Saturday, December 24, 2011

Best of 2011: Albums

1. Adele - 21. This year, Adele's 21 proved resolutely that the pop album is not dead. That a young woman from Britain can release an album to near universal acclaim and appeal is really something, recalling the great pop albums of the '80s. In an era where tastes are sliced, diced, dissected, genred and market-tested to death, it's nice to know we can still all come together around something that we all like because it's just that good. Best: Someone Like You.

2. Lady Gaga - Born This Way. Lady Gaga is basically the polar opposite of Adele, but I have plenty of space for her and her dazzling third album in my year-end top 10. Born This Way was funkier and more ambitious than The Fame or Fame Monster, ultimately proving to be her best and most cohesive work yet. Even if the singles aren't all hitting #1 anymore, she's still got the touch. Best: Born This Way.

3. PJ Harvey - Let England Shake. This was the critics' favorite album of 2011, but don't let that stop you from enjoying it too. History buffs will appreciate Harvey's historical references to specific World War I battles. Music fans will just enjoy her eclectic mix of sounds and clever lyrics. Best: The Glorious Land.

4. The Strokes - Angles. This is the one album among my favorites that I'm surprised to see missing from most other year-end lists. I thought Angles, The Strokes' fourth album, was a winning return to form form the band many consider the most "important" of the '00s indie rockers, putting in some of their trademark simple arrangements but also exploring new wave and other territory. Best: Machu Picchu.

5. Foster the People - Torches. I'll give Torches the award for the year's best debut. Foster the People--aka this year's MGMT--dominated pop radio this fall with "Pumped Up Kicks," but their lively debut has lots of other gems from the indie band. I'm surprised they haven't scored a follow-up hit yet. Best: Helena Beat.

6. Will Young - Echoes. Here's one I'm not surprised isn't on a lot of year-end lists, but it's a shame, for Will Young turned out another fine pop album with Echoes, employing producer Richard X to give his love-spurned pop songs a pleasing electronic veneer. Best: Jealousy.

7. Coldplay - Mylo Xyloto. Coldplay continue to earn their keep on this fifth album. Although at times it feels that Chris Martin & company are too eager to please, they still churn out their brand of pop/rock uplift effectively. Best: Every Teardrop Is a Waterfall.

8. Florence + the Machine - Ceremonials. On their second outing, Florence Welch & co. rocked out with even bolder and better songs than on their 2009 debut Lungs, with a larger than life sound that proves everything and the kitchen sink can be a god thing. Best: Shake It Out.

9. The Weekend - House of Balloons/Thursday/Echoes of Silence. The modern R&B mix tape became a staple of 2011, as artists too cool for things like labels, albums and selling their music, took to the internet to give us free tastes of their remakes, remixes and original songs. The Weekend's House of Balloons was the best of that set, but his follow-up Thursday was interesting too, and although I'm just starting to enjoy his third set, Echoes of Silence, it's clear already that it ranks up with the other two. Best: What You Need.

10. Beyoncé - 4. With I Am...Sasha Fierce, Beyoncé proved she could put out a blockbuster two-disc concept album that stocked radio with hits and earned her critical acclaim at the same time. With her fourth album, 4, she didn't have to prove anything, freeing her to buck the electro trend and put out a mostly acoustic set ranging from the manic "Countdown" to the Prince-worthy "1+1." Although it didn't sell as well, it showed a great deal of artistry and continued growth. Best: Countdown.

11. Foo Fighters - Wasting Light. Along with Adele and Lady Gaga, this is one of three albums released this year nominated for the Grammy Award for Album of the Year. Although some said it was a surprise, I thought it was totally deserving, representing a solid set of muscular guitar-rock. Best: These Days.

12. The Decemberists - The King Is Dead. Gotta love a good indie band from my hometown, especially when they start the year off with putting out a great album like this. When I reviewed this album, I said they reminded me of a folksier, more backwater R.E.M. Best: Down by the Water.

13. St. Vincent - Strange Mercy. This was my first exposure to American musician St. Vincent, who put out this highly compelling set of eclectic and deftly produced tunes. Best: Chloe in the Afternoon.

14. James Blake - James Blake. Another important trend this year was dubstep, which, frankly, I still have trouble identifying, but apparently this was one example. Whatever you want to call it, I thought it was crafty, soulful electronic that recalled both The XX and Bon Iver. Best: The Wilhelm Scream.

