Writing this list actually made me feel nostalgic for 2011 already. It was such a great year for music, at least for a music fan with diverse tastes like mine. I only realized what a great year it was once I started typing up this list. I thought I’d struggle to come up with 25 great albums, but before I knew it I’d named, well, 60.
I was tempted to simply list these albums without ranking them with numbers, but it occurred to me that there were albums here that I did like a bit more than others, albums that I feel you simply must check out before you die. I ended up feeling like I needed a top 10 to point out which albums I’d consider “must haves.” And once I’d finalized my top 10 I just felt like assigning the rest of them numbers for the fun of it. As I compared these albums, putting them in order, so many songs from them played in my head and it actually proved to be quite a rush. I started getting lazy and not comparing them so much when I got past the top 30 though, so whether an album is number 36 or 42 doesn’t really mean all that much.
60. EMA: Past Life Martyred Saints
59. Ben Lee: Deeper Into Dream
58. Aiden: Some Kind Of Hate
57. Foster The People: Torches
56. Lenny Kravitz: Black And White America
55. Beyonce: 4
54. Slow Club: Paradise
53. Joker: The Vision
52. The Kills: Blood Pressures
51. Various Artists: Batman Arkham City Soundtrack
50. Alice Cooper: Welcome 2 My Nightmare
49. Jay-Z and Kanye West: Watch the Throne
48. Laura Marling: A Creature I Don’t Know
47. Phantogram: Nightlife
46. Charlotte Gainsbourg: Stage Whisper
45. Madina Lake: World War III
44. Emilie Simon: Frankly Night
43. High Places: Original Colors
42. Brite Futures: Dark Past
41. The Black Keys: El Camino
40. Dia Frampton: Red
39. Anna Ternheim: The Night Visitor
38. PJ Harvey: Let England Shake
37. DJ Shadow: The Less You Know, The Better
36. Various Artists: Drive (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
35. Dum Dum Girls: Only in Dreams
34. Drake: Take Care
33. The Joy Formidable: The Big Roar
32. Rebecca & Fiona: I Love You, Man
31. Wilhelm Tell Me: Excuse My French
30. Kelly Clarkson: Stronger
29. Dillon: This Silence Kills
28. Ane Brun: It All Starts With One
27. Washed Out: Within and Without
26. My Brightest Diamond: All Things Will Unwind
25. Zola Jesus: Conatus
24. The Civil Wars: Barton Hollow
23. Michael Monroe: Sensory Overdrive
22. Bjork: Biophilia
21. The Raveonettes: Raven In The Grave
20. Cults: Cults
Phil Spector-esque, dreamy, 60s sounding pop that also manages to sound very modern. Lovely and often broken-hearted stuff. (I’m not sure the quotes from real cult leaders were necessary but they’re so distorted that you can’t really understand what they’re saying anyway.)
19. Foo Fighters: Wasting Light
Dave Grohl reunites with Butch Vig, the producer of Nirvana’s Nevermind, for the Foo Fighter’s best album since The Colour And The Shape. There are powerful, often gritty rock hooks and earnest lyrics throughout the album.
18. Patrick Wolf: Lupercalia
Patrick Wolf is kind of like a cross between Adam Lambert, The Cure and David Bowie. But there isn’t one particular era of Bowie’s career that he emulates. There are songs you could easily dance to that do call to mind Let’s Dance era Bowie but then there are songs filled with melancholy that recall Bowie’s earlier work, circa Low. Wolf is no Bowie clone, however. He’s one of today’s most original pop singer/songwriters.
17. The Duke Spirit: Bruiser
Vocalist Leila Moss is one of today’s best female rock singers (and singer/songwriters). There are songs on this album that remind me of Blondie, while others remind me of No Doubt. But this is heavier, more arena rock than pop, nevertheless. Great melodies and hooks and some fine slow-burners, too. The Duke Spirit is currently one of rock’s best kept secrets and I hope 2012 brings them the recognition they deserve.
16. Anthrax: Worship Music
The first Anthrax album to feature vocalist Joey Belladonna in over 15 years. And what a blessed reunion it is. A thrash masterpiece that fits right in with their other classic albums, recalling the vibe of State Of Euphoria and Persistence Of Time perfectly. Is it their best album? Maybe not, but it’s certainly one of their best and a true return to form for this thrash metal veterans.
15. Veronica Maggio: Satan I Gatan
The album title translates to “Satan in the streets,” but this third album by Sweden’s high pop priestess never sounds evil. Wickedly delicious is more like it. But I suppose you could call it sinful. The first single is called “Jag Kommer” and that translates to “I’m coming” and we are talking about coming in the sexual sense. She purrs as she sings it, “jag kommer, jag kommer, jag kommer, baby.” It’s a pop music orgasm and the album is full of them. Check out her website here: http://www.veronicamaggio.se/#music
14. M83: Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming
It’s often difficult to understand the lyrics on this double album, Anthony Gonzalez using vocals more as a background instrument than a focal point. But that’s just fine because these dreamy pop songs have such dazzling music that you would still be captivated by them even if they were all instrumentals. This album creates sonic landscapes unlike anything you’ve ever heard before. It’s an amazing ride down a rollercoaster of emotions. Quite the trip indeed.
