Lots of good new music came out in 2011, so I'm going to provide some short reviews of the stuff I got this year.
Bill Callahan, Apocalypse
Amazing, stunning album. Absolutely the best new music of 2011. In one sense it's a paradigmatic postmodern album: it's a pastiche of styles from different eras and grabs influences from a variety of genres; it's even ultimately self-consciously self-referential. But unlike most po-mo drivel, there's something of substance. Callahan is in Dylan/Leonard Cohen territory when it comes to providing thematic parts scattered through his work and leaving it up to the listener to assemble a meaning. Listening to this album is like unpacking a good novel. I do more schoolgirl swooning about how good it is here, so I won't go on anymore, except to say if you don't buy this album I'll be very disappointed in you.
Ryan Adams, Ashes and Fire
Mediocre. Listenable, but just not that impressive. I guess I should stop being disappointed when I hear Ryan Adams albums I haven't heard before, but Heartbreaker and Jacksonville City Nights are so good you expect him to achieve that level of excellence with every album. Ashes and Fire has a few highlights, like the title track and “Lucky Now,” but they are interspersed with what basically sounds like filler. At least it's better than Cardinology.
Tom Waits, Bad as Me
That's more like it. Waits' first new album in seven years is phenomenal. The whole gamut of Waits’ personae is here: demented carnival barker, blues shouter, gravel-voiced crooner. The apocalyptic blues numbers really stand out. With “Chicago” Waits revises the old blues theme of “Sweet Home Chicago:” “There’s so much magic we have known/On this sapphire we call home/With my coat and my hat/I say goodbye to all that/Maybe things will be better in Chicago.” On “Raised Right Men” Waits channels his inner Aristotle on the importance of being brought up well and then screams it at you. The title track celebrates the goodness that can result when badness meets badness: “You’re the letter from Jesus on the bathroom wall/You’re mother superior in only a bra/You’re the same kind of bad as me.” “Hell Broke Luce” documents the madness of war to the rhythm of a military march. Charlie Musselwhite on harmonica and Mark Ribot and David Hidalgo on guitar add subtle complexity to the bare bones of the songs throughout the album. Fantastic stuff.
Drive-By Truckers, Go-Go Boots
Meh. Not much to see here. It’s better than mainstream country music, but that’s not saying much. Hearing about the cast of white trash characters in these story songs is like watching Trailer Park Boys, only it’s not very funny. Although “Dancin’ Ricky” does have the line “Don’t let the diabetes get to you,” so it has that going for it.
Gillian Welch, The Harrow and the Harvest
This album sounds seriously ancient, like before-the-turn-of-the-century ancient. No, not that turn of the century. The one before that. She makes great use of standard folk and blues themes and stories. “Scarlet Town,” for example, tells the story of a girl from the country who meets with some unspecified misfortune in the city, like a “House of the Risin’ Sun” redux, but Welch puts a distinctively dark spin on it: “So fare you well, my own true love/If you never see me around/I'll be looking through a telescope/From hell to Scarlet Town.” “Hard Times” revises the old Stephen Foster song, but instead of the passive plea “Hard times come again no more,” we get the resolute “Hard times ain’t gonna rule my mind no more.” Dave Rawlings provides great, intricate guitar work and harmonies throughout, and the combination of Welch's fatalism with a dash of hope and the beautiful arrangements makes the album fantastic. Her music is like something you’ve never heard before, but is familiar nonetheless, which makes those of us who try to do something interesting with traditional forms of music envious, because that’s what we’re trying to do.
Hayes Carll, KMAG YOYO (& other American stories)
KMAG YOYO is a really solid album. There are still plenty of songs about love and drinkin’ and life on the road but Carll’s fourth album gets a little political, which is new for him, and is a nice change. The “Subterranean Homesick Blues”-esque title track follows the opiate induced hallucinations of a soldier in Iraq who comes down from his trip in the middle of a firefight in which he’s injured. Waiting on a medical evacuation his thoughts turn to getting out: “Slippin’ out the back door/Gonna join the Peace Corps/Tell me I’m a hero now so someone else can fight this war.” “Another Like You” is a funny look at the two sides of the political divide. It’s a duet song between a left wing man and a right wing woman who trade insults and one liners between drinks on the way to a one night stand. I am certain this is how Mary Matalin and James Carville got together.