Wilco – “The Whole Love”
Despite my weakness for all things Wilco, a new Wilco album take some time to grow on me. On first listen, I’m unsure it’s good. Maybe they’ve finally jumped the shark this time, like the critics say after every release?
Bright Eyes – "The People’s Key"
This record is one of Bright Eyes’ most accessible. That’s not a bad thing. It’s full of great songs, sounds, instruments, arrangements, parts. Credit multi-instrumentalist Mike Mogis’s producing and engineering craft, which your ears will truly appreciate. He’s become George Martin to the Beatles' Conor Oberst.
Ryan Adams – “Ashes & Fire”
Another beautiful record of Ryan Adams’ songs and singing. He’s slowed his annual CD output to normal human frequency, which gives us more time to savor each aural gem, like this one.
Bon Iver – “Bon Iver”
Wisconsin’s favorite bearded wonder earns our admiration again with this beautiful record. His fantastic show at the Riverside Theater really brought this album to life.
Tom Waits – “Bad As Me”
This guy always makes me laugh. But this is seriously good music. Amazing musicians and great arrangements hit you in the forehead like a broken beer bottle. Spin through time periods and musical styles as Tom drives you across the wrong side of the tracks in his beat up ‘57 Chevy.
Middle Brother – “Middle Brother”
Middle Brother is a super group that shares the looseness and sense of fun of the Traveling Wilburys instead of the pretentiousness and affected nature of other bands of stars. The record features songs, voices and playing from Deer Tick’s John McCauley, Dawes’ Taylor Goldsmith and Delta Spirit’s Matthew Vasquez. Goldsmith’s smooth, poised voice is the sweet Paul to the contrasting John, Paul and Ringo voices of McCauley and Vasquez. The mixture of sweet and sour is what makes this record so much better than Dawes’ more uniform and predictable new record, “Nothing Is Wrong,” also out this year. While there are some great songs on “Nothing Is Wrong,” it’s all Jackson Browne'y all the time (with Mr. Browne actually singing on the record). Compare the versions of “Million Dollar Bill,” which is on each record. Middle Brother’s take, faster and with each vocalist singing a verse (ala the Wilburys) wins the prize.
St. Vincent – “Strange Mercy” Cinematic orchestration, shredding guitar, disco beats, Chick Corea jazz frenzy and Jenny Lewis-styled coquettish vocals, all thrown into unpredictable, unusual songs and song structures. Annie Clark is a one-woman show here, and her craft and vision have matured on this latest album. It's a record of unique, well played songs that’s fun to listen to and impressive.
Paul Simon – “So Beautiful or So What”
A late but great entry to my 2011 listens, I picked this one up only recently on the strength of other year-end reviews and Paul’s great Riverside Theater show this year. I’ve bought a few of his post-Graceland efforts, but I was always disappointed. Not this time. Paul’s in great form. Singing like this at 70 years of age is amazing, but even more important are the great songs and players. It sounds like he brought together the spirit and musicians from Graceland for another go.
Semi-Twang – “Wages of Sin”
John Sieger hates bands that make it on their back stories. He’s right – back stories are a weak reason to like a band. Ironically, “Wages of Sin,” the new release from Sieger’s Semi-Twang, itself includes a dreaded back story. But the sale here is the music. The back story: Milwaukee’s Semi-Twang was born in the 1980s and quickly signed a major deal with Warner Brothers, back when major deals were major deals. After putting out one amazing, now-out-of-print record (“Salty Tears”), Warners dropped the band. They broke up for two decades. Then, a few years ago, they played their first-ever reunion gig, and this year, issued their sophomore record, Wages of Sin, a mere 23 years after their debut. Even without the back story, this record will win you over. John continues to be one of Milwaukee’s greatest songwriters, and his Semi-Twang colleagues are a collection of Milwaukee’s hottest players.
One of Milwaukee’s overlooked musical geniuses, Mike’s a triple threat – excellent songwriter, singer and guitar (bass). Mike puts out full-band CDs on his own every year or so, selling them at the occasional solo gig, CD Baby or the Paul Cebar merch table (he’s Paul’s bassist). Great tracks include “She,” “Film Noir,” “Montana,” “Listen Venus” and “Housework II.” John Sieger and Cebar’s drummer Reggie Bordeaux also play on the record.
Other new records I’ve liked this year include those by:
- Surgeons In Heat
- White Denim
- Smith Westerns
- Real Estate