13. The Pierces: You & I
Their previous album was called Thirteen Tales Of Love & Revenge and they’ve only gotten more emotional and vindictive. Just listen to the opening track, “You’ll Be Mine,” for proof. They make those words sound like a threat AND a heartfelt promise. “Now you know how I feel, and I won’t back down…” It’s beautiful, poetic and sometimes kind of creepy.
12. Butch Walker & The Black Widows: The Spade
I think this is Butch’s weakest album, and it took a long time to grow on me, but it’s still better than most albums released this year. Which means that it’s really, really good because, hello, 2011 was an awesome year for music. If you thought Butch’s previous work was too pop then you’ll probably dig this — it’s raw, kind of gritty rock.
11. Lady Gaga: Born This Way
“The Edge Of Glory” and “Marry The Night” were this year’s musical equivalent of crack cocaine. Highly addictive, big-sounding pop masterpieces. The only bad thing I can say about the album is that it was released edited with the swears all beeped or erased. Here’s hoping 2012 sees the release of the explicit versions.
10. Sixx A.M.: This Is Gonna Hurt
Sixx A.M. is the third side-project band Motley Crue’s Nikki Sixx has created during the past fifteen years, following 58 and Brides Of Destruction. Initially, Sixx A.M. was just supposed to be a one-off project, Sixx collaborating with his longtime songwriting partner and vocalist James Michael and Guns N’ Roses guitarist DJ Ashba. The idea was to create a soundtrack to Sixx’s autobiography The Heroin Diaries. But the album took off, getting a lot of airplay on rock radio and good word of mouth buzz, so much so that Sixx A.M. actually ended up doing some live dates in support of the album, something they’d never envisioned doing. Sixx actually did double duty on some nights as Sixx A.M. actually opened for Motley Crue. Still, they probably didn’t envision themselves doing a second album while they were doing those dates. Or maybe that’s when it did occur to them that they should. Whatever the case, inspiration struck and they made this, their second album, This Is Gonna Hurt. Like their debut, the lyrics are often very inspirational and positive, the music meanwhile being kind of raw and often quite heavy. James Michael’s vocals tie the music and lyrics together nicely, his voice having both a mainstream AOR vibe and a modern rock vibe all at once, though he does go one way or the other on certain songs, doing whatever suits a given song best. The first single, “Lies Of The Beautiful People” is probably your best introduction to the album. It’s hard rock, absolutely, but with a very positive message, that we shouldn’t believe the lies of the beautiful people because we’re all actually beautiful and deserve to feel good about ourselves. Not the sort of song you’d get on a Motley Crue record, and yet it’s actually heavier than much of Motley’s stuff. A must for any hard rock or modern rock fan, for sure. But, fear not, Sixx A.M. never veers into cheesy nu-metal territory.
9. Coeur De Pirate: Blonde
Some of the most beautiful French pop you’ll ever hear. But you won’t find any pre-fab beats or samples or loops on this album. On the contrary, Coeur De Pirate’s songs have a very organic and simple vibe, most built around her lovely piano playing. These songs remind me of Bat For Lashes’ more subtle works, like “The Big Sleep” and “Moon And Moon.” Even if you’re normally opposed to listening to music in foreign languages, you really should check this out if you like any of the great female singer/songwriters, such as Carole King and Joni Mitchell. Standout tracks: “Adieu” and “Danse et danse.”
8. Lights: Siberia
Lights’ debut, The Listening, was a solid pop album and one that managed to walk the fine line between artsy electro-pop and mainstream bubblegum pop. I was very curious to see what she’d do next, hoping she’d go in the artsy direction instead of trying to paint herself as the next Britney Spears. And I’m very happy to say that she did veer off into artsy territory here. That said, her songs aren’t any less accessible. They’re still the sort of pop songs that get you hooked the very first time you listen to them. But she does a lot of interesting things that make her sound truly unique. On the title track, the beats are so loud that they actually sound a bit distorted, which provides an interesting contrast from her syrupy sweet vocals. The album’s first single, “Everybody Breaks A Glass” has even bigger, and more distorted-sounding beats, perhaps thanks to collaborators Holy Fuck & Shad. It’s almost as though the Lights from her debut album did an album produced by Crystal Castles. Very interesting (and often offbeat) beats indeed.
