Best of Music 2011: The Best Albums of the Year

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2011 was the year of the rookie. Three of my top selections and two of my honorable mentions were debut albums. It was also one of the best years for new music in recent memory, and I must confess, dear readers, that I was not quite able to listen to every great album in its entirety. But among those I did hear from beginning to end, these were the best.

1. My Morning Jacket – Circuital

When I first heard of My Morning Jacket, before I ever really listened to them, I thought they were a folk band. Then I saw the American Dad! episode “My Morning Straitjacket” and realized that they were in fact a psychedelic band. And when I saw them perform “I’m Amazed” on SNL in 2008, it was quite clear that they were a jam band. As Circuital makes abundantly clear, they are all these things, and so much more. Along with all the elements already mentioned, this album features R&B-quality horns, Satanic black metal (sort of), a song tailor-made for weddings, and some face-melting solos. If it were the seventies, MMJ would be the biggest rock band in the world.
Key Tracks: “Victory Dance,” “Holdin’ on to Black Metal,” “Circuital,” “First Light”

2. The Naked and Famous – Passive Me, Aggressive You

The classic album that Passive Me, Aggressive You most resembles is Dark Side of the Moon: a handful of tracks with single potential mixed with a bunch of atmospheric, mood-setting pieces. Like most great mood-setting pieces, it all adds up to one massive dreamscape. Alisa Xayalith and Thom Powers’ vocals crisscross over each other, creating a sort of whispering that flows throughout much of the album and thereafter does the same in your head. This is the sort of lightness of being that romantics want existence to be like, and it is like that when listening to The Naked and Famous – quite possibly the best (non-comedic) band to ever come out of New Zealand.
Key Tracks: “Young Blood,” “A Wolf in Geek’s Clothing,” “Punching in a Dream”

3. Foster the People – Torches

Foster the People embody what people mean when they use the descriptor “alternative” in the most positive connotation possible. Their sound is unusual when compared to most hits in today’s pop world, but it is also patently catchy – the most important criterion for being played right alongside those Top 40 hits. Thanks to that catchiness and their sunny SoCal attitudes, Mark Foster and company have managed to sneak themes of gun violence, young adult malaise, and social conformity into mainstream radio, dancing the whole time. If it were the nineties, this would have been the biggest album of the year.
Key Tracks: “Pumped Up Kicks,” “Helena Beat,” “Call It What You Want”

4. The Joy Formidable – The Big Roar

The Joy Formidable’s The Big Roar is not the biggest roar that rock music has ever roared (though standout single “Whirring” may just be the biggest roar of 2011), but would we really want fifty minutes of that? But it is “big,” not “biggest” in the title, implying that this is the big mode for The Joy Formidable specifically, and on that count, it certainly delivers. On every track, Ritzy Bryan roars with her vocals and guitar, Rhydian Davies roars with his bass, and Matt Thomas roars with his drums, but they never go unbearably over-the-top. It is rhythmic and melodic – hell, there is even an oxymoronic heads-down shoegazing sensibility in there for good measure.
Key Tracks: “Whirring,” “Austere,” “A Heavy Abacus”

5. Florence + the Machine – Ceremonials

This big voice that is residing in the throat of Florence Welch has decided that everything about Florence must be just as big. Those high and clean, perfectly pitched blasts of raw vocal power that we came to love Flo for are still here, and they are in great supply. Her titles – “What the Water Gave Me,” “Seven Devils,” “Heartlines,” and even something so big as “All This and Heaven Too” – consist of natural and supernatural elements that suggest all that life is made of. Even lines like “What the hell” are pitched at full blast. As Ceremonials approaches an hour, it becomes a bit overwhelming, but I can excuse lengthiness as long as the ambition is plenty evident.
Key Tracks: “Shake It Out,” “Spectrum,” “Heartlines”

6. The Black Keys – El Camino

At first glance, it may seem appropriate to call El Camino a minor effort from the Black Keys, as it arrives hot on the heels of their mainstream breakthrough Brothers, and it is nearly twenty minutes shorter than Brothers. But such a claim would demonstrate a severe misunderstanding of the Black Keys. Brothers is unique in their discography; most of their full-length albums, like El Camino, are around forty minutes, which tends to happen when most of their songs are three-minute, bare-bones blues-rock scorchers. This is just the Keys running in their wheelhouse; some carefully placed distortion is the only ornamentation they allow themselves. (I do feel like I should point out the irony that I am praising the brevity of this album, when one spot above is an album that I slightly criticize for its length, and I thought that Brothers was better than El Camino.)
Key Tracks: “Lonely Boy,” “Hell of a Season,” “Little Black Submarines”

