It's that time again, readers! Time for Dr. J's retrospective wrap-ups and utterly unscientific evaluations of the year that was 2011.
In 2010, I decided to split my year-end lists up into categories-- see the 2010 Year in Music, or the 2010 Year in Sports or (my personal favorite) the 2010 Year in Pop Culture-- and I'm sticking with that plan again this year. We'll start with the 2011 Year in Music list since it's least likely that another blockbuster album will be released in the next couple of weeks. I'll start with the same caveat as last year, namely, that this list is a list of my personal favorite albums of the year. There might have been a totally awesome Celtic Women album or thrash metal album released this year, but you won't find it on this list, because I think that music sucks. My list will, per usual, lean towards the rootsy and the soulful, simple tunes with great stories. Back in June, I participated in the 3o Day Song Challenge, so you can go back and read through those posts to get a sense of my musical prejudices if you're interested.
These are in no particular order. They're just the best albums of 2011, as determined by me.
According to most music critics, Adele's 21 is one of the best albums of 2011. I couldn't agree with them more. This young Brit's got it all: a powerful and soulful set of pipes, an entirely believable delivery style, an arsenal of sad stories and an ear for that most elusive of artistic elements, the pop hook. On 21, Adele blends the funk and groove of Motown and retro-soul with the honesty and vulnerability of coffeehouse singer-songwriting. Her "Rolling In The Deep" quickly became one of the Lovers' Anthems of the year, and her "Someone Like You" sounds like it was ripped stright from a Grey's Anatomy soundtrack. (That's not a bad thing!) The rhythmic, marching determination of "Rumor Has It" is both brilliant and contagious. Her pleading ballad "Don't You Remember" hasn't gotten the attention it deserves, but on an album of faultless tracks, one can understand how some might be overlooked. Perhaps best of all, Adele's 21 has a kind of timeless integrity to it, and I suspect that I will have it on regular rotation for many years to come.
Nick Lowe's The Old Magic
I have to admit that my love for Nick Lowe's music sometimes makes me feel old. I don't think I can give a helpful elucidation of these categories, but I think there are basically three types of "feeling old" while listening to music: (1) there's the kind of old that one feels when enjoying Bon Jovi, (2) there's the kind of old one feels when enjoying Motown, and then (3) there's the kind of old one feels when enjoying Frank Sinatra or Tony Bennet. My enjoyment of Nick Lowe's music is closest to the latter. I find Lowe's lyrical dexterity astounding and his compositions masterful, but it's really that "classic" sound that draws me in and keeps me there. On This Old Magic, Lowe is in top form. "House for Sale" has gotten the most critical acclaim, but my vote goes to the simple and sad "I Read A Lot," where Lowe recounts the all-too-familiar practice of replacing life (and love) with books. Best line of that track: "so if you ask me how I stop contemplating what I now am not / I'll reply / I read a lot." This album, like Lowe's 2007 At My Age, is a perfect rainy day album. It's quiet, it's reflective, it's equal parts sorrow and irony. And it manages, somehow, to maintain a kind of not-too-sweet sweetness that just soothes.
Kanye West and Jay-Z's Watch the Throne
Watch the Throne was probably one of the most anticipated albums of 2011, pairing what are without question two of the most formidable forces in hip hop, Kanye West and Jay-Z. I was totally prepared to hate this album. Then I heard it.. and I am happy to admit that I was wrong. Not every track is a winner, to be sure, but the Stax-inspired "Otis" makes up for any other faults of the album all by itself. "Otis" samples Otis Redding's classic "Try A Little Tenderness," capitalizing on both Jay-Z's brilliant lyrical flow and Kanye's pop-savvy beats/hooks. There's plenty of the usual hip-hop subject fare here-- gold watches and jets and women and money-- but there's also religion and politics, delivered sassily but smartly. The Horatio-Alger-esque "Ni**as in Paris," in which Kanye and Jay-Z tell the story of their rise to absolute dominance, has a insistently hypnotic groove to it. And the history lesson that is "Made it In America," with its repetitive name-checking of Af-Am historical icons like Martin, Malcolm, Corretta, Betty, Joesph and Mary and baby Jesus, manages somehow to be inspiring without being cheesy. I have no idea what the title of this album is meant to convey, but it's pretty clear whose throne the throne we're supposed to watch is.
Lady Gaga's Born This Way
Okay, I'm just going to start by saying that I do NOT like the title track (and biggest hit) off of this album. And I like even LESS that it's become the new LGBTQetc anthem. (Why that is is a topic for another day, but I'll just say that I'm not a fan of promoting tolerance by appeal to inevitability. People may or not be "born" queer, but living that life is still a choice. And a choice that can be celebrated.) Those political qualms aside, Lady Gaga's Born This Way is without a doubt a pop-music tour de force. I was a latecomer to the Lady Gaga train, convinced at first that she was nothing more than a gimmick, but I couldn't resist her pull for long. Fact is, she's got one of the best voices out there, and her ability to convincingly maneuver a wide range of musical genres is astounding. My favorite track on Born This Way is "You And I"-- and if any of you can honestly tell me that the first time you heard that song you didn't think it was Shania Twain or Kelly Clarkson, then I'll call you a liar. The other winner is the Cher-esque "Edge of Glory," which has just enough of an 80's anthem feel to be addictive, without having so much of it as to be corny. Born This Way will probably be in a dead-heat race with Adele's 21 for best album of 2011. As Beyoncé says, who runs the world? Girls.
