My Favorite Albums of 2011

For me, it was a good year for music. I listened to more and liked more than I have in several years.

Here are the albums I listened to and enjoyed the most.

Garland Jeffreys – “The King of In Between”

Jeffreys’ first album in 13 years features his strongest material since 1991’s “Don’t Call Me Buckwheat,” one of the signature discs of that decade. Jeffreys typically moves easily through rock and roll, reggae, and folk blues as the melodic foundation for his mix of personal history and social commentary.

J.D. Souther – “Natural History”

Souther takes his considerable back catalog, notably songs like “New Kid in Town,” “Sad Cafe,” and “Best of My Love” that were hits for The Eagles, and strips them down to their basics. showcasing his silky voice.

Zoe Muth and the Lost High Rollers — “Starlight Hotel.”

What a revelation. Muth comes out of Seattle, but does country the old fashioned way, backed by pedal steel and telecaster. The songs are smart, funny, and sad. She’s an authentic new voice not to miss.

Tara Nevins – “Wood and Stone”

Nevins’s second solo effort is a stellar collection that moves easily from fiddle music to contemporary folk rock to Cajun. It’s an album that sounds familiar, yet new, not an easy feat. Nevins is joined by a few guests, notably Levon Helm, who pounds the skin on three cuts, Jim Lauderdale, who lends harmonies on the back porch sound of “Snowbird,” and Allison Moorer. Larry Campbell, the multi-instrumentalist genius who has played extensively with Bob Dylan in recent years, produces and lends his string talents all over the place.

The Low Anthem — “Smart Flesh”

The Low Anthem’s (http://www.thelowanthem.com) first major label effort is a haunting masterpiece, a new generation’s “Music From the Big Pink.” Like the mystical alchemy The Band conjured in a West Saugerties, New York, house, the four members of the Low Anthem have created a new sound, turning our expectations of Americana (or Alt Americana, if you will) on its head, partly by using the sonics of the place.

Greg Trooper – “Upside-Down World”

When the Hammond B-3 kicks in to start this album, trailed by Trooper’s resonant, soulful, alt-country vibrato, it’s clear one of America’s best (and underappreciated) songwriters is taking us along for another enchanting ride through a life of bruised relationships, guarded hopes, and interesting characters.

Lori McKenna – “Lorraine”


The image of Lori  McKenna is that of a blue collar housewife sitting at her kitchen table penning songs that somehow find their way onto the albums of country superstars (Faith Hill, Keith Urban). But that doesn’t do justice to the depth, subtlety and honesty of her songs, stripped down to their essence on her largely acoustic solo albums (although this one has strings in just the right places and background vocals from Kim Carnes).  She is the girl who married her high school sweetheart and quickly had babies — five in all. McKenna does the difficult — writing about life, real life, with an unerring eye. It’s all here, the shadowing doubts, the gentle joys, the people we recognize from our lives. McKenna is a staple of the Boston folk scene, but her voice is more heartland than right coast, more open spaces than urban races.

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit – “Here We Rest.”

Isbell transports us to his native Alabama with all the ups and downs through his stories. This one puts him into the same discussion as Steve Earle and other masterful storytellers.

Lucinda Williams – “Blessed”


For me, this was a return to form for Williams, a record with aching ballads, hard rockers and without the self consciousness of the last few.

Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter – “Marble Son.”


Feedback-drenched psychedelia opens this disc, a harder shot of rock than her last one. Think of it as Americana meets Zeppelin in places. The lyrics are smart and mystical. And then there’s her voice, as alluring, as distinctive as any in music today.

The Civil Wars – “Barton Hollow”


Perhaps the surprise of the year, a quiet, intense, and beautiful melding of voices and talents. The whole is indeed greater than the sum of its parts.

Wilco – “The Whole Love.”


A return to their ecclectic roots, with the expected twists and turns.

Danny Schmidt — “Man of Many Moons”

This is a smart working-man’s album, poetic and affecting, framed by Schmidt’s singing.

The Smithereens – “2011”


These guys, makers of such great rock and roll in the 1990s, hook up again with producer Don Dixon and lightning strikes twice. It’s all you’d expect from a Smithereens album.

New Music: Greg Trooper, Lori McKenna, and Good Old War

Greg Trooper “Upside-Down Town” (52 Shakes Records).

When the Hammond B-3 kicks in to start this album, trailed by Trooper’s resonant, soulful, alt-country vibrato, it’s clear one of America’s best (and underappreciated) songwriters is taking us along for another enchanting ride through a life of bruised relationships, guarded hopes, and interesting characters.

