2011 Top 50 Artists

  1. The Decemberists, The King Is Dead (Capitol)

    The Decemberists are renowned for their grand musical gestures and lyrics that play like epic fables. Their influence can often be found in British folk. The King Is Dead looks inward and reflects a uniquely American spirit, delving into both traditional and contemporary American music. Colin Meloy produces his most intimate and elemental songs while maintaining his poetic prowess. His language remains mysterious and provocative. Though not totally abandoning his darker parables, there is less of a propensity toward angst. These songs shine with descriptions of seasonal change and the kind of hopefulness inspired by nature. Meloy also finds inspiration in his love of R.E.M., inviting Peter Buck to join the band on several tracks. Other guests include Gillian Welch, Dave Rawlings, Laura Veirs, and producer Tucker Martine. (RMW)

  2. Fitz and the Tantrums, Pickin’ Up the Pieces (Dangerbird Records)

    Fitz and the Tantrums are not taking their sweet time.  The band played their first show in late 2008: now they are on the verge of becoming a phenomenon.  The L.A.-based six-piece finds inspiration in old Motown and Stax recordings, but delivers the sound with a modern update.  Pickin’ Up the Pieces is the band’s debut album.  It was recorded in Fitz’s living room, partially because they wanted to capture the energy that came out of the space from their rehearsals and because the band didn’t have enough money to rent a studio.  The band’s energy carries the release, as well as into their live shows, as some of you may have witnessed at this year’s WYEP Summer Music Festival. (BS)

  3. Adele, 21 (XL)

    There’s nothing like the pain, indignity, and frustration of young love gone wrong to motivate artistic endeavors. Adele mines a recent break-up for material for her phenomenally successful sophomore release. Songs run the gamut of emotions from angry accusations, to stultifying guilt, to bittersweet acceptance. “Rolling in the Deep” builds slowly before erupting into fever pitch. “Rumour Has It,” with its rhythmic pounding percussion, is a great sing-a-long for revenge addicts. Most of the album features sumptuous ballads that highlight Adele’s vocal range and phrasing and reveal musical influences from Elton John to Dusty Springfield. Adele, only in her early twenties, has that rare ability to reach inside and pull out the swirling, often contradictory emotions that are immediately identifiable to any survivor of a broken heart. (RMW)

  4. My Morning Jacket, Circuital (ATO
    If ever a band proved the theory of musical evolution it’s My Morning Jacket. )

    They’ve transformed from makers of ghostly reverb-soaked rock to edgy funk, psychedelia, and soul, to mellow folk ballads. Circuital reconnects MMJ with the big anthem rock of its earlier releases while presenting some of the band’s prettiest acoustic melodies to date. Songs glide into each other, creating a sense of continuity which is offset by the band’s reined in sound. Circuital curtails guitar solos, using the instrument mostly as accompaniment to keyboards; horns are used sparingly. Also reined in are Jim Yames vocals; barbaric yawps and sweeping falsetto are replaced by subdued contemplations on life’s cycles. Tucker Martine produced the band live at a church gymnasium. (RMW)

  5. Alison Krauss & Union Station, Paper Airplane (Rounder)

    Paper Airplane reunites Alison Krauss with Union Station for the first time in seven years. The album has a haunted feeling and a simple beauty drawn from the theme of loss. The message is simple, “people come together, people go their own way,” says Krauss. Acoustic guitars merge with an underpinning of lap steel, DOBRO, banjo, and mandolin. Krauss’ vocals rise above the instrumentation, becoming a focal point for the songs. She coos in that heartbroken manner that conveys pools of emotion. Her take on Richard Thompson’s “Dimming of the Day” is devastating. Dan Tyminski’s high-lonesome vocals are peppered in, creating a fascinating dichotomy with Krauss’ angelic register—a complex balance of strength and fragility. It’s what makes this band so unique and their forlorn tales of woe so beautiful. (RMW)

  6. TV On The Radio, Nine Types of Light (Interscope)

    TV On The Radio has carved a unique niche for itself in rock music. Although the structure of their songs is built on rock traditions, they’ve also spun their musical web by combining threads of psychedelic, electronic, ambient, and soul music. Nine Types of Light finds the band leaving their Brooklyn base for the sunny environs of Los Angeles. Although the new songs seem brighter and more melodic, TVOTR still displays a penchant for creating a sense of tension in even their loveliest songs. Tunde Adebimpe’s lead vocals manage to be both sweet and gritty, allowing emotion to seep to the surface while resonating with an unsettled edge. Bassist Gerard Smith died of lung cancer shortly after finishing the album. (RMW)

