Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Top 10 of 2011

2011 was perhaps not as fertile a year as 2010, but it still produced enough interesting material worthy of mention.  We begin with:

10.Lady Gaga - Born this way

An album that came on a wave of anticipation via the success she mined off her first disc "The Fame" and it's equally-if-not-more-succesful add-on "The Fame Monster".  It has been criticized for cribbing too much from Madonna - but it doesn't so much crib from Madonna (aside from the too-close-to-home title track) as it does borrows from her aesthetic and welds it onto Gaga's strange, tripped-out icy space-pop sensibilities.  Sometimes she wins on weird sounds, sometimes she wins on finding just the right combo of 80's hair metal, industrial synth surges, and musical-cuisinart flourishes to make it sound good.  Occasionally, she wins on sheer chutzpah alone (such as the monk-choral-chant of "Gaga" that occupys 25 echo-filed seconds of the track "Bloody Mary").  Love her or hate her, she has the talent to create interesting techno-pop creations - the question now is how long she can keep it up before she runs out of tricks.

9.R.E.M. - Collapse into now

R.E.M.'s latest studio disc is most certainly bittersweet - it is the first disc since drummer Bill Berry left where they don't sound like they're trying too hard to figure out what to be in his absence - where they finally decided to just BE R.E.M. and do it well - and yet, it is their full-length swan song.  Better to go out on a high note - and here they certainly do.  Best tracks are the upbeat opener "Discoverer" and the poignant "Every day is yours to win".

8.Weird Al - Alpocalypse

Al mixes in the current/topical (his riff on Gaga "Perform This Way" is a laugh riot all by itself) and the more poignant originals he is now becoming more accomplished at (see "Skipper Dan" for a more reflective Al than usual).  The requisite polka medley is present, as are several more forays into rap parodies (see the T.I.-aping "Whatever you like") - an amusing lark celebrating discount living, ramen noodle dinners, and costco shopping trips -  truly a great antidote to the bling-drenched excess of songs just like the one it is built upon.  Against all odds, Al is keeping it relevant 30+ years into his career - not easy but he pulls it off.

7.Duran Duran - All you need is now

Here Simon Le Bon & company righted a ship that seemed forever sinking into Timba-lake hell on the phoned-in "Red Carpet Massacre".  On this disc they traffic in glitzy 80's synth sleaze tales, with just enough refinement of their classic sound (borrowed from current trends to keep it from sounding stale) something the previous disc tried to pull off, but failed miserably at.  It is an album that has its spiritual head stuck in the 80's, but never forgets what is going on in the here and now when it was released - so it pulls off that rare hat trick of sounding retro AND current all in one fell swoop.

6.Beastie Boys - Hot sauce committee part 2

After the self-consciously old-school "To The 5 Boroughs", this is a breath of fresh air.  It mixes the best of classic sample-based hip hop and the 'boys own music-collage style rock fused together to create a fine disc, one of few examples of intelligent hip hop in the world today.  And not that they aren't without their fun streak (See the bouncy, effervescent "Don't play no game that I can't win")

5.Coldplay - Mylo Xyloto

Coldplay have often been compared to U2.  If Viva La Vida was their Achtung Baby, this is Coldplay's Zooropa - the still-good but slightly off-kilter continuation and evolution of the sound they began playing with on Viva.  The soaring choruses soar, the musical mixology still infuses everything they do, but at times it feels too overworked, too drenched in sound.  This doesn't stop the gems from shining through ("Paradise" and "Don't Let It Break Your Heart" particularly) - and yet the lead single "Every teardrop is a waterfall" was built off a (Fully credited) sample of  "Ritmo De La Noche" - for a band that has previously eschewed samples, this makes one think they may be running out of ideas.  Still - it is a backdrop only, and a good foundation on top of which to layer the original playing, and doesn't stop this disc from being worthy of its place on this list.

