1. Jay-Z/Kanye West — Watch the Throne
The ostentatious, Rolly-on-my-arm, Bentleys-and-broads rap — ubiquitous on Watch the Throne — is nothing spectacularly original. But what separates Jay and Ye from the other McMillionaire clowns is the scope and vision that propelled them to their Beyoncé-shaped winner’s circle in the first place.
Throughout their careers, Ye-Z have succeeded by eschewing rap stereotypes rather than attaching space-shuttle-sized engines to the back of them and blasting that shit into outer space.
Watch the Throne is no different. Ye-Z plant their Yves Saint Laurent flag everywhere, conquering foes like dubstep, Lex Luger and Frank Ocean with German shepherd snarls and Genghis Khan cries. And they probably aren’t even trying that hard. Jay-Z and Kanye West chum around like old pals on Watch the Throne, trading verses like Pokémon cards, proving, once and for all, that game truly does recognize game.
2. The Black Keys — El Camino
The boys have done it again. El Camino, the latest album from bluesy-rock duo The Black Keys, sounds pretty much like the rest of their six albums — and for that, you may thank them.
Hardly pausing to catch a breath after 2010’s bold and brazen Brothers, the band’s El Camino is a loud and crunchy riff-ridden album that continues to satisfy.
El Camino revs up with the single “Lonely Boy,” a tireless hymn about — what else is new — love and loneliness. The album combines the noise and grit of the boys with melodic chiming and a few la’s and whoa’s of a chorus — few surprises, but endless delights.
It’s difficult to have too strong of a reaction to El Camino. It isn’t groundbreaking, but it is classic Black Keys. Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney have been at it for a decade now, and don’t worry — they know what they’re doing.
3. Foster the People — Torches
It’s hard to believe Foster the People just released Torches last spring. In just seven months, the album has soared to the top of pop and rock charts and the group has accumulated a variety of music award nominations.
But there’s a reason for all the hype — Torches has enough electrifying synth lines and static-y vocals to nourish the hippest Urban Outfitters playlist.
While it may be tempting to get caught up in the hit single “Pumped Up Kicks,” the rest of the album is just as tantalizing. Each track stands out from the others with its own catchy twist. It’s lively and unpredictable while still sounding polished and cohesive: There is never a boring beat, yet nothing sounds out of place. And to think — this is only Foster the People’s first shot at releasing an album.
4. The Roots — Undun
Young men dealt an impossible hand in drug-worn, forgotten neighborhoods aren’t exactly few and far between in hip hop. But The Roots manage to bring an old theme back to life — a plaintively melodic, literally backwards life — on Undun, the group’s second album since shacking up with Jimmy Fallon’s show. Nothing makes protagonist Redford Stevens (musically related to Sufjan, whose song “Redford” makes an appearance) unusual, which is precisely what makes the album out of the ordinary.
Undun is the concept-album version of “The Wire,” a hard look at reality on the streets, as Redford’s story is traced from death to birth in the present tense. The album highlights Roots ringleaders “?uestlove” and Black Thought in equal parts: The former funneling soul, classical and indie harmonies into his gently rolling downtempo journey, the latter poignantly recalling a narrative he grew up alongside — a narrative that could have been his.
5. Cut Copy — Zonoscope
At times, dance records can be annoyingly functional, made solely with the intent of being played at a club or party.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, bands like LCD Soundsystem and Hot Chip have created a whole new genre of ironic dance tracks with snarky and sarcastic lyrics as easily enjoyed on personal headphones as they are pumping through loud speakers.
Cut Copy straddles this line as well as any band. Neither planting its tongue too firmly in its cheek, nor blindly escaping to a DJ booth, the Australian quartet have been refining their craft for eight years now, and Zonoscope — the band’s third effort — is hands down its finest to date.
Zonoscope is a truly versatile album with slight hints of wit sprinkled across shameless dance tracks, making it an appropriate selection for many occasions.