  7. Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues (Sup Pop)

    Fleet Foxes’ sophomore release continues to reflect the influence of 1960s and ‘70s folk rock, but it’s also more ambitious than their debut. Helplessness Blues features a host of new instrumentation including zither, Moog synthesizer, tamboura, marxophone, music box, and Tibetan singing bowls. Additional players are employed and unique approaches to rhythm create new tension in the music. Lead singer/songwriter Robin Pecknold uses a search for identity as a re-occurring theme. He writes whimsically about growing older—he’s in his mid-twenties-—so his songs are mostly revelatory in nature. In the opening track he acknowledges that he’s past the age his parents were when he was born. It’s a sweet sentiment, but also a startling realization for someone who has only experienced youth. (RMW)

  8. Gillian Welch, The Harrow & the Harvest (Acony)

    A woman, a man, two acoustic guitars, a couple of banjos, harmonica, hand-claps, and foot-stomps; combine these with poignant songs and you have The Harrow & The Harvest. Welch has made the starkest album of her career, tilling subject matter that she’s turned before, gleaning emotions from the melancholy and bittersweet beauty created by human frailty. Her music possesses a timeless quality that reflects dust bowl landscapes and the air of Appalachia. Her lyrics are steeped in mystery and hold the suffering of dreadful events, luckless people, and homeless ghosts. Welch and David Rawlings’ sepia-toned vocals are so intricately intertwined that it is nearly impossible to separate the two. The pair weaves their guitar work with Welch supporting Rawlings’ delicate picking. (RMW)

  9. Death Cab For Cutie, Codes and Keys (Atlantic)

    Ben Gibbard finds inspiration in John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Double Fantasy album, citing it as an example of how balance in life can lead to great things. At the center of that release was Lennon and Ono’s love story. Although Codes and Keys wasn’t an expose of his then-marriage to actress Zooey Deschanel, it surely reflected the impact the relationship had on Gibbard’s attitude. Gibbard’s songs are more optimistic while maintaining just enough angst to keep things interesting. Codes and Keys is complex and multilayered. The band’s distinctive guitar sound is sidestepped occasionally for keyboards and synthesizers. Gibbard’s ear for melody remains intact and his sense for self-examination continues to fuel his lyrics. (RMW)

  10. Wilco, The Whole Love (dBpm/Anti)

    Wilco is a masterful band that defies convention in order to follow their well-traveled muse. Never content to be defined by one genre, they’ve broadened their sound beyond their alt-country roots, embracing edgy rock and melodic pop. The Whole Love leaps from aggressive rock songs with crunchy guitars, electronic beeps, feedback, and off-kilter rhythms, to danceable pop songs with jangling guitar riffs, to beautiful ballads rich with fastidious arrangements and pensive atmosphere. Jeff Tweedy’s lyrics explore mature themes, including the introspective “One Sunday Morning” a 12-minute-long dissection of the tension in a father and son relationship. Original band members Tweedy and bassist John Stirratt are joined by guitarist Nels Cline, multi-instrumentalists Pat Sansone and Mikael Jorgenssen, and drummer Glenn Kotche. (RMW)

  11. Tedeschi Trucks Band, Revelator (Sony Masterworks)

    Guitarist Derek Trucks and wife Susan Tedeschi join forces as the Tedeschi Trucks Band. Surrounding the pair are nine musicians, many of whom have worked with Trucks before. Recorded in the couple’s home studio and written and recorded over an 18-month period, the ensemble shares a musical vision built around delta blues, ’60s rock, ‘70’s funk, and timeless soul. As a song-driven album Revelator finds inspiration in Tedeschi’s ability to deliver the emotional punch while Trucks dials back the musical jams. Truck’s slide and electric guitar punctuates his wife’s vocals, emphasizing the give and take in their musical and personal relationship. (RMW)

