10 Best Albums of 2011
Posted In: 2011, Adele, albums, best of, Coldplay, jay-z, kanye, new
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The Royal Wedding. The controversial deaths of Osama Bin Laden and Muammar Gaddafi. The deaths of icons like Liz Taylor and several musical greats, including Amy Winehouse, Nick Ashford, Heavy D and Nate Dogg. The end of the Iraq War. Charlie Sheen.
What a year.
This has been as eventful a 365 days as any, and while 2011 may go down as the year that brought us planking, Chris Brown and Justin Bieber as battle rappers and Cee-Lo performing with Muppets; we decided to focus on the ten best albums of the year.
Apologies to the Ferrari Boyz and those that loved All-4-One’s reunion album…they didn’t make the cut. And a quick note to Frank Ocean & Weeknd fans: no mixtapes were included.
Mylo Xyloto by Coldplay
The band may sing about it being them ‘against the world,’ but nobody really believes them. Sure, it may be cool to hate Coldplay, but on their 5th album Xylo Mykolo, they make it clear why chicks and moody dudes love ‘em. And they’ve finally seemed to shake that pesky Joshua Tree fetish. Embracing electronics and dropping some of the po-faced moping, Xylo… stands as Coldplay’s ‘shiniest’ album but despite the new colorful backdrops, the band still manages to do with they do best: churn out effective piano pop backed with soaring harmonies and shimmering guitars. Its the closest the World’s Most Earnest Band has ever come to actually sounding like they’re having fun, but still never really cutting loose. But hey–no one really listens to Coldplay expecting to hear them ‘rock out,’ at this point, they’re more or less stuck in midtempo mood-rock mode. But superproducer Brian Eno is still convincing the band to shake off the doldrums of its first three albums and embrace epic soundscapes; as he showers every song in stirring ambiance and echo. Its best to ignore their unoriginality and just enjoy the ride. Another thing you might wanna ignore? The Rihanna guest spot on “Princess of China.”
Recommended Tracks: “Paradise,” “Every Teardrop Is A Waterfall,” “Mylo Xyloto”
Late Nights & Early Mornings by Marsha Ambrosius
The kind of album that could convince a nice girl to do some really naughty things, Marsha Ambrosius’ solo debut was well worth the wait. The entire album seems to offer evidence as to what can go down between those late nights and early mornings, a set of smooth slow burners and sensual bedroom music that picks up right where Ambrosius’ former group Floetry left off. For those who were fans of that acclaimed duo’s sexy “Getting Late” and “Say Yes,” Late Nights offers more of the same, but Ambrosius’ sexuality is a bit more brazen. The title song is the latest in a long line of Prince-inspired smooth grooves, and “Hope She Cheats on You (With a Basketball Player)” is as good a pissed-off-ex-girlfriend anthem as any released in the last five years. Her cover of Portishead’s “Sour Times” is a welcome surprise–Ambrosius’ passionate take on the beloved trip-hop classic; and she re-records (remixes?) Michael Jackson’s “Butterflies” (which she wrote), a song she previously released while with Floetry.
Recommended Tracks: “Late Nights & Early Mornings,” “Hope She Cheats On You (With A Basketball Player),” “With You”
El Camino by The Black Keys
Having already cemented their status as the torchbearers for sloppy garage rock in the wake of the White Stripes’ demise, the Black Keys decided to shake things up a bit with their 2010 album Brothers, and added some Southern soul grit to their blues-rock template. On El Camino, they bring in superproducer Danger Mouse and continue their subtle forays into retro-soul music. The producer and the band have a grand time mashing together older musical elements that seemingly wouldn’t fit; like Mott the Hoople-style guitars slathered against Motown-ish percussion or a Stax-ish bassline pushing along a riff that could echo the Kinks. Danger Mouse keeps the band’s focus sharp while still maintaining their ramshackle aesthetic. The notoriously atmospheric producer keeps things minimal, and the Keys thrive–in all of their bone-headed glam rock splendor. Somehow, both parties also maintain their subtle allegiances to hip hop, as well; with tightly-coiled rhythms that never sound too busy. “Little Black Submarines” is the odd song out, a strangely lilting acoustic number–but its not a bad detour. This entire album proves that the Black Keys may be a lot more well-known than they used to be, but they’re not creatively stagnant.
