Friday, December 30, 2011

Best Albums of 2011

I'd love to hear about your favorite albums from 2011! Send them in to, post them on the Dirty Roots Radio Facebook page, or just leave them in the comments below. Feel free to include as much or as little information as you want, rank them however you want, and include as many or as few albums as you'd like. I hope to hear from you!


There’s nothing scientific about this list, just some thoughts on the albums that I’ve enjoyed most this year.

(Presented in no particular order…)

Best of the Best:

Charles Bradley – No Time for Dreaming

I first saw Charles Bradley as an opening act for Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings about three years ago. There was just something about the guy. You could FEEL the blood, sweat, and tears that went into everything he did. He’d spent his life in hardscrabble jobs up to that point, doing everything from cooking in a restaurant to construction.

Fast forward a few years and at the age of 63, Bradley releases one of the best records of the year on one of my favorite labels; Brooklyn’s Daptone Records. Like all Daptone releases, this is real-deal soul, recorded on vintage equipment, without sounding retro.

Social Distortion – Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes

There are few thrills in the world as satisfying as the anticipation of a new record from your favorite band in the world. That high is intensified when said band releases new albums as sporadically as Social Distortion. It’s always worth the wait, though. As is the case with all of their albums, “Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes” still sounds totally like Social D but manages to have its own unique sound as well.

Prior to the release of this album, I saw SxDx live and Mike Ness indicated that the new record would sound like a combination of Hank Williams, Bo Diddley, the Ramones, and Johnny Thunders. He might have mentioned a few other influences. I knew we’d be in for a treat and they didn’t disappoint.

With the addition of keys and soulful backup singers, this earthy blues/country/punk/sleaze sound wouldn’t be out of place on some o’ them drunk ol’ Stones classics (Let It Bleed, Exile on Main St., Beggar’s Banquet). Add my feel good song of the year, “Far Side of Nowhere”; a truck stop epic, “Bakersfield”; a Hank Williams cover, “Alone and Forsaken”; and wrap it all up in a Great Depression/Dust Bowl-themed Little Golden Book style cover and you’ve got Social Distortion’s masterpiece.

Tom Waits – Bad As Me

What does one say? Dude’s the White Castle of the music world; you love him or you hate him. There’s no in between. “Bad As Me” has everything great about Tom Waits – killer songwriting; those loser/drifter/freak characters – but is more streamlined in its presentation than his last few albums. It’s weird. It’s raw. It’s beautiful. It’s Tom Waits at his absolute best.

Black Keys – El Camino

What an album. ‘Purt near perfect. You know how you kinda follow an artist from a distance, and then they make that record that pushes it over the edge for you and you finally embrace them? This is that record for me. I’ve always liked the concept of the Black Keys. I’ve always dug their sound. But it just wasn’t “there” for me.

When “Attack & Release” came out a few years ago, I was intrigued by the story of the album (it was supposed to have been made with Ike Turner), so I checked it out. I liked that one, but it still didn’t quite do “it”. Then I went back to Chulahoma – their Junior Kimbrough tribute record. I enjoyed it, being a fan of Kimbrough’s work. But, just like nearly every tribute album, regardless of how good it might be, it paled in comparison to the original work of the tributee. I listened to their last album, “Brothers”, and just as I expected, I respected it, but knew I’d never listen to it more than once.

And then, this fall came “Lonely Boy” with its skuzzy, slinky, sexy guitar riff. It had been a while since I’d been knocked flat like that by a single. Shortly thereafter I heard an early-leaked copy of “Run Right Back”, sounding similarly nasty and bluesy and garage-y. I was cautiously optimistic; I WANTED to like the Black Keys. I had TRIED to like them. This new record was showing promise, but surely it couldn’t be as good as these first two tracks were leading me to believe! Then the record came. And it was. This is the sound of a band hitting its full stride; realizing all its promise.

Spin Magazine reviewed the record and said with “El Camino” the Black Keys finally realized they weren’t old black men. I never thought they were trying to sound that way…but that IS what Dirty Roots is all about; taking what inspires you (vintage raw blues in this case) and making it relevant for you (super-funky, with perfect production from Danger Mouse, here).

