Wrapping Up the Year Like Presents
The Black Keys and the Roots Put a Bow on 2011

I can hardly believe that 2011 is over.

Well, we still have a couple of weeks, but for all intents and purposes, it’s a done deal. It’s in the books. Next week I’ll be unveiling my top 10 list – the best damn top 10 list in many years, if you ask me – and then it’s Fifty Second Week, and we’re done. This is my eleventh year writing this silly music column, and I’m grateful for everyone who comes back each week to read it. (And everyone who waits the sometimes two and three weeks it’s taken me to post them this year. I hope to have that problem licked in 2012.)

There’s a danger in treating the current year like it’s over, though. 2011 still has a few gasps of life in it, and I’ve got two of them on tap this week, in addition to an extensive list of honorable mentions for my top 10 list. Just so I’m not duplicating efforts, though, you can definitely assume an honorable mention for both of the records I’m about to (briefly) review.


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The popularity of the Black Keys among the indie crowd baffles me.

This is not a knock on the Keys, a band I really like. But they take from sources so alien to the indie scene – Delta blues and ZZ Top, to name a couple – that the fact that every move they make is lapped up by the same audience that appreciates Bon Iver is kind of weird. It’s a good kind of weird, though, especially since it means more press and more love for this dynamic duo.

The Keys are guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney. They’ve been on a steady rise for years, but in 2010, they released their breakthrough, a long foot-stomping record called Brothers. Much as I like that record, it petered out by the end of its 55 minutes, wearing out its welcome about 10 tracks in. The Keys have solved that problem most effectively on their seventh platter, El Camino, and they’ve also returned to their thick, pulsing blues sound. The result is an incredibly enjoyable album, whether you’re into Justin Vernon’s beard or Billy Gibbons’.

Auerbach and Carney have teamed up with Danger Mouse again, making El Camino something of a sequel to 2008’s Attack and Release. But where that record exploded their formula, this one celebrates it. Opener “Lonely Boy” may be the best slab of Texas blues the band has recorded, and “Gold on the Ceiling” is snarling and hummable. The one real departure here is “Little Black Submarines,” an honest-to-God ‘70s rock epic in four minutes. It begins with delicate acoustic guitars and tambourines, but ends with molten lead guitars and thunderous Ragnarok-and-roll drumming.

The rest of El Camino is just the Black Keys doing what they do, though, and it’s fantastic. It’s dirty, tight, noisy and bluesy, and it’s over in 38 minutes – pretty much exactly the right length for a Black Keys album. This isn’t a raw experience – Danger Mouse’s production includes liberal sprinklings of keyboards and organs, and a level of gloss you won’t hear on Thickfreakness, for example. But this is the closest to an old-school Black Keys record they’ve delivered in some time, and I love it.

One more note: the album is called El Camino. The album art features pictures of 15 different vehicles, and not one of them is an El Camino. That’s kind of awesome.

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If it’s fair to say that I have a responsibility to review all kinds of music, then it’s also fair to say I’ve badly failed at that mission when it comes to hip-hop.

The thing is, I just hear so little of the stuff that I like. I know it’s probably not true, but it seems like there’s a higher percentage of poorly-thought-out, mass-produced garbage coming from that corner of the music world than many others. As a f’rinstance, in two weeks, you’ll find a negative three-sentence review of Kanye West and Jay-Z’s Watch the Throne, a definite low point for both artists. And those are guys I like.

There are just so few bands like the Roots that every record that Philadelphia collective puts out is worth celebrating. And yet, I never have celebrated one in this space. I love several of them – the straight-up steamroller Things Fall Apart, the messy Game Theory, last year’s mellow How I Got Over, and most recently, Wake Up, the band’s tremendous collaboration with John Legend. I just haven’t taken the time to praise them in this space.

