2011 was a frustrating year for guitar music. The two big stories that bookended the year offered renewal and demise in equal measure, but both spoke to rock’s past. The death of Gary Moore united European rock fans in grief and reflection, but it also served to highlight a rapidly depleting stock of genuine guitar icons; a deprivation that appeared endemic when the 21st century’s own totemic axe man, Jack White, called time on the imperious White Stripes in February.
The reunion of Black Sabbath appears to offer hope, as one great figure fades to black, another emerges from the darkness; a new album is promised, and recent efforts Heaven And Hell and Scream certainly give us reason for optimism. Indie music shared a similar narrative; R.E.M. waved goodbye, The Stone Roses returned to grand fanfare. It’s certainly hard not to be excited at the prospect of seeing Squire and Iommi on stage in 2012, but a nagging feeling pervades, amid all the excitement; we’re still looking back, rather than foreword.
Regardless, even in a year of famous goodbyes and grand returns, there was still a wealth of great music, sensational performances, and inspiring breakthroughs. Picking the Top 10 Guitarists of 2011 remains an impossibly difficult task. The sounds of 2011 were diffuse, the guitar found itself leading the charge in a variety of genres that couldn’t be more different; bruising metal, silent folk, subversive psychdelia, hard nosed blues, and retro-soul to name but a few. There was no one dominant sound, and no one dominant scene, 2011 was a year where everything happened at once and happened in isolation, but that’s not going to stop Guitar Planet pitting them all against one another in a brutal battle for the top spot.
Rob Flynn & Phil Demmel (Machine Head): The boys from Machine Head made us wait all year for the hotly anticipated follow up to 2007’s peerless The Blackening, and while Unto The Locust failed to create a moment as singularly spectacular as “Halo”, Flynn and Demmel did supply a wildly ambitious, unshakably confident goliath of a record. By merging technical ferocity and progressive expansion with satisfying sweeps and unavoidable hooks, Flynn and Demmel effortlessly overcame the biggest weight of hype and expectation in modern metal.
Jamie Cook (Arctic Monkeys): When Alex Turner told that world that the Arctic Monkeys were planning on single handedly keeping rock’n’roll alive many laughed, myself included, but nobody was laughing when the Sheffield five piece unveiled their terse but stadium friendly blend of crunching guitars, winding solos, and inescapable hooks at London’s O2 Arena. 2011 was the year that Jamie Cook stepped out from the shadows, and made himself a modern guitar hero.
Josh T. Pearson: became one of 2011’s most divisive figures when he released the lament laden, putrid catharsis of The Last Of The Country Gentleman, an album of bare acoustic arrangements and claustrophobically uncomfortable intimacy. The protagonist is rarely likeable, and Pearson often proves a difficult listen, but no guitarist and no songwriter was braver, or more arresting in 2011, than Pearson.
Bon Iver: It may appear crazy to leave Justin Vernon off any kind of top 10 list in 2011, but while no one would doubt the serene scope of Bon Iver’s rolling sonic soundscapes, both real and imagined, it feels almost impossible to label him one of 2011 finest guitarists. Justin Vernon is more than that; he’s an astounding composer of the highest order, who speaks in a boundless soaring naturalistic dialect of his own creation.
Born out of the ashes of two of the more notable female led outfits of the 1990s (Sleater Keaney and Helium), Wild Flag saw the two former front women Carrie Brownstein and Mary Timony join forces to create one of the year’s most gloriously vibrant fusion sounds. Constantly blending the continuous uplift of new wave power chords and thoroughly modern ramshackle indie soloing, with plenty of early rock’n’roll illusions, Carrie and Mary combined to create a timeless sound.
This irrepressibly immediate record could have been made in a blaze of 70s post-punk revisionism, at the peak of new wave’s 80s FM radio ascendency, as a 90s post-riot grrl challenge to Pavement ascendancy or as a part of 2001’s great indie renaissance. Wild Flag have a little bit of everything a great guitar band needs: style, swagger, addictive riffs and unhinged solos. Welcome back Mary & Carrie, now never leave us again.
Nobody releases albums in December, and if they do, they certainly do not release the hotly anticipated follow up to the biggest breakthrough of their career to date. The buying public have their minds set on Christmas and greatest hits collections, your record will get lost in the shuffle, you’ll never shift tickets, yadda yadda yadda.
Well apparently no one told Dan Auerbach and The Black Keys, as the Ohio duo saved the slick 60’s soul revival sound of El Camino till the very last - unleashing a fuzzy layered assault of referential rock, molten hooks and scintillating guitar work. Auerbach manages to steal the show; his guitar continually rises above the thick murky production with sublime marching chords, squealing solos and blurrily illusive riffs. The public certainly ate it up as The Black Keys announced a staggering three nights at London’s Alexandra Palace, making the Ohio duo one of the hottest commodities in rock today.