Recommended Tracks: “Lonely Boy,” “Sister,” “Dead and Gone”
Cole World: The Sideline Story by J. Cole
With a lead-up buzz that arguably made him the closest 2011 had to a Drake-ish hip hop phenom, Roc Nation upstart J. Cole delivered a debut album that managed to do what few high-profile hip hop debuts have done recently; thoroughly establish the rhymer’s identity. Cole World is most definitely a biographical album, but that doesn’t rob it of its ability to resonate universally. Cole’s a deft and clever rhymer, and his nimble way with words and ability to tell personal stories echoes a hint of his mentor, Jay-Z, in his earlier years. He showcases his rhyming abilities on tracks like “God’s Gift,” while treading familiar young, rich and black woes on “Dollar and a Dream III.” “Breakdown,” is the album’s most affectingly personal song; recalling his fractured relationship with his father and his mother’s drug addiction. A tune like “Can’t Get Enough,” could easily be a tossed-off nugget for the airwaves, but fully-committed performances from both Cole and guest Trey Songz add heft to what could’ve been a throwaway. To be certain, there’s not much innovative about Cole World, but its the guy’s perspective that makes the journey compelling.
Recommended Tracks: “Breakdown,” “Lights Please,” “Cole World”
PL3DGE by Killer Mike
Long hailed as the most underrated lyricist in Atlanta’s hip hop hotbed, Killer Mike (aka Mike Bigga) re-emerged in 2011 with his first official studio album in almost a decade. Nonetheless, fans that had heard the socially-aware rhymer’s underground mixtapes knew what they were getting; fiery, angry Ice Cube-esque commentary on politics, crime and pop culture. Mike drops rhyme after rhyme of street wisdom, referencing everyone from Ric Flair to Rush Limbaugh. Proof positive that he is one of hip hop’s most intelligent emcees and most thoughtful provocateurs.”God Is In the Building II” is the latest in a long line of spiritually-themed, southern rap classics–alongside Goodie MOB’s “Soul Food” and David Banner’s “22s”–and features some of Mike’s most inspired rhyming. “To make out the ice cold streets of the city–you gotta have a Christopher word-game–witty,” Mike spits on the aforementioned “Ric Flair,” the rapper’s most bombastic moment and one of the best hip hop anthems of the year. By reminding fans that the best political rap never loses sight of the street, Killer Mike released hip hop’s most fully-realized topical album of 2011.
Recommended Tracks: “Ric Flair,” “God Is In the Building II,” “Burn”
Relax by Das Racist
“You couldn’t see me like a Cuban playing hockey.” These guys are hilarious. You can’t listen to the debut album from the race-baiting, pop-culture obsessed trio of Asian-American rhymers Das Racist and not laugh. All possess a uniquely gifted and ironic sense of humor, like 80s Beastie Boys crossed with M.I.A. crossed with Stephen Colbert. The YouTube hit that is the single “Michael Jackson” is but one perfect slice of techno-influenced hip hop filtered through Das Racist’s twisted and subversive perspective; virtually every song on Relax operates in its own weird headspace. “Booty in the Air” is quite possibly the nerdiest strip club anthem ever recorded, with the awkwardly ballerific “Celebration” wobbling between homage and parody as it references hip hop cliches. Equal parts MF Doom and Eminem, emcees Heems and Kool A.D. spit clever-but-nonsensical bars like “They say I act white but sound black/ But act black but sound white/ But what’s my sound bite supposed to sound like?” The trio sound alternately stoned, pissed-off and obnoxious, and somehow created the most satisfying alt-rap oddity since M.I.A.’s Kala.
Recommended Tracks: “Michael Jackson,” “Booty In the Air,” “Celebration”
Watch the Throne by Jay-Z & Kanye West
The most-hyped album of 2011, Watch the Throne arrived with a bang in the early fall, and the album, while falling short of masterpiece status, proved to be one of the year’s most satisfying, high-profile releases. Jay and Kanye indulge in their ‘look at us, we’re rich as HELL’ personas while sprinkling some social commentary and a few weird in-jokes throughout the album; and the ambitious production gives the project a sense of gravitas that just screams Kanye. Jay sounds energized by pairing with West for an entire album, and even though Yeezy isn’t in Jay’s class as a lyricist, the two prove they have a powerful chemistry on the mic–trading barbs and punchlines that have already been absorbed into pop culture. “Niggas In Paris,” despite it’s controversy-baiting title, became the year’s most inescapable club single and “Otis” was almost as huge, becoming one of 2011′s two 60s-icon referencing pop hits (the other being, of course, Maroon 5′s ubiquitous “Moves Like Jagger.”) Guest production from legends ranging from No I.D. to RZA to Q-Tip add to the BIG feel of the entire project–and WTT is nothing if not gaudy. But beneath the ostentatious rhymes about ‘planking on a million,’ there’s an emotional core that believes that there is catharsis to be found in celebrating the climb to wealth–”If you escaped what I’ve escaped–you’d be in Paris gettin’ fucked up, too!” Indeed, Jay…indeed.
