Do not adjust your set. This is TC’s top 40 albums of 2011.
This is the 9th consecutive year that I’ll be counting down my favorite music. This year-end tradition started back in 2003, and since then, it has weathered everything you could throw at it. I mean, it’s practically an institution at this point.
In recent years, Robyn, Lady Gaga, Santogold, Tegan and Sara, and Lily Allen have each taken the crown. This year, who will it be? Keep reading to find out.
Join me for another journey through the year’s memorable singles of each season, then the main event, my top 40 albums. The road to #1 starts here.
The first important single of the year marked yet another comeback for Britney.
You know what it is. Around the beginning of the year, everybody was about this.
What a powerhouse of a song. Un, deux, trois! You can’t not love Ronson fam.
Speaking of MNDR, she also set out on her own tech-electropop path this winter.
Keri pays homage to past legends of several eras in this sentimental music video.
My thoughts exactly when I heard this one. Avril was more mature in 2004.
I would classify “Mouthful Of Diamonds” as haunting, but that’s a good thing.
One of the best electronic productions of the year shipped straight from London.
Talk about beautiful and heartbreaking, good lord. Marsha pours out the emotion.
Skylar Grey sounds like 2003-era Hilary Duff on this track. Makes me laugh.
The long-awaited return of Dr. Dre consisted of about 45 seconds near the end.
Teenage Dream was #15 of 2010, but “E.T.” (the original!) deserves a mention.
Still going strong, The Sounds cranked out another reliable, danceable track.
I just came to say hello. The thumping beat will keep you coming back for more.
Speaking of Dragonette, I went back to Mixin’ To Thrill to discover this one.
What would 2011 have been without Rebecca? I think we were all entertained.
Keep on dancin’ till the world ends. She’s right. Might as well go out with a bang.
I wanted to give Codes and Keys a proper chance, but I only had time for this.
Best known as that song from those showerhead ads. It will not leave your brain.
Great music from the legendary Canadian band, Sloan. Just not enough time.
The song that would later serve as the theme to 2 Broke Girls, hence the picture.
I feel like it’s a great song to play as you drive downtown in your city of choice.
I really enjoyed the As If! EP. The world needs to get on the Sky Ferreira train.
Oh Land was another album that barely missed the cut. Catchy little tune here.
I feel like, if you’ve got Santigold, and you’ve got Karen O, you can’t go wrong.
Yet another album that would’ve charted beyond #40 if my list allowed for that.
Record Store Day exclusive! Those paying attention got new Regina on vinyl.
Lots of hype for these guys. Somewhat deserved, I guess? I liked “Helena Beat.”
The entirely underrated Lenka brought us a cute single from her 2nd album, Two.
One-off single for the Transformers soundtrack. New album next year, I hope.
Thank you, Weird Al, for burning this image into my head. Alpocalypse, indeed.
Stephen Colbert has done some delightfully bizarre things. This ranks up there.
Demi returned to the scene after a year of absence with a totally different style.
Saw her on Conan, and her music is in no way smart but it’s hard not to like her.
The last of Britney for 2011; three of her singles on my year-end list. New record!
You might know her as half of the Fiery Furnaces. Now she has a solo release!
Björk never fails to impress or bewilder. “Crystalline” successfully did both again.
No longer with The Inc. (lol!), Vanessa went independent with this pleasant track.
Blink-182 has reunited, but their days of 23-year-old aimlessness are long gone.
I think I was about a year late on this one, but I don’t care. Rock out the house.
Amy Lee is back. It’s really just more of the same, but it’s noteworthy I guess.
No banger like “Destroy Everything You Touch” to be found here, but it will do.
Holly Brook became Skylar Grey and well here we are. Full album coming soon!
I don’t know, they’re just so sincere. This song was one of those slow growers.
Mindblowing cover of the Nirvana classic, taken in a totally different direction.
Electra Heart is the most fascinating project in all of music right now. I can’t wait.
Oasis minus Noel. I like Noel, but these guys are doing pretty well on their own.
This here is a supergroup. Miranda Lambert and friends will show you what’s up.
I didn’t have time to appreciate Unbroken as much as I did Here We Go Again.
These guys crank out the hits, and to think it all started with Snakes On A Plane.
Beyoncé showed up at the VMAs this year and showed those kids how it’s done.
I like Kelly, so I wish I would’ve had more time to give Stronger a real chance.
Look who’s back! Bush took 8 years off while Bush was president. Coincidence?