She hasn’t always shown it on record, but anyone lucky enough to catch Sufjan Stevens’ former multi-instrumentalist touring partner St. Vincent live, knows just how ferocious this girl’s attack can be. In the past, on the delightful Actor and Marry Me, fans could only dream of hearing the St. Vincent who tore “Dig A Pony” to shreds blazing away on record.
Well in 2011 we got our collective wish as St. Vincent seemingly abandoned all restraint, forging the luscious waltzing prog-pop of Strange Mercy. The textures were richly dramatic smears, with each instrument melted and intertwined into this deliciously theatrical Faberge Egg sound that could be wondrous one moment, and suffocating the next. The lyrical content was dark, and the assault was at times relentless, but her music, and her playing remained impossibly unpredictable as slamming guitar lines suddenly explode into woodwinds or wild synths. Every aspect of Strange Mercy was amorphous, creating an enticing sense of perpetual conflict and a continual second-guessing of both meaning and sound.
Only the Foo Fighters could start a year trying to reconnect with their roots with an elaborate attempt to recapture the raw energy of youth, and end it playing headlining stadium and park shows to hundreds of thousands of people. Even for a guitarist as accomplished and comfortable as Grohl the prospect of trying to sound hungry, ragged and impoverished while playing to an expectant audience raised on stadium sized anthems seemed impossible.
Scepticism was rife as Grohl and producer Butch Vig told everyone who’d listen this new album was being recorded in Dave’s actual garage, not his luxury studio, using analogue equipment. The apprehension proved unwarranted; far from a vanity project to prove Grohl’s supposed “realness”, the resulting sessions saw Grohl sounding raw and more driven than any multi-millionaire stadium trotter has any right to. Wasting Light became the Foos best album since One By One, and the introduction of “White Limo” and “Rope” rejuvenated what were fast becoming paint by numbers live sets. As Jack White disappeared from view, Grohl reasserted himself as this generation’s universal guitar hero.
In the mid-2000s Indie had become a dirty word among guitar diehards. Even though The Strokes soloed, resentment developed towards a minimalist attitude that put rhythm ahead of lead, and precision and repetition before wild improvisation and creative expansion. There is no right way to play the guitar of course, but it was frustrating to see guitar playing become so contained and, to an extent, one dimensional. Even Metallica succumbed to the no-solos philosophy as James Hetfield famously informed Kirk Hammett that solos weren’t cool anymore.
In 2011 the stylistic boundaries have shifted, and even a band as rough, ready and immediate as Girls, have evolved into a sprawling progressive beast with Galloping guitars, spiralling progressive solos and airily delicate acoustic guitar frameworks. On Father, Son, and Holy Ghost Christopher Owens staked his claim to greatest guitarist in indie today; by mixing tender heart-breaking emotion with wild moments of excess, the guitarist with the “bony body” and the “dirty hair” made soloing, and gospel choirs, cool again (and it’s about damn time).
It’s been a pretty tranquil year for Matt Bellamy and Muse; they didn’t release a new album, they didn’t headline multiple dates at Wembley Stadium, and they still haven’t played that much talked about gig in space. In fact, in the last twelve months, Matt Bellamy only did one tangible thing of real note, and he didn’t allow it to be televised.
At Reading and Leeds Festivals in the UK, Muse played a two hour headline set, the second half was a blistering greatest hits set full of jaw dropping jams, mammoth bounce along riffs, and ear scraping arpeggios. It was the grand finale that culminated in a triumphant reading of “Knights Of Cydonia”, but that’s not why Matt Bellamy made this list, that is business as usual for Muse. It was the first hour, where Muse played Origin Of Symmetry, the band’s breakthrough LP in full.
Rather than simply resuscitating some old staples like the relentless “Hyper Music” and the wiry Western rock of “Dark Shines”, the old Muse of 2001 was resurrected. Dark, brutish, and oppressively pessimistic, this Muse was monolithic, and daunting in the sheer scope of their attack. Replacing pomp with paranoia, they reminded the world that before they were pop stars, Muse were the sonic harbingers of societal apocalypse, and boy did it sound good.
Gillian Welch and her husband and song writing partner Dave Rawlings, are absolute perfectionists. Every microphone, amp, and hair has to be in the exact right spot for this duo to record, and perhaps unsurprisingly for such an exacting pair, when they ran into a bout of writer’s block, they didn’t even consider risking their legacy for seven long years.
