All right, time for the best music I bought in 2011. Same rules apply to the Worst of, which can be found HERE.
7. Ken Burns Jazz – Louis Armstrong (2000) – It’s no surprise that I like big band music. But I have very little Louis Armstrong for a guy who likes it so much. When I saw this one, I had to pick it up. It’s a great collection, from his early Dixieland-esque work with several groups, to his later more familiar style. It’s just a great selection of songs. That Ken Burns knows an awful lot about many things.
6. The Rhythm of the Saints – Paul Simon (1990) – Here is an admission – I think this CD is on the list because I WANT to like it so very badly. The truth is I do like it, and although Simon gets a bit too much credit for his inclusion of “world musicians” (read: pretty much strictly African), you can’t deny that the music on this album is pretty great. Noteworthy tracks include “Can’t Run But”, “The Coast”, “Thelma”, and of course the famous(ish) “The Obvious Child”.
5. Undercard – The Extra Lens (2010) – I was pretty stoked to hear that John Darnielle’s side-project The Extra Lens (formerly Extra Glenns) was coming out with a new release. For a while, this album was my favorite thing that Darnielle had released since Sunset Tree. However, after repeated listenings, it is very good, but perhaps not on quite the pedestal it once was. First off, it’s only 12 songs, and one is an oldie he’s done for years, and another is a cover. However, two of the songs on here are probably among the best in his entire massive catalog: “How I Left the Ministry” and “Some Other Way”. In fact, the only real dud on the album is the version of “Rockin’ Rockin’ Twilight of the Gods”, which is particularly not-rocking. They should have just given it the frenzied energy they give it live. Definitely worth a listen, especially if you are a Mountain Goats fan.
4. All Eternals Deck – The Mountain Goats (2011) – Speaking of Mountain Goats, Darnielle somehow sneaks onto my list twice this year. That seems unfair. This is his 7th release with his full band, and like the last few, it seems to have few stand-out blow-your-socks-off songs, but conversely no duds. That’s right, not one song that’s worse than 3 out of 5 stars on my iTunes. I will say this – unlike the last few, he did at least play with the sounds of the songs a bit. I found that, before this album, their songs tended to start to sound much too much alike, and on this one, using instrumentation and composition, he varied up the sounds, particularly on “Age of Kings”. Oh, and for the record, “Never Quite Free” might be the best song of 2011.
3. Jurassic Park Sountrack – John Williams (1993) - I always assumed Danny Elfman’s soundtracks would comprise pretty much all of my top 10 lists. But I think as much as I love the man, and as much as his soundtracks are the BEST accompaniment for the film they belong to, you can’t deny that Williams is probably the best theme-writer out there. It showcases here, as Jurassic Park may have finally vaulted over Edward Scissorhands and Braveheart as my favorite score of all time. Epic.
2. Mighty Wind Soundtrack – Various (2003) – I’d seen this movie first probably a year or two after it came out, thought it was charming with a few chuckles, and was happy to have seen it. Then, many years later, I was still haunted by the song “Kiss at the End of the Rainbow”. When the came on television recently and I watched it again, I was just captured by the music in it. Sure, it was written by Michael McKean and not an actual folk artist, per se, but man does he do the genre justice. I always felt all the styles that the Christopher Guest movies parody are less about parody and more about homage. That is most true here, where they write genuine folk music that’s tongue-in-cheek, and not trying to be super funny. I rated about half this album as 4-star songs, including all the songs that are featured in the movie and “Fare Away”, “Blood on the Coal”, and the harmony-solid “When You’re Next to Me.” This is a great buy for anyone even remotely tolerant of folk music.
1. Artificial Heart - Jonathan Coulton (2011) – I was nervous that Jonathan Coulton was going mainstream. He made his calling as an internet darling, doing the Thing a Day series, and that was great. He was the lovable nerd. Now that he was under the tutelage of John Flansburg of TMBG (who was once a loveable nerd, but has become too mainstream for my liking), I feared that the album would fall into some of the same traps as TMBG’s recent efforts. How wrong I was. Sure, the first 10 seconds of the album sound exactly like a TMBG album, but after that, it is pure Coulton from start to finish. At 17 tracks, I get the impression he put most of what he recorded on it, and there are a few ones that I pass over (I’m looking at you “Je Suis Rick Springfield”), but the album showcases what Coulton does best: has you cracking up one minute, and quietly reflecting the next. There’s few artists who can achieve this: Moxy Fruvous and Eddie From Ohio are pretty much the only other two I can think of. What I appreciate most about the album is that it is a return to melody. I swear, music today has completely unforgettable melodies, and Coulton deftly carves out a dozen of them on this album alone. The first half of the album is great, but it is the second half, tracks 10-16 specifically, where it takes off. Aside from “Good Morning Tucson”, that clump of songs is possibly the strongest string of songs on any album I own, reaching its apex in the trilogy “Down Today”, “Dissolve” and the simple-but-amazing “Nobody Loves You Like Me”. I heartily recommend this to anyone you know.