Talk That Talk didn’t quite connect, but “We Found Love” was great on its own.
I love Little Boots. “Shake” is a dance smash but it lacks the emotion of Hands.
The greatest band in late night. Undun just came out! Needs time to marinate.
Kate Bush is a living legend. Her new LP is perfect for those cold winter nights.
With her polarizing style and old-school appeal, you’re looking at the star of 2012.
The title track from Lana’s imminent debut is also taking the Internet by storm.
Sleigh Bells at Christmas! Get set, Reign of Terror is gonna blow your face off.
Top 40 albums
Every list of albums must start with a really great one. Luckily, this year’s list is no exception. We last saw Nicole Atkins in 2008 when Neptune City placed at #26. Since then, many things changed for Nicole, unfortunately not for the best at some points. The abandonment in multiple areas of her personal life drove some of the creative energy behind Mondo Amore, and the result is an emotionally volatile blend of more guitar-based, hard-edged music than we heard in her last record. Suggested tracks include “Vultures”, “You Come To Me” and “War Is Hell” for starters.
Perhaps best known for getting thoroughly trashed by Pitchfork, Camp is Donald Glover’s latest attempt at hip-hop under his stage name Childish Gambino. As it turns out, though, that infamous “review” was just a misguided personal attack on the guy himself. The album stands on its own merit as an introspective outlet for Gambino’s struggle with race, maturity, social class and fitting in vs. being an outsider. Camp also has tons and tons of pop culture references, if that’s your thing. Start with “Bonfire” and “All The Shine”; check out “That Power” as well.
The Ettes last clocked in at #34 on my top 40 albums of 2009 with their previous effort, Do You Want Power. This year, they’re back for more with Wicked Will, a wonderfully titled album that brings us more of what they do best: Short, powerful garage rock tracks that pack a punch and leave you wanting more. At just 32 minutes running time, you’ll want to listen to the whole thing back-to-back for the best effect. Try out “Teeth”, “You Were There” and “Don’t Bring Me Down” if you can’t commit a whole half-hour of your life to the thing.
Kathryn Calder is a member of the giant Canadian indie rock powerhouse The New Pornographers, but in recent years she’s also been doing her own thing as a solo artist. Last year’s Are You My Mother? barely escaped my radar for inclusion on my top 40 albums of 2010. This year, I stepped up my game for Bright And Vivid, a truly charming album that cements Kathryn’s status as a solo musician, singer and songwriter who deserves your attention. “Walking In My Sleep” is my favorite track; “Turn A Light On” and “City Of Sounds” are also up there.
You might call them eclectic, indie, post-punk or art rock, but who cares what you call them. I feel like TV On The Radio focused up for Nine Types Of Light, an album that draws from their previous work on Dear Science and Return To Cookie Mountain to create a happy medium that’s infinitely listenable and creates an environment that makes for good, chilled repetition. That is to say, put it on and let the music take you wherever it takes you. “Killer Crane” is an obvious starting point; try “Will Do” and “Second Song” while you’re at it.
With what I can only describe as an unfortunate band name and album cover, I feel like Yuck limited their audience from the beginning. It’s hard not to think they were purposely trying to alienate in that regard, but who knows. The fact remains, this noisy indie band from London is one of the best rock acts to hit the scene in quite some time. Critics have compared them to Dinosaur Jr. and Sonic Youth, and I feel like you can’t do better than that. My friend Matt Pinfield is a fan, and that guy is the walking encyclopedia of rock, so that’s quite the endorsement. Bands like Yuck make me believe new rock is alive and well despite all the evidence to the contrary. The world just has to get on board.
Dum Dum Girls were on my radar last year but just enough for “Bhang Bhang, I’m A Burnout” from their previous album I Will Be to make it on my singles list. This year, I did better by giving their new album Only In Dreams a proper chance, and I’m glad I did. Dum Dum Girls specialize in a dreamy kind of noise pop that’s loud, melodic and pushes boundaries. I really enjoy “Always Looking” and “Bedroom Eyes”, but my favorite from the album is “Coming Down”, an epic track at 6 1/2 minutes that winds around, circles and crashes into your ears.
I have to pay tribute to R.E.M. while we’re here. These guys were one of the first bands I ever liked, as in, ever. I remember hearing “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It” for the for the first time and heading down to the local record store (yeah) to pick up Document, and I was hooked. I went back to discover the rest of their catalog and kept up with their new music as the years went by. That’s why I’m very bummed that they’ve called it quits after 30 years. The upside is, they’ve left behind an entire grand canyon’s worth of material for future music fans to discover. I’ll let Michael Stipe have the last word, as he speaks on the closing track on Collapse Into Now, “Blue”: This is my time, and I’m thrilled to be alive.
