The BEST ALBUM COVERS of 2011 (The Year-End Awards)

By Chris Moore:

Even with digital releases, there are album covers.  This seems to be the final facet of the artistry of the album that will survive into the next generation of music consumers, especially considering just how much we like colorful displays on our technology.  Still, there’s something so much more gorgeous about a CD booklet or, even better, a vinyl LP.  The five selections below – with an honorable mention thrown in because I couldn’t ignore it – are examples of the artists who still give attention to the complete package of their albums.  It was a tight contest between the top three, and these are all albums worth checking out the next time you’re in a store that offers records, even if you’re only going to take a glance.

1) Sky Full of Holes – Fountains of Wayne

2) The King of Limbs – Radiohead

3) Cloud Maintenance – Kevin Hearn

4) The Valley – Eisley

5) The Whole Love – Wilco


Honorable Mention:

Helplessness Blues – Fleet Foxes

The BEST COLLABORATIONS of 2011 (The Year-End Awards)

By Chris Moore:

The following artists are being recognized for their notable collaborations.  Had they not worked together, their tracks and, in some cases, albums would not have been nearly as successfully rendered.  Wanda Jackson and Jack White have to earn the top mention for the comeback release of the year.  Jackson was once a hitmaker, a notable player in the rockabilly scene (dating Elvis Presley for a time), but I certainly hadn’t heard of her before this year.  With White’s electric leads and the fitting arrangements that walk the line between classic and modern, The Party Ain’t Over makes good on the claim in its title.

Beyond this collaboration, the others on this list are more traditional.  8in8 was a cool idea: get together to write, record, and release eight tracks in eight hours as a way of showing just how much the music industry has changed in even the past several years.  Gillian Welch’s role, dueting on the Decemberists’ The King is Dead, was a vital one, just as Norah Jones and Jack White added their vocals to a couple tracks and elevated the Rome soundtrack.  I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out and praise the (brief) reunion of Ben Folds Five, just as much as if I didn’t note that some of the tracks on The King is Dead have a strongly R.E.M.-esque vibe to them at least in part because Peter Buck is playing on them.

1)  Wanda Jackson and Jack White (The Party Ain’t Over)

2)  Ben Folds, Amanda Palmer, Neil Gaiman, and Damian Kulash (8in8)

3)  The Decemberists and Gillian Welch (various tracks on The King is Dead)

4)  Danger Mouse, Daniele Luppi, Norah Jones, and Jack White (Rome: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)

5)  Ben Folds, Darren Jesse, and Robert Sledge (as Ben Folds Five for three new recordings)

6)  Norah Jones and Hank Williams (“How Many Times Have You Broken My Heart”)

7)  The Decemberists and Peter Buck (various tracks on The King is Dead)

8)  Bob Dylan and Hank Williams (“The Love That Faded”)

9)  Kevin Hearn and Garth Hudson (“The House of Invention”)

10) Lupe Fiasco and Matt Mahaffey (“State Run Radio”)

The Weekend Review: December 2011

By Chris Moore:

Here they are: the final two reviews of the year!  It’s taken me a week, but I’ve prepared all my “end of the year” lists, and they’ll be going live a day at a time, starting tomorrow…


El Camino (The Black Keys)

Producer: Danger Mouse & The Black Keys

Released: December 6, 2011

Rating: 3 / 5 stars

Top Two Tracks: “Little Black Submarines” & “Lonely Boy”

Instantly accessible, this new Black Keys album picks up more or less where its predecessor, Brothers, left off, though this time around some of the nuances have been dumped in favor of a streamlined, more formulaic sound.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as it does create a sort of unity on the album, but it also tends to make the tracks run together a bit too seamlessly.  “Little Black Submarines” is the standout here, if only for its use of acoustic guitar to establish the track before picking up, though “Lonely Boy” was the perfect choice for a lead-off single (you’ll get no argument from me there).  Others, like “Run Right Back” and “Nova Baby,” are notable for their hooks, but the remainder of the songs generally feed into one album-length grunge/blues-rock fest that is, again, instantly accessible for the tracks’ consistent tightness, brevity, and catchiness.


Cloud Maintenance (Kevin Hearn)

Producer: Kevin Hearn & Michael Phillip Wojewoda

Released: December 20, 2011

Rating: 4 / 5 stars

Top Two Tracks: “Always Changing” & “Northland Train”

Cloud Maintenance is about what you would expect from a Thin Buckle or a Kevin Hearn solo album, with an added sense of sonic and thematic unity that hasn’t always been present on previous releases.  Perhaps due to his soothing vocals or to the overwhelming sense of utter calm his instrumentation often projects, Hearn’s releases have the potential to be overlooked, or simply admired for their quirkiness yet denied the honor of future listens.  Here, however, there is a thread that weaves each track together, and the lyrics, though quite simple in most cases, tell a story for those willing to listen.  From the opening refrain of “Northland  Train,” there is a theme of departure and loss — of presence, of position — that pervades the first several tracks.  “She Waved” adds a bus to the transportational imagery (not to mention a gorgeous barrage of lush vocal harmonies), just as “Don’t Shuffle Me Back” brings in playing card imagery to express, again, the loss of a position once held dear.  “Grey Garden” delves deeper into the sense of loss, and “Tell Me Tell Me” ponders, albeit from afar, on what Hearn has disclosed as the cover painting by artist Don Porcella.  In “The House of Invention,” the tone begins to shift to a brighter, fairy tale-esque perspective.  The touching, beautiful “Always Changing” settles the contemplation explored earlier in a sturdier, life-encompassing paradigm that suggests wisdom and ease arriving at last.  “The City of Love” opens up a brief window that hints at fresh possibilities in a world that was previously possessed by the “could have been” and the “once was.”  Finally, “Monsters Anonymous” takes a twist, adding the humorous MA meeting introductions of seven classic scary fellows, each suggestive of a deeper layering of underlying thoughts, concerns, and regrets.  In this sense, there is the same positive, if pensive, energy here on Cloud Maintenance: you just need to experience the indecision and sad feelings of loss to reach it.  (And, with only eleven days to share, Hearn offers up my favorite stanza of lyrics of 2011: “I’m Frankenstein’s creation / and here’s my explanation, / why I’m bad at pro-creation: / my nuts are in my neck.”  So, there’s that.)