7. Nicola Roberts: Cinderella’s Eyes
When most women from girl groups created by the grandmasters of pop step out and make their solo debut the results tend to be unpleasant and sometimes embarrassing. You always hope these women will do something that’s not the paint by numbers bubblegum they did in their groups but usually the albums end up being precisely that sort of cookie cutter nonsense. Not so with this, the debut solo effort by Girls Aloud’s Nicola Roberts. She did work with some of pop’s biggest songwriters and producers on this album, just as Katy Perry does with her albums, yet these songs somehow have that artsy sort of pop vibe. Unlike bubblegum pop that starts off addictive and quickly loses its flavor, these songs only get better with repeated listenings. Just check out “Beat Of My Drum” and you’re sure to find yourself listening to it over and over again, enjoying it more and more each time. (I have a feeling Madonna’s “Give Me All Your Love” was inspired by it.) And if you’re a sucker for ballads, check out the brutally honest, haunting “Sticks + Stones.”
6. Class Actress: Rapprocher
An awful lot of artists did the 80s synth pop thing last year. Alphabeat, Goldfrapp, The Pipettes, etc. I was quite happy when the fad had seemed to pass when we settled into 2011. Then this gem came along. But Class Actress doesn’t really try to sound 80s — she just incorporates the best elements of 80s synth pop into very modern sounding songs. That’s probably what other artists were trying to do when they did the 80s thing last year but most of them sounded like they were trying too hard to be something that they weren’t when they should have just stuck to what they did best. With Class Actress, the synth sounds perfectly natural and entirely wonderful, creating gorgeous walls of sound that perfectly embrace her addictive choruses and hooks. Just check out the album’s opening track, “Keep You,” and you’ll be addicted.
5. St. Vincent: Strange Mercy
You’d probably call this electro-pop but I’d call it prog-pop if I didn’t dislike prog-rock so much, kind of ruining the whole prog term as far as I’m concerned. But these very artsy, often experimental songs do often veer away from the ol’ verse chorus verse mold. The first track is named after one the best French films of all-time, “Chloe In The Afternoon.” And it just gets better from there. “Surgeon” is one of the most infectious singles of the year, easily.
4. Adele: 21
If you haven’t heard this album yet then you’re probably living under a rock. I believe it was the most successful album of the year and it certainly deserves all of the praise it’s received. Adele is simply amazing. From soulful ballads like “Someone Like You” to the stomping “Rolling In The Deep,” there’s not a bad song on the album.
3. Florence & The Machine: Ceremonials
Ceremonials is Florence’s second album and there’s no sophomore slump here. On the contrary, it’s like her debut, Lungs, on steroids. Bigger beats, even more triumphant choruses, etc. It’s never a case of overkill though. Florence is a master at crafting irresistibly catchy songs without veering into bubblegum pop territory, her clever and often introspective lyrics separating her from that. I dare you to listen to “Shake It Out” and not start dancing or fist-pumping. These songs will move you — often quite literally.
2. Lykke Li: Wounded Rhymes
Lykke Li’s first album was light and sweet. This, her second, was often heavy and more often dark. One of the songs is called “Youth Knows No Pain” and I’m pretty sure that’s supposed to be ironic because the song is full of heartache and the album is full of pain. It’s gorgeous and raw but it’s pain nevertheless. Girl group style choruses offset the dark subject matter of most of the songs. It’s like the Shangri-La’s on a bad acid trip. The production is amazing, too. The loud drums and other percussion instruments all sound so amazing — you’d think you were sitting there in the studio listening to them live. Where her first album was largely electronic, this one is very organic. This is not the second Lykke Li album anyone expected but it’s a unique masterpiece and highly refreshing.
1. Emm Gryner: Northern Gospel
Emm Gryner should be as famous as any of the artists in my top 10 but for some odd reason most of my American friends have never heard of her. You really must hear this amazing album though. Emm is brilliant songwriter on par with Stevie Nicks and Kate Bush. Some of these songs, like “Ciao Monday” and “Last Day On Earth,” are super infectious pop songs that clock in at just under three minutes, though they’ll stay in your head for days once you’ve heard them. I found myself singing along to “Ciao Monday” the very first time I heard it. Lyrically, Emm always speaks from her heart. Whether she’s happily bragging that it’s her last day on earth with an ex lover in her life on “Last Day On Earth” or bidding a bad Monday farewell on “Ciao Monday” she wears her heart on her sleeve with her brutally honest and witty lyrics. She’s also remarkable when it comes to ballads. This album has three moving ones, “Transatlantic,” “Home” and “A Little War.” If you’re a sucker for gorgeous pop ballads then you have to hear these, Emm’s ballads as pretty as Natalie Imbruglia’s and as potent as Carole King’s. Although she favors piano over guitars, I can honestly say that Emm is like the female version of Butch Walker, who is one of my absolute favorite artists on this earth, making this the highest compliment I can possibly give her.