Allan Raible’s Picks For The Best Albums of 2011 -
As always, this was a very difficult list to compile. 2011 was an excellent year for music. There weren’t that many glaringly bad records. (Although, Lou Reed and Metallica take the cake for “Lulu,” which is one of the worst things ever committed to “tape.”)
There were a lot of records that I loved that I had to knock off the list. Honestly, this could have been a top 100 list without issue. The year was just that good! So, if you don’t see your favorites here, it doesn’t mean they weren’t considered.
Behold – My picks for the Top 50 Best Albums of 2011!
50. RIVAL SCHOOLS – “PEDALS” - A full decade after they released their first record, “United By Fate,” this supergroup of hardcore and punk veterans return sounding fresher than ever. If you listen to both of their albums side by side, you can’t tell a decade separates them. Leader, Walter Schreifels sounds no different as they deliver a tight, arresting batch of songs.
“Wring It Out”
“Eyes Wide Open”
49. RIHANNA – “TALK THAT TALK” (Deluxe Edition) - Rihanna is on a roll with “Talk That Talk.” It’s her third album in three years and it continues where “Rated R” and “Loud” left off. This is a bold, sexy, experimental pop record. She’s moving ever so slightly further away from traditional R&B/pop and closer to an electronic realm. That being said, part of Rihanna’s wide appeal is that she’s never been a traditional R&B star. She has always been more eclectic than her peers. It’s still a nice surprise to hear her working with Scottish dance musician Calvin Harris on her hit, “We Found Love.” Mark my words. “Farewell” is going to be a huge hit, as well.
“We Found Love” (featuring Calvin Harris)
“You Da One”
“Roc Me Out”
“We All Want Love”
48 – THE WAR ON DRUGS – “SLAVE AMBIENT”- “Slave Ambient” is the third release from the War on Drugs and it finds them blending alt-country and folk influences with electronic and shoegaze elements. It creates an appealing (if not woozy) sonic stew. If Dylan or Springsteen made music to chill down a crowd after a rave, this is probably how it would sound. That isn’t to say that the disc lacks upbeat moments, but this is definitely a record to listen to as you watch the sun come up.
“Black Water Falls”
“Your Love Is Calling My Name”
47. CAKE – “SHOWROOM OF COMPASSION” - Back in January, this album gave Cake a number one record! Granted it was one of the lowest selling number one albums of the Soundscan Era, but hey, it still reached the summit. Coming seven years after their last proper album, “Showroom of Compassion” ranks as one of Cake’s best records to date. While the band’s signature quirkiness remains intact, this is a more earnest record than one might expect. They rock out on the cynical opening jam “Federal Funding,” with a mature, adult-level of focus. The album as a whole might be the tightest set of songs the band has ever released. They prove they are still “Going the Distance.”
“Mustache Man (Wasted”
“Sick Of You”
46. WILD FLAG – “WILD FLAG” - Wild Flag is an alt-rock supergroup featuring former Sleater-Kinney members Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss along with the Minders’ Rebecca Cole and Helium’s Mary Timony. Together, the quartet delivers some old-school North West psychedelic rock with a RIOT GRRRL edge. There’s also a bit of jam-band boldness thrown into the mix, reminiscent of both Sleater-Kinney’s epic final record, “The Woods” and of Weiss’ work in Pavement leader, Stephen Malkmus’ current band, The Jicks. Any way you slice it, this album rocks substantially. If you like any of the bands above or are merely a fan of Brownstein’s work alongside Fred Armisen on the IFC series, “Portlandia,” this is worth checking out.
“Something Came Over Me”
45. TOM VEK – “LEISURE SEISURE” - It took Tom Vek a full six years to follow-up his debut, “We Have Sound,” and it was well worth the wait. You can hear quite a difference. Vek is a one-man electronic powerhouse. While his first record sounded like it was crafted (lovingly) in his garage, “Leisure Seizure” possesses a much fuller sound. While borrowing heavily from the synth-pop of the early eighties, Vek manages to still make the record sound current. The stellar drum ” thwap” that punctuates the single “A Chore” gives the song an epic dose of momentum, while the signature bit of “We Do Nothing” sounds like a trip-hopping ice cream truck. Vek is a pioneer and a master of new technology. If he keeps making records at this level, he has the potential to someday be mentioned beside such innovators as Beck and Bjork.
“On A Plate”
“Someone Loves You”
“We Do Nothing”
44. WE WERE PROMISED JETPACKS – “IN THE PIT OF THE STOMACH” - On their debut, two years ago, Scotland’s We Were Promised Jetpacks proved themselves to be torch-bearers for a thoroughly gigantic form of emo. (Don’t be scared of the word emo. That term has been corrupted by hair-gelled whiny-voiced teens complaining about how sad their lives are. When I’m using the term here, I mean it in the best sense. ) “In The Pit of The Stomach” is a mammoth record full of slow-builders and slow-burners. The kind of record you might go up to your bedroom and blast after having a bad day. Records like this are few and far between. Each track is an anthem, but it isn’t sung with a knowing sense of self-importance. It’s delivered with great care. If this gets the audience it deserves, it should be passed down like records by the Cure and the Smiths have been in the past. This is a hard-rocking, hard-charging emotional explosion.
