The Best Albums of 2011

A Very Good Year For Songwriters: I can't remember a year when this list consisted of such strong albums, all of them. Beyond the excellent performances and production, what really made this year special was the songwriting. Each album has remarkable consistency of songwriting quality; the great songs roll one after another. So here are my choices for the best albums of the year.

1. Matraca Berg - The Dreaming Fields

Listen to "You and Tequila"

A Masterpiece: Nashville may be the last bastion of professional songwriters who sell their songs to music publishers to be recorded by the many country stars who don't write their own material. A few of these professional songwriters also occasionally record their own songs. Matraca Berg is such a songwriter and no matter who does the many hit songs she writes, no one sounds better singing them than she does. Take her latest hit song, "You and Tequila"; you can hear the big hit version by Kenny Chesney and Grace Potter here. You can also listen to Matraca's version (above); as much as I like the hit duet, to these ears there is no comparison.

"You and Tequila" was certified platinum (for selling one million copies), and it has been recognized by the CMA awards, the AMC awards, and it garnered two Grammy nominations including Best County Song which is a songwriters' award. This is only Matraca's latest success; Reba McEntire took one of her earliest songs to number one and since then she's been in high demand and has had hits with a huge list of country stars that includes Patty Loveless, Tricia Yearwood, Suzy Bogguss, Faith Hill, Linda Ronstadt, and the Dixie Chicks, just to name a few. Matraca has been inducted into Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, one of the youngest songwriters ever to receive that honor.

The great thing about The Dreaming Fields is that it's loaded with great songs. Matraca is an exquisite songwriter, she has a great voice, and she produced this record with just the perfect arrangements for each song. Matraca wrote or co-wrote everything on the album and she used her many musician and singer-songwriter friends to help her record it. This is her fifth album overall, but it's her first after a fourteen year layoff.

I've known that Matraca was good, ever since 1990 when I saw her sing at a Borders bookstore, playing songs from her first album and when her claim to fame was having written "Strawberry Wine" for Deana Carter. After such a long hiatus between albums, I hadn't exactly forgotten about her, but when I found that she had made a new album, and when I loaded it into the player, it was a happy shock of the highest order to discover that she had made a masterpiece.

2. Rosita Kèss - Northern Sky

Listen to "Where Should I Go"

Italy's Loss is Our Gain: Rosita Kèss is a talented singer, songwriter, and musician, originally from Venice, Italy. For a while she lived in New York City, frequently entertaining the good folks of the Lower East Side with frequent performances at Rockwood, often in tandem with singer-songwriter Richard Jullian. Rosita and Richard recently got married and now live in New Orleans. Rosita has a fresh voice and weaves folk, rock, jazz, Bossa Nova, and even some French cabaret into her mix. Northern Sky is a beautiful album that pairs well-written original songs with superb production that features infectious rhythms and instrumentation that varies from track to track. Richard produced the album, and also co-wrote and played on some of the songs.

There are several great guests appearing on Northern Sky including Jim Campilongo who added his electric guitar to "Where Should I Go". Jim is a frequent flyer at The Living Room where it's a treat every time he takes out his guitar. Jim gives it just enough twang to give the song that cool country sound, and the swing in Rosita's vocal evokes the memory of Patsy Cline. It's impossible to pick just one track as representative of the record because the songs are so different from one another, but what they all have in common is that together they make up one of the best albums I heard this year.

3. Greg Brown - Freak Flag

Listen to "Let the Mystery Be"

A National Treasure: Greg Brown has an enormous repertoire of American music at his disposal, including folk, blues, country, gospel, soul, jazz, and rock; this is perhaps the most encyclopedic collection of songs of any working musician since Jerry Garcia. Greg's primary mode of musical expression is his live concerts. Unlike other artists who draw their concert material from their albums, Greg liberally mixes many cover songs with his own compositions, some of which may even be from his albums. His live show expresses whatever mood or point of view he wants on a given night, no two shows are ever exactly the same.

