My Favorite Albums of 2011, Part I

The time has come for my last posts of the year, and they’re two posts I’ve been excited for a while to make. This year I’ve curated a list of my 19 favorite albums (yep, I know I said 15 earlier, but the times, they are a-changin’) of 2011, plus a few fine EPs I’ve loved the past 12 months as well. Because of the large number, I’ll be splitting it into two jam-packed posts. First off, a ground rule I set for myself: Each album on this list is one that I’ve listened to in its entirety at least once (and in pretty much every case, much more than once). This means that a few outstanding records regrettably got left off my list, because I haven’t been able to hear them completely (money and time issues are to blame). I’d like to highlight “American Road” by The Tierney Sutton Band, “The Gate” by Kurt Elling, “Helplessness Blues” by Fleet Foxes, and “Barton Hollow” by The Civil Wars as four albums that would be on this list had I the resources to have listened to them in depth by year’s end. (Hey, as you can see below and in the next post, I had a whopping 19 other albums to keep me occupied, along with tons and tons of other partial albums and individual songs to keep me company on iTunes.) Now, on to the first 9 entries in my favorite albums of 2011 list. Note that they are NOT ranked…choosing between music I love is pretty dang impossible for me, so there’s no way I would have been able to arrange these albums in any satisfactory way. The order isn’t exactly random, but where an album falls on the list means very little, aside from the fact that, y’know, I love it.

Vanessa Carlton — Rabbits on the Run

While many know Vanessa Carlton only as the girl who sang “A Thousand Miles,” I’ve loved her for a while for much more than that…I regard her sophomore album, “Harmonium,” as criminally underrated, and her somewhat experimental third album, “Heroes & Thieves,” as pretty nice as well. However, with “Rabbits on the Run,” Vanessa has unequivocally crafted her finest recording yet. Listening to the album, it feels like she’s finally found the artist she’s always wanted to be, giving us a collection of uniformly terrific, honest, engaging songs that never feel anything but genuine. “Rabbits on the Run” is the rare album in today’s world recorded on tape, and that production choice lends it a unique, intimate quality that enhances Vanessa’s voice and songwriting beautifully. The addition of a children’s choir on a few tracks is a perfect touch, as well. It’s a real treat from beginning to end, full of warmth, depth, and spirit, and it’s terrific to see that after years of wandering, Vanessa Carlton has finally discovered her musical home.

Peter Gabriel — New Blood

It’s hard to follow an album as ambitious as “Scratch My Back” (AKA a covers album of songs largely from this decade, performed only with a full-scale orchestra, sans drums), but with “New Blood,” Peter Gabriel has done more than just follow his previous work…he’s expanded on it. Using his own catalog this time instead of the work of others, Peter brings a new, stunning dimension to the songs of his past, creating timeless recordings that create a gorgeous new world for the listener. The arrangements, once again by master musician John Metcalfe (with some assistance by Gabriel himself), are superb and breathtaking. Guest artists Ane Brun (a sublimely haunting vocalist who sings in lieu of Kate Bush on “Don’t Give Up”) and Peter’s own daughter, Melanie (who sings a lovely duet with him on “Downside Up”) add immensely to the proceedings, providing background vocals throughout. “New Blood” is a tour-de-force recording that gets better and more rich with each and every listen.

Ellie Goulding — Lights (US release)

I’m kind of cheating with this album, because although it was released in the United States this year, I was already familiar with it before 2010 had ended. (It was released in the UK in March 2010, a full year before it bowed in America.) But I had to find a way to highlight this album somehow, so I’m exploiting the technicality for all it’s worth. With “Lights,” Ellie has created something altogether fresh and new, something that’s increasingly hard to do in the music world today. It’s hard to describe her music…the “folktronica” and indie pop labels would both fit here, but even then, they don’t even scratch the surface. Ellie’s voice is pure and beautifully fragile in the best ways, and her music is full of life. The songs on “Lights” are often ones you can dance to, but they have tons of emotional weight as well. Ellie Goulding has created a thoroughly engrossing debut album with a beat, but also with a beating heart.

Coldplay — Mylo Xyloto

Thanks to their huge level of success, Coldplay has become arguably one of the pop/rock world’s most polarizing bands. They have their legions of fans, but in a big way, it’s become ‘cool’ to hate them. By all accounts, this album should prove each and every one of those haters wrong. It’s in many ways a departure from their previous recordings (even the sonically expansive “Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends”), and as a result, it feels like a new Coldplay in a few respects…but at the same time, the same group we’ve known and loved for years on end. It’s been billed by the band as sort of a concept album, and while the story isn’t always clear while listening, there’s an underlying, intangible narrative that shines brightly throughout. The songwriting is impeccable, the band is fully engaged, and while the music is often calm and serene, it’s anything but sleepy or lazy. It’s an album that takes a listen or two to start fully revealing its many treasures, but it’s also an album that’s more than worth the wait.

