But I listened to a lot more than that this year, and here are the albums and singles that made 2011 a really great year for music.
Here are my favorites – in no particular order – and please share yours!
“Stone Rollin,’” Raphael Saadiq
If your hips need to move, listen to “Stone Rollin.’”
If you need to feel like you spent all night partying in a juke joint, listen to “Stone Rollin.’”
If your fingers need to snap and your toes need to tap, listen to “Stone Rollin.’”
“Alabama Shakes,” Alabama Shakes
One part Led Zeppelin and one part James Brown, the Alabama Shakes is the best thing to come out of Alabama... ever? Yeah, I said it.
This powerhouse band’s debut EP will have to tide us over until a full-length album is released in ‘12, but what a great way to spend the the time until then.
“Here We Rest,” Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit
The second best thing to come out of Alabama? Yep.
Isbell has always been a little bit country and a little bit rock ‘n’ roll, and this album is a bit more country. No matter the style, though, Isbell and his band cannot write a bad song.
“Mississippi Wine - Alabama Whiskey,” Star & Micey
Star & Micey, a folk-pop band from Memphis, is a great band and sounds terrific live. But this album was recorded at Fort Morgan in Gulf Shores, Ala., and the resulting sound is ghostly and haunting, thanks to incredible acoustics at the fort. Songs like “Anything to Keep You” and “Graveyard” sound amazing. As I said, Star & Micey always sounds great, but this album adds a new dimension to its sound.
“Blood Pressures,” The Kills
That’s the reaction you have once you’re done listening to the 11 tracks of The Kills’ fourth album. It’s intense and intensely sexy, moody and melodic. It’ll consume you whole and you’ll be a better person for it.
“Stranger Me,” Amy LaVere
The Memphis-based singer-songwriter’s second full-length CD is stunning. When I interviewed her earlier in the year, she said this album was a bit more strange than her first album, but she couldn’t really put her finger on what was different. Really, “Stranger Me” is LaVere’s signature bluesy-rock-gypsy sound, just a bit more..strange. Yet it works. The heartbreaking jewel “Often Happens” fits in well with jangly, defiant songs like “You Can’t Keep Me Here.”
LaVere is one of Memphis’ best talents, and she keeps getting better – and stranger? – and better.
“Tell Me,” Jessica Lea Mayfield
Listening to “Tell Me,” Mayfield’s second CD, feels like reading her diary. The Ohio songstress’ mixed emotions come across beautifully in the music and her lyrics sound like she’s confessing her deepest secrets. It’s an honest, sorrowful and sometimes hopeful portrait of a young woman.
“Little Hell,” City and Colour
In today’s Scene I said Drew Gatlin’s music is so beautiful it takes your breath away. City and Colour is just like that. Dallas Green’s voice is so pretty, and his melodies so timeless. His first album was mostly Green and his guitar, but his second album includes many more instruments, making for a louder, more satisfying sound. He weaves in and out of acoustic tracks like the love song “Northern Wind” and full-bodied rock songs like the scary “Fragile Bird.”
There isn’t a bad song on this album.
“An Argument with Myself,” Jens Lekman
The poppy Swedish songwriter’s new EP is adorable. As always, his lyrics are funny, but they make a point (like the Paul Simon-ish title track: he has a silly argument with himself – “Shut up/No, you shut up” – that’s really about a failed relationship). There’s also the precious “So This Guy at My Office,” that begins with “So this guy at my office/I think he’s up to something...” and ends with a declaration of love (not for the guy in his office). Lekman’s lyrics are so unforgettable, and his music is so bouncy. He’s like musical candy, but he’s good for you, too.
“Camp,” Childish Gambino
Back in the day, it was enough to be a triple threat, to be able to dance, sing and act.
But rapper Childish Gambino can really do it all: he raps, he sings, he acts, he writes and he’s a comedian.
Gambino – the alter ego of actor Donald Glover, best known as Troy on NBC’s “Community – has been releasing mixtapes and EPs for the last few years, and each release has hinted at how awesome he really is. But on his debut album, “Camp,” he proves he’s worth all of the hype.
His music is fearless, and “Camp” should strike fear into the hearts of those who think he’s not a big deal.
“Watch the Throne,” Jay-Z and Kanye West
You heard it’s good, right?
Shh, let me let you in on a secret: it’s even better than that.
“The King is Dead,” The Decemberists
A switch in sound never sounded so good.
For five albums, The Decemberists have provided old-school folk with weird, beautiful and haunting lyrics. On the group’s sixth album, the lyrics are (mostly) still there, but The Decemberists went for a more hearty country sound. The change paid off. This is a terrific country album.
“Hell on Heels,” Pistol Annies
“I’m hell on heels, say what you will/I done made the devil a deal/He made me pretty/He made me smart/And I’m gonna break me a million hearts.”
