RICH LOPEZ | Staff Writer
You could say 2011 was the year of the superstar. Already-superstars Gaga, Beyonce and Britney dropped new albums confirming their status, while Nicki Minaj and Katy Perry became ones following the continued successes of 2010 discs. Kanye and Jay-Z teamed up to watch the throne and beardos Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver followed up their debuts with dreamy, though sometimes confusing releases.
Ultimately, it was Adele who ruled, leaving all others in the dust with an exercise in modern torch songs and declarative hits — so much so, she and 2011 are now practically synonymous.
But not exclusively. A few others made an impression on smaller fronts — and big ones, too. Each of the following resonated either through a chill groove or a strong beat, and ultimately made 2011 easy on the ears.
1. Washed Out, Within and Without — What Ernest Greene does with this chillwave release is somewhere between a dream and astral projection. Each track floats in your ears as wonderful bubbles of music that are airy and delicate, but their impression is far more lasting. This isn’t just an album, but a luxury bath for the ears and soul, which made for practically infinite repeat plays. Key tracks: “Amor Fati,” “Eyes Be Closed.”
2. Caveman, CoCo Beware — In just two years, these Brooklyn indie rockers debuted their album with confidence to spare. Giving alt-rock sensibilities to Simon and Garfunkel folkisms, Caveman fits in the Grizzly Bear–Band of Horses vein and yet they still create a sound that will grow into their own. Those drums are to die for as is singer Matthew Iwanusa smooth tenor. Caveman’s release is more like a gift. Key tracks: “Decide,” “December 28th.”
3. Death Cab for Cutie, Keys and Codes Remix EP — By nature, most remixes are agony resulting in a soulless version of the original. That didn’t happen here in DCFC’s redux on their already- impressive Codes and Keys from earlier in the year. At times, the EP is even better than the original, with charged up versions of seven songs. Yeasayer, The 2 Bears and Cut Copy are among the remixers who don’t take away from DCFC’s spirit, but spike it huge with major beats. Key tracks: “Underneath the Sycamore,” “Some Boys.”
4. Adele, 21 — This is very likely the album of the year for the entire world — and deservedly so. Adele channeled all the emotion of being done wrong by her man into a solid display of music. At times, she gets a little too sappy, but the strength of 21 isn’t just in Adele’s soulful voice, it’s also in her heart that is both pained and strengthened here. Plus, 21 pretty much just says “fuck you” to the ex the way we all wish we could. Key tracks: “Rolling in the Deep,” “Don’t You Remember.”
5. Adam Tyler, Shattered Ice — In his debut, Tyler broke through pop/dance music apathy to create a refreshing album of solid tunes. He recalls glorious pop of two and three decades ago but updates it with sexy lyrics and dynamic hooks. Tyler wrote all 11 songs and more than half of those are ready for the radio. Hopefully, someone will take notice, because Ice is too spectacular to be overlooked. Key tracks: “Pull the Trigger,” “I Won’t Let You Go.”
6. Real Estate, Days — Less is more with this complete package by the indie folk rockers from New Jersey. They smoothed out from their 2009 debut and bring a minimalist, but hardly simple approach to Days that shows off the band’s talents modestly, but considerably effectively with lush cascades of music. Days is a facile listen that may sound like background music, but you won’t forget it. Key tracks: “It’s Real,” “Younger than Yesterday.”
7. Beyonce, 4 — The diva missed out on big radio hits with this album, but she channeled her inner ‘80s-and-‘90s adult contemporaries and created a helluva fascinating album. Sidestepping the obvious, B dabbled in sophistication over aggression and came up with retro vibes without losing her style. She totally didn’t give up her skills trying for a big hit with “Rule the World (Girls)” but missed. That’s forgivable considering the brilliance of the rest. Key tracks: “Rather Die Young,” “I Care.”
8. CSS, La Liberacion — These Brazilian party rockers matured beautifully in their third album. For having a reputation of delivering queer-centric dance rock, earlier releases were a tad unfocused. CSS kept the same amped-up energy, but their songwriting and musicianship has grown into smart and sublime. From irreverence to slightly political, CSS looks like they have finally found their place. Key tracks: “City Grrrl,” “I Love You.”
9. Me’Shell Ndegéocello, Weather — Ndegéocello continues to bring the cool, and does so with the ultra-slick Weather. Her neo-soul chops have not been lost over the course of her almost two-decade career. Instead, she adds a layer of maturity with each new album and this year practically cultivated it into hip, soulful perfection. And that bass playing is so sexy, it’s borderline (but gloriously) obscene. Key tracks: “Chance,” “Dirty World.”
10. Emmeline, Someone to Be — Coming in under the wire, Dallas singer Emmeline recently dropped off her disc personally to the Dallas Voice asking for a listen. Good thing she did, as she lies somewhere between Sarah MacLachlan and Regina Spektor. With earnest keyboards and charming vocals, she churned out one of the more delightful packages of tunes with a sugary edge that sticks just right and is wonderfully addictive. Key tracks: “Someone to Be,” “Dallas.”
2011’s top LGBT releases
Queer music was in full bloom over the last 12 months, with a wide range of LGBT artists — from veterans to newbies — strongly delivering great music. Here are some of the highlights that stuck out for us.
R.E.M, Collapse Into Now. Soon after this March release, the band announced they were breaking up after 30 years — with the appropriate greatest hits release in November.
Deborah Vial, Stages and Stones. The former Dallas gal showed off her chops from Hawaii in her soulful new album.
K.D. Lang and the Siss Boom Bang, Sing it Loud. Lang crooned, but also rocked gently with her new band.
Ariel Aparicio, Aerials. OutMusic Award winner Aparicio hit a strong note with his alt-rock album from August, fusing it with Latin flair.
Garrin Benfield, The Wave Organ Song. This scruffy folk-country artist relaxed into his fifth disc with a languid and poetic song cycle.
Girl in a Coma, Exits and All the Rest (pictured). The San Antonio rock trio made waves in 2011, landing on several year-end lists.
Brandon Hilton, Nocturnal. Hilton worked the web to his advantage to get his album on people’s radar and it worked both ways.
The Sounds, Something to Die For. The relentless alt-pop from these Swedes was one of the best music addictions of the year. And bi singer Maja Ivarsson sold it perfectly.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 30, 2011.