The Best Music of 2011: Preview

Posted December 31, 2011 by J Matthew Cobb in Features

With the burden of the new year on our shoulders, a look back at 2011’s very best proves to be just enough inspiration for a brighter future. Eight albums and six singles land on our preview list

HiFi Magazine, Issue No. 3 promises to deliver on the “best of 2011” countdowns for what felt like a super year of music. And we’re anxious to get the results from our editors and contributing writers out to you. Until then, we’ve whipped up a preview of what the issue will include – from 2011’s best albums to 2011’s best singles.

As always, these lists are never easy to come by. Every critic has their own perception of what a perfect album sounds like. Sometimes we get bad flack for our brand of proverbial knowledge, but instead of gauging our strengths on record sales, Top 40 playlists and Nielsen SoundScan projections, we tend to go from our gut – which makes this preview of the full Monty more worth the while. Enclosed are eight albums and six singles you just have to hear before the ball on 2012 drops.

Much thanks to contributing writers Ryan Burruss and Brent Faulkner for their valuable insight and critical conclusions on 2011’s best music.

some of…


Rarely a single album crosses across a wide variety of audiences.  Adele’s 21 is the rare album that accomplishes this feat. The British singer/songwriter is the right mix of soul, finesse and youth. Jam-packed with songs of love and heartbreak such as “Rolling in the Deep,” “Turning Tables,” and “Someone Like You,” 21 is easily 2011’s biggest, best, and most impacting effort, no questions asked. BRENT FAULKNER

Hot Chelle Rae

Nashville boy-band Hot Chelle Rae takes the bread and butter of the Backstreet Boys along with the funk of Maroon 5 and squeezes it into a never-ending Top 40 playlist on their eye-opening sophomore disc. So don’t worry if you’re losing optimism if they can pull of the perfect follow-up to “Tonight Tonight.” There’s so much more where that came from: Listen to the teen-rebel pop of the title track and “I Like it Like That,” where they fire up their hip-pop swagger without sounding like “the white kids.” J MATTHEW COBB

My Morning Jacket

Arguably the year’s best alternative showing, Circuital finds My Morning Jacket delivering an effort that the band can easily take a “Victory Dance” on.  The tight ten-track disc is consistent from top to bottom and finds the band experimenting with rock and even soul sensibilities.  The songwriting is smart, the production and instrumental arrangements fine tuned and impressive, and front man Yim Yames’s vocals polished as ever.  Circuital is easily a winner. BF

Mylo Xyloto

Stylistic evolution is a common thread for many of this year’s best albums, and Coldplay’s Mylo Xyloto unquestionably makes that list, amounting to the biggest stylistic departure in their entire career. While the familiar lilting and somewhat folky melodies and instrumental textures are still there (see “Us Against The World”), they’ve been bolstered by a bevy of synthesizers, R&B beats, samples (as in “Charlie Brown”’s intro), and a guest appearance by Rihanna. Tracks like “Hurts Like Heaven” manage to fuse both styles effortlessly, pointing to a new age for the aging alt rockers. RYAN BURRUSS

Paul Simon
So Beautiful or So What

So Beautiful or So What, arguably Paul Simon’s best album in over two decades, stands out as a watershed in his career. Most will compare the work with Graceland on first listen, but listen deeply to the peculiar sounds and experimental sampling of Rev. J.M Gates on “Getting Ready for Christmas Day,” which feels like a mid-Eighties Prince throwaway. Or listen to “The Afterlife,” where its oblique folk storytelling about afterlife politics (“Buddha and Moses and all the noses from narrow to flat/Had to stand in the line, just to glimpse the divine”) meets up with upbeat cheerful melodies. Clearly, Simon proves he’s still one of the greatest songwriters alive. He’s also invigorated with African music, vintage treasures and odd instruments like the glockenspiel and angklung. Atop that, he goes for the jugular by revisiting religious themes and assuming the bold undertaking to challenge its traditions without looking like the Anti-Christ. JMC

Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming

As easily the most adventurous vocal electronic album of the year, M83‘s two-disc journey through the dream world offers some of the best indie electronic songs and instrumentals of the year and marks a milestone for the French group. Any given track from one disc is beautifully represented in mirror form on the other, giving the album an unparalleled sense of unity. Highlights include the head-bopping “Midnight City,” the energetic anthem “Steve McQueen” and the somber solitude of “Splendor,” and instrumental tracks abound to make the whole experience a touching journey unlike any other this year. RB

Booker T. Jones
The Road From Memphis

With ?uestlove on board, Booker T. Jones regains his muse for Stax soul-powered instrumentals and James Brown funk on The Road From Memphis. The Roots, Jimmy Fallon’s house band, have been courteous enough to lay down their retro thunder on everyone’s albums, but this eleven-track set with the legendary organ master (who co-writes much of the gems) reveals some of their finest work to date. This is a fine groovy record spiced with pelvic thrusting originals, a dash of solid remakes and surprising cameos from Yim Yames, Lou Reed and Sharon Jones. Only thing missing on board this disc is the iconic Stax soulfinger logo: Hear “Progress,” where Jones and the band lays down a cool Philly groove with Yim Yames channeling his inner soul man and “Hive” cutting through a plethora of James Brown funk. JMC

Jay-Z & Kanye West
Watch The Throne

Jay-Z and Kanye West has stiff competition in a year filled with a number of standout rap releases.  Unsurprisingly, the two hip-hop giants easily delivered with the finely crafted Watch the Throne. Loaded with hits from the understated, mysterious opener “No Church in the Wild,” to the passionate, braggadocio of “N***as in Paris” or the Otis Redding sampling “Otis,” Watch the Throne lives up to the hype delivering nothing short of a solid effort from two of hip-hop’s most renowned emcees. BF

and some of…

Kelly Rowland feat. Lil Wayne

In a year where Rowland found herself once again competing with Beyoncé, Rowland’s understated, yet sexy “Motivation” easily won the battle.  From a cursory listen, “Motivation” ruffles little feathers, but with successive listens, the greatness of the cut easily unfurls just like a rose. Lil Wayne further adds a lift making “Motivation” the rap/sung collaboration of the year to beat. BF

“Pumped Up Kicks”
Foster the People

This tune snuck up on us like a creepy assassin with a vendetta. We should have expected that, especially when the low-fi pop/rock tune by the emerging L.A. trio is all about some gun-toting school student boasting deranged beef over kids wearing “pumped up kicks.” It’s a disturbing chapter for pop music, especially with the recent rise of kids taking their Gears of War philosophy to classrooms, but it’s a song that’s charming nevertheless. JMC

“We Found Love”
Rihanna feat. Calvin Harris

< As addictive as any of Rihanna’s offerings, “We Found Love” ends up being the perfect match for a singer who excels in the area of ‘catchy’ records.  Written and produced by Calvin Harris, the production is driving, helping to propel Rihanna easily to a lengthy stay at No. 1 on the pop charts. BF

“Rolling In The Deep”

Well produced, well written and performed with nothing short of vigor and soul-laden conviction, “Rolling in the Deep” is the best song of 2011, easily. Adele’s passion is easily discernible from the initial line (“There’s a fire…”) and reaches its peak as she sings, “We could of had it all/Rolling in the deep,” nearing spiritual conviction. BF

“Lonely Boy”
The Black Keys

With three minutes in total, The Black Keys tosses the right moves into their lead single off of El Camino for a fantastic retro workout: Rolling Stones blues, Buddy Holly boogie and the classic “feel sorry for me” lyric. JMC

“Shake It Off”
Florence + the Machine

Like an Annie Lennox attacking a pipe-organ gospel hymn (“It’s always darkest before the dawn”), Florence Welch digs a hole in the devil’s cranium (“And it’s hard to dance with a devil on your back, so shake him off”). Thankfully, it’s not crammed with an overload of preachiness or religious politics. That’s because the whole tale is about getting delivered from a bad-ass hangover. Oh, how clever. JMC

So what do you think?
Who and what should make our final “best of” feature?
Your favorite album? Your favorite single?
Speak your mind.

About the Author

J Matthew Cobb

Managing editor of HiFi Magazine


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