Miranda Lambert’s new band is outlaw country for the ladies. It’s not so much that they’re breaking laws as much as they’re breaking any and all social expectations.
“Wicked Will,” The Ettes
The Ettes make music that would soundtrack a really great road trip movie, one which all the characters wear old, dusty black boots and have ray guns attached to broken black belts fixed with duct tape.
The Nashville band is consistent, always turning out fun, exciting albums. “Wicked Will” is no exception.
“In the Pit of the Stomach,” We Were Promised Jetpacks
“Kept chasing my tail/It would help if I knew where it ends.”
It’s nothing incredibly profound, but that’s probably my favorite lyric of the year (maybe I over-identify with it).
Anyway, this Scottish rock group makes fantastically, maniacally restless rock music that always leaves you a bit tired after you hear it. Anyone who’s ever felt like they want to do everything in the world but can’t do anything at all, for whatever reason – this album’s for you.
“Out for Blood,” Farewell Flight
I could understand the argument that this isn’t entirely a “new” album.
Basically, “Out for Blood” is a reworking of the Pennsylvania indie rock band’s debut, “Sound. Color. Motion,” which has been my security blanket for my 20s.
But it really is brand new: in addition to a few new excellent songs, the songs from “Sound. Color. Motion.” are rearranged, which makes them all sound new. It helps that “Out for Blood” is the band’s first album on a label, so hopefully these hard-working guys will get famous soon. With songs these strong and sturdy, they definitely deserve it.
Really, do I need to explain why this is such a magnificent album?
Even more good records:
“Tarot Classics,” Surfer Blood
“Barton Hollow,” The Civil Wars
“Four the Record,” Miranda Lambert
“Wild Flag,” Wild Flag
“Past Life Martyred Saints,” EMA
“Murder the Mountains,” Red Fang
“Allen Stone,” Allen Stone
“The Year of Hibernation,” Youth Cannons
“Believers,” A.A. Bondy
“Middle of Everywhere,” Pokey LaFarge & the South City Three
“Helplessness Blues,” Fleet Foxes
“Ashes and Fire,” Ryan Adams
“The Invisible Audience,” Luther Russell
“Ceremonials,” Florence & the Machine
“Born This Way,” Lady Gaga
I can’t even imagine how fun it must’ve been to make this song, much less listen to it. It’s the coolest, most glorious love song.
“We Found Love,” Rihanna
The other side of Beyonce’s coin is “We Found Love” – Rihanna’s dance song the most glorious song about a love that just won’t work.
“Black Out the Sun,” Darren Hayes
You know Darren Hayes as the former lead singer of 90s pop band Savage Garden (you know: “Truly Madly Deeply,” “I Want You”). His solo career has been a bit uneven: at times he makes incredibly brilliant and daring dance music (years ahead of where Gaga wishes she was), while other times he turns in tame adult contemporary pop. His new album, “Secret Codes and Battleships,” is pretty tame, and, really, so is this song. But this is one of those fabulous break-up songs that can only be accompanied by singing along at the top of your lungs, with a pint of ice cream in one hand and your spoon/microphone in the other.
The music recalls Sade’s “Soldier of Love,” which is cool, and Hayes’ voice has never sounded better.
But come on, who doesn’t want to cry and sing along to lyrics like these: “Cause there’s nobody else who can hurt like you hurt me/I don’t want to be lonely...There’s a hole where my soul used to grow/So just black out the sun.”
“Need Someone,” Mary J. Blige
Mary J. Blige can heal a hurting soul in just under four minutes, as she does in this brilliant ballad. Her rich voice marries the gentle melody beautifully.
“Behold the Hurricane,” The Horrible Crowes
I love the Gaslight Anthem, so I was excited to hear about lead singer Brian Fallon’s side project, the Horrible Crowes. I loved this first single...and well, that’s about it really. Everything about this song is just right: his voice is just right, the pace and the music are just right, the feeling is just right. It won’t impress you, but it won’t let you down. It’s just right.
I’m One of Those People Who Hated “Drive.”
I have my reasons, but this isn’t a movie review. The best part about “Drive,” I thought, was the opening credits, in which this incredibly creepy song played while Ryan Gosling.... well... drove around.
The moody music plus the demonic electronic voice and ghostly background vocals make for an unforgettable track. And it’s pretty, in an uncomfortable way.
“6 Foot 7 Foot,” Lil Wayne
“I got through that sentence like a subject and a predicate.”
That’s my favorite line in a song full of absolutely genius lyrics, and the “Day-O” sample makes it all the better. I thought this was an awesome piece of music, but “Tha Carter IV” fell a bit flat. Oh well, we’ll always have “6 Foot 7 Foot.”
“Party Rock Anthem,” LMFAO
Yep, I’m sick of it too.
This song is the equivalent of candy, and the really bad kind, like sour neon gummy worms or cotton candy – it is so much fun, and it is so, so bad for you. In other words, shut up and enjoy.