Trooper, who has worked with Garry Tallent and the legendary Dan Penn as his producers in the past, settles in with Stewart Lerman (Marshall Crenshaw) this time and they’ve assembled the usual fine cast of supporting players, notably Kenneth Blevins (John Hiatt), Dave Jacques (John Prine) and Kevin McKendree (Delbert McClinton).

As always, the playing is rootsy, tasteful and filled with soulful grooves. But it’s the writing, the journey Trooper is on lately the occupies center stage. He’s well into mid-life. He’s been through Nashville’s wringer and he’s back in Brooklyn now (he started as part of the East Village folkie movement in the 1980’s with Shawn Colvin and others). The songs reflect that journey with both resignation and resolve. “Nobody in the Whole Wide World” challenges a lover (past or present?) to do better. “Dreams Like This,” continues a Trooper theme, a love song, though not a simple one. “Second Wind” is beautiful and affecting, a resolute ballad. “They Call Me Hank” recalls Prine’s “Hello In There” with its unapologetic sadness. “Might Be a Train” evokes Jimmy Rodgers and, what else, country train songs. These songs are so good, you’ll swear you’ve heard them before; the rootsy grooves and Trooper’s warm voice are spellbinding.  If you’re a fan of Dan Penn, John Prine, Rodney Crowell and their peers, you owe it to check out Trooper.

Lori McKenna “Lorraine” (Signature Sounds).

The image of Lori  McKenna is that of a blue collar housewife sitting at her kitchen table penning songs that somehow find their way onto the albums of country superstars (Faith Hill, Keith Urban). But that doesn’t do justice to the depth, subtlety and honesty of her songs, stripped down to their essence on her largely acoustic solo albums (although this one has strings in just the right places and background vocals from Kim Carnes). Yes, McKenna had her shot at the big time with 2007’s major label disc, “Unglamorous,” a stint opening for Hill, and an appearance on “Oprah.” But she seemed uncomfortable glammed up and over produced (or maybe it was just uncomfortable listening and watching that incarnation).

She is the girl who married her high school sweetheart and quickly had babies — five in all. But she’s not a stereotype out of “Mad Me” or “Ms.” McKenna does the difficult — writing about life, real life, with an unerring eye. It’s all here, the shadowing doubts, the gentle joys, the people we recognize from our lives. McKenna is a staple of the Boston folk scene, but her voice is more heartland than right coast, more open spaces than urban races.

Typical is the opener, “The Luxury of Knowing:” Damn it must be easy/Being in love with someone so blind/Cuz – I’ll tell you right now the only thing I really know/ Is that you might change your mind/Any day you could change your mind/You know when I’m coming home/You know when I’m coming to bed.”

There’s not enough space here to list the highlights, which include “Lorraine,” about the bonds between mothers and daughters, “Buy This Town,” an homage to her Stoughton, Massachusetts, home, and “Rocket Science,” a piece of unbearable heartache leavened by McKenna’s typical resolute sweetness. She sings: Love is rocket science/What comes up it must come down/In burning pieces on the ground/We watch it fall/Maybe love is rocket science after all/Not if, but when, you crash and burn/Somehow you survive/But you’ve touched the hem of heaven/For a time you felt alive.”

McKenna is the  Raymond Carver and the Bruce Springsteen of home life, exposing the weak joints, laying out the hard choices and the undying subterranean optimism, and then portraying them in all their contradictions and complications.

Good Old War “Good Old War” (Sargent House).

Oh, the harmonies. This alt folk trio from Pennsylvania is immediately winsome and endearing thanks to their harmonies, which evoke later Beatles and Simon and Garfunkel. This is feel-good music with bouncing, catchy melodies and short folk pop songs. But it’s the strength of their songwriting, sometimes wise, sometimes wise-cracking, that keeps you coming back.

The lyrics often are open-ended, asking questions, but leaving the answers up to the listener. They’re about love, of course, but also other big picture concerns you might not expect. On the jaunty “That’s Some Dream,” a perfect piece of folk pop, they note “I’m gonna live, I’m alright. I’m gonna die. It’s alright. I’m ok.”

The group’s name takes portions of each of its members, Keith Goodwin (guitars, keys, vocals), Tim Arnold (drums, accordion, vocals), and Dan Schwartz (guitars, vocals), and the album has three instrumental interludes, “Good,” “Old,” and “War.” At times, they evoke Fleet Foxes, but there’s a different, warmer vibe here. Guster has tapped them to open their current tour. What’s not a surprise is how many of the early reviewers have been surprised by the strength of the opening act.