Steve McLean's Favourite Music of 2011
The Top 10
1. Dropkick Murphys - Going Out in Style
This album is the Boston Celtic punk band's best yet, and a great place to start if you need an introduction.
Going Out In Style is somewhat of a concept album that borrows from the experiences of the band members and their relatives to "celebrate the successes and failures, challenges and milestones" of a fictional character named Cornelius Larkin. There's a retrospective narrative of Larkin's life in the liner notes, and you can read more about his saga on Boston author Michael Patrick MacDonald's website.
The album is full of working class lyrics that sometimes owe a nod to history. There's militancy, poignancy, drunkenness and more. There are acoustic numbers, songs that rock harder than a Zdeno Chara bodycheck and others that fall somewhere between the two extremes. You'll hear the normal rock and roll instrumentation, but also be treated to accordion, banjo, bouzouki, mandolin, whistles and bagpipes.
"Take 'Em Down" is dedicated to the thousands of union workers in Wisconsin who are fighting for their jobs. "Sunday Hardcore Matinee" recounts fond memories from the notorious Boston live music club, The Rathskeller, which closed its doors in 1997 and has been sorely missed ever since.
The exuberant title track features vocals from NOFX's Fat Mike, The Living End's Chris Cheney and actor/comedian Lenny Clarke. It also mentions Bruins great Bobby Orr, and the Hall of Fame defenceman appears in the song's video.
Bruce Springsteen shares lead vocals on a roots-punk version of the traditional "Peg O' My Heart." Dropkick Murphys guitarist/vocalist James Lynch's father, Pat Lynch, adds his voice to an infectiously energetic take of another traditional tune, "The Irish Rover."
2. The Feelies - Here Before
Here Before is the first new album from The Feelies in 20 years. Band founders Glenn Mercer and Bill Million wrote, produced, sang and played guitar on the record's 13 tracks, and were joined by bassist/vocalist Brenda Sauter, drummer Stanley Demeski and percussionist Dave Weckerman.
The sonic interplay between Mercer and Million's guitars that became the signature of The Feelies' sound still permeates through Here Before. While it may be a bit more understated overall than earlier albums, and songs may not immediately knock you over the head, it's full of subtle hooks and shows a maturity that's totally appropriate for this stage in the New Jersey group's career. And "When You Know" shows The Feelies can still push hard when the mood strikes.
3. Peter Bjorn and John - Gimme Some
The Swedish trio wanted to strip their sound down and go back to basics by using just guitar, bass and drums and recording some of the material live in the studio, so they worked with an outside producer (Per Sunding) for the first time on this sixth album. They captured the “rock-and-roll and garage rock” essence they were going for wonderfully.
4. The Black Keys - El Camino
I've liked The Black Keys, but have never been a huge fan of the duo's mix of blues, garage and indie rock. I was surprised by the breakthrough success of last year's Brothers, but was happy for the band and thought the Grammy Award-winning "Tighten Up" was a great single. Big things were then expected for El Camino, and the Akron, Ohio group didn't disappoint. The Black Keys co-produced the album with Danger Mouse (Gnarls Barkley, Gorillaz, Beck), and he added a sheen which effectively accents without overpowering the material. There's less of an emphasis on blues and more on soul, vintage R&B and earlier rock-and-roll, and that's a move in the right direction as far as I'm concerned.
5. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart - Belong
I liked what I heard from 2009's self-titled debut album and there seemed to be a growing buzz around the New York City's brand of fuzz pop -- which included attracting Flood (U2, Erasure) to produce and Alan Moulder (The Jesus and Mary Chain, Elastica) to mix the follow-up. The attention was warranted, as Belong takes influences from the '80s and '90s but still sounds like a record that belongs in the second decade of the new millennium.
6. Library Voices - Summer of Lust
This large and literate indie pop group from Regina, Sask. released an excellent debut album titled Denim on Denim last year, and this follow-up is probably even a little better. If you like The New Pornographers, you should like Library Voices.
