I know I have a few choices which will send them into a state of shock. I'd like to tell you that I think the new Florence + the Machine and Feist albums are among my ten favorite records of the year, but they're not. For the record, both are exquisitely beautiful in their own way, but the truth is I listened to Britney Spears and Natasha Bedingfield's albums much more and song-for-song found greater pleasure in them than the two aforementioned critics favorites. Does this mean I have bad taste in music? Possibly, it might also mean I'm willing to let my freak fly in public and simply state what didn't just move me emotionally but physically as well. One of the most intrinsic beauties about music is how often we embrace it. If I go over my Top-Ten films on any given year, there are a few I saw only once and may see less than five times in the next decade. But an album is more portable; in the car, on a plane, running, commuting to and from work, etc. It allows for a deeper introspection and these songs seep their way into your head and heart in ways you never could have imagined. A song may appear on the radio, in a film or simply on shuffle and on that particular day, it opens windows that transcend our existence. Songs like "Shake It Up" by Florence and the Machine and "Till the World Ends" by Britney Spears can mean different things on different days and despite the hollowness of a lyric, it may strike you in a way that doesn't make just your day but your life. What I have below is a non-conventional list of the music I adored in 2011. Some of it is cool, some of it's not but at the end of the day, my advice is to not let the taste makers define your music experience, but rather your heart. So without further adieu, my ten favorite records of 2011;
Number One: Patrick Stump – 'Soul Punk'
Patrick Stump's Soul Punk is an extension of his very soul. Besides writing and producing the entire album, he performed every single instrument on it. If that isn't enough for you, he footed the bill for the entire project signifying how much he believes in these songs. This isn't an ego trip but a reflection of an artist in the truest sense of the word. Stump is a virtuoso who wanted to do more than simply step outside of familiar terrain but was hell bent on reinventing himself in the process. Despite winding tales of quiet menace and despair, the album's finest tracks ignite your inner spirit. "Coast (It's Gonna Get Better") culminates the ten song journey on an affirmative note with a repeating chorus that invades your mind while "Spotlight (New Regrets)" is a hymn of empowerment. Soul Punk is a triumph in pop production where Stump's forthrightness turns an agnostic into an advocate; he expands the pop spectrum in a way few of his contemporaries would even dare. No record released in 2011 better exemplifies the world we live in. Despite numerous warning shots to the soul, its melodic throb infects the listener. From self-empowerment to infidelity to despondency to addiction to hope this record is bursting with life lessons. Patrick Stump's Soul Punk isn't just a daring and revelatory detour but the bravest and most remarkable album released in 2011. Patrick Stump has crafted ten exquisite songs which illustrate an artist who has and continued to experience ache and uncertainty, yet his unrelenting belief in himself ignites not just his soul but his music as well. There is an acute awareness of reality here and it lifts the album to another plane where pop music rarely resides.
Number Two: Robyn – 'Body Talk'
I'm cheating here, but for good reason. I mentioned Robyn's EP's in last year's "Best of" list and yet I never fully embraced Body Talk until this past year. The actual album (which houses exclusive songs and mixes) was released in December of 2010 and I spent all of 2011 listening to the record (and the aforementioned EP's). Robyn invades your body, mind and soul with pensive lyrics and euphorically charged dance grooves that are engrossing. Body Talk spins around your mind and your feet. She does for the dance floor misfits what Springsteen does for the blue collar steel worker; she encapsulates their existence perfectly with songs about dreams amidst a lingering atmosphere that could lead down to either the road of redemption of the hell of heartbreak. Body Talk is a personal triumph; a rare synth-pop record where it's equally danceable and emotionally devastating.