“Act On Impulse”
“Boy In The Backseat”
“Picture Of Health”
43. THIEVERY CORPERATION – “CULTURE OF FEAR” -Washington D.C. chill-masters, Thievery Corporation return with another mix of martini-funk and global-sonic eclecticism. From the politically charged title track (featuring a not-surprisingly authoritative turn by Mr. Lif) to the chill of “Is It Over?”( which features ex-Bitter:Sweet vocalist, Shana Halligan) it is clear that after fifteen years together, Eric Hilton and Rob Garza can still deliver something angry one moment and something sultry the next. This is a record that hip-hop and reggae fans would truly enjoy. It’s yet another classic addition to the duo’s growing discography.
“Culture of Fear” (Featuring Mr. Lif)
“Take My Soul” (Featuring Lou Lou)
“Free” (Featuring Kota)
“Is It Over?” (Featuring Shana Halligan)
“Stargazer” (Featuring Sleepy Wonder)
42. YUCK – “YUCK” -Owing equal amounts of influence to Teenage Fanclub and My Bloody Valentine, Yuck are by no means breaking new ground with their debut album. What they are doing is issuing an appealing set of songs which should appeal to power-pop and shoegaze fans alike for decades to come. It doesn’t get much better than the hard-edged, co-ed jangle-pop of “Georgia” or the thick guitar wall squall of “Rubber.” Derivative or not, this is an important record.
41. DJ SHADOW – “THE LESS YOU KNOW THE BETTER” - On his strongest set since the classic, “Entroducing…,” DJ Shadow shows that eclecticism is king. One moment he’s providing the backdrop for a top-notch hip-hop jam like “Stay The Course” and keeping company with Talib Kweli and De La Soul’s Posdnuos, the next he’s delivering the space-folky number, “I’ve Been Trying.” “Border Crossing” has some sweet metallic shredding while the previously mentioned Tom Vek adds a retro-electro glisten to “Warning Call.” This is a strong record because it isn’t an easy record to predict. Shadow is diving in all different directions and he aces everything he tries. It makes for a thrilling listen.
“Stay The Course” (Featuring Talib Kweli and Posdnuos)
“Warning Call” (Featuring Tom Vek)
“I’ve Been Trying”
“I Gotta Rokk”
40. AMY WINEHOUSE – “LIONESS: HIDDEN TREASURES” - Sadly, we lost Amy Winehouse this year. Thankfully, “Lioness” doesn’t play like what it is. Most culled together, posthumous collections seem uneven and rushed. This collection is quite cover-heavy and has many songs we have heard before (including a third rendition of The Zutons’ “Valerie”) but more than anything, this collection proves that the world is a sadder, weaker place without Winehouse’s great talent. She was way more than a tragic tabloid case. When all systems were firing, she was a truly gifted vocalist and to have that voice silenced after a mere 27 years somehow doesn’t seem fair.
“Tears Dry” (Original Version)
“Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” (2011)
“Our Day Will Come”
“Valerie” (’68 Version)
“Like Smoke” (Featuring Nas)
39. STEPHEN MALKMUS & THE JICKS – “MIRROR TRAFFIC” - I’ve said it before, I will say it again. Stephen Malkmus is one of the only performers I can think of whose solo career seems like a logical step from his previous band. You put the five Pavement records next to the five albums he has done since that band’s breakup and it seems like a solid, logical continuum. Produced by Beck, “Mirror Traffic” is another strong set of songs, anchored by the quite naughty single, “Senator.” (I’ll give you a clue. For radio-play a certain word in the song’s chorus had to be changed to “snow-job.”) With 15 tracks in fifty minutes, this collection is looser and not as longwinded as Malkmus’ last album, “Real Emotional Trash.” That album, while excellent in its own right, found Malkmus and his bandmates exploring an extended psychedelic jam-band motif. Fans of Pavement should like that this record has a few smaller cuts that stand as quirky experiments. While Malkmus isn’t a household name, he is an indie-rock legend who has yet to release a subpar record. With “Mirror Traffic” he has continued his strong legacy.
“No One Is (As I Are Be)”
38. A BAND OF BEES – “EVERY STEP’S A YES” (Deluxe Edition) - I know exactly what international readers are thinking. Didn’t this album come out in 2010? Well, in Europe, yes, “Every Step’s A Yes” came out in October of 2010. (The band is known as “The Bees “everywhere but the U.S. due to a name dispute.) In the U.S., we had to wait a full year to get this album! It finally found its way to us digitally in October of 2011 and physically a couple of weeks later. I highly recommend downloading the deluxe edition if you can find it. It boasts six bonus tracks and remixes including rare covers of the Mamas & The Papas’ “Go Where You Want To Go” and Portishead’s “The Rip.” The Bees are a smart, versatile, retro-leaning band that know their history. They aren’t just trying to sound like a band from the sixties. Like the Beta Band before them, they are using the music from the sixties as a starting point and adding more modern elements to create a new concoction. This album should please a wide variety of fans.
“I Really Need Love”
“No More Excuses”
37. ADELE – “LIVE AT THE ROYAL ALBERT HALL”/ “21″ - Adele’s “21″ came out this year and was one of the biggest and most popular records of the year, Initially, I was only partially impressed with the album. In comparison to her debut, I at first found it uneven. Once I heard her live album, “Live At Royal Albert Hall,” something clicked and I loved it. I realized my first impression was wrong. “Albert Hall” is essential because it shows Adele’s raw talent in the best and most straightforward way. She’s a rare combination. She has an immense amount of power and has hits to back it up.
