Top 10 CDs of 2011 | Teresa Montgomery

cd josh-fletcherI think that anyone who would be reading a music review site doesn’t need me to tell them that Adele released an album this year and it was pretty good.

This is not a Top 10 Albums of the Year list. I decided that you, the reader, didn’t need that. Why not? I think that anyone who would be reading a music review site doesn’t need me to tell them that Adele released an album this year and it was pretty good. The Decemberists did, too, and lots of other bands and artists you’ve heard of and maybe even heard.

However, I hear a lot of music, both major label-albums and releases a struggling band burned on their iMac. Most of it is OK. Some of it is decidedly not OK. Every once in a while, though, I get really lucky and hear something that I think is fantastic. This list is those albums from this year. One of the bands has been on my radar for over 10 years, and one of the bands has been together for 10 years and yet I only heard them this year. One of the albums isn’t even an album—it’s an EP—and one of them didn’t come out in 2011.

They’re all good, strong collections of songs, though, and they deserve to be heard. So, without further ado, here’s the list.

1. Joshua Fletcher | His & Hers EP (Great Southern Recordings)

I was hesitant at first about including this EP on my list because I had wanted to stick with albums full of goodness. However, after another listen to this five-song EP from Georgia native Joshua Fletcher, I knew I couldn’t leave it off. It is not only one of the best collections of songs I’ve heard this year, but is also one of the best collections of songs that I’ve heard in general. The first time I listened to it, the lead track “These Old Bones” made me cry, which is no small feat. The song—and the EP as a whole—is achingly beautiful and musically complex, and contains lyrics that manage to be both intelligent and witty without being overbearing. I’d almost classify it as folk but it’s darker than that. There’s a melancholy there that seeps into the songs, tingeing them with a delicious edge that seems to be lacking in much of the singer/songwriter genre. Fletcher has a new album tentatively planned for 2012, and if it’s anything like this EP, I can assure you I’ll be listening to it on heavy rotation.

2. Laura Jansen | Bells (Decca)

I get asked quite often who my favorite band is, and I generally refuse to pick one. However, I generally will concede that I tend to like men with guitars and women with pianos. This is true in the case of Laura Jansen. She and her piano skills have achieved more fame outside of the United States than in, but the woman deserves any amount of attention she gets after releasing her debut album Bells this year. It is, at turns, heartbreaking, hilarious, and downright mischievous. From her beautiful cover of Kings of Leon’s “Use Somebody” (which she claims to have taken all of the rock out of), to trying to rebuild your life after a brutal breakup in “Single Girls,” to embracing the world as it is in the delightfully naughty “Wicked World,” she covers all the bases, and covers them well. She’s a talented songwriter who manages to impart both innocence and savvy into her songs, lending themselves to an album that might take you through a gamut of emotions—but you’ll enjoy the ride.

3. Blitzen Trapper | American Goldwing (Sub Pop)

Blitzen Trapper is the band on this list that has the longest uninterrupted existence, having formed in Portland, Ore., in 2000. The band, to me, has always sounded like the outdoors. The first album of theirs I owned was 2008’s Furr, which has some pretty vivid nature imagery in the lyrics, but it’s more than that. American Goldwing, Blitzen Trapper’s sixth album, has some of that same imagery, but there’s a captivating roughness there, as well, that lets the listener travel whatever roads lead singer and songwriter Eric Earley wants them to travel. That said, this album is more layered than previous efforts. Earley’s voice is growing and a few of the songs—notably, the track “Astronaut”—have an expansiveness to them that the band attempted on the last album, Destroyer of the Void, but get closer to the mark here. It’s not all glowing grandeur, however. Blitzen Trapper is a rock band, and they prove that on songs like the irresistible “Might Find it Cheap” and my favorite, “Love the Way You Walk Away.” Overall, as much as Furr and the other albums will always have a special place in my heart, American Goldwing is the best album Blitzen Trapper has put out to date—and I can only imagine they’ll just keep getting better.

4. Stephen Kellogg and The Sixers | Gift Horse (Vanguard)

Stephen Kellogg and The Sixers put out their sixth studio album, Gift Horse, this fall. They’ve had time since forming eight years ago to get used to each other and develop a rapport that is reflected in the album. From the opening track and first single, “Gravity,” to the closer, “Noelle, Noelle,” about Kellogg’s third daughter, the album hits on themes familiar to the band’s fans: family and heart and working your butt off to be where you know you’re supposed to be. There’s a respect for the past and hope for future in this album, wrapped up in a package of catchy hooks that manage to not come across as formulaic. When Kellogg sings on “Gravity” that he’s got soul—and that he’s a fighter—you can’t help but agree with both sentiments, as the album is aggressively optimistic. While I love their earlier releases, I can tell Gift Horse will be the one I recommend to people when I want to introduce them to this band.

