There was a ton of great music released in 2011. Some new acts burst onto the scene while other musical veterans secured their spots. Picking your favourites is never easy. I made my initial list, looked it over, cursed to out loud to myself, then set about whittling it down to my ten favourites of the year.
Music is very subjective. What I love another will hate. So any list of top albums of any year really is subject to the tastes of the listmaker. I have tried in compiling my list of top albums of 2011 to take in album sales and critical reviews along with my own personal taste. And here they are in order:
1) Adele – 21: Predictable, I know, but the truth. I cannot remember the last singer who was able to turn out such a strong album from front to back. No fillers here. You cannot deny its grip on music listeners/buyers and its staying power. The album was written while a 21-year-old Adele was dealing with the heartbreak of a break up. Some songs are stunning in their simplistic beauty. Filled with feelings we have all felt and with that powerhouse of a voice she is able to convey the feelings and make us feel them right along with her. Taking up the throne vacant since the likes of Dusty Springfield. Adele has come of age as an artist, a songwriter and one of pop music’s greatest voices today. More classic than derivative.
2) Beyonce – 4: Some saw this album as a failure because it contained no huge hits like her previous albums. Admittedly it did not move as many copies as her other albums. However, artistically it was her strongest album. Beyonce turned down the drama/diva/ posturing on the ballads and her up tempo songs still grooved. She still sings her lungs out over some good grooves, don’t get me wrong. This album was more about raw emotion rather than girl power. Thematically it is an album about how good her romantic relationship is and how happy she is with her life. Amazingly it works rather than make us sick of how happy she is. A diverse and personal album.
- 3) Jay-Z + Kanye West – Watch the Throne: One of the more widely anticipated albums in a while and it still managed not to disappoint. There is an entire story that comes with the songs on this album recorded by two of the biggest names in the rap game. They offer up songs concerning racism, black-on-black crime, fatherhood and other issues. This is rap doing reality as well as being a vehicle for escapism. Lyrically this is not Jay-Z’s best work but it might be his strongest album in the production category. Not just a vanity collaboration.
- 4) The Roots – Undun: They have always been about making more than just lighthearted, fun music. Activism has always been a card up their sleeve. Undun tells the tale of a drug dealer whose fate is sealed. We are given a fully fleshed out portrait of him and how he got to where he is. The beats backing up the story vary from emotional to feverish. They remain one of the more innovative and best able to convey an entire story bands in music today.
- 5) Lady Antebellum – Own the Night: It would have been expecting too much for them to come up with another “Need You Now” but with this album they showed that they were not a one hit wonder. Own the Night features smooth harmonies and interesting stories behind the songs. Some criticized them for releasing an album with an even more polished pop sound. I see it as an album filled with raw emotion and a band that is pushing itself to get better.
- 6) Beastie Boys – Hot Sauce Committee, Part Two: Funky hip hop grooves don’t stop coming from this New York trio. They are able to mix in to whatever they do just the right amount of wackiness to make the result an interesting musical stew.
- 7) The Civil Wars – Barton Hollow: Joy Williams and Paul White are not a couple but the passion and chemistry that runs through their music would lead one to believe that they are. This was their debut album and it is filled with mellow tunes which are a mixture of country, folk and acoustic pop. Songs about aching love and broken dreams that are not so heavy that they aren’t catchy. Their strength truly is in their incredible harmonies. Inventive songcraft.
- 8) Drake – Take Care: Maturation is what this is about. Canada’s rapper is making more complex rhymes, writing better lyrics and demonstrating he has quite an ear for beats. Universal emotions abound like loneliness, hatred, friendship, jealousy, ego, doubt, lust, intoxication, and depression. A nice mix of what we cannot relate to (dropping 6 million on ourselves) with things we can. Unlike most rappers he is not all bravado and perfection, Drake lets us see his vulnerable side and we love him for it.
- 9) Bon Iver – Bon Iver: The darling of all lovers of alternative music. For an album that opens with six long seconds of silence (ballsy!) it ends up being one that has plenty to say. Iver wanders out of the confines of folk music to seem to be looking for something else. Like an onion, this album has plenty of layers and that is most of the fun – unpeeling them to find out what is underneath. An examination of how time affects everything from our memories to our bodies means this is not superficial stuff. As most great albums this one is most effective when listened to in order from beginning to end.
10) Alison Krauss and Union Station: Alison Krauss returned to making music with the regular men in her life – Union Station. This is their first album together in seven years. In their time apart they haven’t missed a trick. Or a note, for that matter. Everything here is done to perfection. Listening to the album you will feel like a privileged person who has been allowed to sit in on a jam session by the band. Gentle arrangements make you crane, but it is all worth it in the end. You’ll be blown away the first time you listen and its value does not diminish with any amount of subsequent listens.