2011 was in some respects a big year for music. We saw the much anticipated “super-group” album “Watch the Throne,” by Jay-Z and Kanye West, and Katy Perry tied Michael Jackson’s record for the most #1 singles off a single album. (That would be 5, and I’m sure that says something about the state of our society but I’m not sure what at the moment.)
On the other hand, in some respects 2011 was a bit of a step down. 2010 presented in sheer volume what would be hard to replicate in consecutive years. We had new music from great artists coming out of our ears (no pun intended). Take the Country genre, for example, where in 2010 Keith Urban, Zac Brown, The Band Perry, Lady Antebellum, Rascal Flatts, Josh Turner, Blake Shelton, and Taylor Swift, just to name a few, all released albums.
We had breakthrough debuts like Gungor’s “Beautiful Things,” and Sleigh Bells’ “Treats.” Well known bands like Arcade Fire, the National, and Band of Horses and artists like Josh Ritter all produced arguably their best albums yet in 2010. Jars of Clay offered up the concept worship album “The Shelter,” and we even saw new albums from greats like Sade (who emerged after a 10 year hiatus) and Keane.
2010 was quite a year.
That said, 2011 produced some gems, and made up for in quality what it lacked in quantity. I offer for your enjoyment what I believe to be the best albums of 2011.
This round-up includes a debut recording, two sophomore efforts, the biggest band in the world, and crosses at least 3 genres with Alt/Rock, Country, and Jazz finding representations.
Before I dive into the list, a few words should be said about criteria. How do I decide what goes on a “Best of” list?
Let me confess that I have not listened to all the music that was released in 2011, so admittedly there could be something fantastic that I missed (I’m really looking forward to your comments about what I may have missed). But here’s my criteria.
For something to be listed as “best,” a standard of excellence is required. I evaluate the music in 7 areas:
1. Technical Merit – Are the musicians and/or vocalists at the height of their craft? Are they demonstrating proficiency, skill, and creativity with their instrument that is noteworthy?
2. Lyrical Merit – With apologies to all the “I just listen to the music people,” words matter. A lot. Where there are lyrics, are they well crafted, demonstrating literary merit, and do they say something worth saying?
3. Production Quality – Producers on modern recordings are the MVP’s. A great producer can make a mediocre artist sound like the second coming of U2, and a bad producer could make U2 sound like Ashlee Simpson. For an album to be “Best” it’s production must be stellar. And that doesn’t mean that it must be glossy pop. The production must serve what the artist is trying to do, and be as unobtrusive as possible, with moments of genius that shine through without distracting from the artist.
4. Artistic Merit – This is a fuzzy category that speaks to the need of the album to actually be good art. I know that I’m treading on dangerous ground here, but we’ve lost sight of what makes something art in our postmodern world. If you peruse other “Best of 2011,” lists you’re going to find a lot of records that you probably wouldn’t want to listen to more than once. This is because we’ve mistaken “different” for “good.” Just because it doesn’t make any sense doesn’t mean that it is art.
To be art, a piece must demonstrate a number of ingredients, but for the sake of brevity, I’ll only mention a few.
- Harmony – Great art brings multiple ingredients that are distinct and in many cases would seem to not be able to go together, and makes them work as a brilliant, beautiful, and unique whole. The sum becomes greater than its parts. The great composers and the oil painting masters did this in spades!
- Balance – No one part of the work should stand out above the others. With music, this would mean that the bass (for instance) would not overpower the rest of the instrumentation or the vocals. You may have an instance where an instrument rises above the whole (in the case of an improvised jazz solo) but that is the exception rather than the rule.
- Contrast – Great individual pieces, and great albums, don’t operate at a single volume and a single pace. There is dynamic range that brings contrast, complexity, and emotion. Contrast is used to create “movement” which is another requirement for great art.
5. Uniqueness – I believe truly great artists rise beyond categorization and labels and are not able to be compared with anyone else. When you see a Picaso, you have no doubt you’re looking at a Picaso. Same with Rembrandt, Monet, and Van Gogh. When you hear Miles Davis, U2, or Frank Sinatra there is no question who you’re listening to. No one sounds like them. And no one ever will.
