As the year winds down, I wanted to share my list of favorite albums from 2011. In the mix are some old favorites given new life along with a handful of brand new recordings.
10. Opeth, Heritage – I’ve been on the fence with Opeth for years. I respect band leader Mikael Åkerfeldt and his commitment to write challenging music. The opening 2 minutes of “The Drapery Falls” is an absolute monster, but I get off the train when the growling comes in. So I was stoked to see the shift on Heritage, away from barking vocals and allowing this very skilled group of musicians to shine through in the mix and pay homage to the music that initially inspired.
9. Steve Hackett, Beyond The Shrouded Horizon – Guitarist Steve Hackett continues to tap into seemingly limitless waters of inspiration again with this double-disc. Hackett’s solo works remain something of a best-kept secret among Genesis fans and fans of his astonishing acoustic and electric guitar playing. Beyond The Shrouded Horizon is as good a place to start as any.
8. King Crimson, Starless And Bible Black 40th Anniversary Edition – Finally, Steven Wilson‘s traversal through the Crimson back catalog comes to Starless And Bible Black. This has long been my favorite record of the John Wetton-era Crimson, and Wilson’s 5.1 surround remix provides deeper insight into this very dark and complex music. The menacing whole-tone guitar workout, “Fracture,” remains the heaviest track in the world. Put me in the middle of it all!
7. Rory Gallagher, Notes From San Francisco – After more than 30 years, Gallagher’s shelved recordings come to light and give us a “new” and very good Gallagher album, on par with any of his 1970’s work. See my story at Backpage Magazine for more on the release.
6. Wilco, The Whole Love – The album is a brilliant mix of the experimental and “roots-rock,” for lack of a better term. Everything Wilco does well is here. I predict a few years down the line people will be calling this Jeff Tweedy‘s masterpiece. Groovy artwork, too.
5. Slivovitz, Bani Ahead – Another terrific release from Leonardo Pavkovic and his label, Moonjune Records. Slivovitz are a 7-piece band that sound something like a cross between Frank Zappa and Doc Severinsen. Eight instrumentals that manage to be heavy and light at the same time. And I can’t remember when harmonica was featured so heavily and successful in a non-blues setting.
4. Rich Robinson, Through A Crooked Sun – Rich Robinson has recorded a personal song cycle that is timeless, recalling the many faces of the Black Crowes and influences such as The Band, Led Zeppelin, Rolling Stones and Neil Young. Excellent guitar work as always, and Rich is a pretty good singer, too.
3. Gentle Giant, Three Friends – One of two Gentle Giant remasters of 2011, along with Octopus. Taken from the original master tapes, this is a beautifully detailed offering padded with four bonus tracks, including three out-takes of “Peel The Paint.” Three Friends has jumped to the top of my favorite Giant albums.
2. Anthrax, Worship Music – Joey Belladonna returns and Anthrax releases their best record since 1990’s Persistence Of Time, and probably their best ever, thanks to a very strong set of very focused songs. There are still riffs aplenty but there’s a maturity and logic to the record that only comes with time and experience. I’ve always liked Belladonna as a frontman, but it’s his singing that impresses on Worship Music. “In The End” is a classic.
1. Ben Craven, Great & Terrible Potions – My favorite release of 2011 comes from Australian 1-man band Ben Craven. With Roger Dean artwork, you know the album has prog roots, but Great & Terrible Potions is no Yes or Genesis or ELP clone. Craven has an ear for melody and arranging. It’s as if there is some musical telepathy between what I want to hear and what Craven plays, because every note is just right. One highlight: “The Conjurer” is a gorgeous instrumental tribute to Pink Floyd keyboardist Richard Wright, and while Craven’s piano arpeggios are reminiscent of Wright’s playing, the piece sounds like Wright filtered through Brian Wilson. So much recent “prog” has a cold and distant feel that leaves me feeling the same. Kudos to Craven for bringing the best of the past into the present without losing listeners like me.