Photos by G.
“Penguin Prison” by Penguin Prison. While most of the albums on this list are in no particular order, my favorite record of the year is definitely the self-titled album “Penguin Prison.” In early 2010, I caught Penguin Prison in concert as an opening act and before the set was over, I became an instant fan. Lead singer and PP brainchild Chris Glover is so talented. Every song on his debut record could (and should) be a hit. The record definitely sounds like a greatest hits album instead of a major label debut. Sonically, Penguin Prison sounds like Off the Wall era Michael Jackson but as produced by LCD Soundsystem. As a result, each song is pop perfection from the catchy-as-hell opener “Don’t Fuck With My Money” to the Radiohead-esque closer “Someone got Everything.” As Chris Glover has cited hip hop, rap, pop, dance and country music as the music he listens to, I would not be surprised if his future records infuse these diverse styles. In an era where music is so dispensable, it’s very refreshing to have an album that I can listen to over and over again without getting sick of it. Thanks PP! Cannot wait to see what you come up with next!
“Father, Son, Holy Ghost” by Girls. This album took me by surprise. When 2011 began, I’d never heard of Girls and by the middle of the concert, I couldn’t wait to make my way to the merch table and buy this album. The album has a little bit of everything – power pop, gut-wrenching ballads and heavy metal! The album flows great from start to finish and I have to limit myself from listening to it too much because they lyrics deal with love, loss and reconciliation and sometimes it’s too much for me to take. You should definitely investigate lead singer Christopher Owens’ back story from cult-member (with his mom!) to drug addict. It helps complete pieces of the puzzle and in my opinion makes the album even more beautiful. I highly recommend the heavy metal song “Die” as well as one of the most heart wrenching songs I’ve ever heard – “Vomit.” The background vocals are worthy of a slot on a Pink Floyd record and Christopher Owens is so beautifully vulnerable when he sings the line “Come into my heart,” it gives me chills every time.
“Torches” by Foster the People. Foster the People have had an amazing 2011. They started off the year playing small venues and they ended the year playing 2 sold out nights at the 3,000 capacity Terminal 5. Rightfully so too. Their debut album “Torches” is packed with catchy dance/pop and it’s another album that sounds like a greatest hits record instead of a debut. A lot of people have perhaps rightly criticized the band for sounding too much like a fusion of MGMT, Peter Bjorn and John and Two Door Cinema Club, but luckily for me, I love all three bands so I am not bothered at all. Their live show is a seizure inducing light show which allows the audience to dance like nobody’s looking, so if you like this record, definitely see Foster the People live. I recommend the songs “Houdini” and “Miss You,” if you are looking for a place to start, but I think you’ll enjoy the entire record.
“The Defamation of Strickland Banks” by Plan B. This album was released in the UK in 2010, but it didn’t see a US release until 2011 so I am including it on this list. Plan B is a rapper turned crooner, whose voice sounds like Smokey Robinson and he is not afraid to show off his rapping skills in his songs. The album is a masterpiece from start to finish and the songs (and videos) connect the audience to the story of Strickland Banks, a singer who gets locked up for a crime he didn’t commit. The only crime that has been committed is that Plan B is not a superstar in America. There are so many sub-par artists out there and this record outshines all of them! The entire album is great, but I highly recommend the silky smooth “Prayin,” the rockin’ “Stay Too Long,” and the funky “She Said.”
“Seeds We Sow” by Lindsey Buckingham. So many artists that I’ve followed for most of my life have unfortunately reached a creative zenith and have been putting out material beneath their greatness for years. Not Lindsey Buckingham. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame singer/guitarist/creative director for the off again/on again Fleetwood Mac seems to get better with age. A few years ago, he released a solo album “Under the Skin” and it was the beginning of a new creative chapter in his life. In a short few years, Lindsey has released 3 solo studio albums (“Under The Skin,” “Gift of Screws” and “Seeds We Sow”) and all three are excellent. Lindsey’s guitar playing is better than ever (which is hard to believe because I think he’s one of the best guitarists I’ve ever seen); his vocals are more powerful than ever and his melodies are so beautiful that if you’re having a reflective moment when you listen to his music, you might shed some tears. “Seeds We Sow” is a near perfect album with rockers like “One Take,” the gorgeous ballad “Gone Too Far,” and the empowering anthem “In Our Own Time.” Though we are talking only about 2011 here, I recommend you get all three of these albums and listen to them back to back because they are perfect companions to each other.
