The year started with Lady Gaga’s forecast that her new CD would be the century’s best.
Now 2011 ends with Gaga’s “little monster” fans resorting to Twitter sniping at her British rival Adele, whose “21” is the best selling album in four years, shifting more than 13 million copies worldwide, according to her record label, XL.
Adele’s commercial success has alienated those critics who shy away from recommending anything too obvious. Still, “21” remains the finest of the 1,000 or so new CDs I’ve heard in 2011, and a strong pick for Grammy and Brit award success in February. It’s retro in an Amy Winehouse way, right from “Rolling in the Deep” through to the closing “Someone Like You.”
Gaga’s “Born This Way” has its moments, with the title track all over the airwaves, and she certainly bettered Britney Spears, peddling the same disco vibe as Rihanna and Katy Perry.
Two relatively obscure bands, the Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver, returned with challenging second albums. I loved “Helplessness Blues” by the Foxes from its first play and, like Adele’s, I gave it a ***** rating. While I initially awarded a less enthusiastic *** ½ to Bon Iver’s eponymous CD, I kept coming back to its subtle charms, whatever else was on the review pile. With a few months’ perspective, it’s a real grower.
No need for second thoughts on two U.S. veterans who released their finest work in years. Tom Waits growls his way to more greatness on “Bad as Me.” Ry Cooder gets rude about bankers on the Woody Guthrie-like “Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down.”
Exceptional CDs by British chanteuses included “Let England Shake,” P.J. Harvey’s concept album about war, which won the Mercury Prize. Florence Welch blasted out on Florence & the Machine’s poppy “Ceremonials” and Anna Calvi made an assured self-titled debut. Laura Marling’s thoughtful “A Creature I Don’t Know,” Kate Bush’s ambient “50 Words for Snow” and Katy B’s danceable “On a Mission” weren’t far behind.
While Winehouse’s posthumous “Lioness” was a patchy farewell, the great Gil Scott-Heron lived to hear the splendid remix of his work by Jamie XX, “We’re New Here.” He died shortly afterwards.
Those heading for the holiday sales won’t go far wrong by buying any of these impressive CDs: Paul Simon’s literate “So Beautiful or So What”; U.S. singer Eilen Jewell’s bluesy “Queen of the Minor Key”; Drake’s crooned “Take Care’; Danger Mouse’s filmic “Rome”; Leslie Feist’s moody “Metals” or pianist Jon Regen’s jazzy “Revolution.”
Loud and Proud
All of the above are good for late-night introspection. Those wanting something louder can opt for the Beastie Boys, who made some noise with “Hot Sauce Committee Part Two” and Mastodon, making even more with “The Hunter.” Just a notch behind them, the Foo Fighters melted speakers with “Wasting Light.”
For those who got past the hideous Damien Hirst fly cover, the Red Hot Chili Peppers crank up their guitars on “I’m With You.” For my money, the best offering from a U.S. group in 2011 was “The Whole Love” by indie darlings Wilco, while “The King Is Dead” by the Decemberists was a pastoral delight.
There were some disappointments. Lou Reed and Metallica’s “Lulu,” Mick Jagger’s “SuperHeavy” project and the Strokes’s comeback fell short of their considerable hype. Jay-Z and Kanye West’s collaborative “Watch the Throne” failed to deliver on its boasted brilliance.
There was as much braggadocio from the Gallagher brothers who used to be Oasis (and, it seems, will be again when they have finished bickering). Liam struck first with the half-baked Beady Eye. Noel did better with High Flying Birds.
British groups made some impressive music that’s worth a listen. Try “Skying” by the Horrors, “A Different Kind of Fix” by Bombay Bicycle Club, “The English Riviera” by Metronomy, “Suck It and See” by the Arctic Monkeys and “Build a Rocket Boys” by Elbow.
Coldplay’s “Mylo Xyloto” has little to dislike and much to like. It’s professionally produced, tuneful and so safe as to be a little dull. Radiohead’s “King of Limbs” is a little more edgy -- the best rock is usually a little provocative. It’s what it’s there for, right?
What the Stars Mean: ***** Exceptional **** Excellent *** Good ** Average * Poor (No stars) Worthless
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(Mark Beech writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)