2011 year in review: Best in pop music


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The best music of 2011 — or, more accurately, my favorite music of the year – is a genre-blind mix of the eloquent and the aggressive. The below 10 full-length albums, organized in order or preference, are further evidence of a music world in glorious flux.

PJ Harvey, “Let England Shake” (Vagrant/Island/Def Jam): PJ Harvey’s “Let England Shake’ is a meditation on war and greed that’s sing-along catchy, but thick with barbed-wire and bomb shells. It’s also the 42-year-old British artist’s most urgent and inventive record. One of the great political albums of the decade.


Ricardo Villalobos and Max Loderbauer, “Re: ECM” (ECM Records): Minimalist electronic producers Ricardo Villalobos and Max Loderbauer were given the keys to the avant jazz ECM Records archives in Berlin and asked to create something new from its various parts. The result combines bits and pieces of the recordings of Arvo Part, Bernie Maupin, Christian Wallumrod and others into one sublime, unclassifiable whole.

Frank Ocean, “Nostalgia, Ultra” (tumblr download): Smooth soul singer Frank Ocean released “Nostalgia, Ultra” via his Tumblr site in early 2011, and within six months he became a go-to vocal hook man. ‘Nostalgia, Ultra” is an honest and engaging r&b album that sits alongside his latter-day influences like Drake and Kanye West, and one-ups them with more wit and better narratives.

Tom Waits, “Bad as Me” (Anti- Records): Who’d have thought that a 62-year-old grump with a chainsaw throat and a lover’s heart would make the most vibrant album of the year? Waits on “Bad as Me” moves from gruff marches to lost laments, delving as purely into his musical psyche as at any point in his career.

Adele, “21” (Columbia Records): A powerful voice, a pumping heart, and an honest, engaging demeanor combine in British soul singer Adele’s top-selling sophomore album, “21.” She delivers true songs about real emotion stripped of saccharine sentiment (well, mostly).

James Pants, “James Pants” (Stones Throw): Bedroom synth-pop funneled through disco, doo wop and John Hughes movies, Austinite James Pants makes music that brims with defiantly lo-fidelity dance pop and disco rhythms, hooks to die for, and analog lust. Think Brian Eno’s early solo records, as recorded on a Casiotone microchip.

Shabazz Palaces, “Black Up” (Sub Pop): Other rappers made essential records in 2011 – Drake, Kendrick Lamar, Nicki Minaj, Flash Bang Grenada – but none were as head-scratchingly weird and magnetic as “Black Up.” Featuring the return of Digable Planets co-founder Ishmael “Butterfly” Butler (a.k.a. “Palaceer Lazaro”) and collaborator Tendai Maraire, “Black Up” is a cosmic trip that uses some seriously mystical beats as its springboard.


King Creosote and Jon Hopkins, “Diamond Mine” (Domino): An overcast, plaintive record, “Diamond Mine” features songs recorded by Scottish singer Creosote, born Kenny Anderson, and arranged by Brian Eno/Coldplay collaborator Hopkins. Creosote’s glorious voice is as delicate as Paul McCartney’s and as tender as Nick Drake, and it’s set against sublime melodies.

Eleanor Friedberger, “Last Summer” (Merge): One-half of the brother-sister duo the Fiery Furnaces, Eleanor Friedberger’s wonderfully odd “Last Summer” bounces along with sticky melodies and a devil-may-care instrumental personality that makes each hook and curlicue effect sparkle. A kaleidoscopic record that reveals new patterns with each listen.

F-ed Up, “David Comes to Life” (Matador Records): Six-piece Toronto band with the unprintable name and incendiary live show dropped the hardest, smartest record of the year in the form of a punk rock opera. Thought hardcore was a dead subgenre? “David Comes to Life” confirms that it’s very much alive and pummeling.

Dud of the year: Lady Gaga, “Born This Way” (Universal): Despite the marketing genius and political message behind Lady Gaga’s mega-hit record, “Born This Way” is so filled with bombast and overwrought sentiment that the positive messages of gender and sexual equality are flattened by mass-marketed beats and way too much Gaga-drama.

For more, here’s an essay on pop music in 2011.



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-- Randall Roberts

Top photo: PJ Harvey performs at the Coachella Music & Arts Festival in Indio in April, 2011. Credit: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times