Favorite Tracks: “LIVE AT THE ROYAL ALBERT HALL”
“Rolling In The Deep”
“I Can’t Make You Love Me” (Bonnie Raitt cover)
“Love Song” (The Cure cover)
“Right As Rain”
“Someone Like You”
Favorite Tracks: “21″
“Rolling In The Deep”
“Someone Like You”
“Take It All”
“I’ll Be Waiting”
36. M83 – “HURRY UP WE’RE DREAMING” - France’s M83′s “Hurry Up We’re Dreaming” is a dream-pop masterpiece, building of the last great album, “Saturdays=Youth.” Mastermind, Anthony Gonzalez is joined by a surprising roster of musicians, many of which you would never expect to find playing on a French electronic record. (People like Beck’s bassist Justin Meldal-Johnsen, Nine Inch Nails and Guns ‘n’ Roses’ associate Robin Finck, and Michael Penn’s right-hand-man, Patrick Warren.) It’s a beautifully expansive record and its main single, “Midnight City” is currently being uses in a rather lavish Victoria’s Secret ad campaign. My one complaint about the album is a tiny one. It’s only seventy-three minutes and it is spread across two discs. It should be on one! But the music is amazing and it is well worth picking up!
“Year One, One UFO”
“My Tears Are Becoming A Sea”
35. THE BLACK KEYS – “EL CAMINO” - Only a year after their mainstream breakthrough, “Brothers,” the Black Keys continue their charge with “El Camino,” a tight, sharp collection of blues rock. Essentially it almost feels like they are going back to the basics, often delivering servings of hard-edged rockabilly. First single, “Lonely Boy,” offers a quintessential example of the album’s sound. “Gold On The Ceiling” should please any fan of “Brothers,” while “Little Black Submarines” should please anyone who ever played “Stairway To Heaven” continuously on repeat. The timing of “El Camino” is smart. They are striking while the iron is hot and essentially continuing where “Brothers” left off.
“Little Black Submarines”
“Gold on The Ceiling”
“Hell Of A Season”
34. LIAM FINN – “FOMO” - It’s impossible to listen to Liam Finn without being reminded of his father, Neil Finn of Crowded House. Neil is a master songwriter and luckily Liam inherited every bit of his skill. The New Zealand-bred multi-instrumentalist comes off as a punkier, more experimental version of his father. “Fomo” is a smaller, less eclectic collection than his 2008 album, “I’ll Be Lightning,” but one could attribute the album’s brevity to magnified focus. Quite frankly, “Cold Feet” should have been a monster radio hit. If American radio weren’t so closed it would have been. “Jump Your Bones” is an awesome rhythmic parade with an epic build. “Reckless” is a raw bit of fast-paced, literate pop-punk. If you’ve ever seen Finn’s live performances you know he is quite skilled with looping pedals and samplers, thus creating an honest-to-goodness one-man-band effect. At his most ferocious, he comes off like a brilliantly unhinged bearded madman with a sweet, endearing pop center. When he tackles softer material, he does so with a surprisingly gentle warmth. Sadly, he still remains for the most part a secret. He’s someone who really should be tremendously famous.
“Chase The Seasons”
“Jump Your Bones”
“Roll Of The Eye”
33. MASTODON – “THE HUNTER” - Mastodon’s brand of sludgy metal hits a high-point on “The Hunter.” The Atlanta-based band has developed a more melodic side. Pairing this somewhat new accessibility with their significant instrumental skill only boosts their power. Lead single, “Curl Of The Burl,” for instance is an infectious slice of hard-rock that should please any metal or prog-rock fan.
“Curl Of The Burl”
“Octopus Has No Friends”
32. LYKKE LI – “WO
UNDED RHYMES” - “Wounded Rhymes” more than fulfills the promise of Lykke Li’s excellent debut, “Youth Novels.” The Swedish alterna-pop phenom shows remarkable growth. If the album has a narrative, it is one of loss, heartbreak and damage. The majority of the tracks are melancholy ballads, although lead single, “Get Some,” is a seductive rave-up where Li coldly sings, “I’m your prostitute. / You’re gonna get some.” Given the rest of the record, one could look at this as a distraction from the sadness and as I said, if this album does have a continuous narrative, this track is perhaps Li’s character hoping to find redemption from her grief through sexual release. (Look at it as her answer to Liz Phair’s “F___ And Run.” ) If the album has a thesis statement, it’s the retro girl-group send-up, “Sadness Is A Blessing.” Ultimately, “Wounded Rhymes” is a cathartic, expressive and moving record. One hopes that Li cheers up, but in her sadness, she’s found gold.
“Sadness Is A Blessing”
“I Know Places”
“Love Out of Lust”
“I Follow Rivers”
31. THE CHEMICAL BROTHERS – “HANNA – ORIGINAL MOTION PICTURE SOUNDTRACK” - The Chemical Brothers are at a peak right now, beginning with last year’s masterpiece, “Further,” and continuing with their score to Joe Wright’s action-thriller, “Hanna.” Like Daft Punk’s “TRON: Legacy” score and the Dust Brothers’ “Fight Club” score, this record proves that electronic and beat-centric artists are ideally suited for score work. The Chems manage to provide a good balance of warmth and creepiness. In any case, this is one of the most diverse and nuanced collections of their career.
