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The 10 Best Albums of 2011

by JEFFREY ST. CLAIR

Miles Davis Quintet, Live in Europe ’67 (Columbia) 

Long-awaited release of five live gigs (two captured on DVD) by the second Miles Davis Quintet recorded at the band’s creative apogee. The performances are seamless improvisations played with organic intensity by one of the most innovative groupings of musicians ever assembled: Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter, Tony Williams and Miles Davis. The driving force here is the polyrhythmic potency of Tony Williams’ drumming. But everyone shines, with Miles blowing triumphantly over the pulsing fervor around him.  A treasure from the vault.

Keith Jarrett, Rio (ECM) 

Two dazzling sets of fully improvised music recorded live in Brazil that rival Jarrett’s very best. The music is bright, sensual and swirling with conceptual currents. But Jarrett never lets the music become abstract or static. The luminous melodies almost always tend to swing. Some of Jarrett’s runs are so fast that they seem to throw off sparks, while other segments burrow down into intensely romantic passages. A landmark of spontaneous creativity.

Raphael Saadiq, Stone Rollin’ (Columbia)

Oakland soul genius plays oblique tribute to Oakland’s maestro of integrated funk, Sly Stone. The record dives into a deep erotic groove and never reemerges. There’s a slightly menacing quality to these songs of obsession and heartbreak that makes the music, especially those hypnotic bass lines, linger deep into the night.

Ambrose Akinmusire, When the Heart Emerges Glistening (Blue Note)

Heralded young trumpeter states his case to enter the pantheon of jazz giants with a breathtaking debut album that showcases his vast chromatic range. If Akinmusire seems more grounded in the softer registers of after hours blues and sizzling funk that doesn’t mean that he can’t blow out the lights in full Clifford Brown mode whenever he wants. The most moving song here is “My Name is Oscar,” Akinmusire’s haunting tribute to Oscar Grant, the young black man murdered by a Bay Area transit cop.

The Black Keys, El Camino (Nonesuch)

An 8-track flashback to seventies blues-funk, featuring powerchords, sleazy basslines, fuzz pedals, chunky keyboards and sassy girl back-up singers. The Black Keys might not be the most innovative rock band around, but they’re surely the most fun. Cribbing riffs from Motown and Stax session bands, as well as Creem and Led Zeppelin, the Black Keys have fashioned a hard-charging blues album that serves as the perfect soundtrack for cruising down a lonesome highway, burning lead all the way.

PJ Harvey, Let England Shake (Vagrant)

Raw and idiosyncratic rock by a post-punk stalwart who sheds arty pretense for a visceral suite of anti-war songs. Usually Harvey is singing about the war between the sexes, but here she zeroes-in on her native England’s obsession with state violence. The album functions as an anti-anthem, a fierce denunciation of imperial ambition and the glorification of bloodshed, built around the carnage of the World War I battle of Gallipoli, where 30,000 English and Australian soldiers perished.  This is music of inspired anger.

Saturn Never Sleeps, Yesterday’s Machine (SNS) 

Space age pop music crafted by a Philadelphia duo brought together by their mutual adoration of  Sun Ra, the pioneering explorer of galactic melodies. These songs sound beautifully alien, weaving lush R&B beats into a sonic-scape of interstellar improvisations.

Mason Jennings, Minnesota (Stats and Brackets) 

Heartland singer-songwriter channels Lennon and Dylan for a folk-funk masterpiece of prairie psychedelia. The music is often austere, featuring simple, but catchy, melodic phrases, which Jennings’ surrealistic lyrics glide over with a dream-like intensity.  Recorded in his home studio, these strange mediations on love and despair unfold with an unnerving intimacy.

The Kills, Blood Pressures (Domino)

Punk blues duo reunite after three-year separation with incendiary results. The Kills generate a brutalizing sound from their minimalist format of vocalist and guitarist. Their voltaic music, powered by Alison Mosshart’s dominatrix cadences and Jamie Hince’s  savage riffs, is dark, dangerous and magnetic. Blood Pressures is an object lesson in how to burn up before you burn out.

North Mississippi Allstars, Keys to the Kingdom (Songs of the South) 

Transcendent countrified blues played by a pair of brothers in tribute to their legendary father, the late Memphis session man and producer Jim Dickinson.  This is elemental music, rooted in place and resonant with deep history. Like the best blues music, these swamp grooves don’t wallow in loss, but blazingly embrace life.

Jeffrey St. Clair’s latest book is Born Under a Bad Sky. He is the co-editor of Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, forthcoming from AK Press. He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net.


Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence (with JoAnn Wypijewski and Kevin Alexander Gray). He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net.

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