Laura Marling — A Creature I Don’t Know

Laura Marling could all too easily be an artist defined by novelty. She’s only 21 (a year older than I am, which never fails to boggle my mind), and already she’s won quite a few accolades, seemingly endless critical praise, and a huge amount of fan respect. Her music is outstanding, but what’s more, it goes beyond her age. Listening to “A Creature I Don’t Know,” you don’t think of Laura as a 21-year-old wunderkind…you think of her as a true musician. Her songs are beautifully mature, fearlessly witty, and bracingly introspective, and thought-provoking to boot. Her voice is wonderfully evocative, a rich instrument that paints thousands of pictures with just one note. With “A Creature I Don’t Know,” Laura has created a work of living, breathing art, one that just keeps giving and giving.

Sachal Vasandani — Hi-Fly

When most people think of jazz albums, “innovation” probably isn’t the first word that comes to mind. However, innovation is the key to great jazz music, and it’s a quality that rising star Sachal Vasandani displays in spades. He and his band (along with veteran musician John Clayton, who serves as producer on the album) come up with new takes on songs (and equally terrific original compositions) that are forward-thinking, engaging feats of reinvention. However, they don’t forget to include just as much emotional resonance. These songs hit home in the most powerful ways…whether they be in the form of a gorgeous cover of the late Amy Winehouse’s “Love Is A Losing Game,” or a rollicking duet on the classic song “One Mint Julep” with vocalese legend Jon Hendricks, or a heartstopping remembrance of the recent Japan tsunami with “Flood.” It’s music to think about, music to celebrate, and most of all, music that truly moves.

Brandi Carlile — Live at Benaroya Hall with the Seattle Symphony

Usually, live albums are a nice complement to an artist’s body of work, and in some cases can be quite good, but most of the time they usually don’t stand out on their own as something truly remarkable. Brandi Carlile’s live recording with the Seattle Symphony is, without question, an exception to that rule. Performing a great selection of her own material (along with a few great covers) with, as the title states, a symphony, her energy practically leaps off the headphones, speakers, or whatever you’re using to listen to the album. She’s full of fire (her voice sounds just as soaring out of the studio setting, if not more so) and brings a perfect balance of charm and mischievousness to the table. The orchestra adds a beautiful dimension to her already amazing songs, and with some of her onstage banter included as well, you’ll feel like you’re right there in the concert hall. Despite the fact that it’s a largely unadorned live recording, “Live at Benaroya Hall” stands as one of Brandi Carlile’s best albums.

Foster the People — Torches

They may be famous for the sneakily ubiquitous crossover hit “Pumped Up Kicks,” but on this album, Foster the People prove they’re no one-trick pony. “Torches” is a collection of pure pop gold, featuring track after track of endlessly infectious, insanely well-crafted music that’s the kind you want to get stuck in your head. It’s electronically driven, but it never feels pretentious or inauthentic, yet at the same it’s strikingly modern and inventive. Pumped-up kicks may be their calling card, but with “Torches,” Foster the People prove that effervescent, intoxicating songs with complexity and depth are most certainly their forte.

Adele — 21

Adele, seemingly out of nowhere, has become the artist that unites, that speaks, that touches. It’s harder to find someone who doesn’t like her music than someone who does, and the impact of her songs is widespread. (This is probably the first time in recent memory that pretty much every member of my family agrees on an album, for starters.) “21” captures that universal quality. Sure, it has the now-megahits “Rolling In The Deep” and “Someone Like You.” Sure, it’s full of heartache, acceptance, regret, pain, tension, release. But what’s more, this album truly has something for everyone, something hidden carefully in its notes and melodies and lyrics and instrumentation that speaks to all, while at the same time never selling out, never cheapening its storytelling, its musicality, its utter brilliance. What Adele does with “21,” just as she so perfectly did with “19,” is achieve a perfect marriage between singer and song. She is the music, and that deep connection translates beautifully to the listener. She achieves the seemingly impossible…creating music for the masses that feels as personal as if she was singing straight to you.

Part II to come tomorrow, on New Year’s Eve. Thanks for reading! Feel free to comment, discuss, disagree, agree, and more below. 🙂

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