10 Best Metal Albums of 2011

December 30, 2011

This list was surprisingly difficult to finalize this year and for a good reason–there was simply a lot of great, diverse, creative heavy music made in 2011. Metal usually produces its best variety and quality when it’s not in the spotlight, and the first two decades of the 2000s thus far have kept most metal bands playing to their core of devoted followers with little care for mainstream attention. Yet there was plenty of metal made this year that could appeal to a variety of music fans, many who usually eschew “harder” material. Albums like The Hunter will appeal to ’90s alternative grunge devotees, Anvil offers much for those refusing to leave the terrain of 1980s metal, and Junius should work for Smiths fans, progressive rock fans, indie rock kids, and metalheads alike.

10) Mastodon – The Hunter

Mastodon scrapped their usual concept-album approach with The Hunter and just delivered solid individual metal songs. “Curl of the Burl” is the most radio ready single of their career (despite it’s blood feud caveman ethos) and “Black Tongue” isn’t far behind. There are more complex and less accessible tracks later on the album, but for at least the first-half of the record Mastodon showcase fully accessible post-grunge stoner metal. “Blasteroid” is practically a pop song for it’s first half buried under sludge metal, before the intense push-the-envelope chorus kicks in. There’s not much more to add that I didn’t cover on my full album review of this one back in the summer, which you can read here. The Hunter isn’t the opus akin to Leviathan or Blood Mountain, but it’s a solid outing from the best progressive metal band bending the mainstream ear these days.

9) Children of Bodom – Relentless, Reckless Forever

Like the American band The Black Dahlia Murder, the Finnish metal band Children of Bodom are excellent at making “extreme”  metal that is consistently catchy. Unlike many of their Scandinavian Metal peers, Children of Bodom are totally unafraid of having a good time and never take themselves too seriously (for example, of their many off-the-wall covers, they recently covered Eddie Murphy’s craptastic “Party All the Time”). They cram synthy keyboard riffs into many of their songs, insert White Zombi-ish film samples, and make “scary” metal sound like hair metal. Much of this sounds like what many would find to be negative things, but Relentless, Reckless Forever is unabashed metal fun for any who still understand that is a key part of what makes Metal worthwhile in the first place. Sure there’s room for venting aggression and exorcising stressful emotions, but Children of Bodom find a way to do that while being almost tongue-in-cheek goofy…and the songs here are really good.

8) Insomnium – One For Sorrow

Insomnium have “epic” down pat. Huge, soaring sound is what One For Sorrow is all about. It’s the little rays of hope that are tucked in the forlorn hopelessness that sets this work apart from its competitors. This band has found a way to make Death Metal sound inspiring and contemplative. This is expansive and exciting stuff, music that plays for almost any emotion you bring to it. “Through the Shadows” is one of the best metal songs heard all year.

7) Junius – Reports From the Threshold of Death

Junius push the thresholds of metal, really. This is fully emotional, ethereal, experimental, intelligent heavy music. Many a music critic has exclaimed that Junuis is “like The Smiths gone metal,” as if they were the first to make such a comparison. I’ve read dozens write so as such; but it’s understandable because that is a pretty apt comparison. The Smiths made post-punk pop/rock that was highly original, fully literate, and unconventionally unique. Junius does the same for metal, and the singer does have that Morrissey vocal earnestness about him. Reports From the Threshold of Death sprawls and invites you in; it’s perfect headphone music, songs that piece together an eternal contemplative of highest things. These are songs that increase in enjoyability with each replay, songs that take time to fully sink in but reward you all the more for allowing them in. They also display the incredible amount of room there is in the metal genre for variety, progression, and intelligence.

6) Anvil – Juggernaut of Justice

The title track of Anvil’s 14th record made my “25 Best Songs of 2011,” and that’s because it’s a microcosm of the awesomeness that is this entire record and the band’s work as a whole. This record is pure fun, cowbell clanging, heavy riffing, heavy metal. Sure it’s sometimes (probably unintentionally) cheesy; but it’s so much fun to root for the underdogs, especially when they make it so easy by making such good music here. These are feel-good heavy metal songs, performed by a band that plays like an uber-talented real-life version of Spinal Tap. What’s not to love here?

5) Havok – Time is Up

Thrash Metal is the genre that kick-started the next generation of Metal, as well as the careers of genre icons like Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth, and Anthrax. Yet as extreme metal diversified, it was Death, Black, and various forms of Progressive that began to carry the torch and garner the most followers. Recent Thrash revivalists have too often made music heavy on the cheese; sure the purpose of Thrash is to jump start the mosh pit (or party), and lyrics are really second (or third) in the line of importance, but when the material is too cheesy it simply gets in the way. Add that to the fact that too many modern Thrash bands are ridiculously redundant and uninspired, and you have the makings for a sub-genre past its prime. Thanks to bands like Havok though, there is modern proof of the potential vitality of Thrash Metal. Havok do interesting and subtle things with Thrash, whether it’s play with lyrical conventions enough to make a song titled “Killing Tendencies” be not about murder but about something that kills potential in one’s own life or a song that recognizes the evil potential in religious distortions and misrepresentations without blanketing an entire population of adherents with false accusations (“The Cleric”). But most of all, Havok just play great fist-in-the-air headbanger songs. The anti-drunk driving “DOA,” the Testament style “Prepare For Attack,” and the frantic title track all speak to the pure energy Thrash has to offer; outside of the ever-onward approach of Testament and their fellow stalwarts, Havok rank at the top of those carrying the bounce-around-the-pit flag of Thrash.

4) The Black Dahlia Murder – Ritual

Ritual was the front-runner in this category for awhile, and it ranks so high primarily because it’s ridiculously catchy. For an American Death Metal band who mine the gold of worldwide extreme metal, The Black Dahlia Murder are excellent at funneling that intensity into straight-forward, approachable material. Such a skill might earn them a bit of scorn from “purists” or underground fans who hate their once favorite artists the minute they have a fan-base larger than what can fit into a single living room, but it has worked to make Dahlia a popular metal band for metal kids and lifelong fans around the country. Ritual is the most cohesive and fulfilling work the band has done yet in a rather solid career; it represents them being them better than anything thus far. Lyrically the band traverses the depths of horror and shock that they seem to feel must accompany such styles, and at times that (in my opinion) hurts more than helps (in the same manner as the artist at the #1 spot, a factor which is the subject of a forthcoming post). Horror, scare, and narrative are one thing whereas shock, banality, and irresponsibility are another–music more than literature or even film faces this line as a very fine thing. Ritual most often comes down on the side of art, heavy and metal mall-kid influenced though it may be, and that causes the few lyrical lapses to be overlooked. If trying to be the most “metal” they can be by emulating their global influences in ways that sometimes miss the nuances and inspirations hurts the band occasionally in their lyrics, it really works well for them musically. There are intense riffs, blast-beats, and sonic explosions galore on this album; but what really seals the deal and stands them apart is the way that they can take such pure metal inspiration and produce it in an amazingly melodic way. Vocalist Trevon Strnad finds ways to make even the most ear-piercing screech or the most bass provoking growl to be hook-worthy. The rest of the band pound out Death-heavy riffs in a way catchy enough to challenge Power or even Hair bands for pure listenability. Songs like “Moonlight Equilibrium” are some of the best of not only metal, but of all popular music in 2011.  There’s an unmistakable sense of fun present in songs like “Conspiring with the Damned” that is absent in the work of most of the band’s Black and Death Metal peers, and the pieces of this album fit so well together that it’s hard not to finish the entire thing once you listen to just one song.

