Indifference Has Won, Won, Won: 2011 in Rock & Pop
Also country, dance, and, well, everything that isn’t metal or rap. There’s a lot of ladies on this list, and a lot of stuff from foreign countries, and two records by Texas-based singer-songwriters on MCA’s phonus-bolognus country subsidiary. I realize that my picks this year read like those of a crazy person, and I’m not sure what to do about that. Also, before you yell at me for the presence of all the lady-pop, maybe when you’re home at Christmas you can ask your mom why you grew up to hate fun.
THE BEST ROCK & POP ALBUMS OF 2011
1. P.J. Harvey, Let England Shake [Island]
Polly Jean Harvey has been so good for so long that she deserves to get mentioned in the same breath as people who don’t have vaginas, but that’s genetics for you. After some rough and tumble years in the 2000s, she’s finally delivered a flat-out masterpiece; it turns out she can make a Grand Statement without embarrassing herself, and her playing and songwriting is as good as it ever was. I’d say she deserves some kind of medal, but she already got one. This is just a flat-out great record, is all.
2. Hella, Tripper [Sargent House]
Hella, too, spent some time wandering in the wilderness, tinkering with their signature sound by adding vocals, bringing in extra musicians, and spreading themselves thin with innumerable side projects (Zach Hill will surely drop dead from exhaustion any day now). But they’ve returned to the two-piece configuration they began with, and the result is their most powerful album since their debut. Stripping down to the bare essentials reveals the breakneck frenzy and electrifying changes that made them.
3. Lykke Li, Wounded Rhymes [LL]
Only a slight lack of unifying focus, not present on Let England Shake, keeps this from my #1 spot. The 25-year-old Swede’s sophomore effort couldn’t be more different from her debut, Youth Novels, but everywhere it’s different, it’s also improved. Her ability to use a panoply of instruments to create a single, scary sound is greater than ever, and she’s better than ever as both a vocalist and a lyricist, bringing a nasty sense of humor and a brand-new immediacy to her singing. A terrific second album.
4. Adele, 21 [XL]
2011 is one of those years where it’s possible to complain about how shitty the music in the top 40 is and to gasp at how great the music in the top 40 is at the same time. Adele is one of the reasons for the latter reaction; her voice and poise are downright unbelievable for someone of her age, and with the wall-to-wall excellent 21, she’s shown both an improvement in her songwriting and an improved taste in collaborators. And “Rolling in the Deep” is a Godzilla of a single, and that’s a fact.
5. Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears, Scandalous [Lost Highway]
The Black Keys are getting plenty of hype for their interpretation of the blues-rock idiom, and they should. But for my ten bucks, nobody’s doing it better right now than Joe Lewis and his Honeybears. Swimming in revivalist waters without drowning in blind nostalgia, they take a natural affinity for blues and R&B and funk it up, get it dirty, and kick it all over the street before delivering it in a calamitous, clattering mess to your doorstep. There’s nothing sweet happening here, and that’s a blessing.
6. Florence + the Machine, Ceremonials [Island]
If you’d told me a few years ago that one of my favorite releases of the years would be from a band I first heard on the soundtrack to an NBC sitcom, I wouldn’t have believed you. (Okay, it was on Community. Maybe I’d have believed you.) But Florence Welch’s voice has turned into one of pop’s most stunning instruments, and she’s greatly improved on Lungs by leaving the production duties in the hands of one man (Paul Epworth), which brings a new tightness, greater focus, and a seductive mood.
7. Telekinesis, 12 Desperate Straight Lines [Merge]
Indie rock has turned into such a morass of preciousness and self-obsession, a place where (as my friend Phil Freeman put it) the “guitars stay quiet enough that the baby won’t wake up”, that I’ve largely lost my taste for it. That said, you can’t escape your raisin’, and Michael Lerner (no, not the one from Barton Fink) is so good at conjuring great mid-’90s alt-rock from Rivers Cuomo to Matthew Sweet, while adding his own guitar theatrics and goofball lyrics, that he’s pretty irresistible, even to me.
8. Crystal Stilts, In Love with Oblivion [Slumberland]
I probably never would have even heard of this Brooklyn post-punk five-piece if it hadn’t been homework for a freelance assignment, but I’m glad I did. What makes them stand out from the rest of the revivalist crowd du jour is their essential competence — well-crafted songs enhanced by unexpected guitar stabs, psychedelic keyboard swirls and frosty basslines — and the diversity of their influences, with everything from Gun Club to Mission of Burma crowding into their fine original songs.
9. Zola Jesus, Conatus [Sacred Bones]
Goth rock, especially at this late stage of the game, has to have total commitment and an oversupply of talent behind it merely to clear the hurdle of not being openly laughed at. Luckily, Zola Jesus has all that and more. You can’t doubt that she believes in the material — she’s almost scary, another requirement for making goth work — and her voice is fantastic. Conatus answers the question of whether she can bring pop shadings to her material without losing its spooky intensity with a resounding yes.
10. Hayes Carll, KMAG YOYO (& Other American Stories) [Lost Highway]
Anyone who’s paid attention to Texas music charmer Hayes Carll over the last few years knows he’s got talent to spare; at his best, he can be a down-and-dirty country ass-kicker and a bright, poetic singer-songwriter in the space of a single song. But this awkwardly titled but beautifully executed album proves that he can do all that and more, channelling Dylan in the humblest and funniest way possible in service of what may be the best album ever made about the Iraq War. Carll keeps on surprising.
Tomorrow: my overall top ten.