Dave Rawlings struck out on his own in the intervening years with a charming album of his own, but it was clear that the world wanted a Welch record. The Harrow & The Harvest arrived this November, and it surpassed all expectations, with its bleak timeless tales of depression and subversion. This was Bluegrass Country folk at its darkest and most beautifully composed.
As an album it struck a chord with times of social and economic depression, but it was on the road that Rawlings came into his own. Without undermining the emotional severity of Welch’s words, and while operating in the tiniest windows, he unleashed hell on acoustic guitar, cramming in more notes, and more dramatic crescendos, than the laws of physic would seemingly allow. Rawlings truly must be seen to be believed, he may be quiet and unassuming, but he is, without doubt, the best live guitarist in the world, right now.
For whatever reason Dave Mustaine and his Megadeth band mates saw fit to turn the band’s thirteenth studio album into a real event. 2011 was always going to be a landmark year for Thrash’s founding fathers, as the world was treated to a well deserved reissue of 1986’s imperious Peace Sells… but Who’s Buying? Having endured the scoffs of the indie press and the broadsheets for two decades, Megadeth, with this one re-release, found themselves critical darlings, and Dave Mustaine wasn’t about to squander this second chance.
Th1rt3en built on the moment of Endgame and United Abominations by capturing a sense of urgency and ageless abandon. Having struggled in the past to feel at home in the 21st century Mustaine finally found his voice as a weary, downtrodden curmudgeon, bent to the point of breaking by toxic relationships and poisonous politics, and ready to let rip. With skidding solos, stampeding riffs and addictive choruses Mustaine’s voice simultaneously represented the rage of age and the frustration of youth, without feeling remotely contrived.
As if Megadeth’s year needed another highlight, audiences in the UK, South America and the US were finally treated to those long awaited big four gigs, bringing tears to old metal head’s eyes at the sight of Mustaine, Hetfield and Hammett standing axe to axe on stage.
“I Want To Drink Your Fucking Blood!”, having spent years carefully cultivating structured odysseys delving into time, space and the depths of human emotion, who would have thought that it would be those seven words, screamed over an irrepressibly jagged beat, that took Mastodon into the top 20 for the first time? Brent Hinds and Bill Keiliher took the biggest risk of their collective career in 2011 when they decided to throw out the eight-to-twelve minute intergalactic odysseys, and condense everything down into a series of sub-four minute pop songs.
Surprisingly, despite a few dissenting voices, Mastodon managed to retain the wealth of good will they’d earned on Crack The Skye, as they produced the boldest and most immediate album of their careers to date. There were illusions to The Beatles, there were huge hooks, and there were a series of beautiful layered rhythm sections interspersed with mind warping effects. The entire album captured the sensation of hurtling, as Hinds and Keiliher locked in with drummer Brent Dailor to create an album that sped down hill at a suicidal pace.
The Hunter had the sound of a band on the edge, diffusing down every aspect of their careers so far into a polished circle pit inducing formula, for most it would have been too much, an impossibly cluttered end product would have ground to a bloated holt, but not for Hinds and Keiliher, who proved themselves to be true craftsmen in 2011, the equals of any task, mammoth or minute.
Nearly nineteen years after the release of her exhilaratingly bare debuts Dry and Rid Of Me, PJ Harvey has finally released a record as unnervingly harrowing as those stark statements. Despite this, Let England Shake couldn’t be more different from PJ’s early work; luscious strings, lugubrious auto-harp, and warm charming riffs replace the harsh deprivation of the bleak 90s’ aesthetic. The lyrical content is equally detached, the deeply personal darkness of Dry has made way for a study of an entire nation at war, an exploration of a society not only gutted by bloodshed, but raised, and built upon it. Much has changed, but that prickly stirring in your stomach that only PJ Harvey can create, is very much in tact.
Limbs are left lying in trees, flesh rots, and men go to their deaths, but PJ sings beautifully and the arrangements are sumptuously naïve. Having spent years researching the English folk tradition while immersing herself in writings of actual soldiers, PJ was ready to create a remarkable fusion sound that melds her down tuned alternative guitar seamlessly into the technicolour flourishes of Let England Shake.
The album bites hard, speaking directly to a quintessential Britishness: to a country built on mourning and united by one-minute silences. There’s a wonderful complicity to the album, the rosy charm with which PJ details “flesh quivering in the heat” perfectly recalls the distinctly British tendency for furrowing onwards, with head down, unflinching acceptance. By speaking to a nation’s fundamental character, Let England Shake possesses a powerfully timeless quality, and in a year where London burned, the lines “How Is Our Glorious Country Sewn? Not With Wheat And Corn” couldn’t have been anymore chilling, timely or prescient.
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