There was a lot of great music during 2011, and I've already written about my favorite album, "Randy Newman Live in London."
A lot of the stuff I listen to is indie-oriented, but there also was a lot of stuff that fell between the cracks. So, here's my list:
P.J. Harvey - 'Let England Shake'
Who knew the 1990s icon Harvey - who always has created interesting if not compelling music - had it in her to come up with the best album she's ever released?
Based on her home turf, "Let England Shake" sounds like the misty moors of some gothic, English sea village. Nether a homage nor a put down, the album borrows from the rich traditions of English music which Harvey mixes with her own intoxicating and mesmerizing stylishness.
Ryan Adams, "Ashes and Fire"
Adams drops his touring and recording unit the Cardinals and goes it alone on a quiet disc of fabulous, low-key songs. This is where Adams came from and what he really excels at - he's the archetype of the singer-wongwriter, the original blueprint. Sometimes consistently writing great songs is enough, and "Ashes and Fire" is one of his best in a long chain of near-brilliant records.
The Foo Fighters - 'Wasting Light'
Just when I was beginning to think the Foo Fighters were settling comfortably into middle-aged rockdom comes this - the best album frontman and songwriter Dave Grohl and his companions have ever come up with. A hardy blend of mature, adult songwriting mixed with hooks galore and a hard-as-nails rock attitude, "Wasting Light" also sounds great, thanks to old-school analog production. There's a wonderful bit of silliness as well, as the acerbic "White Limo" shows Grohl still has his goofy sense of humor intact.
Wilco - 'The Whole Love'
Wilco shows they still have the right stuff on "The Whole Love," which blends the band's country-rock roots with an experimental, sonic edge. Not since "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" has frontman Jeff Tweedy shown fit to let his freak flag show, but it's here in droves on this wonderful album filled with ear candy.
Miles Davis - 'The Quintet Live in Europe 1967: the Bootleg Series Vol. I'
It says a lot about the modern state of jazz when the best release of the year was recorded in 1967. But this live outing featuring Davis' famous quintet with Herbie Hancock on piano, Wayne Shorter on saxophone, Ron Carter on bass and Tony Williams on drums is the album Miles' fans have been waiting more than 40 years for - intense, daring, thrilling and shocking, this music is anything but polite and shows the future of Davis and his cohorts.
The three-CD audio set - which also comes with a DVD of the quintet live in Scandinavia - of unreleased material also boasts the abstract, sooty free-bop Miles and quintet were playing on the records but seldom performing live in the U.S. This remarkable album only leaves me anticipating and wanting more.
John Fahey - 'Your Past Comes Back to Haunt You'
John Fahey was one of the architects of what he called "American primitive," a style of solo acoustic that included elements of country blues, Eastern melodicism and "hillbilly." Fahey's entire output on the legendary Fonotone label was released in an exhaustive, five-CD package by the superlative indie label Dust to Digital in 2011. Considered by many Fahey fans the be the Holy Grail, the recordings were dismissed by Fahey while alive. But this outstanding box set does show Fahey to be a totally American original, as the material chronicles his early years aping country blues legends such as Charlie Patton to his droning, idiosyncratic style that was an influence on everyone from Sonic Youth to fingerpicking giant Leo Kottke. I knew Fahey, and he was one of the great unsung giants of American indie music. It's too bad it took his death for so many to now realize how truly unique his musical vision was.
'Opika Pende: Africa at 78 Rpm' -Dust to Digital is one of the best indie labels out there looking in the cracks and coming up with forgotten musical gems. This four-CD box set of African music from the 1930s to the '60s released on 78 RPM records is pure joy from start to finish. Far from being the backward civilizations often looked down upon by the colonial powers, this set showcases the haunting beauty of Islamic chants from the '30s to the introduction of electric guitar and rock elements fused with tradition African music in the 1960s.
A great primer for those interested in the history of African music, "Opika Pende: Africa at 78 Rpm" is another notch in the belt of a company that cares about forgotten sound like no one else.
(Miller can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.) -