I. Attack of the Killer B-Plusses
I seem to recall Robert Christgau once bemoaning the excess of "B+ albums" that he had to listen to. Good albums, but not great albums - and in the end, somewhat interchangeable.
A lot of the 2011 releases I've bought this year have fallen into that category - they've got strong cuts on them, but none of them have jumped into that category where you wake up in the morning and you just have to listen to them. In that category, I'd put The Strokes' "Angles," R.E.M.'s "Collapse Into Now," P.J. Harvey's "Let England Shake," The Low Anthem's "Smart Flesh," Fleet Foxes' "Helplessness Blues," and Bon Iver's "Bon Iver."
The latter three - Low Anthem, Fleet Foxes, and Bon Iver - all fall into the category that I call "atmospheric albums." They rely as much on their sound as they do their songs to put their point across. And so far, none of them have hooked me quite the way their respective debuts did. That's not to say it won't happen eventually, because it took me forever to get into Bon Iver's debut.
III. Still With the Jury
Or, they sound good so far and we'll just have to see how they pan out after months of listening: Moby's "Destroyed," The Cars' "Move Like This" (which is either a great Cars album or a great joke by Ric Ocasek; I can't quite decide), and Eddie Vedder's "Ukelele Songs" (which is delightful, but we'll have to see if it stands the test of time).
IV. The Fab Four
So we're left with the four albums from the first half of 2011 that I feel comfortable calling unqualified successes:
So Beautiful or So What, Paul Simon. I don't know that it will have the staying power of "Graceland," but the fact that it can be mentioned in the same sentence without blushing is major progress. A fine return to form.
Low Country Blues, Gregg Allman. Perhaps a bit on the sleepy side, but I keep coming back to it, and enjoying it more and more.
Paper Airplane, Alison Krauss & Union Station. I don't know that it's their best album, but it's the best one of theirs that I own, and I own several.
And the award for the best album of the first half of 2011 goes to Go Go Boots, by the Drive-By Truckers. Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley are both at the top of their game for this one, and Shonna Tucker's contributions put it over the top. I feel no qualms calling this a great Drive-By Truckers album.