Mando’s “Top 10” For 2011
I’m not so sure about year-end album lists. They’re rarely comprehensive (who listens to everything, even in one category or genre?) and when they try to be comprehensive, the lists often turn out to be compilations of the views of others. Those lists remind me a bit of the USA Today national rankings for high school football. How do they know? The answer, of course, is that the people putting that poll together don’t know that some high school in Oakland is better or worse than one in Richmond, just like these big album lists are not representative of anything other than an almagamation of thoughts from several people about what was good this year.
All that said, I suppose the lists are useful. They help us find new listening options and give some perspective as we look back on the year. For my “Top 10” list, I decided it was better not to pretend that my view was comprehensive enough to determine what was best this year. Instead, I’m just listing the records I like best with a little explanation in hopes that someone might see something they missed and go check it out. None of the records on this list is there because anyone else recommended it or listed it. I should also point out that there are many records I enjoyed that didn’t make the list. As you’ll see, in an attempt to maintain non-conformity, this isn’t really a Top 10 list anyway. So there.
THE TOP THREE
These are three great records by great artists at the top of their games. I managed to see all three artists live this year, and the work in these albums translates well into their live shows. Good work and congratulations to Hayes Carll, Jason Isbell and The Decemberists.
THREE THAT BLEW ME AWAY.
Prior to 2011, I was barely aware of Robyn Ludwick and Chelsea Crowell. Of course, I knew who they were as they both come from musical families and are obviously talented. I hadn’t spent any time with their music, though, and came to their 2011 albums with no idea what to expect. Both are extraordinary and unique (the records and the women who made them), without even a sideways glance at convention or genre, completely original. Ms. Ludwick’s record, Out Of These Blues, is as sexy as any record I’ve heard since Al Green’s Greatest Hits. Ms. Crowell’s Crystal City is every bit as heartbreaking, while making a case for loyalty in love that transcends circumstance. Amazing stuff. The third record surprised me as well, but for different reasons. I’ve been a fan of Chris Thile for some time, but some of his more recent output was, let us say, too esoteric for my tastes. This new collaboration with guitartist Michael Daves, born out of jam sessions in the New York club scene, took a completely different direction. Recorded in Jack White’s studio, the old-school songs on Sleep With One Eye Open are injected with a punk-like energy. One listen is enough to make you believe that there is a God and that She’s been listening to Bill Monroe and Joey Ramone telling her about the way things ought to be down here. Amen. And amen.
THE OTHER FOUR. THERE OUGHT TO BE MORE.
So many fine records this year. The first six were easy because I didn’t really measure them in comparison with those remaining. But now the numbers game has me. What shall I do? Well, Gillian Welch is a no-brainer. We waited so long for The Harrow and the Harvest and it is splendid, containing new songs that sound old, with vocals and guitar we can only find from Ms. Welch and her partner Dave Rawlings. Todd Snider’s live record, The Storyteller, with Great American Taxi backing him up, is a snapshot of the artist in his prime and a reminder that a great singer-songwriter doesn’t have to just sit there and strum an acoustic guitar, he can rock if he wants to. Just two more? This is tough. Sarah Jarosz’s record Follow Me Down is extremely good, and she’s certainly one of the brightest stars on the acoustic music horizon. I went back and listened to the record again and confirmed what I thought, it has to be on the list. And there are so many more records that should be in that last slot, and it’s really not fair to leave any of them out. So instead of naming number 10, how about a different list? First, here are the three:
So, instead of pick number 10, I’m going with a different list, a list born out of fear of finishing my Top 10 list. With fear as a motivating factor, I didn’t have to look far. Banjos. Let’s face it, banjos are the scariest of the bluegrass instruments. But 2011 was a special year for the banjo. Which made me think that instead of naming that 10th record for my list, it would be better to have a special banjo list. So, here it is:
MY FIVE FAVORITE 2011 ALBUMS BY BANJO PLAYERS.
Give Steve Martin credit for gathering the crowds, but Bela Fleck and his beautiful wife, Abigail Washburn, did their part. Danny Barnes invented a new electric banjo and showed us that banjos can rock. Noam Pikelny took us on a very pleasant trip with a few of his friends and may have ended up with the best of the bunch, though that’s hard to say for sure. What is sure is that all five of these banjo players produced great records that should be in your collection. Here they are, in no particular order:
Mando Lines is on Twitter @mando_lines.