If you’ve read the headline, then you know the drill. Presented here in no particular order are the Northeast Underground’s picks for the best albums of 2011. Some you might know, others may have flown below your radar. Pick them all up now to ring in 2012 on a high note. Or if you disagree with the list, write in your own picks in the comment section.
The Smile Sessions
The Beach Boys
Dubbed “the best rock album never finished,” the official issuing of the Beach Boys’ most mystique-filled work is not quite perfection but many fans could likely care less. Intended as the follow-up to the group’s acclaimed Pet Sounds, the songs making up the original SMiLE record remained in vaults for over 30 years after their late ‘60s recording sessions collapsed amidst fierce band opposition and the fragile mental state of chief composer Brian Wilson. Now, available as part of a two-CD deluxe edition or a 5-CD box set the pop melancholy of tracks like “Wind Chimes,” “Barnyard” and “Vega-Tables” can finally be heard in all their glory. While Wilson famously released a reworked version of the same material under his own name in 2004, just the fact that one can now hear the whole band’s voices here at the peak of their powers is worth the price of admission.
Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds – Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds (Sour Mash/ Mercury)
Co-produced by Gallagher and longtime producer Dave Sardy, the debut solo release by the former Oasis kingpin is a satisfying career renewal for a songwriter responsible for some of the most notable moments in the last 20 years of British music (“Wonderwall,” et al). Featuring contributions from The Lemon Trees drummer Jeremy Stacey and percussionist Lenny Castro, the record also includes the massive sounds of the Crouch End Festival Chorus on the inspired opening-cut “Everybody’s on the Run.” First single “The Death of You and Me” cleverly includes a welcome horn section, and later tracks “AKA…What A Life!” and “Stop the Clocks” take turns dabbling in genres like dance music and psychedelic rock respectively. Though comparisons to his former band are inevitable, Gallagher’s latest work is more experimental and well-worthy of an artist not content to stick with a proven formula. Album of the year voters should take notice.
Watch the mini-movie “Ride the Tiger” by Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds here:
Stephen Kellogg and the Sixers – Gift Horse (Vanguard)
Though almost delayed by a heart-stopping accident that saw the majority of the band involved in a serious car wreck on the eve of recording, the latest from these New England natives is a gem from start to finish. Opening with the infectious strummer “Gravity,” the album doesn’t so much draw you in as it immediately thrusts you into the studio with the boys, complete with hand-claps, a sing-along chorus, and twinkling piano. Elsewhere, the semi-biographical song “1993” showcases the camaraderie the group often brings to its live shows with bouncy bass lines and humorous cat-calls frequently accenting lead singer Kellogg’s words. Still, it’s in the spot-on character sketches where the SK6ERS truly prove their worth as songwriters. Whether with the wistful “Charlie and Annie” or the delicate touch brought to the closing track “Noelle, Noelle,” the band balances nostalgia and maturity to come up with something totally original.
Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks – Mirror Traffic (Matador)
Produced by fellow ‘90s stalwart Beck, the latest release by Malkmus and company sees the former slacker king retaining much of the lyrical absurdity and lackadaisical playing style that came to define his time with indie icons Pavement at their peak. Standout track “Senator” mixes lines about politics, chemical warfare and blowjobs with equal aplomb, while elsewhere the instrumental number “Jumblegloss” plays like what could have been a too-short outtake from Wowee Zowee. Yet for all the nods to the past, the one adjective that could best be used to describe the current work is mature. Having already cut four albums with the Jicks, Malkmus uses this newest one to let the band build on all the progress made on 2008’s jam-inspired Real Emotional Trash. Though some fans may become skeptical after observing the album’s 50 minute plus running time, most concerns can be checked safely at the door.
Fucked Up – David Comes to Life (Matador)
Constructed as a rock opera in four acts, the newest full-length by these Canadian punks is an ambitious project. Telling the story of fictional factory worker David Eliade and the woman he falls in love with Veronica Boisson, the album opens with the instrumental “Let Her Rest” before exploding into one tightly-constructed anthem after another. Lyrically, many of singer Damian Abraham’s (aka Pink Eyes) words are lost in the tumult. Fortunately this time he has the help of guest vocalists and fellow songwriters Kurt Vile, Madeline Follin and Jennifer Castle. Though layered guitars and pounding drums keep everything moving forward, the real surprise might be in the amazing amount of hooks. While coming from a group with a penchant for pushing boundaries, the end result of listening to 70+ minutes of hardcore riffing might be too much for the uninitiated. However, for fans this record could represent a dream fulfilled.
The Sun Parade – The Sun Parade (Spirithouse Music)
This EP-length debut by Northampton’s own Chris Jennings and Jefferson Lewis, along with friends Jacob Rosazza (bass) and Doni McAulay (drums), is a too-short blast of ‘60s-inspired pop/ rock that is heavy on vocal harmonies and heartily-strummed rhythms. While standout tracks like “Leaving the Nation” and “Need You By My Side” possess melodies that will have listeners singing along for days, the real genius is saved for album-closer “No Expectations.” Building slowly from a collection of repeated notes and Jennings’ yearning falsetto, the song crashes through the other side with cymbal crashes and a galloping beat before dissolving into the silken ether from where it first emerged. While described by some as, “what Elliott Smith would have sounded like with the right medication,” the band leans close to true genius. Here’s hoping the upcoming full-length delivers on all the promise already stoked by live shows performed throughout the Paradise City.