15. Lykke Li - Wounded Rhymes. Joining the long line of Swedish pop tradition (Abba, Roxette, Ace of Base, Max Martin, Robyn) this year was Lykke Li, whose lo-fi production style was, in many ways, the antithesis of the usual Nordic gloss, but still with an ear for a good pop tune. Best: Sadness Is a Blessing.

16. Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds. Sure, Oasis split last year, but they all kept making music. You'll find the rest of the gang further down this list. Both were very good, but I felt that Noel Gallagher's songwriting skills meant that his album was just a little bit better. Best: If I Had a Gun...

17. Take That - Progressed. Take That's album Progress was one of my favorite albums of 2010. In fact, it's one of my favorite pop albums of all time. This follow-up EP was a welcome second helping of that album's greatness. Best: When We Were Young.

18. Amy Winehouse - Lioness: Hidden Treasures. Posthumous releases should always be viewed with suspicion, but thankfully this one manages to be an appropriate tribute to an amazing singer gone before her time. Her modern take on '60s soul remains one of pop music's most interesting tricks in recent years. Best: Our Day Will Come.

19. Jessie J - Who You Are. Jessie J received so much hype that it would be hard for the singer to live up to it. And yes, her album wasn't "all that," but it was still pretty decent pop from the strutting "Do It Like a Dude" to the affecting title track. She's got a lot of people in her corner. Album #2 could be even more interesting. Best: Who You Are.

20. The Civil Wars - Barton Hollow. Like Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan, Robert Plant & Alison Krauss and Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, The Civil Wars achieves a beautiful alchemy with the tried-and-true formula of a male/female vocal harmony over a lovelorn folksy sound. And then they kicked up their heels with the album's title track. Moving and fun. Best: Poison & Wine.

21. The Black Keys - El Camino. These southern-influenced blues rockers from Ohio shifted their sound more toward classic rock & roll for this seventh album. More and more they sound less like the stopgap for The White Stripes' absence and more like that duo's worthy successor. Best: Dead and Gone.

22. Ed Sheeran - +. I didn't get around to reviewing this album, since I only recently got it (consider it a 4/5 rating). Although I wasn't initially sold on Sheeran via "The A Team," in the end, I was ultimately won over by his acoustic-leaning pop debut, particularly its more upbeat tracks. Best: Lego House.

23. Radiohead - The King of Limbs. That Radiohead's eighth album is more of an exercise in sounds than in songs means this album won't be for everyone, but for those who like Kid A and Amnesiac because of that, then should be up your alley. Best: Bloom.

24. Kasabian - Velociraptor!. Fourth album by British rockers Kasabian finds them mining familiar '60s territory but with a bolder take than on their last album. Best: Days Are Forgotten.

25. Death Cab for Cutie - Codes and Keys. For their seventh album, these indie rockers from Bellingham, Washington, make their sound lighter and more modern than their recent works. Hints of Arcade Fire permeate the buoyant title track with its deep mix of strings, piano, guitar, bass and drums. Best: Codes and Keys.

26. Bon Iver - Bon Iver. The last thing Wisconsinite folk singer Justin Vernon probably thought when he released his 2008 debut, For Emma, Forever Ago, was that a few years later he'd be a major influence in alternative rock music. Even Kanye West got into him. On this second Bon Iver album, he gets a little more adventurous and manages to still please, even despite the deafening hype. Best: Towers.

27. Gil Scott-Heron and Jamie XX - We're New Here. Serving as an effective stopgap before the hotly anticipated second album from The XX, its member Jamie XX remixed nearly every track from the late soul and jazz poet Gil Scott-Heron, reinterpreting his quirky, final spoken-word album into a satisfying dose of late-night electronica. Best: The Crutch.

28. Frank Ocean - Nostalgia, Ultra. Singer Frank Ocean has been tipped to be a major breakout star next year. This year, however, he's already racked up a lot of acclaim for his self-released mix tape, a winning mix of original songs and remakes where he sings over popular songs with his own new lyrics. Best: Strawberry Swing.

29. Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues. Like Bon Iver, this is another indie act that achieved significant acclaim with its folksy debut and followed it up this year with a second album of similarly great material. Title track "Helplessness Blues" proves that, like Mumford & Sons have shown, folk music doesn't equate always with slow and quiet. Best: Helplessness Blues.

