These are selections #51 through #60 in our Best Albums of 2011 countdown series.
Released: March 11, 2011
Label: Lost Highway
Metacritic Score: 79
Charts: #15 The Billboard 200, #23 Top Canadian Albums, #19 Top Digital Albums, #4 Top Rock Albums
I'm a Lucinda Williams fan, and like most, I hold Car Wheels On A Gravel Road as her high water mark. Don't get me wrong, there's been something to love in all of Lucinda's albums, but none have been as transformative, as memorable, as perfect as Car Wheels On A Gravel Road. I'm not sure I'm ready to say that Blessed has surpassed Car Wheels..., but I can say, that if it hasn't, it's pretty damn close. Lucinda's songs are mature and steady here, providing the perfect setting for the stories she tells with that gravelly, angelic voice of hers.
Released: January 11, 2011
Label: Great Speckled Dog Records
Metacritic Score: N/A
Album Charts: N/A
This diaphanous album by Over The Rhine was fan-funded and produced by Joe Henry, who also produced two other albums that made my top 100 this year, including his own. In addition, The Long Surrender also features a guest appearance by another 2011 list-maker, Lucinda Williams. This record is sparse, melancholy, and fueled by the instantly arresting beauty that Over The Rhine has become known for. This is a true DIY album, by a band that has received some recognition, but not anywhere near what they deserve.
Released: February 1, 2011
Metacritic Score: 69
Album Charts: #12 The Billboard 200, #1 Top Digital Albums, #4 Top Independent Albums, #3 Top Rock Albums
If you're like me, and a sucker for clean acoustic guitar and male/female perfect pitch harmonies, than Barton Hallow is not a record you should miss. In fact, if it wasn't for Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, this would be the best acoustic duo album released this year. The Civil Wars create music that aches and smolders, and you'll be hard-pressed to turn this off once you turn it on. Gorgeous.
Released: April 12, 2011
Label: Hear Music
Metacritic Score: 85
Album Charts: #4 The Billboard 200, #7 Top Canadian Albums, #4 Top Digital Albums, #2 Top Rock Albums
In the back of my mind I have always considered Paul Simon a musician who could do anything. So Beautiful Or So What is more confirmation that immense talent walks among us in the deceiving form of short Jewish guys. Paul Simon has nothing to prove to anyone these days. The man has 13 Grammy Awards, including a Lifetime Achievement award, millions and millions of records sold and an iconic status among musicians and the public at large. But as you can hear on his latest release, he's in this songwriting game because he's damn good at it.
Released: May 17, 2011
Label: Sugar Hill
Metacritic Score: 80
Album Charts: #98 The Billboard 200, #2 Top Bluegrass Albums, #16 Top Independent Albums, #26 Top Rock Albums
There's a reason roots music has had such a grand resurgence lately. It's real, and it connects with listeners in the same way it did back when human-ape creatures first started singing and making sounds for one another. Sarah Jarosz version of roots music is as good as anything being recorded today, and Sarah's sophomore effort, Follow Me Down, is a fine example of why a radiant female voice and acoustic instruments are a hard combination to beat.
Released: January 18, 2011
Label: Fat Possum
Metacritic Score: 80
Album Charts: #114 The Billboard 200, #1 Top Heatseekers, #18 Top Independent Albums, #20 Top Modern Rock/Alternative Albums, #29 Top Rock Albums
2011 has been a good year for breaking the curse of the "sophomore slump". Dye It Blonde by Smith Westerns is another fine example of how a second full length album can actually be better than the first. This record is happy and fun lofi rock n' roll, and it's clearly built by some guys playing what feels right as opposed to playing what they think the intellectuals down at the coffee shop will say. Let hope they keep it that way.
Kendrick Lamar -"Section.80"#57. Section.80 by Kendrick Lamar
Released: July 2, 2011
Label: Top Dawg Entertainment
Metacritic Score: 80
Album Charts: #22 R&B Albums, #113 The Billboard 200, #21 Top Digital Albums, #1 Top Heatseekers, #19 Top Independent Albums, #13 Top Rap Albums
Yep, another sophomore effort makes the list, this time it's an artist who has succeeded in keeping the hype ball rolling since it was first pushed down the hill with his 2010 debut album Overly Dedicated. On Section.80 Kendrick Lamar paints a vivid portrait of street life in Los Angeles. Drugs? Prostitution? Death? Check. Check. Check. It's all here, laid out starkly in Kendrick's unique voice.
Released: February 14, 2011
Metacritic Score: 83
Album Charts: #36 The Billboard 200, #19 Top Canadian Albums, #9 Top Digital Albums, #7 Top Modern Rock/Alternative Albums, #10 Top Rock Albums
"Harry Potter is about confronting fears, finding inner strength and doing what is right in the face of adversity. Twilight is about how important it
is to have a boyfriend." - Stephen King This quote has been making the rounds on Facebook lately. I found a perfect time to use it this weekend when my wife proclaimed she wanted to see the newest Twilight movie. But tween jokes aside, Lykke Li got her big break when she landed a song on the Twilight: New Moon soundtrack. If I knew this before I heard Wounded Rhymes I may not have listened. But I did listen, and I'm glad I did because I learned an important lesson: Don't judge an artist by the soundtracks on which they appear.
Released: September 5, 2011
Label: MCA Nashville
Metacritic Score: 74
Album Charts: #3 The Billboard 200, #12 Top Canadian Albums
A 59-year old George Strait continues to prove that his music and his career will continue to shine in this new world of digital downloads and auto-tuned hit factories. If you're unfamiliar, and shame on you if you are, George Strait is a legend with almost 70 million album sales under his belt. That's not a misprint. That's 70,000,000, or a 7 with 7 zeros. I want to make sure you're clear on that point before I tell you his history had no influence on this particular album making the list. It made the list because George is doing what he does best here, writing and performing great songs. The only thing different is that the production may be the best treatment a George Strait album has ever seen.
Released: November 5, 2011
Metacritic Score: 80
Album Charts: #10 Top Electronic Albums, #7 Top Heatseekers
Digital technology has changed the world, and it has had a huge impact on music. Electronic and ambient music have been on the forefront of finding new ways to put sounds together. And Replica by Oneohtrix Point Never is at the head of the pack in forging new ground. The compositions on this album are pasted together snippets of old television ads with some synths added in. It sounds nothing like you would expect as no discernible sounds from the source material are left. Instead they are tiny clips, remade and regrouped into something completely new. The backstory of how the album was created is a key piece of what makes this Replica something great, but it's not necessary to enjoy the end product. Which is a warm, welcoming bath that can take you away as only the best ambient music can.
More Best Albums of 2011: