You might have had to search a little harder to find it, but for those with the resourcefulness to exercise their due diligence, there was plenty of great music out there to be had this year. As it turns out, those pesky 2011 rumors that music is dead were greatly exaggerated after all.
But locating it was key. With good record stores — the kind staffed with reliably knowledgeable music nerds — increasingly scarce these days, and the once healthy art of music journalism mostly on life support, finding that great new musical discovery in 2011 often meant clicking your way like a needle through the vast haystack of the internet.
Still, there was life out there beyond the Biebers, the Perrys and the Gagas, as the list you are about to read proves in spades. To compile BC Music’s annual (well, mostly anyway) rundown of the year’s best albums, we tasked ten of our music editors and writers with the simple assignment of naming their pick for album of the year, and explaining that choice in as few words as possible. While our music scribe’s words were not always few, each of their picks are, without exception, all worthy contenders for the 2011 championship belt.
To that end, the following list is in no particular order, and there are no rankings. Rather, it is based on the individual perspectives of the contributors who participated. Which makes for a very eclectic and diverse sampling of some of the best that music had to offer in 2011.
Not that we ever expected anything less, of course…
Donald Gibson picks Adele’s – 21
“Rolling in the Deep” changed the game. The first time you heard it you just knew that this song – that voice – was going to be a big deal. Adele is sirenic and sexy, her will-not-be-denied resolve striking a visceral blow to every self-absorbed, woe-is-me lament clogging up millions of iPods around the world.
As an album, 21 achieves much the same impact. Many of its songs have become so familiar now that they risk sounding cliché – a mere 12 months after entering the pop landscape. Yet it continues to sell like nothing else in contemporary pop, further illustrating the extent to which this music resonates with people. Popularity doesn’t equate to quality, of course; longevity will speak more to that. But it’d be churlish not to recognize that with this album Adele has tapped into the universality of heartbreak in ways that are at once intensely personal and timelessly profound.
El Bicho picks Tom Waits’ – Bad As Me
I thought this was going to be a tougher decision, but as I reviewed the albums of 2011 that stood out for me, none were as captivating as Waits’ latest. The opening track “Chicago” comes barreling out of the speakers like a runaway circus train in the night. Clint Maedge’s sax takes the place of the train whistle, signaling its approach, while Waits’ banjo serves as the tracks flying by underneath. And when he, as the conductor, yells “All Aboard” at its close, I am hard pressed to imagine anyone turning down the invitation to go along and discover if “things will be better in Chicago” or wherever the album leads.
The songs, which Waits wrote and composed with wife Kathleen Brennan, tell stories of different moods and attitudes. He plays a number of instruments and sings in different affectations depending on the narrator. Though the arrangements are diverse, a theme of dissatisfaction runs through many of the songs as narrators look to get away from their problems instead of sticking around and working on them. Waits is joined by a talented group of musicians, including guitarists Marc Ribot and Keith Richards (the latter also singing on the ballad “Last Leaf”); bassists Flea and Les Claypool; harmonica player Charlie Musselwhite; and multi-instrumentalist David Hidalgo. Some play on a single track while others make multiple appearances. All help contribute to Tom Waits creating my favorite album of 2011.
Glen Boyd picks Wilco’s – The Whole Love
Wilco’s most diverse collection of tunes since 2002’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is also their best since that masterpiece. On The Whole Love, Jeff Tweedy and company combine avant-experimentalist tracks like the wild, seven minute sonic freak out “Art Of Almost,” with the sublime poignancy of “One Sunday Morning (A Song For Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend),” a twelve minute lyrical tour de’ force that has also been opening many of the shows on Wilco’s current tour.
Besides his edgy work on “Art Of Almost,” you’ll also find the stamp of guitarist extraordinaire Nels Cline is all over this album. On “Black Moon,” Cline makes bagpipe noises with his axe not heard since the likes of Big Country in the eighties, while his sonic shredding on “I Might” provides a perfect counterpart to the Doors-like keyboards of Mikael Jorgensen. The Whole Love puts all of these pieces together, to finally realize the full potential of Wilco, as something far greater than just the collective sum of Tweedy’s backup crew. On The Whole Love, you in fact get the whole package.
Greg Barbrick picks Manorexia’s – Dinoflagellate Blooms
“It’s cinematic and quite dark, monstrous at times. It leans perhaps more than ever to the contemporary classical side of my work,” said JG Thirlwell to Blogcritics last year, previewing his upcoming Manorexia album Dinoflagellate Blooms. I was intrigued, to say the least, and when the album appeared in July of this year, was also suitably impressed.
Thirlwell’s music ranges far and wide, comparisons can be made to Frank Zappa, Bernard Herrmann, and Sibelius for starters. But the cinematic description may be the most accurate. This is music that evokes a visceral connection with the listener, although it never sounds like “soundtrack” music. “A Plastic Island In The Pacific” is a telling title, for there is a lurking danger underneath it all.