7. Hooded Fang - Tosta Mista
This Toronto sextet's 2010 debut, Album, showed a lot of potential. It's all fulfilled here. Sixties garage rock grazes with strains of exotica lounge and throws a bit of '50s pop and doo-wop into a 21st century context to create a short record that you wish would last longer.
8. Jon Langford - Skull Orchard Revisited
I'd heard Langford perform these songs on his own and with the Burlington Welsh Male Chorus several times over the past few years, and always loved them, but just discovered with this release that they originally came from a long unavailable 1998 album titled Skull Orchard. He re-recorded the songs with the choir to come up with a very Welsh-inspired CD that comes packaged in a book that includes: Langford's lyrics and paintings; the tale of Moby Dick told from the perspective of the great white wale and a dolphin companion; vintage family photos taken by his late father Denis; and "A South Wales Alphabet" with amusing A to Z stories of growing up in south Wales, which were written by his brother David, a noted science-fiction writer.
If an album with a choir on it might make you think it's soft, fear not. Skull Orchard Revisited still rocks and showcases some great songwriting from the charismatic Waco Brothers and Mekons member.
9. Imelda May - Mayhem (International Version)
I first learned of this Irish singer through her performance with guitar legend Jeff Beck when he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2009 and more fully appreciated her on this year's Jeff Beck: Rock 'n' Roll Party Honoring Les Paul DVD. I haven't heard her debut album, but this sophomore album shows a gifted singer with attitude and a voice that suits her updated rockabilly and occasional smoky jazz material perfectly. I'm kicking myself that I missed her gig, which drew raves from my friends, earlier this year.
10. Arkells - Michigan Left
I was a bit slow to come around to this Hamilton, Ont. band after the first time I saw it a few years back. But the group's Jackson Square debut album grew on me and its party sets consisting of Motown classics won me over completely. Michigan Left follows those Motown leanings to become a melodic, soul-filled rock record that should get the 2010 Juno Award winner for best new group recognized well beyond Canada.
Just Missed The Cut
Sun Wizard - Positively 4th Avenue
San Sebastian - Relations
Lydia Loveless - Indestructible Machine
Shotgun Jimmie - Transistor Sister
Hayes Carll - KMAG YOYO (& Other American Stories)
Telekinesis - 12 Desperate Straight Lines
Jack Oblivian - Rat City
Mannequin Men - Mannequin Men
Wanda Jackson - The Party Ain't Over
Aggrolites - Rugged Road
The Warped 45's - Matador Sunset
Imaginary Cities - Temporary Resident
The Decemberists - The King is Dead
The Rural Alberta Advantage - Departing
Slim Cessna's Auto Club - Unentitled
54-40 - Lost in the City
The Baseball Project - Volume 2: High and Inside
British Seapower - Valhalla Dancehall
Ron Sexsmith - Long Player Late Bloomer
Social Distortion - Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes
Frank Turner - England Keep My Bones
Ohbijou - Metal Meets
Gang of Four - Content
The Fall - Ersatz GB
Gillian Welch - The Harrow & The Harvest
Acres of Lions - Collections
Foster The People - "Pumped Up Kicks"
Rockpile - Live at Montreux 1980
Reissues, Compilations and Box Sets (alphabetical order)
Johnny Cash - Bootleg Vol. II, Bootleg Vol. III
Leonard Cohen - The Complete Columbia Albums Collection
Neil Diamond - The Bang Years 1966-1968
The Jayhawks - Hollywood Town Hall, Tomorrow The Green Grass
Roy Orbison - The Monument Singles Collection (1960-1964)
Paul Revere & The Raiders - The Essential Paul Revere & The Raiders
Joel Plaskett - EMERGENCYs, false alarms, shipwrecks, castaways, fragile creatures, special features, demons and demonstrations
Iggy Pop - Roadkill Rising … The Bootleg Collection: 1977-2009
Elvis Presley - Elvis Is Back!