7. Adele – 21

When Adele first broke out with “Chasing Pavements,” I thought, “Well she’s got an incredible voice, but the musical arrangement is only about half as good.” In the three years between 19 and 21, the music caught up. 21 is carried along by the incredible, undeniable strength of two of the biggest hits of 2011 (“Rolling,” “Someone”) and buoyed by a couple of other notable singles (“Rumour Has It,” “Set Fire to the Rain”). Most of the rest of the album does not quite reach those heights, but they still feature Adele’s voice, and with the standout tracks as amazing as they are, the rest only had to be passable for 21 to be a success.
Key Tracks: “Rolling in the Deep,” “Someone Like You,” “Rumour Has It”

8. Rihanna – Talk That Talk

Talk That Talk may or may not be Rihanna’s best, but it is definitely da one that is most devoid of filler, or at least a certain kind of filler: the ballad. While some of her ballads have been basically successful (“Take a Bow,” “California King Bed”), they cannot touch the superb production of her more upbeat and more danceable best (“Umbrella,” “Disturbia,” “Rude Boy,” “Only Girl (in the World)”). Even when she went dark (Rated R) and then loud (um, Loud), she still made room for the ballads. With Talk That Talk, she finally realizes the sort of “talk” that she is best at: the simple cooing and mildly taunting demands repeated over and over, without growing tiresome, as only she can.
Key Tracks: “We Found Love” (featuring Calvin Harris), “You Da One,” “Cockiness (Love It)”

9. Feist – Metals

Feist’s Metals can serve as the perfect soundtrack for a series of commercials featuring young people traveling the world. There is an outdoors, exploratory sort of vibe, with a good deal of indie cred, and, besides, “Home” by Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros has already been used to soundtrack enough. For the most part, the instruments are very contained and controlled, mostly serving to propel the momentum of the album forward, encouraging the listener to do the same. Occasionally, the music breaks through, as in the guitar breakdowns in “The Bad in Each Other” or the percussion accompanied by the background vocals in “A Commotion” – and these moments are more satisfying for their infrequency. Feist does not overwhelm the music with her quirky voice, but finds a kindred spirit in those subdued arrangements, all culminating in a subtly attention-demanding collection.
Key Tracks: “The Bad in Each Other,” “The Circle Married the Line,” “A Commotion”

Honorable Mentions:
The honorable mentions were great but not as brilliant as those that made the top 9; some had a few excellent standout tracks but weren’t as great from top to bottom.
Mayer Hawthorne – How Do You Do, Raphael Saadiq – Stone Rollin’, Drake – Take Care, Childish Gambino – Camp, Foo Fighters – Wasting Light

I Haven’t Heard These Albums in Their Entirety, But I’ve Heard That They Are Quite Good:
Bon Iver – Bon Iver, Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues, Lykke Li – Wounded Rhymes, Mastodon – The Hunter, Frank Ocean – Nostalgia, Ultra, Radiohead – The King of Limbs, St. Vincent – Strange Mercy, TV on the Radio – Nine Types of Light, Tom Waits – Bad as Me, Wilco – The Whole Love, Wild Flag – Wild Flag, Yuck – Yuck

Best of Music 2011: The Best Music Videos of the Year

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Simplicity was the name of the game for music videos in 2011.  Among my top ten and honorable mentions, five featured only the artists (or only one person instead of the artist), three were definitely each one unbroken shot (in one of those, the camera never moved), and two others looked like they were each one unbroken shot, but probably weren’t because of the effects involved.

1. Tyler, the Creator – “Yonkers” [Dir. Wolf Haley]

This is just a man, and who he is.  If you have never been exposed to Tyler, the Creator before watching the “Yonkers” video, be prepared to steel yourself.  And if all that you have seen of him is the enthusiastic kid who won Best New Artist at the VMA’s, follow the same advice.  Attention is commanded right away by this clip, thanks to its use of black-and-white, one of the most tried-and-true attention-grabbing methods available.  With the viewer at full attention, Tyler, quite literally, pours his entire self into this performance, as he eats a cockroach, vomits, and then hangs himself, never backing off the brutality of the lyrics.  These elements, along with the constant shifts in the camera’s focus and the disorienting close-ups, add up to an introduction of Tyler, the Creator as offputtingly alien but in a way that cannot be ignored.

