Monday, December 12, 2011

The Best Albums of 2011

Just as the economy has started to make a comeback, so has the recording industry, and the wealth of new and interesting music has expanded greatly this year from the past two. Overall, I think of 2011 as the year of the female artist, and there are more women on my list than ever before. There was also a resurgence of interesting blues artists this year, and I have included a few on my list. But mostly, this list is populated by artists that have grown or changed for the better since their earlier releases.

As with last year, I have identified 100 albums, but it was hard to limit the list to 100—I really like the music on this list. As such, I have numbered and described the top 50 and listed the others as “Honorable Mention.”

My tastes tend to run toward alternative rock, R&B/soul, indie rock, and inventive pop music, so if you are a fan of Classical, Country, Death Metal, Rap, or Traditional Folk, you will probably be disappointed with this list. I also tend to like music that is up-front, rather than hidden by layers of production.

The numbering is somewhat random, because on any given day, I might want to hear one album ahead of any other, and each of the 50 “Honorable Mention” albums could easily have made the top 50. With that said, here is my list in ascending order:

50. Hugh Laurie, “Let Them Talk”
That’s right—I’m referring to the British comedian who is also the star of the TV show, “House.” On this album, he displays his piano and vocal chops on an interesting selection of blues songs. Key songs: “You Don’t Know My Mind,” “Swanee River”, and the title song, “Let Them Talk.”

49. Wild Flag, “Wild Flag”
Consisting of four women, each having experienced success with other bands, Wild Flag has put together a well-performed and well-produced post-punk album that benefits from repeated listening. Key songs: “Romance,” “Future Crimes,” and “Racehorse.”

48. Beyoncé, “4”
This is less amazing than some of her previous work—maybe we’re getting used to her outstanding talent—but Beyoncé’s latest album still shows why she’s the modern soul diva. Her singing is as purposeful and clear as it was the first time we heard her in Destiny’s Child. Key songs: “1+1,” “Best Thing I Never Had,” and, “I Was Here.”

47. Dawes, “Nothing Is Wrong”
This group is comprised of four young men from Los Angeles who have worked as Robbie Robertson’s backup band. However, it is most reminiscent of Jackson Browne in his early days, which is no coincidence because Browne actually appears on the album. Key songs: “If I Wanted Someone,” “Fire Away,” and “A Little Bit of Everything.”

46. Beady Eye, “Different Gear, Still Speeding”
In the mid to late 90s, the band Oasis electrified music fans and critics with comparisons to the Beatles and other great British bands of the past. However, their star soon faded amidst mediocre work and dissent among the members, particularly between the Gallagher brothers (Liam and Noel) who were at the heart of their success. Without Noel Gallagher, the band has re-formed into Beady Eye, and this is their first album, complete with the interesting hooks that made Oasis successful. Key songs: “The Beat Goes On,” “Four Letter Word,” and “The Roller.”

45. Lisa Hannigan, “Passenger”
This Irish singer-songwriter was a member of Damien Rice’s band before going solo. On this, her second album, she shows exceptional musical sensibilities and a lovely, subtle singing style. Key songs: “Home,” “What’ll I Do,” and “O Sleep.”

44. The Sounds, “Something to Die for”
The fourth album from this Swedish quintet features more of the offbeat pop for which the Sounds have become known, combined with a little more interesting instrumentation. Key songs: “Something to Die for,” “Yeah Yeah Yeah,” and the pleasant ballad “Wish You Were Here.”

43. Mayer Hawthorne, “How Do You Do”
Did you ever hear people talk about developing a “porn” name based on your middle name and the street on which you grew up? Well, that’s what Andrew Mayer Cohen did when he started recording classic-sounding R&B as Mayer Hawthorne. Three albums later, Cohen/Hawthorne has recorded this wonderful album, complete with the kinds of soul grooves that first helped the genre to cross-over into popular success. Key songs: “A Long Time,” “Hooked,” and “No Strings.”

42. Katie Costello, “Lamplight”
At 17, Katie Costello released her first CD, which was a peek into the potential of this introspective singer-songwriter. Now 20, this album begins to realize that potential. Key songs: “Cassette Tape,” “After Dark,” and the hauntingly beautiful “Stranger.”