6. Timelessness – This last one is purely a guess, but I am asking myself if I think people will be listening to this music in 20 years. Will people still care? Most of the “Best of,” lists that I have read seem to be in a competition called, “Let’s find the most obscure records because that will make us seem like we are in the know.” I perused several lists from 5 years ago (2007) and they are a veritable “where are they now” hall-of-fame.
– Last but not least, the music should be edifying. Scripture tells us to in Phil 6:8
, “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” An album cannot be “best,” regardless of it’s merit in all other areas, if it takes me farther from being the man I want to be by drawing my meditations downward. It is for this reason that records such as the aforementioned “Watch the Throne,” and the much acclaimed and chart topping “Torches,” by Foster the People are absent from the list.
With that said here’s my list for the best albums of 2011.
Brad Paisley has come to be known for three things: clever lyrics, not taking himself too seriously, and as if in defiance of the later, near super-human abilities to make a Fender Telecaster jump through hoops. All three shine in spades on this record that does exactly what it says; namely – present to us what it means to be “country.” There are many standout individual tracks including the title track, the mega-hit duet with Carrie Underwood “Remind Me,” and the ripping instrumental “Eastwood,” which features the Spaghetti Western star himself, where Brad shows off his impressive and plentiful chops. But this album really shines as a cohesive record. The weaving of additional lines from “This is Country Music” into the outro of multiple tracks, the vast dynamic range that goes from the whimsical “Camouflage” to the depth of “One of Those Lives,” and the fact that he truly does present us with a survey of Country Music. He’s got the old (Alabama) and the new (Blake Shelton). The traditional sound of Nashville (Love Her Like She’s Leaving) and the modern country/pop hybrid found populating the country charts these days (Remind Me) are equally represented. Last but not least, as Brad has done on every record, he gives a nod to the gospel roots of country music while not trying to hide his faith in “Life’s Railway to Heaven.”
Switchfoot has, of late, been a band at the height of their craft. On their last two albums, they could seemingly do no musical wrong. In 2009 they released a masterpiece called, “Hello Hurricane,” and just 2 years later they offer up Vice Verses. Vice Verses, as a record, lacks the grand arch that exists on Hello Hurricane, and there are a few tracks that make you scratch your head (i.e. Selling the News) but the content is stellar, none-the-less. As they have done on every album they’ve ever released, they truly tap into the heart of man and draw our minds upward. They do so in a way that is in no way contrived and with sounds that move you. Songs like “Dark Horses,” “Thrive,” and “Afterlife,” are among the best in the entire Switchfoot compendium.
How do you follow up a debut album that was one of the best of 2008? With a sophomore effort nearly universally hailed as a best of 2011. Everything that 2008’s “For Emma, Forever Ago,” hinted was possible is delivered in “Bon Iver.” We’ve gone from a guy heartbroken, alone in the woods with his guitar, to that same guy when he has a full orchestra, world-class production equipment, and a band for which he can craft a sound at his disposal. These unconventional tracks defy classification (always a good sign) and yet feel like home.
The recent history of Jazz has been one of conflict, or perhaps better stated, forced contrasts. Jazz musicians felt the weight of tradition and went one of two directions. During the 80’s and 90’s jazz musicians either tried to honor the legacy of the 50’s and 60’s by recapturing the magic of Coltrane, Gordon, Blakey, Evans, Davis, et. al. with original tunes that “sounded” old, or they “sold out,” and went Kenny G with a “smooth jazz” sound that emulated Muzak more than Jazz. Of late, Jazz musicians have been emerging who have been able to make peace with doing neither. One such musician is young trumpeter/composer Ambrose Akinmusire. On this record, his debut on the legendary Blue Note label, he fully embraces his Free Jazz passions while delivering rich, harmonically elegant melodies. This is a record that is both adventurous and beautiful and presents us with a great optimism for jazz’s future.
Listening to “Life at Best,” you can feel yourself sitting in a Texas roadhouse with an ice cold Shiner Bock in your hand and saying to yourself, “what’s a band THIS good doing here?” The Eli Young Band has been a local gem for years and has paid their dues. A band whose chops have been honed by years of playing live to demanding crowds puts their best on display in this record. This album is vulnerable, real, and for the most part, incredibly uplifting. It wouldn’t be a country record if there weren’t some disfunction and heartbreak involved, but tracks like “Even if it Breaks Your Heart,” and “The Fight,” are some of the most inspiring I’ve heard in a long time.
