Best Music of 2011

Despite being a member of the Baseball Blogger's Alliance (BBA), this blog is far from entirely about baseball. Yet, when he does his weekly links post for the BBA's General Chapter, my pal The Flagrant Fan continues to highlight my non-baseball work. Since the blog's output has been dwindling of late, his posts are probably my main generator of traffic these days, so I'm quite appreciative.

So, in an attempt to be clever, and because I don't really have time to write extensively about my top albums of the year—but I still wish to count them down—I thought I'd try something a little different. That is, I'm going to emphasize baseball in my brief write-ups of the music that made my year. Or, at least I'm going to try to highlight each artist's connection with baseball as much as possible.

Anyway, we'll see how that goes.

If you're new here and care to read a little more about the history of my obsession with this particular exercise, please read what I wrote about it last year. In fact, I might add that the genesis of this blog was to count down my top ten albums of 2003. The writing wasn't as good then—well, at least I hope I've improved in the past eight years—but I still give myself an "E" for effort.

And now on the list of my favorite 33 albums that were released in 2011:

33. Kurt Vile - Smoke Ring for My Halo
I'm not sure to whom Kurt pledges his baseball loyalties (if anyone), but it seems this Angels blog is trying to claim them. However, I do know that this record's producer—John Agnello—is a die-hard Mets fan, the poor guy.

32. Lucinda Williams - Blessed
I don't know for certain if Lucinda is a baseball fan, but "Soldier's Song" provides some evidence. Written from the perspective of a man fighting for his country overseas while his wife is home with their child, she sings "I don't know my enemy's name. Baby takes the little one to a baseball game." That settles it, as far as I'm concerned, although I suspect she's not a fan of WAR.

31. R.E.M. - Collapse Into Now
I know at least two of the Athens, Georgia college rock pioneers are into baseball. Peter Buck plays bass in The Baseball Project (we'll hear from them later) and claims to be a Washington Senators fan, for what it's worth. Mike Mills is also known to be a pretty big Atlanta Braves supporter.

30. Steve Earle - I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive
There's a photo kicking around the interwebs somewhere of my pal Anders Parker and Steve Earle, in which the Texas native (Earle) is wearing a Yankees jersey. An interview he did a few years ago for ESPN's Page2 provides some insight into why that is.

29. M83 - Hurry Up, We're Dreaming
M83 is Frenchman Anthony Gonzalez's creative outlet, and just one of two European acts in this year's rankings. I'm not saying Europeans don't like baseball, but it's certainly easier to find American artists who do.

28. J Mascis - Several Shades of Why
The Dinosaur Jr. leader played the same stage as new Chicago Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein recently, as both men joined Buffalo Tom in celebrating the band's 25th anniversary at Boston's Brighton Music Hall.

27. Centro-Matic - Candidate Waltz
Although the band hails from Denton, Texas, Centro-Matic front-man Will Johnson is from Missouri, and is a big-time Cardinals fan. On his web site's about page, after rambling on primarily about the type of work he's done, he ends by saying, "I love baseball. I have always loved baseball." Taking this love, and his art, to another level, however, one of his hobbies is painting portraits of mostly legendary baseball players.

26. Elbow - Build a Rocket Boys!
This English band is the highest ranking European artist on this year's list. Last year, I honored five European and six Canadian artists, in addition to 22 Americans. This year's distribution: two Europeans, three Canadians (still to come), 28 Americans. As far as baseball is concerned, the only connection I can draw is that Elbow's lead singer is named Guy Garvey.

25. Feist - Metals
Canadian singer-songwriter Leslie Feist's latest was released in early October, but it wasn't until I started working on this list that it started to really make an impact on me. There's no iPod commercial material here—a la "1234"—but overall this is a better album than The Reminder. What about our national pastime, you ask? All I have to say is this adds new meaning to the concept of fantasy baseball.

24. Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit - Here We Rest
This one should have been included in the latest Frequent Spins, but since I characterized that as a catchup post, it shouldn't be terribly hard to understand I overlooked it. Isbell, the former Drive-By Trucker, is a pretty big Atlanta Braves fan, but apparently liked the Dodgers as a kid, and even recalls (sort of) being carried to his parents by Fernando Valenzuela's mom after passing out waiting for an autograph.

23. Those Darlins - Screws Get Loose
These female rockers from Tennessee faced the difficult task of being the opening act for the Drive-By Truckers at a show in St. Louis on Friday, October 28. What could possibly be so hard about that? It was the night of Game 7 of the World Series. You may or may not have heard, but the Cardinals won that game. The DBTs were able to move their set time to coincide with the post-game celebration, but Those Darlins were not afforded such a luxury.

