January 2, 2012
Best 2011: Top Albums
2011 was a schizo year for pop music. There were some points when it was a feast of beats and beauty. But other periods, like summer, were just so depressingly lifeless. As is often the case, half the records on this list are debut albums - in some cases ones I'd been waiting for, while others were fantastic bolts out of the blue. I should note that many of my reviews below were first published in 2011 in the American (print) magazine Instinct.
Album Of The Year is a TIE
Friendly Fires Pala
Fires pulled off that elusive trick: creating a sophomore album far superior to their debut. In this case, they were aided by genius producer Paul Epworth, who knows his way around spine tingling Moments. Tracks like Blue Cassette and Live Those Days Tonight were steeped in a sort of widescreen beauty... perhaps even sentimentality. Pala is a meta album: music about how music has changed us. The slinky Hurting was my single of the year, while the album cover is also a favorite. I actually bought this on vinyl, it was so beautiful.
Standout tracks: All were great, but I'll choose Hurting as my favorite, followed by Live Those Days Tonight, True Love, Show Me Love, Blue Cassette and Pull Me Back To Earth
Will Young Echoes
That lush lipped popstrel Will Young's new album might never be released in the US does not dampen my affection. Ten years into his career (like some grand ol dame of pop!), he remains a class act. Echoes, however, is a game changer of the Madonna meets William Orbit model. In this case, the wunderkind collaborator is another British electro-icon, Richard X. The result is still very much mid-tempo – not quite disco - but the "sonics" are lush and current, with Young’s soaring voice climbing up and down strong melodies. Jealousy is the most elegant hit single this year.
Standout tracks: Jealousy, Come On, Runaway, Good Times, I Just Want A Lover, Losing Myself, and Happy Now
...and more fantastic albums, in no order:
It's hard to talk about this album briefly, so read my track by track review. I appreciate Adele bringing the pop charts back to a focus on songwriting and vocals after a few years of spectacle. People were hungry for something honest and emotional: music minus artifice. 21 was the album I played most consistently and obsessively in the early months of 2011.
Standout tracks: Just buy it if you don't already have it.
Darren Hayes Secret Codes and Battleships
L'Hayes has come a long way from riffing on cherry cola in his Savage Gardens days. Four years in the making, Secret Codes shimmies and sways deep into the dark side of love. Check this bon mot: “I can make you pray to God and wish we never met.” That those words are pulled from the soaring up-tempo Hurt is testimony to Hayes’ strength. He leavens the gravity of the lyrics with the album’s dominant aural motif, gorgeous bursts of strings. They lift tracks like Nearly Love, and Bloodstained Heart and provide a lush coda to recent hit Talk Talk Talk. Fifteen years into his career, Hayes’s unerring sense of melody remains a trademark. Secret Codes is a concise, emotional Pop Moment. For more on the making of this album, see my interview with Darren.
Standout tracks: Talk Talk Talk, Bloodstained Heart, Hurt, Nearly Love, Stupid Mistake, God Walking Into A Room
Penguin Prison Penguin Prison
Having built an online following over the last few years, Penguin Prison’s Chris Glover finally released his debut and it’s mad brilliant. Coming from the same New York milieu as Holy Ghost!, Glover rubs his inner Prince - he would die 4 u on Multi Millionaire - against an intuitive pop elegance to create gems like the smart Golden Train and the poptastic The Worse It Gets. But the stunner here is Don’t F*ck With My Money – a sentiment we all shared in 2011, especially when it shimmers like these tunes.
Standout tracks: The whole thing is like a Greatest Hits album
The Sound of Arrows Voyage
In the game of music review referencing, Sweden's The Sound of Arrows might be "Pet Shop Boys seated with Vangelis and a children’s choir in a cathedral pew." Whether that sounds epic or dire is down to you, but there's no doubt that Voyage is a strong debut. It only takes a few plays to forget those other artists. The 8-minute There Is Still Hope epitomizes synthpop grandeur, while tracks like Conquest and Wonders are concise, melodic and - on some sexy planet with magenta skies - radio hits.
Standout Tracks: Wonders, Ruins Of Rome, Into The Clouds, Conquest, There Is Still Hope
Wolf Gang Suego Faults
A fine debut. Preceded by three solid singles, including the gorge Lions In Cages, the album revealed a cache of unexpected surprises, including the mid-tempo Where Are You Now and an Elton John-meets-Queen progrock ballad called Planets. The title track, about an elusive utopia, is colossal. The band (primarily Max McElligot working with producer Dave Fridmann) took their time making the record and you can hear that in the richly detailed results. The Maurice Sendak-esque album cover is equally amazing.