3) Machine Head – Unto the Locust

Although there’s some metalcore qualities to Machine Head, for the most part they play straight-forward Metal free of any particular sub-genre label or excessive qualities. Unto the Locust contains only seven songs, but aside from one all are six-to-eight minutes long. The vocals are clear and undistorted and they’re unafraid of a hooky chorus. The pattern of the songs can get predictable with their often acoustic and gradual introductions giving way to increasingly heavy rock and guitar riff solos. But nothing here gets boring, and every song practically begs for replays as they grow on you. “Be Still and Know” “Locust,” and “Darkness Within” are just beautiful, resonant pieces of metal that should appeal to anyone who’s ever really been a fan of the genre.

2) The Human Abstract – Digital Veil

This is a work whose only fault is that it’s over too soon at a short 36 minutes. For some metal albums, 36 minutes is just right (or too long), but this is so varied, interesting, and captivating throughout that it’s sad to hear it fade away at half an hour. Of course, that just makes you play it again and a band is usually at their best when they leave you wanting more. Digital Veil pulls so much scope and easy-handed experimentalism into some really great songs; there’s a huge classical music element, a genre which a lot of the best metal acts owe a large debt to, more so than any other rock subgenre. “Complex Terms” hits right after the orchestral “Elegaic” introduction, and it immediately grabs you and hooks you. Classical music filtered through mosh pit intensity, a give and take/up and down exchange of guttural growls an earnest crooning, a shifting techno influenced skitter of guitar work that makes industrial noise sound like pop melody with a bit of almost jazz like sensibility, headbanging guitar break sections, pianos which interrupt just to prepare the next burst of metal…this five-minute song would be enough to warrant the entire album a spot on this list. But the band lets you know they won’t tiredly repeat the same thing over and over as the following title track song shortens things up to Thrash measures by way of progressive Death Metal. The vocals get sharper and more confrontational, the drum-beats more tribal, a perfect mosh of a three-minute song. “Faust” is a more progressive-rock feeling song, with some noticeable “emo” qualities, but closer to first-wave emo rock when it was literate and not mall-kid; but the chorus is all global heavy metal. “Antebellum” is a softened, melodic break. A very, very impressive record.

1) Skeletonwitch – Forever Abomination

This record made the cut onto my “Best Albums of 2011” list at the #9 spot. You can read it here.

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Now that the “Best Albums of 2011” and “25 Best Songs of 2011” lists are up, I’m moving into more genre-specific focuses to comment on a few more great albums from the year. First up is a look at the best R&B and Hip Hop 2011 had to offer; coming soon is a “Best Metal of 2011.” By the end of the year or the first of the new year I plan to post the other media lists, likely beginning with movies. Thanks to those reading and feel free to comment.

10) The Roots: Undun

I can’t give a full review of this one yet because I’ve only heard it in it’s entirety a few times since it’s release earlier this month. Undun came out so late in the year it missed it’s opportunity for inclusion in most publications “best of” lists and that’s a shame because the spins I’ve given it promise that it would and should have ranked significantly on such critiques. My initial impression is that this is a record like the Roots are used to making now: high quality, creative, expansive, and ever-evolving hip hop art masterpieces. I don’t think it will rank with their last major work (How I Got Over) but I may change my mind. It does seem to be a very unique blend of influences and sounds and every Black Thought verse seems to hit the mark as does the work of the superb guest stars (including a great Big K.R.I.T. appearance). Had I had time to fully digest this work I’m sure it would have at the least ranked higher on this present list but in the issue of fairness I kept it at the back of the list rather than to belatedly compare it with established winners. I do know it far outranked the previous #10 slot (sorry Lil B).

9) Jay-Z & Kanye West – Watch the Throne

“Watch the Throne” is a record in which it’s superstar talents have teamed up and slipped into their current comfort zones. Which is good and bad; there are excellent beats and few have the ear for production and audio-joy like Kanye West and no one currently working can out-rap Jay-Z– he can rap 99 bars and win with every one (sorry). This album contains some excellent speaker-bangers, like the only-they-could-afford-it sampling of Otis Redding track “Uncle Otis,” or the instant addiction of “N***** in Paris.” But most such tracks are marred with lyrical issues and superficiality that shouldn’t fly so smoothly from such mainstream yet amazing talents in 2011…and how is it that the recession reeling audience are supposed to relate to popping gold-bottles in Paris? Watch the Throne is primarily hurt when the artists don’t push themselves hard enough as songwriters. But it could be that they expected the audience to forget their problems and party, which is fine but such a thing can be accomplished more intelligently and progressively. But what does work here works exceedingly well, like the stand-out track “Murder to Excellence” which has the broadest and most worthy scope of anything present here. “Made in America” works well too and focuses things on bigger topics, finding a hook for Frank Ocean to work with in the meantime. Ocean is also present on opening track “No Church in the Wild” with one of the best choruses of his career. “Lift Off” brings in Beyonce for a nice easy-going track. So all in all, Watch the Throne is a mixed bag whose limitations would likely keep it from a best of list if the incredible talents of those involved couldn’t craft art that you can’t help but like even when with some reservations.

8) Charles Bradley – No Time For Dreaming

Charles Bradley made one of the best songs of the year (“The World is Going Up in Flames”) situated in an album full of close runner-ups which is all the more applause-worthy in that he’s been itching to craft this record for decades. Bradley is in his sixties and this is his first release. His throaty yet smooth lived-in voice is excellently backed by the Motown throwback band the Menahan Street Band. This is old-school nostalgia Rhythm & Blues, akin to a lost Wilson Pickett album.

7) The Weeknd – House of Balloons

Mix-tape mania occurred this year, with new artists giving away work of such quality that in previous years would have been completely saved for the debut album. It’s a new mode of business, going all out for a studio-quality effort and self-releasing it to hook fans and attract labels early on. What used to be the province of hip hop artists (and often only as a way of keeping fans sated in between albums), mix-tape making has expanded and most of the best ones this year came from the R&B crowd. The Weeknd come on with House of Balloons, a woozy, drugged-out R&B album that plays seductive crooning with the energy of great hip hop and the experimentalism of superb indie rock. The Weeknd have collaborated with Drake quite a bit and it’s fitting in that few artists can make “the good life” sound so depressing and questionable as The Weeknd. House of Balloons plays like the soundtrack to the morning after a night the singer mainly regretted but accepted as inevitable, a night that he plans to go ahead with again on the slight chance it will be excellent this time. This is a round of hypnotic vocals, which roll through the ups and downs of syncopated and accelerating beats. “Wicked Games” is a stand-out song from the entire year, a song that is as addictive as its high-life downward spiral narrative, but “High For This,” and “What You Need” find other ways of accomplishing the same emotive function. A superb record that pushes R&B to its edges and makes romance sound dangerous in a way pop music is usually unable to do.

6) Beyonce – 4

Beyonce’s had quite a slew of great songs, both in her early days with Destiny’s Child and on her three previous solo outings. Her latest, 4, lacks some of the all-out smashes from earlier albums (aside from “Run the World (Girls)”), but the consistent quality of this album from start-to-finish makes it her best overall work thus far. It’s a relatively mature R&B work; it highlights her vocals and (usually) keeps the silliness to a minimum. Beyonce really incorporates some of the most diverse and unique beats and music of any top 40 mainstream pop star and this record is no different, with retro disco bounce, soft-rock guitars, a few Afro-Carribean beats, and of course the chopped and exploding “Girls.” Plus we get a verse from the too-long-absent-from-the-mic Andre 3000. 4 was, in most ways, the funnest summer record of 2011.