Once every few years, Greg goes into the studio to make an album and the result is usually cause for celebration among his fans. This is such a time. Freak Flag is so loaded with great songs and ear friendly production that this album should have appeal way beyond his fan base, which is likely why he chose to release it on Yep Roc instead of his own Red House label. Ten of the twelve songs are new originals by Greg, some of which he has done live during the last several years. Of the other two, one was written by his daughter Pieta Brown and the other is one of his wife Iris DeMent's most well known songs, "Let the Mystery Be", which he has been doing live for some years.

Freak Flag was produced by Greg's longtime friend and collaborator Bo Ramsey who also played on the record. There are a few uptempo numbers that have a real nice interplay of two electric guitars (Bo Ramsey and Richard Bennett) along with Greg's acoustic guitar. The slower, more thoughtful songs feature Bo's trademark smoldering and moody guitar leads. Guest Mark Knopfler played a nice electric solo on "Flat Stuff". The electric guitar work sounds great on all the tracks and Bo knows just the right amount to use so that they don't overwhelm Greg or the songs. Greg has done so many great albums in his career that it would be hard to say that this was his best, but it's certainly one of them.

4. Kasey Chambers - Little Bird

Listen to "Invisible Girl"

Her Life in Music: Kasey Chambers spent the first nine years of her life living in the Australian outback with her family, they sang nightly around the campfire. When the family finally moved back to civilization, she spent the second half of her childhood as the lead singer in her family's band; with her mother, father, and brother, they were the Dead Ringer Band, playing country music and alt-country in the style of Lucinda Williams. They recorded seven albums and won every award that the Australian music industry had to give.

When her parents split up, she wrote her first solo album which was recorded with assistance from her dad, Bill Chambers, on guitars and her brother Nash Chambers producing. The album was amazingly good with excellent songs, nicely sung, and great instrumental backing and production that sounded like the product of one of the world's best producers; there wasn't a clue as to the do-it-yourself nature of the recording. In addition to multi-platinum sales in Australia, the album also had worldwide success, including the U.S. where it was released in 2000.

And even though it seemed like she had hit a home run her first time up, she released an even better second album in 2001. The sound of her voice against the well produced electric guitars sounded amazing. Her albums since have all been good but this year's Little Bird is stunning in its accomplishment. Kasey has always been a talented songwriter but she has outdone herself with this collection of incredibly beautiful songs; this time around she sounds very intimate and personal in her writing, and effortlessly so.

In "Nullarbor Song" she opens with "When I was a little girl, I had the biggest backyard in the world, It went on for miles and miles, was wide as it was high, Down to the horizon, all the way up to the sky". Performance and production are still top notch. Both her dad and her husband Shane Nicholson play on the album; Nash engineered while Kasey handled production. Singing backup on the album are Patty Griffin and Australian singer-songwriter Missy Higgins. This is an amazingly consistent album from start to finish and I do believe it's the best thing she's done yet.

5. Keb Mo - The Reflection

Listen to "Crush on You"

A Great Record: The first thing you need to know is that this is not a blues album. Over his last couple of albums, Keb Mo has become a consummate singer-songwriter doing soul flavored pop/folk/rock. His voice has a very slight weary tone to it that makes it super comfortable like your best pair of old jeans. Although there are too many players to list here, I'll mention two of the six bass players on the record: Victor Wooten and Marcus Miller. Its really good to see Miller doing sessions like this again; in the seventies and eighties he lent his bass, voice, and/or production skills to many great sounding soul/jazz/singer-songwriter projects.

"The Whole Enchilada" is such a catchy tune it was the first single. Keb co-wrote all but two of the songs. "Crush On You" was written by Kevin So who also plays piano and this track features a delightful guest vocal by India.Arie. Keb also does a superb version of the Eagles' "One of These Nights". Other co-writers of note include Melissa Manchester, Maia Sharp, and Vince Gill who not only co-wrote "My Baby's Tellin' Lies", but he plays and sings on it too. Keb is getting a lot of favorable press right now for "We Don't Need It", about a family going through tough economic times. "The Reflection (I See Myself In You)", clocking in at 6:47, is musically a little more complex but no less ear-friendly than the rest of the album which is about as warm and appealing as it gets.