Sick of Sarah took an unconventional approach to promote 2205, their newest album released earlier this year: They put up a torrent and encouraged the world to download and share it with each other. It’s hard to argue with free, so I was there for that right away. That said, the quality of the album far exceeds the price of admission. These five girls from Minneapolis carry out their fresh take on punky indie pop with strong success, reminiscent of Tegan and Sara but with harder guitar work throughout. Start with “Overexposure” and work your way through this fun, enjoyable album.
I first got on the Decemberists train around the Picaresque days, when “16 Military Wives” was all the rage. I was all about that; I got to see them live around that time and it was a wonderful show. In recent years, though, I’ve struggled to stay with them. The Hazards Of Love was a good album but too long and drawn out for my tastes. That’s why I was happy to see they reined that shit in and released a 40-minute powerhouse of an album in The King Is Dead. “Down By The Water” kicked off the year with the most enjoyable Decemberists song in recent memory.
Jessie J has been somewhat of a polarizing figure in pop music since her debut with “Do It Like A Dude” late last year. Who You Are was released to mixed reviews from critics but she managed to top the BBC Sound of 2011 poll nonetheless, which should not necessarily be a surprise. There’s a lot to enjoy here. I’m a fan in particular of the way Jessie pulls no punches, comes out swinging with strong vocals throughout and isn’t afraid to exhibit her quirkiness and progressive attitude. In addition to “Dude”, check out “Nobody’s Perfect”, “Mamma Knows Best” and “Domino” from the reissue.
What’s not to like about My Morning Jacket? Not content to just be some rock band, Jim James and crew venture often into the psychedelic, trippy and unexpected. Circuital continues that exploration. Back when Evil Urges came out in 2008, it took me perhaps too long to appreciate it as much as I should have. This time, I was more prepared. “Holdin’ On To Black Metal” was one of the inexplicable anthems of the year. Such a well done, grandiose, yet endlessly likable production. I also kept “Victory Dance”, “Wonderful (The Way I Feel)” and “First Light” on repeat.
You might not be able to tell it from the old-school album cover, but Jessica Lea Mayfield is just 22 years old. She has a lot going for her. For one, she’s from Ohio and apparently got her start singing covers of Foo Fighters songs at open mic nights. The resonance of her voice and her musical style are well beyond her years. Tell Me is an extremely pleasant experiment in indie folk rock, alternative country or whatever you want to call it. “Our Hearts Are Wrong” is a great place to begin; I really enjoy “Blue Skies Again” and “Trouble” as well. I wish Jessica tons of success.
Cults are one of those bands that came out of nowhere with an Internet hit (“Go Outside”) and got signed to a major label to release their debut album, something not many bands have the luxury of doing. It couldn’t have happened to a better group. Madeline Follin and Brian Oblivion have crafted some really top-notch indie noise pop on their self-titled debut album. Beyond the requisite “Go Outside”, I’m partial toward “Abducted”, “Rave On” and of course “Never Heal Myself”, in which Madeline sings the words, but I can never heal myself… so fuck you!, in the most bewilderingly charming and delightful tone I’ve ever heard someone say those words. I love it. You will have a grand time with this album.
Hey, look! This worked out nicely. Madeline Follin of Cults contributed vocals to the absolutely epic “Queen Of Hearts” on David Comes To Life, this incredible concept album by Fucked Up. If you’re not familiar with this excellent hardcore punk band from Canada, now is the time. Stop waiting around. I don’t have time to explain the entirety of the brilliantly executed concept, but trust me, you’ll enjoy trying to figure out the story throughout this rock opera as the wall of music blows your face off. The truly unique music video for “Queen Of Hearts” is also highly recommended.
Just a few short years ago, Sleeper Agent’s Alex Kandel was working as a barista doing covers of Adele songs on open mic nights, if Wikipedia is to be believed. Now she fronts one of the best new talents of 2011. I can’t put it any better than Rolling Stone, which described Sleeper Agent as shaggy kids from Kentucky whose songs are sweet, fizzy and combustible. That comes across quick on Celabrasion, an immediately enjoyable album of alt-rock good times. “Get It Daddy” got the attention of mtvU this year for good reason. “Shuga Cane”, “Be My Monster” and “Force A Smile” are also required listening.