2. Duck Sauce – “Big Bad Wolf” [Dir. Keith Schofield]

Guess what, folks? LMFAO’s “Sexy and I Know It” was only the second most brazenly homoerotic music video of the year. However, that is a misnomer for “Big Bad Wolf,” because the men are not showing off for each other, and the sexuality it presents is too bizarre to be explained in normal terms. Specifically, it features a couple of guys whose genitals are the heads of the guys from Duck Sauce. I appreciate that these men are willing to show off in the same way that so many female video vixens have before them. But on the flip side, others might claim that this is a problem, and the right way to put it is that they are objectifying themselves like the girls who have come before them. But when a couple of ladies who also have cranial genitalia show up, it becomes clear that the message is mainly about everyone opening themselves to having a good time. And I do mean that in the euphemistic sense, but I mean more that as well. This video approves saying “yes” to sex, and it is talking especially to those who do not always get enough attention: the chubby, the particularly ethnic, the hairy. And it is all done in the style of the Surrealization of Sexuality.

3. Gotye ft. Kimbra – “Somebody That I Used To Know” [Dir. Natasha Pincus]

Music is about expressing feelings in ways that are generally not considered appropriate for normal social interactions. The clip for “Somebody That I Used to Know” demonstrates that maxim in a visual way. Gotye directly addresses the camera about how a recent break-up has rendered his emotions while a corresponding abstract expression of those emotions is illustrated. He then literally becomes a part of that painting. Kimbra, taking the role of the ex, is also part of that painting, and their relationship is broken such that they can literally not look each other in the eye. The arrangement of faces is reminiscent of Bergman; there is a cinematic essence to it – that of heightened reality that can only be captured by films, including music videos.

4. Martin Solveig ft. Dragonette – “Hello” [Dir. Tristan Seguela]

Music videos have sometimes been defined by as mini-movies. This description is used to distinguish those videos that attempt to be more than just a collection of images or performance footage. But those videos that try to tell stories with a beginning, middle, and end do not always take care to be clear and logical. “Hello” avoids that pitfall by giving itself a setting – a sports competition – in which the elements of a story basically fall into place on their own. The sunny setting and candy color palette make certain that this is a fun video, but the whole underdog ethos keeps it from being annoyingly frothy. Martin and his opponent – fellow DJ Bob Sinclar – look like they can actually play tennis, and the cameos from ATP players Novak Djokovic, Gaël Monfils, and Mathilde Johansson add to the authenticity. The DJ Mag rankings taking the place of ATP rankings is a clever detail that adds to the whole sense of great care being taken to present a clear and logical – and fun – mini-movie.

5. The Black Keys – “Howlin’ for You” [Dir. Chris Marrs Piliero]

The fake movie trailer conceit – especially the fake grindhouse trailer – is a particularly played-out concept, but it doesn’t matter how played-out it is when it is done right. And the video for “Howlin’ for You” is the fake grindhouse trailer conceit done right. A major part of making it work is the music, and when the music being used is by the Black Keys, there’s no problem there. The right cast is also clutch: Tricia Helfer is the right sort of ass-kicking babe, but the less obvious choices of Corbin Bernsen and Sean Patrick Flanery are even more inspired. Professional editing is also essential: the fake trailer should not constantly be showing off its fakeness; the viewer already knows it’s fake – it should maintain the illusion of realness. Once all this is accomplished, only then can the fake grindhouse trailer get away with calling Todd Bridges a “Sir” and using lines like, “I’m pretty sure God would consider it a sin not to glorify that ass.”

6. Robyn – “Call Your Girlfriend” [Dir. Max Vitali]

One’s first instinct may be to dismiss a dance performance that includes the move of sitting down, rolling over on your back, and humping the ground a few times with your head pressed against the floor. Or maybe you’re like me and you were endlessly amused by that patently Robyn-esque move. Either way, that is the silliest move in the “Call Your Girlfriend” video; meanwhile, every other move simply kills, no doubt about it. The routine is quirky and challenging – the best combination when it comes to dance. The breakdown at 2:30 is fifteen seconds of nirvana. The dopamine that must be teeming through Robyn as she dances her dance would give anyone the energy to successfully deliver the sort of break-up news that she is requesting.

7. The Black Keys – “Lonely Boy” [Dir. Jesse Dylan]

The video for “Lonely Boy” features a spur-of-the-moment improvised dance from actor/musician/part-time security guard Derrick T. Tuggle in the parking lot of a motel. And it is as awesome as it sounds.

