Thursday, December 22, 2011

Best Albums of 2011 (Part Two)

Earlier this week I wrote about albums #6 - #25. Now allow me to introduce my top 5 albums of 2011.

5. Joe Bonamassa - Dust Bowl

I love the blues, specifically guitar driven blues rock. Joe Bonamassa, who happens to hail from upstate New York, is the best blues guitarist of this generation. He was a child prodigy and has lived up to the high expectations. While "Dust Bowl" has plenty of Joe’s amazing guitar work, it also showcases his talents as a songwriter. While some of my friends didn’t like the songs that leaned towards country, it all works for me. Highlights include “Slow Train”, “The Meaning of the Blues”, and “The Whale That Swallowed Jonah.”

4. Wilco - The Whole Love

Music can be very personal for me. There is a soundtrack to my life. My father passed away this fall and as fate would have it, the first time I heard "The Whole Love" was during a long, lonely ride to make final arrangement for his memorial service. When “One Sunday Morning” came on, I had to pull off the road to compose myself. And while the relationship I had with my father was completely different than the one depicted in the song, I will always remember that drive. The rest of the album is fantastic, with Wilco returning to form. If I was making a list of the best songs of the year, "One Sunday Morning" and the "Art of Almost" would both be on that list.

3. The Who - Quadrophenia - The Director's Cut

The Who were the best live band ever, end of discussion. Their studio albums never captured the energy and power of their live performances. This was especially true of my favorite Who album "Quadrophenia" which took on new life when performed live. I still have a vivid memory of The Who playing Folsom Field in ‘82 and John Entwistle’s bass thundering through the Front Range while they played “5:15”. This reissue sounds magnificent and goes a step closer to capturing the dynamics of their live shows.

There has been considerable debate in the Who community about the sound and production on this CD. For me, everything does sound cleaner. The real star here is the late, great Keith Moon, the Tasmanian Devil of the drum kit. This comes as close to capturing what Moon sounded like in concert as anything I’ve heard, even more so than “Live at Leeds”. The inclusion of several of the demo tapes is an added bonus. Hearing how Townsend first envisioned these songs and how they were finally recorded is fascinating. All in all, this reissue breaths new life into a timeless classic.

2. Steven Wilson - Grace for Drowning

Grace for Drowning is magnificent. To quote the review from our local paper - “If you’ve been wondering whatever happened to the heady commingling of serious musicianship with the might and majesty of rock, here’s your answer.” Wilson is joined by several legendary musicians including Steve Hackett, Tony Levin, Pat Mastelotto, and Theo Travis. This is progressive rock at it’s finest. The influences from Genesis, ELP, Jethro Tull, Yes, Pink Floyd and King Crimson can be heard throughout this masterpiece. And while much of progressive rock is pretentious and collapses under its own weight, the songs here are very listenable.

And then there is the sound. The 5.1 mix will take your breath away. Unlike the classic albums from the 70’s and 80’s that have been remastered for surround sound, "Grace for Drowning" was conceived and created for 5.1. It is the best example of a three-dimensional sound stage I’ve ever heard. Pro tip - if you have a 5.1 setup for movies, buy it on blu-ray. The difference between the stereo version and the 5.1 version is incredible. Wilson is hoping to bring the wonders of surround sound to the masses by using the blu-ray format. I hope blu-ray can succeed where DVD-audio and SACD failed.

This is now the album I will use to demonstrate my surround sound system. I’m considering hosting a listening party at my house as part of #heweb13. Expect "Grace for Drowning" to be prominently featured.

1. R.E.M. - Collapse Into Now

Almost 30 years ago I received a phone call from a friend of mine insisting we leave that night on a road trip to Athens to catch a club show of a relatively obscure band. Given that skipping work was involved I was hesitant, but I respected her musical tastes so off we went. Thus began my love affair with R.E.M., a band I have always strongly identified with. (There's a reason that "It's the end of the Web as We Know It" is the title I chose for my most popular presentation.) Unlike some of my other favorite artists, I am the same age as the members of R.E.M. and IMHO, they have been the spokesmen for my generation.

Most bands who survive for 30 years experience a sharp decline in creativity during the tail end of their careers. Not so with R.E.M. I thoroughly enjoyed “Accelerate”, though it was very one-dimensional. “Collapse Into Now” captures all that made R.E.M. great, showcasing both their hard and soft sides. So is this a nostalgic pick? Absolutely. 2011 will be the last time that R.E.M. will ever be included in any yearly best of lists and it’s only fitting that the best American rock band of all time goes out on top.

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