41. TV On the Radio, “Nine Types of Light”
Although less ground-breaking than their earlier work, this album takes the fusion of musical styles that has made the Brooklyn-based TV On the Radio successful and applied it to songs about love. Key songs: “Second Song,” “You,” and “Will Do.”

40. Sublime With Rome, “Yours Truly”
At first, it seemed like an odd pairing—90s post-punk band Sublime recording with modern reggae/hip-hop artist Rome Ramirez for a new album…but it works on many levels. Key songs: “Panic,” “Lovers Rock,” and the outstanding “Can You Feel It.”

39. The Black Keys, “El Camino”
Following on the heels of their very successful 2010 release, “Brothers,” this Akron-based duo has taken a slightly edgier and less bluesy approach with “El Camino.” Key songs: “Lonely Boy,” “Gold On the Ceiling,” and “Little Black Submarines.”

38. James Durbin, “Memories of a Beautiful Disaster”
Before last season’s American Idol competition became a red-state referendum on juvenile country pop, the artist people tuned in to hear was James Durbin, who combines excellent rock guitar riffs with a soaring tenor voice. On this, his first album, he continues to demonstrate those talents. Key songs: “Higher Than Heaven,” “May,” and “Stand Up.”

37. Tori Amos, “Night of Hunters”
One of the less conventional popular artists of the past 20 years, Tori Amos has always taken chances. Some have worked better than others, but this one—a popular album based on classical influences—is a beautiful collection. Key songs: “Shattering Sea,” “Job’s Coffin,” and “Carry.”

36. Allen Stone, “Allen Stone”
Another white boy singing R&B, Allen Stone combines gospel riffs with soul sensibilities to fashion his own sound. On this, his second album, Stone has hit his stride with highly listenable tunes that will have you tapping your toes. Key songs: “Sleep,” “Celebrate Tonight,” and “Say So.”

35. Sarah Jarosz, “Follow Me Down”
This singer-songwriter from Texas draws on country, bluegrass, and other genres to deliver an album that combines her excellent banjo/mandolin work with lovely vocals and backing support from a wide range of successful artists. “Follow Me Down” deserve serious attention. Key songs: “Run Away,” “Annabelle Lee,” and “Gypsy.”

34. Indigo Girls, “Beauty Queen Sister”
It’s been a while since the Indigo Girls were on the radar, but this album is a return to the type of gorgeous melodies, thoughtful lyrics, and artful musicianship that has made Amy and Emily so successful. Key songs: “John,” “We Get to Feel It All,” “Making Promises,” and “Able to Sing.”

33. Everlast, “Songs of the Ungrateful Living”
Everlast (Erik Schrody) is an acquired taste. Listed (for lack of a better label) as hip-hop/rap, his gruff voice and intelligent lyrics are a far cry from the obscenity-laced rants that currently populate the genre. This album is one of his best. Key songs: “I Get By,” “Long Time,” and the Sam Cooke classic, “A Change Is Gonna Come.”

32. Telekinesis, “12 Desperate Straight Lines”
Michael Lerner is the brainchild behind Seattle-based Telekinesis, which burst onto the scene last year and continues its brand of infectious indie pop with this album. Key songs: “Please Ask for Help,” “Dirty Thing,” and “Gotta Get It Right Now.”

31. Joss Stone, “LP1”
Joss Stone could sing almost anything, and I would buy it. Her lush, emotional, bluesy voice is one of the true gems of modern popular music. Fortunately, this album returns her to the R&B roots which made us all first take notice. Key songs: “Karma,” “Last One to Know,” “Somehow,” and “Take Good Care.”

30. Paul Simon, “So Beautiful or So What”
Every now and then, Paul Simon releases an album that reminds us why we fell in love with and continue to revel in the talents of this amazing artist and individual. This is one of those Albums. While it may not be so Earth-jarring as “Graceland” (what is?), it still takes the kinds of musical chances for which Simon has become known. Key songs: “The Afterlife,” “Getting Ready for Christmas Day,” “Dazzling Blue,” and the title song.