“Anna Calvi” by Anna Calvi. It’s hard to describe Anna Calvi’s sound, but the words “noir” and “otherworldly” come to mind. Musically, the tracks are dark and moody and Anna’s voice is powerful. Fans of Siouxsie Sioux or Florence Welch will enjoy this record too as Anna’s voice will give you chills. I highly recommend you catch her live as well as she is great in person. She’s very stylish, plays electric guitar like one of the great virtuosos and can hit all the notes in person. My favorite songs on the album are “Suzanne and I,” “I’ll Be Your Man,” and “The Devil.” The non-album track, her cover of Edith Piaf’s “Jezebel” is also fantastic!
“Bent” by Ssion. Lead singer Cody Critcheloe gave away this entire album for free during the summer and if you are a regular reader of this site (and I thank you for your patronage), you have been enjoying this album ever since. The album serves as a great party record for any mood. If you are listening to it before you go out, you’ll want to put on “Listen to the Grrrls,” “Psy-Chic” or “Blonde With U.” If you are just coming back from a night out and you need some chill-out grooves, “LuvBazaar,” “Growin’” and “Earthquake” will put you in the right frame of mind. Ssion is another great band to see live as you won’t just be seeing great songs being performed, but you’ll also see great performance art.
“Timez Are Weird These Days” by Theophilus London. Mad props to Theophilus London because I don’t think I’ve enjoyed a rap album since Outkast’s last record which came out years ago. The master of the mix-tape released his debut album this year and it’s great. He mixes rock, rap and new wave in the best way possible. He is a big fan of The Smiths, Prince and Kraftwerk and it shows in his songs. I for one, appreciate the diversity. Highlights are “Stop It,” “Wine and Chocolates,” and “I Stand Alone.”
“All You Need Is Now” by Duran Duran. Parts of this album were released as a preview in 2010, but the full album was not released until 2011 so I am including it on the list. It’s my pleasure to say the following sentence – Duran Duran are back! After making one of the worst albums I’ve ever heard, 2007’s disastrous “Red Carpet Massacre,” Duran Duran decided that working with one trick pony producers like Justin Timberlake and Timbaland do nothing for their music. For “All You Need Is Now,” Duran Duran enlisted producer Mark Ronson, a fan of the band, and he produced a modern classic Duran record. The album has the classic elements of their first 2 records while still sounding fresh. The song “the Man Who Stole A Leopard,” is like a modern day “Chauffeur,” and “Girl Panic” would fit in on the “Rio” album with no problem. It’s really disappointing that the record didn’t do better, but perhaps it had to do with the singles they released – like the weakest track on the album – the title track. If you can get your hands on the special edition, I recommend that as there is a bonus DVD where the band and Mark Ronson talk about the making of every song. It’s a really great thing to see for a really great collection of songs.
“What Were You Hoping For” by Van Hunt. If you follow Van Hunt’s career, you know that there are a lot of ups and downs. On the negative side, a label dispute prevented his amazing third album “Popular” from being released. On the positive side, Van Hunt is one of the most exciting artists out there. He continues to expand his musical and stylistic vocabulary and that growth is ever present on “What Were You Hoping For?” I think even the title alone suggests that Van Hunt is a real artist and he’s going to do what he wants. It’s evidenced by some of the most atrocious album artwork I’ve ever seen. But if you can get past the exterior, you’ll find one of the most exciting albums of 2011. Van rocks a lot harder on this album than in the past, but one thing is certain, his lyrics are extremely deep and he is really pushing himself to take his music to the next level. Songs like the punk-infused “Watching You Go Crazy Is Driving Me Insane” may not be a commercial hit, but I applaud Van Hunt for taking a creative risk. It paid off! The final track, “It’s a Mysterious Hustle” is probably my favorite track on the record as he just describes the craziness of life when things aren’t always what they seem. A very appropriate final statement for the record, according2g.
“Build A Rocket Boys” by Elbow. I love Elbow. The only way to describe their music is with this word – Epic! Each song is like a mini-symphony and this album is no different. The record opens with the 8 minute epic “the Birds.” Lead singer Guy Garvey asserts that “looking back is for the birds” and I couldn’t agree more. While the album is slightly less perfect than their masterpiece from 2008, “The Seldom Seen Kid,” there are many great moments like the rocker “Neat Little Rows,” and the single “Lippy Kids,” which mentions the album’s title. Once again, I highly recommend seeing Elbow in concert if you get the chance because they sound just as great live as they do on record with one major difference – when you see them live, you get an ocean of people singing along!