5) Big K.R.I.T. – Returnof4eva

Another excellent album freely given away as a mix-tape, Big K.R.I.T.’s Returnof4eva announces one of the freshest southern hip hop voices to come along in a long while. Finding a middle ground between Outkast and Ludacris, Big K.R.I.T. gives listeners both simple pleasures and serious considerations, intelligent street ruminations and parking lot swagger. The beats here are fantastic and the verses live up to them. K.R.I.T.’s late in the year second mixtape simply compiled his many guest appearances from the year, most of which lacked the nuance and smarts of the songs collected here. But a last minute verse on the new Roots record restores the promise of this widely acclaimed first blast of music. Hopefully the upcoming studio debut will be great.

4) Talib Kweli – Gutter Rainbows

Talib’s always good; sometimes excellent but always good at the very least. Last year he re-teamed with DJ Hi Tek to release an absolute classic, Revolutions Per Minute. So it was pretty surprising he returned about 6 months later with this (initially digitally only) release, Gutter Rainbows. This is a laid back Kweli record, one that is great to put on and drive to or throw on the headphones and get some basic work done. It’s Kweli just rhyming excellently effortlessly. The beats are mostly smooth and lush, the theme fitting and efficient but not overly complex. There are some excellent moments that peak out from the overall goodness– “Tater Tot,” “Self Savior” especially. There are new Talib proteges and friends given plenty of space– Sean Price, Chace Infinite and Jean Grae. All in all, just a solid album showcasing how important Talib is to modern quality hip hop.

3) J. Cole – Cole World: The Sideline Story

Jay-Z’s young protege/signee J. Cole’s studio debut has been eagerly anticipated by those of us thrilled with the quality of his mix-tapes and singles over the past couple of years. Well, that hype can be a problem because little every lives up to such anticipation. Cole World: The Sideline Story is not quite the album it could or should have been, but it is a good debut with some really great songs and only a few major missteps. Cole is a rapper who, perhaps more than any of his fellow young hip hop artists, desperately tries to balance his “street” and “smart” sides. This was the year when many came down on “street” completely; alt-hop back pack rapper Wale dropped all artistic endeavors to join up with Rick Ross and company to rap about sex, champagne and bling exclusively. Drake decided to release an album full of “bitch” litanies with no regard to the large amount of female fans he has. So it’s refreshing that Cole maintained any of that social concern that a well-read magna cum laude graduate of St. John University like himself has somewhat built into him. Cole’s not perfect when it comes to many of hip hop’s cliches and pitfalls, and he certainly comes down the greater deal of the time for the clubs and streets on his record, but he pulls both sides of his personality off quite well.  At his best he can do both sides of himself terrifically–see “Mr. Nice Watch” with his mentor Jay-Z for the best full-on club banger here, a song with a killer beat, great hook, superb verses, and a fully convincing live-it-up-because-tommorrow’s-not-promised ethos which bursts at the seams. Contrast that with the masterful back-and-forth discussion between a boyfriend and a girlfriend contemplating abortion in “Lost Ones” or the root-of-cheating investigation “Never Told.” There’s the retro-soul swim of “Noboby’s Perfect” with a great Missy Elliot Hook and the speaker-bumper “God’s Gift.” A few years ago Michael Eric Dyson wrote a book examining the contradictions and tensions of emotions and concerns in regard to the career and life of 2pac and existentially of all of hip hop, “Holler if You Hear Me: Searching For Tupac Shakur.” Those contradictions and tensions continue to live out in modern hip hop and perhaps nowhere else was that as evident this year as on Cole World: The Sideline Story.

2) Frank Ocean – Nostalgia, Ultra

Frank Ocean self-released Nostalgia, Ultra as a free mix-tape on the web. This is top-notch material and it’s hard to believe it’s absolutely (legally) free. This is the most exciting thing in modern, mainstream R&B I’ve heard in years. While most current R&B singers lazily milk R. Kelly style sexploitation lyrics in shallow, vapid, superficially produced songs, Frank Ocean arrives with a great voice, intelligent (and varied) lyrics, and highly creative beats. There are so many great songs on this album; the memory jolting “Strawberry Swing,” the woozy self-aware clubber “Novocaine,” the socially and religiously progressive “We All Try,” the absolutely perfect “Swim Good.” The way everything fits together with sound effects and scene-setting sound effects coalesces everything here together that this might very well be one of the 10 best mix-tapes ever given away. Melody, hooks, and beats that are creative and unique enough to sound completely new and fresh, complete songs that take advantage of the genre’s past but point to its future, and everything done so unpretentiously and unselfconsciously that art kids, trend-watchers, and casual unassuming R&B fans all alike can approach and enjoy this work. All of this begs the question–how is Ocean associated with the Odd Future Collective? Sure they all do things their own way, and they do it in a way one could argue as creative. But the emotional spectrum of Ocean’s work, and the often life and diversity affirming content of his lyrics seem miles away from the typical concerns of Tyler the Creator. Well, one can only hope the forthcoming studio release of Ocean’s debut studio album will live up the bar set here. Mainstream music fans have been slowly introduced to the artist this year as he crooned the hooks for two of the better Watch the Throne tracks and he was featured in Rolling Stone magazine promising no expenses or ambitions would be spared on that upcoming debut. Let’ s hope it’s a smash and that others will take a cue from Ocean and start making creative, relevant, and original R&B again.

1) Lupe Fiasco – Lasers

Lasers ranked #1 on my overall “Best Albums of 2011” list; you can read it here.

The 25 Best Songs of 2011

December 24, 2011

25) “Bright Lights, Big City” – Gary Clark Jr.

Guitar and Blues aficionados are heralding the arrival of this young axe-slinger as something huge. Clapton has been an early supporter and admirer of Clark and with good reason. This kid does exciting things with the guitar, making blues that is real without sounding like youthful misappropriation of an older art-form. He keeps it fresh by injecting little bits of his wide variety of musical influences, but nothing comes out kitschy or hodge-podge. The Bright Lights EP has a lot of us raring to hear his next full-length record. The best blues song in at least five years is the title track from that EP as Clark Jr. just lays out huge blues riffs and sings some real blues. Hey, 2012 might be a good comeback year for the blues  genre–it certainly seems like the emotional gamut such a humanistic genre is capable of covering would be much appreciated in these times.

24) “Swim Good” – Frank Ocean

Release a studio album already Frank! The fact that Frank Ocean released Nostalgia, Ultra as a free mixtape to download is just astounding. It’s the best R&B record by a young singer in years, and one of the best free mixtapes I’ve ever downloaded of any genre (this was the year for quality free online music from Hip Hop and R&B artists as my upcoming “Best 2011 Hip Hop + R&B Albums” will note). “Swim Good” closes the year as my favorite Ocean track so far, though I changed my mind about that all year long as different songs were temporary favorites. “Swim Good” was released as a single, I hope plenty heard it.

23) “Codes and Keys” – Death Cab For Cutie

My favorite moment on the new Death Cab For Cutie record is this Beatles-esque pop song. The title track easily ranks with the best of the band’s career and if the rest of the album had been this good it would have been classic. It’s certainly not a bad album, just not as good as their classic Plans or Transatlanticism records. This song is simple enough, the lyrics are less wordy than most of Gibbard’s lyrics, and thus the band has all of this open space to fill as Gibbard rolls his words out slower and more melodically. The best thing about this track is the full on orchestral style production; I first heard this song on the internet as a rough live version before the record was actually out, and it was a lot more bare and basic. It was catchy even then, but when I heard it in it’s released version I fell in love with it.