8. Katy Perry – “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)” [Dir. Marc Klasfeld and Danny Lockwood]

“Last Friday Night” features appearances from Darren Criss from Glee, Kevin McHale (not Kevin McHale the basketball player, Kevin McHale the actor from Glee), ‘80’s icons Corey Feldman and Debbie Gibson, the brothers Hanson, and Kenny G. But the most satisfactory celebrity appearance is that of perhaps the most notorious “star” of 2011: Rebecca Black. And thus Katy Perry makes her case as the Grant Morrison of music videos. Like the comic book superwriter reintroducing the most bizarre and stupidest Batman villains into the canon, the pop starlet appropriates Black as a witty commentary on the weekend culture of the 21st century. Katy Perry is not ashamed to immerse herself in the epic fails of the youth of today, but she does so in a knowingly straightforward way that may make some wonder whether or not announcing how awesome you are while acting stupidly is truly awesome. Alternatively, it may just inspire more partying. Either way, everybody wins?

9. Kanye West ft. Rihanna and Kid Cudi et al – “All of the Lights” [Dir. Hype Williams]

Videos like “All of the Lights” really make me feel for those who suffer from epilepsy, because here is one amazing viewing experience that they will likely never be able to have without seizing up. The only way for Kanye and Hype Williams to capture the essence of this title is to have variously colored lights flashing by quickly in an epilepsy-unfriendly manner. Hype is basically showing off his skills as the elder statesman of hip-hop videos. So many current hip-hop videos begin with gaudy, self-congratulatory text introducing the talent. Hype takes that method as far as it can go by making almost the entire video a succession of such gaudy, self-congratulatory text. This is what the hip-hop world has come to, and Kanye is the only one able to see it and willing to say it.

10. Battles ft. Gary Numan – “My Machines” [Dir. Daniels]

A man falls down an up escalator (think about it), and he continues to do so for about four minutes. It may sound like a Family Guy gag that defines overkill, but when it is set to the tune of a driving beat by experimental rock band Battles, it is much more bearable. The “My Machines” video is a triumph of simple visual effects, as the shaky camera and the foggy flashing lights appear to shake the foundations of the mall, and ramp up the escalator’s intensity, rocking the falling gentleman like no escalator has ever rocked him before.

Honorable Mentions:
Skrillex – “First of the Year (Equinox)” [Dir. Tony Truand]

The expression of a fight against child molestation that we desperately needed.

Selena Gomez & the Scene – “Love You Like a Love Song” [Dir. Geremy Jasper and Georgie Greville]

If only all video karaoke machines knew the singer so well.

Adele – “Rolling in the Deep” [Dir. Sam Brown] and “Someone Like You” [Dir. Jake Nava]

Adele is a little bit intimidating sitting in a chair making water shake and just as intimidating walking around and singing into the camera.

Ke$ha – “Blow” [Dir. Chris Marrs Piliero]

The best use of unicorns in 2011 and the best use of “James Van Der Douche” in a while.

Lana Del Rey – “Video Games” [Dir. Lana Del Rey]

Yeah, sure, whatever, let’s include all these random clips in your video, including paparazzi footage of Paz de la Huerta.

Foster the People – “Call It What You Want” [Dir. Ace Norton]

Foster the People romp around in a mansion with some Shining-type qualities.

Rihanna ft. Calvin Harris – “We Found Love” [Dir. Melina Matsoukas]

Rihanna’s most direct confrontation yet of an abusive relationship.

Best of Music 2011: The Best Songs of the Year

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To be eligible for this list, songs must have been released as singles in 2011, or before 2011 but having not become a hit until 2011.

Top 5 Songs of the Year
1. Adele – “Rolling in the Deep”
“And you played it, to the beat”
“Fire starting in my heart,” “the scars of your love,” “leave me breathless” – are these anything more than the phrases scrawled throughout a hopeless romantic’s diary? A more dynamic writer than most hopeless romantics, to be sure, but these are hardly feelings that haven’t been experienced by plenty of people before Adele. But it takes a chart-topping year’s worth of difference to have those feelings matched with the perfect instrumental accompaniment: that pulsing drumbeat, that steady and soulful piano, a sprinkling of spunky guitar, and, of course, that voice. When it comes to songs about love and heartbreak, the feelings are universal. A distinguished song is all about the expression. And Adele’s voice is about as close as anything can be to the aural manifestation of all the stages of a breakup; in “Rolling in the Deep,” it contains the weight of everything that could have been.

2. The Naked and Famous – “Young Blood”
“We’re only young and naïve still”
There are plenty of songs that feature some variation of the line, “We are young.” They mostly fall into one of two categories: an apology for youth or a desire to hold onto youth forever. “Young Blood” is informed by both of those traditions, but it has more of a Zen attitude about the whole matter, and the result is sublime. The subjects of this song are how they are, and the conclusion they have come to is to immerse themselves in the moment, for better or worse. The ideas conjured by “the in-between,” “a temporary escape,” and putting off matters for the time of “eventually” paired with the images of holding hands under the stars result in a beautiful moment that is fleeting, but captured forever to the tune of that indefatigable harpsichord riff.

