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Today’s music world has, unfortunately, lost appreciation for the album. With every download from third-party sites and applications like Spotify and Pandora, the art of creating songs that compliment one another in a thoughtful order has become virtually obsolete. That being said, the December issue of The Sound Magazine will reflect on the albums released in the past year and attempt to rank them in the order that they impressed, influenced, inspired — and will continue to impact the pop culture landscape of America.
To call 2011 a “weak” album year is an insult to all the artists on this list, but you can’t ignore the opinion of the average person interviewed by The Sound about their favorites. Numerous surveys of readers’, inquiring about which albums they would put at the top of their list, ended with responses like, “You know, I’ve been really bad about buying music this year” or “Nothing really jumps out at me”. By contrast, last year, The Suburbs by Arcade Fire captivated the nation — the alternative rock listeners at least — and was a mainstay on “Best of 2010” lists throughout the media world.
It could have been slightly higher on this list last year (it ranked at 5), especially considering it later went on to win “Best Album of the Year” at the Grammy’s, but either way, it seemed to be the last piece of work by a rock artist that was so widely adored. It probably should have been #1 on last year’s list, but that award went to American Slang by Gaslight Anthem. Either way, The Suburbs will remind listeners of 2010 and the year that the indie rock scene (through one particular band) finally got the credit it deserved.
What can be said about 2011? Which of these albums, if any, might represent The Sound Magazine’s Top Ten at The Grammy’s early next year? While it may be harder to discern the best of the best in 2011, that doesn’t make it a “weak” year by default — merely the first year in a new age of music appreciation whereby individual tracks are being embraced over complete records. Going forward in this new frontier, we must remind ourselves to never forget the value of complete works of art within the industry.
DISCLAIMER: One album that really did act as the soundtrack for 2011, like it or not, was Rihanna’s Loud, which officially came out at the end of 2010. Unfortunately, it came out towards the tail end of last year and didn’t make an impact on that list…and because it didn’t come out in 2011, it cannot be considered for this list. But it should be stated that Loud, one single after another, truly took over every bar, gym, club, and store in America this year. Loud is a well-produced album performed by a pop star at the peak of her powers and it could be in the top five on either list. When “I may be bad but I’m perfectly good at it…” or “Oh na…na…what’s my name?” is played somewhere down the road, there is no doubt you will remember the year that was 2011, which is why Rihanna deserves to be acknowledged and honored for what those songs contributed to the year that was.
Further proving that she simply cannot be stopped, Rihanna just released ANOTHER album, Talk That Talk, literally, as I write this column. That album will surely take over the world as well and although I doubt Rihanna could care less about appearing on any end of the year retrospective lists, her continuously late releases are the reason I will never again do this list in November for the December Issue. I call this…”The Rihanna Rule.”
So without further ado…
Here we go!
10. Coldplay – Mylo Xyloto
There is no better way to start off a list like this than with a controversial induction. Mylo Xyloto is perhaps the least critically acclaimed album by Coldplay since they became (arguably) the world’s biggest band not named U2. Like it or not, the album certainly does divert from the typical bubble in which Coldplay elected to live for the bulk of their successful career. The production on Mylo Xyloto is a bit ambitious, adding several components to songs that might have been just a bare-bones lyric/guitar or lyric/piano track in a past life, but it’s now clear that Viva La Vida was a taste of what the future held for Chris Martin and the boys. If Coldplay is going to be the biggest band in the world, they are going to have to take chances like this to stay relevant.
At the heart of all their music is a fantastic singer/songwriter in Chris Martin whose voice evokes emotion no matter how elaborate the backing tracks might get. “Every Tear Drop is a Waterfall,” “Us Against the Word” and “UFO” give the Coldplay fan searching for a more subtle version of the band they know and love something to enjoy. But the song that everybody is talking about is “Princess of China,” which seems to have gone the furthest from what we have come to expect from Coldplay, so much so that people have claimed it belongs on a Rihanna album (who is featured on the song) rather than a Coldplay LP.