22) “Blue Skies Again” – Jessica Lea Mayfield

Jessica Lea Mayfield’s Tell Me was the best country record of 2011 and it’s doubtful that many who regularly listen to country radio heard it or even know who this young, excellent songwriter even is. Her attitude, poetic skill, and smoky voice work better now than they did on her minimalist angst-ridden debut record (though that record certainly had its charms). Now she’s in full on pop-country and heartbroken balladeer mode, though of the decidedly alt-country terrain. “Blue Skies Again” is just a really upbeat, catchy single that is fun to replay again and again–the fact that the girl who wrote the chilling downer “Bible Days” can here craft such an instant mood enhancer is testament to her talent.

21) “Hex Girlfriend” – Neon Indian

So what’s the logical thing to do when you craft a wonderful pop hook, sing it wonderfully, and back it with a great melody? If you’re Alan Palamo making a Neon Indian song, you blanket it in noise and distortion. Noise Pop, Chillwave and Electronica music that manages to pull such wonderful melodies under such potentially distracting blips and blurs without burying it, that manage to make those melodies and hooks even more inviting and catchy are really a thing of wonder. “Hex Girlfriend” is all of that and more in barely over three minutes.

20) “Never Told” – J. Cole

J.Cole finally delivered the studio record hip hop heads have been waiting for ever since his excellent mixtapes began making the rounds. Cole World – The Sideline Story does its best to balance the two sides of Cole, the street rapper who makes music for trunk rattling and club-bangers as well as the college graduate hip hop intellectual who can offer biting social criticism. Sometimes he pulls that off in the same track, as he did with the excellent single “Lights Please” (which is included again on this album but  was already released via mixtape more than a year back and has thus already made this list before). “Mr. Nice Watch” handles the street side of Cole best on this album, but “Never Told” does the backpack-styled thinking hip hopper the best. Cole bluntly (and vulgarly) ponders the reasons provoking many men to cheat, even inserting an acted out conversation between a father and son in between two of the verses which points to the ills of passing on bad traits down the family line. Cole presents a song here tailor-made for some keen observations in Michael Eric Dyson’s next book.

19) “Midnight City” – M83

The best synth pop song of the year is M83’s “Midnight City.” Who knew there would be a resurgence of synth pop in the second decade of the new millennium? A fun style of music that really evokes its ’80s heritage without being burdened by it, electronic and chillwave indie-pop artists now mine the gold such lush textures have to offer, and when Anthony Gonzalez and friends are at their best in M83 no one can really do it better. “Midnight City” rattles the beats and sends things off with a terrific sax solo.

18) “Juggernaut of Justice” – Anvil

If you’ve seen “The Story of Anvil” on Netflix and you now want to cheer the guys doing what they have been trying to do going on three decades now, pump the title track from their new record. “Juggernaut of Justice” is fun heavy metal, complete with monster-riffs, clear lyrics, and cowbells. You’ll salute them if you dig metal and also have a heart.

17) “Go Tell Everybody” – The Horrible Crowes

Brian Fallon, the lead singer of the excellent band The Gaslight Anthem, took 2011 as the moment to release the album Elsie as a side-project under the moniker “The Horrible Crowes.” It’s a really solid album, and although it doesn’t quite satisfy the way a new Gaslight record would, it often comes close during its 45 minutes. My favorite song from it is “Go Tell Everybody,” a song that just sounds great pumping from car speakers. It’s got Fallon’s usual literate romantic-nostalgia lyrics, a great rock and roll chorus, and a great vocal breakdown section at the end.

16) “New Cannonball Blues” – TV on the Radio

The funkiest track on the new TV on the Radio album is “New Cannonball Blues.” It’s like a lost-gem from the height of Prince’s career if the height of the Artist’s career was just now taking place–hard rock funk that sounds fresh and not a tad bit dated. Turntables and techno undertones carry the hard-bop lyrics all the way up. Perfect for car speakers, headphones, home stereos, bars, or clubs. Every note is pretty much perfect.

15)”Art of Almost” – Wilco

“Art of Almost” opens the new Wilco record with the sort of left-field creativity the band used to call home ten years ago. A series of blips, feedback and distortion gurgle until a gradual swell of orchestral melody overtakes the noise and Jeff Tweedy’s voice broaches the ground-work to usher in a pop gem. The background industrial beat sticks around in the background and the band doesn’t make their full entrance until the four-and-a-half minute mark. The drummer counts off the beat then, and things turn into real rock and roll. The ending jam session is the best Wilco moment in quite some time, and that’s saying something with a band this consistently excellent.

14) “Youth Knows No Pain” – Lykke Li

The first half of Lykke Li’s latest album Wounded Rhymes is phenomenal (and the second half isn’t bad at all). The standout track (and there are some really close contenders) is “Youth Knows No Pain,”  which is about as perfect as pure pop music can get. This Swedish indie internet darling pulls out all the stops by twirling her excellent hooks through a track stuffed with tambourines, hand-claps, bass drums, and and a beyond catchy organ riff. The production layers multiple versions of Lykke’s previously more quiet voice to make it swell and this song is apt to get stuck in your head for days (and you won’t really regret that).

13) “Tater Tot” – Talib Kweli

Talib Kweli’s “Tater Tot” is a hypnotic, first-person hip hop narrative recounting the misadventures of a returning Gulf-war veteran unable to readjust to civilian life. The protagonist takes a wrong turn by picking up the wrong woman in a cafe and then stumbling into a botched robbery while trying to check into a hotel. The radio-call intro at the beginning of the track is here more as part of the overall Gutter Rainbows album theme, but it works even when listening to this track individually by instantly placing you in the landscape of this work. The distorted background loop heightens the claustrophobic tension that throbs through the song and the high-pitched out- of-tune violin which ends things nicely caps off the best verses that Talib spits on the entire Rainbows album.

12) “Everybody Needs Love” – Drive-By Truckers

“Everybody Needs Love” is the most ready for radio single DBT have ever released and their performances of it live all over late-night talk shows this year were phenomenal. This should have been a real hit for them, though I suppose DBT will always be the sort of band with a large following of critics, die-hard long-term fans, and only the small but gradual addition of new converts–Lady Gaga or Katy Perry they are not, so this side of 1979 they are unlikely to be a top 40 band. Anyway, DBT used two spots on Go-Go Boots to pay tribute to the excellent and too 0ften forgotten Alabama session musician Eddie Hinton, a white soul/blues singer with a great catalog of his own work but who was best known for his guitar work on songs by Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Elvis, Otis Redding and everyone else who wandered down to Muscle Shoals to cut a soul song in the sixties. One of those tribute spots on the record is this lead off single, a cover of a forgotten Hinton gem. It’s bouncy and bright, lighter than a lot of DBT fare, and grounded by possibly the best vocal performance Patterson Hood has ever delivered. It’s a great and fitting tribute to a great over-looked musician.

11) “The World is Going Up in Flames” – Charles Bradley

There’s something just amazing about a man who’s wanted to make it as a soul singer all of his life finally releasing a first album in his sixties that actually garners him some well-deserved recognition. Daptone Records are the home for retro-soul and live-instrument R&B, so it’s great that their sub-label Dunham records released this, pairing Bradley’s rough-smooth-warm vocals with the excellent musical chops of the Menahan Street Band. The stand-out track from Bradley’s long-time-coming album debut is the single, “The World is Goin’ Up in Flames.” Bradley’s voice is the epitome of great, southern soul crooning and the old-school horn beat and backing vocals make this the best 3-minute soul song in years.

10) “Time Spent in Los Angeles” – Dawes

The first song on Nothing is Wrong is the most vintage sounding folk-rock song from an album full of them. Dawes pull this off in a way that shouldn’t be possible in 2011 by making harmony, jangle-pop, and full-on earnestness sound exciting and refreshing. This is an authentic-sounding, heartfelt, non-cheesy folk rock wonder.

