Florence + The Machine – Ceremonials
Continuing her reign as one of rock’s coolest, boldest singers, Florence Welch of Florence + The Machine delivers an album that builds on all the promise of 2009’s Lungs, and then some. She has an ear for the eerie, for layers of harmonies and instrumentation that sound like the background to your most haunted dreams. And yet, in the fractured poetry of her lyrics – hordes of devils and quiet drownings feature prominently – there is an honestly that resonates through every word and every chord.
Standout tracks: “Shake It Out,” “No Light, No Light”
Red Hot Chili Peppers – I’m With You
It took just two spins of this album for me to declare it my top album of 2011, and four months after its release, my verdict still stands. This disc streamlines 2006’s sprawling Stadium Arcadium, presenting the best of these California rockers who have only gotten better with age. From the magnum opus “Brendan’s Death Song” (which I honestly have trouble listening to too often because I worry about playing it out – it’s that wrenching and rafter-reaching) to the thrash of newcomer Brendan Klinghoffer’s guitars throughout, there’s not a song on this record that isn’t their signature mix of raw yet well-crafted.
Standout tracks: “Brendan’s Death Song,” “Meet Me At The Corner,” “Annie Wants A Baby”
David Guetta – Nothing But The Beat
When pop sounds this good, it’s hard not to love it. French superstar DJ David Guetta is a mastermind of the genre, creating slick, revved-up beats that sound all the more excellent when paired with the who’s who of pop: Nicki Minaj, Usher, Jessie J, and the list of collaborators goes on. Not a lot of substance here, of course, but sometimes you need music that makes you want to dance, drive fast, live hard. Plus, anyone who can make me not despise Nicki Minaj is clearly doing their job well.
Standout tracks: “Turn Me On (featuring Nicki Minaj)”, Without You (featuring Usher)”, “Titanium (featuring Sia)”
Lady GaGa – Born This Way
I find it strangely refreshing that for all the media blitz surrounding Lady GaGa, when you strip away the egg costumes and swaths of glitter, there is an amazing artist to be found. With every release, her sound evolves and matures, combining sparkling, sassy rhythms with sheer bravado. It’s heartening to have a superstar like GaGa putting out the message that it’s okay to be weird and different because we were “Born This Way.” Elsewhere, material like the stomping girl power anthem “Schi-e” and gorgeous love song “You And I” (featuring Queen’s Brian May on guitars!) makes this a perfect pop record with surprising heart.
Standout tracks: “Schi-e,” “Marry The Night,” “You & I”
Adele – 21
Adele has the curse of awesomeness. You can’t turn on the radio without hearing the now-classic kiss-off “Rolling In The Deep” or “Someone Like You,” which even on the thousandth listen remains starkly resonant. But it’s hard not to love this diva with the soaring voice and the guts to wear her heartbreak on her sleeve. 21 is a perfect mix of ballads that make your chest ache and stomping, powerful songs that would make anyone think twice before wronging Adele.
Standout tracks: “Set Fire To The Rain,” “Someone Like You”
Foo Fighters – Wasting Light
To put it simply, this is rock done right: throbbing guitar riffs, raucous drums, Dave Grohl’s stadium-ready wails. Every cut on Wasting Light is coiled tight with power, ready to unload at the listener in a crash of power chords. Even the more heartfelt songs (“Dear Rosemary,” “Walk”) are churning with energy. For an album that’s this solid, I can only imagine how much better this material is played live.
Standout tracks: “Arlandia,” “I Should Have Known,” “Bridge Burning”
Bad Meets Evil – Hell: The Sequel
This is an album that begs to offend you; oddly enough, that’s why I adore Eminem, who pairs up with former enemy Royce Da 5”9’ on this splintering, raucous collection of rhymes. Each rapper is in an eternal struggle to outmatch the other, and it’s an incredible thing to witness them boast and brag among equally blistering backbeats. This disc is like the twisted stepsibling of Kanye West and Jay-Z’s matchup, and I don’t think these two MCs would have it any other way.
Standout tracks: “Welcome 2 Hell,” “Echo”
Bon Iver – Bon Iver
This is the album that lifts Bon Iver from the myth of Bon Iver – that is, the frozen cabin and heartache that spilled out in the form of For Emma, Forever Ago. Emma is still probably my favorite album of all time, so no release will ever come close. But this self-titled disc is excellent nonetheless, full of textured soundscapes and cryptic, refrigerator-magnet poetry that begs to be dissected. When he sighs, “At once I knew I was not magnificent” on the shambling, gorgeous “Holocene,” it was the moment that solidified the album for me. Bon Iver can wash his albums in marvelous layers and lyrics you have to hold up to the light to get a grip on, but his way of rendering emotion and mood is nevertheless strangely precise.
Standout tracks: “Beth/Rest,” “Calgary”
Death Cab For Cutie – Codes And Keys
I owe this album a full review, but suffice to say, it’s another strong entry in the Death Cab catalogue. Subtler and more experimental than 2008’s Narrow Stairs, the tracks here shimmer with slow-build, and Ben Gibbard’s lyrics are as lovely as ever. This record saw Gibbard falling in love and getting married, and such lightness is written in the rhythms of lines like “We are one, we are alive” from the album’s title track and songs like “Stay Young, Go Dancing.”
Standout tracks: “Home Is A Fire,” “You Are A Tourist”
Jay-Z & Kanye West – Watch The Throne
Nobody does epic quite like the combination of Jay-Z and Kanye West. Rap’s titans come together on this ostentatious, glorious clash of egos, and it’s just awesome. Amid the boasting about their collective riches is some honest musing on fatherhood (“New Day”), race, and growing older. Pick this up for the novelty value alone and stay for the two of the most legendary MCs battling it out, not to mention some excellent cameos. Lead single “Otis” morphs Otis Redding into a fabulous boast for the ages (“I made ‘Jesus Walks’ so I’m never going to hell” – of course, Kanye) and it’s basically the album in a nutshell: fun and fabulous.
Standout tracks: “Why I Love You,” “No Church In The Wild,” “New Day”
Lupe Fiasco – Lasers
Under pressure from his label, Lupe Fiaso nevertheless put out one of his most accessible albums to date. It’s probably more radio friendly than purists would like, but there’s something to be said about his ability to craft songs this alive and honest that manage to stay stuck in your head. From the raw power of “Words I Never Said” to the rich production of “State Run Radio,” every track here is worth the struggle it took to get this album released.
Standout tracks: “The Show Goes On,” “Beautiful Lasers”
Okkervil River – I Am Very Far
Shame on me for getting caught up with so much other music this year that I let this release slip by me. As always, Will Sheff and co. crafts songs that pierce you, that make you want to do something profound to match the mood of the music. From the shivering violins of “White Shadow Waltz” to the strangely funky “Your Past Life As A Blast,” which reminds me of David Byrne, I Am Very Far requires your attention but will pay off in spades for the effort.
Standout songs: “The Valley,” “Your Past Life As A Blast”