Top 5 albums of 2011…so far

Tom Pilcher

It’s not the end of the year yet, but with the glut of great new releases out already, September is as good a time as any to figure out what has been getting played most. Undoubtedly my Last.FM will tell a completely different story, but sometimes it takes a while to really understand a record.

At any rate, here are five albums that have resonated for me this year, in no particular order.

5. Dawes, “Nothing is Wrong”

With their rootsy, soul-inflected tunes, it’s obvious that this Los Angeles quartet worships at the altar of The Band and Jackson Browne. So it’s perfect that their newest album “Nothing is Wrong” features a guest appearance by Browne himself, on the standout track “Fire Away.” Between Browne’s appearance and backing The Band’s Robbie Robertson on a rare tour this summer, Dawes seem to be catching the attention of the right people. “Nothing is Wrong” picks up right where 2009’s “North Hills” left off, incorporating some new song structures and instrumental flourishes. Three-part harmonies abound, and after only a few tunes, it’s immediately clear that these Californians know how to play with each other live. They may not be pushing the envelope like the Animal Collectives of the world, but Dawes sure knows how to write a fine, classic song.

4. Fucked Up, “David Comes to Life”

I’ve wanted to like Fucked Up for a long time; this Toronto sextet has been yelling, flailing, and releasing an ungodly number of singles, 7 inches and full length albums for 10 years now. Something just never clicked until now. With 2008’s “The Chemistry of Common Life” and this year’s monstrous sorta-rock opera “David Comes to Life,” this crew has finally thrashed their way out of the punk ghetto and into more mainstream circles. Frontman Damian Abraham’s hearty yowl is the centerpiece of Fucked Up’s sound, but the other five — three guitars, bass and drums — weave a dense wall of sound behind him. Spanning 18 tracks, “David Comes to Life” draws from punk, hardcore, indie pop and rock, noise and just about everything in between. Just try to resist the punch of “Queen of Hearts,” the second track.

 

3. Wye Oak, “Civilian”

Not to toot our own horn, but this Baltimore duo played campus earlier this year in April, on the release tour for “Civilian.” Though their third album might not quite capture the awesomely loud guitar tones Jenn Wasner harnesses live, “Civilian” is one of their strongest efforts to date. With Wasner’s smoky vocals and Andy Stack’s creative playing on drums and keyboard, these slow-burners tread the lines between loud and soft, dense and subtle with ease.

2. Booker T. Jones, “The Road from Memphis”

Even if you don’t recognize his name, you probably know Booker T. Jones’ playing: This certified-soul-legend was the Hammond B3 organist and bandleader of Booker T. and the M.G.’s, a Memphis quartet which acted as the house band for Stax Records artists like Otis Redding and The Staples Singers in the 1960s. “The Road from Memphis” finds Jones back in the director’s seat, this time with the terminally hip Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson on drums and an array of vocalists ranging from Lou Reed to Matt Berninger of The National singing a song or two. The disc features original compositions by Jones and some well-chosen covers, including an instrumental, organ-led version of Gnarls Barkley’s mega-hit “Crazy.” Check this disc out, if only for the sultry duet between Berninger and Sharon Jones (of Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings), “Representing Memphis.”

1. Middle Brother, “Middle Brother”

This entry almost feels like cheating. Middle Brother is composed of brothers Taylor and Griffin Goldsmith of Dawes, Matt Vasquez of The Delta Spirit, and John McCauley of Deer Tick, and it features songwriting contributions from the three lead singers. This self-titled album was born out of a quick-and-dirty recording session with the four of them, but the results couldn’t be better. Taylor’s voice is the soulful, earnest one, perfectly balanced by McCauley’s impudent snarl and Vasquez’s reedy tenor. The dynamic of three lead singers makes for an interesting one, as the three trade-off lead and backing vocal duties over the album’s 12 songs. “Middle Brother” features more playful tunes — “Me Me Me” and the ‘50s-aping “Someday” — than Dawes’ new record, but there are some great sparse slow jams on here as well.

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