9) “Hell Broke Luce” – Tom Waits

The most unsettling yet also the most catchy music on Tom Waits latest record is on this song, “Hell Broke Luce.” It sounds a bit like the heavy chair-hits-the-floor drumbeat found-sound music of his more recent records like Real Gone, which fits this harrowing military left-right chant which condemns the violence and horror of war and what it does to those who participate in it; Wait’s line that he “lost my buddy and I wept,” is practically soul-shaking in this context. Machine-gun fire and explosions erupt at the mid-point of the song before everything devolves into chaos as “Sergio is developing a real bad cough,” and the narrator tells us he “left my arm in my coat.” The music intensifies as the lyrics break down and the “what is next?” end-shout leaves listeners wondering the same thing.

8) “Job’s Coffin” – Tori Amos

Who knew that full-on feminism had such pop hook appeal? This year not only did we get a dance-floor jam from Beyonce expressing feminine power but…well, I guess such content is par-the-course for Tori Amos. Yet it makes this latest song no less powerful. Maybe Tori hasn’t had anything close to mainstream youth appeal since the mid-nineties, but she hasn’t lost her talent and force with the eyes off her. Her latest full-length is Night o f Hunters, and it is the type of record she has been long overdue in making. Her (enjoyable) path through adult-contemporary pop music (The Beekeeper) and her (less successful) attempt at returning to piano grunge rock (American Doll Posse) were sidesteps from producing this full-on blend of classical music, opera themes, and pop music which she has done wonderfully with her latest record. The stand-out track for me is “Job’s Coffin.” Tori enlisted her young daughter to sing parts on this latest story-record, and she’s present on this song. Mother and daughter sound wonderful trading lines and this call for women to rise up and and take their “power back” sounds terrific and delightfully melodic with its flute anchor.

7) “September’s Children” – Rise Against

The recitation of the names of the teenagers who took their own lives or suffered as a result of their sexual orientation and the bullying that brought them is enough to choke up any rock fan with a heart. This is a powerful song–sure, those who have pointed out some strong melodic similarities to the Green Day hit “Boulevard of Brokers Dreams” may be somewhat correct–this is far from the most original sounding song, but that’s forgivable and likely accidental. There are great songs all over Endgame, but this is the most heartfelt and unguarded moment on the record. This is a band playing with their hearts on their sleeves and their priorities in the right place and there’s not much more you could ask for from a talented rock band.

6) “Rolling in the Deep” – Adele

The music geek (read: snob) in me tempts me to refrain from acknowledging such a mainstream (read: popular) radio hit on a list like this, but that would be playing the role of the hater too much and in the process eschewing any level of “objectivity,” which is pretty hard to keep in what is arguably a completely subjective endeavor in the first place. Adele sold a crap-load of records, not just in downloads but in old-fashioned record store purchases with her 21 album because she hit such a wide variety of music consumers. Pop radio fans, older adult fans of classic soul and R& B, teenagers, music critics, and even a lot of indie kids responded to Adele’s music because she sings with an amazing voice, writes genuine music, and neither panders to the lowest common denominator nor stumbles into pretension. “Rolling in the Deep”  is that rare gem of a heavy rotation song that works on almost any station and doesn’t drive you crazy to hear it a year later. As many times as this thing has been spun on mainstream formats and at ubiquitous venues, it still sounds good. It hasn’t gotten old. It’s a really superb song, something rare in top 40 in that it really will be worth preserving and hearing at a later date.  Her voice soars and the hand-clap beat rattles (in a good way) through your head. This is what good pop music is all about.

5) “Booty City” – Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears

No one makes better old-school rhythm & blues rock songs like Black Joe Lewis and his phenomenal band the Honeybears. The lead-off track from Scandalous surpasses even the “Sugar Foot” single from 2009. What more could you want than this rollicking rock, a drum beat that won’t get out of your head, an on-fire sax solo, Joe Lewis shouting his best modern James Brown vocals, and a background singalong chorus inviting us all to travel to booty city?

4) “Holdin’ On to Black Metal” – My Morning Jacket

The most out-there song on MMJ’s latest, yet the most catchy and poppy at the same time is a folk-acid-rock and roll shout-out to the most extreme and derided of all global extreme metal sub-genres. Hearing a children’s choir chant out their support of Black Metal is worth the price of admission all on its own, but Jim James high croon and the band’s epic jam rock support sends everything over the finish line.

3) “Murder to Excellence” – Jay-Z and Kanye West

Now why couldn’t the rest of “Watch the Throne” be this powerful and relevant? Jay-Z and Kanye West are ridiculously talented. Jay-Z is the best rapper of his entire generation, Kanye West is a solid rhymer who is an excellent producer with the best ear for hooks and production of any mainstream hip hop artist of the past ten years, yet Jay only dips his toes into strong lyrical content a few tracks per record and though Kanye started off his career doing that much more often, he has since moved almost completely to the superficial with his content. “Murder to Excellence” shows you what can occur when the best mainstream rap artists shift their attention from the lowest common denominator to issues of the utmost sociological importance without shorting listeners on the beat, rhymes, or melody. This song kicks hard, the beat is fantastic, the verses are tight and strong, the emotion is maxed-out and this is one heckuva rap song. Watch the Throne had us bobbing our heads and blasting our car speakers at many other moments throughout the course of the record, but this is one of the only full tracks that let us many of us do so without at least a little moral consternation.

2) “Run the Worlds (Girls)” – Beyonce

“Boy this beat is crazy,” Beyonce tells us and she’s absolutely right. The best beat of the year (and the wildest in mainstream music this side of MIA) elevates Beyonce’s hip hop feminism shout-out to a whole other level. Beyonce’s latest record, 4, is easily her overall best yet and this is the standout track by miles. Over this intense, crazy, globally-influenced hip hop dance beat Beyonce praises astute female businesspersons, motherhood, and the complete power and nation-building strength of the female gender. This song is so frenetic and catchy that I wouldn’t be surprised to see even the most “macho” of guys unconsciously singing along to this in the club–or at least nodding their head.

 

1) “Words I Never Said” – Lupe Fiasco featuring Skylar Grey

The most potent track on Lasers, “Words I Never Said” is buoyed by an incredibly catchy hook that actually enhances and intertwines with Lupe’s verses rather than detracts from them or seems just tacked on. Lupe roars out of the gate in his first bar, condemning the war on terror before proceeding to indict the racism and xenophobia present in modern mainstream news and media, the violence and misrepresentation of his own Muslim faith by others who claim it and use it falsely for violence, and pretty much every US president past and present who have engaged in war in his own stance of pacifism. The song doesn’t stop at blanket condemnation as he deftly balances the complexity of modern society, the Israel-Palestine conflict, and the apathy of those who complain about the way things are but do nothing to change them. Not every claim Lupe makes is going to be seconded by every listener–there are lines positing validity for the “Building 7” conspiracy theories and the carcinogenic affects of diet soda that I’m not sold on–but such statements don’t get in the way of an excellent hip hop track. I’d rather political and social passion be bursting forward unrestrained than hear another rehashed and tepid endorsement of capitalism or commercial banality. Lupe raps fiercely, Skylar sings beautifully, and a hypnotic beat flows everything down tremendously–hands down the best hip hop song of the year, hands down the best song in all of popular music during 2011.