3. Foster the People – “Pumped Up Kicks”
“Yeah the sleight of my hand is now a quick-pull trigger”
I misheard the chorus the first several times I heard “Pumped Up Kicks.” I mistook “outrun my gun” for “run for cover” and “bullet” for “brother.” Still, I did sense that there was something a little off and dangerous about the subject. It’s one of the oldest tricks in the bag: put a controversial topic to a catchy beat and fool the audience into singing along to something they may not be comfortable with. It’s a soft form of confrontation, but often enough, as in the case of Foster the People, it is effective, because there is a fully realized character here, and the lines are witty and unusual enough to stick with the listener. And it also had the best whistling of 2011.

4. The Joy Formidable – “Whirring”
“You make me sleep so badly, invisible friend”
There’s got to be at least one song among the very best of the year that gets by almost entirely on the sheer strength of its instruments, and “Whirring,” the standout track from The Joy Formidable’s debut The Big Roar, was the biggest roar of the year. The (oft-repeated) lyrics aren’t particularly profound, but they provide plenty of sounds for frontwoman Ritzy Bryan to sink her teeth into, and they serve their purpose of adding to the impressionistic dreamscape that all comes together in one cacophonous and orgiastic blowout. “Whirring” seems to nominally be about that thin space between waking and dreaming, but that is more or less an excuse for the band members to play chicken with each other.

5. Selena Gomez and the Scene – “Love You Like a Love Song”
“And I guess right now here’s another one”
I love movies about movies, I love TV shows about TV shows, I love books about books, and I love songs about music. A major pitfall that a song called “Love You Like a Love Song” could likely face would be being overly hokey. Selena Gomez & the Scene and producing team extraordinaire Rock Mafia solve that problem by embracing the hokiness. There are the subtle bits – sprinkling in the words “lyrical,” “melody,” and “symphony” to fully characterize Selena as one who thinks about love in musical terms. But the ultimate winning moment here is that very obvious chorus: the stuttering (of the word “repeat,” super natch) that captures the beeps of electronica and the old-fashioned skipping of a vinyl record. For those who study pop love songs, here is a mirror.


Just Outside the Top 5:
Adele – “Someone Like You”
Foster the People – “Helena Beat”
The Naked and Famous – “Punching in a Dream”
My Morning Jacket – “Holdin’ on to Black Metal”
Lana Del Rey – “Video Games”
Gotye ft. Kimbra – “Somebody That I Used to Know”
Raphael Saadiq – “Stone Rollin’”

4 Great Songs That Were Technically Released in 2010:
Of Monsters and Men – “Little Talks”
Ida Maria – “Bad Karma”
Martin Solveig ft. Dragonette – “Hello”
Lykke Li – “Get Some”

Mandatory Black Keys Song: “Lonely Boy”

Florence + the Machine – “Shake It Out”
Coldplay – “Paradise”
Skrillex – “First of the Year (Equinox)”
Fitz and the Tantrums – “MoneyGrabber”
Childish Gambino – “Heartbeat”
Das Racist – “Michael Jackson”

Best Song That Sounds Like It’s from the Drive Soundtrack: M83 – “Midnight City”

Dance Song of the Year:
Robyn – “Call Your Girlfriend”
And Three Great Top 40-Style Dance Songs:
David Guetta ft. Flo Rida and Nicki Minaj – “Where Them Girls At”
LMFAO – “Party Rock Anthem” (and “Sexy and I Know It” was great too)
Flo Rida – “Good Feeling”

Katy Perry ft. Kanye West – “E.T.”
Foo Fighters – “Rope”
Ellie Goulding – “Lights”
Lissie – “When I’m Alone”
DJ Khaled ft. Drake, Rick Ross, and Lil’ Wayne – “I’m on One”

The Rihanna Triptych, Naturally: “We Found Love” (ft. Calvin Harris), “S&M,” “Cheers (Drink to That)”

Two Great Songs from a Band I Didn’t Really Care for Before 2011: The Airborne Toxic Event – “All I Ever Wanted” and “Changing”

Twilight Soundtrack Song of the Year: The Belle Brigade – “I Didn’t Mean It”

Peter Bjorn and John – “Second Chance”
Justice – “Civilization”
Young the Giant – “My Body”
Ke$ha – “Blow”
Katy Perry – “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)”

Best Cover:
Ke$ha’s version of Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”

Best Song That Wasn’t Released as a Single:
My Morning Jacket – “Victory Dance”