It’s always a good year when Red Hot Chili Peppers release another album. Still going strong after an incredible 28 years in the business, RHCP came back for more this year with I’m With You, their latest effort. I was bummed John Frusciante departed the band once again after they wrapped up Stadium Arcadium, but the guys embraced a simpler, tighter sound on I’m With You that works well nonetheless. “The Adventures Of Rain Dance Maggie” was indispensable earlier this summer, but also check out “Brendan’s Death Song”, “Look Around” and “Monarchy Of Roses” among others.
Wye Oak is a wonderful duo that I feel like came into their own this year. Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack have hit a certain niche with Civilian. I’ve been a fan of their earnest folk-influenced indie rock with touches of noise and dream pop, to borrow some words from Pitchfork, since I first heard “For Prayer” last year, but it’s Civilian where I feel like the concept takes off and hits stellar heights. The title track “Civilian” and “Holy Holy” constitute what I can only describe as an incredible sonic experience, but do yourself a favor and listen to the whole album as directed for the best results.
If not for a seemingly random, one-off appearance on the Lollapalooza ’11 episode of the VH1 Top 20 Video Countdown of all things, I doubt I would’ve ever discovered Lissie, much less come to appreciate her excellent album Catching A Tiger, which was originally released last year but garnered critical attention this year. I’m glad I happened to tune in. Lissie is an amazing folk rock artist who will run circles around you with her blues-inspired vocals and jaw-dropping guitar work. “When I’m Alone” is great, but the epic solo that ends “In Sleep” will leave you flat on the floor.
Yeah, you don’t need to tell me that Coldplay stopped being cool in 2004, because I really don’t care. I begrudgingly picked up Mylo Xyloto after being underwhelmed by “Every Teardrop Is A Waterfall”, but then it clicked for me. These guys are just doing the expansive, soaring guitar-pop that they do well, as EW put it, and they’re only continuing to excel at it. “Paradise” was an anthem of the fall, “Princess Of China” featuring Rihanna was unexpectedly charming, and I even changed my mind about “Teardrop” once I heard the band perform it at Apple’s special event to remember Steve Jobs in October.
How did Stage Whisper, largely a collection of bonus tracks from the IRM sessions and live recordings of those songs, end up charting higher on my top 40 albums than IRM did in 2010? Who knows, but maybe it’s just that my admiration for all things Charlotte Gainsbourg has consistently soared from the time I first listened to “Heaven Can Wait” featuring Beck around the end of 2009. I found myself going back to IRM this year, too, and when Stage Whisper came out near the end of the year, it was a pleasant surprise. There’s so much to adore here, from “Paradisco” and “Anna” to the live recording of “In The End”, but the bookend tracks “Terrible Angels” (the raucous opener) and “Memoir” (the pensive closer) are the best.
If you start with Robyn and throw in a dash of Ke$ha, you might come up with Dev, the artist who helped The Cataracs and Far East Movement launch “Like A G6” to great heights in 2010 by way of the sample of “Booty Bounce” that provided the song’s title. This year, Dev struck out on her own again with “Bass Down Low” and “In The Dark”, which became one of my favorite pop singles of the year. Both songs are featured on The Night The Sun Came Up, a sleeper of an album that was released in the UK this fall. Tracks like “Take Her From You” are equally fun, while “Getaway” and “Shadows” showcase a different side of Dev that’s more mysterious and introspective than we first saw on the surface.
Warpaint is an experimental, dreamy art rock group from Los Angeles that has been bubbling under the surface for several years. Their first release, the Exquisite Corpse EP, was recorded in 2007, self-released in 2008, legitimately released in 2009, and widely noticed in 2010. It’s as if each year that marched by brought Warpaint one step closer to their full-length album, The Fool, which attracted critical attention early this year. It was worth the wait: The Fool is a beautifully haunting collection of music. Highlights include “Warpaint” and “Undertow”, an essential pair of epic apparitions.
It started early this year when “H.A.M.” bust onto the scene. The track served as a nice teaser for Watch The Throne, the bombastic collaboration between Jay Z & Kanye West. (No idea why Hova dropped the hyphen in his stage name.) Then came “Otis”, a true banger of a song and video that reminded the world who’s in charge. “Niggas In Paris” was both absurd and hilarious thanks to its brilliant sampling of Will Ferrell from Blades of Glory. The rest of Watch The Throne brought a much more varied feel, but that’s not a bad thing for a moment. Tracks like “Lift Off” featuring Beyoncé, “No Church In The Wild” featuring Frank Ocean and “Murder To Excellence” made the album deeper than I expected.
