Best Albums of 2011: Mid-Year Edition

Best Albums of 2011: Forgetting about Dre and JT

“I only pray you’ll never leave me behind
Because good music can be so hard to find”

-Gym Class Heroes feat. Adam Levine: “Stereo Hearts”

-Forward-

When I first started releasing my top-10 album lists, my music taste was linear and dull. The lists were essentially “Corey’s Favorites,” which is robbing you of a true musical experience.

Deciding to make this an unbiased approached to music listening and appreciation for your sake was one of the best things to happen to me. I have spent countless hours searching for and combing through new music: the rare and the redundant, the blah and the bold, the inspiring and the offensive.

If it wasn’t for this one post each year, I wouldn’t take a second glance at many albums. Instead, I have challenged myself into forming a refined ear capable of finding value in every song I encounter. My passion for music is reflected by the pride I take in my vast acceptance. To think that some of the albums that Past Corey wouldn’t touch made their way onto this list.

As 2011 comes to a close, I look back on the year with regret. Maybe the music scene was not up to par or maybe I didn’t do enough to find the gems, but I feel unworthy for putting this list out. I have realized my own mortality on trying to listen to everything as one man. It is impossible with thousands of albums being released every year. To compensate, I put my personal reasons behind some of the posts.

In 2012, I will hear something from 2011 and regret that I didn’t mention it here. That’s the way it goes. I am not Pitchfork, I am not Spin nor do I try to be. Good music is hard to find, but I hope that I did the best job on this list as one man could.

I always say that one of the greatest gifts you can give is the gift of music. So this, my friends, I dedicate to you.

Happy listening,
Corey

That song by Panic! at the Disco had one of the great lines of the year: “They know I know that they don’t look like me. They know I know that they don’t sound like me. You’ll dance to anything, you’ll dance to anything.”

The sad truth is that people flock to horrible music. And this year, pop music overran the industry like a plague. We finally got rid of the Black Eyed Peas only to have LMFAO rise in their stead. Dr. Dre held off “Detox” for so long that nobody cares anymore. Kanye West and Jay-Z found it acceptable to play the same song nine times in one concert. Justin Beiber decided to take on rapping and Lady Gaga stayed Lady Gaga.

Through it all, there was a man who made mainstream pop bearable.

MVP
Adam Levine

Levine in Out Magazine. Sept. 2011


This was the first year since 2007 that we didn’t necessitate a Justin Timberlake radio comeback. Adam Levine made it possible.

No, Levine is not JT in terms of all-encompassing talent, but he churns out digestible pop hits and is a likable judge on “The Voice.” He’s a charming guy who knows music and is apparently a sex icon with a good heart.

Maroon 5 didn’t have an album come out this year, but “Moves Like Jagger” has to be the pop song of the decade. It’s unreal how catchy that song is. The aforementioned “Stereo Hearts” has an addictive hook with Levine on vocals. It’s not a coincidence. If you aren’t a fan to the bubblegum hits, check out what he does with Slash in “Gotten.” He has that touch that turns regular songs to gold.

I never listen to Adam Levine and feel like a sell-out. The dude knows good music and I thank him for making the radio bearable.

Now, the List.

The Top 10

10. Adele – 21
Track of choice: “Set Fire to the Rain”

Here is the tale of and old girl evolving into a young woman. Blessed by a stable relationship with an older man, Adele grew up fast.

Perhaps the biggest change came when that relationship came to a crashing end. Wallowing in depression that consisted of a heavy dose of alcohol, 21 was born. Adele used the album as an outlet for her sorrow and it comes through beautifully.

She might have the best voice of any singer today, just listen to those flawless pipes live. Hopefully she can retain that incredible voice after throat surgery. The album contains a heavy dose of pain and self despair, but it truly is a work of art.

9. Incubus – If Not Now, When?
Track of Choice: “If Not Now, When?”

I did a professional review of the album here, but I’ve done a lot more listening since its release. Incubus is one of those rare bands whose sound changes with every album. Already an accomplished band after six studio albums, the seventh might be the best. Somehow, lead singer Brandon Boyd seems to have improved his vocals and the band has calmed calmed while finding a place of definite peace.

The soothing melody from the first track (see Track of Choice) makes If Not Now, When? easily one of the most digestible albums of the year. “Isadore” is a great little tale delivered with some of Boyd’s best work. Incubus gets nostalgic with “Switchblade,” and to round it all out, “In the Company of Wolves” will put you into a guitar induced trip. It doesn’t matter if you liked Incubus before or not, this is worth a listen.