Recommended Tracks: “Otis,” “Welcome To the Jungle,” “Niggas In Paris”
Strange Mercy by St. Vincent
After the powerful-but-emotionally-detached brilliance of her first two albums, Annie Clarke aka St. Vincent’s third set finds the singer/songwriter in a deeply confessional mode. Her earliest work sounded like third-person observations, but this time around, St. Vincent’s confessions ooze with the irony and sincerity of a woman that has lived and gained perspective from living. And when her voice is pushed to its emotional limit, Clarke reveals herself to be one of the most unique and resonate guitarists in contemporary popular music. From the opener, the infectious “Chloe In the Afternoon,” it’s obvious that Clarke’s creativity, both as a writer and as an instrumentalist, is showing no signs of flagging. Her balance of the abrasive and the warm has never been used more effectively; the title track is an anthem of emotional schizophrenia that deftly conveys that sentiment both musically and lyrically; and “Cruel” shoves a Stooges-esque guitar solo into a bed of baroque strings and woodwinds. An album that showcases an artist that is both musically compelling and challenging, Strange Mercy is the zenith of everything that Clarke has shown herself capable of artistically.
Recommended Tracks: “Chloe In the Afternoon,” “Strange Mercy,” “Cruel”
21 by Adele
The pop mainstream finally got wind of what soul fans had known for a couple of years now; Adele was primed to claim the blue-eyed soul crown previously held by the troubled Amy Winehouse. Even prior to Amy’s tragic death in the summer of 2011, Adele had slowly become the premier British soul singer of the moment on the strength of her acclaimed 2008 debut 19. But on 21, Adele subtly ratchets up the emotional intensity and echoes the pathos of the legends that have inspired her. Singing with the conviction and sincerity of a young woman who has lived a little more since emerging two years ago, Adele wrings every bit of honesty she can out of both smash singles from the album; the stirring “Rolling In the Deep” and the heart-on-my-sleeve uber-ballad “Someone Like You.” The album became a juggernaut, sitting atop the Billboard charts for thirteen weeks (breaking a record dating back to 1998), propelling the singer into the spotlight and assuring that, despite the fact that several megastars had huge years, no other story in music was as compelling as the emergence of the shy girl with the powerful voice. And with its confessional tone and themes of anger, revenge, heartbreak, self-examination, and forgiveness, 21 assured its place along such generation-defining fem-angst classics as Tapestry, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill and Jagged Little Pill.
Recommended Tracks: “Someone Like You,” “Rolling In the Deep,” “Set Fire To the Rain”
And what was the best album of the year? It was a great one–and it was released at the tail-end of 2011…
undun by The Roots
Long one of the most revered and acclaimed acts in hip hop, the Roots’ undun proves that the Philadelphia-based crew is as inspired as they’ve ever been. You don’t necessarily expect a veteran hip hop act to still find ways to challenge themselves artistically; and its even rarer to find an act (in any genre) that succeeds as completely as the Roots do on their 13th album. A concept album that tells the story of fictitious hustler Redford Stephens in reverse, undun packs a bevy of musical and lyrical ideas into a concise listen; with lead MC Black Thought taking the listener through Stephens’ gotta-get-mine tragedy. The Roots’ frontman is as nimble and stellar as ever, providing both emotional weight and subtle story details set against a variety of sonic backdrops. The breezy “Make My” is as melodically gorgeous as hip hop gets–with a perfect guest appearance from Big K.R.I.T.; and “Stomp” is the heart and soul of the album, an emotionally-evocative anthem that stands as the story’s pinnacle. The set closes with an instrumental mini-suite that showcases the collective’s chops–in particular, ?uestlove’s drumming–and represents the turbulent beginnings of Redford’s story. An album that is both immediately riveting and rewarding to repeated listens, undun stands as a success of creativity and vision from a band that has never shown a dearth of either.
Recommended Tracks: “Stomp,” “Make My,” “The OtherSide”
So there they are. Be sure to send all complaints to VIBE Magazine. Thanks…
Honorable Mentions: Angles by The Strokes, My Life II…The Journey Continues (Act 1) by Mary J. Blige, Here I Am by Kelly Rowland, Rolling Papers by Wiz Khalifa, Ceremonials by Florence + the Machine, TM103: Hustlerz Ambition by Young Jeezy, Born This Way by Lady Gaga, The Light of the Sun by Jill Scott, Bon Iver by Bon Iver, The Greatest Story Never Told by Saigon, I’m With You by The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Take Care by Drake, Section.80 by Kendrick Lamar, The Book of David by DJ Quik, Metals by Feist, 4 by Beyonce