6. John Hiatt - Dirty Jeans & Mudslide Hymns

Listen to "I Love That Girl"

Best Hiatt In Years: John Hiatt's been at it for a really long time, this is his twentieth studio album. Along the way, there have been many great songs, great bands, and great albums, but his creative peak was achieved in the late 1980's with the trilogy of Bring the Family, Slow Turning, and Stolen Moments. These albums, especially the latter two, are just about perfect. Hiatt has done good work over the years since, but none of the albums reached the high water mark of that trilogy, until now. From a songwriting standpoint, Dirty Jeans & Mudslide Hymns is his most consistent set of songs in years.

Producer Kevin Shirley facilitated a great sounding production style that opened up the arrangements to include a good mixture of acoustic and electric guitars, mandolin, piano, organ, and even strings. The production serves the songs well by staying out of the way and letting Hiatt's melodies (Hiatt has not been this tuneful in a long time) and lyrics to take center stage. The music actually serves to heighten the drama especially on songs like "Damn This Town", "Down Around My Place", and "Adios to California". There are some beautiful love songs like "I Love That Girl" and "Don't Wanna Leave You Now".

"Detroit Made" is a classic Hiatt driving song that could hold its own alongside "Memphis in the Meantime" and "Drive South". Hiatt writes colorful characters that evoke the south, complete with their own emotional baggage in songs like "Train to Birmingham" and "Damn This Town". As you get toward the end of the album, the drama builds setting up the last song, "When New York Had Her Heart Broke" which is a hugely emotional song about the 9/11 tragedy and perhaps the best song on the subject that I've run across. Dirty Jeans & Mudslide Hymns excels in every way and like the albums in that earlier trilogy it's one that you'll want to hear over and over.

7. Nikki Jean - Pennies in a Jar

Listen to "How to Unring a Bell"

A Songwriting Dream Team: We find new music all kinds of ways these days. With the record industry disintegrating, and radio having become almost a non-factor in discovering new music, the internet has more than picked up the slack with a veritable explosion of sites where you can hear new music, not to mention word of mouth on Facebook. Regardless of how you find it, it is one of life's greatest pleasures to discover something great. In this case I did not know of Nikki Jean, had never even heard the name, when I was given a copy of Pennies in a Jar. I was thrilled the minute I listened to it because I knew that this album was something really special.

Nikki Jean is a sweet voiced singer, a Minnesota native now based in Philadelphia. Although she had previously worked with a couple members of the Roots, and made two EPs, she got the idea that for her first album she wanted to write with her songwriting heroes from the sixties and seventies. She began by enlisting producer Sam Hollander because he had worked with Carole King. Once he was on board, together they approached everyone on her wish list; and they had a remarkable batting average. She wrote with Jimmy Webb, Paul Williams, Lamont Dozier (of the Motown team Holland-Dozier-Holland), Carly Simon, Jeff Barry, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, and Carole King who also sang backup on the record.

"How to Unring a Bell" has a classic soul/pop melody and sound; it was written with Thom Bell (The Sound of Philadelphia) using a nice turn of lyric phrase. The first few seconds of the title track are a tip off that Burt Bacharach was involved. Even considering the multitude of songwriting talent on this record, “Steel and Feathers (Don’t Ever)” is maybe the most unusual track on it from a writing perspective. This was a song that Bob Dylan started thirty years ago but never completed; Dylan gave the song to Nikki to finish for the album.

Even though this album sounds at times like a tour through the best songs of the sixties and seventies, this is far from an oldies record; all of the songs are fresh and new. It's all just great material, well produced, and Nikki's vocals make these songs her own.

8. The Damnwells - No One Listens to the Band Anymore

Listen to "Werewolves"

No One Sounds Like This Anymore: It's a simple formula really - crisp guitars, tight bass and drums, strong vocals and great songs. Bands have been using this recipe for years, from the Beatles to Del Amitri. The Damnwells have subscribed to this philosophy ever since their inception in the year 2001. They were good when I first saw them in 2005 (they had the pleasure of opening for Julianna Hatfield's tour that year) and they're even better now. Formed in Brooklyn, The Damnwells consist of a core of Alex Dezen and Ted Hudson with other players rounding out the band as needed for touring and recording. Together they produced No One Listens to the Band Anymore; Alex wrote or co-wrote all the songs.