The rising artist who most pushed the boundaries of pop music this year is Katy B. I knew she was on to something pretty great when I first heard “Lights On” featuring Ms. Dynamite at the beginning of the year, but the release of Katy’s full-length debut On A Mission sealed the deal. Between its blend of UK garage, dubstep, house and electronic dance styles, it’s like you’re listening to music from the future when you give On A Mission a spin. “Power On Me”, “Katy On A Mission”, “Broken Record” and “Witches Brew” are standout tracks from her avant-garde, cutting-edge project.
When MTV got its act together and resurrected 120 Minutes with Matt Pinfield earlier this summer, the first video played on the newly minted program was “Whirring” by The Joy Formidable. The explosive song and its surreal video was my introduction to this great group from the UK. “Whirring” is noisy, bubbly, and one of the best songs of the year. Beyond that, the album never lets up. The Big Roar highlights the struggle between the eternal optimist and the manic depressive, the band says. Sonically, that means the thing is bonkers. The overpowering sound will occupy your ears.
There’s something delightfully ’90s about Christina Perri, in that I feel like in another life she could’ve been part of that singer-songwriter phenomenon in pop music at the time along with Alanis Morissette, Jewel and Sheryl Crow. Instead, it’s 2011 and here she comes during a time in which most other pop has been overtaken by the club scene. The result? Lovestrong. is an incredibly refreshing album of piano pop. The sad tale that is “Jar Of Hearts” was her first single out of the gate, but there’s so much more here. “Arms”, “Bang Bang Bang” and “Mine” are all extremely pleasant songs. Christina Perri has crossed the threshold into mainstream success, so you don’t need to take my word for it, but I can’t recommend her enough.
Hot Sauce Committee Part Two was a long time coming. Five years after To The 5 Boroughs, the Beastie Boys released “Lee Majors Come Again” and “Too Many Rappers” featuring Nas as teaser singles for their upcoming album. Shortly after, MCA was diagnosed with cancer. MCA pressed on, his health improved, and the group was ready for a comeback by 2011. They came back swinging with “Fight For Your Right Revisited”, released 25 years after the original. “Revisited” is a must-see, hilarious half-hour film starring Seth Rogen, Danny McBride and Elijah Wood as young Beastie Boys with Will Ferrell, John C. Reilly and Jack Black as old Beastie Boys. The film includes within it the entire video for “Make Some Noise”, the hot single from the album at the time. It’s so ridiculous, it’s the video of the year. Between that, the previous singles from 2009, and other new material, Hot Sauce Committee Part Two is an album I’m very happy came to fruition.
The Black Keys have been pumping out great rock music from Akron for nearly a decade. This year, it seems the world at large woke up. “Lonely Boy” was everywhere this fall and deservedly so. The full album El Camino came along near the end of the year. It’s a consistently up-tempo LP that brings a mix of brash, bluesy garage rock from beginning to end. Highlights other than “Lonely Boy” include “Money Maker” and “Little Black Submarines”, the longest track on the album that builds up slowly for a couple minutes, just to switch it up and rock the hardest for the remainder.
If you know of Lykke Li, it’s hard not to love her. The brilliant singer-songwriter and musician made a splash a few years ago with Youth Novels, her full-length debut album that only made us want more and eagerly await her next project. The first hint came last fall in “Get Some”, the rambunctious single that blew your mind and left you disheveled. Lykke followed up early this year with Wounded Rhymes, a more diverse blend of sugar and heartache. Songs like “Youth Knows No Pain”, “I Follow Rivers”, “Love Out Of Lust”, “Unrequited Love”, “Sadness Is A Blessing” and “Silent My Song” make this instrument-heavy album a wonderfully dark, gravelly take on electronic indie pop, and a must-listen.
I can’t think of a better way to kick off the top ten than with Gravity Happens, the latest album from the endlessly charming Kate Voegele. In a world that’s filled with personas and attitudes, it’s disarming to be met with music so sweet and sincere. Her third album builds on the success of previous efforts Don’t Look Away and A Fine Mess by continuing the trend of pleasant, humble, unassuming pop and folk rock that’s both beautiful and inspirational. Don’t miss “Heart In Chains”, “Impatient Girl”, “Enough For Always”, “Hundred Million Dollar Soul” and “Burning The Harbor”, Kate’s most powerful recording to date.