Foo Fighters – Wasting Light (RCA)
One would think that at this point in their careers Dave Grohl and company wouldn’t have anything left to prove. But instead of hunkering down in a hi-tech studio, the band decided to take things back to the garage for their seventh release and ended up forging their best overall album since 1999’s There is Nothing Left to Lose. But that’s not all. Along for the ride this time was producer Butch Vig, reuniting with Grohl for the first time since the recording sessions for Nirvana’s Nevermind, as well as Grohl’s former Nirvana bandmate bassist Krist Novoselic. And as if that wasn’t enough of a ‘90s rock fan wet dream, Husker Du guitarist and songwriter Bob Mould dropped by too to lay down backing vocal on “Dear Rosemary.” Almost 20 years on, Grohl has definitely proven the Foos are no second act. In fact, he might just be getting started.
Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues (Sub Pop)
No sophomore slump for the bearded boys of Seattle. Instead here Robin Pecknold and company craft an even more grand display of their own endearing brand of indie/ folk, while still staying true to the roots that made their 2008 self-titled debut such a success. For evidence, look no further than “The Shrine/ An Argument,” an eight minute epic that transitions from a finger picking verse to a harmony-laden chorus before eventually fading out amidst squawking horns. In the hands of a lesser band, such an experiment wouldn’t work. But the Foxes roll with the atmosphere the song creates. And elsewhere, the fiercely-strummed title-track and album closer “Grown Ocean” both inspire awe with their intricate layers and headlong rush. By the time the group closes the record with a section sung completely acapella, listeners will be anxious to dive back in, after they stop to catch their breath of course.
Adele – 21 (XL/ Columbia)
The album no one could escape in 2011. From live performances, to the radio, and even including the appearance of several songs on the hit television series Glee – this second release by a 23-year-old British soul singer was a critical and popular smash selling over five million copies in the United States alone, and also becoming the best-selling digital album of all time in the U.S. with over a million in sales. Though the material included within was inspired by personal heartbreak and the end of a serious relationship, tracks like “Rolling in the Deep,” “Set Fire to the Rain” and “Someone Like You” struck a chord with audiences the world over. Also, by merging a love of Motown, gospel and R&B Adele created a sound both retro and distinctly her own. Fortunately, her sense of humor remained intact as well, as evidenced on the witty “Rumour Has It.”
Amy Winehouse – Lioness: Hidden Treasures (Island)
While the success of Adele Adkins was one of the biggest stories in the music world in 2011, there was perhaps no bigger musical tragedy this year than the loss of the very artist who paved the way for Adkins and countless other female British singers. Though not a true follow-up to 2006’s Grammy-winning Back to Black, the first posthumous compilation featuring unreleased work by Winehouse and frequent collaborators Mark Ronson and Salaam Remi is an at times tender and engrossing look at a musician who had plenty left to give and do. Whether simply weaving her way through the horn-adorned “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” or injecting a little vocal heat into her “Body and Soul” duet with Tony Bennett, Amy’s voice remains front and center. And reworked takes on “Valerie” or “Tears Dry” show a true talent, who wasn’t afraid of refining her approach for full effect.
Lady Gaga – Born This Way (Interscope)
Fans expecting The Fame Monster redux received this wide-ranging exercise in experimentation for their trouble. But that was the good news. Instead of retreading the same style of dance-pop that brought her to stardom, Gaga turned up the glam and let fly at a variety of topics including Christianity, personal freedom and even the controversial Arizona immigration law SB 1070. Sure the title-track was an empowerment anthem in the Madonna vein, but “You and I” features guitar work from no less an authority than Queen’s Brian May and was produced by uber ‘80s record man “Mutt” Lange. Dearly departed “Big Man” and E-Street veteran Clarence Clemon even lends his sax to “Edge of Glory,” and numbers like “Hair” strangely evoke the romanticism of some of the Boss’s biggest hits. Still, not too bad for city girl, even if that city was NYC and not Asbury Park. Maybe next time.
Social Distortion – Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes (Epitaph)
If a better road trip album was released this year, I haven’t heard it. So instead, just buckle up and enjoy the ride as Mike Ness and the boys take you up and down one punk-populated California highway after another. However these aren’t your parent’s roadways. These are hard-luck streets and the paths traveled by working men straight out of The Grapes of Wrath. Still, rough nature aside, whether portraying a lonely lover on the down-tempo “Bakersfield” or a Dillinger-era gangster on the hard-charging “Machine Gun Blues,” Ness never fails to come off as anything less than a charming tour guide, equal parts gruff loner and suave outlaw. Plus, when he urges the band to “Put the pedal to the metal” on “Far Side of Nowhere,” you’re right there beside him in the car, knowing full well he is “king of these hills,” a fact fans discovered years ago.
Happy holidays everyone! The Northeast Underground returns in 2012. But in the meantime don’t forget to follow us on YouTube and Twitter: