Making this list is never easy. Most of the difficulty stems from a perennial question that chews at the back of my brain as I contemplate each pick: Good record, but is it rock? Such a question vexes me because it seems as if marketing and the vagaries of popular taste have forced most of the best rock music these days to be labeled as something else. You can see this all up and down the list below: Kurt Vile is an indie darling even though Smoke Ring for My Halo sounds as if the kid from Philly was weaned on Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen records. Mastodon are modern metal gods despite the fact that half the gargantuan riffs and rumbling grooves on The Hunter contain the stank-ass aroma of the 1970s: Zep, Mountain, Sabbath, Cactus, Deep Purple. Wilco are labeled all manner of things, from indie to alternative to alt-country, when in fact they're an arty pop rock band. Then there's Radiohead. Fans just love calling their heroes "experimental" and even, uh, "electronica." But let's face it, they're a modern progressive-rock band. Pink Floyd 2.0.
Once a wonderfully disheveled genre packed with delicious contradictions and irreconcilable oddities, rock has been reduced to a shell of its former self. At what point in history did rock become so small, so closed, so rigidly defined that it's no longer capable of claiming the very sounds that lie at its core? All extra-musical stuff aside, if something rolls and sways and grooves like rock, then it's rock, right?
Amid all this pernicious downsizing and splintering arrived the North Mississippi Allstars' Keys to the Kingdom, an album that will no doubt appear on a slew of blues and Americana end-of-year lists, but will probably top just a single rock list in all the land: this one. It's profoundly ironic, because the messy American experience that birthed rock is played out in the Allstars: two white beanpoles and a massive black dude from Hernando, Miss., mixing everything, including rock, funk, blues, metal, gospel and country. The Black Keys strive for a similar transmutation, but they're just too trapped inside post-indie rootlessness.
Those beanpoles are brothers Luther and Cody Dickinson; Luther also plays guitar in The Black Crowes (Chris Robinson knows a good thing when he hears it). More importantly, they're the sons of the late Jim Dickinson, a Southern producer, musician, songwriter and all-around sonic genius whose contributions to American music directly reflect the myriad complexities coursing through rock music. In the 1960s and early '70s, he played a role in the evolution of Memphis soul and the Muscle Shoals sound (his own album Dixie Fried is mandatory listening). But he also hung with The Stones and produced The Flamin' Groovies, Big Star and Alex Chilton. In other words, the guy was punk, too. For fellow music critic Edd Hurt, what made Dickinson so special was his ability to inhabit "roots music without making everybody sick of it, with humor and, for goodness' sake, real rock 'n' roll attitude."
The elder Dickinson left us in 2009, and Keys to the Kingdom is Luther and Cody's tribute to their father. The record is as expansive and wonderfully sloppy as his legacy. Production-wise, it's torn and frayed, much like The Groovies' Teenage Head and Chilton's masterful Like Flies on Sherbert. The music rages then sputters, soars then crawls, prays then grovels. It's intimate, too. Most of the time, you're not sure if you're listening to an officially released album or private recordings. And, of course, the record bleeds soul and blues. Just about every tune meditates upon death: "The Meeting" (featuring Mavis Staples), "How I Wish My Train Would Come," "Hear the Hills," "Ain't No Grave," "New Orleans Walkin' Dead."
It's weird. I wouldn't be surprised if the North Mississippi Allstars never make another record like it. It feels like it's destined to be an oddity. Nevertheless, it was the best rock album of 2011.