Adele - "21"
I have to admit that I wasn't too impressed with Adele's first album even though most of the critics were in love with it. However, this release cannot be denied its place among the ranks of the greatest releases this year. This woman took heartache and transformed it into music which nearly everyone who has listened to it can relate. With torch songs and the classic 1960s-like R&B that has thankfully made a comeback, Adele tackles the hardships of breaking up in a relationship and turns them into songs that make it easy to hit the replay button. Extra kudos go out to her remake of The Cure's "Lovesong" -- a song I never originally liked but Adele does it right. Favorite track: "Someone Like You."
AWOLNATION - "Megalithic Symphony"
Man, where did Aaron Bruno come from? I know he's released a prior album in 2009, but that was just an EP. This album blows the lid off music. There is no real comparison to any other musicians -- the closest comparison would be to say that if the New Radicals made a slightly hardcore album, this would be it! Bruno blends and creates his own style. I've listened to one of the year's supposed best -- Foster the People's "Torches" album -- and I still think AWOLNATION far surpassed that. Bruno takes all kinds of music genres from scr-emo ("Soul Wars") to ballad ("All I Need") to rock/rap epic ("Knights of Shame") and blends them to make a great album. Favorite track: "Not Your Fault."
The Chord and the Fawn - "Good Intentions"
This is only available on iTunes as a digital download but it still is a great album! Lead singer Dani Lewis has a voice and style that any fan of Feist would love, and the band (with brother Cole Lewis and cousin Angie Krube, just to name a few) knows how to turn out catchy music. Their songs have been played on TV shows, but their small following have kept them from bursting out into the spotlight where they belong. From usage of ukulele, trombone, and xylophone -- just to name a few -- this band brings a new air to the music business. Favorite track: "Use the Heart You Own."
The Decemberists - "The King is Dead"
Folk rock has made a big comeback since artists like My Morning Jacket, Mumford & Sons, and these guys hit the scene and released some great albums. And this album is the best of the bunch this year. With their mega success off of their "The Hazards of Love" album (one of my top picks for 2009), one might wonder if they could top -- or even match -- such an album. With "The King is Dead," they have succeeded again! The songs sound more country, but don't let that deter you whatsoever. They touch upon rootsy folk like Pete Seeger and even have sounds that range from R.E.M. ("Calamity Song") to Bruce Springsteen ("Down by the Water"). If you're looking for good folk rock, the aforementioned bands at the top are a good start, but The Decemberists' latest should be the top priority. Favorite track: "Down by the Water."
Gavin DeGraw - "Sweeter"
Gavin DeGraw seems to put out great album after great album (the only exception being 2009's "Free"), and his latest falls into usual pop rock radio glory. Although none of his albums will surpass the radio-friendliness of his debut "Chariot," this album comes the closest than any other. Besides the first single, "Not Over You," songs such as "Soldier," "You Know Where I'm At," "Stealing," and "Where You Are" also are catchy and will have you most likely listening to them repeatedly. Favorite track: "Not Over You."
Dum Dum Girls - "Only in Dreams"
This band, headed by singer/songwriter Dee Dee, has had other releases before, but this is the first time I've heard them so personal. Maybe that's because the songs on this album were written in the aftermath of Dee Dee's mother passing away. The songs are not all slow tempo and depressing. The group has sounds that mix early Blondie, 1960s girl groups (especially The Teddy Bears and The Shangri-Las) blended with 60s surf rock, and Mazzy Star. There is a slight touch of The Jesus and Mary Chain but it -- along with the 60s girl group sound -- is very minimal. "Caught in One," "Wasted Away," and "Teardrops on my Pillow" particularly touch upon the Dee Dee's grieving over her mother, who was an inspiration for her to get started in music. These ladies need to go on tour with -- who I believe to be their male equivalent -- The Vaccines (also on this list)! Favorite track: "Bedroom Eyes."
Florence + The Machine - "Ceremonials"
The second album from Florence + The Machine continues to deliver great music to those lucky enough to appreciate them. Florence Welch has risen to Stevie Nicks-like status, casting magic through song and appealing to fans of Kate Bush, Tori Amos, Sarah McLachlan and many others. Although her voice does not waiver from the last album, the content in the song lyric does differentiate between optimism ("Shake it Out") to downright spookiness ("Seven Devils"). Welch's voice is amazing and whether you're a returning fan or a first-time listener, this album is sure to please. Favorite track: (tie) "Shake it Out" and "Seven Devils."
Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds - "Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds"
Earlier this year, lead guitarist and sometime vocalist Noel Gallagher and his band Oasis decided to part ways. Soon after, lead singer -- and Noel's brother -- Liam released an album with his new band Beady Eye. The album was a lot edgier and more raw rock n' roll but it didn't hit many chords with Oasis fans. It's clear that Noel -- who wrote all of Oasis' songs -- was the hitmaker. Thankfully, he put out an album of his own -- continuing his obsession with The Beatles and John Lennon, both still a heavy influence here -- and it's easy to hear the talent that imbued Oasis was in this guy. For fans of Oasis' b-sides (particularly their later b-sides from "Standing on the Shoulder of Giants" until their final "Dig Out Your Soul") will especially enjoy this album as it sounds like a lot of their later material. Gallagher masterfully utilizes orchestra, rock guitars and lyrics to help all of us Oasis fans who were jonesing for just one more album. Now there is hope! Favorite track: "If I Had a Gun ..."