  12. Lucinda Williams, Blessed (Lost Highway)

    Blessed is an apt title for Lucinda Williams’ latest release as it finds her at a grateful place in her life. Her personal contentment appears to have opened a channel into a deep pool of empathy that spills into songs concerning poverty, abuse, mortality, and war. Williams has made a career of writing scalding recriminations aimed at ex-lovers, but here she offers several of her most unabashed love songs. Williams’ voice is a rugged, vulnerable thing, transparent to the point of revealing rich depths of emotion. Her songs capture both the lovely and scarring moments that gradually create a life. (RMW)

  13. Iron and Wine, Kiss Each Other Clean (Warner Brothers)

    Sam Beam, the iconoclast behind Iron and Wine, continues to broaden his musical palate by introducing novel instruments, innovative arrangements, alternating rhythms, and an expanding band. Kiss Each Other Clean combines Iron and Wine’s rock and folk past while allowing for experimentation. Beam’s influences range from African polyrhythms to pop/rock harmonies to reggae, folk, blues, and jazz. He uses synthesizers and distortion liberally, adding to the mysterious quality of the recording. Beam writes portentous songs with vaguely ominous edging and biblical references. His lyrics are oblique but beautiful, letting each listener translate on a personal level. (RMW)

  14. Bon Iver, Bon Iver, Bon Iver (Jagjaguwar)

    Listening to Bon Iver’s sophisticated second LP is like escaping to the woods to find yourself. Justin Vernon’s falsetto vocals soar through 10 songs that range from barely audible to exploding fireworks. This time Vernon brought a band and more effects. Patience is required while the music sets the mood. The emotional “Calgary” starts off with cinematic orchestration and takes off with Vernon’s introspective lyrics, “Don’t you cherish me to sleep.” The album wraps up with “Beth/Rest,” a track that could make Peter Gabriel envious. Looking past the strange effects, this a solid release from a huge young talent. (CH)

  15. Cee Lo Green, The Lady Killer (Elektra/Asylum)

    The Lady Killer is an audacious, witty, beautifully produced, and immensely entertaining album. Like his heroes Freddy Mercury, Iggy Pop, Prince, and James Brown, Cee Lo Green’s songs are delivered with theatrical aplomb. Songs swirl around bombastic disco beats, classic soul inspired strings, fierce horn sections and scintillating electric guitar. A sampled television detective show theme lends a noire edge to “Love Gun,” and the profanity laced “F**k You” proves that not all bad language is gratuitous. Central to the mix is Green’s resplendent vocals that soar to falsetto, artfully portraying equal parts flair and passion. (RMW)

  16. Ryan Adams, Ashes & Fire (Capitol/EMI)

    Following a decade of prolific output, Ryan Adams took two years off to get married, get sober, and to gain a new level of maturity. This introspective period produced a batch of songs that examines his wild years and lost relationships. Adams’ lyrics roll out like diary entries or love letters to people and places gone by. His vocals are emotionally charged, with pauses that accentuate his thought process. Ashes & Fire is a tranquil album with slow- to mid-tempo tracks. The mood is sometimes penitent but redemption is the overriding theme. Norah Jones, Stephen Stills, and Mandy Moore provide vocal support. (RMW)

  17. Feist, Metals (Cherrytree/Interscope)

    Metals is a sparse, mostly melancholy affair with Feist writing in what she calls “purple and mauves.” Her mood is contemplative; her lyrics suggest a relationship under duress. Songs begin quietly then slowly build tension. They are mutable things whose burning core is shielded by its cooling edge. The album features a string quartet and male vocal choruses. Oboes and other woodwinds sneak in from time to time, but only to punctuate the action. The arrangements are expansive, allowing for instruments to reverberate and sigh. Throughout, Feist’s delicate lilting vocals float above the music like an ethereal sprite. (RMW)

  18. Raphael Saadiq, Stone Rollin’ (Columbia)

    Raphael Saadiq continues to tend the flame of old school soul, blowing embers into conflagrations of danceable rhythms. Saadiq uses his idols as a template for his original material. The influence of Sly Stone, Stevie Wonder, Little Walter, and Chuck Berry permeate songs that erupt with horns, strings, and backing choruses. Saadiq’s idols, Larry Graham, bassist for The Family Stone, and Larry Dunn, keyboardist of Earth, Wind, and Fire, offer their services, as well as guitarist Robert Randolph and vocalist Yukimi Nagano. Newcomer Taura Stinson co-wrote and sings on “Good Man,” which highlights the connection between hip-hop and soul. (RMW)