All the tracks are solid but have a listen to "Werewolves" (above), it's one of the best. "Last Day of the New Age" has a very nice mix of electric and acoustic guitars. "The Great Unknown" mixes acoustic guitar and organ with some great lyrics. "Let's Be Civilized" is more electric and also has awesome lyrics that you'll never hear on the radio, even if you are lucky enough to have a station that plays The Damnwells. It seems like AAA radio stations (stations like WXPN in Philadelphia) and record label release schedules are all dominated by groups that have mediocre singers or vocals buried in the mix (or both). Groups like The Damnwells are few and far between, and that's a shame because albums like No One Listens to the Band Anymore would be a breath of fresh air, both on the air and on new release Tuesday.

9. The Grabs - Political Disco

Listen to "Jerry's Video Store"

A Superb Side Project: In addition to a string of great albums under her own name, Eleni Mandell also has two side projects going; one is a group called The Living Sisters which consists of Eleni with Inara George (The Bird and the Bee and daughter of Lowell George) and Becky Stark (Lavender Diamond). In 2005, she formed a side project band called The Grabs with Steve Gregoropoulis (keyboards, guitars, and vocals) and Nigel Harrison (bass). They released their first album that year called Sex, Fashion and Money; which sounded like Eleni took a vacation from her career to record with these guys in the manner of a garage band. The album didn't sound like a garage band exactly, but it did sound like they were having the fun and freedom of a garage band.

Now The Grabs have returned with album number two and it's a good one. It was recorded in 2010 and I don't think Eleni was all that specific about the reasons for its delay in the email that announced its release, but she did say that they had an enormously good time making the album and that she was happy to release it this year through Bandcamp. To the trio of Eleni, Steve, and Nigel, this album adds Elvira Gonzales on percussion as well as guests such as Clem Burke of Blondie, DJ Bonebrake of X, Probyn Gregory of Brian Wilson, Danny Frankel of k d lang and others.

The record opens with "Come Back" in which Eleni's sweet voiced vocal is multitracked against a guitar riff and the combination sounds like pure pop without a trace of irony. Track two is based on another great guitar line with the same ear-friendly vocals and a nifty guitar solo to boot. Next up is "Jerry's Video Store" (above) which laments the closing of neighborhood video stores and the track with its half-spoken vocal is so much fun that after a couple of spins, it'll have you coming back to this record often. The title track is next with some nice synthesizer accenting the guitar lines and another great vocal from Eleni. The album continues in this fashion and when all is said and done, The Grabs have made a consistently fun and listenable record; one that's on par with any of Eleni's solo albums.

10. Eliza Doolittle - Eliza Doolittle

Listen to "Pack Up"

A Totally Charming Debut: Londoner Eliza Doolittle combines a bunch of seemingly disparate elements to deliver the most original, catchy, and delightful record to be heard on these shores in a very long time. Drawing from diverse sources such as British dancehall, jazz, and brass bands from the forties and fifties, ska from the sixties and seventies, mixed with modern day folk/pop, Eliza's debut injected a breath of fresh air into the British charts upon its release in 2010; it was released here in 2011. Songs like "Skinny Genes", "Rollerblades", "Missing", "So High", and "Pack Up" (above) are so catchy that it doesn't take many plays for them to sink their hooks into the pleasure centers of your brain.

Although this record seems to have been written and produced by committee, there is one big reason that the album is so cohesive and artistically successful, and her name is Eliza Doolittle; she conceived the project and co-wrote all thirteen songs. Her name is really Eliza Caird, her stage name is her real childhood nickname. Eliza had either one or two co-writers per song with a total of fifteen co-writers. Seven of them are also listed as producers, and with the mixer who also produced, the album had eight producers. It's a wonder then that the record is not over-produced; it has a nice, open production style and with Eliza's very appealing voice, the overall effect is most pleasing to the ear. You might think of Lily Allen without the dark side, but Eliza Doolittle is totally original and totally charming.