8. Sum 41 – Screaming Bloody Murder
Track of Choice: “Reason to Believe”

It’s not 2001 anymore, so seeing Sum 41 on any kind of list of this sort may come as a shock. But rock music has been relatively stale for the past couple years and Screaming Bloody Murder is as invigorating as it is nostalgic. The 20-somethings, who found success as punk rockers with past hits such as “Fat Lip” and “In Too Deep,” are now in their 30s. With that comes a maturity of mind and a sound only a band of their background can fabricate. The dynamic metal mixed with their rebellious roots paints a perfect picture of the state of our nation. Tracks such as “Sick of Everyone,” “Blood in My Eyes” and “Skumfuk” address the inner conflict of acting as oppressors or the oppressed. We look for help from above, but at times it seems like we lack the resolve to believe. Sum 41 isn’t raging out against authority like they used to. They are merely shedding light on the issues and how destructive they can be.

7. Tech N9ne – All 6′s and 7′s
Track of Choice: “World Wide Choppers”

I know I’ve mentioned it a lot, but my review being quoted on Tech N9ne’s website was a huge honor. You can read that to get a good sense of the album, but again, I have done a lot of listening since then.

Some songs – “Worldwide Choppers,” “So Lonely,” “Am I a Psycho” and “The Boogieman” – are just plain bad-@$$. Then there are the vulgar songs (“F*ck Food”), but they have enough positives that make them worth listening to.

Any misconceptions of Tech N9ne’s life values are answered and I was surprised to find that he seems to be a kind man who cares for his family and fans. Underneath it all, he questions his own sanity. Through all the wackiness going on in All 6′s and 7′s, it is, at its core, human.

6. Lykke Li – Wounded Rhymes
Track of Choice: “Rich Kids Blues”

The best way to describe Wounded Rhymes is gray without sadness. It is that odd contrast that make Lykke Li’s sophomore album so appealing.

The grabbing point of the album is in the first single, “Get Some,” when she hooks you with, “I’m your prostitute, you’re gonna get some.” She bears her heart in “Sadness is a Blessing” and “Love Out of Lust,” two songs that will touch you no matter what your emotional status.

Wounded Rhymes is difficult to explain without going through every nook of sound and cranny of word. It really is one of those albums that the listeners have to experience for themselves.

5. The Decemberists - The King is Dead
Track of Choice: “Rox in the Box”

Every year when compiling this list, there are bound to be a handful of releases that I want nothing to do with. But in fairness to everyone, I give it a listen and, in some cases, a gem is discovered. Whatever The Decemberists did differently in the The King is Dead, its sixth studio album, it worked tremendously well. They worked on the album at Pendarvis Farm in Portland, Oregon, and immersed themselves into a more traditional American style of music. A few tracks even featured R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck. No matter. The Decemberists must have had an abundance of fun making this album.

“January Hymn” has a subtle hint of chill-inducing vibes and “Rox in the Box” is a southern jig waiting to happen. The album all comes together in the anti-war track “This is Why We Fight” where the words “Come Hell” send the song off in haunting reality. The King is Dead has a little bit of everything and ended up being one of the biggest joys of 2011. Albums like this are why I do this list.

4. Lupe Fiasco – LASERS
Track of Choice: “Break the Chain feat. Eric Turner and Sway”

At one point in his life, Lupe Fiasco didn’t like rap because of it’s vulgarity. But he has since learned to appreciate the genre while figuring out how to use it for good. In LASERS, he explores the world in several lenses about human understanding, racism, fame and several other issues that comes up in life or the media.

With each song, a new venture: Speaking up for yourself in “Words I Never Said,” grabbing at sanity through disaster in “Beautiful Lasers,” and a racial what-if in “All Black Everything.” He beckons for humans to act as a unit instead of individuals. There are a lot of good messages speckled throughout. It’s also important to remember the acronym Lupe coined when coming up with the title of the album: “Love Always Shines Everytime, Remember 2 Smile.” He summarizes the album’s ideals himself in a promo piece called “The L.A.S.E.R.S. Manifesto”:


3. Thrice – Major/Minor
*Track of Choice: “Words in the Water”
*Song of the Year

Few bands have the audacity to call your actions into question, but fewer bands have the knowledge of scripture that Thrice’s Dustin Kensrue has. Major/ Minor continues the exploration of putting human sins against biblical teachings that the band has done for the past decade. Each track is more than a learning experience, it challenges you and makes you look inside yourself to see if you are truly following a path of righteousness. In “Promises,” Kensrue belts out in anguish, “We are cowards and thieves, will we never turn to grieve the damage done? Never see, never quake with rage at what we have become?”

