Year-end retrospectives, to me, are integral to anyone working in the music critique and commentary. Collecting together what recordings "mattered" in the year can be a massive and joyful job. I've done this several times in print and here at The Blend. This time, I've attempted to make this list as varied as possible.
Many will ask why I chose to include certain albums and exclude others. For me, as it has always been, quality is the determining factor. Each album included here is the best 2011 had to offer and captured my attention. There were several records I wasn't able to retrieve in time for the deadline of this piece: Blondie (Panic of Girls), Common (The Dreamer/The Believer), Joe (The Good, The Bad, The Sexy), Beverley Knight (Soul U.K.), Mýa (K.I.S.S.), Meshell Ndegeocello (Weather), Seal (Soul 2), and Robin Thicke (Love After War). I'll gather the remaining 2011 releases early in 2012.
The only record that was purchased out of the 31 that didn't make the list is Jennifer Lopez's Love?. Excluding "Good Hit," "What Is (LOVE?)," and "Papi," Love? wasn't up to Lopez's standards. Check out my thoughts on Love? here. I've been creating my own music universe here since 2008 and this entry is the representation of everything I stand for when it comes to my "art," as it is. I hope that sharing this with you all gives you a doorway to that world.
2011 Selection #30
Tori Amos: Night of Hunters (Deutsche Grammophon)
Depending on how the individual views Amos, another concept record may elicit jeers or cheers. It's no contest to state that Tori Amos is the mistress of taking the obvious and transforming it into something beyond normal. Night of Hunters is no exception, see Tori Amos' website for a detailed dissertation on the plot of this album. Hunters is a classical recording presenting her pianist gifts as heard on "Carry."
2011 Selection #29
Lupe Fiasco: L.A.S.E.R.S. (Atlantic)
You're forgiven for assuming Fiasco's best work is Food & Liquor (2006). The Cool (2007) wasn't a complete sophomore slump, but it aimed too high. L.A.S.E.R.S. ("Love Always Shine Everytime Remember (2) Smile") is the weakest of the Fiasco trilogy, yet it generated immediate Lupe Fiasco familiars: "Words I Never Said," "Till I Get There," and "All Black Everything."
2011 Selection #28
Chris Isaak: Beyond the Sun (Wicked Game/Vanguard)*
Chris Isaak loves rock 'n' roll and like his older records Beyond the Sun proves his devotion to the craft. Isaak has earned enough clout in his career to record this covers project. Created at the legendary Sun Records Studios in Memphis, Tennessee, the LP doesn't present Isaak in a new light and isn't meant to. The pulse on Sun is about romantic reverence. Hearing Isaak’s voice give and receive “the classics” brings him and his fans full circle.
2011 Selection #27
Mary J. Blige: My Life II: The Journey Continues (Act 1) (Geffen)*
The first mistake with Blige's 10th album is naming it after her second record My Life (1994). My Life was an album that should stand alone in Blige's backlog. To reference My Life means the new LP will be judged against that originator. While nothing on My Life II comes close to My Life, it's an enjoyable continuation of Blige's modern soul. My Life II clues to Blige heading into bolder territories as heard on her nu-disco cover of Rufus' "Ain't Nobody."
2011 Selection #26
Chris Brown: F.A.M.E. (Jive)*
F.A.M.E. is a transitional assembly forecasting what Brown's next record requires to succeed and what will hold him back. Amid the rabble of several unnecessary guest spots and unfriendly hip-hop bluffs, there are songs to sing. Modish interpretations of dance music on "Yeah 3x," "Oh My Love," and "Say It With Me" announce a Michael Jackson-esque expansion. With a little more reliance on quality versus quantity, Brown's stake to be a legend in his own right is closer to reality than he may suspect.
2011 Selection #25
Stevie Nicks: In Your Dreams (Reprise)
Nicks has entered that space of "legend" status affording her the luxury of coasting. In Your Dreams isn't jumping up and down with new things to give, but exemplifies what makes Stevie Nicks great. Dave Stewart (one half of the Eurythmics) produces broad, rock-pop songs that bear obvious heart tugging lyrics delivered by Nicks' witchy voice. As it is, Nicks' new album is a welcome return from one of rock's most beloved treasures.
2011 Selection #24
Jill Scott: The Light of the Sun (Warner Bros.)*
Switching to a higher key in her sexual frequencies lastly occupied on The Real Thing: Words & Sounds, Vol. 3 (2007), Scott's fourth record is a brighter, humid affair. Scott's voice is her best asset, it gets low, it swoons, and it can holler and growl. The music is urbane and funky, if dancing on the edge of boring. Only on the "All Cried Out Redux" with Doug E. Fresh, featuring a ragtime flavored middle, does Scott break free.
2011 Selection #23
The Bangles: Sweetheart of the Sun (Waterfront)
Minus bassist Bangle Michael Steele, the remaining trio rock on. Co-produced by the ladies, Sweetheart is a love letter to their Paisley influences. Hoffs is still a knockout, "Under a Cloud" is gingery in its seduction. Not to be outdone, the Petersons give their own sugary leads on "Circles in the Sky" and "Mesmerized." Sweetheart of the Sun is no Doll Revolution (2003), but on its own feet it doesn't need to be.
