Sunday, January 15, 2012

Looking Back at 2011: The Top 20 Albums of the Year (Part 1)

20. The Hunter - Mastodon
This one was part of a two-horse race to see which CD would finish off the list. It was either this or Mylo Xyloto by Coldplay. It was brute force vs. expert songcraft. It was beefy vocals vs. soaring falsettos. It was guitar blitzkrieg vs. swirling synth artistry. While it really was a tough call, I always believe that, in the end, you have to go with the album that rocks your face off. And with crushers like "Black Tongue," "Curl of the Burl," and "Stargasm," the fifth album by the Atlanta rock quartet does just that.

19. Born This Way - Lady Gaga
Did this album have its flaws? Absolutely. Tops upon the list would most likely be "You and I," a lousy wannabe country song that probably should have been dropped from the album after the musicians started playing the first notes in rehearsals. However, it is also filled with songs that seek to push pop music forward, often while reaching shamelessly back into the past. Examples include the Giorgio Moroder-cribbing "Marry the Night" and the title track, which of course bares more than a passing resemblance to a major song by one of the fashion icon's most obvious inspirations.

18. Wild Flag - Wild Flag
With Sleater-Kinney apparently on indefinite hiatus, members Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss did the only thing that made sense: They went out and picked up a couple other ladies (Mary Timony of the band Helium and Rebecca Cole of the Minders) and made one of the best straight-ahead rock albums of the year. The album soars on Brownstein's heroic shredding, Timony's guitar acrobatics, and Weiss's heavy-duty thumping, especially on "Racehorse" and "Short Version." Cole's synth, meanwhile, is the unquestioned highlight of album gem, "Romance."

17. The King of Limbs - Radiohead
When Radiohead puts out an album, it usually gets an automatic invite to the Top Ten, sort of like a division winner who gets a bye into the second round. And it isn't like there aren't great songs on this release. Album opener "Bloom" gets the nod as best song of the year with its manic drum arrangement, Bernard Herrmann-esque strings, ghostly Thom Yorke lyric, and bubbling keys. "Lotus Flower" was strong enough to go viral there for a couple weeks on the Interwebs, although that had just as much to do with Yorke's dance moves as it did the effectiveness of the song. The tracks "Separator" and "Give Up the Ghost" were equally as strong. So what's the problem? Well, I just dapped four songs and that's half the album. Sorry, lads, I need a little more than eight songs from a band that puts out an album once every three years if I'm lucky. Next time, toss on versions of "Staircase" and "Daily Mail" and make it a nice, round number.

16. Ashes & Fire - Ryan Adams
I'm not supposed to enjoy albums that feature former pop songstress Mandy Moore in a prominent role. But what can I say? Her honey-tinged croon registers itself admirably in a backup role on this, the latest album by her husband, the often-troubled country-rock wunderkind Ryan Adams. Dialing back the instruments to mostly the acoustic variety, Adams often showcases his slightly battered vocal style, most effectively on "Chains of Love," "Dirty Rain," and the title track. That does not mean that he is no longer able to let the plugged-in soar. For examples, check out "Do I Wait" and "Lucky Now," which both show off Adams' masterful sense of songcraft and the electric ax.

15. Raven in the Grave - The Raveonettes
On their fifth full-length album, Danish duo The Raveonettes don't stray far from their already well established recipe. The Phil Spector-style Wall of Sound production is there. So is the lo-fi shoegazing that has drawn them comparisons to bands like The Jesus & Mary Chain, The Velvet Underground, et al. So if they haven't changed much, what is it that makes this album sound like such an improvement on previous output, such as 2009's In and Out of Control? Maybe it's the whirling synth that backs album opener "Recharge & Revolt?" Or the striking guitar flourishes of "War in Heaven?" Or the rhythmic percussion and ghostly production of disc standout "Forget That You're Young?" Maybe it is simply that here The Raveonettes prove that success does not require that you go completely back to the drawing board. Perhaps you just have to figure out how to do what you already do better.

14. 4 - Beyonce
Like most celebrities, Beyonce has bad taste in baby names. However, as she proves on her fourth solo album, what she lacks in ability to choose a suitable moniker for her spawn, she more than makes up for in vocal chops and ability to know when a song is going to be a massive hit. While the album is not without flaws - "Run the World (Girls)" is an absolute mess - more often than not it is akin to a hot jam assembly line. "I Care" sees Mrs. Jay-Z blaring with a huge guitar line to match, while the Michael Jackson-influenced "End of Time" is probably the album's best track. "Rather Die Young" is an instantly catchy 80's style throwback, and "I Miss You" features airy, spare sonics that jump out on an album with tracks that most frequently swing for the fences.

13. Nine Types of Light - TV on the Radio
Brooklyn's TV on the Radio released three albums before this year. Two of them - 2006's Return to Cookie Mountain and 2008's Dear Science were masterpieces. While their latest does not reach those euphoric heights, it's still strong enough to stand on its own. The album jumps seamlessly between horn-infused rave-ups ("No Future Shock," "New Cannonball Blues") and stirring, down-tempo numbers ("Keep Your Heart," "Will Do").

12. Watch the Throne - Jay-Z and Kanye West
On some level, this collaboration between two of hip-hop's brightest shining lights could be viewed as a bit uneven. For every massive on-stage banger like "Niggas in Paris," there's a perfunctory guest spot throw-in, like the RZA-featuring "New Day." For every ingenious use of sampling, such as the Otis Redding re-tooling "Otis," there's a song utilizing the not-worth-the-price-of-admission talents of Mr. Hudson ("Why I Love You"). But in the end, the sheer ambition of this project wins out and you realize that in this case the good clearly outweighs the bad. For more of the good stuff, check out the Swizz Beats stunner "Welcome to the Jungle," the Beyonce-aided "Lift Off," and the Q-Tip co-produced "That's My Bitch."

11. Kaputt - Destroyer
I'm really not sure if I am supposed to love an album with this much smooth jazz brass, but I do. There you have it. Aside from all of the cascading synth featured throughout, the ninth full-length by hyper-literate troubadour Dan Bejar is a full-length that Kenny G would be glad to add to his collection. The saxaphone compliments the artfully repetitive percussion and layered vocals of "Chinatown." The Kraftwerk-ian drum attack and free-flowing synths of "Savage Night at the Opera" are relatively brass-free, but Bejar makes up for the oversight on "Blue Eyes," which features seductive horns, a sultry female vocalist (maybe; this could be a pitch-shifted Bejar, I'm not sure), and a subtly addictive back beat. Adult-contemporary never sounded this awesome.

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