22. Gillian Welch - The Harrow & The Harvest
There are 4 1/2 female-fronted acts that grace this year's list, not counting a handful of others with prominent—but not band-leading—female members. Other than the 1/2, Ms. Welch is the highest ranking of the group. David Rawlings is Welch's musical and life partner. As far as I know, he has nothing to do with the sham that is Major League Baseball's Gold Glove Awards.

21. The Baseball Project - Volume 2: High and Inside
I probably don't need to explain that this side project, led by Steve Wynn and Scott McCaughey, has an affinity for baseball. Since I wrote quite a bit about this album earlier in the year, I'll let you read about it here and here.

20. The Jayhawks - Mockingbird Time
These roots rock pioneers are from Minneapolis, and while Mark Olson may not be a big sports fan, Gary Louris is. And, of course, his loyalties are to the hometown Minnesota Twins.

19. Beirut - The Rip Tide
Beirut's Zach Condon is from New Mexico. My good friend and the most ardent follower of my year-end best music list, El-Squared—who, incidentally officiated my wedding to KJ—travels to Albuquerque for work somewhat frequently and has attended quite a few Albuquerque Isotopes games. Sorry, that's the best I can do.

18. The Rural Alberta Advantage - Departing
This band's moniker, for some reason, reminds me of The Iowa Baseball Confederacy, the lesser-known novel by Shoeless Joe author W.P. Kinsella. Kinsella, it just so happens, hails from Edmonton, Alberta.

17. Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks - Mirror Traffic
The former Pavement front-man and all-around indie rock icon is also a fantasy baseball guru, as well as a Dodgers fan and a hater of the Red Sox and Yankees.

16. Tom Waits - Bad As Me
Waits must be a baseball fan. As evidence, I offer the lyrics of songs such as "A Sight for Sore Eyes" and "Shore Leave." I think he's probably a bigger fan of drinking, though.

15. Neil Young & The International Harvesters - A Treasure
When Neil Young wrote, in 1979, that "'s better to burn out than to fade away," was that somehow foreshadowing the 2011 Red Sox?

14. Crooked Fingers - Breaks in the Armor
Eric Bachmann is the lead singer of Crooked Fingers, a much mellower outfit than his former band, the raucous and edgy indie darlings of the early to mid-'90s, Archers of Loaf. That's why he's sometimes referred to as the Frank Tanana of indie rock. OK, I made that up, but considering he's 6'7" and from the south, I like to think of him as the Lee Guetterman of the indie scene.

13. Iron & Wine - Kiss Each Other Clean
When I wrote about this album in the first Frequent Spins of the year, I thought would end up considering it Sam Beam's best effort since his debut. But, in hindsight, I'm not so sure, as it fell short of the top ten, while The Shepherd's Dog wound up as my #9 of 2007.

12. Okkervil River - I Am Very Far
My effort to view this best music of 2011 countdown from a baseball perspective has turned into a quest to determine what, if any, team to which each artist owes their loyalties. Quite often this means just googling the band name, or one or more of their individual members, followed by the word "baseball." When I did so for the lead singer of this band, one of the results was an online forum asking the question "Will Sheff retire or go the Rickey Henderson route?" I honestly never thought I could connect Okkervil River and Gary Sheffield so easily.

11. Wilco - The Whole Love
I like lists and I like statistics. So, of course, I maintain statistics on my year-end music lists. These stats tell me four artists are tied for the most top ten finishes ever: The Hold Steady didn't release an album this year; Steve Earle has already appeared, but not even close to the top ten; Wilco just missed establishing a record, but had they done so, they would not be alone.

10. Bright Eyes - The People's Key
I don't think Conor Oberst is much of a baseball enthusiast, but several spoken-word interludes on this album feature the voice of Denny Brewer, of a band called Refried Ice Cream. If Denny Brewer is not a ballplayer's name, I don't know what is.

9. Mates of State - Mountaintops
Mates of State, of course, are the husband/wife duo of Kori Gardner and Jason Hammel. The versatile Hammel was 7-13 with a 4.76 ERA in 170 1/3 IP for the Colorado Rockies this past year...yeah, you guessed it, not the same guy. Gardner and Hammel have two children, and if my memory serves me correctly, they used to—or, perhaps they still do—bring the kids on the road with them. Yesterday, our baby survived his first minor car accident, at 5 1/2 weeks old, so now I have nothing but rave reviews for our Chicco car seat.

8. Death Cab for Cutie - Codes and Keys
Death Cab—making their first appearance in my top ten—are led by Ben Gibbard, who is a big Mariners fan and apparently can throw a baseball in the neighborhood of 70 MPH. Not bad for a musician, although his strong arm did once backfire on him when he threw out the first pitch at Safeco Field in September 2008.

7. Bon Iver - Bon Iver
Bon Iver is the first of two artists in this year's top ten who have never before appeared anywhere on my year-end list. Since Justin Vernon, who pretty much is Bon Iver, was born in Eau Claire, Wisconsin—making him an honorary Canadian, or something like that—I'll mention here that Neil Young's #15 ranking was the highest of anyone north of the border this year.