R.E.M. - Part Lies Part Heart Part Truth Part Garbage: 1982-2011
Paul Simon - Graceland, Songwriter
Simon and Garfunkel - Bridge Over Troubled Water
Patti Smith - Outside Society
Phil Spector - Wall of Sound: The Very Best of Phil Spector 1961-1966, Phil Spector Presents the Philles Album Collection
Peter Tosh - Equal Rights, Legalize It
Various artists - Rave On Buddy Holly
Music DVDs (alphabetical order)
The B-52s - With The Wild Crowd! Live in Athens, Ga.
Jeff Beck - Jeff Beck: Rock 'n' Roll Party Honoring Les Paul
New York Dolls - Lookin' Fine on Television
The Rolling Stones - Some Girls Live in Texas '78
Talking Heads - Chronology
Various artists - A Musicares Tribute to Neil Young
X - The Unheard Music (The Silver Edition)
Jon Langford - Skull Orchard Revisited
Concerts (chronological order)
Hollerado, Gang of Four - Feb. 4, Phoenix, Toronto
Nicole Atkins - Feb. 27, Horseshoe, Toronto
Sun Wizard - March 10, Supermarket, Toronto
The Sadies - March 11, Mod Club, Toronto
Buddy McNeil & The Magic Mirrors - March 11, El Mocambo, Toronto
Les Breastfeeders - March 11, El Mocambo, Toronto
Catl - March 12, Comfort Zone, Toronto
The Resignators - March 12, Hideout, Toronto
British Sea Power - March 24, Lee's Palace, Toronto
Saint Alvia, Johnstones, Planet Smashers - March 25, Phoenix, Toronto
The Grapes of Wrath - March 25, El Mocambo, Toronto
The Real McKenzies - April 2, Lee's Palace, Toronto
Old 97's - April 6, Horseshoe, Toronto
Hayes Carll - April 10, Horseshoe, Toronto
Good Family, The Sadies, Jon Langford, Deano Waco, Skull Orchard - April 15, Horseshoe, Toronto
Jon Langford and Burlngton Welsh Male Choir, Waco Brothers - April 16, Horseshoe, Toronto
Frank Turner - April 26, El Mocambo, Toronto
Mick Thomas, The Lowest of the Low - May 7, Massey Hall, Toronto
Bad Manners - May 7, Lee's Palace, Toronto
The Cars - May 20, Sound Academy, Toronto
Scotty Campbell and The Wardenaires - May 28, Not My Dog, Toronto
The Baseball Project - June 1, Horseshoe, Toronto
Descendents - June 16, Yonge Dundas Square, Toronto
Crocodiles - June 16, Silver Dollar, Toronto
C.J. Ramone - June 16, Bovine Sex Club, Toronto
Archie Powell & The Exports - June 17, Rancho Relaxo, Toronto
Cults - June 18, Yonge Dundas Square, Toronto
Men Without Hats - June 18, Yonge Dundas Square, Toronto
Devo - June 18, Yonge Dundas Square, Toronto
The Lucky Ones, Stiff Little Fingers - Aug. 16, Lee's Palace, Toronto
Aggrolites - Oct. 15, Lee's Palace, Toronto
Colleen Green, Crocodiles, Dum Dum Girls - Oct. 16, Lee's Palace, Toronto
Shonen Knife - Oct. 20, Horseshoe, Toronto
Davila 666 - Oct. 22, Silver Dollar, Toronto
Kepi, Chixdiggit - Oct. 27, Sneaky Dee's, Toronto
Frank Turner - Oct. 28, Phoenix, Toronto
Lyres - Nov. 19, Horseshoe, Toronto
Legendary Dirtbikers, Ultimatemost High, Tres Bien Ensemble - Dec. 16, The Sister, Toronto
Skydiggers - Dec. 17, Horseshoe, Toronto
The Sadies - Dec. 31, Horseshoe, Toronto