As Otis Ryan Productions blogger Bill Walker said in his review of the album upon its release, “As popular music is poked and prodded to an auto-tuned sodium-free, fat-free can of Progresso,” the Black Keyes have followed the Dirty Roots recipe and come up with what Walker called, “an MSG-filled bowl of chili down at the local diner.” And everybody knows that’s what’s most fun to eat. There isn’t a bad track on this record. Best album of the year.

Best of the Rest:

Reverend John Wilkins – You Can’t Hurry God

You know that scene in High Fidelity when John Cusack is talking about how he got together with his girlfriend and he talks about how it wasn’t totally exciting…but it wasn’t boring, either….it was “just good…..but, really good”? That’s what this album – the biggest surprise of the year for me – is like. It showed up in my mail unannounced and since it was from the good folks at Fat Possum/Big Legal Mess Records, I figured I’d give it a go. It didn’t knock my dinger in the dirt, like the Black Keys did. But it wasn’t boring either. It was good…but really good.

Wanda Jackson – The Party Ain’t Over

It shouldn’t be up to an 70+ year old church lady to bear the torch of rock and roll. But Wanda Jackson apparently has broad shoulders and is up for the task. I’ve never been a big fan of Jack White as a performer, but I love what he does as producer. His latest granny project (first being the great Loretta Lynn’s “Van Lear Rose”) is one of my favorites of the year. Wanda rocks a few classics, makes a modern-day Bob Dylan standard her own…and THAT VOICE!!! She may not have the kitten purr she had 50 years ago, but she’s still got that wildcat yowl!!!

T-Model Ford & GravelRoad – Taledragger

This album would deserve to be on this list for no reason other than the fact that it exists. It also happens to be great. T-Model Ford – one of the original Fat Possum recording artists – is in his early 90s and shows no signs of stopping. Over the past four years, I’ve been blessed to interview T-Model and the guys he tours with several times and become friends with them. Hanging out with T (real name: James Lewis Carter Ford), you realize that he’s as close to someone from another planet as you’re likely to ever encounter.

As a little boy growing up in the North Mississippi Hill Country, T-Model was abused so badly by his daddy, he lost one of his nuts. He’s been shot, stabbed, and poisoned. He’s been in the penitentiary and on the chain gang. He was in jail “every weekend there for a while”. A tree fell on him and busted his hip in his middle age, and in his late 80’s he overcame a stroke and continued touring. He’s been married six times and informed me that his sixth wife became his wife because she tricked him into a trip to the courthouse. His fourth wife gave him a present of an electric guitar and amp, which pissed him off at the time; he didn’t play. When she left him he taught himself to play. He was 58.

This is the blues. It’s not BB King, Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy, or even John Lee Hooker blues. This is self-taught, untrained, “I play the blues because there’s something inside me that has to come out” blues. The real deal. God bless T-Model Ford for still doing it. And props to my buddy Marty, as well as Stefan and the other guys in GravelRoad for helping to make it happen!

Mistakes Were Made: Five Years of Raw Blues, Damaged Livers & Questionable Business Decisions (A Broke & Hungry Records Retrospective)

If you haven’t checked out the great – and important – work that our friends at Broke & Hungry Records are doing, GET TO IT! You'll be a better person for it.

This compilation is a great place to get your feet wet. Two CDs of real-deal Mississippi Delta Blues from the north hill country. Back porch pickin' and juke joint stompin! T-Model Ford, Jimmie “Duck” Holmes, Pat Thomas, Terry “Harmonica” Bean, Bill Abel, The Mississippi Marvel, and a whole lotta mo’…the gang’s all here, they’re all soundin’ great, and the white whiskey is flowin’.

James Leg – Solitary Pleasure

Imagine what Tom Waits would sound like if he gargled with razor blades and whiskey and screamed the blues from the seventh circle of the deepest pit of hell, while banging away at a Fender Rhodes…except, kinda ….churchy. James Leg (the solo identity of John Meyer of the fabulous Black Diamond Heavies) is actually a minister. He used to preach alongside his evangelist father. Lucky for us, though, his hymns are now about drinkin’, hell, temptation, jail, and crackheads. Glory!!