6. The Black Keys - El Camino
This album was released on December 6, after my final Frequent Spins post of the year. This is not The Black Keys' first appearance here, but it is the first top ten finish for the band that shares a hometown with the late, great Thurman Munson.

5. Ryan Adams - Ashes & Fire
This is the 16th year I've produced at least a top ten list, and this is Ryan Adams's third top ten album. If you add in two Whiskeytown records, it would actually be his fifth, although in hindsight I'm not sure 2001's Gold was really deserving. But still, that's pretty impressive. However, what is really interesting—at least to me—is it's been ten years since he last showed up here. So, obviously in the late-'90s to early-'00s, I was quite the Adams fan.

4. Drive-By Truckers - Go-Go Boots
If there was a Hall of Fame honoring artists who've appeared on my year-end lists, these guys would be first-ballot inductees. Not only is this their record-breaking fifth top ten appearance, it's their fifth consecutive album to be honored as such. I keep expecting myself to grow a little tired of their sound, but it just never happens.

3. My Morning Jacket - Circuital
In recent years, I've heard the term "Dad Rock" used in reference to a few modern bands that have been around for a decade or so, and whose music now appeals mostly to the hipsters-turned-fathers set. Or, something like that. Wilco is the prime example, but there are moments this record reminds me of that sentiment, particularly on "Outta My System." Although not a former hipster, if you want to lump me in the modern dad-rock-listening category, that's perfectly OK with me.

2. The Decemberists - The King is Dead
The Decemberists came really close to being just the second band to earn my album of the year honor twice. And, just as the Pernice Brothers did in 2001 and 2003, it would have been on consecutive releases, and within a three year span. The King is Dead would certainly have been worthy, as it's probably a better album than 2009's The Hazards of Love. However, it fell short because my #1 album was one that was not only great musically, but also it kind of defined my year.

1. Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues

"So now I am older,

than my mother and father,
when they had their daughter.
Now what does that say about me?"

When I heard those opening lines to "Montezuma," the first track on Fleet Foxes' Helplessness Blues, I instantly knew it would be #1 album of 2011.

OK, maybe that's a bit of an exaggeration, but let me explain.

Growing up, I always thought my parents were old, at least in comparison to other kids' folks. And, of course, they were, relatively speaking. But, my dad was 36 and my mom 32 when my older sister was born. Obviously, they were a little older when they brought me into the world, and now I'm even a few years older than my father was when I was born.

But, times have changed, right? Well, yes and no. I certainly know I'm not the oldest new dad there is, but among my close high school friends who have children, I don't think any of them had one in their 40s.

My point, if there really is one, is when I can relate to the music I'm hearing—even if it is just my own interpretation of something that was intended to mean something completely different—it makes for a greater listening experience. And, while the quality of the music itself is more important, finding meaning in the lyrics is really what makes it transcendental. And that's what this album is for me.

But, it's the album's title track—the one that inspired my Yes comparison when I wrote about it earlier this year—that really seals the deal.

From the existential crisis of its opening verse...

"I was raised up believing I was somehow unique,
like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes,
unique in each way you can see.

And now after some thinking, I'd say I'd rather be,
a functioning cog in some great machinery
serving something beyond me." the resolution in the refrain...

"If I had an orchard I'd work til I'm raw.
If I had an orchard I'd work til I'm sore.
And you would wait tables and soon run the store."

...and, finally it's idyllic closing line:

"Someday I'll be like the man on the screen."

The theme of the song reminds me that I worked hard this year: taking care of a new home (particularly when you're far from the handiest guy on the planet), preparing for the arrival of a new baby, looking after a pregnant wife who was instructed by her doctor to take it easy, and finally welcoming our son into this world, all the while working 40 hours a week at my day job and managing to find just enough free time to indulge my writing hobby.

That's quite a lot that I had on my plate. All of these things were (are) totally worth it, of course, but they also made me feel a little overwhelmed at times, and the concept of making ends meet by being the caretaker of an orchard just seemed so much simpler to me.

But, in reality, when you reduce that meaning to its simplest element—the purpose of providing for one's family—it places priorities in their proper perspective.

So, on the occasion of this final day of the year, I want to thank everyone who reads this blog regularly—as well as those who do so occasionally—for paying attention to what I've had to say this year. Happy New Year to all and the best of luck in 2012.


  1. Great lists. Lots of albums that would also make my year end list. Only one main one is missing and it's my top album of 2011: "Odd Soul" by MuteMath. Best album, in my opinion, to come out in the past 5 years or so.

  2. Thanks Jonathan. I'll definitely check out MuteMath. Not familiar with them, but the description I just read sounds interesting. Thanks for the recommendation.