Countdown: Best Albums of 2011

I know it’s a little late (read: very) but I’ve finally decided on what I consider to be the best albums of 2011. 2010 was a weak year for music, in my opinion, and it’s great to see the music industry, both mainstream and indie, see an increase in quality. What I really enjoyed is there was just as much good stuff in both camps. Whether you listen to Kelly Clarkson or The Kills, you have great music to listen to. Which brings up the great occurrence that it wasn’t just Rock, Pop and Hip Hop that was dealing good music. As a matter of fact, I believe that Pop and Rock unfortunately remained relatively stagnant creatively this year. Some of the best music this year didn’t fall under those categories. But enough preaching. Let us get to my Top 10 Albums of 2011.

10. Sucker Punch (Soundtrack)

I didn’t expect to like this album this much. I was even surprised how much I liked this album while I created this list. Movie soundtracks are usually nothing to get excited about. They’re usually just random songs cobbled together to promote a film. This, however, is an exception in the most positive way. At just nine songs, it comprises of re-recorded songs sung by the cast of the movie but what a selection and what performances. Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This) is transformed into a sultry slither as ambient sounds give Emily Browning’s vocals a quiet yet terrified quality while still laced with foreboding. Where Is My Mind is recreated lovingly as well but my vote for the top of the heap goes to the faithful yet determined march given to the remake of White Rabbit. The final battle quality along with the army bravado applied to the middle eight would have fit perfectly in a video game or a darker telling of its namesake, Alice in Wonderland. Of course, Love Is A Drug impresses here as well. For an album you can play while in a meditative state (or medicated, no judgment) you’ll do well to get the Sucker Punch Soundtrack.

9. Blink 182: Neighborhoods

Let me just get this out of the way. I can imagine the only reason Tom DeLonge agreed to make a Blink 182 reunion album is because they allowed him to basically just create an Angels & Airwaves album. This doesn’t sound like a Blink 182 album sonically but while AAA albums often sound bloated and preachy, the other members of the trio managed to dial down the pompousness and deliver a surprisingly focused album. The AAA influence is immediately obvious in the first track, Ghost on the Dance Floor, but instead of grandiose staging, the constant reverb and echoing guitars are used more as a backdrop than the spectacle and it improves from there. Heart’s All Gone is a furious yet mature blast of energy from one of Pop Punk’s elder statesmen, Up All Night is a great song with a grinding guitar riff and a great performance from DeLonge, and After Midnight recalls earlier Blink 182 songs and shows where the band of before has become now. It seems when given direction, DeLonge’s new sound can be well written and sound inspiring but when it’s not, you get Angels & Airwaves’ LOVE Part 2 album.

8. Arctic Monkeys: Suck It and See

The Arctic Monkeys were the darlings of the British indie scene when they exploded onto the scene with 2006’s Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not. A similar follow-up was released the following year but then the Monkeys tried something new. Their third album Humbug was a more reserved affair that unfortunately showed that mid tempo songs were not the band’s strong suit. Suck It and See has been heralded as a return to form but their previous effort was not completely abandoned. The first song, She’s Thunderstorm, is a song very much in the vein of Humbug, but it’s done better here as the screeching guitar hasn’t been abandoned completely. The lead single, Don’t Sit Down ‘Cause I’ve Moved Your Chair, is a trudging stomp of a song that recalls the band’s earlier work and it’s dirty delivery is a smirk inducing pleasure. However, the stacking riff in Brick By Brick is an album highlight that shows a mixture of the Monkeys’ two sounds merge together extremely well. Singalong songs like The Hellcat Spangled Shalalala and Black Treacle show just how awesome the Arctic Monkeys’ new album is despite not truly being a regurgitation of their earlier work but an evolution of it.

7. Lenny Kravitz: Black and White America

Lenny Kravitz hasn’t been pumping out the hits as of late but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t been recording good music. Black and White America is supposed to be Lenny’s long awaited “Funk” album but it serves better to call it more of a Funk Rock album with some Soul thrown in for good diverse measure. Come On Get It is an awesome Funk Rock track that demands you thrust your head forward while snarling, while Liquid Jesus is a smooth keyboard laced track that harkens back to the Philly sound of the 70s. Lenny doesn’t stop there though and one of the more diverse songs is Boongie Drop that features a one step climb in sound that manages to be abstract yet danceable that also gets some help from Jay-Z and DJ Military. Stand may be the song released as a single but groovy tracks like Rock Star City Life and the title track are more representative of the album’s content. Come for the Funk, stay for the fun.

6. The Black Keys: El Camino

The Black Keys have achieved fame and commercial success after nearly 10 years of slugging it out on the indie scene. Comparisons to The White Stripes, while understandable, do the band a disservice, as it pegs them as copycats. The Black Keys are more of a return to form for Rock music than a rehash of another band and El Camino is a fine representation of that. Sure you get your relatively radio friendly single in Lonely Boy, the album’s opening track, but then you’ll soon be engulfed in the scorching riff of Money Maker and the pounding delivery of Stop Stop. From track five onward, it’s non-stop dinosaur rock-influenced bar music that makes you wish you had a denim jacket on and that unkempt hair and beard you cut and shaved after college. Don’t forget about Little Black Submarines, a song that starts mellow before bursting into a whirl of attitude and aggression.