29. Goapele, “Break of Dawn”
Goapele (pronounced gwa-puh-LAY) is a singer-songwriter from Oakland who is known for her superb R&B voice and her socially-conscious lyrics. Although this, her fifth album, tones down the social activism, it presents an outstanding display of her exceptional vocal talent. Key songs: “Undertow,” “Hush,” and “Pieces.”

28. Foster the People, “Torches”
Led by Mark Foster, this LA-based trio combines dance grooves with indie-rock to present a debut album that has caught on throughout a wide range of music circles. Every song reminds us that music should be fun to hear, hum, and/or sing. Key songs: “Helena Beat,” “Pumped Up Kicks,” and “I Would Do Anything for You.”

27. Ximena Sariñana, “Ximena Sariñana”
The daughter of Mexican film director Fernando Sariñana and screenwriter Carolina Rivera, Ximena Sariñana appeared in several Mexican TV shows and movies before releasing her first album in 2008. On this, her second album (her first English-language effort), she demonstrates her own brand of inventive pop music. Key songs: “Different,” “Echo Park,” and “Wrong Miracle.”

26. Tom Waits, “Bad As Me”
Having written and performed some of the greatest songs of all time over his 40-year career, Tom Waits’s always gruff voice had recently started to sound like sandpaper on a chalkboard. Then he released this beautiful collection of heartfelt songs, some of which are destined to become classics. Just as Adele had a huge hit with her gorgeous remake of a later Dylan song, I can envision some young artist covering “Back In the Crowd” from this album. In the meantime, you can enjoy what Tom Waits has done here. Key songs: “Chicago, “Back In the Crowd,” and “Last Leaf.”

25. Fleet Foxes, “Helplessness Blues”
With their first album in 2008, Fleet Foxes brought melodic harmonies back to the center of popular music. Three years later, the second album from this Seattle-based group expands on that approach. Sounding something like how Brian Wilson might construct a choir, they have built a beautiful tapestry of sound into a modern pop album. Key songs: “Montezuma,” “Helplessness Blues,” and “Lorelai.”

24. Sixx:A.M., “This Is Gonna Hurt”
The brainchild of Motley Crue bassist, Nicky Sixx, this is a hard-rock trio based in Los Angeles. They were originally formed in 2007 to record the soundtrack to Sixx’s autobiography, The Heroine Diaries, but with this album, they have become a bona fide rock band, and the results are surprisingly good. Key songs: “This Is Gonna Hurt,” “Lies of the Beautiful People,” and “Skin.”

23. My Brightest Diamond, “All Things Will Unwind”
As Monty Python used to say, “and now for something completely different.” My Brightest Diamond is essentially whatever founder Shara Worden wants it to be, combining elements of opera, chamber music, and offbeat rock. On the first two albums, the results were mixed, but this album brings it all together into a highly enjoyable musical celebration. Key songs: “We Added It Up,” “Reaching Through to the Other Side,” and “High Low Middle.”

22. SuperHeavy, “SuperHeavy”
It sounds like the billing for a benefit concert: Mick Jagger, Dave Stewart, Joss Stone, Damian Marley, and A.R. Rahman. Except in this case, rather than separate acts, they’re all in the same band, which they humorously named Superheavy. Combining a wide variety of styles and genres, the album benefits from the unique talents of its members. Key songs: “Miracle Worker,” “Energy,” “Beautiful People,” and “World Keeps Turning.”

21. Chris Pierce, “I Can Hear You”
Despite releasing four studio albums and touring with Seal, this artist is still relatively unknown. But the truth is that Chris Pierce is a joy to hear, and with this album, maybe more people will listen. His silky, classy voice and blues-based inflections make each song its own work of beauty. Key songs: “Let Yourself Smile,” “Meet Me In the Vineyard,” and “Hope She’ll Be Happier.”

20. Middle Brother, “Middle Brother”
The front men for Deer Tick, Dawes, and Delta Spirit have formed this trio and released an album that displays their individual and combined musical talents. There is nothing artificial or over-produced about this effort—just straightforward alt-rock being played by people who know what they’re doing. Key songs: “Blue Eyes, “Middle Brother,” and “Someday.”