This would be an insult in another day and age but Rihanna is making some of the best music there is these days and her voice is similar to Chris Martin in that it is capable of evoking emotion —particularly romantic and sexual emotion —merely from its presence alone. Rihanna’s voice, like Martin’s is so particular and stylized that her inclusion in this song is not just “insert random pop star here” as it would be if Martin’s vocals were paired with say, Katy Perry’s or Britney Spears’.
This album is likely to be left off a lot of Top Ten lists due to the fact that it is the first album by Coldplay in a while not to be a surefire lock to sit atop them. That contrast alone might make Mylo Xyloto, seem like a failure, however there are few albums this year that provide a better relaxing soundtrack to a night alone with a companion of the opposite sex. Chris Martin’s music has been getting guys laid for years and although pretentious Coldplay fans might choose to ignore their most recent effort, anyone with common sense will realize that Mylo Xyloto is more than enough to lead to a steamy night of bad decisions. Chris Martin’s voice is good enough to connect with under almost any circumstances.
9. Foster the People – Torches
Can one or two really influential and culturally relevant songs get you on this list? Most people will say that Foster the People is proof that it can. Most people only know Foster the People as the band that plays “that Pumped Up Kicks song,” a song you either love or hate. Its not often that a song gets so big that it crosses over into mainstream culture and works its way into the consciousness of people who wouldn’t necessarily consider themselves a fan of the particular genre, in this case, electronic indie rock.
Whether it was the simple melody of “Pumped Up Kicks,” the summery feel and catchy chorus or the fact that such a poppy and “happy sounding” song was actually written about the tragedy at Columbine High School, the song got people talking. UFC Fighter Nam Phan used it as a walk-out song a few months ago and there is no telling whether he did this because he found the song intimidating, if he was using the lyrics as a message that his opponent better “run better run” from him inside the octagon, or whether he just liked the song and wanted to hear it. Whatever the reason, “Pumped Up Kicks” is one of those songs that will likely live on in the background at coffee shops for years to come and when it’s played people will remember the year that was 2011. Not the year that two students waltzed into their high school with machine guns terrorizing classmates and teachers, but the year in which we became enamored by a song that depicted such brutal and heinous acts and did so through one of the catchiest summer songs ever produced. This odd separation of content and context says something about the music industry as a whole.
Another song from the album that you’ve probably heard and do not even realize it is on the same album, is “Don’t Stop”. The song is so catchy that it’s being used nationally in a Nissan commercial that although you can’t put your finger on it, you’ve probably seen a dozen times since last Thursday. “Don’t Stop” ISN’T about Columbine…but let’s say it was…do you think that would warrant it being removed from the Nissan commercial since it would be unethical to use a song about such a touching subject in such an uplifting way? In a way the idea of knowing that “Pumped Up Kicks” is about Columbine is almost more meaningful than any song’s subject matter in recent years. The idea that the average person actually knows what “Pumped Up Kicks” was written about, and is thus able to attach context to the content on every listen, is something that few consumers go through even with bands they DO consider themselves a fan of. “Pumped Up Kicks” is the epitome of a crossover hit because not only have millions of people heard the song, but millions of people know what the song is about, which even the hardest of the hardcore fans can’t always say about a band or a song.
8. 311 – Universal Pulse
By far the shortest album on this list, and the shortest album 311 has ever put out, Universal Pulse only contains eight songs. After speaking with both bassist P-Nut and vocalist SA Martinez, it’s clear the album is so short because they wanted to make sure that it was only filled with tracks that were WORTH being on the album, even if that meant coming up a bit short of what people have come to expect from the average LP. Both assured me there was little left on the cutting room floor and that the eight tracks that make up Universal Pulse represent the entire body of content that the band had created during this most recent attempt at adding to their beloved catalog.
311 is a band that tours almost every single year, and some years, like this one, they even went out more than once. 311 is also the type of band that rewards fans for following their career, playing songs from every album they have ever written, regardless of whether or not those songs were singles or hits. The first single from Universal Pulse was “Sunsets in July”. For a lot of people, this album will simply be “That 311 Album w/ Sunsets in July”, however the single is just one of eight songs that perfectly blend together to create one of 311’s most cohesive group of songs.
