Best of the Best: The Official™ Something Else! Top 10 for 2011

As with last year’s inaugural edition, The Official™ SomethingElse! year-ending Top 10 list requires two or more of us to be in agreement as we gathered around the watercooler at SER Towers.

It’s no easy task. In the end, we chucked a series of worthy entries — from Bill Frisell and Alice Cooper to The Low Anthem and Fountains of Wayne.

Only then, through a painstaking process of winnowing, did we arrive at this — and, as the title suggests, we call it the best of the best. Click through the titles for expanded reviews

No. 10
NELS CLINE, TIM BERNE AND JIM BLACK – THE VEIL

S. VICTOR AARON: This is one of those aberrant trios where the odd combination of sax (Berne), electric guitar (Cline) and drums/laptop effects (Black) make not only a cacophony, but a cacophony of a different sort: Where jazz dares not tread because it’s too brutal, and rock won’t go there either because it’s too unpredictable and tortuous.

NICK DERISO: A mind-bending amalgam of free jazz, guitar improvisation, textural sounds and eye-popping funk experiments, The Veil is as weird as it is melodically involving as it is (no kidding) sometimes sweetly lyrical. Credit this supergroup configuration out of New York City for hurtling us toward a lights-out, car-smashing intersection of jazz, alternative rock, and electronica. Skronky, swinging, heavy and then almost ambient at times, this live project documents three improvisational giants at the top of their game.

No. 9
BOOKER T. JONES – THE ROAD THE MEMPHIS

NICK DERISO: His name is linked forever with the town, and the sound, of Memphis. But Booker T. Jones’ influence moves beyond Beale, into hip hop and today’s rhythm-and-blues — something that was underscored on The Road from Memphis, co-produced by The Roots drummer/bandleader ?uestlove. Not that Jones, a three-time Grammy winner and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, didn’t stake his claim to all that is fonky. “Walking Papers” and “The Vamp” boasted a Meters-level greasy grind, while “The Hive” sounded like an outtake from a sizzling James Brown session. Jones even sang a bit, lending a gruff soulfulness to “Down in Memphis.” But the album wasn’t content with confirming his fidelity to such things, so much as showing how the sound that Jones helped shape in the 1960s has continued to resonate across the decades.

S. VICTOR AARON: Not the MG’s 2.0, but instead a convincing testament of how Jones’ groundbreaking Memphis sound is still relevant in today’s music.

No. 8
PAT METHENY – WHAT IT’S ALL ABOUT

MARK SALESKI: This isn’t just Pat turning out well-behaved versions of vintage pop tunes; it is, instead, a tour of Metheny’s pop music past by way of his entire career’s arc. Hilariously, the Grammy folks nominated it for Best New Age Album. Yikes.

NICK DERISO: It was, on its face, a hard one to get excited about. We had Metheny redoing songs that were in the Top 40 during his teen years, including such bedraggled pop tunes as “The Sound of Silence,” “Slow Hot Wind,” “The Girl from Ipanema,” “And I Love Her,” and “Betcha By Golly Wow.” Great songs in their time, to be sure. But undead old saws by now — played to death, and then some. Even “Alfie’s Theme,” thanks to a game-changing reinterpretation by Sonny Rollins, has become rote. Yet, the format here — typically, Metheny recorded alone, on his custom baritone guitar — added a twilight poignancy. By the end, this album moved well beyond its adult-listening trappings and into real emotional revelation, feeling less like a private rumination than a very public celebration of Metheny’s more mainstream influences.

No. 7
THE ORIGINAL 7VEN (AKA THE TIME) – CONDENSATE

NICK DERISO: Comebacks are often fraught with obstacles, most relating to the way a legacy act deals with the space between their hey day and today. The temptation, likely driven by label execs, tends to be an empty “updating” of the group’s old sound. It almost never works. Often, these older acts only come off as older still, rather than contemporary — like a middle-aged guy trying to kick it at the club. Credit the Time (calling themselves the Original 7ven now) with staying completely, utterly, deliriously unchanged — right down to its outsized lead singer’s memorable antics.

S. VICTOR AARON: Every great stage band has a great front man, and there’s few better than Morris Day. The man who once sang that he was Donald Trump (Black version) is really David Lee Roth (Black version): a good singer whose swagger makes him sound even better than he otherwise might be, and never takes himself too seriously. Besides, you can’t spell funk without “fun.” And you can’t spell “cool” without Morris running the spelling bee. Good party music like this never goes out of style.

No. 6
NEAL MORSE – TESTIMONY 2

NICK DERISO: 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.

S. VICTOR AARON: If more Christians were testifyin’ with such rich, harmonious and well-performed music as the kind Neal Morse recorded here, there might be more Christians. Or at the least, more satisfied rock listeners.

