The Black Keys, again, own the year with 'El Camino'
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
It could be a reflection of my own bias, but 2011 saw a sharp rise in fuzzed-out guitar strings, crashing drum cymbals and blown amps. But the sound of that type of controlled destruction is, quite literally, music to my ears.
The year, however, was also a study in restraint, with a number of musicians and artists honing their craft through careful selections and studio tweaks, or just channelling new emotions through an old acoustic guitar.
So, perhaps the story of 2011 will be told in its balance. Loud hooks, quick releases and quiet reflection, all stirring together in some of the best music of the year.
ALBUM OF THE YEAR
The Black Keys — El Camino
If you’re keeping score at home, this is the third time in four years that the Black Keys have claimed the “album of the year” slot in this annual wrap-up, their only miss coming in 2009, when Dan Auerbach merely put out his amazing solo record.
As fantastic as those previous records were, never have the Black Keys come together as strongly as they did in 2011 with El Camino, a record that melds all of the sounds and styles they’ve tinkered with through the past decade into a sonic thrill. There’s heavy blues with “Money Maker,” Sly Stone-tinges on “Gold on the Ceiling,” a call to the best of the dynamic 1970s on “Little Black Submarines,” all tied together by Danger Mouse’s funk-trained ear.
The Black Keys delivered their strongest song cycle, expanded their sound and left the most memorable, catchy record of the year in their path. It rocks like nothing else. Well done, you knights of Akron, well done.
DEBUT OF THE YEAR
Wild Flag — Wild Flag
Carrie Brownstein came screaming back into music this year with Mary Timony, Rebecca Cole and her Sleater-Kinney bandmate and drummer extraordinaire Janet Weiss with a punk blast to the senses. Wild Flag isn’t all about noise, though. The record demonstrates an innate knack for songwriting, with catchy verses and twists to keep things interesting.
Additionally, if there was a “jam of the year” category, that would easily go to “Racehorse,” a 6:40 epic that anchors the album and stretches out into a fury on stage.
SINGLE OF THE YEAR
The Black Keys — “Lonely Boy”
Accompanied by a video for the ages, the Black Keys started the buzz on El Camino with arguably their greatest ear-worm yet. Charged by a fuzzy riff, organ splashes and a steady drum roll, the Black Keys continue their own tradition of strong lead-off singles (“Your Touch,” “Strange Times,” Tighten Up”) to announce their records.
SCORE OF THE YEAR
Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross — The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Following up his deserving Oscar win for his work on The Social Network, Reznor ups the stakes with a three-hour opus to accompany David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The subtle nuances that made The Social Network and Nine Inch Nail’s Ghosts I-IV so strong are back, but heavier on the dark side, sometimes bordering on terrifying. With Nine Inch Nails, Reznor was constantly pushing the barriers of his music, trying to reach further heights in the sublime. It’s no surprise he’s taking the same approach to his film work.
CONCERT OF THE YEAR
Wild Flag — Oct. 14, Paradise Rock Club, Boston.
Perhaps it was the excitement of my first small club show in a little while, but Wild Flag, just a couple of weeks after releasing their record, put on a night to remember at the Paradise. Starting out with the rattle and thump of “Black Tiles,” Brownstein and co. kicked and rocked through an hour and a half set that came to a crash with a cover of Television’s “See No Evil.”
BEST ARCHIVAL RELEASE
Pearl Jam — Pearl Jam Twenty (the series)
Through Cameron Crowe’s fantastic documentary Pearl Jam Twenty, packaged in a bonus-jammed three-DVD set, the two-disc soundtrack and a hardbound, coffee-table book that tops 300 pages, Pearl Jam celebrated 20 years as a band by summing up their history as well as could be reasonably expected. The movie was a thrill, the book a treasure trove and the soundtrack is, quite possibly, the strongest collection in their discography. As legacy building goes, this is as good as it gets.
BEST OF THE REST
Radiohead — The King of Limbs
Never satisfied, Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood led the band through a minimalist cycle that was breathtaking in its restraint. Radiohead has since followed up The King of Limbs with a series of remixes and songs from the same sessions.
Wilco — The Whole Love
Returning to the experimental nature of A Ghost Is Born, Wilco proved they still have the ability to thrill. “Dawned on Me” and “I Might” were excellent, but their finest moment might have been “One Sunday Morning,” a acoustic-driven meditation that tops 12 minutes.
Ryan Adams — Ashes & Fire
In the wake of the Cardinals’ breakup, Adams recorded an album that harkened back to his debut, Heartbreaker. Quiet, subtle songs dominate, led by his acoustic guitar and quiet flourishes, directed by producer Glyn Johns.
The Kills — Blood Pressures
The Dead Weather’s near-gothic influence is felt here. Allison Mosshart re-teamed with Jamie Hince to make a dark, brooding album, led by the outstanding opening track, “Future Starts Slow." Heavy on the drums, but leans on the soul.
Tom Waits — Bad As Me
Waits brings his booming percussion and gnarled vocals back from hibernation, unleashing 13 songs that only serve to better his reputation. There are some beautiful, in their own way, ballads here, too, and Keith Richards is back contributing guitar and vocals.
REST IN PEACE
Queens of the Stone Age — March 26. “You Can’t Quit Me, Baby,” House of Blues, Boston
Touring in support of the rerelease of their 1998 debut record, Joshua Homme and Queens played their entire first record, including “The Bronze,” on a few dates this spring. They mixed up the album’s order by the end, closing with the ominous “You Can’t Quit Me, Baby,” allowing Homme to close the main set with the refrain: “You’re solid gold, I’ll see you in hell.”
The encore, a smattering of other Queens songs, had more than a number of blasts, too, including “Sick, Sick Sick,” “Burn the Witch” and “No One Knows.”
E-mail Nick Tavares at email@example.com