Dan Andriano in the Emergency Room – Hurricane Season (Asian Man). The first solo album by Alkaline Trio bass player is a little different than what you’d expect. He was always more of the poppier of the 2 songwriters in the band, with clear Elvis Costello/Cure/Smiths influences, but this is still a little bit of a surprise. The title track, “It’s Gonna Rain All Day”, “Me and Denver”, and “Let Me In” are real stand out tracks. The album closes with the very personal song - “From This Oil Can”, which is dedicated to Dan’s daughter, and actually has a verse from “I Remember a Rooftop”, from Damnesia in it.
Crooked Fingers – Breaks in the Armor (Merge). I had no idea Archers of Loaf’s Eric Bachmann had solo projects until this year. Then I found out this is the 6th album under the Crooked Fingers moniker. He definitely branches out into more melodic territory here compared to the stuff in Archers, reminiscent of a more rocking Band of Horses or Jayhawks. "Went to the City" (live) is my favorite along with "Black Candles" (live) and "Typhoon."
EMA – Past Life Martyred Saints (Souterrain Transmissions). Here’s an album I never thought I would have liked. EMA stands for Erika M. Anderson, the lead singer and songwriter. It’s an interesting experimental record that combines psychedelia and pop, with lo-fi sensibilities, recalling Sonic Youth or the Jesus and Mary Chain, and even a little Cat Power on some of the piano-based songs. Check out "California", "Milkman", "Anteroom", and this cool cover of Nirvana's "Endless, Nameless" (live in studio)
Tommy Keene – Behind the Parade (Second Motion). Keene has now been recording for 30 years, but because of label changes and the like, his releases have come in bunches over the years often with long gaps in between. And the last 10 have been the most active of his career with 4 studio LPs, a live album, and a best of compilation. This continues the solid run of good albums. "Deep Six Saturday" (video), "Already Made Up Your Mind" (live), "Nowhere Drag" (live), and "Factory Town" are standout tracks.
La Sera – S/T (Hardly Art). This is a Vivian Girls side project, involving “Kickball” Katy Goodman. Not sure what this says if I liked this better than the Vivian Girls proper album. It's a similar sound, but this leans more in the pop/rock direction, perhaps thanks to her main collaborator Brady Hall. The songs just seem slower and more melodic than the Vivian Girls songs. At this point, I almost wish Goodman would just make this a full time gig (and Cassie Ramone would make The Babies a full time gig and disband the VG's). High points include “Never Come Around” (live), “Left This World” (live), and “Devil’s Heart Grows Gold” (video).
Amos Lee - Mission Bell (Blue Note). Philly’s own Amos Lee made a splash during the mid-00’s with a few soulful folk-blues records, making his 2011 release a fairly high-profile deal with some guest appearances from Lucinda Williams and Willie Nelson, among others. I didn't even realize until I read a few reviews of this recently, but this debuted at #1 this year. Wow, I had no idea. Mission Bell has a retro sound that recalls 70’s soul and folk recalling Curtis Mayfield, Jim Croce, Jackson Browne, and even more recent artists like Ben Harper and but more tuneful and poppy. Lee, along with artists like Adele can be filed under "newer artists who are liked by old people who still buy a few CDs every year", which partially explains why they've sold so many albums. Anyway, it's a pretty good listen all the way through, and some standout tracks include "Violin", "Flower", and "Windows Are Rolled Down" (live in studio).
David Lowery – The Palace Guards (429 Records). Lowery has become one of my second-tier favorite artists. I probably have liked almost every album he’s ever released in all of his bands (Camper Van Beethoven, Cracker). But I don’t really love any one album in particular. And here he is with is first ever solo album, which is again a very solid effort, half of which would fit nicely on a Cracker album and half that is just “alt/country” enough to warrant a solo album. It's actually a nice bookend to the record the Decemberists put out this year. Some highlights include "Raise 'Em Up on Honey" (video), "Marigold", and "Baby, All Those Girls Meant Nothing to Me" (video).
Middle Brother – S/T (Partisan). The lead singers of like-minded bands Deer Tick (John McCauley), Delta Spirit (Matthew Vasquez), and Dawes (Taylor Goldsmith) got together to form an indie-super group. The results of this super group seem to work better than Wild Flag, for example. There are some really good indie/alt-country songs on here, including an inspired choice of “Portland”, a cover of the Replacements late 80’s b-side (Deer Tick’s McCauley is a big ‘Mats fan), originally written as an apology/tribute to the city of Portland for one of their classic train-wreck live shows. Some other highlights include "Daydreaming", "Blue Eyes" and "Someday."
Nodzzz – Innings (Woodist). SF-based lo-fi mavens return with a follow up to their self-titled debut. When I first heard this band in 2008, I didn’t really know what to make of them. It sounded like an album of half-finished demos and “ideas”, but not necessarily “songs” per se. Then I learned to appreciate their bare-bones approach – quick intro, riff, verse, chorus, repeat maybe 1 more time, and boom, the end. Innings continues with more of the same with a simplistic, minimalist two-guitar and drum attack. Most of their songs still clock in at under two-minutes (14 songs in less than 25 minutes). It’s a good record, but it just didn’t grab me like the first one did at the time. The whole album is pretty solid, but my favorites are "Always Make Your Bed", "(Time) What’s It Going to Do?", "Fear of Advice", and "True to Life."
