What were the best rock albums of 2011? Well, several came from veteran bands, particularly groups who recently reunited. That doesn't mean up-and-coming groups didn't make their voices heard as well, but by and large this year was dominated by the elder statesmen.
The final studio album from R.E.M. is hardly their greatest, but as a send-off it's a fine encapsulation of all that the pioneering alternative-rock band achieved in their 30-year career. Beautiful ballads, sparkling melodies, tons of great guitar riffs, Collapse Into Now catches the band in an autumnal mode with frontman Michael Stipe singing about hope, love and fear with equal passion. As a swan song, it's far from a collapse ... more like a gentle farewell.
Jesse Hughes is the main man behind the tongue-in-cheek sex-rockers Eagles of Death Metal, but in 2011 he decided to go solo as Boots Electric. That didn't mean he shed his sense of humor, though: On Honkey Kong, he explores a more electro-rock sound, but he's still all about the good-time booty jams.
Everyone waiting for a new Tool album will have to keep waiting. But don't fret: Frontman Maynard James Keenan compensated with a wonderfully strange and involving disc from his side project Puscifer. On Conditions of My Parole, he and his cohorts opt for a more introspective, less musically aggressive approach that results in music that's just as hypnotic and haunted as his Tool work.
One thing's for sure about The Great Escape Artist: It definitely doesn't feel like Ritual de lo Habitual II. On Jane's Addiction's comeback album, the L.A. alt-rock unit fully immerse themselves in modern rock sounds, and lead singer Perry Farrell takes the opportunity to freshen up his Jim Morrison routine to deliver a series of gripping vocal performances. This isn't the Jane's Addiction of old, but it might pave the way for an interesting new Jane's Addiction.
Before breaking up, Blink-182 put out their 2003 self-titled album, which caught the trio in a more mature mood. Back together for their first album since, the guys pick up where they left off. Neighborhoods still retains some of the adolescent angst of yesteryear, but it's largely been replaced by more adult concerns: relationship woes, living with regret, mourning those who died too young. Remarkably, though, Blink figured out how to keep churning out modern-rock hooks while acknowledging the gray hairs and parental responsibilities that come along with being rock veterans.
In 2011, Limp Bizkit had been understandably written off. A has-been relic of the rap-rock era, they had announced their reunion, but who believed they would be capable of making good music at this late date? So, to the shock of most, Gold Cobra ended up being a really strong comeback album, one that found frontman Fred Durst just as noxious and bratty as he'd ever been. Teamed with essential guitarist Wes Borland, Durst turned Gold Cobra into a venom-fueled assault on enemies real and imagined. But on ballads like "Walking Away," he was also able to articulate the pained turmoil in his twisted heart.
Chevelle have yet to turn into mature, reflective balladeers -- and that's a very good thing. With Hats Off to the Bull, the Chicago trio continue to deliver on-point rockers full of snarling nastiness. Taut and lean, catchy and mean, these 11 tracks expertly deliver their payload in four concise, punishing minutes of superb guitar rock.
Building off last year's stellar The Big To-Do, Drive-By Truckers put out Go-Go Boots, which consisted of songs culled from the same sessions. Consequently, the new album may lack the immediately accessible rockers of The Big To-Do, but it's a confident, melancholy affair that takes its time crafting its character sketches. The most haunting of these is undoubtedly "Used to Be a Cop," about a guy who's failed at everything, but he's in good company on an album that casts a sympathetic eye to many of society's outcasts and hopeless.
Black Stone Cherry singer Chris Robertson declares himself a "White Trash Millionaire" at the start of Between the Devil & the Deep Blue Sea, but instead of the lazy, good-old-boy pandering of other groups, he infuses his Southern pride with brains and heart. Paying clear homage to arena rock of the '70s, Between the Devil & the Deep Blue Sea is the band's attempt at writing a rambling song as great as "Ramblin' Man" ("In My Blood") and a love-your-neighbor ditty as beautiful as "Get Together" ("All I'm Dreamin' Of"). Even if Black Stone Cherry don't quite get there, this is a band you'll want to root for.
With their latest album, Red Hot Chili Peppers do the same thing they do every four years or so: put out an overstuffed but shockingly consistent and tuneful rock record. I'm With You is the first RHCP platter to feature new guitarist Josh Klinghoffer, but the emphasis remains on pop hooks derived from funk, hip-hop and rock. Lead singer Anthony Kiedis continues to work his wise-old-shaman routine, and this quartet's rhythm section remains one of the funkiest in contemporary rock. This shouldn't keep working, but, you know what? It really, really does.
After a decade of being an on-the-margins, critically-acclaimed blues-rock band, the Black Keys hit the mainstream with Brothers. With their new album, it sounds like they're determined to stay in the limelight. El Camino is the group's most fetching and fun rock record, happily letting fly with one uptempo three-minute track after another. But don't confuse that strategy with selling out: The grit and sex appeal of the duo's earlier work is still here. Now, it's just more danceable.
As its title suggests, The Whole Love spends a majority of its running time obsessed with matters of the heart. Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy has made a career writing candidly about adult relationships, and on his band's first disc since Wilco (The Album) he mixes country, pop and rock together to attack the issue from all sides. Most of The Whole Love consists of four-minute gems, but keep an ear out for the adventurous, lengthy tracks that open and close the record: They're proof that sometimes great songs (like a great love affair) need room to breathe.