Pearl Jam – Vs. & Vitalogy Reissues

There’s been a lot of nostalgia for the early 90s this year, what with the anniversary reissues of Nirvana’s “Nevermind” and U2’s “Achtung Baby”. None of the reminiscences hit the spot like the reissue of these two gems, though. Two of the finest albums from my coming-of-age days that transport me back, but still remain valid today.

Steve Earle – I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive

This is the “countriest” thing Steve Earle has done in a long time and the first album of all original material since 2007’s “Washington Square Serenade”. The album came out at the same time as Steve Earle’s first novel, of the same name. Funnily enough, “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive” (by Hank Williams) doesn’t show up on the album at all. (It was released as a limited edition 7” vinyl for Record Store Day)

It’s classic Steve Earle. Awesome story songs about oil riggers, outlaws, God, politics, and his wife. That awesome twangy Texas voice. Interesting bluegrass-ish instrumentation. Can’t go wrong.

Scott H. Biram – Bad Ingredients

To really experience Scott H. Biram you gotta see him live. When I saw him this past summer, just before the release of this record, there were two people that stood out to me. One was a very pretty, very sweet, petite young lady. She had a blonde bob haircut and looked like she was probably an office assistant somewhere. But she was covered in tattoos from the neck down and wrist up; everywhere that could be covered by a sweet little button-up business sweater. The other girl was clearly not a nice girl; she was, in every conceivable way, the antithesis of the sweet young thing. But this second girl had a pair of angel wings tattooed on her back. This concert was also the first time I tried homemade moonshine.

Bad girls with angel wings. Good girls with hidden tattoos. Homemade hooch. This album sounds like all of that. Make sense?

Jeff Bridges – Jeff Bridges

You ever see someone who has one of those completely worn, fully-broken-in, completely lived in soft brown leather jackets that looks like they’ve had it on for 30 years? Or ever notice someone’s jeans that are so soft and worn and faded that you wonder how they’re still holding together?

This album sounds like you would imagine those things feel. It sounds exactly like what you would expect from Jeff Bridges in all of his Dude-like charm. When Bruce Willis was making records, they sounded exactly like what you would expect from Bruce Willis. And while they may have been “fun”, they weren’t good. But this album sounding like a Jeff Bridges record is a very good thing. Its comfortable. Its quality. Its from the heart and its laid back. The Dude always seemed like he was a guy you could just hang with. Now we know he can play some music while we’re hangin’.

Gary Clark, Jr. – Bright Lights EP

Not much to say about this short EP release. Sounds kinda Black-Keys-ish…but it fits him well. Makes me excited to hear what’s yet to come from this young Texas bluesman. I’m not sure the last time I could say that about a young, up-and-coming blues musician. Clark does it Dirty Roots style, though. He’s respectful of his roots without being beholden to tradition.

Bottle Rockets – Not So Loud

An acoustic evening with the Bottle Rockets – the best working band on the whole damn planet. ‘Nuff said.

JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound – Want More

Thank God for young bands like this releasing records like this. As with Scott H. Biram, you really need to see them live to get the full experience. I saw them a couple of weeks ago at Off Broadway in St. Louis; a whiskey-fueled, sweaty night of dancey rock-n-soul. It’s not often than a young modern band can make me wanna get up and jam. JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound bring the party.

This May Be My Last Time Singing: Raw African American Gospel on 45 RPM (1957-1982)

Mike McGonigal put together the fantastic “Fire In My Bones” compilation for the Tompkins Square record label a few years back. A collection of pre-war gospel gems that keeps a fire burning in my bones.

This release is a collection of more modern gospel recordings – all taken from 45’s. Most of these recordings were self-funded and self-released; those that weren’t were issued in very limited quantities on tiny independent labels. No one famous here. These are folks who sing about their faith because they have to. They need to do it as much as you need to hear it.

Kudos to McGonigal for digging up these treasures and the informative liner notes that accompany the set.

As I said...I'd love to hear your thoughts on the best albums of 2011 - either comments on my list, or a list of your own!!!

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