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GEORGE HENN'S TOP ALBUMS OF 2011

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1. Middle BrotherMiddle Brother (Partisan).
The principals aren't famous enough for this project to be called a supergroup, but the frontmen from Dawes, Deer Tick and The Delta Spirit turn in an inspired effort for a side project, and for the genre of indie folk there's a suprisingly loose vibe (see their cover of The Replacements' rarity "Portland").

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2. Social DistortionHard Times and Nursery Rhymes (Epitaph).
The latest interminable wait between Social D albums proved worthwhile, as the finished product sees Mike Ness & Co. finally breaking new ground (female backing vocalists!) on their most crisply produced disc yet.

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3. Fountains of WayneSky Full of Holes (Yep Roc). The band's fifth album finds it toning down the cheekiness, maturing (gulp) as songwriters and leaning more acoustically, perhaps making it the kind of disc Stacy's mom would probably buy.

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4. Black Joe Lewis and the HoneybearsScandalous (Lost Highway).
On its sophomore full-length, the good-time Austin, Texas-based combo hurls itself headlong into seedier blues/soul grooves.

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5. Hayes CarllKMAG YOYO (& Other American Stories) (Lost Highway).
The Texan singer/songwriter's aw-shucks delivery belies his ultra-sharp wit, and that combination makes the listener hang on his every phrase.

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6. Old 97'sThe Grand Theatre Vol. 2 (New West).
Alt-country stalwarts largely stick to their tried-and-true melodic twang formula but sound a bit rawer and edgier, and the result is another reliably fun ride.

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7. The JayhawksMockingbird Time (Rounder).
The roots-rock outfit's mid-'90s lineup reconvenes on a dozen shimmering tunes with rich arrangements, making the best case yet for not being pigeonholed with the "No Depression" set.

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8. RockpileLive at Montreaux 1980 (Eagle).
The short-lived power-pop/pub rock legends are captured in fine form at a boisterous, warts-and-all performance that puts the listener square in the middle of the crowd and might even result in tinnitus the next morning.

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9. Outside the BoxBridge (Schaeffer).
Precocious New Jersey quartet showcases a bevy of classic rock cornerstone influences on an impressive debut album that only hints at its considerable live chops.

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10. WilcoThe Whole Love (dBpm/Anti).
Ten years after Jeff Tweedy began revamping Wilco's lineup and musical mission, this disc strikes a fine balance between the band's latter-day progressive noodling and the more direct, melancholy narratives that have long been his hallmark.

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