  19. Sam Roberts Band, Collider (Rounder)

    Sam Roberts Band continues to grow both in members and new directions.
    In an effort to create a more “groove and rhythm-oriented record,” Roberts brought in producer Brian Deck (Modest Mouse, Iron and Wine), recruited woodwind/sax player Stuart Bogie of Antibalas, and Califone percussionist Ben Massarella. Deck simplifies the band’s sound by stripping away its multiple overdubs and paring back Roberts’ electric guitar. In its place are horn sections, funky rhythms, global elements, and weaves of acoustic guitar. Roberts’ lyrical themes are often relationship-based, but he uses political, geographic, and scientific metaphors to describe emotional states. (RMW)

  20. Elbow, Build a Rocket Boys! (Fiction/Polydor)

    Celebrating 20 years as a band, Elbow is far from having the success here that it has in Europe. That hasn’t slowed their momentum. On their latest effort, the band both yearns for the nostalgic while celebrating their maturity. Vocalist and lyricist Guy Garvey has stated in interviews that the subject matter of the album was inspired by his own childhood. Build a Rocket Boys! is a little more scaled back from the band’s soaring last album, but that doesn’t mean that the songs have lost their trademark building intensity and beauty. (BS)

  21. Ben Sollee, Inclusions (Thirty Tigers)

    Ben Sollee’s music is so unique that it defies categorization. Sollee is an intelligent man and he assumes the same of you. If mixing old-timey banjo with jazz clarinet seems an exciting thing to him, why explain that to you? If one song is a study in minimalism, why not make the next track a full blown pop song? Sollee doesn’t let conventional musical templates determine his direction. Strands of klezmer wind instruments mix with Appalachian autoharp and mandolin. Sollee’s cello acts as a foundation piece for arrangements. Lyrically Sollee mines religious metaphors, historical references, and personal experience. (RMW)

  22. Emmylou Harris, Hard Bargain (Nonesuch)

    Emmylou Harris returns to her role as songwriter for most of the tracks on Hard Bargain. Her material ranges from playful, to political, to personal. “The Road” is a paean to mentor Gram Parsons. “Darlin’ Kate” is a tribute to Kate McGarrigle. “My Name is Emmett Till” retells the racially motivated murder of a black teenager. “New Orleans” recounts the physical and psychological damages incurred by Hurricane Katrina. “Big Black Dog” is a nod to her traveling companion, Bella. Harris mixes tempo and mood and employs only two other musicians to work with her: producer/multi-instrumentalist Jay Joyce and drummer/keyboardist Giles Reaves. (RMW)

  23. Dawes, Nothing Is Wrong (ATO/Red)

    Los Angeles band Dawes draws upon the influence of Jackson Browne, Crosby Stills Nash & Young, and other musicians touting the “Laurel Canyon Sound.” Dawes’ songs are written to highlight epic guitar solos and rich harmonies. Their lyrics are smart and earnest, capturing the essence of urban living. Taylor Goldsmith and his brother Griffin provide the kind of harmonies only siblings who have been singing together for a lifetime can pull off. The album was mixed at Jackson Browne’s Santa Monica studio with Browne acting as mentor and guest singer. Browne also used Dawes as his touring band, as did Robbie Robertson. (CH)

  24. Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears, Scandalous (Lost Highway)

    Living up to its name, Scandalous pumps with testosterone-driven lust, bravado, and passion, not to mention a smokin’ band. Loving, cheating, revenge, redemption, and partying are the red-hot core of an album that spins on an axis of blues, rock, funk, and soul. Fiery horns, keening harmonica, and throbbing Wurlitzer organ add dimension to the driving guitars and percussion. Lewis’ vocals encompass influences ranging from gospel to rock to rap and hip-hop. The Relatives, a Dallas gospel/funk group, contrast the band’s macho stance. If this record doesn’t heat you up it’s time to check the furnace for fuel. (RMW)

