favorite albums of 2011

10. Kate Bush – 50 Words for Snow

50 Words for Snow - Kate Bush

Like a sparse yet beautiful snowy landscape, Kate Bush has created a winter album that puts Windham Hill artists to shame. 50 Words for Snow paints seven epic pieces that celebrate not only the feeling of winter, but explores relationships through a seasonal allegory. “Snowflake” is about beginnings; “Misty” is about a doomed relationship with a snowman; and “Snowed in at Wheeler Street” explores the idea of lovers through time in a beautiful exchange with Elton John. The exception is “50 Words for Snow” which has her having fun creating different words for the frozen precipitation in a style much like “Pi” from 2005’s Aerial where she sings the numbers of pi. 50 Words showcases Kate’s odd sense of story telling while proving she still can create a musical landscape like no other.

Favorite songs: “Snowflake,” “Wild Man,” “Snowed in at Wheeler Street”

9. Florence + the Machine – Ceremonials

Ceremonials - Florence + The Machine

The problem with having an incredibly successful debut album is the next one is fused with the happiness of success and the stress of repeating the winning ways of the first while still trying to grow as an artist. Something has to be sacrificed in order to move on. With Ceremonials, gone is the darker side of relationships including the stories of massive fights and dreams of maiming the one who stole her love. Here is a happier Florence. She is still delivering that massive voice, but there are more choral effects and more new-age-store allusions to how love works. Yes, there are epic moments of self-doubt like in the beautiful “Shake It Out” and “Breaking Down” but some of the happy moments come across as cloying like “Lover to Lover” and “Heartlines.” However, these really are small quibbles in the light of having the gift of Florence’s voice belting across your eardrums.

Favorite songs: “Only If For The Night,” “Shake It Out,” “Breaking Down”

8. Lindsey Buckingham – Seeds We Sow

Seeds We Sow - Lindsey Buckingham

The next four albums I like to call my comfort section. They are artists who have stuck around for much longer than expected and are still making interesting music. Lindsey more than the others has been extraordinarily productive the past few years and Seeds We Sow seems to be the near perfect balance of his soft, closely-mic’ed music and his rock/pop. His guitar work is in its usual glittery perfection, but the songs are very accessible this time around. Songs of love and longing are his forte and don’t lack here with the catchy “In Our Own Time” and the beautifully intense “Stars Are Crazy.” It seems he finally kept some of his best material for his own name instead of using them in a Fleetwood Mac album. Nice change.

Favorite songs: “Illumination,” “Stars Are Crazy,” “When She Comes Down”

7. Blondie – Panic of Girls

Panic of Girls - Blondie

Blondie will always hold a special place in my heart. When Captain & Tennille went away, I needed a female-led band to fill the empty void. Debbie Harry and company arrived in beautiful black & white with their third album Parallel Lines just in time to save me from spiraling into musical depression. Here was my first experience with a band who did whatever they wanted in style proven with their Autoamerican album. (Hello, first #1 song with rap anyone?) Thirty-six years into their career and Panic of Girls comes along as an unexpected delicious treat. Many styles are represented here, but all have that flair from a band well seasoned in turning themselves on others’ ears. From the sing-rap of “D-Day” to the surprisingly beautiful No Exit stylings of “China Shoes,” it evident that Blondie are doing this for themselves, but still have that magic that entertains the masses.

Favorite songs: “The End The End,” “Sunday Smile,” “Wipe Off My Sweat”

6. Duran Duran – All You Need Is Now

All You Need Is Now - Duran Duran

Back in early 2010, Duran Duran released a 9-song EP version of a new collection of music that created excitement and pride within the group. It seems they had a producer who was not only a fan, but wanted them to make an album in the same manner as their debut and Rio. They nearly succeed in recreating that energy. Unfortunately a few weeks later the band released the full-version of All You Need Is Now with a few bloated numbers which weighted the energy of the nine. No matter. The core music here really is great with “Girl Panic!” unashamedly wrapping its arms around the sound that made them popular. It’s quite evident that the boys love what Ronson helped them create and All You Need Is Now is that much more infection for it.

Favorite songs: “Safe (In the Heat of the Moment),” “Girl Panic!” “The Man Who Stole a Leopard”

5. The Cars – Move Like This

Move Like This - The Cars

The Cars’ new album is like running into a dear friend after 24 years of separation and realizing that you’ve started a conversation as if only 24 hours has passed. With all the band’s trademark quirkiness present, Move Like This is filled with impossibly catchy staccato goodness. The first track, “Blue Tip,” sets the tone with everything the band was during the height of New Wave: upbeat, celebratory, electronic and heavenly. It’s enough to tease the hair and wear lace gloves. The rest doesn’t deviate. All that is missing is Benjamin Orr’s vocals. Orr died in 2000 and Move Like This is that strange mix of being a tribute to and suffering from his loss. Still, this is a surprisingly wonderful reminder of the style the The Cars had niched.