19. Jack’s Mannequin, “People and Things”
Andrew McMahon left Something Corporate in 2004, and took several bandmates with him to form Jack’s Mannequin. A year later, he 2005, McMahon was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), which is currently in remission. In the meantime, the band has released three albums, and this is by far the best, combining a range of styles and artists. Key songs: “My Racing Thoughts,” “Release Me,” and “Restless Dream.”

18. The Script, “Science & Faith”
This Irish band’s second studio album is a delightful collection of songs that explore life and love through a combination of pop, hip-hop, and indie-rock. Everything works on this album, from the atmosphere to the lyrics to the beats to the inclusion of artists like B.o.B. Key songs: “For the First Time,” “Nothing,” “Science and Faith,” “This = Love,” and “Walk Away.”

17. Patrick Stump, “Soul Punk”
The creative force and lead singer of Fall Out Boy, Patrick Stump has fashioned his first solo album, which combines on the energy that is the hallmark of the band, with a clear, straightforward delivery and various musical styles. The songs are interesting, fun, and you’ll find yourself humming them as you walk down the street. Key songs: “Everybody Wants Somebody,” “When I Made You Cry,” “This City,” and “Spotlight (Oh Nostalgia).”

16. The Decemberists, “The King Is Dead”
While I always liked the Decemberists for their songwriting skills, I also felt that their music was too jangly and reflected a certain superficiality…until this album. This is by far their best work to date, and I hope it represents a new direction for this perennial indie rock band. There is a depth that the band was never before able to achieve and the songs seem truer and clearer, both lyrically and musically. Key songs: “Calamity Song,” “January Hymn,” and “This Is Why We Fight.”

15. Christina Perri, “Lovestrong.”
An unknown waitress until one of her songs (“Jar of Hearts”) was used on the TV show, “So You Think You Can Dance,” Christina Perri found 100,000 people downloading her song in a two-week period of 2010. There’s a good reason for that—the song, and the subsequent album—is very good. This is the kind of music that, when done well as it is here, is simultaneously entertaining and exhilarating. Key songs: “Bluebird,” “Distance,” and “Jar of Hearts.”

14. Beth Hart & Joe Bonamassa, “Don’t Explain”
Last year, I wrote in my blog about the guitar genius that is Joe Bonamassa, who combines blues and rock guitar into a tour de force. Here, he collaborates with Beth Hart, the pianist/vocalist who had a hit in the 90s with “LA Song” (the song with the reprise, “Man I’ve got to get out of this town”). Together, they have fashioned an album that makes the most their considerable talents. If you like honest blues-rock, this one is for you. Key songs: “I’ll Take Care of You,” “Well, Well,” and the Etta James classic, “I’d Rather Go Blind.”

13. Original Broadway Cast, “The Book of Mormon”
Every year, I try to determine the best Broadway album to include on this list. This year, there was no contest—“The Book of Mormon” is that good. Strangely enough, it was written by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators and producers of “South Park,” who combined with Robert Lopez, (who wrote “Avenue Q”) to develop an irreverent but incredibly funny look at what it means to be Mormon. Key songs: “Hello!” “You and Me (But Mostly Me),” “Hasa Diga Eebowai,” and “Believe.”

12. Architecture In Helsinki, “Moment Bends”
Despite the name, this Australian ensemble has nothing to do with architecture or Helsinki. What they do have is a large number of instruments and people who know how to play them…very well. They have been described as idiosyncratic, but that could apply to many artists on the scene today. I think of them more as eclectic, but whatever term you use, just sit back and listen. Key songs: “Desert Island,” “Escapee,” and “Contact High.”

11. Tom Morello: The Nightwatchman, “World Wide Rebel Songs”
The former lead guitarist of Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave, Tom Morello has adopted the moniker, “The Nightwatchman” for three albums with socially conscious themes. This is the best of those albums, and it shows a rock artist at the top of his craft, backed by a group of musicians he calls the Freedom Fighter Orchestra. It is reminiscent of vintage Bob Dylan, and it deserves to be heard. Key songs: “Black Spartacus Heart Attack Machine,” “Save the Hammer for the Man,” and “The Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse.”