11. Violette - Simple Is Beautiful

Listen to "Rocking With Angels"

Diamond In the Rough: I get a lot of press releases. The majority have to do with loud indie bands and I didn't mind that most of them went straight to my email junk filter. Luckily, one got through a few months ago from Violette, regarding the release of her third album, Simple Is Beautiful. I was delighted to encounter an excellent piece of work by this fine singer-songwriter who is a native of France, now based in New York. Of the twelve tracks on the record, all are in English except for two, the lovely and atmospheric "Insomnie" (complete with beautiful video), and "La Vie En Rose". The latter is the only hint on the album of Violette's jazz background; and while she does a splendid version, it almost seems obligatory for a French singer to record "La Vie En Rose" at some point.

Violette is a exquisite songwriter as evidenced by tracks like "Silence In My Head", "All I Need", and the title track. "Sweet Soul Music" is. Rocking a little harder but no less sweetly are "Rocking With the Angels" (above) and "Shinin' Your Light". This is an album that is totally enjoyable and will keep you coming back for more. For my part, now I check every press release just to find the next hidden gem.

12. Suzie Brown - Heartstrings

Listen to "Heartstrings"

Prescription For a Broken Heart: Suzie Brown knows all about the heart, literally and figuratively, or should I say Suzie Brown, M.D., Harvard Medical School, Class of 2002. A successful research cardiologist, Suzie gave up the research in 2009 to take a part-time clinical position treating heart attack patients, to allow time for her music career. The aptly titled Heartstrings is her first full length album, following an EP that she made in 2010. Although she has no background in country music, she has a clear sweet voice that sounds like it was made to sing country. The record is mostly country flavored rock with an underpinning of blues.

The title track (above) is her obvious signature song, but the songwriting quality of the rest of the album shows that she's not only good at it, but she was wise to make room in her life to explore this talent. The more uptempo songs like "I'll Be Gone", "Nice Girl", and "Easily Amused" may not be "country songs" but they are so loaded with details and melody that they are virtually begging for country airplay. I first heard Suzie Brown on a compilation that WXPN gave out to their members last Valentine's Day called Philly Local Sings In the Key of Love. The song was "What You Do To Me", a slow bluesy number that featured some fine electric guitar along with a Hammond B-3 organ and it stood out as the best track on the record; it's also on Heartstrings.

There are several more excellent slow lament type songs proving that Suzie can have her way with any type of song. The one song that doesn't sound country at all closes the album beautifully with a tribute to a friend who died; this song falls more into Joni Mitchell territory. In an excellent Harvard Magazine article about her dual careers, she says that she wrote her first song in the wake of a romantic breakup. She has not looked back.

13. James Maddock - Wake Up & Dream

Listen to "Wake Up and Dream"

One of New York's Finest: Two years on from his comeback/American debut album Sunrise On Avenue C, James Maddock's followup, Wake Up and Dream is another solid set of very listenable tunes. On his last album, some of the more anthemic sounding songs suggested comparisons to early Springsteen; those qualities can be heard again on love songs like "Beautiful Now", "Stella's Driving", and "Stoned On You". This album also reminds me a little of British singer-songwriter Chris Rea at times. James' unique sense of humor resurfaces as well on "Mr. Universe", "If what don't kill you makes you stronger, how come I'm so weak it hurts, and if that were true, all that I've been through, I'd be Mr. Universe".

James wrote and sang all the songs and played guitar. John Shannon played guitar, Oli Rockberger played keyboards, and David Immerglück (Counting Crows) added lap steel guitar and mandolin. Leslie Mendelson was there for background vocals. Iestyn Polson produced the album with such skill that it is a complete pleasure to listen. James had a solid rhythm section with Aaron Comess on drums and Drew Mortali on bass; Eleanor Whitmore handled strings when needed. Polson's production skill gave "Step Into the Water", "That's Where You're Wrong", and the title track (above) great sound to match James' awesome songwriting and performance.

