20. Ryan Adams – Ashes & Fire (Pax Americana). After a bit of a hiatus for Adams (2 years between albums) after disbanding the Cardinals in 2009, Adams returned in December 2010 with a double album of leftovers from the last Cardinals sessions. And then in fall 2011 he dropped this vastly different solo album. This is probably the most personal-sounding album Adams has released since his solo debut Heartbreaker. Instead of morphing his persona to fit whatever style of record he was making, this is just a collection of very raw acoustic, folky, pop songs. Keyboardist Benmont Tench from Tom Petty and Heartbreakers plays on this album and I think he gives it just the right touch at times, adding a little flavoring to the meat of (mostly) just Adams and his acoustic guitar. Highlights include the title track, “Lucky Now” (this live performance on Letterman is one of the year’s best), “Kindness”, the Grateful Dead-ish “Invisible Riverside”, and “Chains of Love.”
19. Face to Face – Laugh Now….Laugh Later (People Like You). SoCal punk rock legends Face to Face reunited to tour back in 2009, after going on hiatus in 2004. And then they went back into the studio in 2010 and released Laugh in mid-2011, during their 20th anniversary year. For those expecting early Face to Face, you’ll be disappointed with this album. It lacks a lot of the ferocity and speed that their early to mid 90’s albums had. But it definitely picks up where they left off on their previous studio album, 2002’s How to Ruin Everything. The hard-hitting punk rock songs are still here, along with more melodic stuff, more reminiscent of a combo of old Face to Face and singer/guitarist Trever Keith’s solo projects. Highlights include “It’s Not All About You” (cool video), "All Or Nothing", "Blood in the Water", "Invisible Hand" (cool live clip from Spain in September), "I Don't Mind and You Don't Matter", and "Should Anything Go Wrong."
18. Times New Viking – Dancer Equired! (Merge). TNV, a trio hailing from the great state of Ohio, have been around for about 7-8 years now. I was tipped off to them back on their 3rd album, Rip It Off, in 2008 thanks to the Robert Christgau (DaveLikesTapes) of Philadelphia. They had a 60's pop sound mixed with heavy distortion, making them stand out a little among their peers. I always respected their innovative recording techniques, but I wasn't able to appreciate the end result as much until this more straight-forward garage-y indie rock album. This album was actually recorded in a real studio and not through some rigged up speaker/tape recorder thing at home. So they didn't really sacrifice any of the energy or catchy melodies from their previous records, but just made them sound cleaner. Not so much "over-produced" as, well, "produced." The high points are the more upbeat "Fuck Her Tears" and "It's a Culture", but really so many songs are standouts - "Ever Falling in Love" (cool video), "No Room to Live" (cooler video), "Try Harder", "Don't Go to Liverpool", "Ways to Go", etc.
17. Wye Oak – Civilian (Merge). Hailing from the great state of Maryland, Wye Oak is a 2-piece consisting of Jenn Wasner (guitar, vocals) and Andy Stack (drums). I didn’t care for this album as much when I first heard it, then it rose very high on list, only to fall again as the year ended. For some reason I thought this band was on Vagrant, so I was expecting something totally different and was kind of put off listening to their previous 2 LP’s, prior to checking this out. But after awhile this album of well-crafted indie/pop just grew on me. Compared to their previous albums, the songs on Civilian are just a little tighter, and more produced, and more upbeat. Wasner’s vocals are very unique and for the longest time I thought there were multiple vocalists in the band, since at times her voice sounds very feminine and other times it has a huskier sound, recalling a male vocalist trying to hit a high note. The title track, “Holy Holy” (cool video that's been viewed by DaveLikesTapes several thousand times), “Fish” (video), and “Plains” were really strong tracks and most of the rest of the tracks work well together as a cohesive statement.
16. Deer Tick – Divine Providence (Partisan). I didn’t get this until late in the year and it rose quickly on my list. This is the Providence, R.I. band’s 4th studio album already. I had never really listened to Deer Tick much before, even though I had heard good things about them. They combine folk with pub rock and it works pretty well to create a slightly different version of the indie rock sound du jour, sounding at times like Spoon or Cracker or even some of Wilco’s more rocking songs. Even though it has not always shone through on their previous folkier albums, singer/songwriter John McCauley is a big fan of bands like Nirvana (prompting some to call them “Deervana”) and the Replacements. On this album they definitely seem to get their inspiration from the early 70's garage rock of the Stooges and Exile on Main St-era Rolling Stones. Highlights for me are “Funny Word”, "Let's All Go to the Bar", "Clowning Around", "Main Street", "Chevy Express", and "Make Believe."
15. Wilco – The Whole Love (dBpm). This is probably the lowest a Wilco album has ever been ranked on my list, and I liked this album. After a progression with the same band members in tow from 2007’s Sky Blue Sky to 2009’s Wilco (The Album) to this, expectations were higher for me. Both of those previous records were more straight-ahead rock albums for the band, showing off the band members’ abilities, especially the killer solos of guitarist Nels Cline. This is an experimental album, more similar to 2004’s A Ghost Is Born or 2002’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. But it’s sort of experimental in the same way, which makes it old hat for Jeff Tweedy and company. It follows the same blueprint: Beatles-esque pop/rock melodies, hidden beneath noisy interludes and long jazzy intros. There are some definite highlights like “Standing O”, “I Might” (Live on Letterman), “Dawned on Me”, and “Born Alone” (live on Letterman). The opener, “Art of Almost” (Live on Letterman) is similar to previous album openers in style and sound like “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” and “At Least That’s You Said”, starting slowly and then building. And the epic 12-minute closer “One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend)”, tells of a fractured relationship between a father and son, and the son’s relief/joy at the death of his religiously judgmental father. Overall, it was a good album of “Dad Rock”, but at this point I just feel that Wilco has done everything they can do within this framework. What they have been doing since the late 90’s and are still doing now, was considered very edgy stuff 10-12 years ago. But now the edgy has become mainstream and they deserve credit for helping to make that happen. Could you imagine back in the mid 90’s that a band with Wilco’s sound would ever be one of the most consistent-selling and popular bands in the land, among both college kids and elders alike? But they’ll probably spend the rest of their careers releasing mostly good albums that I’ll be looking forward to hearing and will no doubt enjoy, but they will likely never have a great album again.