The 10 Best Albums of 2011

December 22, 2011

This is the first of my annual End-of-Year “Best Of” posts. In the music category, I’m adding a “Best Hip Hop + R&B Albums” and “Best Metal Albums” to showcase a greater number of excellent albums, many of which just didn’t make the final cut for the overall “Best Albums of the Year” list but are worth the mention anyway. Those articles will be up within the next week or two; and since I am able to discuss more complete albums than usual, the rule for “Best Songs of the Year” which used to exclude songs taken from the albums which made the album list will be revised to allow songs from any album–so I will post a “25 Best Songs of 2011” article which will rank songs, some which were on album-picks and some that weren’t with the focus being on great songs that work in and of themselves as single pieces of work out of any album context, be they a radio single or not. Last of all, there will be the usual “Best Films of the Year” and “Best Comics and Graphic Novels.” As always, thanks for reading and feel free to leave comments!

10) Drive-By Truckers: Go-Go Boots

There’s not much to add regarding this pick that I didn’t mention in the glowing review I gave it upon its release back in February. It’s simply another great DBT record. It doesn’t rank with the absolute best the band has ever done–epic classics such as The Great Southern Rock Opera or Brighter Than Creation’s Dark— and it is just a notch below last year’s The Big To-Do, but even an “average” record from the Truckers now that they’re at their peak is still miles ahead of most other working bands who record and tour these days. It is obvious that the recording process for this record was directly on the heels of last year’s record because Go-Go Boots has a very similar feel as The Big To-Do. While that record had more full-on hard rockers, this one plays a bit more like a DBT mixtape, consisting of some long-form story songs (“Used to Be a Cop,” “Go-Go Boots,” “The Fireplace Poker”), pure country Mike Cooley gems (“Cartoon Gold,” “The Weakest Man”), perhaps the last Shonna Tucker country-rock ballads we’ll ever get to hear on a DBT record now that she’s leaving the band (“Dancin’ Ricky,” “Where’s Eddie”), and the closest DBT has come to a potential hit radio single (“Everybody Needs Love”–if only there were enough good stations left to play such a thing). Along the way there are great Patterson Hood Americana guitar songs (“I Do Believe”) and heartland rockers (“Mercy Buckets”). Everything here is really solid stuff, it showcases the band at the collective best of their best-yet lineup. It’s sad to see Shonna go since she was such an integral part of this period in the band’s history and since she offered such a refreshing bit of variety as a female singer/songwriter, but at least she’s leaving on a high note. Here’s hoping to see what lies up ahead for the best working, recording, and touring band still on the road in America this side of the E Street Band.

9) Skeletonwitch: Forever Abomination

Skeletonwitch delivered an album overflowing with fist-in-the-air riffs on Forever Abomination: riffs that thunder, twist, turn, layer, and mix-in everything from classic Thrash staples, Death Metal breakdowns, and punk-like face-melters, to almost hidden classic rock and roll chords buried underneath all the other riffs. There were more progressive and groundbreaking heavy albums this year, more varied experiments in metal, better technical skills displayed, and certainly better lyrics, but this American metal band that mixes the best of extreme metal sub-genres to make a (relatively) more palatable expression succeeded in making the best metal of the year anyway. Skeletonwitch tread the same tired lyrical ground that too many Black and Death Metal bands from around the world do, and that’s really their weakest point. But knowing that they’re really just metalheads themselves, ones with no real ideological agenda other than  to make music they want to hear and to party a bit makes the apocalypticism seem more than a little tongue-in-cheek. No one really thinks the band truly has to fight off a “horrifying desire to kill” or that they anticipate a bloody cosmological war between demons and angels. In interviews they express that even their most supernatural song lyrics are just poetically camouflaged recountings of daily toils, life on the road, and everyday stress–and even their most over-the-top lyrics never cross the boundary from storytelling to perversity in the way some metal lyrics do in the pursuit of shock and awe. Really though, the band realizes their musical mission is all about sonic intensity and layers of inspiration for the air-guitarists at home. As such they’ve done away with the polished production of their last record, dropped the vocals low in the mix, amped up the guitars, and compacted things in tight like a vintage punk record. Vocalist Chance Garnett still rasps in the same Black Metal blood-curdling intonation as before, but lower in the sound-mix it comes across as even creepier; occasionally he drops down into a Death Metal baritone, and he always manages to successfully twist those vocals around the frenetic guitar and drum work of Neil and Scott Hendrick (guitars), Eric Harris (bass), and Derrick Nau (drums), even at their most intense level of Thrash. Skeletonwitch manage to find melody in the heaviest of crunching sound, and the m0re you spin this record the more those melodies click, from the acoustic preparation at the beginning of track 1 to the ridiculously fast album closer “My Skin of Deceit.”

[Note: Forthcoming 2011 posts will cover the ten best metal records of 2011 and a rumination/semi-apologetic of Skeletonwitch style metal lyrics]. 

8) Tom Waits: Bad As Me

When Bad As Me dropped this fall, many critics rushed to hail it as the best Tom Waits record since his quirky, eccentric career highpoint of the early-mid 1980s albums Rain Dogs and Swordfishtrombones. What too  many of them were overlooking is how consistently excellent Tom Waits has been on more recent records like Mule Variations, Blood Money, Real Gone, and Orphans. But I think what many were sensing was how great everything here sounded on that initial spin. Many of Waits’ records take time to settle in, but Bad As Me grabs you from the get-go and shows a full display of Tom Waits being the best artist he can be, doing what he does best. Not to mention that 2011 is the perfect time to hear Tom Waits doing this–channeling the great depression era for the great recession, making vaudeville and carny-barker blues and tin-pan alley jazz sound fresh and frightening in his alternatively gothic manner. There’s the hopeless song about hope “Chicago,” the eerie highwayman song “Face to the Highway,” the excellent anti-war cacophony of “Hell Broke Luce.” The timeless yet ancient sounding heartbroken ballads “Pay Me” and “Last Leaf.” All in all, you couldn’t ask more from a Tom Waits record and he always delivers something that you can’t get anywhere else. Bad As Me ranks with the best albums in his already highly esteemed catalog, and it was certainly a good year to hear from this quirky old friend.

7) Rise Against: Endgame

I really didn’t know Endgame was going to make my list until December this year. It makes perfect sense that it is here, although not until I began finalizing the order of my picks this month did it dawn on me I was forgetting to include it. There were a lot of albums I thought would make the cut this year, a lot of almost-picks, and when I spotted Endgame on that list I realized that once it made sense to include it, it quickly shot up higher than the last spot on the list. I’ve listened to this record regularly all year-long and it took me until the end of the year to realize that I have enjoyed it as much as I have. I’ve always liked Rise Against but have never found any of their albums to be truly great; singles like “Re-Education Through Labor” have always made my singles list on this site because they’re powerful, potent forms of political and social protest and commentary couched in emotionally warm and satisfyingly punchy neo-punk hard rock songs. Yet none of their albums have ever sustained that level of quality from start to finish, although Siren Song of the Counter Culture came pretty close back in 2004. Well, nothing on Endgame is quite as excellent as “Re-Education,” but everything on the album comes in just a hair below that classic, and nothing wears thin or gets old on repeat listens, so Endgame turns out to be the best Rise Against record of their career thus far. This is the type of record we needed more of in 2011; a reminder of the real issues, issues the politicians all too often obscured, skimmed over, or fought against in greed and ignorance while those at the bottom of every social strata suffered. There are calls to try our best to fill the shoes of the true leaders of generations past and not sell out on the passionate beliefs of our youth (“Architects”), cries of condemnation over those left without the help they thought was coming (“Help is on the Way”), an emotional tribute to those who suffered for their sexual identity and a demand to support anti-bullying efforts (“September’s Children”), as well as plaintive questioning of the national endorsement of violence and war (“Survivor Guilt”). Best of all, these sentiments are all sealed with appropriate fury and musical melody. No chords are too original, the music is never as raw as vintage punk or as technically excellent as great rock or metal, but the band plays well consistently, creating much more than serviceable vehicles for their pleas. These are all solid hard rock songs, hard rock with enough punk thrown in to prop up the lyrics without scaring off punk newcomers, and vocals that simply sound good without becoming the end in themselves. A great record to introduce Rise Against to someone new and a record long-time fans can be happy to receive also.