10. St. Vincent, “Strange Mercy”
Singer-songwriter Annie Clark has been performing under the name St. Vincent since 2007. This is her second, full-length, studio album, and it represents her best work so far. Clark has a special give for modifying her voice to reflect different moods, and her use of instrumentation helps to create a completely absorbing album. Key songs: “Cruel,” “Dilettante,” and “Year of the Tiger.”

9. Butch Walker and The Black Widows, “The Spade”
Formerly the front man of Marvelous 3, this is Walker’s sixth studio album since leaving that band. But here, he is backed by a new band—the Black Widows—and the result is a superbly played set of memorable, upbeat songs that remind us why we liked rock and roll in the first place. Key songs: “Bodegas and Blood,” “Summer of ‘89,” and “Synthesizers.”

8. Asa, “Beautiful Imperfection”
In 2009, Asa’s debut album appeared on my list, and this, her follow-up, is just as good. Born in Paris and raised in Lagos, Nigeria, this is an artist with a beautiful voice and a stylistic way with every song. Drawing on influences from around the world, Asa takes you on a journey with every phrase of every song. Key songs: “Why Can’t We,” “Be My Man,” and “The Way I Feel.”

7. The Civil Wars, “Barton Hollow”
Although they’ve been releasing digital music since 2009, this Nashville based duo has released their first, full, studio album here, and it is indeed a gem. The harmonies are beautiful, the melodies are lush, and the production is straightforward and unobtrusive. Key songs: “Barton Hollow,” “20 Years,” “Poison & Wine,” and the Leonard Cohen classic, “Dance Me to the End of Love.”

6. Terra Naomi, “To Know I’m Ok”
In the years since 2002, Terra Naomi has recorded 4 albums, but this one really finds her hitting her stride. She is perhaps best known for her 2007 single, “Say It’s Possible,” but even that lacked the depth she displays on “To Know I’m OK.” For the first time with this release, she seems like a singer-songwriter rather than a pop performer. Her voice here is beautiful and passionate and worthy or repeated listening. Key songs: “You for Me,” “Someday Soon,” and “I’ll Be Waiting.”

5. Matt Nathanson, “Modern Love”
Originally from Lexington, MA but now residing in San Francisco, Matt Nathanson has had a lengthy journey since his emergence as a solo acoustic artist in the early 90s to his latest release, Modern Love, which employs complex instrumentation, including a horn section, to support his 12-string guitar and expressive vocals. His lyrics reflect a sense of maturity—more certain and less angst-ridden than those of his earlier work. Overall, this is a very strong set of songs. Key songs: “Faster,” “Modern Love,” and “Run.”

4. tUnE-yArDs, “Whokill”
Connecticut-based artist Merrill Garbus has released this brilliant, offbeat album under the unusually capitalized moniker, tUnE-yArDs. Almost impossible to describe, the album employs various instruments, syncopations, and recording techniques to present a pastiche of sounds that come together into something that must be heard. Key songs: “My Country,” “Bizness,” and “Killa.”

3. Brett Dennen, “Loverboy”
Another artist that is finding his groove—Brett Dennen’s fourth album, “Loverboy,” is more upbeat and danceable than his previous work. This is an exuberant expression of how much Dennen really likes making music, yet it still draws on the expressive, soaring, tenor vocals that have been a hallmark of his music since his first album in 2005. Key songs: “Sydney (I’ll Come Running),” “Dancing At a Funeral,” “Comeback Kid (That’s My Dog),” and “Make You Fall In Love With Me.”

2. Zee Avi, “Ghostbird”
In 2009, I listed this artist’s debut album as the sixth best album of the year. Now, she’s moved up to second place with another unique set of songs that draw on a world of instruments and beats reflective of her upbringing in Kuala Lumpur and her schooling in London. Every song is wonderfully conceived and recorded to maximize its impact. Even the beautiful “Concrete Wall” is performed in a multi-track a capella style amidst a backing vocal of “boom she clack clack.” This is music that if you heard it in passing would make you take notice. If you give it an honest listening, you may be hooked. Key songs: “Swell Window,” “Milestone Moon,” “The Book of Morris Johnson,” and “Concrete Wall.”