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No. 5
RAOUL BJORKENHEIM, BILL LASWELL AND MORGAN AGREN – BLIXT

NICK DERISO: Sounding something like neo-prog meets outjazz, this project was just as interesting for what it did as what it didn’t do. Sure, there were the considerable joys of their ear-melting inferno “Black Whole,” the opening cut on Blixt, but this power trio is also more than capable of downshifting into brilliantly coiled moments like “Shifting Sands Closing Hour,” with its mysterious far-east feel. They dashed through the rumbling angular mysteries of “Moon Tune,” but also boldly explored a gangly conspiratorial twilight in “Invisible One.” In the end, they fashioned an album of muscular inventiveness — often played hard, and sometimes quite fast — but one that never got too far afield from the nuances and textures that gave Blixt its creative heft.

S. VICTOR AARON: A late entry to this list, Laswell has rarely been involved with a project with as much raw but focused power since Last Exit.

No. 4
GERALD WILSON ORCHESTRA – LEGACY

S. VICTOR AARON: Wilson’s brilliant compositions are performed with the coloring and dexterity of the best small-band jazz outings. Can it be possible that he is still peaking?

NICK DERISO: The album opens with five ingeniously performed ensemble pieces, each boasting the coloring and dexterity of the best small-band jazz outings. That includes a trio of historical items, each of which has been transformed into a swinging variation that you’d never peg as classical. There’s Stravinsky’s “The Firebird,” presented as a rumbling introductory blast of brass; this greasy blues update of Debussy’s “Claire de Lune” and then a smooth and slinky rendition of Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma.” The heart and soul of the record, though, is a suite called “Yes Chicago Is …,” consisting of seven movements based on the same melody. Wilson’s insistent yet limber group manages to infuse each of them with indelible changes in tempo, harmony, tone and feel — until it becomes this stirring echo of his own changing relationship with the city.

No. 3
GREGG ALLMAN – LOW COUNTRY BLUES

NICK DERISO: This record’s hat-tips to blues, R&B, gospel and jazz only underscore how each provided uniquely American spices in the Allman Brothers Band’s bubbling Southern-rock synthesis. Even so, it could have been recipe for a snoozy conversation piece if not for Allman — the archetypical risktaker. Check out the appropriately fidgety edge he adds to Muddy Waters’ “I Can’t Be Satisfied,” as Allman dirties up a Chess-era groove. Other highlights include a devastatingly frank update of Sleepy John Estes’ “Floating Bridge,” with a surging assist at the piano from Dr. John; Junior Wells’ “Little by Little,” transformed into something resembling a lost soul side from the 1950s; Skip James’ “Devil Got My Woman,” which again reveals the lively intellect of guitarist Doyle Bramhall II; and Amos Milburn’s hardy R&B classic “Tears, Tears, Tears,” where Allman — belying a series of serious health problems — howls with a shanty-shaking, soul-rending power. He’s still got it. Every bit of it.

S. VICTOR AARON: This T-Bone Burnett joint is more than a nod to the country blues that heavily informed Allman’s own music; it’s tribute to the essence of Allman himself.

No. 2
THE BLACK KEYS – EL CAMINO

S. VICTOR AARON: A little more rugged than Brothers, but the Keys remain as soulfully persuasive as ever.

NICK DERISO: 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.



SOMETHING ELSE! REVIEWS’ 2011 ALBUM OF THE YEAR

TONY LEVIN, DAVID TORN AND ALAN WHITE – LEVIN TORN WHITE

NICK DERISO: Part prog, part free-form improvisational music, part noise rock, this album brought in each of its participant’s familiar textures and sounds, yet ended up somehow as something completely new. Tony Levin, David Torn and Alan White got there by building off live jams, with volume and distortion serving almost as additional members of the trio. I was happy to have been along for the ride — an often very boisterous, seatbelt-stretching ride.

TOM JOHNSON: This is a band every bit as capable as Levin’s old employer, King Crimson, but it seems intent on having more straight-up fun. In a way, it’s the logical “next step” from the 1998 Bruford Levin Upper Extremities album — but, lacking the trumpet of Mark Isham or Chris Botti, there is far more room for Torn and Levin to explore melodically, or for White to construct intriguing rhythms. Levin actually takes center stage much of the time, with heavy emphasis on his staccato Chapman Stick work filling both bass and a sort of odd lead duty at times. Torn, meanwhile, dials in the sounds of alien radio signatures on his guitar much of the time, squealing and weaving in the background or jumping forward with mind-bending solos. It seems insultingly simple to say White pounds out thick, dense grooves, but that’s exactly what he does. He’s a beast in this setting, a much bigger presence than in Yes.

S. VICTOR AARON: Just what you’d expect from these three crackerjacks: a lethal combination of brawn and brains makes it the release of the year for those who crave that in their music.

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2011 HONORABLE MENTIONS FOR SOMETHING ELSE! REVIEWS ALBUM OF THE YEAR:
Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey – The Race Riot Suite
Tom Waits- Bad As Me
Larry Coryell – With the Wide Hive Players
Daryl Hall – Laughing Down Crying
Derek Sherinian – Oceana

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The Something Else! webzine, an accredited Google News affiliate, has been featured in The New York Times and NPR.com's A Blog Supreme, while our writers have also been published by USA Today, Jazz.com and UltimateClassicRock.com, among others. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.