“Hanna’s Theme” (vocal version)
“The Devil Is In The Details”
“The Devil Is In The Beats”
“Car Chase (Arp Worship)”
30. FOO FIGHTERS – “WASTING LIGHT” - After the boring, by the numbers workout, “Echoes, Silence, Patience and Grace,” the Foos fully redeem themselves with “Wasting Light,” their strongest record since 1999′s, “There’s Nothing Left To Lose.” They are awakened and refreshed once again. Probably the main reason for the revitalization is the fact that this album reunites Dave Grohl with Butch Vig, who also helmed Nirvana’s “Nevermind.” In addition, Grohl’s Nirvana bandmate, Krist Novoselic makes a guest appearance. (Pat Smear is back in the fold as well!) “Wasting Light” finds the Foo Fighters performing at peak level. Anthemic rockers like “Arlandria,” and “Walk,” stand beside left-field, oddball metallic experiments like “White Limo.” The latter track shows the band at a goofy level of ease not heard since their debut. This is a mainstream rock record you need to hear.
29. EMA – “PAST LIFE MARTYRED SAINTS” - EMA is ex-Gowns member, Erika M. Anderson who delivers a haunted, dissonant song cycle. Part Kurt Cobain, part Kim Gordon, Anderson has an appealing, stirring, performance-artist edge. Tracks like “Marked” and “Redstar” exhibit a unique, visceral beauty.
28. CLASS ACTRESS – “RAPPROCHER”- Do you remember in the early eighties? Do you remember the dinky sound of Casiotone synth-pop that reveled in its own cheesiness? Do you ever wish that sound would come back with a seductive, feminine twist? Well, then the music of Class Actress is for you! Somehow, both sleazy and erotically alluring, Class Actress delivers a potent cocktail anchored by front-woman Elizabeth Harper. “Weekend” should be a Friday-night club staple. Given the current state of the music industry, it and this album are more likely to be put aside as an exercise of hipster retro-revisionism. That would be a mistake. This is a left-field record with great pop potential.
“Need To Know”
27. PAUL SIMON – “SO BEAUTIFUL OR SO WHAT” - Paul Simon just turned 70 and he just released his best record in 25 years. “So Beautiful Or So What” has Simon continuing to explore aging, death and religion in literate narratives and yet his voice still sounds exactly the same as it ever did. The highlight of the set is “Rewrite,” an intricately picked, almost Eastern-sounding tune about writing one’s life story and cleaning up the messy bits. Simon is indeed reflective here, but he has always been one of Rock and Roll history’s best storytellers. The album as a whole has a refreshing bluesy edge. Simon has hit another career high. Let’s hope he continues making records like this for many years to come.
“Getting Ready For Christmas Day”
“So Beautiful Or So What”
“Love And Blessings”
26. CUT OFF YOUR HANDS – “HOLLOW”- Once a frantic, angular, post-punk band, New Zealand’s Cut Off Your Hands explore a lush, gentler brand of jangle-pop on their album “Hollow.” They find a nice middle-ground between The Smiths and Echo & The Bunnymen. Tracks like “By Your Side” and “Hollowed Out” would make both Johnny Marr and Ian McCulloch proud.
“By Your Side”
“You Should Do Better”
25. RINGO DEATHSTARR – “COLOUR TRIP”- Austin, Texas trio, Ringo Deathstarr have obviously spent a lot of time listening to My Bloody Valentine’s 1990 masterpiece, “Loveless.” Is their album, “Colour Trip” derivative? Hell, yes! But they really do an excellent job capturing the shoegaze mood. Balancing deafening guitar walls, dreamy atmospheric elements and dance beats isn’t as easy as it seems. While shoegaze as a subgenre is returning to popularity, few bands are delivering such effective results. “Imagine Hearts,” for instance takes a dancefloor-ready beat and combines it with a twisted guitar line that sounds like your vacuum cleaner out for revenge. Somehow, they have made an old sound seem forward-thinking and fresh.
“Do It Every Time”
24. WASHED OUT – “WITHIN AND WITHOUT” - This was the year that lo-fi synths really took over indie rock and Ernest Greene, the mastermind behind the one-man-band, Washed Out is one of the groundbreakers leading the charge. Continuing where he began last year on his “Life of Leisure” EP, Greene boosts his production values while continuing to favor soft, dreamlike textures. This is echo-y fun with drum machines. Greene keeps his vocals way behind in the mix with enough reverb to obscure his lyrics. His voice becomes merely another instrument in the murky, chilled sonic concoction.
“Eyes Be Closed”
“Within And Without”
23. THURSTON MOORE – “DEMOLISHED THOUGHTS- Beck produced Thurston Moore’s latest solo record, “Demolished Thoughts,” and it finds the Sonic Youth co-leader exploring his softer side. In fact, this album plays a lot like Moore’s slightly fractured answer to his producer’s masterpiece, “Sea Change.” These are quiet songs driven by acoustic guitars and delicate string sections. Late this year it was announced that Moore and Kim Gordon were separating, thus throwing his band’s future into question. If Sonic Youth break up, it’s good to know Moore will still continue to make excellent records on his own.
22. INCUBUS – “IF NOT NOW, WHEN?” - Few bands have embraced maturity as well as Incubus did this year. Sadly, this album was virtually ignored or worse, bashed by the majority of the mainstream music press. The band mellowed their sound but their songwriting remains just as great as ever. This album stands as an adult-alterative answer to “Make Yourself.” Give them credit for expanding their scope. “Adolescents” and “Promises Promises” rank among the best singles of their career. Say, what you want, but this is a hundred times better than Coldplay’s disastrous “Mylo Xyloto.” It deserves to be praised.
