Millennium Park). “How beautiful it was to hear the concert begin with the opening notes of ‘Dragonfly’ from My Brightest Diamond’s 2006 debut album, Bring Me the Workhorse — those swooping, sweeping violins. The concert was filled with terrific moments like that…” (Original blog post and more photos.)

8. SKULL DEFEKTS (March 31 at Hideout). “With his gray beard, (Daniel) Higgs resembled an Old Testament character or a crew member of an old whaling vessel as he commanded the stage Thursday with his unrestrained vocals. The rest of Skull Defekts — two drummers and two guitarists — never let up with their jagged punk-garage riffs.” (Original blog post and more photos.)

9. WILCO (Dec. 13 at Riviera). “This is one exceptional group of musicians, seemingly capable of playing anything. … It felt like the band could play until morning…” (Original blog post.)

10. RICHARD THOMPSON (Sept. 12 at Evanston Space). “As always, Thompson made his guitar sing, often sounding like an entire band — or two or three guitars, anyway. … The dark, quiet songs were especially haunting…” (Original blog post.)

Honorable mentions:
Bill Callahan (Brilliant Corners of Popular Amusements Sept. 16)
The Flaming Lips (July 7 at Aragon)
Le Butcherettes (Nov. 4 at Subterranean)
Neil Young and Bert Hansch (May 6 at the Chicago Theatre)
M. Ward (Dec. 4 at Schubas)
NRBQ (Aug. 27 at FitzGerald’s)
Drive-By Truckers (Feb. 26 at Vic)
Gillian Welch (July 22 at the Vic)
Tune-Yards (Pitchfork Music Festival July 15 at Union Park)
Mavis Staples (Hideout Block Party Sept. 24 at Hideout)
Screaming Females (Tomorrow Never Knows festival Jan. 14 at Lincoln Hall)
Soul Train 40th anniversary concert with the Chi-Lites, the Emotions, the Impressions, Jerry “The Iceman” Butler (Sept. 5 at Millennium Park)