Canadian musician Lights has been one of my favorite artists since she released her debut EP over three years ago. She has consistently impressed me with her wide range of talents as an unstoppable, one-woman music factory, writing all the songs, playing all the instruments, recording all the music, and editing all the tracks. Siberia marks the evolution of Lights, incorporating a harder-edged, grittier postmodern sound than her previous works, and featuring guest artists like Canada’s own Holy Fuck and Shad. Luckily, what’s not lost on Siberia is the genuine, unpretentious quality to her songs. This is still the same Lights underneath the breakthrough new style. “Toes”, “Cactus In The Valley”, “Siberia”, “Flux And Flow” and especially the ear-popping “Everybody Breaks A Glass” are requisite tracks on this adventurous album.
It was just a year and a half ago that Florence & The Machine began to take over the world with Lungs, so it was a surprise to see Ceremonials so soon. It didn’t just calmly show up, either; this sophomore album arrived as a force to be reckoned with. There’s a veritable orchestra of music happening on this record. It’s loud, theatrical and frenetic, not once slowing down but instead pummeling through your ears like a bullet train from one end to the other. “What The Water Gave Me”, “Shake It Out”, “Never Let Me Go”, “All This and Heaven Too” and “Spectrum” are just a few of the highlights from this tenacious rhapsody.
The one worthwhile thing that Jay Leno has done since reclaiming The Tonight Show is unwittingly introduce me to Ximena Sariñana, the wonderfully talented musician and singer-songwriter from Mexico who was making her U.S. television debut during what was supposed to be my Late Night with Jimmy Fallon recording. I was taken right away by her cheerful, heartfelt style as she performed “Different”, co-written by Tim Armstrong, her first English-language single. Soon afterward, I caught Jim Shearer interviewing her on VH1, where the video was being premiered, and I was sold. I picked up her self-titled album and found it to be, as NYT described in a feature, an excellent array of highly personal indie pop. With producers and collaborators like Greg Kurstin of The Bird and the Bee on board, how couldn’t it be? Then, the year in Ximena culminated in December when I saw her perform live and impress with her friendly charisma and quirky humor. “Shine Down”, “Love Again”, “Wrong Miracle” and “Echo Park” are some of my favorites from this gem of an album.
It would’ve been impossible for Feist to try topping The Reminder, her 2007 album that “One Two Three Four” propelled to worldwide success, in terms of pop sensibility. So instead, she took the only correct option and went in a different direction with Metals, her fourth album. There are no such TV commercial hooks to be found here and the songwriting is less direct, instead more proverbial and universal. Feist ventures into a different kind of folk-pop on Metals that isn’t afraid to be erratic and break out into worldly exhilaration, as we hear on “Graveyard”, “Undiscovered First”, “Comfort Me” and “A Commotion” more than any other. “The Bad In Each Other”, “Anti-Pioneer” and “How Come You Never Go There” round out the quieter, calmer highlights from Metals, an elegant, reflective collection rooted in our earth and life.
Lady Gaga conquered music in 2009 with the unbeatable double album, The Fame with The Fame Monster, which took the top spot on my list that year. In just one year, she defined an entire generation of pop. She created new boundaries and destroyed them in the same breath. Where could she possibly go from there? The answer is Born This Way, an album that looks as much to the past as it does the future, drawing in heavy influence from her predecessors like Bruce Springsteen, Whitney Houston and Madonna. The music is much more varied and the lyrical content is deeper in several cases than her past works. Nearly every track on the deluxe album is noteworthy, so let’s march down the line: “Marry The Night”, “Born This Way”, “Judas”, “Hair”, “Scheiße”, “Bloody Mary”, “Black Jesus † Amen Fashion”, “Bad Kids”, “Fashion Of His Love”, “Highway Unicorn”, “Heavy Metal Lover”, “Electric Chapel”, “The Queen”, “Yoü And I” and “The Edge Of Glory” were all among my most played songs of the year. It’s clear to anyone who heard Born This Way, Lady Gaga once again demonstrated to the world that she’s leading the way in music and culture.
When there are still four albums that managed to best the high praise I awarded Born This Way, you know that means 2011 had to be an unusually fantastic year in music. First case in point: Adele, who reinvented blue-eyed soul in 2008 with her debut album 19 and followed up this year with the almost too great for words 21. Look, you don’t need me to tell you Adele dominated pop music this year. The millions of records she sold can speak for themselves, and her permeation of culture was obvious, all the way down to the brilliant and unusually topical SNL sketch featuring her heartbreak anthem “Someone Like You” this fall. But before “Someone Like You”, the story of the year was “Rolling In The Deep”, the powerful song and video that drew from blues, gospel and disco to take control of 2011 from the very beginning, and eventually became my most played song of the year by any artist. Songs like “Rumour Has It”, “Turning Tables”, “Set Fire To The Rain”, “Take It All” and “Lovesong”, her cover of The Cure, cemented 21 as one of the best albums of the year. We are lucky to live in an era of music that would give us a talent as wonderful as Adele.
