2011 was the year of the rookie. Three of my top selections and two of my honorable mentions were debut albums. It was also one of the best years for new music in recent memory, and I must confess, dear readers, that I was not quite able to listen to every great album in its entirety. But among those I did hear from beginning to end, these were the best.
1. My Morning Jacket – Circuital
When I first heard of My Morning Jacket, before I ever really listened to them, I thought they were a folk band. Then I saw the American Dad! episode “My Morning Straitjacket” and realized that they were in fact a psychedelic band. And when I saw them perform “I’m Amazed” on SNL in 2008, it was quite clear that they were a jam band. As Circuital makes abundantly clear, they are all these things, and so much more. Along with all the elements already mentioned, this album features R&B-quality horns, Satanic black metal (sort of), a song tailor-made for weddings, and some face-melting solos. If it were the seventies, MMJ would be the biggest rock band in the world.
Key Tracks: “Victory Dance,” “Holdin’ on to Black Metal,” “Circuital,” “First Light”
2. The Naked and Famous – Passive Me, Aggressive You
The classic album that Passive Me, Aggressive You most resembles is Dark Side of the Moon: a handful of tracks with single potential mixed with a bunch of atmospheric, mood-setting pieces. Like most great mood-setting pieces, it all adds up to one massive dreamscape. Alisa Xayalith and Thom Powers’ vocals crisscross over each other, creating a sort of whispering that flows throughout much of the album and thereafter does the same in your head. This is the sort of lightness of being that romantics want existence to be like, and it is like that when listening to The Naked and Famous – quite possibly the best (non-comedic) band to ever come out of New Zealand.
Key Tracks: “Young Blood,” “A Wolf in Geek’s Clothing,” “Punching in a Dream”
3. Foster the People – Torches
Foster the People embody what people mean when they use the descriptor “alternative” in the most positive connotation possible. Their sound is unusual when compared to most hits in today’s pop world, but it is also patently catchy – the most important criterion for being played right alongside those Top 40 hits. Thanks to that catchiness and their sunny SoCal attitudes, Mark Foster and company have managed to sneak themes of gun violence, young adult malaise, and social conformity into mainstream radio, dancing the whole time. If it were the nineties, this would have been the biggest album of the year.
Key Tracks: “Pumped Up Kicks,” “Helena Beat,” “Call It What You Want”
4. The Joy Formidable – The Big Roar
The Joy Formidable’s The Big Roar is not the biggest roar that rock music has ever roared (though standout single “Whirring” may just be the biggest roar of 2011), but would we really want fifty minutes of that? But it is “big,” not “biggest” in the title, implying that this is the big mode for The Joy Formidable specifically, and on that count, it certainly delivers. On every track, Ritzy Bryan roars with her vocals and guitar, Rhydian Davies roars with his bass, and Matt Thomas roars with his drums, but they never go unbearably over-the-top. It is rhythmic and melodic – hell, there is even an oxymoronic heads-down shoegazing sensibility in there for good measure.
Key Tracks: “Whirring,” “Austere,” “A Heavy Abacus”
5. Florence + the Machine – Ceremonials
This big voice that is residing in the throat of Florence Welch has decided that everything about Florence must be just as big. Those high and clean, perfectly pitched blasts of raw vocal power that we came to love Flo for are still here, and they are in great supply. Her titles – “What the Water Gave Me,” “Seven Devils,” “Heartlines,” and even something so big as “All This and Heaven Too” – consist of natural and supernatural elements that suggest all that life is made of. Even lines like “What the hell” are pitched at full blast. As Ceremonials approaches an hour, it becomes a bit overwhelming, but I can excuse lengthiness as long as the ambition is plenty evident.
Key Tracks: “Shake It Out,” “Spectrum,” “Heartlines”
6. The Black Keys – El Camino
At first glance, it may seem appropriate to call El Camino a minor effort from the Black Keys, as it arrives hot on the heels of their mainstream breakthrough Brothers, and it is nearly twenty minutes shorter than Brothers. But such a claim would demonstrate a severe misunderstanding of the Black Keys. Brothers is unique in their discography; most of their full-length albums, like El Camino, are around forty minutes, which tends to happen when most of their songs are three-minute, bare-bones blues-rock scorchers. This is just the Keys running in their wheelhouse; some carefully placed distortion is the only ornamentation they allow themselves. (I do feel like I should point out the irony that I am praising the brevity of this album, when one spot above is an album that I slightly criticize for its length, and I thought that Brothers was better than El Camino.)
Key Tracks: “Lonely Boy,” “Hell of a Season,” “Little Black Submarines”
7. Adele – 21
When Adele first broke out with “Chasing Pavements,” I thought, “Well she’s got an incredible voice, but the musical arrangement is only about half as good.” In the three years between 19 and 21, the music caught up. 21 is carried along by the incredible, undeniable strength of two of the biggest hits of 2011 (“Rolling,” “Someone”) and buoyed by a couple of other notable singles (“Rumour Has It,” “Set Fire to the Rain”). Most of the rest of the album does not quite reach those heights, but they still feature Adele’s voice, and with the standout tracks as amazing as they are, the rest only had to be passable for 21 to be a success.
Key Tracks: “Rolling in the Deep,” “Someone Like You,” “Rumour Has It”
8. Rihanna – Talk That Talk
Talk That Talk may or may not be Rihanna’s best, but it is definitely da one that is most devoid of filler, or at least a certain kind of filler: the ballad. While some of her ballads have been basically successful (“Take a Bow,” “California King Bed”), they cannot touch the superb production of her more upbeat and more danceable best (“Umbrella,” “Disturbia,” “Rude Boy,” “Only Girl (in the World)”). Even when she went dark (Rated R) and then loud (um, Loud), she still made room for the ballads. With Talk That Talk, she finally realizes the sort of “talk” that she is best at: the simple cooing and mildly taunting demands repeated over and over, without growing tiresome, as only she can.
Key Tracks: “We Found Love” (featuring Calvin Harris), “You Da One,” “Cockiness (Love It)”
9. Feist – Metals
Feist’s Metals can serve as the perfect soundtrack for a series of commercials featuring young people traveling the world. There is an outdoors, exploratory sort of vibe, with a good deal of indie cred, and, besides, “Home” by Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros has already been used to soundtrack enough. For the most part, the instruments are very contained and controlled, mostly serving to propel the momentum of the album forward, encouraging the listener to do the same. Occasionally, the music breaks through, as in the guitar breakdowns in “The Bad in Each Other” or the percussion accompanied by the background vocals in “A Commotion” – and these moments are more satisfying for their infrequency. Feist does not overwhelm the music with her quirky voice, but finds a kindred spirit in those subdued arrangements, all culminating in a subtly attention-demanding collection.
Key Tracks: “The Bad in Each Other,” “The Circle Married the Line,” “A Commotion”
The honorable mentions were great but not as brilliant as those that made the top 9; some had a few excellent standout tracks but weren’t as great from top to bottom.
Mayer Hawthorne – How Do You Do, Raphael Saadiq – Stone Rollin’, Drake – Take Care, Childish Gambino – Camp, Foo Fighters – Wasting Light
I Haven’t Heard These Albums in Their Entirety, But I’ve Heard That They Are Quite Good:
Bon Iver – Bon Iver, Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues, Lykke Li – Wounded Rhymes, Mastodon – The Hunter, Frank Ocean – Nostalgia, Ultra, Radiohead – The King of Limbs, St. Vincent – Strange Mercy, TV on the Radio – Nine Types of Light, Tom Waits – Bad as Me, Wilco – The Whole Love, Wild Flag – Wild Flag, Yuck – Yuck