I don’t know who said it, but someone recently remarked that the history of harmonic pop could be traced from barbershop quartet, to Crosby, Stills, and Nash, to Fleet Foxes. There is no question that Fleet Foxes now carries the mantel of the Folk Music genre and is the most likely torchbearer since Bob Dylan. Listening to Fleet Foxes, you feel like a band from 100 years ago, playing in the hills where no one is around, have been transported to your iPod. And Robin Pecknold, the band’s lead and songwriter, makes no attempt to have you think otherwise. The song “Bedouin Dress” makes a Yeats reference when it says “One day at Innisfree/One day that’s mine there.” Yeats, an early 20th century Irish poet, wrote a poem called “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”, describing a bucolic place of solace:
“I WILL arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honey bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.”
That’s Fleet Foxes and Helplessness Blues.
There are voices that were meant to be together. Like musical soul mates, they were just meant to find one another and exist in each others’ orbit. So it is for John Paul White and Joy Williams. With no need to be more than a duet with a guitar, they produce more emotion, longing, and power than the loudest, biggest bands. Alison Krause and Robert Plant have offered up albums in this vein that have been largely disappointing. The Civil Wars deliver, and restore our faith in the power and beauty of great lyric and harmony executed without bombast or pretension.
Coldplay’s last album, the brilliant “Viva La Vida,” was a restless contemplation of really deep themes: death, eternity, and legacy. Mylo Xyloto is none of that. It is pure pop celebration with all the shiny, sugar-sweet, glory it can muster. And who couldn’t use some basking in sun drenched happiness for a while? Everything about this album, from the lyrics, to the guitar riffs, is purposefully over the top. A lesser band would try this and the results would be disaster. Coldplay does it and not only pulls it off, but provides such a sublime experience that you barely notice it’s jolly extravagence – except for that huge smile on your face.
When I think about Florence + The Machine one word always comes to mind: Wow! Like her debut album, “Lungs,” her sophomore effort is a sonic avalanche of lyrical poetry poured forth with a passion not seen since Sinead O’Connor wailed, “Soon I can give you my heart…I don’t know no shame…I feel no pain.” Listening to this album, you feel like you need to stop and take some deep breaths, as if you’ve just run wind sprints. You move seamlessly from meditative contemplations that evoke murky caverns and a candlelit dirge to groove-infused, head-bobbing anthems.
Like Florence + The Machine, when I hear MuteMath one word comes to mind: Genius. This band is one of, if not the, most innovative, unique, and creative forces to hit the music scene in a long time. But unlike most bands that try to be different, MuteMath crafts music that is incredibly distinct without compromising in the least (to steal a bit from Bud Lite) on “listenability.” The songs are head bobbing, toe-tapping, awesome! This album infuses a blues influence that has not been present on their previous two albums and they manage to reinvent themselves without straying from the roots that made them so amazing. The electronic brilliance that has always been present is more effectively used than on either of the previous records, and the 7-minute track “Quarantine,” is worth the cost of the entire album by itself.
The leading jazz pianist of our time and the only person with a claim to the legacy of Keith Jarrett, Brad Mehldau has provided us with plenty of high points over the past few years. Most have been as a member of a trio or other ensemble. On this two-disc live recording Mehldau holds his audience spellbound by himself and his near super-human left hand/right hand independence is on full display.
James Farm (James Farm)
James Farm is the collaboration of saxophonist Joshua Redman, pianist Aaron Parks, bassist Matt Penman, and drummer Eric Harland. Each of these musicians represent the height of living jazz musicianship and expression at their given instrument, which alone makes their collaboration noteworthy. But great individual pieces does not always equate to an exceptional whole. (Sorry Miami Heat fans). In the case of James Farm, while Redman’s saxophone, perhaps as expected, is the standout ingredient, the ensemble does manage to be more than its ingredients.
The Head and the Heart (The Head and the Heart)
The Head and the Heart was actually released as a homemade album in 2010 before the band was signed to their label, Sub-pop. Sub-pop remastered the original album, had a couple of tracks completely re-recorded, and offered up what may prove to be one of the more significant bands to emerge in a while (only time will tell).
I’d love your feedback. What do you agree with? Disagree? Are there albums you’re passionate should be on the list that aren’t?
Happy New Year!