Best of the Year

by Andrew Elias

NO LIST of the top CDs of 2011would be reliable if it did not include Adele’s sophomore release, '21'. Not only was it the best selling CD of the year, it was one of the most highly acclaimed — and with good reason. The recording is a throwback to the best of the classic R&B records of the past — soulful and rich with hooks as well as having heartfelt lyrics packed with an emotional clout that’s hard to believe comes from such a young woman. And then there’s her voice.

Most everyone is familiar with her hits - ‘Rolling in the Deep’ and ‘Rumour Has It’ — but songs like ‘Set Fire to the Rain’ and ‘Someone Like You’ are real tearjerkers and ‘I’ll Be Waiting’ is another upbeat tune almost as rocking as her biggest hits. With not a weak song on the record, Adele’s '21' (Columbia) is one CD you should have in your music collection.

Joss Stone, another young woman from England who has racked up millions of sales, changed directions a bit in 2011. Stone’s sound owes a lot to great soul singers like Aretha Franklin, Janis Joplin and Dusty Springfield, and her new album builds on that funky sound. Recorded in Nashville with Dave Stewart (of The Eurythmics) producing, new the CD offers a glimpse of what Stone is capable of when she has total creative freedom.

The CD is titled, 'LP1' because it’s her first on her own label (Stone’d/Surfdog). Stone wrote all the songs on the album and tracks like ‘Karma’ and ‘Last One to Know’ show she has the chops to write strong songs about tough women — some full-tilt rockers and others softer blues laments. Another excellent CD from one of the very best female vocalists making music these days.

If you’re familiar with The Black Keys then you know how two guys from Akron, Ohio have been making some of the most mind-bending garage rock for years. If you think you’re not familiar with The Black Keys then you’re unaware of the many, many TV commercials using their songs as their soundtracks such as Zales, Victoria’s Secret, Sony Ericsson. Often with only a guitar and simple drum kit, these guys crank out the raunchiest blues you could ever want to rock out to. The music is simple, but very effective. The first single. ‘Lonely Boy’ is another winner. The band’s new release, 'El Camino' (Nonesuch), continues their unblemished track record of churning out great CDs year after year.

Two aging rock rockers released their first records of new material in several years — Tom Waits and Garland Jeffreys — and both are among the best albums of their careers. The new Waits CD — 'Bad as Me' (Anti) — while still quite dark and dissonant at times (after all it is still Tom Waits, whose previous CD of live recording was titled Glimmer and Doom), is more upbeat than usual with several tracks almost danceable.

Waits growls and snarls through excellent new songs like ‘Satisfied’, ‘Get Lost’ and the title track, but also croons and moans through more poetic ballads like ‘Back in the Crowd,’ ‘Face to the Highway’ and ‘Last Leaf’. It’s Waits’ unique gift for both wild abandon and devastating tenderness, plus a twisted sense of humor, that makes him one of the most endearing recording artists ever — and a Rock & Roll Hall of Famer. Having Keith Richards help out on guitar only adds to the fun.

Garland Jeffreys has always been a popular figure on the New York City music scene and has a small but loving following, but has not recorded new material for a few years — until 2011. His latest CD, 'The King of In Between' (Lunar Park) just might be his best ever — and that’s saying a lot, considering his albums Ghostwriter and Escape Artist were both very highly acclaimed.

The song that jumps out at you upon first listening is ‘Coney Island Winter.’ It’s part beat poetry and part rhythm & blues, with a bit of punk rock aggressiveness and a bit of soulful street singing. ‘The Contortionist’ rolls along on a bassline and back beat that sound a lot like The Rolling Stones’ ‘Some Girls’, but you don’t mid because the lyrics are just as strong. And ‘I’m Alive’ is an outstanding reminder that Jeffreys is still making great rock ’n’ roll music.

Never easily categorized, always seeming to be caught somewhere between poet and rocker, soul singer and punk, he may well be the King of Inbetween, as the title says. Hopefully, this album will gain him the wider fame and fans he deserves.

Chris Isaak gained success and acclaim with a sound that heavily borrowed from the earliest rockers — Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash — while making it his very own with catchy songs, a winning personality and some of the best videos on the upstart MTV. Always wanting to record the classics by his heroes, Isaak has finally released 'Beyond the Sun' (Vanguard), a collection of songs first recorded at the legendary Sun Studios in Memphis.

His take on hits like ‘Ring of Fire, ‘Oh, Pretty Woman,’ ‘It’s Now or Never,’ ‘I Walk the Line,’ and ‘Great Balls of Fire’ as well as lesser known songs like ‘She’s Not You,’ ‘I Forgot to Remember to Forget’ and ‘Dixie Fried’ are spot on — faithful without imitation. Isaak clearly loves these songs and you will, too. Available as a one-CD or two-CD collection. I recommend getting all 29 songs.

The Red Button are a little-know independent band (actually a duo) who release their CDs on their own label (Grimble). Five years after releasing their debut album, The Red Button have released 'As Far as Yesterday Goes', another power-pop gem.

The sound owes more than a little to the jangle of mid-sixties British rock and Beatle-ish harmonies. The songs are short, sweet and to-the-point — the point being short and sweet. Few tracks are more than 3 minutes long, but oh, the fun these guys can put in three minutes. If songs like ‘Girl, Don’t,’ ‘Caught in the Middle’ and ‘She Grows Where She’s Planted’ aren’t up quite up to the likes of The Beatles, The Searchers or The Kinks (that is a ridiculously high standard to meet) it’s not for lack of trying to channel that same sixties joy and psychedelia.

Last, but certainly not least of the records recommended from the many outstanding rock albums of 2011 is 'Looking for a Fight' (Signature) by The Sweetback Sisters. The sextet (unrelated) is based in Brooklyn, NY, but you might not expect it listening to the western swing, Tex-Mex, and rockabilly music they make. Led by co-lead singers, Zara Bode and Emily Miller, the album features some outstanding covers such as Sons of the Pioneers’ Cowboy Ham and Eggs’; Patsy Cline’s ‘Love Me, Honey Do’; Dwight Yoakam’s ‘It Won’t Hurt When I Fall Down From This Bar Stool’; the Traveling Wilbury’s ‘Rattled’ as well as great originals such as the title song and ‘Don’t Put her Down, You Helped Put Her There.’

With a winning combination of first-rate musicianship, high-powered vocals, top-notch songs, and a great sense of humor, The Sweetback Sisters are a whole lotta fun. •

January-February 2012

Garland Jeffreys'
'The King of In Between'
is part beat poetry and
part rhythm & blues.