That ends now. Undun, the Roots’ 13th album, is something of a masterpiece – one of the best records in their catalog, and one of the best rap albums I’ve heard. It’s a concept piece about a man named Redford and his ill-fated life, told in reverse chronological order – the first two tracks give us Redford’s violent death, and then we spin backwards down the number line to piece together the choices that brought him there. It’s a great conceit, and the Roots play it out perfectly, bringing in guest stars like Dice Raw and Big K.R.I.T. to play different aspects of Redford’s personality.

Through it all, the Roots – easily the best live band playing this music – lay into some fantastic grooves. Like How I Got Over, this album is surprisingly reserved, with ?uestlove rarely digging into a real explosive beat. The album has a ghostly feel to it, even during good-time party anthems like “Kool On.” The Roots never let you forget that this story ends in tragedy. My favorite is “Lighthouse,” with its unstoppable hook, but every song here is superb, and they all serve the whole.

Undun ends with its most fascinating stretch of music, the four-part “Redford Suite.” It’s based on Sufjan Stevens’ piano ditty “Redford (For Yia-Yia and Pappou),” and at first, the band is just content to have Stevens play it. But over the next three movements, they expand on it, with strings and dissonant jazz piano. If the record begins in death, it ends in the infinite possibility of birth, and this suite (all of 5:18) paints that picture beautifully.

The album as a whole is similarly short and sweet – a grand total of 38:41, slightly less than the length of your average television episode. That turns out to be perfect, exactly enough time to tell this story and leave you wanting more. The Roots have been very good for a very long time, and they’ve rarely been better than they are on Undun. If you only know them from Late Night, check this out. You’re not going to find a more thoughtful, organic rap outfit anywhere.

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So, would you like to see the rest of the honorable mentions? There’s a lot of ‘em. Fifteen, to be exact. But first, I’ll start with a couple of other categories.

For instance, the worst record of the year (and maybe even the decade) has to be Lulu, the excruciating collaboration between Metallica and Lou Reed. People use the word “unlistenable” pretty often to describe perfectly listenable music they don’t like. This album is positively unlistenable. It’s not the year’s biggest disappointment, because I didn’t expect much. No, that honor goes to the Feeling’s lousy third album, the double-disc Together We Were Made. It’s like they ran out of gas, but decided to drive a marathon anyway. Just blah.

The album I most wish I could include in my top 10 list is Peter Gabriel’s New Blood. It doesn’t meet the criteria – it’s reworkings of old songs, not new material – but it’s magnificent. These orchestral recastings of songs I know and love are often breathtaking works of art, allowing me to hear them afresh. It’s a great record, and if the rules were different, it would be on the list.

So now here are the 15 eligible records that just barely missed my top 10 list. In no particular order (except the last one):

David Mead returned with a snarky winner called Dudes, while Jonathan Coulton proved that his enduring Internet popularity is all about the songs with the decidedly un-geeky Artificial Heart. The Click Five released their best record yet, TCV, while Radiohead finally made a pitter-patter electro album I really liked with The King of Limbs. Feist took her inimitable voice to darker places on Metals, while The Joy Formidable exploded onto the scene with The Big Roar.

Lady Gaga delivered her first album that truly deserved the hype with Born This Way, while Fountains of Wayne returned to form on Sky Full of Holes. Frank Turner made his most reflective and best record with England Keep My Bones, and Tori Amos took on classical melodies and orchestral scores with Night of Hunters. The Bangles (yes, the Bangles) made a swell pop record with Sweetheart of the Sun, while Wilco (yes, Wilco) rocketed back to excellence with The Whole Love. It’s the first album from Tweedy’s bunch that I’ve unreservedly liked since Yankee Hotel Foxtrot in 2002.

We bid goodbye to R.E.M. this year, but not before they made one last amazing album with Collapse Into Now. Coldplay continued to prove that they’re more than just arena-sized commercial popsters with the sparkling Mylo Xyloto. And finally, my number 11 (which actually spent quite a bit of time as my number one): PJ Harvey’s dark, devastating anti-war masterwork Let England Shake.

Any 10 of these would make for a fine year-end list. But none of them are on it. This year’s list is pretty damn great. Tune in next week to find out what actually did make it.

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See you in line Tuesday morning.