Over the past seven months I’ve written music reviews for The Daily Universe. Though I’ve always had a critical ear for music, reviewing it has taken my own listening beyond the realm of fandom. There were lots of good releases this year, and from what I’ve listened to, a handful of genuinely great ones — ones people will still be spinning 20 years from now. I certainly didn’t hear every great album 2011 had to offer — it’s an over-saturated market and I only have one set of ears — but here are the five best albums I heard this year.
Radiohead: The King Of Limbs
Once again, Radiohead proved they’re on a completely different planet; a strange and surprisingly groovy one, at that. Never has the acclaimed British band sounded so dance-able. On tracks like “Feral” and “Lotus Flower,” Thom Yorke and company got deep, deep in the pocket, thanks to drummer Phil Selway’s thrilling rhythms. Indeed, it’s an overtly rhythmic album, so much that Radiohead now performs with two drummers. This intuitive approach made Radiohead sound less somber than before. It’s a refreshing direction for an otherwise morose band of musical geniuses.
The Strokes: Angles
After five years of side projects and inter-band dysfunction, The Strokes finally got it together and delivered their most relevant album since 2001’s Is This It. Propelled by stellar singles like “Under Cover Of Darkness” and “Taken For A Fool,” and sustained by a slew of ’80s atmospherics, Angles was referential but didn’t settle for nostalgia. These guys just have a deeper bag of tricks than most bands, and they expertly used those tricks to fuel some ambitious new directions. Clearly, The Strokes still know how good they are — but Angles was a confident reminder to the rest of us. Their light might have initially burned twice as bright, but this record proves it might not burn for half as long.
Raphael Saadiq: Stone Rollin’
The former Tony! Toni! Tone! member has been refining his ’60s throwback soul for a decade, and on Stone Rollin’ discovered the paradoxical final ingredient: more grit. This time around, Saadiq roughed up his saccharine tendencies with garage-rock gutsiness. On tracks like “Heart Attack” and “Over You,” he sounded completely unrestrained, and moments like these created an album of rousing spontaneity. Mind you, there was still plenty of smoothness here, but Saadiq contrasted the happy tones with darker shades of passion, angst and introspection. A wise, mature-yet-fun album from a seasoned soul man.
City and Colour: Little Hell
Canadian singer-songwriter Dallas Green had moments of brilliance before, but on Little Hell he harnessed and sustained it over an entire album. Beginning to end, Little Hell was gorgeous and poignant; Green’s breathy tenor fluttering over the tracks like a weary nightingale. And if he were indecipherable it would be fine; the melodies were that good. But Green’s lyrics were as pretty as the melodies they accompanied. On “Hope For Now,” Green asked, “How can I instill so much hope / But be left with none of my own? / What if I could sing just one song / And it might save somebody’s life?” The question might seem ostentatious, but Little Hell was moving enough for him to ask it in complete sincerity.
Bon Iver: Bon Iver
Rarely does an album so musically out of left field have such universal appeal. Bon Iver was this year’s unlikely success story, gaining critical and commercial success —even though it was more a tapestry of sound than a collection of songs. But it worked. With layers of expansive, majestic instrumentals, Bon Iver frontman Justin Vernon crafted a triumph of eclecticism. The minimalist nature of his previous work made Bon Iver all the more surprising, but Vernon didn’t bite off more than he could chew — it was an expansion that, while slightly surprising in its scope, still felt natural somehow. On “Holocene,” Vernon sang, “And at once I knew I was not magnificent.” For now, the world disagrees.