It’s hard to designate 12 months’ worth of musical releases as “weak,” but if any year can boldly claim the title, it’s 2011. The homogeneity of radio favorites is almost ridiculous: add some dubstep and you’re guaranteed to go platinum. “Sexy And I Know It” has now spent three solid months in the top three of the Billboard Hot 100–enough said. There were catchy releases and a smattering of good songs, but when entire albums were great, they were almost impeccable. Here are a couple examples of what we mean.
“Helplessness Blues”–Fleet Foxes
Three years in the making, “Helplessness Blues” can hardly be called a lazy effort by Fleet Foxes. After scrapping the greater part of a first album, the band buckled down with producer Phil Ek (The Shins, Band of Horses) to turn out their sophomore effort after they exploded onto the indie scene in 2008. The album is somber and introspective, more invested in re-creating the quality of memories and contemplation than the pastoral atmosphere of their first release. “Helplessness Blues,” the single and arguably the best track, is the pensive epitome of the whole album. It’s the finest example of Robin Peckold’s songwriting ability, a vivid description of the emotional turmoil following self-interrogation regarding one’s place in the world.
-MD, May 6
“Watch The Throne”–Jay-Z and Kanye West
The album might be so good because everyone expected it to be–after all, Jay and ‘Ye are the current and indisputable kings of hip-hop. But with a nod to the past (the album includes the voices of ‘60s artists Otis Redding and Nina Simone) and possibly the most unexpected samples to be thrown into rap (“Ni**as in Paris” features Will Ferrell and Jon Heder from their comedy “Blades of Glory”), “Watch The Throne” became an opulent masterpiece on the often gilded life of fame.
“Mylo Xyloto” is an album that, like so many of Coldplay’s works, has to grow on the listener. Considering that the title means absolutely nothing, this one understandably takes a little longer than usual to figure out. “Mylo” resembles its predecessor, “Viva la Vida,” in its production, but the pomp and circumstance were assuaged by a quiet romance, steering the album away from the realm of French Revolution victory speeches–for the better. It might not sound exactly like “X&Y,” but Coldplay makes a pretty convincing argument that they’ve moved on to equally appealing melodies.
“The King of Limbs”–Radiohead
Despite its relatively short length (eight songs, 37 min), “The King of Limbs” is a vastly complex collection of songs, and as with every Radiohead album, the more you listen to it, the more layers you discover. As a whole, the group has departed from writing melody-driven power ballads, and this LP conjures up a contemplative, more abstract feel. “Lotus Flower” is quite a masterpiece. The thick, rolling bass line fills out the track and complements Yorke’s cutting falsetto perfectly throughout the song. Watch the official video for a wild performance of Yorke jolting and shimmying to the beat; while certainly not a conventional music video, it is yet another interesting stylistic innovation by the group. Plus, if anything else, you might find a link to one of the countless viral videos of his dance moves mashed up with Beyoncé or Lady Gaga.
Adele’s sophomore album, “21”, took 2011 by storm. “Rolling in the Deep” became the new go-to anthem of revenge after a bitter break-up and dominated the airwaves for much of the summer. Her melancholy follow up single “Someone Like You” (which you’ve probably heard loudly sung by a small group of drunken dorm mates) has received similar airplay and was featured in a hilarious “SNL” sketch with Emma Stone. The remainder of the album keeps with the soul that was present in her first album, “19”, but exposes a feistier side to Adele and her style, exemplified by tracks like the thumping “Rumour Has It.”