5. Florence + The Machine: Ceremonials

Florence Welsh, I pronounce you the Siren of Indie Pop. The Machine is a name given to various collaborators that helped with the creation of her albums and her second is nothing short of breathtaking. Welsh’s voice demands your attention, whether she’s saying Only If For A Night or directing you to Shake It Out. The production throughout the album serves to display Welsh’s voice and its strong and powerful delivery. It simply entrancing in What The Water Gave Me and daring in No Light, No Light. The Baroque Pop inspired album draws comparisons to 90s piano rock starlets Tori Amos and Fiona Apple as well as Annie Lennox of the Eurythmics but those comparisons are actually combined here for a sound all Florence + The Machine’s own.

4. Alice Cooper: Welcome 2 My Nightmare

I almost sure most people aren’t even aware Alice Cooper is still around, let alone still recording albums. Well, he is, people and his latest is a continuation of a character first created in the first Welcome to My Nightmare, recorded back in 1975. That’s right, this is a sequel to a 37 year old album and it may be the conclusion. This is the latest chapter in the character Steven’s story, continuing his battle for sanity against the devil. The story finds Steven accepting he isn’t strong enough to resist the dark lord and the song Caffeine tells of Steven’s futile attempts to keep himself awake behind a kickass hard rock song with a hypnotizing circle type guitar riff. Disco Bloodbath Boogie Fever is a fun mockery of recent ElectroPop songs and it details Steven gunning down a club full of party people in Hell. When Hell Comes Home is a dark grungy song that chugs with purpose as it reveals the fate of Steven’s father and the surprisingly fun What Baby Wants features Ke$ha (with that stupid dollar sign in her name) as the Devil himself (now taking the form of a temptress) as Steven finally succumbs his soul to the under lord via kinky sex. It’s sad to see the end of Steven story but it’s been a wild and crazy fun ride. Plus there’s still room for spinoffs and “interquels”.

3. R.E.M.: Collapse Into Now

Collapse Into Now became R.E.M.’s swan song as the band broke up after being together for 31 years. As far as swan songs go, this is one of the best. Embracing their college rock / alternative roots, Michael Stipe, Mike Mills and Peter Buck went out with a thunderous but compassionate roar. Rockers like All The Best and Alligator, Aviator, Autopilot, Antimatter tear through their arrangements like their livelihoods depend on it, while slower tempo songs like Oh My Heart and Me, Marlon Brando, Marlon Brando and I get heartfelt deliveries from Stipe in that barritone warble voice that always sounds like his bottom lip is shaking from shock. Blue, the albums closer, is a poignant composition that serves as a farewell to an audience that isn’t aware it’s leaving. However, it’s the album’s opener, Discoverer, that shines above the other songs on this album as it declares from the tallest building “We are the originators; the rest are the imitators.” The whole Alternative genre is in eternal debt to R.E.M. and here is the monument to the group’s last hurrah. Admire the skill level and remember that we all go back to where we belong.

2. Super Heavy: Super Heavy

The biggest super group to be formed this year, I’ve never seen such a diverse collection of musicians in my life. You got Dave Stewart from the Eurythmics, Bob Marley’s son Damien, soul songstress Joss Stone, A.R. Rahman from Indian composition fame and the frontman to end all frontmen, Mick Jagger from the Rolling Stones. Each came from a different genre (Pop, Reggae, Soul, Hindustani, and Rock) and all were from various generations of music. For contrast, Joss Stone is 24 while Mick Jagger is 68. Yet, somehow not only does it work, but it’s easily the most diverse album released in 2011. The title track is an electro-infused indian song that grandstands the band like no one’s business and Miracle Worker is a one of the coolest reggae songs I’ve heard in a long time. I Can’t Take It No More is a charging Rock song with spew spitting lyrics from Mick Jagger that begins with a screaming Joss Stone demanding “What the Fuck is Going On!?” I would recommend getting the Deluxe Edition of this album, as the bonus tracks are just as good as what’s on the standard edition. This might be just a one off album but I hope not.

1. The Decemberists: The King is Dead

Sometimes you don’t need to tell a story. Sometimes you don’t need to make a grand gesture. Sometimes all you need is good songs. A return to the basics without additional touches to make it something special. After their incredible concept album The Hazards of Love in 2009, which I named my favorite album of that year, The Decemberists decided to do something a bit more reserved. A Folk and Country tinged album then appeared in early 2011 and set the bar for the remainder of the year. The King is Dead doesn’t have a moody production or a focus on previously done style. It doesn’t come at you at full throttle, it doesn’t have a proclamation to make and it doesn’t have a variety of genres. What it does have is some of the best written and arranged songs of the year in their most simplistic and raw forms. It does have an atmosphere but its good music. The Decemberists want you to sing along, not appreciate what they’ve created for you and they succeed overwhelmingly. Calamity Song, Rox In The Box and Down By The Water are all foot tapping good times that’ll have you singing every word and memorizing every chord. The jolly affair that is Don’t Carry It All however, is the wondrous celebration that welcomes you to a grand ole time that is this collection of songs. I’m going to cheat a bit here and also recommend that you also get the companion EP Long Live The King which was released later in the year. It features some outtakes from the album that are just as good as what’s on the album proper. The Decemberists are now on break but I await their return with great fervor as The Decemberists have quickly become one of my favorite bands in recent memory.

There you have it. Ten of the best albums you can get from last year. I’ll leave you with a quick list of albums that didn’t quite make the cut. Be sure to check out my list of The Top 20 Songs of 2011, which is coming up soon.

Beyoncé: 4

Jay-Z & Kanye West: Watch The Throne

The Kills: Blood Pressure

Bright Eyes: The People’s Key

The Cars: Move Like This

The Sounds: Something to Die For

Joss Stone: LP1

Adele: 21

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