“If Not Now, When?”
21. RYAN ADAMS – “ASHES & FIRE” - Eleven years and twelve (widely available) albums into his solo career, Ryan Adams has built his name as an impossibly prolific alt-country legend. “Ashes & Fire” finds him in his most folky mode, with songs that are quietly pensive. This for the most part is an acoustic guitar record with an occasional piano or slide-guitar line. If you appreciate Adams’ quieter side, this is an album you’ll appreciate. This is Adams in full-blown singer-songwriter gear.
“Ashes & Fire”
“Chains Of Love”
“Do I Wait”
20. SUBLIME WITH ROME – “YOURS TRULY” (Deluxe Edition) - I will admit that when I first heard about this record I was both angry and skeptical. Fourteen years after the death of leader, Bradley Nowell, the surviving members of Sublime have recruited Rome Rimirez to essentially re-form the band. I thought it was wrong to replace Nowell. But after hearing the record, I have discovered that they haven’t so much as replaced Nowell as they have added to the legacy he helped begin. Rimirez has a Nowell-esque quality to his delivery but he lacks Nowell’s darkness. His songs are infinitely brighter but never cheesy. Perhaps this is a good thing considering one of Nowell’s recurring subjects was the addiction that ended up taking his life. The new songs still have edge, but with Rimirez Sublime get the second chance they have long deserved. My hope is that Nowell would be proud to know the band soldiered on. He may not be physically on this record, but his ghostly essence is ever-present! This album was made in his loving memory and against all odds it was done the right way. This sounds very much like a Sublime record.
“Safe And Sound” (Deluxe only)
19. THE WEEKND – “HOUSE OF BALLOONS”/”THURSDAY”/”ECHOES OF SILENCE” - The Weeknd is Abel Tesfaye, a Drake associate who delivers woozy, druggy, hypnotic electro R&B. “House Of Balloons,” “Thursday” and “Echoes Of Silence” are all available for free download on The Weeknd’s website. I’m actually not completely sure how Tesfaye makes money, but this marketing strategy has definitely gotten people talking. If these were traditional album releases, they would get strong “Parental Advisory” stickers since most of the songs here are either about drugs, sexual conquests, or both, but Tesfaye possesses a high, clear, Michael Jackson-esque voice that is undeniably angelic sounding even when his lyrics are extremely rough around the edges. Perhaps this paradoxical quality is part of the appeal. When he sings “Trust me, girl,” on “High For This,” he does so with the sincerity of the snake from “The Jungle Book.” Throughout his songs, he comes off as a smooth operator who will win you over then take what he wants. These songs are sultry, sleazy and captivating all at once.
Favorite Tracks: “HOUSE OF BALLOONS”
“High For This”
“House Of Balloons/ Glass Table Girls”
Favorite Tracks: “THURSDAY”
“The Birds Part One”
“Life Of The Party”
Favorite Tracks: “ECHOES OF SILENCE”
“D.D.” (“Dirty Diana” – Michael Jackson cover)
“Same Old Song”
18. BOOKER T. JONES – “THE ROAD FROM MEMPHIS” - Joined by the Roots’ ?usestlove, Booker T. Jones proves he can still revolutionize a song and make it his own. This is an infinitely better record than 2008′s “Potato Hole,” where he was backed by Neil Young and the Drive-By Truckers. Here, he seems more at ease and his backing band has more of the spirit of the MG’s. There are a few surprise guest performers like Yim Yames of My Morning Jacket, Matt Berninger from the National, Sharon Jones and a tremendously awkward Lou Reed, but as always, it’s the instrumental work that makes the trip worthwhile. Jones aces every instrumental cut here and he kills the covers, making them his own. His one-handed organ playing method is still both timeless and soulful.
“Everything Is Everything” (Lauryn Hill cover)
“Crazy” (Gnarls Barkley cover)
“Down In Memphis” (Featuring Booker T. on vocals)
17. DANGER MOUSE & DANIELE LUPPI – “ROME” - Producer extraordinaire, Danger Mouse teams up with acclaimed Italian film scorer, Daniele Luppi. The resulting album is a subtly chilled “spaghetti western” style disc full of dramatic string flourishes, Mancini-esque background singers and plenty of drama to leave you in awe. Jack White and Norah Jones each add their voices to a few tracks. Jones really shines in this setting. This album is argument enough that Danger Mouse should really produce her next record.
“Season’s Trees” (Featuring Norah Jones)
“Black” (Featuring Norah Jones)
“The Gambling Priest”
“The Matador Has Fallen”
“Problem Queen” (Featuring Norah Jones)
“Two Against One” (Featuring Jack White)
16. RADIOHEAD – “THE KING OF LIMBS” / “TKOL RMX 1234567″ - “The King Of Limbs” arrived very suddenly. Announced on a Tuesday and released that Friday off of Radiohead’s website, it was a spaced out set that played out like the third part of a trilogy started by “Kid A” and “Amnesiac.” At only eight songs and thirty seven minutes, it seemed like an all too brief exercise, so it was nice when later in the year those eight songs got the double-disc remix treatment with some tracks getting as many as three-to-five re-workings. In any case, both these albums are necessary additions to any true Radiohead fan’s collection.