Standout tracks: Lions In Cages, The Kings And All Of His Mean, Suego Faults, Where Are You Now
Clare Maguire Light After dark
2012 was not kind to Clare Maguire, whose label pushed her as a monolithic superstar (Last Dance) and then promptly stopped promoting her when she didn't turn out massive hits on her first two singles. Unfair, because the record is a feast of pop anthems (if a bit full on at times). I Surrender is the most beautiful of these songs, but iTunes bonus track Burn - produced by Starsmith - also shines.
Standout tracks: I Surrender, The Happiest Pretenders,The Sword And The Shield, Last Dance, Freedom and Burn
Patrick Wolf Lupercalia
Happy is not a word one would associate with Patrick Wolf in recent years, but Lupercalia is the soundtrack to a love affair that lasts. Rarely has his music been so euphoric. The album came with superb artwork as well.
Standout tracks: Together, House, The Future, Bermondsey Street, Slow Motion, The Falcons
Florence + The Machine Ceremonials
Church bells announce the return of Florence Welch on her sophomore album. The track, Only If For The Night, is all things we desire from Flo: ghosts, chants, and booming drums. The surging Spectrum needs to be a single in 2012, purely for its wicked whip sounds, while All This & Heaven Too is a silvery linguistic epic. What keeps Ceremonials from perfection is its over-reliance on LOUD. There are no proper ballads - most songs hammer their way home - but it’s a lush journey all the same.
Standout tracks: Shake It Out, Only If For The Night, All This & Heaven Too, Breaking Down, Spectrum, and No Light No Light
Florrie tweeted to me last summer, “If the cheeks don’t shake, the song is dropped.” Indeed. Her previous gems only hinted at the layers that she'd reveal on this self-released summer EP. Collaborating with Xenomania and Fred Falke, Florrie delivers a perfect discopop collection. If you want to taste one track, try I Took A Little Something, in which the shimmer of the arrangement belies the melancholy lyric. Check Florrie’s website for a collection of free pop gems, which will likely disappear as she prepares to launch round two in 2012.
Standout tracks: I Took A Little Something, Experimenting With Rugs, Begging Me, What You Doing This For?
Wild Beasts Smother
Hayden Thorpe's voice is an acquired taste - let's get that out there. But on Smother he finally found the perfect setting for his operatic emoting. This is one of the slower albums of the year and the better for it. For me, it is rainy day music for popping a Xanax and drinking wine (is that dangerous?). Enough said.
Standout tracks: Albatross, Loop The Loop, Invisible, Plaything, Reach A Bit Further
Foster The People Torches
FTP are of rare provenance on this blog: they're Americans! Their debut is reverential LA pop at its most effervescent... it totally swings. I Would Do Anything For You is the best here - an ice cream of an anthem that manages to channel sunny Fleetwood Mac, MGMT and Josh Rouse (in his happy phase) in one harmonic ooh lala convergence. The 5+minute Warrant is a massive house-rattler built on a piano and chanted chorus. On the flipside, Waste offers a sweet line hidden inside a verse: "I'll just wait and here and listen to you when you speak... or scream." Torches was and is my California summer dream.
Standout tracks: I Would Do Anything For You, Call It What You Want, Broken Jaw, Warrant, Pumped Up Kicks and Waste
Jamie Woon Mirrorwriting
One of the BBC's Sound of 2011, it's hard not to hold Woon in contrast to moody boy-hipster James Blake. Woon is better. He massages dubstep to beautiful melodies and soul vocals. Standouts include Night Air and the emotional Spiral, vocally reminiscent of long lost master Terence Trent D'Arby. The percolating loop on Shoulda counters the regret of its lyric ("I walked when I shoulda run...") with a measure of hope - it's my favorite song. Street is emblematic of this album's mix of steely elegance (those synth stabs on the chorus!) and the choirboy lushness of Woon's voice gliding over these night beats.
Standout tracks: Shoulda, Night Air, Spiral, Street
Other great 2010 albums:
Nerina Pallots' best album, Year Of The Wolf
Laura Marling's A Creature I Don't Know
Gotye Making Mirrors
Ryan Adams Ashes And Fire
Jessica 6's debut, See The Light
Follow me on Twitter | Read my Top Songs of 2011 | See 2010's album faves