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The Del McCoury Band
This year was a banner one for bluegrass’ finest band. Del McCoury and the boys, which include his son Ronnie (arguably the best mandolinist in American roots music right now) and his son Robbie (a gifted banjo player), kicked off the year in fine style with American Legacies, a rousing collaboration album with New Orleans’ famed Preservation Hall Jazz Band. That would have been enough of an achievement to be sure, as American Legacies blends traditional jazz with classic bluegrass to create a compelling new sound and is the finest Americana album of the year. Then the band went out on a lengthy tour both with Pres Hall and on their own, making appearances at Bonnaroo and the Austin City Limits Music Festival, as well as hosting their own annual DelFest festival.
Top cap things off, the Del McCoury Band recorded the best tribute album to bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe ever set to tape, Old Memories: The Songs of Bill Monroe. Monroe would have been 100 this year and McCoury earned his early stripes singing in Monroe’s band for a year in the ‘60s before heading out on his own. The experience stamped that classic high tenor singing style on McCoury and informed his guitar playing. But what makes this band ultimately great is that they are no museum act, just trotting out old Monroe tunes playing them exactly like Bill. The band is rooted in that tradition, but they shake things up with clever collaborations, intriguing song selection, and a mastery of sound dynamics playing live that remind one of some of the world’s greatest classical string ensembles.
It’s been a hugely successful year for PJ Harvey, who in September became the first artist to win the Mercury Prize for the second time. While her album Let England Shake was unquestionably worthy of the award, it’s not just her newfound double Mercury winning status that makes her one of 2011’s standout artists. Let England Shake captures the year’s social and political climate better than any other recent album. And don’t let the title deceive you: Harvey’s commentary is globally relevant. On one level it’s an album of musical war poems, in which Harvey unflinchingly details horrors that remind us of the conflicts taking place right now. But it’s also a striking comment on the state of the world in a more general sense. The opening line of the title track—“The West’s Asleep”—pretty much sums up both PJ Harvey’s state of mind throughout this album, and the state of affairs today. Alan Ashton-Smith
On the track “Killa” from 2011’s w h o k i l l, tUnE-yArDs’ Merrill Garbus chants “I’m a new kind of woman / I’m a new kind of woman / I’m a don’t take shit from you kind of woman,” to the backdrop of a head nodding, Afro-beat inflected groove and it’s a statement that bears itself out through the course of this rollicking, confrontational and genre smashing album. And she’s a new kind of artist as well, looping and layering her own drum beats, ukulele lines and the powerful, dynamic force of her voice over the ever present funky and tight as hell bass lines of collaborator Nate Brenner to create songs that challenge listeners’ assumptions while remaining highly infectious and even danceable. With w h o k i l l, tUnE-yArDs has established a place for itself alongside other technically adept pop experimenters such as the Dirty Projectors and Battles, and Garbus has opened doors of creative potential by combining the possibilities of digital innovation with a musicianship and song craft that is often lacking in the contemporary era of processed and sequenced music. Rob Alford
Toronto’s Fucked Up has always been a punk rock band through and through, but unlike pretty much every punk rock band ever, over the past four years they’ve displayed a predilection for tossing a little progressive/art rock bombast into their music, flying straight in the face of what’s perceived to be punk rock’s modus operandi. Which, when you think about it, is pretty damn punk rock of them. On the heels of a pair of sprawling albums in 2006’s Hidden World and 2009’s The Chemistry of Common Life, the band took their love of dinosaur rock even further, putting together a massive, four-part, honest-to-goodness rock opera in the tradition of Quadrophenia and The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. With a plotline that combined boy-meets-girl melodrama, politics, and an inspired second half turn towards the post-modern, David Comes to Life was a rare feat, an ambitious album that embraced classic rock ideas that didn’t come to the expense of the band’s punk integrity. Compared to the watered-down arena rock of corporate rock sellouts Green Day, Fucked Up combined two disparate genres gracefully and brilliantly, another career high point by the most exciting band in Canada. Adrien Begrand
It goes without saying that it’s a really freaking big deal when Radiohead releases a new record. The anticipation leading up to each Radiohead album has been felt throughout the globe, with Internet leaks and pay-what-you-will price structures dominating the blogosphere. With the release of the band’s eighth LP The King of Limbs, though, the band managed to foil some of this expectation by announcing the record’s release only a few days in advance and then making it available on their website earlier than anticipated. When the album finally dropped, fans found that it lacked the innovation of Kid A, the political prescience of Hail to the Thief, or the clarity of In Rainbows. Instead, it was a relatively quiet, unassuming statement by one of today’s most important and consistently interesting musical acts. Radiohead’s incredible resilience is proven by the fact that they have been one of the most discussed bands of 2011, almost 20 years after the release of their debut LP. Even a humble, eight-track LP pushes the band back into the spotlight. Thom Yorke’s freak-out “Lotus Flower” dance video probably didn’t hurt the band’s hype factor either. Jason Adams