Number Three: Adele –'21'
Nothing needs to be said about 21. The voice, the pining, the heartache and the exuberant arrangements have made one of the most enduring albums of the decade. It's funny how record executives complain about how the internet ruined music, and yet 21 was released in the UK one month before it was in the US and yet piracy is a non-issue here. There was only one music video for the first eight months. The tour was limited to smaller venues. Her interviews and award show appearances were minimal. Every rule that big music management has laid before its clients to ensure monstrous record sales she turned down. So how did this record sell over ten-million albums (and counting)? Its simple-the music. It's raw, real and incredibly well crafted. Let this be a lesson to the music industry everywhere, it you create a record that is top-to-bottom great and feed not just your imagination but your soul as well, people will want to not just steal or stream it, they'll want to own it so they can feel closer to the music.
Number Four: Jo Wymer – 'Living With Scars'
Listening to Jo Wymer's debut CD Living with Scars is akin to having a cold bucket of water thrown upon you as you are in a hibernating sleep but also is as warm as a fire on a winter night. She doesn't just take us inside her world, but lays out the mental secrets and personal distress which we try and often fail running from. Most of life's greatest tragedies come out of never letting go of the past however Wymer embraces her life and uses it as a stepping stone which she has risen above. Jo Wymer comes off as one who has lived life, breathed it in, learned many dear lessons and is sharing them here. The record, which covers the spectrums of rock, pop and blues, is full of contemporary clarity whereas so much music is drenched in nostalgia making us yearn for something long gone. Instead of questions and ache, there's a deep resolve in the lyrics that's sexy as hell. Most artists are fragile souls who still haven't found their groove, their inner peace or who even fully understand who they are. What makes Living with Scars such a revelatory listen is her brazen confidence with which she delivers the songs. Her voice is husky, yet sweet. It could easily overpower the arrangements but it doesn't. However she is able to remind one of such stinging emotions you can't help but be daunted. The album is a study of light and darkness as she takes us down her harrowing hallways of heartache, desire and ultimately redemption. Jo Wymer is New Jersey's answer to Adele with a deeper well of experience and stories to draw on.
Number Five: Lindsey Buckingham –'Seeds We Sow'
Most people probably don't have a desire to listen to Buckingham outside of the constraints of Fleetwood Mac and that's a shame, because on Seeds We Sow his songwriting has reached new heights. Delivered in a dreamy foyer where pictures come alive, his lyrics find a way to steep themselves within. The devilish musical arrangements are unyielding yet memorable and above all else Buckingham proves that he may very well be at his best when he holds the dial back. "That's the Way Love Goes" is as gut wrenching as anything he's ever done with Fleetwood Mac and his cover of the Rolling Stones "She Smiled Sweetly" is lilting and as pure as a first kiss. Seeds We Sow is a truly top-to-bottom gorgeous record that should be the soundtrack to our dreams and desires.
Number Six: Butch Walker & the Black Widows – 'The Spade'
The Spade is an operatic look back at Butch Walker's life with stories and sonics that are equally abounding. Textured guitars, proverbial melodies and a monolithic rhythm section make us feel like these are songs buried in the back of our brains from another time and place. "Summer of '89" is a joyous romp you can't help but love wholly upon your first listen. The upbeat "Drunk Day", written for his father, is harrowingly endearing musically but it cuts through you when you sit back and really listen to the lyrics ("Push through the dark like that underground train") and the slide guitar reminds me of "Sleepwalking" from the 1950's even though it sounds nothing like it. It breaks hearts in two just by the guitar's echo in its breathtaking finish. Walker's well of inspiration is boundless as he finds a way to blend, country, rock, pop, blues and rhythm and blues into his own intoxicating concoction. Like a master of cinema who grips different styles and genres of filmmaking with ease, Walker is an artist who is always evolving.
Number Seven: Ryan Adams – 'Ashes & Fire'
This is Adams most straight forward record and it's a truly alluring one at that. Comparing it to other works in his catalog is a fruitless exercise, because what we have here is an engaging record you can wholly immerse yourself in. His knack for lush lyrics is on display but the spare arrangements make the listener feel as if they are hearing his heartbeat race. The electric guitar is mostly absent in place of entrancing atmosphere of striking minimalism. If you open yourself to the spare arrangements, you discover that Ashes & Fire is a slow burning record, where the songs slowly evolve from acquaintances to friends. I proclaimed Ryan Adams the "Artist of the Decade" over at antiMUSIC a few years back because song for song no one else was as consistent or as fertile. I'm not sure if he's ever sounded more confident or assured than he does on Ashes & Fire so for your next road trip or late night listening, dive deep with this record and discover a new friend.
Number Eight: 'Drive' (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
There is an 80's inspired synth-pop soundtrack that should sound dated but isn't. Drive is simultaneously a nightmare and a dream evoking the feeling of undying love while throwing the sick and violent nature off the real world in your face. Composer Cliff Martinez created soundscapes that echo the underlying and bristling emotions within the film. Chosen for his work on the indie break-thru sex, lies, and videotape from more than two decades back, Martinez once again delivers a score full of restraint that's icy as it is alienating. We've come to associate scores that are ostentatious, exacerbated and manipulating but Martinez has crafted a series of mood pieces that tie-in directly with the story and its characters. If you don't pay attention close enough, you may not even notice his musical touches which is truly the highest compliment I can give. Instead of a walloping crescendo of strings, Martinez compliments a hypnotizing universe in constant motion with subtlety.
The score is complimented by five songs. The opening title sequence features "Nightcall" by Kavinsky, an electronic musician from France. The marriage of music and film on these opening titles is esoteric. We're not sure where we are being taken or what roads will be traveled, but the early distorted vocals add an element of darkness before Lovefoxxx acts in contrast to the monstrous machine-like vocals at the beginning. It foreshadows what is to come. Chosen by the editor of drive, Matt Newman, it sets the perfect tone for what is to come. "Under Your Spell" by Desire, a synth-pop group from Montreal calls to mind wistful fantasy. The music moves beyond words thus taking you into a dreamlike state. Watching the song onscreen induces a feeling of déjà vu. It feels wholly familiar but isn't. It could have been from an 80's film but instead it appears here for the first time in nearly three decades later. It houses an air of innocence and within the confines of Drive, its genre busting. The film's climax is "A Real Hero" by College which repeats itself throughout the film, notably at key transitional moments for Gosling's character. David Grellier is the driving force behind College and he roped in Electric Youth for "A Real Hero". The song is gentle yet distinctively 80's. Greillier is someone who was influenced by 1980's pop culture and created a song that is wholly original and yet has an affectionate and distinctive feel to it. From the second it penetrates your ears, it sounds like the greatest song you've never heard that could have been a long lost club cut or even a song you heard in a previous life. It's perfect in every way imaginable. The songs within Drive are not ones I would have initially paid attention to outside of the context of the film but within it they come across as soulful hymns as they root out thee character's agony and elation. \ You may not know it but Drive is more than 2011's best film; it is also the most transfixing and arousing soundtrack of 2011 as well.
Number Nine: Natasha Bedingfield – 'Strip Me'
This record came at me from the least expected of places. Due to some clever uses of the songs within film trailers and during movie credits, I sought it out. The album didn't even crack Billboard's Top-100 and yet, I find it to be an elating ride down the corridors of reflection and self-awareness. This is a more defiant album than Lady Gaga's Born This Way. It may be front loaded with greatness and even though its consistency dips towards the back half, her vocal delivery is primordial for a pop record. It's not a showcase for her to show you her instrument but a tool she utilizes to mesmerizing effect. I didn't feel as if I was listening to songs but someone who was expressing something. Polish and multi-layered production can't diminish her Spartan voice. "A Little Too Much", "Strip Me" and "Neon Lights" find the narrator bursting back to life with a sense of empowerment. It may be cliché and paint-by-numbers, but she sells it better than anyone. We view pop stars as Shakespearean tragedies. Their talent is sacrificed for the masses and dollar signs. But what if someone can articulate themselves through the sheen of the glistening pop? Natasha Bedingfield pulled it together, did it her way and through it all you hear her tenacity. At the core of Strip Me are self-empowering lyrics broken down to the most essential elements. I feel alive, indomitable and believe I can accomplish anything listening to this record. On the track "A Little Too Much" she ends the song with a poignant yet gut wrenching lyric that you hear loud and clear, "I'd rather love just a little too much". Bedingfield casts a spell on her listeners on Strip Me where she aims squarely at the heart. I don't just hear someone coming into their own as an artist, but someone who has grasped their inner soul.