  25. Foster the People, Torches (Star Time Intl/Columbia)

    The debut release from the Los Angeles based trio Foster the People pulsates with big beats, whistling hooks, synthesized rhythms, and chanting choruses. The infectious “Pumped Up Kicks” kept fans dancing despite dark lyrics concerning a homicidal teen thanks to Mark Foster’s upbeat melodies and dance heavy production. Torches features a menagerie of producers including Greg Kurstin (Action Figure Party, The Bird and the Bee), Paul Epworth (Adele, Cee Lo Green, Florence and The Machine), and Rich Costey (Franz Ferdinand, Nine Inch Nails, Fiona Apple). Foster’s music has an uncanny ability to create positive reactions while discreetly dealing with life’s mood swings. (RMW)

  26. The Jayhawks, Mockingbird Time (Rounder)

    Mockingbird Time reunites the quintessential lineup of the Minneapolis Alt-Country rockers, The Jayhawks. They are Gary Louris, Marc Olson, Karen Grotberg, Marc Perlman, and Tim O’Reagan. After Olson left the band in 1996 The Jayhawks continued to record. In 2003 they disbanded with members pursuing separate projects.   Mockingbird Time contains catchy pop tracks that evoke the influences and history of the band’s 1990s releases.  Central to their sound is Louris and Olson’s soaring harmonies. The band seems invigorated by their time apart, relaying new experiences in their writing styles, crossed with their Byrds meets Beatles and Big Star sound. (KS)

  27. Justin Townes Earle, Harlem River Blues (Bloodshot)

    New York City hovers over Harlem River Blues from the dirty waters of the East River to the scanty apartments on the fringes of Brooklyn. Justin Townes Earle drags remnants of his southern birthright through the metropolis. “Move Over Mama” shakes with the rockabilly of Sun Studios, while “One More Light In Brooklyn” saunters along on a delta blues rhythm. The title track chronicles the ordeals of Big Apple outcasts but vibrates with a gospel church choir. “Workin’ for the MTA” is a recast, relocated train ballad. Earle’s unique guitar picking, pedal steel, horns, and fiddle form the musical foundation. (RMW)

  28. Paul Simon, So Beautiful or So What (Hear/Concord)

    Introspection isn’t a new construct of Paul Simon’s music but as he ages his exploration of spirituality, mortality, and life’s purpose grows deeper, although certainly not solemn. Simon’s deft comedic timing creates balance in his songs. “Afterlife” finds a deceased protagonist reduced to nonsense lyrics upon encountering God. Simon’s band, resplendent with crisp guitar chords and unpredictable rhythms, is superb. Strands of blues and gospel inform the music. “Getting Ready For Christmas” is both inspired by and built upon a recording of a 1941 sermon by Reverend J.M. Gates. Connectedness of theme and melody make this the definition of “an album.” (RMW)

  29. k.d. lang and the Siss Boom Bang, Sing It Loud (Nonesuch)

    k.d. lang returns to Nashville for an album that revives the energy captured on her early recordings. There’s enough dobro, pedal steel, and banjo to keep her alternative country work in mind, but there’s also enough torch vocalizing to remind you of lang’s enormous success within the realm of contemporary pop. Sing It Loud features a new band led by Guster’s Joe Pisapia who acts as the band’s music director, producer, and lang’s co-writer. Other band members are Josh Grange and Daniel Clarke, who toured with lang for Watershed, the Wallflower’s drummer Fred Eltringham, and Nashville bassist Lex Price. (RMW)

  30. G. Love, Fixin’ To Die (Brushfire)

    Fixin’ To Die is G. Love’s dive into the deep end of Americana music and who better to team up with than The Avett Brothers. Recorded in a converted church in Asheville, North Carolina, this is a country blues album that bubbles with raw emotion and songs about loving, living, morality, and mortality. Along with his originals, Love takes on songs by Bukka White, Blind Willie McTell, Lou Reed, and Paul Simon. Seth and Scott Avett, who produce and play, are masters of minimalist recordings. They merge fiddle, banjo, stand-up bass, and acoustic guitar with Love’s new-found high lonesome vocals. (RMW)

  31. Bright Eyes, The People’s Key (Saddle Creek)

    The People’s Key, Bright Eyes’ seventh studio release, is a science fiction-inspired opus that contemplates creation, the expanding universe, time travel, and alien enslavement of the human race. The album opens with a rambling monologue on reptilian aliens mating with early Homo sapiens in order to create shape-shifting offspring. Conor Oberst has played with these ideas before and his compatriots, Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott, gamely follow his lead. The trio mostly shun the Americana roots/folk of past Bright Eyes albums, instead allowing harder edged rock and synthesized electronic influences to percolate alongside Oberst’s reedy vocals. (RMW)