5. Andy Grammer | Andy Grammer (S-Curve)

Andy Grammer’s self-titled debut is probably the most well-known album on this list. He topped the Billboard Heatseekers chart and his first single, “Keep Your Head Up,” went Gold. Why include him on a list of artists that, for the most part, didn’t get that kind of airplay or sales? Grammer has mentioned nightmares of being a one-hit wonder, and we’ve all seen it happen: Artist releases one very catchy, very popular song and then disappears into oblivion because enough people buy the album to realize that the artist got lucky the first time. I’m putting him on this list because he didn’t get lucky; the rest of the album is a good, solid work of pop-rock. Some of the songs are as catchy as “Keep Your Head Up” and some have a different feel altogether, but there isn’t a bad song on the album. The tendency of some pop music to feel disingenuous or insincere isn’t present in this album; the lyrics are heartfelt, but not to a point of being sappy. There’s no way to tell if Grammer’s next single, “Fine by Me,” will do as well, but with the strength of the album behind him, and his first headlining tour scheduled for early 2012, we can be reasonably assured he has a future in music in front of him

6. The Damnwells | No One Listens to the Band Anymore (PledgeMusic)

The Damnwells is arguably one of the more well-known bands on this list, and for good reason. No One Listens to the Band Anymore isn’t a random act of musical greatness; the band has been at it for 10 years. That said, it is great in its own right, perhaps lacking some of the grit of the last release One Last Century but replacing it with a deeper lyrical intelligence, so it all works out for the best in the end. Alex Dezen is the lead singer and songwriter (and only touring member) for The Damnwells these days, but that hasn’t stopped the band from releasing an album that is layered but not disordered, letting each song stand on its own strengths but still managing to be heard as a cohesive piece of music. There are moments of musical perfection on this album, and I am once again amazed that more people don’t view Dezen as one of the best songwriters his generation has to offer.

7. Elizabeth and the Catapult | The Other Side of Zero (Verve Forecast)

I’m cheating a bit with this one. Elizabeth and the Catapult’s album The Other Side of Zero technically was released at the end of 2010, but I didn’t hear it until 2011 and it’s so good, I had to share it with you. When I saw Elizabeth Ziman (currently, the sole member of the band) perform earlier this year with Sarab Singh and Jason Blynn of Harper Blynn, I noted that she managed to take the stage with humor and grace. Her album is, at its core, exactly that. Some of the songs are incredibly witty, and some handle hard subjects instead with a sobering grace. No matter how she goes about it, her music is, quite simply, really good. This is not an album that has to grow on you; I was hooked from the first time I heard it, and my guess is that the majority of people who would hear it now would feel the same way. That said, as good as her piano skills are—and her voice isn’t shabby, either—she’s now learning guitar, which will provide yet another outlet for this intensely talented woman to get her music to us.

8. G. Love | Fixin’ to Die (Brushfire)

It’s important to note that this is not a G. Love and Special Sauce album. This is a labor of love—and a solo album—by Garrett Dutton, the man who has been performing as G. Love for the past 20 or so years. This is the album he’s wanted to make since he started making albums, and you can tell. From the foot-stomping intro of the first song, a cover of an old blues song, “Fixin’ to Die,” to the balladry of his cover of Velvet Underground’s “Pale Blue Eyes” this album is a tight, powerful, impassioned piece of music. There are other covers—G. Love’s rendition of Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” actually adds a raw sexuality that was missing from the original—but the songs he wrote himself are what give the album its soul. There’s the incredibly sexy “Milk and Sugar” that claims to be about coffee (hint: it’s not about coffee), the sweet and charming “Just Fine,” and the slow soulfulness of “Heaven.” These, along with six other tracks written by G. Love, provide even more proof that this was indeed the album he’s been waiting his whole career to record. How lucky we are he was finally able to.

9. Smoking Popes | This Is Only a Test (Asian Man)

For some reason, the phrase “concept album” gives me the shivers, and not in a good way. Maybe it’s because most of the concept albums created in the ’90s—my musical formative years—were by artists I wasn’t interested in, like Marilyn Manson. However, punk band Smoking Popes has been one of my favorite bands since, well, the ’90s, so I knew I had to give it a shot. The album tells the story of a teenage boy in high school who seems to want nothing more than to fit in—yet without having to conform. He wants a girlfriend, he doesn’t want to go to college if that’s going to lead to a job where he has to wear a tie, and he eventually decides his life’s goal is to join a punk band and be like Iggy Pop. Josh Caterer, the band’s lead singer and songwriter, realized that though he was approaching 40, he had never written from a teenage perspective. When Caterer was a teenager he had wanted to sound older, so this was his chance to revisit all that angst teenagers are known for. The result is an album that manages to bring back the good memories of the recklessness of youth while providing a bit of romanticism to the not-as-good memories. My love of Smoking Popes is stronger than ever, and I won’t even cringe at the idea of a concept album now. I’m probably still not going to be a Marilyn Manson fan, though.

10. Pernikoff Brothers | On My Way (self-released)

Pernikoff Brothers are the sole St. Louis band on my list. I first heard them when they opened for G. Love in April of this year. I was so impressed I bought the album at the show, and I’ve been hooked ever since. The band is comprised of brothers Rick and Tom Pernikoff and their friend Dan Germain. The band may be local—and the album was written here—but it was recorded in Nashville. The brothers split vocal duties, though in the song “Point of View” they actually harmonize the entire thing. It’s one of the high points of the album, but it’s certainly not the only one. Tom has the vocals on “I See You,” a song of heartbreak mixed with an aggressive lust that handles both well. It is followed by the album closer, “Reception,” sung by Rick, which takes the heartbreak of the previous song and knocks it up a few dozen notches—leaving you a bit breathless, but ready to start the album over again. The band is slated to record another album in 2012 and, after hearing On My Way, I’m more than a little excited to see what they come up with.

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