Number Ten: Britney Spears – 'Femme Fatale'
Femme Fatale is a collection of twelve full-bodied dance songs that clock in at a mere 44-minutes. Max Martin and Dr. Luke have created a sweat filled anthology of infinitely infectious songs dripped in bigger-than-life beats and paired with melodies so sweet they can place the listener into a pop music coma. The tempos are so heated and booming they can even make the whitest of white men hit the dance floor even if the world is not ending. It's easy to view the first arc of Spears career as slight but since her well manicured comeback beginning in 2007, she's surrounded herself with the best of the best in terms or writers, arrangers and producers. It's the quintessential album for stone faced clubbing souls who really just want a little bit of human touch. These are records music purists like me should be appalled by, but the songs had the reverse effect on me; I was spellbound. The pounding "Big Fat Bass" is absorbing and further escalates the tension between her and the listener. "How I Roll" with its unremitting clapping beat and its magnetizing chorus should have found itself worthy of an A-side single and video. Ultimately Femme Fatale is both a triumph and a tragedy. Its construction is so unyielding it warrants a placement on this list, but it's also simultaneously heartbreaking because for the music purists, it's merely a glimpse of the potentially great records Spears could be making only if she would divulge a bit of what's in her head and her heart.
Honorable Mention: Peter Gabriel – 'New Blood'
Peter Gabriel may take his time with his studio records but New Blood is every bit as invigorating as his best solo work. It's a cue to the incredible vastness his small body of work possesses. There's no time frame on when he will next tour or release new material and New Blood is more than a stop gap release or footnote in his career but a bold and critical reinterpretation of one of music's greatest songbooks. Throughout both the live DVD and studio album, Gabriel's naked voice shines through on these cuts reminding us that his ghostly voice is one of rock's greatest instruments. The voice alone is enough to make you stand up and take notice. To Gabriel's credit, he didn't go for a streamlined greatest hits approach. Instead, he took the songs that benefited the most from the New Blood Orchestra arrangements and cut them in the studio. As a result, the New Blood album is an extraordinary reintroduction for much of his audience and a celestial detour for his most staunch and devout followers.
Runner's Up (In Order):
Airborne Toxic Event – 'All At Once'; Matt Nathanson – 'Modern Love'; Noel Gallagher- 'Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds'; The Joy Formidable-'The Big Roar'; Danger Mouse-'Rome'; Lady Gaga – 'Born This Way'; Tennis-'Cape Dory'; Beastie Boys-' Hot Sauce Committee Part Two'; Shelby Lynne – 'Revolution Road'; SuperHeavy-'SuperHeavy'; Michael Monroe- 'Sensory Overdrive'; The Black Keys- 'El Camino'; Whitesnake-'Forevermore'; My Morning Jacket-'Circuital'; The Horrible Crowes- 'Elsie'; Fleet Foxes-'Helplessness Blues'; Wilco-'The Whole Love'; Ellie Goulding-'Lights'; Motörhead-'The Wörld Is Yours'; Anthrax- 'Worship Music'; St. Vincent-'Strange Mercy'; Florence & The Machine-'Ceremonials'; Noah and the Whale -'Last Night on Earth'; Raphael Saadiq-'Stone Rollin''; Indigo Girls -'Beauty Queen Sister'; Foo Fighters-'Wasting Light'; Foster the People-'Torches'; Avril Lavigne-'Goodbye Lullaby'; Miranda Lambert-'Four the Record'; Pistol Annies –'Hell on Heels'; Alice Cooper-'Welcome 2 My Nightmare'; Feist-'Metals'
Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and Special Features Editor for the antiMusic Network. His daily writings can be read at The Screen Door. He can be contacted at thescreendoor AT gmail DOT com and can be followed on Twitter
Tony K's Favorite Album's of 2011
Share this article