6. Wilco — The Whole Love
The Whole Love, Wilco’s Grammy-nominated eighth LP, wowed critics and fans alike this fall. After a run of a couple of so-so albums, the Chicago-based group has finally crafted something that’s careful where it needs to be, holding on to the band’s popular base, but cutting no corners with the experimental bits — no, really. Experimental. You have to hear it to believe it. “Art of Almost,” one such song, is shamelessly risky, and the effort is worth the reward. But the sure-fire stunner here is the piano-kissed “One Sunday Morning (Song For Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend),” a chugging, subtly energetic ballad that weaves the record into subtle coherence.
Throughout the 12-song album, the sextet reminds us of their veritable musicianship, something that hasn’t been so apparent in their past efforts. Wilco has done an exemplary job in bridging the gap between the familiar — something their fans love the band for — and the unexpected.
7. Adele — 21
For most, 21 is an age when we celebrate our legal right to drink, throw some dice in a casino or even rent a car — but for Adele, it’s the age that is the foundation for one of the best albums of 2011 — even if the singer herself is 23. With hit singles like “Rolling in the Deep” and “Someone Like You,” Adele’s name keeps topping the charts and many 2011 “bests” lists — and there’s no surprise in that.
As an ode to awful ex-boyfriends and the hardships of relationships, this album is drenched in jealousy, sadness and revenge, also making it one of the most emotional albums of 2011. (Try listening to “Someone Like You” without crying — cue SNL skit.) 21 proves that this songstress is not just a pop tartlette but a here-to-stay musician with a long career ahead of her.
8. Future Islands — On the Water
Wind chimes rattle in the wide-open air and waves crash on a sprawling beach. A bass drum thumps while an accordion swells into a hauntingly beautiful melody. All these gorgeous features and nuanced touches lay a subtle-yet-expansive foundation for On the Water. But the indisputable focal point of the album is lead singer Samuel Herring’s melodramatic vocal performance. Equal parts pain-drenched and cathartic, the intensity of delivery would make Morrissey proud and too-cool chillwavers — who use largely the same instrumentation as Future Islands — puzzled by its confrontational honesty.
In a modern music landscape filled with dime-a-dozen buzz bands, Future Islands stands out on its third full length as a seasoned band coming into its own, crafting songs that range from tragic to triumphant all while feeling dangerously personal.
9. Coldplay — Mylo Xylot0
Mylo Xyloto is most aptly represented by the graffiti-blanketed stucco that adorns the front of its case. Coldplay has executed what it symbolically intended with its album artwork: Take the portrait of the French Revolution that was the inspiration for 2008’s Viva la Vida and canvas it with colors of a bold new direction. The synthesizers bleed through the album like a fluorescent dye, and the sounds pop in an array that rivals the theatrics and luminosity of a fireworks display.
Does anybody know what Mylo Xyloto means? Does anyone care? The story continues to go as follows: Coldplay ascribes some deep significance to a title or a theme, the fans nod slack-jawed, and then nobody remembers as singles pump out of car radios across the country. This isn’t the band’s best, and yet it’s still one of the best albums of the year — a true testament to Coldplay’s consistent, revolutionary material.
10. Fleet Foxes — Helplessness Blues
Helplessness Blues proves that rustic music doesn’t have to be sparse. The lush four-part vocal harmonies, accompanied by equally verdant acoustic guitar interactions, are orchestrated with the same kind of depth and grandeur that characterize much of popular music. Fleet Foxes is able to evoke the earthiness and simplicity of folk without giving up the bombast that our modern musical brains voraciously crave.
Not only does this balance produce something incredibly accessible and satisfying, but the natural longings it produces are woven into a rare critique applicable to our culture as a whole. The desire to go back to nature and be part of something greater than oneself is juxtaposed alongside the self-absorption that comes from a society where the “worthiness” of a person is so scrutinized. Here, Fleet Foxes poses the question: To what extent can we live our dreams without neglecting the virtues of selflessness?