2011 Selection #22
Roxette: Charm School (EMI)**
Marie Fredriksson and Per Gessle are back and Charm School reflects their pop blend is ripe. Veering close to Crash! Boom! Bang! (1994) in its abundance of ballads, Roxette are wise to keep several fire cracker uptempos around to prevent monotony. The first single "She's Got Nothing On (But the Radio)," is cocky with its rapid, rubbery guitar lick. It's one of those great European pop moments that keep coming on this set.
2011 Selection #21
Joss Stone: LP1 (Stone'd/Surfdog)
Stone's walk to "creative freedom" continues to be a bumpy road. Freed from EMI, her former label, Stone's LP1 is her fifth and first independent outing. Appearing as producer for the second time on this list, Dave Stewart paired with Stone to generate guitar grinding blue-eyed soul on LP1. The "funk" is lowered a few decibels, giving a discernible amount of musical tension. Stone's sweet, molasses voice on "Drive All Night" makes it a late night radio killer.
2011 Selection #20
Lenny Kravitz: Black & White America (Roadrunner/Atlantic)*
Though fixable, Kravitz never completely rips off classic rock as many detractors state.
Up to this point, the closest Kravitz had come to courting the black sound directly was on sections of 5 (1998). On Black & White America, the Shuggie Otis throwback "Superlove" and its ilk coexist with familiar guitar-rock noisemakers in harmony. Length continues to plague Lenny Kravitz, but even with that Black & White America is far from a poor showing.
2011 Selection #19
Marsha Ambrosius: Late Nights & Early Mornings (J Records)
Half of the disassembled U.K. duo Floetry, Ambrosius' first solo recording was anticipated and doesn't disappoint. "I Hope She Cheats On You (With a Basketball Player)" is fierce, its bounce and bite threads on loan from contemporaries Chrisette Michele and Alicia Keys respectfully. More impressive is her dank and dark version of "Sour Times," originally created by trip-hoppers Portishead.
2011 Selection #18
The Sounds of Arrows: Voyage (Geffen/Labrador)**
Oskar Gullstrand and Stefan Storm aren't pioneering the halls of electronic pop. Voyage compels in that it possesses youth. Arrows debut is soaked with excitement at putting their own hand print on anything established prior. Visit with the cinematic climber "Into the Clouds" and it becomes clear that Arrows are looking at this type of music at a different angle.
2011 Selection #17
k.d. lang: Sing It Loud (Nonesuch)*
Still a lang centerpiece Sing It Loud, her 11th album, have the lines separating hers torch and twang blurred. The songs "I Confess" and "Sugar Buzz" dwell within interlocked hands, lingering glances, and endless slow dances. The flickering title track shows off lang's unconquerable vocals. Sing It Loud isn't a departure, it's executed excellently so it doesn't have to break a sweat to seduce its listeners with its affable nature.
2011 Selection #16
Björk: Biophilia (Nonesuch)*
In jest, the title of Björk's eighth record could be "Bitch, I'm Björk!" to the forgetful if one considers her weight in pop music visually and sonically. Biophilia is larger-than-life, in deluxe physical and iPad editions for the collector and media junkie. Just plain folks can cop the compact disc. Biophilia's main directive is highbrow pop. Grand and weird, Björk continues to be the apex where modern art and pop intersect.
2011 Selection #15
The Human League: Credo (Wall of Sound)**
Phillip, Susan, and Joann have reemerged 10 years after the cold steel of Secrets with Credo, their ninth affair. While synth-pop and electronic fads have come, gone, and come again The League continued to plow and rock the genres even when it wasn't chic to do so. Credo finds them at the height of their creative abilities, the LP is London nightlife made flesh.
2011 Selection #14
Lenka: Two (Epic)
Initially, Lenka may draw comparisons to the mild mannered Dido and Jem. Two, Lenka’s second album uncovers that she has plenty bark to separate her from the pack when she dons her "unaffected" voice. See "Heart Skips a Beat," "Everything At Once," and "You Will Be Mine." Musically, those mentioned pieces are knowledgeable interpretations of Motown, Broadway, and Euro-pop. An intelligent, pleasant pop miscellany describes Two.
2011 Selection #13
Van Hunt: What Were You Hoping For? (Godless-Hotspot)
With his third album What Were You Hoping For?, he dispels any neo-soul by burying his craft deep into snarling funk and bits of muscular punk. The rhythm and blues side of Van Hunt is used sparingly, often to sweeten the rougher edges heard here. Forward thinking and unapologetic, Van Hunt's What Were You Hoping For? is black music at its inventive, ear bending best.
2011 Selection #12
Ricky Martin: Música + Alma + Sexo (Sony)*
Is it in poor taste to completely single out Mr. Martin's sexual orientation confessional as the moment he became a true artist? Maybe, but it's hard to comment that his work before he came out, congenial as it was, was truly memorable. His recent album Música + Alma + Sexo is a force of nature that embodies liberation, sexiness, and confidence, with no chaser.
2011 Selection #11
Les Nubians: Nü Revolution (Shanachie)
Parisian sisters Hélène and Célia Faussart don't release music in a steady stream, so original music must be cherished when dropped.
The junior effort continues with the bilingual pace that One Step Forward (2003) started, but the grooves are a bit heavier on this adventure ("Afrodance","Nü Soul Makossa"). Breaking cultural barriers, Les Nubians newest long player will communicate directly to the rhythm in everyone.
2011 Selection #10
Mint Condition: 7... (Shanachie)*
The title of "the last R&B band" is honorable and its bearer, Mint Condition, deserves the moniker. 7... functions from a foundation of Minneapolis R&B, then adds a plethora of musical ideas to the pot. Somewhere between artistic freedom and comfort coasting, Mint Condition comes off as a tight knit band. They know what they want and how they want it to sound.
2011 Selection #9
Melanie C: The Sea (Red Girl)**
Anyone who has dismissed the Spice Girls as not having any lasting mark in popular music should be eating their words well done. Seventeen albums (group and solo) combined, Melanie C's fifth album continues her own musical legacy as well as that of her former group. The Sea is a triumph, the title track, similar to the grandeur of Katie Melua's "The Flood" from last year, is an aural juggernaut. Again, her staying power and that of her former group continues to matter in pop music.
2011 Selection #8
Rahsaan Patterson: Bleuphoria (Artistry Music)
After Wines & Spirits (2007), Patterson's R&B traveling continues on the thrilling, loose terrain of Bleuphoria. Romantic and conflicted, it isn't as dark as its predecessor was. The hypnosis of "Crazy (Baby)" or the starry rendition of The Flamingo's doo-wooper "I Only Have Eyes For You" are jaw dropping.
2011 Selection #7
Sophie Ellis-Bextor: Make a Scene (EBGB)**
Soldiering past a staggering three year delay, La Bextor's fourth opus finally saw light in 2011. Sleeker, harder, and faster than her last three albums, Make a Scene is frenzy on wax. Bextor pulls from Róisín Murphy, ABBA, Donna Summer, and Kylie Minogue without sacrificing what makes her work distinctly her own, that British tea stained wonder (her voice).
2011 Selection #6
Duran Duran: All You Need is Now (Tape Modern/S-Curve)*
The gentleman are back again, though they've never really left, so leave the comeback claptrap at the door. There are surface level winners and other diamonds in the trenches that will be found upon exploration from the listener. A true treat for long timers and the new, curious fans they've sparked interest in.
2011 Selection #5
Gloria Estefan: Miss Little Havana (Crescent Moon/Verve Forecast)*
What to do when you've come to the realization you've done everything? Spanning decades, Gloria Estefan faced this query and embraced it by looking back and forward on Miss Little Havana. Her second album of dance charged fare following gloria! (1998), Estefan's producing partnership with Neptune Pharrell Williams is savoir faire.
2011 Selection #4
Vanessa Carlton: Rabbits on the Run (Razor & Tie)
Vanessa Carlton's Rabbits on the Run continues building on her honeycombed pop. Bigger than Heroes & Thieves (2007) in the way it unravels to the attentive. Carlton sets Rabbits apart by letting her voice and piano skim softly along detachment here creating a haunting effect.
2011 Selection #3
Joy Denalane: Maureen (Nesola)**
Four years after her second album Born & Raised (2006), and first in English, German soulbird Joy Denalane has returned with Maureen. The title comes from Denalane’s middle name. Languages aside, Maureen overflows with flowery ballads, sample-led midtempos, and a few funk throw-downs. Maureen communes with anyone willing to listen to her song, German and non-German speakers alike.
2011 Selection #2
Will Young: Echoes (XIX/RCA/Sony)**
The first to win Britain's Pop Idol in 2002, Will Young has worked hard to reach the artistic home run of Echoes. Young's ear is keen for sharp, adult contemporary pop channeled through electronic sophistication. Echoes puts Young at its focal point. Tailored, but not streamlined, Echoes is a sexy, emotional affair that will age well.
2011 Selection #1
Nikki Jean: Pennies In a Jar (S-Curve)
Bob Dylan. Carly Simon. Thom Bell. Jimmy Webb. Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. Lamont Dozier. Just a sampling of the talent brought together to co-write with Nikki Jean on her debut. Attempts at such lofty partnerships have been tried, but never on this level has it been so successful. Occupying country-hip-hop and Philly R&B, Jean embodies the changeability of pop without shortchanging the sincerity of soul.
[Editor's Note: *-Denotes that the album has an "expanded edition" or is "retailer specific" in where it can be purchased. Please see the official websites of these artists for details. **-Denotes that the album is only available as an import and not a domestic U.S. release. Special Thanks: As stated, this article was a lot of work. I could not have accomplished it without the tireless efforts of several key people: Andrew Bird, Darren Spence, Justin Daniel, and Frank Coleman. I may select and listen to the music, write the piece, but these guys helped make the piece beautiful with their contributions of the art. Thank you all so much. Special thanks to Thomas Del Pozo for his recommendation of The Sound of Arrows.-QH]