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1. Foo Fighters, Wasting Light: Rock music was persona non grata in 2011, a year lorded over by Euro-electro synths, dance-ready beats and hip-hop grunts. That was, until the Foo Fighters came along as a reminder. What did we forget? Songs that have melodies and hooks, rhythm guitars that can make your heart skip a beat and lyrics that delve a little deeper than, “check out how much cash I’ve got in my pocket.”
The Foos took it back all right, recording an all-analog, ProTools-free full-length that’s now up for six Grammy awards including the coveted Album of the Year. And deservedly so: Wasting Light is the album format perfected — a journey from beginning (“Bridge Burning,” featuring the classic Foos guitar crunch) to anthemic end (“Walk,” one of their strongest singles ever and sure to be a fist pumping exercise for decades to come). In between, Dave Grohl and gang deliver the undeniable “These Days,” four minutes and 58 seconds of inspiration on par with the similarly named “Times Like These,” the endearingly 90s-flavored “Back & Forth” and screamers “White Limo” and “Arlandria.” It’s the band at its finest, 17 years in. Hallelujah.
2. Adele, 21: Among the many astonishing things about Adele is her age, and the title of her genre-defying, game-changing second album. To think that someone so young can put to words emotions so complex, that a singer could, in a single breath, convey the frustration of a woman scorned beyond repair, and that an album could defy every convention of what’s popular today to become the year’s best-seller. Adele broke all these rules and more. Look no further than the stark production of “Rolling in the Deep,” the 60s girl group resonance of “Rumour Has It” and the take-it-to-church urgency of “One and Only.” Like Norah Jones, herself an 8-Grammy winner in 2002 (Adele is up for 7 this year), here is another rare gift with a timeless essence who can now afford to take her time on album No. 3.
3. Wilco, The Whole Love: Wilco fans can be fickle about their favorite albums — one man’s A.M. is another man’s Summerteeth is another’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot; Some favor the more troubled ruminations of singer Jeff Tweedy’s early years, others prefer the reflective lyrics of the husband and father he’s grown into. No matter which Wilco era floats your boat, The Whole Love, the band’s eighth effort, does not disappoint. That’s because Wilco has practically trademarked its own formula — the quick hit of “I Might,” the delightful puppy love of “Dawned on Me,” the uppers, the downers, you get them all in a pill that goes down oh-so-easily but is still experimental enough to appease the academics among us.
4. Coldplay, Mylo Xyloto: Chris Martin never met an anthem he didn’t like. It’s one reason the British band Coldplay has been both revered and derided for its delectably grandiose guitar riffs and borderline cliché lyrics. That was then, this is now and Mylo Xyloto, hands down the year’s least commercially viable album title, is probably the most accessible collection of music to appeal across multiple genres and generations. No wonder the band is constantly referred to as U2’s heir apparent — like Bono and Co., there is consideration for what’s popular today (i.e. Coldplay’s recruitment of Rihanna for the synth-heavy “Princess of China),” but for the most part, it’s about refining, evolving and maturing a signature sound that, let’s face it, you can’t deny. With too many good songs to list try “Every Teardrop is a Waterfall,” “Paradise,” “Charlie Brown” and “Don’t Let It Break Your Heart” on for size and listen for echoes of New Order, traces of Oasis, and, yes, call-to-arms licks a la U2, but at the same time, Mylo is so uniquely Coldplay in the best most unapologetic way.
5. Real Estate, Days: On their second album, this little indie band that could delivers irresistible pleasantries of the jingle-jangle kind. Giving a nod to AM radio along with acoustic-minded 90s artists such as American Music Club and Galaxie 500, it’s hard to believe this foursome hails from the same state that hosts Jersey Shore. Indeed, Real Estate’s serene guitar-led melodies (“Kinder Blumen”) coupled with the gentle strut of the snare (“It’s Real”) and slowcore-esque vibe (“Municipality”) is more Montclair than Seaside Heights, but as make-out music goes, it serves both demographics equally well.
6. Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds, S/T: The first solo album by one-half of Oasis seems to prove that Liam’s older brother was the true melodic brain behind the shoegazing outfit. Suitably retro-sounding in all the right places, High Flying Birds has all the crescendos (“Everybody’s On the Run”), sweet chord structures (“AKA… Broken Arrow”) and gentle psychedelia (“(I Wanna Live In A Dream In My) Record Machine) we’ve come to expect from the British brothers but minus the baggage. That means no song goes longer than 4:50 and nearly half the album’s tracks clock in at the two- to three-minute range, as if to say, pop all the way.
7. Lady Gaga, Born This Way: As much as Lady Gaga supposedly can’t stand being constantly mentioned alongside Madonna, there’s no doubt that Born This Way, like Madge’s transition from Madonna to Like A Virgin, is an album of major pop importance. Radio hits aside — and there were plenty, from the “Express Yourself”-esque title track to the 80s-inspired “Edge of Glory” to the country-flavored “You and I” — it’s a feat of modern musical engineering, as much of the album’s vocals were recorded on the road or in less than ideal backstage scenarios. And perhaps that’s where Gaga doesn’t get enough credit. Sure, she’s recognized, hailed and sometimes mocked for her outrageous looks, but it’s Gaga’s sound that actually got her here. Like when you first heard “Bad Romance” or even going further back to “Just Dance” and “Paparazzi,” a Lady Gaga song can mark a moment in time in the same way a camera phone photo instantly conjures vivid memories. How will Gaga’s first fully-realized record as a proven global pop star be remembered? As 2011 personified.
8. Chris Brown, F.A.M.E.: A confession: I didn’t want to like this record. Perhaps I even secretly hoped it would bomb. After all, Chris Brown’s violent past is all too familiar to the music press — even fresh in some journalists’ minds — and remains unequivocally unforgiveable. So when the singles started rolling out — “Yeah 3x” in October 2010, “Deuces” five months later — they were noticed, but not cheered. Then came “She Ain’t You” and it was harder to resist, what with that brilliantly sweet sample of Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature,” and finally the granddaddy of them all, “Look At Me Now” — a taste of hip hop bravado so spot-on you can practically feel a crumpled bill in the pocket. Fame had brought to the surface the worst of Brown, but F.A.M.E. returned the insanely talented singer to R&B glory. At the end of the exercise: judging one based on the other feels more convoluted than ever, what with Grammy nods and accolades continuing to come Brown’s way, but that doesn’t mean stop listening.
9. Kanye West and Jay Z, Watch the Throne: At one point during the recording of Watch the Throne, superstar rappers Kanye and Jay-Z were spending as much as $100,000 a week just on hotel rooms, usually renting out an entire floor. That’s how this album came together, in luxury suites high above Paris, on airplanes from Hawaii to Australia, in the desert heat of Abu Dhabi and the high-rises of New York City. At times it feels dutifully disjointed, mixing high-fashion fantasy with real life reflection, but as nomadic as their travels were, Watch the Throne is also rooted in tradition, like their tip of the hat to Otis Redding in “Otis” and pop culture mementoes from their youth, Erkel and Michael Jordan among them, as well as heroes like Oprah and Pablo Picasso. While the sum is not greater than the individual parts where this collaboration is concerned — West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy alone would be difficult to top — above average for Jay and Ye still trumps most other rappers’ A-plus efforts. Guess that’s why they call it getting schooled.
10. Ryan Adams, Ashes & Fire: Consider it lucky No. 13. The prolific singer and songwriter has had as many albums during his 20-year career and the music just keeps getting better. Case in point: Ashes & Fire, another slice of Americana meets downtown sophistication that’s retrospective and surprisingly optimistic. Where seven years ago he released Love is Hell, now happily married (to Mandy Moore) and sober, Adams offers “Chains of Love.” Gone for the most part is the gloom of the Gold era, which was released two weeks after 9/11, along with the glitter of its pristine production. Instead, Adam graduates from Ethan to Glyn Johns, the latter offering a more homespun sound to sparse acoustic numbers like “Come Home,” “Do I Wait” and the incredibly intimate “I Love You But I Don’t Know What To Say.” Less is more for Adams these days but where his fans are concerned, overshares like Ashes are very much welcome.
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