Lupe Fiasco's Lasers
I can't believe I hadn't been turned on to Lupe Fiasco before his release of this year's Lasers. "The Show Goes On" was the first track that caught my attention and prompted me to download the album. I was hooked. I read somewhere that Fiasco's title Lasers is an acronym for "Love Always Shines Everytime Remember 2 Smile," which is the most inexact acronym I've ever seen, but whatever. This is a great collection. The Afrocentric "All Black Everything" is equal parts deferential and bold. Fiasco joins up with MDMA on "Coming Up," and that pairing is contagiously funky and electric. His track with Skylar Grey, "Words I Never Said," is smart and honest. And "Never Forget You" with John Legend is one of the few Legend-pairings that doesn't sound like Legend took over the song. I'm not sure how much staying power this album will have, but its initial force was enough to convince me to go back and check out Fiasco's 2006 Food & Liquor, which is every bit as good as Lasers. What I liked most about Lasers, probably, is that it reminded me of Far East Movement's 2010 Free Wired, which should have made it on my Year in Music list last year, but didn't. So, although I don't think that Lasers is a good as the other albums on this year's list, it's got enough merits to make me want to avoid regretting next year that I DIDN'T include it here.
Ryan Adams' Ashes & Fire
You can pretty much count on Ryan Adams being included in my "best of" music list any year that he releases an album. (Except for last year, of course, when he briefly lost his mind and recorded that crap metal album Orion, which was truly awful.) This year's Ashes & Fire marks the return of the Ryan Adams that I've always loved. It's the kind of quiet, reflective, mourning, smart and sad music that first isolated Adams as the heir apparent to the Alt-Country throne. There's not a single weak track on this album. "Kindness" is a treasure: a loping, pleading ballad that repeats its simple, quasi-metaphysical insight ("kindness don't ask for much but an open mind") over and over, until one can't help but find one's hardened heart softening. "Save Me" has the old sound of Adams' old band, the Cardinals, and is profoundly reminiscent of his Heartbreaker album. The best track on the album, "I Love You But I Don't Know What To Say," quickly found its place on my list of Songs I Would Cut Off An Arm To Have Written. (That's a very selective list.) It's a representative of what I love the most in music: three chords and a sad story. There are very few other artists who have a voice as emotively vulnerable as Adams-- Smokey Robinson and Nina Simone are the only others that come to mind-- and its a gift beyond parallel. Adams is probably one of the most prolific singer-songwriters alive, which causes many of his critics to wish he would self-edit more, but I'd prefer to have him keep on doing what he's doing. I'll take 10 Ryan Adams' albums every 5 years if only half of them are as good as Ashes & Fire.
LMFAO's Sorry For Party Rocking
Yeah, okay, I know. Don't judge. LMFAO's Sorry for Party Rocking is just a helluva good time. It was practically impossible this year to NOT hear "Sexy And I Know It" if you managed to leave your house at all. (Yeah, I work out.) And their "Party Rock Anthem" quickly became, well, the Party Rock Anthem of 2011. As a rule, I'm not opposed to the techno-disco-mania that characterizes most of LMFAO's music, but most of the time any particular song in that genre tends to kind of blend into the rest and, as a result, be largely forgettable. Not so with LMFAO's stuff. They've managed to take a genre of music that pretty much caters to an adderall-popping constituency and somehow command whatever remains of their fans' deficit attention. Every year I have something like a "guilty pleasure" entry on my Best of Music list, and LMFAO gets the spot this year. I fully expect that, six months from now, I will resign this album to the stacks of the Lost and Forgotten. Five years from now, maybe, I'll revive it and say to my friends: "OMG! Do you remember THIS?!" But until then, I'm indulging every last ounce of the Cheez Whiz corniness of LMFAO. So sue me. I'm sorry for party rocking.
Honorable Mentions for 2011 go to:
Florence + the Machine's Ceremonials-- She's got a voice to die for, but the melodrama is a bit too much for me.
Paul Simon's So Beautiful or So What-- This was actually a great album, but I'm still recovering from a concert that I saw when Paul Simon toured with Bob Dylan many years ago. I found Simon (live) to be the most ridiculously pretentious a**hole in existence, and I can't help but hear that in his music ever since.
Beyoncé's 4-- If it had one or two more really good tracks on it, 4 would've made my list. Oh how it hurts me to leave Beyoncé off, but there's just not enough to make the cut on this album.
The Black Keys' El Camino-- Like it, don't love it. But still, I like it a lot.
Cyndi Lauper's Memphis Blues-- I actually sat with Cyndi Lauper one night last year when she visited Wild Bill's to do some "research" for this album. And the keyboardist on the album is my good friend (and Wild Bill's keyboardist) Archie Turner. I'm glad Lauper caught the Memphis music bug, and this is a pretty solid album, but every time I hear it I can't help but think that the whole sound is just a rip-off of any Saturday night at Wild Bill's. Still, not a bad problem for an album to have.
So, that's Dr. J's 2011 Year in Music. Comments and suggestions are welcome. Stay tuned for the 2011 Year in Sports, coming soon!