  32. The Damnwells, No One Listens to the Band Anymore (Pledge Music Recording/Poor Man’s Records)

    Understanding the humor of The Damnwells’ front man, Alex Dezen, is easy once you grasp the irony of their latest album title. It’s an ironic “statement of general malaise” about the attitude of modern music listeners. Dezen is a genuine card, but through his excellent music you see a softer, more serious side. The band displays a tender approach with the effortless, breezy ballad “Werewolves.”  Conversely, “She Goes Around” is a knock out track, containing ample amounts of hooks and euphonious beats. This album, entirely fan-funded, was crafted with care by a band that has a good sense of humor and some serious songwriting talent. (CH)

  33. Hayes Carll, KMAG YOYO (& Other American Stories) (Lost Highway)

    KMAG YOYO is a military acronym meaning “Kiss My Ass Goodbye, You’re on Your Own.” The irony of that statement is replicated throughout Hayes Carll’s wry, often self-deprecating lyrics. The title track is a scathing examination of modern warfare. “Another Like You,” a tongue in cheek smack-down between Carll and Cary Ann Hearst finds the two using political sparring as a tool of seduction. Carll’s characters, from swaggering wags to downtrodden losers, speak in the vernacular, spew cringe-worthy sentiment, and wallow in pathos. Their soundtrack radiates from country-western jukeboxes, alt-country rock bars, and radios of cheap hotel rooms. (RMW)

  34. The Head & The Heart, The Head & The Heart (Sub Pop)

    The Head & The Heart’s debut release offers enjoyable and effortless harmonies that can be mostly categorized as indie-Americana. The band’s story is one of relentless touring, grass roots sales, and clever opening placement in front of acts like Vampire Weekend, Dr. Dog, and The Dave Matthews band. The songs’ structures, arrangements, and old timey roots feel can be compared to contemporaries—The Avett Brothers, Mumford and Sons, and Dawes.  Jonathan Russell and Josiah Johnson’s melancholic vocals carry the band through stories about home, lovers, and moving on.  After a few listens the simplicity and sincerity of the lyrics shines through. (KS)

  35. Dave Alvin, Eleven Eleven (Yep Roc)

    Alvin’s deep, world-weary voice seems to get better with age. Maybe “better” isn’t the best word; perhaps “hypnotic” might be more descriptive. Combine his unique vocals with his sharp, American-landscape narratives and roots-rock musical approach, and you have a perennial winner. For his appropriately-titled eleventh album, Alvin presents 11 songs (of course) heavy with themes of mortality in an experience that is often somber without being morose. Fans of Alvin’s old band The Blasters will be excited to hear a duet with his brother and erstwhile band mate Phil. (MS)

  36. Beirut, The Rip Tide (Pompeii Records)

    The Rip Tide is one of those “love at first sight” albums. Over the course of three full albums and a handful of EPs, Beirut has perfected their intriguing take on indie folk, Balkan folk, and Eastern European music. This is due mostly to the brilliance of young Zach Condon, who has evolved as a songwriter, singer, and performer. “Santa Fe” shows his acute ability to create a hooky song that is not boring. Ears will perk up on tracks like “East Harlem,” a sweet love song that is accompanied by lovely, tinkling stringed instruments and a perfect horn arrangement. (CH)

  37. Buddy Guy, Living Proof (Jive)

    Living Proof features some of the most aggressive blues guitar of Buddy Guy’s career, revved-up vocals, and superb songwriting. With both humor and bravado Guy celebrates life, music, and women. His songs are largely autobiographical and cover his childhood, career, and relationships with other musicians. Included is a moving duet with B.B. King that captures their mutual admiration. Another track finds him trading guitar licks with Carlos Santana. Guy’s music has always featured a heavy rock component and he shows no sign of mellowing. In a career that has featured many wonderful recordings, this might be Buddy Guy’s defining moment. (RMW)