Favorite Tracks: “THE KING OF LIMBS”
“Give Up The Ghost”
“Little By Little
Favorite Tracks: “TKOL RMX 1234567″
“Separator” (Four Tet Remix)
“Good Evening Mr. Magpie” (Modeselektor RMX)
“Feral” (Lone RMX)
“Bloom” (Harmonic 313 RMX)
15. MALE BONDING – “ENDLESS NOW” - London trio, Male Bonding wasted no time following up last year’s excellent debut, “Nothing Hurts.” They up their production values a little and put the vocals more up front this time to create a punked-out album that any fan of nineties alterna-rock and noise-rock should like. I thought they didn’t make songs quite like “Tame The Sun” anymore. I was wrong. You need to hear this.
“Tame The Sun”
“Before It’s Gone”
14. CHARLES BRADLEY FEATURING THE MENAHAN STREET BAND – “NO TIME FOR DREAMING” - At 62, Charles Bradley makes his debut backed by Dap-King associates, The Menahan Street Band. Bradley delivers an old-school, funky, dusty sounding R&B album with a lived-in vocal style that lies somewhere between Otis Redding and James Brown. Bradley is a true find. It’s remarkable that this is his debut record. He sings songs about social strife with the soul of someone who has seen hard times. Funny thing is, Bradley showed up on my radar because “SPIN” put his mind-blowing, unlikely funk-driven take on Nirvana’s “Stay Away” on their free “Nevermind” tribute compilation. His cover was by far the best on that set. Thankfully in its digital form, “No Time For Dreaming” has been reissued with “Stay Away” as a bonus track.
“The World Is Going Up In Flames”
“Why Is It So Hard”
“Lovin’ You, Baby”
“Stay Away” (digital reissue)
13. BEASTIE BOYS – “HOT SAUCE COMMITTEE PART 2.” - This album in a slightly different form was supposed to be released in 2009, but then Adam “MCA” Yauch was diagnosed with Cancer after finding a lump on a gland in his throat. Two years later, after being treated and seemingly feeling healthy, Yauch and company finally released the record. (They shuffled the track order and changed it from “Part 1″ to “Part 2,” but it’s essentially an updated version of the same record. It’s their strongest record since “Check Your Head” and “Ill Communication,” and it essentially plays like a companion piece to those two records. Punk guitars sit beside fuzzed out vocals. Hardcore tracks sit beside old-school rap exercises and all is right with the world. The highlight of the album is “Say It,” which employs some mangled guitar feedback into a fuzzy, funky track, thus creating a song that should appeal to both hardcore kids and hip-hop heads. Twenty-Five years after “Licensed To Ill,” these newly nominated members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame are still proving they pack a punch.
“Too Many Rappers (New Reactionaries Version)” (Featuring Nas)
“Make Some Noise”
“Lee Majors Come Again”
“Don’t Play No Game That I Can’t Win” (Featuring Santigold)
“Long Burn The Fire”
12. THE ANTLERS – “BURST APART”- “Burst Apart” is a much brighter, warmer record than The Antlers’ last album, “Hospice” and it also comes off as a credible attempt at mainstream gold. Peter Silberman’s songs here have an appealing pop sparkle that suits his uncannily flawless vocal delivery. He vaults octaves and goes in and out of falsetto with effortless ease. The album’s opener, for example, “I Don’t Want Love” is downright perfect.
“I Don’t Want Love”
“Every Night My Teeth Are Falling Out”
11. GEMMA HAYES – “LET IT BREAK” - Irish singer/songwriter, Gemma Hayes has never gotten her true due in the U.S. in spite of releasing consistently great records. In 2003, she got buzz with her fuzz-pop debut, “Night On My Side,” but it looks like her second record, “The Roads Don’t Love You” was never officially released here. In 2008, she released, “The Hollow of Morning,” an album I reviewed very positively. That record didn’t get the play it deserved, either. Now Hayes has released “Let It Break.” Songs like “Keep Running,” “All I Need” and “Shock To My System” should be the kind of lovelorn, wistful dream-pop gold that is licensed everywhere, but they aren’t. Hayes delivers a strong set here that should appeal to a wide fanbase. If you don’t believe me, there’s an extremely strong acoustic performance of “Keep Running,” you can look up on youtube. The performance was recorded during a live broadcast on Irish radio. Download this album. Someday the U.S. will catch up with Gemma Hayes and you’ll be that far ahead of your friends.