14. Foo Fighters – Wasting Light (RCA). This is probably the album I’m most surprised is in my Top 20. When it first came out, I panned it. But after giving it another chance a few months later, I found myself enjoying it more. And now in retrospect, I’d say it’s arguably their 2nd best album, and at worst is the band’s 4th best album behind The Colour and the Shape, S/T, and In Your Honor. It definitely has a more of an immediacy to it, which recalls Colour in both the energy and just how brief and filler-free it is, at a mere 11 songs. Butch Vig (Nevermind) produced the album, pairing Grohl and him for the first time since 1991 I believe, which I guess is fitting in this year of retro-Grunge with 20th anniversaries of Ten and Nevermind being celebrated. And even Krist Novoselic has a cameo on bass on “I Should Have Known.” Ex-Germs/Nirvana/Foos guitarist Pat Smear rejoined the band during a tour in 2007 and brought that vibe back. Also, the legendary Bob Mould guests on guitar and backing vocals on “Dear Rosemary.” Other highlights include, “Rope”, “Back and Forth”, “These Days”, and “White Limo” (with Lemmy in the video!), which sounds like something leftover from Grohl’s collaborations with Josh Homme in Queens of the Stone Age or Them Crooked Vultures. This is the sort of tight, no nonsense, rocking album Foo Fighters fans have been waiting for the band to make since they returned to the studio to make the follow up to Colour. Better late than never.
13. Ryan Adams & the Cardinals – III / IV (Pax Americana). As noted earlier, a 2-year break (excluding his vinyl-only metal album, Orion, in 2010) with no new releases from the prolific Ryan Adams is a lifetime. And he returned at the end of 2010 with this double album of outtakes from his recordings with Cardinals from 2006-2008. Now, normally for most artists when you hear “outtakes” it refers to a bunch of mediocre songs which were not good enough to make the cut the first time around. But for someone like Adams, a lot of his outtakes are golden. He writes so many songs, that within the dozens of outtakes, there is usually enough to make another pretty good album. And here is a 21-song double LP. It’s kind of all over the map, but mostly follows his previous stuff in the Cardinals, but this time delving into alternative as well as alt/country rockers. In both spirit and execution, it actually recalls his 2003 album, Rock N Roll (one of the most underrated releases of the previous decade), where he essentially pays tribute to his many rock influences on the same disc. The standout tracks include “Breakdown Into the Resolve”, “Dear Candy”, “Wasteland”, “Happy Birthday” (“Happy Birthday, I’m your birthday cake \And I’m lit \And I’m late….”), “Stop Playing With My Heart”, “Ultraviolet Light”, “Star Wars”, the Replacements-esque “P.S.”, and “No.” Really there are no clunkers at all.
12. Dum Dum Girls – Only in Dreams (Sub Pop). If I were doing these rankings in September, this would have likely been my favorite album of the year. But it slipped a little as the year wore on. This sophomore follow up to the solid I Will Be was produced by Sune Rose Wagner of the Raveonettes and I think that pushed Kirstin Gundred (Dee Dee) into a "bigger" cleaner sound, recalling the Raveonettes and Best Coast. It definitely is more of a vocals-oriented pop/rock record. With so many girl bands around now who sound like this, for me the difference is really in the quality or uniqueness of the vocals. And Dee Dee really sets a pretty high bar in that area. The first time I heard this, I immediately thought of Chrissie Hynde/The Pretenders and that probably is most fitting comparison. “Bedroom Eyes” (video), “In My Head”, “Just a Creep”, “Teardrops on My Pillow” (live in Berlin), and “Caught in One” highlight a very tight 10-song LP.
11. R.E.M. – Collapse into Now (Warner Bros). I guess we should have seen this coming in retrospect. For the first time in their careers, an album cover features a picture of the band, with Michael Stipe sort of waving goodbye. The lyrics for “All the Best” make it pretty clear it's their goodbye song (“I think I’ll sing it and rhyme \I’ll give it one more time \I’ll show the kids how to do it fine, fine, fine……It’s just like me to overstay my welcome…”). And I already paid tribute to them in a blog post a few months ago, without really even mentioning this album, and how they went out on top on their own terms. Collapse Into Now is definitely my favorite record of theirs since 1996’s New Adventures in Hi-Fi, and because it is so similar musically, you could argue it was their best since Out of Time or Automatic For the People. As mentioned “All the Best” (video) is song about the band’s place in the music world and as Stipe noted in his farewell statement, about not becoming the “guests who stayed too long at the party.” Tracks like “Uberlin” (video), “Oh My Heart” (live in studio), “It Happened Today” (video), “That Someone Is You”, “Mine Smells Like Honey” (live in studio), and “Alligator Aviator Autopilot Antimatter” (video) are all worthy additions to the R.E.M. song catalog. Farewell guys, you will be missed.
Next: Part Five: Albums 1-10