4.Patrick Stump - Soul punk

Fallout Boy's lead singer steps out on his own with a disc whose title misleads at times - as it is equal parts soul, punk, r&b, pop, and more genres than you can shake a stick at.  Sometimes it sounds cluttered ("Greed") but when it works and hits all the right notes ("Bad Side of 25") it more than makes up for the slip ups and shows a great deal of promise and gives a true eye on Stump's talent outside the confines of his former band.  For sheer epic proportions, check out the alcoholic-and-hating-it extra-long track "Run Dry (Cross my heart/cross my fingers)"

3.Foo Fighters - Wasting light

This disc manages an unusual feat - it combines a producer known for rock music processed to within an inch of its life (Butch Vig, who helmed Green Day's latest "21st Century Breakdown") and pairs him with a band doing the "4 guys in a garage with amps and instruments" aesthetic - and it somehow sounds great.  The guitars crackle and crunch over every track, the drums pound, and it never sounds fussy or overworked - and it shows what real melodic rock can sound like when it is done right.

2.311 - Universal pulse

311 manage to land this high even with the shortest disc on this list - and that shortness is what helps - it's tight, it's concise, and it follows in the same vein as the 2009 Uplifter.  The tracks linger on just long enough, don't overstay their welcome, and are just the right mix of crunchy stompers and spaced-out rock ballads (see the closing track "And A Ways To Go")  Being a band that backs up fine discs like this with amazing live performances only helps to cement their reputation, and earns them the #2 spot.

1.Noel Gallager - Noel Gallager's High flying birds

This album wins the top spot for repeat listen-ability - succeeding in a way the others on this list haven't quite managed.  From the very first track, Noel proves that while Liam may have sung the bulk of Oasis' hits, Noel was the architect of the sound, the feeling, that was Oasis.  Not that this is a batch of Oasis left-overs.  Noel balances child-like whimsy "I Wanna live in a dream (in my record machine)" along with brooding odes on mortality ("Everybody's on the run" / "If I Had A Gun") and many more subjects besides in a well-arranged, well-sequenced album that never overstays its welcome.  The attitude of Oasis is stripped away, and Noel's more contemplative voice is given room to shine through.  Top pick from the album as a whole is "The death of you and me" - a poignant track by itself, and at the same time one that leads the listener to wonder if it isn't a hidden reference to the acrimony between him and his brother.  Whether it is or not, it still leads the listener into a great middle half of the album, which concludes with the dreamy "Stop the clocks" - a closer that puts you to sleep, then jars you awake with a wall of noise as it ends to seal the impact of this, my pick for #1 of 2011.

Honorable mentions:

Incubus - If not now, when?

After the verymuch so-so Light Grenades, Incubus comes back around - a bit somber and brooding, but then their songs always have been - just maybe not sounding so quiet as these do.  Not a bad thing, and Boyd's voice is strong, but some punch to vary the proceedings (excepting the bouncy "Switchblade") would have made this album better.

The Cars - Move Like This

Ric Ocasek returns as lead singer on a disc that manages a rare feat.  Like many bands who came up in the 80's who are returning to the speakers of listeners the world over, they manage to recapture what made them great, while not sounding stale doing it, or sounding like a microwaved platter of copies of past glory.  Highlights are the peppy "Blue Tip" and the somber "Soon".

Cake - Showroom of compassion

This is a welcome return from the band best known for the hits "The Distance" and "Never There" - it lacks staying power though.  Pleasant trumpet-inflected light guitar rock that crawls into your head one day, then disappears the next week.
Not bad, just not as resonant as it could be.

Jennifer Lopez - Love?

After a series of not-so-interesting discs, she remembers what made her first solo disc so interesting - just having fun making catchy dance music.  She leans a tad too heavily on trance-happy fad-of-the-moment productions for her music - truly, the sounds her producers are tweaking to suit her dance-music style have been around in trance/techno circles for a decade or more - but that hardly matters when they manage to create something catchy and fun.  Is this high art? No.  It's guilty pleasure dance-pop cheese - not an everyday meal, but when the mood demands it, you'd be hard pressed to find a better slice of this so-called cheese.

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