Saturday, December 24, 2011

My Top Albums of 2011

Part of these lists originally appeared at While many music writers randomly choose their favorite albums, my top 10 picks are in order, according to who I thought put out the strongest releases.

TOP 10 ALBUMS 2011

1. Noah & The Whale, “Last Night on Earth” (Mercury) – These Brits used to be part of a nu-folk scene that included Mumford & Sons. Then scholarly singer/guitarist Charlie Fink led them onto a more fascinating path, where synths, sequencers and drum machines mixed with the trademark violin. The result was an energetic, life-affirming dose of pop/rock influenced by Springsteen, Pulp and Lou Reed, with a bit of spacey gospel thrown in for good measure.

2. Cold War Kids, “Mine is Yours” (Downtown/DGC) – The Long Beach band ditched most of the blues and self-described "soul punk" elements that characterized previous efforts and focused on a sleeker, reverb-soaked rock sound which fit well. A more dynamic sound paved the way for anthemic winners like "Skip the Charades" and “Royal Blue.”

3. Duran Duran, “All You Need is Now” (Tape Modern/S-Curve) – The pioneering British synth-pop band found the perfect producer in Mark Ronson (Amy Winehouse), who urged them to use vintage instruments and channel the old school vitality of 1982's Rio. Simon Le Bon held his own alongside guest vocalists Kelis and Ana Matronic of Scissor Sisters. Meanwhile, the musicians whipped up a sharp, frothy mix of future classics. Note: Although the album was released digitally in December 2010, the standard physical/deluxe CD versions came out early this year, which is when I first heard the entire disc.

4. Peter Bjorn and John, “Gimme Some” (Almost Gold/Startime International) - The Swedish pop/rock trio took a more immediate approach on their sixth studio release. Several songs were improvised, live takes with surprises galore, namely a dual punk blitzkrieg (“Black Book,” “Breaker Breaker”), infectious, danceable nugget (“Dig a Little Deeper”), extended kraut rock-meets-new wave (“I Know You Don’t Love Me”) and haunting ‘70s AOR (“Second Chance”). It is consistently strong from start to finish.

5. Florence + the Machine, “Ceremonials” (Universal Republic) – When raven-haired British songstress Florence Welch opens her mouth, you hear a visceral wailing rarely experienced since the early careers of PJ Harvey and Siouxsie Sioux. And it is astounding. With producer Paul Epworth (Adele) at the helm again, Welch’s darkly romantic chamber soul music - still teeming with regal harp and thundering drums – packs another emotional punch.

6. Young the Giant, “Young the Giant” (Roadrunner) – One of the Orange County music scene’s breakout success stories of 2011, the mesmerizing alt-rock band proved to be adept at dreamy excursions (“I Got,” “Strings”), rousing rockers with reverberating guitars (the top 10 modern rock hits “My Body,” “Cough Syrup”) and the occasional dose of spirituality (“God Made Man”). Morrissey was right on the money when he gave Young the Giant a rare seal of approval.

7. Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds, “Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds” (Sour Mash/Mercury) – Gallagher’s brother and other ex-members of Oasis failed to make a big splash with their solid, yet unspectacular first effort as Beady Eye. So the stakes were suddenly raised. The debut solo album by Noel - former mastermind behind Britain ’s biggest band of the ‘90s- doesn’t disappoint. Utilizing a chorale (evoking The Stones’ Beggar’s Banquet), New Orleans-styled brass, Ibiza dance strains and Kinksian pop, this is concise, nuanced and highly satisfying stuff.

8. The Airborne Toxic Event, “All at Once” ( Island ) – Armed with a wider, more compelling sonic palette than before, the Los Angeles alt-rock band easily avoided a sophomore slump. Literary-minded leader Mikel Jollet and company delved into rockabilly a la Johnny Cash, searing, politically-tinged, U2/Clash-inspired territory and new electronic textures with equal aplomb. Stellar string section enhancements by The Calder Quartet pushed the exhilaration quotient even further.

9. k.d. lang and the Siss Boom Bang, “Sing it Loud”(Nonesuch) – For the first time in decades, lang assembled a tried-and-true band, including new collaborator/onetime Guster member Joe Pisapia. It obviously rejuvenated her spirit. The outcome was a shimmering, adult alternative/pop/country m√©lange that accentuated those gorgeous pipes –especially the Roy Orbison-leaning “I Confess,” sublime cover of Talking Heads’ “Heaven” and beautiful “Water’s Edge.”

10. Dawes, “Nothing is Wrong” (ATO) - The L.A. rock band revisited vintage ‘70s singer/songwriter sensibilities in fine fashion on their warm and inviting second album. Front man Taylor Goldsmith deftly wrote confessional tunes about life in the 310 and expanded his electric guitar playing. Laid back group vocals brought to mind prime Paul Simon, CSN&Y and especially Jackson Browne (the latter even lent a hand and took them out on tour). An organic gem.
11. The Black Keys, "El Camino" (Nonesuch)
12. R.E.M, "Collapse Into Now" (Warner Bros.)
13. The Civil Wars, "Barton Hollow" (Sensibility)
14. Viva Brother, "Famous Last Words" (A&M/Octone)
15. The Cars, "Move Like This" (Hear Music)
16. The Vaccines, "What Did You Expect From the Vaccines? (Columbia)
17. White Lies, "Ritual" (Fiction/Geffen)
18. Edwyn Collins, "Losing Sleep" (Heavenly)
19. Elbow, "Build a Rocket Boys!" (Fiction/Cooperative Music)
20. My Morning Jacket, "Circuital" (ATO)
Honorable Mention
Ron Sexsmith, "Long Player, Late Bloomer" (30 Tigers)
The Naked and the Famous, "Passive Me, Aggressive You" (Universal Republic)
Peter Murphy, "Ninth" (Nettwerk)
Social Distortion, "Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes" (Epitaph)
Stevie Nicks, "In Your Dreams" (Reprise) 

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