The Raveonettes – Raven in the Grave (Vice Music). I always appreciated the Raveonettes’ fuzzy Jesus and Mary Chain-inspired pop/rock songs. It’s a solid album but not as quite as good as their last few. When you listen to their older stuff, you can see how they definitely laid the groundwork for other bands like Stars, Seapony, Dum Dum Girls, and Veronica Falls. "Recharge and Revolt" (video) and "Forget That You’re Young" sound like it would fit on Seapony or Veronica Falls albums. And you can hear the 80’s Cure-influence on fast-paced rocker "Ignite" (live in studio).
Ty Segall – Goodbye Bread (Drag City). I’m not really sure why I preferred this record over the Thee Oh Sees records, when sometimes I find them hard to tell apart with their psychedelic lo-fi punk rock leanings. Maybe because I had it longer and it had a chance to grow on me more. Anyway, maybe because I had listened to some of Segall’s other albums I went in a little more familiar and could appreciate the changes more on this album. It seems very Jay Reatard-esque to me at times. Check out the title track, "I Can't Feel It", and "You Make the Sun Fry."
Tommy Stinson – One Man Mutiny (Done to Death). The legendary Tommy Stinson took time in between tours with Guns N’ Roses and Soul Asylum and hanging out recording with Paul Westerberg to make an album of his own, his first solo album since 2004. It mixes bluesy-rock with folky acoustic ballads and the songs flow well together. The album features Tommy's then fiancé (now wife, they wed in October 2011), Media PA's Emily Roberts singing backing vocals along with guest appearances by Dizzy Reed and Richard Fortus (both in new GNR). Here’s some footage of the recording of the title track. This track was originally recorded in a hotel restaurant in Belgium while on tour with GNR and the raw version was left on the album. "Match Made in Hell" was another song that works in a minimalist way. And "All This Way for Nothing" and "Meant to Be" are more up tempo rockers. Some of the proceeds of the album go toward rebuilding schools in the earthquake-ravaged Haiti, an issue Stinson has devoted much time and money to over the last 2 years. So, go out and buy it. It’s for a good cause.
Those Darlins – Screw Gets Loose (Oh Wow Dang). Those Darlins have a fairly unique sound best described as garage/alt-country. While their 2009 self-titled debut album sounds a bit more country-ish, this definitely has embraced more of the retro garage sound. Think along the lines of Vivian Girls or Best Coast but with a twang. And with a nod to the Ramones, the Donnas, etc, they all go by the last name “Darlin.” There’s a raw-ness to the vocals though that also makes them more unique, reminiscent of Joan Jett’s snarl at times, at least on the songs Jessi Darlin sings. Check out “Be Your Bro” (video), the title track (video), “Tina Said” (live), and “Waste Away” (live). This was a really good record and was probably my top honorable mention.
Total Babes – Swimming Through Sunlight (Old Flame). Yes, it seems 2011 is the "year of the side projects." This is a side project of Jayson Gerycz and Joe Boyer of the Cloud Nothings (stay tuned to see where their album is ranked!). You wonder if a side project was really necessary for another lo-fi punk/garage album. But you can definitely hear some differences. The Cloud Nothings are much poppier, whereas this album is more akin to the noisier, fuzzy rock of bands like Wavves and older Times New Viking. The higlights are "Like They Always Do", "Rot Away", and "Be So True", and "Tip of My Tongue."
Wild Flag – S/T (Merge). This is another example of the whole not being greater than the sum of its parts, as “super groups” rarely are. When Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss of Sleater-Kinney (and several other bands in Weiss’ case), Mary Timony of Helium, and Rebecca Cole of the Minders, the sky seemed to the limit for most indie rock fans. When I first heard about this project around this time last year, I had mentally already penciled the album into my 2011 Top 10. It’s a fine album and there are several songs on there that sound like mellow but good Sleater-Kinney songs, namely “Glass Tambourine”, “Romance” (video), and “Electric Band” (video). In some others the lyrics are so painfully bad, it detracts from what would otherwise be decent songs ("Boom", "Racehorse"). But expectations were so high for this, that just being pretty good seems like a let down.
Lucinda Williams – Blessed (Lost Highway). This seems like a bit of a comeback for Lucinda after her previous two albums – West and Little Honey. Although they were very good in spots, they just seemed overwhelmed with themes of death and loss, understandable since she was writing a lot about the loss of her mother and then a romantic breakup after that. Blessed is her most consistently good album since 2003’s World Without Tears. Elvis Costello and Matthew Sweet made guest appearances on Little Honey and they return here. It’s a solid set from one of the most consistently good and enduring artists of the last 20+ years. “Buttercup”, “Seeing Black”, and “Convince Me” (live) are the standout tracks.
Next: Part Three - Albums 21-25