  38. Nicole Atkins, Mondo Amore (Razor & Tie)

    Nicole Atkins has created the album she’s wanted to make since she was 12. “I’ve always been into psychedelic and blues music, like Traffic, I call it psychedelic crooner rock!” Atkins uses her big voice, her new hard rocking band, The Black Sea, and a turbulent year in both her professional and personal life to create Mondo Amore, a gritty aural assault on the nature of relationships. The lyrical imagery is sometimes violent, angry, defiant, with the occasional touch of remorse, while the visceral tone of the music and its chaotic arrangements suggests the turbulent flux in her life. (RMW)

  39. Mike Doughty, Yes and Also Yes (Snack Bar)

    Yes and Also Yes is Mike Doughty’s fourth full-length release and could be called his first “band” record since his former group, Soul Coughing, called it quits in 2000. Doughty is joined by six musicians who offer keyboards, bass, drums, and strings, but most songs are built atop Doughty’s aggressive acoustic guitar and electronic beats. Doughty displays his eccentric sensibilities by using a duloxetine 60mg capsule as a percussion instrument. The mood of the music is mostly upbeat and is matched by sardonic lyrics. Highlights include “Holiday,” a duet with Rosanne Cash, and “Makelloser Mann,” Doughty’s first foreign language offering. (RMW)

  40. Amos Lee, Mission Bell (Blue Note)

    Mission Bell, Amos Lee’s fourth full-length album, features a cohesive set of contemporary folk-soul-jazz pop songs.  Signing on to produce is Calexico member Joey Burns, who combined Lee’s down-to-earth smooth, soulful voice with heavyweight guests Willie Nelson and Lucinda Williams.  Mission Bell‘s songs stay incredibly smooth, mixed with a variety of instruments. The lead single, “Windows Are Rolled Down” is an excellent radio track and showcases a memorable hook that bursts with soul and passion. “El Camino” opens the record and sets the tone for the rest of the recording, which is Amos Lee’s best and most mature to date. (KS)

  41. Nikki Jean, Pennies in a Jar (S-Curve)

    Nikki Jean began her career in the indie hip-hop band Nouveau Riche. For her first solo project she takes an inspired turn, teaming up with esteemed songwriters of the 1960s and ‘70s and emulating the writing style of each. Superstar composers include Burt Bacharach, Bob Dylan, Carole King, Carly Simon, Paul Williams, Jimmy Webb and Barry Mann, and Cynthia Weill. Others created iconic sounds: Lamont Dozier wrote for Motown, Thom Bell was an architect of the Philly Soul sound, Jeff Barry, with Phil Spector, helped to established the girl groups of the 1960s, and Bobby Braddock wrote classics for Nashville. (RMW)

  42. Motopony, Motopony (Tiny Ogre)

    The self-titled debut album from this Seattle group is an interesting mix of styles, from R&B-tinged indie-pop to souped-up folk. The band’s front man and chief songwriter, ex-fashion designer and blogger Daniel Blue, only learned guitar at age 27 (the same age that many rock legends from Jim Morrison to Jimi Hendrix to Kurt Cobain died, an irony acknowledged by Blue on the song “27”), and the late entry into music seems to have helped to tear down walls of genre and style. There’s no telling where Motopony goes from here, but it’s a terrific way for a band to begin. (MS)

  43. Wanda Jackson, The Party Ain’t Over (Third Man Records)

    At age 73, fresh off her induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Queen of Rockabilly teams up with Jack White for this new album. The idea is similar to what White did with Loretta Lynn a few years back—he has assembled a killer backing band and has brought the legend to a younger audience.  Most of the credit, however, goes to Jackson, who has the spirit to breathe new life into songs from Bob Dylan and Amy Winehouse. It’s rarely nostalgic, although its title refers to Jackson’s 1960 hit, “Let’s Have a Party.” (BS)

  44. Ron Sexsmith, Long Player Late Bloomer (Thirty Tigers)

    Canadian artist Ron Sexsmith is noted for his ability to craft ballads with shimmering melodies, counterbalanced by bittersweet lyrics. Although his talent has been lauded by Paul McCartney, Elvis Costello, and Elton John, commercial success has proven elusive. Perhaps that’s the impetus for self-deprecating lyrics that cast the protagonist as an overlooked or underappreciated everyman fighting his way through single parenthood and difficult relationships. A silver lining appears in the title track, which finds Sexsmith contemplating a brighter future. Metallica’s producer Bob Rock shifts gears in order to create multi-layer arrangements that burst with joyful enthusiasm while highlighting Sexsmith’s soaring tenor. (RMW)