Man, this is getting intense. I can’t keep outdoing myself with acclaim, so let’s strip it all away right now to present the most raw, volatile, surprising, shocking, puzzling and unnerving album of the year. Past Life Martyred Saints by EMA earns all those adjectives and then some. Previously known as leader of the drone folk band Gowns, singer-songwriter and musician Erika M. Anderson set out on her own this year after that project imploded, leaving her without a partner of any kind. The pain, both emotional and physical, is on terrifying display throughout Past Life. This album is disturbing to me as a listener, and I intend that as the highest possible compliment. You might find similarities between EMA and early Courtney Love, Patti Smith and Cat Power, Pitchfork suggests, but the only way to truly understand is to listen to the album yourself. You will feel the abrasive, agonizing desperation through “Grey Ship”, “California”, “Anteroom”, “Milkman”, “Coda”, “Marked”, “Breakfast”, “Butterfly Knife” and “Red Star”, the entirety of the album. EMA’s Past Life Martyred Saints works because it feels completely genuine. Through her emotional release, aggression and conviction, EMA emerges from pain, fearless.
If you’re still with me after the anguish of the last entry, let’s pick things up and celebrate the best new group to come about within the last year, Wild Flag. The band brings together Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss (previously of Sleater-Kinney) with Mary Timony (previously of Helium) and Rebecca Cole (previously of The Minders). Carrie Brownstein is more recently known as the co-star of Portlandia, so it only makes sense Wild Flag is based in her hometown of Portland, Oregon. I would call Wild Flag a supergroup, but even that would be an understatement. I became a fan as soon as I heard “Future Crimes” and “Glass Tambourine”, the exclusive Record Store Day release. The band’s self-titled album followed in late summer, and to come full circle this year with my silly metaphors, it blew my face off. It’s hard to imagine a more brilliantly executed, masterfully perfected album of post-punk indie rock. Songs like “Boom”, “Electric Band”, “Racehorse”, “Something Came Over Me”, “Black Tiles” and the outstanding, raucous single “Romance” are some of the best records of the year. Wild Flag is more than a riot grrrl revival; it’s music that captures its enduring roots and catapults into the future.
I’ve been saying since approximately 1999 that Foo Fighters is my favorite band. Well, it’s finally time to make good on that superlative. Foo Fighters’ previous albums, In Your Honor and Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace were both great but were edged out for the top spot in 2005 and 2007, respectively. Not this time. Mark it down, 2011 was the year the snubbery came to an end. Dave Grohl and crew went back to basics for Wasting Light, an album that deserves this space. Let’s review: Pat Smear was brought back to the band, Krist Novoselic contributed to some of the tracks, Butch Vig oversaw the production, and the whole thing was recorded on analog tape in Dave Grohl’s garage. That’s a veritable powerhouse of rock, and the result? Wasting Light doesn’t mess around. These tracks give us some of the most massive, energetic, crunched and shredded music I’ve heard in years. It’s not heavy on hooks, but the svelte consistency of the album rises above traditional expectations. The songs on Wasting Light, “Bridge Burning”, “Rope”, “Dear Rosemary” featuring Bob Mould, “White Limo”, “Arlandria”, “These Days”, “Back & Forth”, “A Matter Of Time”, “Miss The Misery”, “I Should Have Known” featuring Krist Novoselic and “Walk”, are a cohesive realization of Dave Grohl’s unique retrospective vision. It comes together flawlessly, both on the record and on stage, which I saw this fall in their unrivaled, nearly three-hour live show. No wonder Foo Fighters is my favorite band. Make no mistake about it, Wasting Light is my #1 album of 2011.
Britney Spears – “Hold It Against Me”
Wiz Khalifa – “Black And Yellow”
Mark Ronson & The Bus. Int’l – “Bang Bang Bang”
MNDR – “Cut Me Out”
Keri Hilson – “Pretty Girl Rock”
Avril Lavigne – “What The Hell”
Phantogram – “Mouthful Of Diamonds”
Chase and Status f/ Liam Bailey – “Blind Faith”
Marsha Ambrosius – “Far Away”
Diddy Dirty Money f/ Skylar Grey – “Coming Home”
Dr. Dre f/ Eminem – “I Need A Doctor”
Katy Perry – “E.T.”