6) Wilco: The Whole Love

If you haven’t paid attention to Wilco by now, there’s really nothing left to say to convince you of what you’re missing. For the past fifteen years they have been nothing short of fantastic, consistently releasing quality records that rarely tread the same space twice and that never really falter in any way. They were at their most experimental from 2002-2004 with Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost is Born. They have since scaled back to concentrate pretty much solely on straightforward Wilco-style rock songs, songs with great guitar and drum parts, smart lyrics, and warm pop melodies. Last time around they seemed to be content in doing their thing in the most basic, yet entertaining, manner possible (Wilco: The Album). So it is with a welcome surprise to hear The Whole Love open with the feedback, intentional distortion, and computer-blip of “Art of Almost.” That song gives way to a clear and perfect opening verse-chorus-verse Wilco song but ends with a terrific extended jam session that is apt to leave most longtime Wilco fans cheering by the time the snares begin to truly rock. The industrial background under-girding the entire song lets listeners know Wilco is ready to mix in some of their old experimentalism again. Of course, most of the songs that follow slide back into the same musical territory of their last record, but that’s far from a bad thing because Wilco has their full rhythm down pat now. The Whole Love is the best start-to-finish Wilco record since Foxtrot. The boardwalk organ and punchy vocals of “I Might,” the soulful bounce of “Dawned on Me,” the finger-picking and infectious hook of “Born Alone” all rank with the best Wilco moments of their exceptional career. Like with the guitar work and vocals of the frontman of the band in at the second slot (up ahead), George Harrison’s ghost appears to be inspiring Tweedy here quite a lot, especially on “Open Mind.” Everything on this record could be a 3-4 minute radio staple if it were the golden age of radio again, except for the 12-minute album closer, “One Sunday Morning (Song For Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend”). You might expect from the time-stamp on that song it would be a last-minute excessive excursion into pretension marring a great record, something that might even be forgivable for such a band on such a record, but you’d be wrong. It’s really just a beautiful, understated ballad that wouldn’t have been out of place on the earlier more Country music influenced Wilco records and it ends things very nicely here.  So please, don’t miss out on experiencing a band as artistically great as this while they’re happening in the present.

5) TV on the Radio: Nine Types of Light

Albums like Dear Science, and Return to Cookie Mountain garnered TV on the Radio practically universal critical acclaim if not mainstream attention or huge sells. Like a few other artists on this list, I’ve followed and admired this band’s music for awhile now but it was this year’s release that really caught me and won me fully over to the band. Nine Types of Light may not be as experimental or “artsy” as Science, but it is just completely catchy and enjoyable and that’s what does it for me. After the brief spoken intro of the opening song Second Song” gives way to a keyboard and turntable-accented dance song of art-disco proportions and  a Prince-like falsetto croon complete with “Oooh-ooh”s, the band had me on board for the full ride…and many, many repeat listens. There’s the dreamy, almost chillwave ballad “Keep Your Heart,” the nineties throwback love song “You,” and especially the two hard-funk post-rock masterpieces “No Future Shock” and “Cannonball Blues.” Radiohead done as a funk band on the album closing “Caffeinated Consciousness” just ties up  a nice, quick, unbloated and excellent rock record. Not since the early eighties heyday of Prince fronting of his many band assemblies or the fully electrified live performances of Talking Heads have we had the pleasure of a such a bold, fearless, left-field foray into the true potential of artistic funk-rock as the current career of TV on the Radio and this latest release, at least for me, shows off what they are capable of doing the best.

4) Dawes: Nothing is Wrong

There are a lot of throwback bands who try to mine classic rock and make something new sound vintage and instantly classic upon release; to do that successfully though, a band or artist must make it seem as if that instant vintage sound is mere happenstance, a byproduct of good taste and sharp influences. To simply sound dated upon release is the possible outcome such a neo-classicist risks when proudly wearing older influences on their sleeve. Couple that risky proposition with the particular batch of influences a band like Dawes surely has–CSNY, Jackson Browne, The Eagles, and other sunny California rock from the 1970s–and the result most  certainly should have been bland, cheesy, or tired. Yet that’s not the case in the slightest. Nothing is Wrong instead is an album that certainly could have been released at the height of Laurel Canyon folk-rock popularity but one that when released now works even better by reminding modern ears how warm, refreshing, and downright pleasant and entertaining vocal harmonies, folk-rock breakdowns, and easy emotionalism by way of a four-piece rock band really are. The lyrical path lead singer/songwriter Taylor Goldsmith travels could easily derail from earnest to pretentious, but aside from a flat line or two out of the entire record, these songs really don’t do that in the way a band like the Avett Brothers unfortunately do quite a bit more often. It helps that when they falter–say in the breakfast litany from the album closing song “A Little Bit of Everything”–an excellent and emotionally resonant line, one simple and direct and universally honest immediately follows. Even if the lyrics don’t work for you though, they’re easy to brush aside when there’s a great multi-part harmony around the corner (as in the excellent end-section of “Fire Away”) or a full-tilt guitar and drum solo (check that same track). There are great suitcase-in-hand Americana jams (“Time Spent in Los Angeles”), dreamy ballads (“Moon in the Water”), Crazy Horse style rock songs (“If I Wanted Someone”), even poignant ex-sailor mini-epics (“So Well”). Dawes have crafted a throwback instant-vintage record that succeeds in sounding timeless rather than dated and there were no better harmonies or more successful earnestness on display anywhere else this year.

3) Bon Iver: Bon Iver

Bon Iver takes listeners with him on a trek through fictional small towns all across America on his self-titled second album. Bon Iver is a record that maintains the high-level of artistic quality that the tremendous “Blood Bank” single set in 2009. This is a record and an artist that make for an unlikely pop phenomenon, but many with ears to hear it from all corners of the listening public found something unexpected and exciting with it this year. Bon Iver mixes indie folk minimalism with unexpected lush production, thus creating a textured, beautiful sort of quietism. He croons in his familiar falsetto, sometimes layering a bit of auto-tune in simply for the additional texture, occasionally dropping to a baritone, but always quiet enough to make listeners lean in as if in private conversation with the artist. The lyrics ring true in their emotional intensity though on face value they really make no sense to most of us–reading them reveals no great truths, it’s in the expression of them that Bon Iver explicates a personal truth for each of us in that we hear our stories in his croon. Every increase and change in sound, every drum solo, horn note, plaintive moan, and guitar lick accentuates the impact of the quieter moments, making everything flow out with power and beauty. Though there are great songs here–“Holocene,” “Minnesota, WI”, and the keyboard laden eighties throwback “Beth/Rest,” this is not a singles-driven affair. Perhaps more than any other record this year, Bon Iver is a cohesive piece of work whose parts work best in one single whole. An emotionally trying yet satisfying travelogue through towns which really aren’t fictional after all since we’ve all been there in our own ways, Bon Iver was the perfect record to experience at the tail-end of winter early this year and at the onset of a new winter as 2011 draws to a close.