  45. Devotchka, 100 Lovers (Anti-)

    Devotchka’s wild mix of musical influences soars across the Slavic nations to the Greek Isles. They gather up nomadic dances of the Romani peoples and sweep up mariachi horns in their journey to the crossroads of punk and folk. Songs build dramatically, lyrical content is sparse. Devotchka’s four members are supplemented with a multitude of guest violins, violas, cellos, trumpets, and a children’s choir. The band’s own unique instrumentation includes Jeanie Schroder’s Sousaphone, Tom Hagerman’s melodica and accordion, Shawn King’s expansive use of percussive instruments, and Nick Urata’s theremin and bouzouki. The music is mostly upbeat and exotically atmospheric. (RMW)

  46. Fountains of Wayne, Sky Full of Holes (Yep Roc)

    Fountains of Wayne is certainly a band that knows its way around guitar-driven pop-rock songs with infectious melodies and offbeat lyrics. They’ve been carving that niche for a decade-and-a-half and they’ve pretty much got it down pat. That’s not to suggest that Sky Full of Holes feels like worn territory for the New York quartet, but the album is simply a quality album that plays off the band’s strengths. It may not win many new converts, but it is another quality album for listeners seeking intelligent, quirky rock ‘n’ roll. (MS)

  47. R.E.M., Collapse Into Now (Warner Bros.)

    Collapse Into Now reflects R.E.M.’s 30 year career. It is apropos that it’s the band’s final album. In September Michael Stipe, Mike Mills, and Peter Buck announced that they were calling it quits. Collapse features a mix of tempo, emotion, and lots of jangling guitar, chiming mandolin, and Stipe’s distinctive vocals and oblique lyrics. Stipe plays with his august persona, singing “let’s sing and rhyme/let’s give it one more time/let’s show the kids how to do it.” The guys sound content to bequeath rock music to a new generation. Guests include Peaches, Eddie Vedder, Patti Smith, and Lenny Kaye. (RMW)

  48. Peter Bjorn and John, Gimme Some (Almost Gold)

    After a detour to the darker and more experimental side of music, the Swedish trio, Peter Bjorn and John have returned to the sunny side of the street. Working with producer Per Sunding, once dubbed “The Godfather of Swedish Pop,” the band seems intent on getting back to those sweet pop sounds that won them worldwide attention. Their third album is abloom with major key melodies, joyful harmonies, and insanely catchy hooks. Stripped down to their basics, songs ride on guitar, bass, drums, and vocals. A few edgier elements sneak in occasionally, including staccato guitar and nasty, aggressive lyrics. (RMW)

  49. Lissie, Catching a Tiger (Fat Possum Records)

    Lissie, a freckle-faced, chain-smoking Mid-Westerner, nurtures her image as a troublemaker.
    “If someone told me not to do something, I wanted to do it just to see what would happen,” she says. It makes sense that she’s been compared to outspoken independent singers like Chrissie Hynde and Stevie Nicks. Her strong sweet voice carries her debut album along with colossal guitar solos and memorable hooks. Lissie has the type of voice that is easy to sing along to. Don’t be surprised to find yourself crooning “In Sleep,” “When I’m Alone,” and the striking “Little Lovin.” (CH)

  50. Glen Campbell, Ghost On the Canvas (Surfdog)

    After being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, Glen Campbell set out to record a final album. With the help of producer Julian Raymond, he’s written five new songs that capture the gratitude of a man who has experienced a remarkable career, acknowledging both the highs and lows of his personal and professional life. Campbell’s spirit is positive. His voice is amazingly supple and bright for a man of 75. Also featured are songs by Jakob Dylan, Teddy Thompson, and Paul Westerberg, including the poignant title track. Joining him on the endeavor are Billy Corgan, Brian Setzer, Dick Dale, Chris Isaak, and The Dandy Warhols. (RMW)

The Top 50 albums were selected by WYEP's Programming staff: Cindy Howes (CH), Brian Siewiorek (BS), Kyle Smith (KS), Mike Sauter (MS), and Rosemary Welsch (RMW)

Please note: Some Top 50 selections may be from 2010 due to our printing deadlines and when that release had its primary impact. Also, certain deserving late 2011 releases may have to wait until next year's list.