The Sounds – “Dance With The Devil”
Martin Solveig f/ Dragonette – “Hello”
Dragonette – “My Things”
Rebecca Black – “Friday”
Britney Spears – “Till The World Ends”
Death Cab For Cutie – “You Are A Tourist”
Caroline & The Dust – “I Know It Ain’t Cool”
Sloan – “Unkind”
Peter Bjorn And John – “Second Chance”
Cee Lo Green – “Bright Lights Bigger City”
Sky Ferreira – “Haters Anonymous”
Oh Land – “White Nights”
Santigold f/ Karen O – “Go”
The Civil Wars – “Barton Hollow”
Regina Spektor – “Riot Gear”
Foster The People – “Helena Beat”
Lenka – “Heart Skips A Beat”
Paramore – “Monster”
Weird Al Yankovic – “Perform This Way”
The Black Belles f/ Stephen Colbert – “Charlene II”
Demi Lovato – “Skyscraper”
Jessie And The Toy Boys – “Push It”
Britney Spears – “I Wanna Go”
Eleanor Friedberger – My Mistakes”
Björk – “Crystalline”
Vanessa Carlton – “Carousel”
Blink-182 – “Up All Night”
Grace Potter & The Nocturnals – “Tiny Light”
Evanescence – “What You Want”
Ladytron – “White Elephant”
Skylar Grey – “Invisible”
The Band Perry – “If I Die Young”
Yuna – “Come As You Are”
Marina & The Diamonds – “Radioactive”
Beady Eye – “Millionaire”
Pistol Annies – “Hell On Hells”
Demi Lovato – “Unbroken”
Cobra Starship f/ Sabi – “You Make Me Feel”
Beyoncé – “Countdown”
Kelly Clarkson – “Mr. Know It All”
Bush – “The Sound Of Winter”
Rihanna f/ Calvin Harris – “We Found Love”
Little Boots – “Shake”
The Roots f/ Big K.R.I.T. – “Make My”
Kate Bush – “50 Words For Snow”
Lana Del Rey – “Video Games”
Lana Del Rey – “Born To Die”
Sleigh Bells – “Born To Lose”
TOP 40 ALBUMS
40. Nicole Atkins – Mondo Amore
39. Childish Gambino – Camp
38. The Ettes – Wicked Will
37. Kathryn Calder – Bright And Vivid
36. TV On The Radio – Nine Types Of Light
35. Yuck – Yuck
34. Dum Dum Girls – Only In Dreams
33. R.E.M. – Collapse Into Now
32. Sick of Sarah – 2205
31. The Decemberists – The King Is Dead
30. Jessie J – Who You Are
29. My Morning Jacket – Circuital
28. Jessica Lea Mayfield – Tell Me
27. Cults – Cults
26. Fucked Up – David Comes To Life
25. Sleeper Agent – Celabrasion
24. Red Hot Chili Peppers – I’m With You
23. Wye Oak – Civilian
22. Lissie – Catching A Tiger
21. Coldplay – Mylo Xyloto
20. Charlotte Gainsbourg – Stage Whisper
19. Dev – The Night The Sun Came Up
18. Warpaint – The Fool
17. Jay Z & Kanye West – Watch The Throne
16. Katy B – On A Mission
15. The Joy Formidable – The Big Roar
14. Christina Perri – Lovestrong.
13. Beastie Boys – Hot Sauce Committee Part Two
12. The Black Keys – El Camino
11. Lykke Li – Wounded Rhymes
10. Kate Voegele – Gravity Happens
9. Lights – Siberia
8. Florence & The Machine – Ceremonials
7. Ximena Sariñana – Ximena Sariñana
6. Feist – Metals
5. Lady Gaga – Born This Way
4. Adele – 21
3. EMA – Past Life Martyred Saints
2. Wild Flag – Wild Flag
1. Foo Fighters – Wasting Light
Thank you so much for reading TC’s top 40 albums of 2011. I feel great about this year’s extraordinary set of music, and I hope you enjoyed this review as much as I did. Many things came full circle this year, but I still look to the future with as much anticipation as ever for great things to come. We have so much in culture and in life to be thankful for. I hope you have another very happy and healthy new year, and I wish you the best in 2012 and beyond.