This year’s rock and pop list is a heady mix of the old (Paul Simon, Lindsey Buckingham) and the new (the Black Keys, Death Cab for Cutie). I thrilled to comebacks (Daryl Hall, Yes) and quiet triumphs (Gregg Rolie, Nick Lowe), and swerved off into a niche inside of a niche with Neal Morse’s faith-based prog rock. Then there was the Mekons’ kitchen-sink recording, Ancient and Modern, which couldn’t have been any more aptly titled.
Click through the titles for expanded reviews …
GREG ROLIE – FIVE DAYS: Gregg Rolie, a founding member of Santana and then Journey, is probably best remembered as this tiny speck playing keyboards in a sold-out arena. That’s what made this deeply introspective project, recorded live with just piano and vocals, an unexpected and intimate revelation. Rolie offered a couple of originals, took on the pre-war blues standard “Trouble in Mind,” and (in a treat for fans) reexamined two of his most memorable vocals from those seminal rock bands — “Anytime” and “Black Magic Woman.” Rather than echoing his earlier successes, though, Rolie worked hard to find new insights within them. That, of course, meant Five Days didn’t blaze any new trails, but I don’t think that was the aim. Instead, Rolie stopped to examine a few familiar stones along the pathway. And he helped us see something there that we hadn’t before.
YES – FLY FROM HERE / : I know. It’s a cheat. But there was no talking about one without the other this year: An album that was far better than it had any right to be from Yes, and the most consistent release of departed band co-founder Anderson’s sometimes confusingly complex solo career. Yes used a polished up multi-part track from the Drama era to regain long-lost momentum after going 10 years between studio projects, and its new lead singer acquitted himself remarkably well. Anderson, meanwhile, collaborated with a variety of sources on the web, while documenting in memorable detail his difficult journey back from life-threatening illness. Taken together, these two albums represented an embarrassment of riches for fans of Yes.
DARYL HALL – LAUGHING DOWN CRYING: Apparently playing live on “Live from Daryl’s House” has had an impact on Hall. He performs with a crisp, uncharacteristically loose sound here, in keeping with the friendly, free-form performances which populate that addictively watchable web show — and a world away from the synthesized urban pop that helped make Hall and Oates a signature act of the 1980s. At the same time, Hall retains every bit of the pop-song finesse that gave the duo a truckload of hits back then, and his voice sounds surprisingly resilient after all of these years. A welcome return to form for Hall, who also hadn’t put out a solo studio effort in more than a decade.
THE MEKONS – ANCIENT AND MODERN: What better opener than “Warm Summer Sun,” a tune that lives up so completely to the album’s title? You hear Hank Williams in the instrumentation, and Roger Waters in the vocal. Then “Geeshie” swings the pendulum the other way, sounding like a hootenanny outtake. Only a band like the Mekons could make something like Ancient and Modern, this whipsawing triumph of country contemplation and righteous, guitar-banging indignation, work so completely. After all, that’s their story. Originally a noise-loving loose-knit group, by the early 1980s the Mekons eventually coalesced into a backwoods-inflected amalgam, sounding something like Gram Parsons sitting in with the Clash. Still do.
NEAL MORSE – TESTIMONY 2: Former Spock’s Beard frontman Neal Morse confronted the triumphs and pain of his tenure and ultimate departure in 2002 from the band. In so doing, Morse ensured that this wasn’t simply an epic sequel to his initial solo release; in many ways, its grace and striking honesty make Testimony 2 the better record. As it unfolded, the album became a moving meditation on acceptance, on managing change, on embracing the past even as you move on. And Morse did it without sacrificing anything musically: For all of its underlying messages on faith — a conversion to Christianity precipitated Morse’s decision to go solo — 2 remained firmly rooted in the prog-rock tradition, from soaring keyboards to thrilling calculus-equation guitars to classically inspired compositional excursions.
NILS LOFGREN – OLD SCHOOL: You could forgive Lofgren, best known these days as a 27-year member of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, for issuing a contemplative record after such a difficult period. And there was some of that here. But, in the wake of losing both E Street saxophonist Clarence Clemons and organist/keyboard player Danny Federici, Lofgren begins Old School embroiled in a cathartic, just-right rage. It was only later that a deeper sense of sorrow began to creep in. As Lofgren made his quietly effective tribute to Ray Charles on “Miss You Ray,” it was hard not to think of the recently departed Clemons. That’s a broad emotional sweep, but Lofgren made it look easy, crafting a well-conceived journey — not just through grief, and through anger, but also toward acceptance.
DEATH CAB FOR CUTIE – CODES AND KEYS: At last, the return of that odd conundrum called Death Cab for Cutie, a band whose spit-take name can’t begin to hint at the deep musical complexities tucked away inside. Initial reports had the group, working now with producer Alan Moulder, shifting into more keyboard-driven fare — with front man Ben Gibbard reportedly even likening the new project to Brian Eno’s Another Green World. The results, while touched by electronica, didn’t stray from their core sound so much as build on it: From “You Are a Tourist,” which quickly shucks an initial melancholy in favor of a snappy beat and (even a bigger surprise, really) an insistently hopeful lyric; to the sunny popcraft of “Monday Morning” and “Underneath the Sycamore,” this was the sound of a band determined to grow with their history — not past it.
LINDSEY BUCKINGHAM — SEEDS WE SOW: You keep waiting for Lindsey Buckingham, the old rebel, to soften into middle-aged acceptance, to conform. This wasn’t that record. Credit Buckingham for never trading true emotion for sentiment. Seeds We Sow was as hard eyed as it is musically ambitious. Makes sense. Buckingham, for all of the things he rejects, for all of the things that piss him off and make him play the guitar in a bloody-fingered rage, was never about nothingness. Buckingham’s music, in a move that belied his era, didn’t settle for cheap thrills, quick answers — or something so obvious and easy as nihilism. And, lucky for us, it still doesn’t.
THE BLACK KEYS – EL CAMINO: This album didn’t so much try to follow up 2010′s Brothers, their most acclaimed release, as feel around on its outer edges. There was less blues, and more brawn — something that’s laid out perfectly on the lead single and opening-track “Lonely Boy.” Whereas Brothers – while deftly balancing both the modern rock and Delta styles that have long obsessed the Black Keys — came off like a chest-bumping celebration of summer, El Camino was this angry shove back against winter. Gassed up and ready to roll, this follow up — from the very first — was on a serious tear. Think Brothers, turned up to 11.
PAUL SIMON – SO BEAUTIFUL OR SO WHAT: A career-spanning, sometimes duskily ruminative, quirk-splashed triumph — simultaneously bold in its constructions and timeless in its themes. Simon has, with this long-awaited effort, found a way to combine the subtlety and directness of his early work with the complexity — both musical and emotional — of subsequent exotic sideroads like Graceland and Rhythm of the Saints. Yet the album was more than an interesting interpolation. There was a growing sense of mystery and of forebearance, away from the thrilling din of music. Simon, in his quietest moments, seemed to be engaged in a desperate fight against the gloaming. And not always winning.
2011 ROCK AND POP HONORABLE MENTIONS: Nick Lowe’s The Old Magic was a timelessly recorded album that celebrates the perspective that life belatedly gives us. … After a period of oddly quiet introspection, Wilco recaptured some of its early unpredictability on The Whole Love. … Ex-Wings and Joe Cocker guitarist Henry McCullough’s explores what comes after superstardom on the sharply insightful Unfinished Business. … Foo Fighters’ Wasting Light was a thrillingly straight-forward rock release. No hyphens. Just rock. … Julian Lennon confronts his father, and his father’s legacy — both musically and personally — on the complex and confessional Everything Changes.