Kit O’ Toole picks Lindsey Buckingham’s – Seeds We Sow
Sure, Lindsey Buckingham may be best known for his tenure with Fleetwood Mac. But his 2011 release Seeds We Sow reminds listeners of his unique gifts for songwriting and guitar picking. Whether pondering love and the universe in “Stars Are Crazy,” or redemption in “End of Time” and “Gone Too Far,” Buckingham impresses with his philosophical musings and sophisticated guitar work. However, he still has the penchant for writing accessible pop and rock. Only he could make anger catchy on “One Take” or the “Second Hand News” sequel “Rock Away Blind” (“I could go crazy without even trying/ Fleeing the scene of the crime,” he snarls).
Instead of the slick, almost robotic arrangements of his 80s singles, Seeds We Sow showcases Buckingham at his most intimate and stripped down, revealing his raw talent. “Sliding down the karma slide/ Seems like it never ends,” he sings in “End of Time.” “When we get to the other side/ Maybe then we’ll make amends.” Is he discussing his own mortality, or our uncertain times? No matter the interpretation, Seeds We Sow perfectly showcases a superior guitarist, lyricist, and rock ‘n’ roll survivor. The album demonstrates that sometimes a guitar, voice, and simple arrangements can say more than a full-blown production ever could.
Kirsten Coachman picks Patrick Stump’s – Soul Punk
A well-crafted, synthed out hybrid of pop, R&B, and hip-hop music written, performed, and produced single-handedly by Patrick Stump is why his debut solo album, Soul Punk, is my pick for Best Album of 2011. Taking cues from his influences, David Bowie, Prince, and Michael Jackson, Stump brings 80’s dance-pop to a contemporary setting with songs like, “Everybody Wants Somebody,” “Dance Miserable,” and “Run Dry (X Heart X Fingers).”
Each track on Soul Punk delivers a unique lyrical perspective, as well as a diverse musical arrangement, where the combination of the two makes for some of the best pop music I have had the pleasure of listening to in quite a while. I appreciate the overall creativity and musicianship that went into the production of this album, and the talented artist for choosing to embrace the sound he musically identifies with and making it his own.
Charlie Doherty picks Yuck’s – Yuck
While there is no shortage of bands aping the ’80s synth rock/new wave style these days, it’s a welcome development to see a young rock band like England’s Yuck come out swinging in the year 2011 with its debut and self-titled record that wears its late ’80s and ’90s alt rock influences on its sleeves. The Sonic Youth-edged “Operation,” the sugary sweet “Shook Down,” and the loud, emotion-filled Dinosaur Jr.-ish guitar licks of “Get Away” (one of the year’s best singles), highlight this 12-track bunch.
A deluxe version adds six bonus tracks (with the chilled out, light guitar rock of “Soothe Me” being among the highlights), which only add to the excellence of this impressive release. Carefree Pavement-like yelps and melodic tendencies also speak to the diversity of this, one of the best albums of 2011, especially for a debut.
Rhetta Akamatsu picks Butch Walker and the Black Widows’ – The Spade
Butch Walker and the Black Widows’ The Spade was the most entertaining recording I reviewed this year. It is witty, diverse and makes you feel good, which is what Walker does best. As I said in my original review, he makes the music he wants to make, without regards to trends. He can go back to his Southern roots for a song like “Dublin Crow” or rock out on a song like “Bullet Belt.”
This CD is upbeat, optimistic, nostalgic, full of great stories and loaded with hooks. I picked it as number one for my top ten because it is so much fun, no matter how many times you listen to it.
The Other Chad picks Katie Costello’s – Lamplight
No album this year stayed with me the way that Katie Costello’s Lamplight did, and no song impacted me quite like its climatic epic, “The Weirds.” Imagine the musical equivalent of a Wes Anderson movie and you’ll have an idea what Costello’s sophomore effort is like.
Simultaneously traditional and quirky, Costello’s unpredictable tunes surprise the ear in a way that keeps them fresh after many listens. Her introspective lyrics are thoughtful in a way that defies the fact that she only recently reached legal drinking age. Tony Berg’s production is deceptively simple; though seemingly straightforward, close listening reveals a carefully constructed sonic fabric of subtle ornamentation. From the sweetly funny classic pop of “Cassette Tape” to the emotional discombobulation of “The Weirds,” Lamplight burns exceptionally bright as a 2011 standout.
Tyrone S. Reid picks Florence & The Machine’s – Ceremonials
With the release of their debut album, 2009’s Lungs, one of the bestselling releases of that year, Florence and The Machine first got notice. Now the extravagantly gifted songstress (flame-haired 25-year-old wonder Florence Welch) and the musicians who provide music for her voice are experiencing unprecedented raves with their latest, Ceremonials.
This great followup is an out-of-this-world concoction laden with soaring hymns of heartache, remorse and unbridled hope. Throughout, Welch’s unforgettable voice remains a bewitching instrument. Above all, the album stands as one of 2011’s most impressive releases.