30. Raphael Saadiq - Stone Rollin'. Retro R&B is a trend right now for sure, but with so many great examples of it, like this eclectic set from Raphael Saadiq, I'm not ready for it to end. Stone Rollin' is an eclectic, decade-jumping work with a of heart and soul. Best: Go to Hell.

Wilco - The Whole Love. Wilco's eighth album delivers much of the same from the band as what we've heard before--accomplished alt. rock with influences from country and '70s rock. But it's the dynamite 7-minute opener, which dabbles a bit in Radiohead Kid A electronica and delivers a 2-minute guitar solo, that makes this album worthwhile. Best: Art of Almost.

32. The Naked and Famous - Passive Me, Aggressive You. Although "this year's MGMT" ended up being Foster the People, New Zealand's The Naked and Famous auditioned for the role with this lively, at times moody debut of new wave revival pop. Best: Young Gun.

33. Kanye West & Jay-Z - Watch the Throne. Two kings of rap show they can effectively share the throne with this collaboration, one of the year's most hotly anticipated albums. As you'd expect, modesty is rarely displayed on this album chock full of ego and big-name guests (including two acts named above). Best: Why I Love You.

34. Beady Eye - Different Gear, Still Speeding. One fourth of the former Oasis is up at #16 and the rest are here at #34. It might sound corny to say these albums sound like brothers, except for the fact that they literally are made by brothers, so its fitting. Oasis fans should find solace in the fact that both albums are pretty great, with this being the bolder and more upbeat of the two. Best: If I Had a Gun...

35. Rihanna - Talk That Talk. Another year, another Rihanna album. On her sixth outing, the Barbadian singer continued global chart domination with her most risque work yet, continuing to churn out frothy dance pop and laid back island-inspired grooves. Best: We Found Love.

36. Britney Spears - Femme Fatale. Britney got her career back on track with 2008's Circus and she continued her hit streak this year with this unabashedly frothy dance pop album. She slowed down a bit for the album's final track, "Criminal," and that proved to be interesting too. Best: Till the World Ends.

37. Katy B - On a Mission. Those needing a lesson on contemporary dance music styles could do worse than listen to Katy B's debut album, on which she explores a variety of contemporary and (recently) retro dance styles, including dubstep, garage and drum 'n' bass. Best: Lights On.

38. Real Estate - Days. On Days, Brooklyn-based Real Estate's second album, the band churns out mellow and melodic rock. They don't produce much in the way of variety, but have a pleasant sound--the kind of music that's a nice soundtrack to a sunny Sunday afternoon. Best: Green Aisles.

39. Washed Out - Within and Without. Washed Out wears its influences on its sleeves--its ambient electronica evokes names like Moby and Chemical Brothers. Another "chill" album that lives up to that nickname. Best: Eyes Be Closed.

40. Glee: The Music Presents - The Warblers. With The Warblers release, Glee came as close as it may ever come to putting out a proper album, since the group, which is really actor/singer Darren Criss and Tufts University's male singing group The Beelzebubs, sing all these songs a cappella, effectively imitating a bevy of instruments. Best: Teenage Dream.

Worst Album of the Year

Moby - Destroyed. I supposed it's unlikely this is actually the worst album of the year. Hopefully I never had a chance to hear that. Still, I was awfully disappointed by this bland release, which only recycled his old sounds.


That_One_Guy said...

Great list. I agree on many of the pop releases on your list (Adele, Rihanna), and the likes of Coldplay and Florence + The Machine, which I guess are borderline pop. Great outings by all of them. Also, I am glad that Will Young is making appearances in many lists, especially those state-side. He's probably one of the best reality-television artists who ever won a competition.


ww_adh said...

Thanks Sam. I think Will Young is really underrated. I was really pleased that "Jealousy" did quite well, but disappointed that "Come On" didn't even make the top 40 in Britain. Still, as long he keeps putting out good albums I'm fine with him not always having hits.

twostepcub said...

Great recap, I ended up getting most of the ones i didn't have on Amazon after previewing (except for will young and take that, which aren't available here, though i have TT's Progress on import). Only thing that strikes me funny is your inclusion (as well as a lot of others) of Britney Spears' CD. I just don't get it, I guess. (and yes, i do own femme fatale as well). Rihanna's I played once and haven't grabbed on so far as yet, though I'll give it another try. But great suggestions I loved the Raphael Saadiq especially. Cheers!

ww_adh said...

Thanks! I'm glad you liked Saadiq. Britney made it on the list because I expanded it to 40 titles this year. She's pretty far down, although I did enjoy the album.