1. Adele: “21”
If you peruse the lists of the greatest albums ever recorded, you will find very few acoustic efforts by solo artists. The two that instantly come to mind are Carol King’s “Tapestry” and Joni Mitchell’s “Blue.” And yes, I’m putting Adele’s “21” in that august company. In 2008, I listed Adele’s “19” as the third best album of the year, and I wrote, “she will doubtless be a fixture on the scene in the coming years.” However, I didn’t expect that two years later (the album was recorded in 2010), Adele would record a set of songs with this much depth, strength, and beauty. From the first guitar picks of “Rolling in the Deep” to the final, quiet sorrow of “I Found a Boy,” this album is as thoroughly enjoyable an album as you’re likely to see in the modern music environment. Produced by the legendary Rick Rubin and Paul Epworth, this is an ideal showcase for Adele’s vocal and songwriting skills. Her quiet cover of the Cure’s “Lovesong” only adds to the mystique, and “Someone Like You” is already a massive hit. I can only hope that there are no long-term ill effects from the vocal cord hemorrhage Adele experienced after recording this album, a condition that required surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital. After all, if she can make an album like this at 21 years of age, we can only look forward to her future efforts. Key songs: “Rolling In the Deep,” “Turning Tables,” “Set Fire to the Rain,” “One and Only,” “Lovesong,” and “Someone Like You.”

The following are all excellent albums that deserve Honorable Mention (alphabetically by artist):

• Alkaline Trio, “Damnesia”
• Amos Lee, “Mission Bell”
• Arctic Monkeys, “Suck It and See”
• Ari Hest, “Sunset Over Hope Street”
• Beirut, “The Rip Tide”
• The Belle Brigade, “The Belle Brigade”
• Ben Sollee, “Inclusions”
• Bjork, “Biophilia”
• Blink-182, “Neighborhoods”
• Bon Iver, “Bon Iver”
• The Chain Gang of 1974, “Wayward Fire”
• City and Colour, “Little Hell”
• Coldplay, “Mylo Xyloto”
• CSS, “La Liberacion”
• Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr., “It’s a Corporate World”
• Death Cab for Cutie, “Codes and Keys”
• Deer Tick, “Divine Providence”
• Emm Gryner, “Northern Gospel”
• Feist, “Metals”
• Florence + The Machine, “Ceremonials”
• Girls, “Father, Son, Holy Ghost”
• Incubus, “If Not Now, When?”
• Iron & Wine, “Kiss Each Other Clean”
• Josh Rouse & The Long Vacations, “Josh Rouse & The Long Vacations”
• Kimya Dawson, “Thunder Thighs”
• Lenka, “Two”
• M83, “Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming.”
• Mates of State, “Mountaintops”
• The Mountain Goats, “All Eternals Deck”
• Owl City, “All Things Bright and Beautiful”
• The Pains of Being Pure At Heart, “Belong”
• Panic! At the Disco, “Vices & Virtues”
• Pieta Brown, “Mercury”
• Portugal. The Man, “In the Mountain In the Cloud”
• Puscifer, “Conditions of My Parole”
• Radiohead, “The King of Limbs”
• Randa & The Soul Kingdom, “What You Need”
• Real Estate, “Days”
• Red Hot Chili Peppers, “I’m With You”
• The Revelations, “Concrete Blues”
• Seether, “Holding Onto Strings Better Left to Fray”
• Sondre Lerche, “Sondre Lerche”
• The Static Jacks, “If You’re Young”
• Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks, “Mirror Traffic”
• The Strokes, “Angles”
• The Summer Set, “Everything’s Fine”
• Teddy Thompson, “Bella”
• We Are Augustines, “Rise Ye Sunken Ships”
• Wilco, “The Whole Love”
• Yuck, “Yuck”