“Shock To My System”
“All I Need”
10. CHILDISH GAMBINO – CAMP” - Donald Glover can do just about anything. He has written for “30 Rock” and has starred as Troy Barnes on “Community.” There was even an internet campaign to try to make him the new “Spiderman.” But behold, Donald Glover the rapper – AKA Childish Gambino. A few ago, Glover started dropping cool, free mixtapes onto his website. That was followed by last year’s amazing free album, “Culdesac.” He released another free E.P. earlier this year which spawned the hit, “Freaks and Geeks.” In November,, Glover officially released his physical commercial debut through Glassnote. “Camp” is probably the foulest, crassest album I have ever strongly recommended. It strongly deserves its Parental Advisory, but Glover has a story to tell. His story is one of a former nerd who was one of the only African-American kids in his school. He was picked on for “talking white.” He had homophobic slurs thrown at him because he wasn’t tough. Girls ignored him. But now that has all changed. He’s telling the story of his Stone Mountain, Georgia roots and mixing in bits about fame. He now has the attention of women. (He doesn’t let you forget that with his raunchy-bravado-filled verses about his endowment and how many women he’s bedded.) But when it all comes down to it, all the boasting is really just masking a scared kid who had a tough time fitting in. (It’s only during the last few minutes of the album’s closer, “That Power,” during a mind-blowing spoken-word portion that we probably get a glimpse of the real Donald with all his defensive shields down.) This is an album about isolation, race, gender and stereotypes and how those who do not fit into synthetic societal boxes are treated. This is an album for anyone who has ever been picked on or ever felt alone. This is revenge through glory. Glover may get a lot of comparisons to Kanye West but “Camp” is better than “My Beautiful, Dark Twisted Fantasy,” and it makes “Watch The Throne” seem like an audacious fraud. Glover can rhyme with the best of them. His verses may not be for the easily offended, but he really puts his comedy-writing wit to good use. He’s as sharp and funny as he is un-P.C. He also has an AMAZING singing voice. He can handle a hook better than most of his peers. On the single, “Bonfire,” Glover asks, “Man, why does every black actor got to rap some?” Answering his own question with, “I don’t know, all I know is I’m the best one!” Damn right, you are!
“All The Shine”
9. TOM WAITS – “BAD AS ME” (Deluxe Version) - Simply put, “Bad As Me” shows Tom Waits doing what he does best: combining growly stompers with sad, forlorn ballads. What kind of music is this? It’s the same brand of Tin-Pan-Alley blues-punk that Waits has built his name making. With age, the man just gets stronger. (NOTE: The deluxe version comes with three extra bonus tracks and is packaged in a fancy, impressive hard-covered book.)
“Bad As Me”
“Hell Broke Luce”
“New Year’s Eve”
“Talking At The Same Time”
8. DUM DUM GIRLS – “ONLY IN DREAMS”/ “HE GETS ME HIGH” EP - Dum Dum Girls’ “I Will Be” was my #2 pick last year and in 2011, a lot has changed. Now, instead of being essentially a solo project for Kristin “Dee Dee Penny” Gundred, the Dum Dum Girls are now a real band. The tinny hiss found on their debut has given way to brighter, more pop-driven production. This is a positive because Dee Dee actually has a beautiful voice that was previously masked by the fuzz. First came the “He Gets Me High” EP in March, which included an astoundingly great cover of the usually untouchable Smiths classic, “There Is A Light (That Never Goes Out)” and that was followed in September by the full-length, “Only In Dreams,” which featured the dreamy extended jam, “Coming Down.” Both records are essential. Again, veteran producer and Sire Records co-founder, Richard Gottehrer is at the boards, this time assisted by Sune Rose Wagner of The Raveonettes. Together, they make timeless, catchy musical magic.
Favorite Tracks: “ONLY IN DREAMS”:
“Hold Your Hand”
“Caught In One”
“In My Head”
Favorite Tracks: “HE GETS ME HIGH” EP:
“Wrong Feels Right”
“There Is A Light (That Never Goes Out)”
“He Gets Me High”
7. MIKE DOUGHTY – “YES AND ALSO YES” - Like his cult-classic debut solo record, “Skittish” and his last album, “Sad Man, Happy Man,” “Yes And Also Yes” finds former Soul Coughing leader, Mike Doughty delivering a set of quick tracks that explore minimalist arrangements. There’s no one out there quite like Doughty. According to the press release, the title was a profile headline that Doughty once used on a dating site and stand-out track, “Into The Un” was rejected from one of the “Twilight” soundtracks. The joke is on the people who made that poor decision because frankly, the song is too good for “Twilight,” anyway. Elsewhere, “Holiday (What Do You Want?)” is a warm duet with Roseanne Cash and “The Huffer and The Cutter” tells the story of a romance between two otherwise tragic individuals. The sense of loss and resolution is felt as Doughty sings, “Love made them beautiful at last,” but the song’s best moment is when he declares, “She doesn’t fall in love, she takes hostages.” Again, Doughty is an expert singer-songwriter who deserves to be a household name. Pick up this album and look for his candid memoir, “The Book of Drugs” in February of 2012.
“Into The Un”
“The Huffer And The Cutter”
“Holiday (What Do You Want?) (Featuring Roseanne Cash)
6. THE ROOTS -”UNDUN” - At thirty-nine minutes, “undun” is the Roots’ shortest record. It’s also one of their most powerful. Coming only a year after “How I Got Over,” this is a concept record about the rise and fall of a fictitious dealer and hustler by the name of Redford Stephens. It’s a sad, often draining record, but it’s one of the group’s best. Again, if you think “Watch The Throne” is the best hip-hop album of the year, you obviously didn’t listen to this. This is like a hip-hop answer to “Superfly” with scattered flecks of “What’s Going On?” mixed in for good measure. In a world of vacuous pop-minded records, this stands out as a meaningful, substantial record. I want to thank the Roots for reminding us how a hip-hop classic should sound. This is a record that takes chances. (Name another hip-hop group that would end their record with a classical suite!) Genre-wise, it may go down in history as a game changer.