Earlier this year, the band put on a weekend-long festival during which they played their extremely lengthy and epic albumTransistor in its entirety, which at 21 tracks, is by far the longest album they have ever recorded. Conversely, this year also marked the release of the shortest 311 record, as the guys attempt to trim the fat and make sure that no songs are on the album just to add length. From the opening track “Time Bomb”, in which Tim Mahoney’s palm-muted guitar riff sounds like a funky rock version of a 90’s rap beat, all the way through the last two songs, “Weightless” and “And a Ways to Go”, two of the most melodic and elaborate 311 tracks ever composed, Universal Pulse comes together as a short and sweet reminder that 311 are five of the best musicians at their particular instruments.
When you have guys who know each other and their instrument so well, it’s a lot easier to produce a record that feels like it belongs just as much as its creators do. Although the days of major crossover hits like “Amber” and “All Mixed Up” might be over for 311, the guys have matured to a point that their goal isn’t just to produce albums that lend new concert-worthy tracks to their repertoire, but to produce an album in which ALL of the songs belong on a set list some day. With Universal Pulse the boys from Omaha Nebraska have done just that.
SA Martinez of 311 on recording the eight-track Universal Pulse and what makes this album special (from a Sound Magazine interview w/ SY conducted 10/25/11)
“I think really we were just kinda’ feelin’ it. Everything was just clicking. Just focusing on just a select group of songs, as opposed to trying to work, you know, 18 to 20 songs and then pulling from that. Just having the time to comb through those ideas is really why that record came together sounding so focused and so energized.” – SA Martinez of 311
7. Lady Gaga – Born this Way
What can I say that hasn’t already been said about this generation-defining artist who has managed to shine above all the other stars in the business, while still maintaining her unique identity and purpose? The songs on Born This Way are picture perfect in every level of their production. Cameos by guys like Clarence Clemons of The East Street Band, who sadly passed away shortly after recording the tracks, add a level of authenticity to anthems like “Edge of Glory.” That song sounded just as appropriate when it was used in a motivating montage of dunks and blocks during the NBA finals as it does blaring from a gay bar in Chelsea. That is the sign of an artist who has truly taken over. No need to say more than that.
This entire year was almost a 365 day celebration of Gaga’s career and enough has been said about songs like “Born This Way”, “Government Hooker” and the rest of the album to last a lifetime, so I am attempting to keep this homage to her and her record as brief as possible. Other than Shania Twain, who probably can’t stand “You and I” and how much it must remind her of her brief period atop the mountain of female pop sensations, the general consensus is that Born This Way is an exceptional dance album by a captivating superstar. Gaga has entered the “she can do no wrong” phase of her career; let’s let her enjoy it.
6. Jay-Z and Kanye West – Watch the Throne
Besides the fact that this album’s best song requires any white person to go through an inner struggle determining whether or not they can use the “N word” (“N**gas in Paris”), Jay-Z and Kanye West more or less deliver. Jay-Z benefits from being able to trade verses and not having to carry entire songs for a whole album. The level of anticipation for the album garnered by the two superstars’ combined powers warranted Kanye’s inherent overproduction, something that seems far less self-indulgent when he is not the sole benefactor of said overproduction. The fact that this record somehow lived up to the hype, or at least did not disappoint, after years of being rumored and months of being pushed back, is enough to get it on a Best of 2011 list.
Does it lack that song that will get the reaction that say “Big Pimpin”, “99 Problems”, or “Gold Digger” get ten years after first appearing on a Jay-Z or Kanye West album? Probably. Only time will tell if “Otis”, the aforementioned “N.I.P.” or any of the other songs on the album will transcend the current music landscape the way so many of these two artists’ tracks have in their illustrious careers. If you really think about it, even songs like Estelle’s “American Boy” or “Crazy in Love” by Beyonce, which merely feature one of the two rap superstars, seem more primed to live on between timeouts at basketball games for the next ten or fifteen years than anything that Watch the Throne has to offer. That being said, even a seven out of ten from these two is better than a nine out of ten from most hip-hop acts. For a genre that has less identity now than ever before, Watch the Throne certainly serves its purpose: to remind us who the kings of the urban empire really are.