Favorite songs: “Blue Tip,” “Sad Song,” “Hits Me”

4. Holy Ghost! – Holy Ghost!

Holy Ghost! - Holy Ghost!

James Murphy may have ended LCD Soundsystem, but his influence still lives on in his production and his label, DFA Records. Holy Ghost!’s debut is not just indicative of Murphy’s sensibilities, but seems to have positioned the band as possible successors. It may just be the timing, but Holy Ghost!’s first album holds many of the danceable pop structures of LCD Soundsystem; however, Holy Ghost! loves to wear their influences. A fun mixture of 80’s sound with the influences of Chemical Brothers and Daft Punk, Holy Ghost! sound like the American answer to The Presets but without the punk edge. The band has created ten well-crafted dance pop songs that turn out to be much more than the fluff some of their colleagues put out. Plus they got Michael McDonald to sing on one of their better numbers. Let’s hope they continue in LCD Soundsystem’s wake of making smart dance music.

Favorite songs: “Do It Again,” “Hold My Breath,” “Say My Name,” “Some Children”

3. AWOLNATION – Megalithic Symphony

Megalithic Symphony - AWOLNATION

Playing like a sequel to New Radicals only album (the biting Maybe You’ve Been Brainwashed Too), Megalithic Symphony was also the creation of a single man. Aaron Bruno has been in the industry for several years now — notably in the band Under The Influence Of Giants — but with AWOLNATION he had the chance to break out on his own and have the creative freedom to create the music he wanted. The man certainly has an ear for a hook, but what sets this apart is the intensity and passion of each song and his incredibly versatile voice. “Sail” may be the only track that many have heard here, but there are a multitude of even better songs. What’s interesting is the deeper you get into the album the more apparent Bruno has created an good, old-fashioned protest album, but truthfully you’ll only notice it if you stop bouncing around to the incredible beats he has created. This is well worth the journey past the one hit.

Favorite songs: “Soul Wars,” “Jump On My Shoulders,” “Burn It Down,” “Kill Your Heroes”

2. Fitz and the Tantrums – Pickin’ Up the Pieces

Pickin' Up the Pieces - Fitz & the Tantrums

Take some 50’s & 60’s R&B, throw in a sprinkling of 70’s psychedelica and plate with a 80’s hairdo and looks. Serves anyone who loves fun music. The origin story of Fitz is that Michael Fitzgerald bought a church organ after a breakup and wrote “Breakin’ the Chains of Love” a few hours later. The rest is an amazing album that is not only just blue-eyed soul, but really feels like it could very well have been released on the Motown label. Songs mostly revolve around break-up blues, but the band does veer into a little political statement with “Dear Mr. President.” This is not as left field as you may think as almost all the songs are demands and pleas of something better. A lot of the blues revolve around being ripped off (“Rich Girls” and the astounding “MoneyGrabber”) and being gone before being dumped (“News 4 U” and my personal favorite “Don’t Gotta Work It Out”), yet the album ends on the beautifully regretful ballad, “Tighter.” This is simply a rich debut full of joyous songs of loss which finds Pickin’ Up the Pieces in that rare world of being complex yet utterly entertaining.

Favorite songs: “Breakin’ the Chains of Love,” “MoneyGrabber,” “Don’t Gotta Work It Out,” “Winds of Change”

1. Destroyer – Kaputt

Kaputt - Destroyer

Call it a New Romantic (Roxy Music, ABC, Spandau Ballet) revival. Call it pop jazz. Whatever label you put on Destroyer’s ninth album, it’s good. Very good. Founder Dan Bejar’s has hit upon a revisit to a formula somewhat forgotten in pop music’s past. The songs are strong and the arrangements are precise yet sound as if there were improvised with swirlings of a muted trumpet and saxophone. He even throws in a flute at one point for good measure. All this brings on a sense of nostalgia while remaining fresh. The breathy, etherial nature of Dan’s vocals (reminiscent of Neil Tennant of Pet Shop Boys) are complimented by Sibel Thraser’s strong, verbose voice which adds to these songs that thing Helen Terry did for Culture Club’s biggest hits. The entire sound is made even more surreal by Bejar’s seemingly disjointed yet poetic lyrics that reference drugs, suicide and sex which weigh down any sense of fluff. In other words, Destroyer has made a sparkling mid-80′s revival album that makes the sub-genre of pop music nearly relevant again.

Favorite songs: “Blue Eyes,” “Savage Night at the Opera,” “Suicide Demo for Kara Walker,” Kaputt,” “Downtown,”

2 thoughts on “favorite albums of 2011

  1. Mateo

    I look forward to this list all year. I waited for the list to be released as a whole so I could savor it. I love that you spotlighted veteran bands that are still releasing relevant and interesting music. I hope that Blondie, The Cars, and Duran Duran continue to inspire and influence new bands for years to come. I played Kaput to death and have added Fitz and Awolnation to my heavy rotation. Thanks for turning me on to such good music over the years, Howard.

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