The album teems with belief and admission of sin because that is what humans are after all. The themes don’t come across as pretentious, which separates Thrice from Christian bands. All it shows is a profound education of both scripture and man delivered in a raw, in-your-face album. Musically, Thrice found a gear that worked and stuck with it, so the album’s tone sounds repetitive, which is the only criticism. “Call It In The Air” projects a coin being flipped metaphorically relating to life. “Anthology” takes love songs to another gear, promising commitment over passion, the way true love should be.

*Every theme on the album culminates in “Words in the Water,” a serene look at a man who believes he can get through life on his own. It’s only until the water rises too high that he realizes he lost his way and needs help to escape. The imagery of this song is remarkable and can only be fully experienced by listening. Here is the remixed version:

2. The Roots – Undun
Track of Choice: “The OtherSide”

This list was just about finished when Undun slipped its way into music stores. The list had to change immediately to accommodate The Roots’ newest incarnation. This being their 11th studio album, there are no surprises, yet it still stands out. The concept centers on Redford Stevens, a fictional character of the same name of a Sufjan Stevens song (Sufjan makes an appearance in the Roots’ version of the instrumental track “Redford”). Though Undun tells the story of an impoverished man with a tragic life, the themes here pertain to us all. Using a unique blend of blues, indie rock and hip-hop, The Roots might have topped their already stellar discography.

As lively as they can be on Jimmy Fallon, this is not a Roots album to jam to. It’s a look at a morbid life that focuses on the issues that make it so. “Lighthouse” has several odd musical layers, but the song serves as a motif for helplessness. The quiet but effective “Sleep” puts in perspective the horrible memories of the album’s subject. The album ends on four instrumental “movements” started off by Sufjan that completely change the mood of the album. It’s messy yet tragically brilliant at the same time. For The Roots, albums of this quality are becoming more than a trend. When arguing over who the best band of this generation is, they need to be in the discussion.

1. Alison Krauss and Union Station – Paper Airplane
Track of Choice: “My Love Follows You Where You Go”

With artists trying so hard to be edgy, new and profound, it can get overwhelming and stagnant. Alison Krauss and Union Station went in the direction of simplicity and it paid off exquisitely. Paper Airplane is as warm as a mother’s touch and the soothing bluegrass makes it as comfortable as home. The exchange of the male and female vocals provides a well rounded experience for the album, with both singers at their apparent vocal peak. Each track is a delicacy good enough to capture your heart. A list of stand-out songs would consist of the whole album, so I’m not going to waste time talking about them when you should be listening.

Alison Krauss has the most Grammy Awards than any individual artist. She is third overall when you count everyone to have ever received a Grammy. Surprisingly, Paper Airplane hasn’t gotten the critical acclaim it deserves. All the album is a masterfully recorded bluegrass album with perfect instrumentals and clean vocals. The lyrics talk mostly about love and hardships while staying true to faith. It’s not much, but it’s super effective. It’s so simple.

Other Awards

Best Pure Pop

The Cab – Symphony Soldier
Britney Spears and Lady Gaga stayed true to the genre, but The Cab kept me coming back. Radio friendly stuff, yet you don’t hear it.

Best Pure Rock/ Metal

Sixx: A.M. – This is Gonna Hurt
A lot of solid candidates here, but Sixx: A.M. bridged the gap between classic rock and progressive rock to produce this intense album. “Skin” is an absolutely incredible ballad.

Best Pure Alternative

Florence and the Machine – Ceremonials
There is something about the tribal beats and Florence’s British accent. Really impressive for a sophomore album. Big sound. Big, big sound.

Best Pure Rap/ Hip-Hop

Jay-Z and Kanye West – Watch the Throne
I wasn’t going to fall into the trap of putting it in the top 10. Too much swag and not enough introspection. But still, two of the best rappers of our generation coming together is bound to produce something cray.

Best Pure Country

Chris Young – Neon
A man who appreciates the smaller things in life. That’s all country? Well, it’s still awesome. That “Flashlight” song has a great father/ son story in it.

Best Use of iPad Apps

Bjork – Biophilia and The Gorillaz – The Fall
As weird as these albums sound, they are examples of true innovation. Both were created using only apps, a potential look at the future of music-making. They are merely novelties, but something to treasure, setting forth a potential new wave of soundscapes to come.

And scene.

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