The songwriting on Wake Up and Dream has the power to whisk you away and surround you with the people and places described in the songs, helping solidify James' position as one of New York's finest singer-songwriters. Since the last album, James has been doing quite a bit of touring, but he still finds time to play often at Rockwood and other New York venues.

14. Joy Askew - Drunk On You

Listen to "Drunk On You"

From Newcastle to the Lower East Side: In 1996, I bought Joy Askew's first album, Tender City. I didn't know much about her, only that she was a gifted new singer-songwriter from England and that she had made a great album with some really amazing guest musicians. It turns out that she grew up in Newcastle, England and after many unique and interesting musical experiences (read the fascinating bio she wrote on her website), she settled in New York City to pursue a solo career. Little did I know that twenty years later I would have the pleasure of seeing her quite often at The Living Room on New York's Lower East Side. She was a highlight of The Living Room's special nights like Fleetwood Mac Night where she not only laid down a compelling version of an early Mac blues tune, but she was the only one who was able to tell about first-hand Fleetwood Mac encounters back in England.

Drunk on You is her sixth album and it's a beautiful piece of work, every song is finely crafted and memorable. Joy plays a variety of instruments but most songs are piano or keyboard based. The arrangements and production (Joy produced) are perfect. There are some great melodies and lyrics hiding behind deceptively mundane titles like "My Life", "Walk the Dog" and especially "Had a Bad Day" which has some real wisdom in the lyrics. A number of songs such as "AOAO", "Waterfalls" and "All Be Saints" have such haunting melodies and poignant lyrics that the combination has a real dramatic feel that suggests they might be perfect for inclusion in a movie.

The musicians playing on Drunk on You are some of the finest players on the Lower East Side. Steve Elliott played guitar; I've seen Steve play with Chrissi Poland many times and he is always a pleasure to hear. Also playing in her band are Rob Jost on bass with either Robert DiPietro or Tony Mason on drums, Living Room regulars all. Guesting on the album are James Maddock on guitar and backing vocals and Ana Milosevljevic played violin and electric violin. Like many of the all time best albums, this one does not reveal all of its charms on the first listen, but after a number of spins you get to know these songs for the brilliant compositions they are.

15. Jackie Bristow - Freedom

Listen to "Warning Signs"

From Aotearoa to Austin: One of the best things about South By Southwest is the opportunity to see artists from all over the world. The last time I went, in 2009, the first show I saw on day one of the festival was a superb set by Jackie Bristow. Having not been aware of her before, she was my first great find of that year's SXSW. Jackie was born and raised in New Zealand. She moved to Australia to pursue a music career and released two successful albums before setting up residence in Austin, TX.

Freedom is her third album and was recorded in Sydney, Australia and Austin. She co-produced with her longtime music partner Mark Punch. Jackie wrote all the songs except for one that she co-wrote with Mark, and this is a fine set of songs. Jackie's vocals have a nice soulful quality which when paired with the backup singers approaches a gospel feel. The prominent Hammond B-3 organ just adds to the soulfulness. It's clear listening to this, that Mark is an amazing guitarist; whether he's playing tasty leads like on most tracks, or playing soft acoustic like on "River", Mark's guitar is a total pleasure. He even cranks up a chunky sound on "Hightail It Outta Here" that brings to mind the early Doobie Brothers.

The last song, "Aotearoa" is the album's most unusual and maybe my favorite track. The song is about her homeland; "Aotearoa" is the native word for New Zealand. Jackie's heartfelt vocal combines beautifully with a native sounding rhythm and chorus with Mark's ūkēkē giving way to some gorgeously restrained electric guitar leads and the Māori spoken word all works together to make this song a real highlight of the record. Outside the occasional trip back to play Australia and New Zealand, Jackie plays the various venues in and around Austin all the time. She also goes on tour occasionally, so if you ever get the chance to see her, don't pass it.

See The Best XPN Songs of 2011.


Ms. K said…
So glad our XMas gift made the cut!!! BTW, found out about Nikki Jean from the good old fashioned newspaper, not the net : )
Charlie Ricci said…
Of the ones I've heard the best of the bunch is by Rosita Kess, your #2 of the year.

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