2) My Morning Jacket: Circuital

My Morning Jacket, like many other artists on this list, finally released the album I wanted them to this year. Circuital just clicks with me on every level, just like TV on the Radio’s Nine Types of Light album did; both are bands that I’ve admired and followed for some time and both finally crafted the work I hoped for from them. I’m certain arguments can be made for other albums by both bands to be their creative bests, but different albums work for different people and especially in the case of My Morning Jacket, this album just works excellently for me. You never know what type of record you’re going to get with MMJ–a 1970s inspired AM pop record like Evil Urges, a rollicking hard southern rock record like It Still Moves, or this–a proggy, spacey set of neo-folk, post-hippie jam songs and Americana style ballads. Bandleader and singer Jim James retains the George Harrison vibe he channeled on his recent Tribute To solo EP and works with it subtly, appropriately sparsely, and wonderfully here. His voice has never sounded better, his melodies more charming, nor his lyrics more complete–sometimes witty and sly, sometimes heartfelt and earnest, sometimes prophetic and apocalyptic. The dance-around-the-fire psychedelica of “Victory Dance,” the epic biblicality of “The Day is Coming,” the tenderness of “Wonderful (The Way I Feel),” and the looking-back unashamed but not wistful to return of “Outta My System” are just as good as anything Neil Young has ever done, circumnavigating similar terrain to that folk-rock great but without copying any of the same vibes either. Not to mention the pure awesomeness of “Holdin’ on to Black Metal,” complete with a children choir and all.  There are little proggy textures similar to the Who’s ventures into alternative ways of doing thoughtful rock and roll all over the place, especially in “Metal” and “First Light.” “Slow Slow Tune” is the best song Ween never recorded; the album-closer “Movin Away” is such a gem of pure beauty, it leaves you floating off warmly from a record that is remarkable from start to finish, a record with influences clearly all over the place but with a creative individual like James at the helm of the ship such influences never overtake the band’s original creativity. If I’ve given James too much credit I should stress that it’s clear that everyone on board is going all out, the band plays as tightly and remarkably as ever. Critics rave over MMJ’s live presence and performance but they’re just as good on record. Past records may have opened up the space quite a bit more to show off the full measure of everyone’s talent, but the quiet restraint on display on such great but often peaceful songs is no less evident of the mastery each participant has with their instruments. The best MMJ record I have heard to date and I can’t wait to hear what comes next.

1) Lupe Fiasco: Lasers

We may never know what Lasers  would have been like if Lupe been able to make the exact record he wanted. What we have here is an artist at the peak of his creative and artistic potential burdened by ridiculous label and corporate demands, so it is rather surprising that the album turned out as excellent as it did. The road to release for Lupe’s latest was a long one; Lupe claimed he had the record finished more than a year ago yet his label (Atlantic) sat on it for so long that fans began to wonder if it would ever see the light of day. Singles were released as far back as the summer of 2009 (“Shining Down” which didn’t even make it onto the final version) to promote the pending release of Lasers and when the final product remained unheard fans began an online petition calling for Atlantic to go ahead and release the album already. Perhaps Atlantic realized the scope of talent they were dealing with in Lupe and were trying their hardest to harness that for mass appeal, but in doing so they failed to realize that Lupe at his best isn’t really meant to be a mass-appeal hip hop star. He’s a smart, political, alternative hip hop trailblazer closer to Talib Kweli or Dead Prez than he is to modern pop-rappers like Drake or Kid Cudi. The polished hook-laden album that Lasers became appears to most observers and fans as the label’s attempt to force hit singles out of a rapper not tailored to mainstream tastes. Yet despite everything, Lasers is a great album nonetheless. In a year in which practically everything great in music was flawed by some imperfection or blemish, this record stands as the leader of that pack in showcasing brilliance in spite of potential missteps. Looking back on all 0f my album picks this year I knew which would make it to my top four but not what order they would fall in until a week ago; my top three each had a moment in which they were my number one, but when it comes down to it, this is the one I played the most this year, the one I most often enjoyed in different contexts, the one I’ll likely revisit the most in the years to come, and the one that best marks my 2011. It’s hard to say for certain which aspects of Lasers bear the mark of studio meddling the most and doing so is completely speculative, but it seems safe to say that such meddling kept this from being the true testament to Lupe’s creativity that it could have been, but it just as well could have quite possibly produced results of pop excellence that we would never have gotten had Lupe been left to his own devices. Lasers certainly isn’t the epic that 2007’s The Cool was–that album is easily one of the top five hip hop records of the past ten years–but there is no guarantee that it could have been or surpassed that anyway (though I don’t doubt such an album is coming from Lupe someday).  Lasers really is a political pop alternative hip hop record, one that sounds great, one that can potentially appeal to listeners who have ignored all prior Lupe, and one that even in its most shiny pop moments finds unique ways of being delightfully subversive even in its mass appeal appropriation.  And it’s not like Lupe is adverse to catchy hooks and hybrid sounds–Matthew Santos crooned acoustic guitar coated hooks all over The Cool no more “disruptively” than the multiple hooks and choruses which abound on this present work. The hooks here  just craft Lupe’s emotional cadences and political protestations into actual songs that will stick with listeners who might otherwise be turned off by the artist’s far left-of-center stances.

The one-two punch of the two opening tracks are the best lead-ins for a body of work found in record stores and online all year. “Letting Go” covers the ground that Kid Cudi so tirelessly attempts to dominate in its emo-rock inspired pathos and tone in a much more timeless manner. It braces the listener, preparing the ears to hear the single best song of the year, “Words I Never Said.” You don’t have to agree one hundred percent with every political sentiment espoused in “Words” to feel the rawness, honesty, and emotional intensity that Lupe delivers there to an audience deprived of such fearless and heartfelt expressions, an audience weaned on current popular music to set their concerns far lower than the global scope Lupe purveys therein. To break up the intensity the album sets back a little with a peppy, backpack rap singalongs like “Til I Get There” and “I Don’t Wanna Care Right Now,” songs that could have been Food and Liquor outtakes but which give plenty of room for Lupe’s adept verbal wordplay. “Out of My Head” seems like the most tailored for radio (and perhaps label initiated) track here, but it comes across more than a little bit positively subversive simply by being the most upbeat, uplifting and clean hip hop love song since Will Smith and early LL Cool J (minus the cheese), despite featuring the mind-in-the-gutter young R. Kelly devotee Trey Songz on it’s hook. Gladly we keep Lupe’s best single thus far at the mid-album point, “The Show Goes On,” which is just as good now despite being released last year before the album temporarily returned to the shelf. The anti-suicide “Beautiful Lasers,” and the encouraging “Coming Up” remind listeners of the positive vibes and community building hip hop is capable of outside of the club. Though the guitar riff and hooky chorus of “State Run Radio” is a bit generic, it doesn’t diminish the excellence of Lupe’s verses which succinctly condemn hyper-capitalism , classism, materialism, dumbed-down mass consumption and war.   “Break the Chain” is simply a good retro dance floor song, but one with content unlikely to be found in any other club song of the past five years. “All Black Everything” is a lyrical masterpiece, flipping The Dream’s tired sexploitation slogan into a label for proud black consciousness and a re-imagination of world history without its racism as a plea for a better future in lieu of the impossible rewritten past. John Legend helps close out the album with a soaring and soulful hook on “Never Forget You,” in which Lupe opens up on his own personal history as much as he is apt to for some time.

Lasers isn’t perfect and it’s not the best hip hop record of all time; it is the best one of 2011 though, and the brilliance, passion, and determination of its creator help make it the best album of the year period. There isn’t a bad verse here and even though some of the beats and hooks fail to enhance the full potential of those verses, they never detract so much so that the art is ruined. Sometimes those melodies, even ones potentially unwanted by the artist, help create unexpected and unanticipated moments of pop greatness. Public Enemy and Dead Prez rarely if ever harnessed their fiery presence in the form of truly approachable (for the masses) popular music. The case can certainly be made that such art isn’t meant to be presented in such a way. But it’s a bit hard to really complain that at least one Lupe album is now available that retains his political and social genius even while harnessing it into a fully approachable pop format.