“Make My” (Featuring Big K.R.I.T. and Dice Raw)
“One Time” (Featuring Phonte & Dice Raw)
“The Other Side” (Featuring Bilal Oliver and Greg Porn)
“Kool On” (Featuring Greg Porn & Truck North)
“Tip The Scale” (Featuring Dice Raw)
5. PETER BJORN & JOHN – “GIMME SOME” - Back in 2007, these Swedish tunesmiths topped this list with their album, “Writer’s Block.” Amazingly, “Gimme Some” is every bit as good as that record. Switching up their sound, the band members turn up their amps while adding some pop infection as well. This is a fast, catchy bulldozer of a record that demands to be listened to on a repeated loop. It’s an album of potential singles where just about every song is unbelievably indelible. These tracks hit you over the head effortlessly. Songs like, “Dig A Little Deeper,” “Second Chance” and “I Know You Don’t Love Me” are mandatory listening! This is a rock-driven pop record of the highest order.
“Dig A Little Deeper”
“I Know You Don’t Love Me”
“May Seem Macabre”
4. …AND YOU WILL KNOW US BY THE TRAIL OF DEAD – “TAO OF THE DEAD” (DELUXE EDITION) - …Trail of Dead aren’t anywhere near as scary as their name might have you believe. In fact, the veteran Austin, Texas band continues to raise the bar on their latest album, “Tao Of The Dead.” Members, Conrad Keeley and Jason Reece know their way around a catchy pop tune and yet they often make it as hard and as rocking as they can. Elements of psychedelia and prog-rock keep things interesting. I recommend the deluxe 2-disc edition of the record, which includes all the songs both as a suite and as separate pieces. “Weight Of The Sun” is indeed one of the very best songs of the year!
“Weight Of The Sun (Or The Post-Modern Prometheus)”
“Pure Radio Cosplay”
“Summer Of All Dead Souls”
3. FLORENCE + THE MACHINE – “CEREMONIALS” (DELUXE EDITION) - “Ceremonials” essentially continues where Florence’s 2009 debut, “Lungs” left off. That album was a stunning piece of work and yet somehow this record is even bigger, brighter and bolder. Florence can belt out with the best of them and this is almost exclusively a collection of singles. Religious symbolism is spread throughout the record, but make no mistakes, this is a secular party record that plays with religious imagery in a fun and almost gothic sense. “Shake It Out,” may refer to “shaking the devil off your back,” but it could just as easily be about dancing your worries away in a club on Friday night. “Leave My Body” could be a funeral hymn or it could be an escapist anthem. This is an album about redemption and Florence likes to be a bit of an enigma. Considering her dramatic flair and heavy reliance on orchestral arrangements, she seems like she is not of this time. This makes her stand out. She’s a remarkably powerful performer. “Ceremonials” is also one of the best-sounding albums I have heard in quite some time. I have to give credit to producer, Paul Epworth. This is his best work since Bloc Party’s “Silent Alarm.” (NOTE: The deluxe version contains four bonus tracks.)
“Shake It Out”
“Only If For One Night”
“Leave My Body”
“Never Let Me Go”
“What The Water Gave Me”
2. THE JOY FORMIDABLE – “THE BIG ROAR” - The Joy Formidable are a Welsh trio who have made major waves this year. They have also earned a high profile fan in Dave Grohl. Balancing infectious pop melodies with heavy guitar assaults they have found a glorious meeting place between beauty and dissonance. Lead singer/guitarist, Ritzy Bryan could easily write songs with gentle acoustic arrangements, but then she wouldn’t have so much fun rocking out. She’s an expert at making her guitar collapse into a wall of feedback. She takes such a task to a level that would make Thurston Moore proud. Watching them perform live is remarkable. It’s a little like watching Nirvana’s live performance at the Reading Festival. You are left there with your jaw hanging open wondering how three people can produce so much sound! (Also recommended are their two EPs of live performances and remixes, “Roarities” and “The Big More.”) This band deserves to be really big.
“The Greatest Light Is The Greatest Shade”
“I Don’t Want To See You Like This”
“A Heavy Abacus”
1. R.E.M. – “COLLAPSE INTO NOW”- I know what you are thinking. This is not some sort of sympathy vote. R.E.M. were headed here before they announced their break-up. That’s what makes said break-up so heartbreaking. On this album and 2008′s “Accelerate,” R.E.M. found new footing again making their best records since “Automatic For The People” and “Monster.” They sounded more cohesive than ever and when they rocked, they rocked much harder than ever before. To me, it seemed like they were headed in an excellent direction and I was looking forward to hearing more. These two records really did stack up to their eighties and nineties hey-day. “Collapse Into Now” may actually be a perfect R.E.M. record because it has bits of everything they have done best over the last thirty-one years. There are ballads and rockers sitting side by side living in harmony. This is classic R.E.M. at its highest level. There are even bashers that will remind long-time listeners of the more frantic tracks on 1986′s “Life’s Rich Pageant. ” The ballads are full of life as well. R.E.M. ended on top. I also highly recommend the three new songs on their new career-spanning best-of, “Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage.” R.E.M., as a longtime admirer and listener, it’s really sad to see you go. I’m glad you went out with one of your best albums to date! Thank you for being the best American rock band of the last thirty years.
“Every Day Is Yours To Win”
“Mine Smell Like Honey”
“Alligator_Aviator_Autopilot_Antimatter” (Featuring Peaches)
“It Happened Today” (Featuring Eddie Vedder)
“Oh My Heart”
2011 ends as a truly great musical year. Let’s hope 2012 can stack up in comparison. What were your favorite albums of the year?