The Horrible Crowes - "Elsie"
The Gaslight Anthem frontman Brian Fallon took on this side project with fellow musician and guitar tech Ian Perkins to put out music that wasn't quite rock enough for Gaslight but more of b-sides. Rock or not, this is still a wonderful album -- touching on Tom Waits, the Afghan Whigs, and Velvet Underground. For Gaslight fans, there is still Springsteen influence in "Behold the Hurricane" and "Crush" but this album is mostly for the indie rocker at heart. Favorite track: (tie) "Behold the Hurricane" and "Black Betty & the Moon."
I'm From Barcelona - "Forever Today"
I'm From Barcelona is another band that has yet to really step into the spotlight and listening to their albums, it's difficult to imagine why. This 29-member band hails from Sweden and puts out light-hearted pop rock reminiscent of The Polyphonic Spree. Their previous -- second -- album, "Who Killed Harry Houdini?," is slightly darker and moodier. However, this album finds the catchy chanting singing making pop icon references in "Charlie Parker" (the jazz musician) and "Dr. Landy" (which tells from the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson's perspective of trying to outdo The Beatles' "Rubber Soul" album). Favorite track: "Always Spring."
Lady Gaga - "Born This Way"
OK. Let's get this over with. Please say and think all of the insulting things you want to about a straight, married 30-something actually liking a Lady Gaga album ... especially you guys out there. Say what you will, but the Mother Monster, who is this generation's Madonna, has put out a great album! With songs like "Born This Way," "Hair," and "You and I," she has put out a collection of songs that are positive and a musical sanctuary for people out there (especially young people) who feel alienated and alone. This album would probably make it on my list just for the single "Born This Way"; a wonderful song that should be everyone's anthem. There are two tracks on the album I did not like; in fact, I downright hated them: "Government Hooker" and "Heavy Metal Lover." And it's not for their lyric content -- the music just is pretty uninspired and bad. But the true gem is the Springsteen-esque "The Edge of Glory" with recently deceased Clarence Clemmons on sax (I'm an obvious Springsteen fan and I can put whatever I want on my list; if you don't like it, make your own list). People can say what they want about Lady Gaga and her fans, but she is a true musician and singer (don't believe me? Check out her debut with Tony Bennett; the girl can sing). I think it's inspiring to put out music that helps people become a community and learn to like themselves and each other. Isn't that what music is all about in the long run? Favorite track: "The Edge of Glory."
The Muppets & Cast - "The Muppets Soundtrack"
I grew up watching and loving The Muppet Show on TV, but I wasn't too excited to see the new film when it came out ... even though it was written by Jason Segel. But, upon watching it on DVD with my kids, I fell in love all over again! The story is wonderful and the music even more so. With tunes like "Life's a Happy Song" (written by Flight of the Conchords' Bret McKenzie) with an assist by Feist and legendary actor Mickey Rooney, to the power ballad duet "Man or Muppet," the music (and album) is one of the best soundtracks of the year! And, of course, addition of all-time favorites like "The Muppet Show Theme," "Rainbow Connection" (one of the best songs ever written!), and "Mah Na Mah Na" make this album not only a great introduction to music for youngsters of the preschool/elementary age, but also a great treat for us parents who know the words to the classic songs (my daughter watched me as I sang along to "Rainbow Connection" and couldn't believe I knew the words)! Favorite track: (tie) "Life's a Happy Song" by Jason Segel, Walter, Amy Adams, Mickey Rooney, & Feist, and "Rainbow Connection" by The Muppets.
Of Monsters and Men - "Into the Woods"/"My Head is an Animal"
Being a big fan of the Sigur Rós, it's really no surprise that one of my favorite new groups is from Iceland. I was interested about Of Monsters and Men when I first heard about them. Their debut album "My Head is an Animal" was released in Iceland this past September and I was lucky enough to hear it. In the vein of bands like Arcade Fire and Mumford & Sons, this band takes folk rock to a great level and makes it so damn great! With guitars, percussion, accordion, and trumpets, and the beautiful, tantalizing voice of Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir, it's easy to get drawn into their spell. Unfortunately, the full album "My Head ..." won't be available in the States until early 2012, but until then we have this satisfying morsel of musical greatness. Favorite track: "Little Talks."
Christina Perri - "lovestrong."
Philadelphia native Christina Perri released her first single "Jar of Hearts" back in 2010 and nearly every person who heard it fell in love with her and made her album one of the most anticipated releases of 2011. Most people (including me) wanted to see if her album would be as good as her hit single ... and it sure is! With moving, catchy singles such as "Arms," "Bang Bang Bang," and "Penguin" (also "A Thousand Years" for that dreadful Twilight movie), Perri proves her talent at songwriting and I can tell that she has a lot more music to give us fans who are happy to take what we can get from this talented woman. Favorite track: "Jar of Hearts."
Frank Turner - "England Keep My Bones"
Former Million Dead frontman, folk-punk Brit musician Frank Turner released his fourth solo studio album (a reference to William Shakespeare's The Life and Death of King John) and it's a collection of songs that would leave Billy Bragg slightly envious and yearning for more. Turner's songs are storytelling gems in the same vein as Bragg, Springsteen, Flogging Molly, The Gaslight Anthem, Dropkick Murphys, and Social Distortion. From his barroom sing-along anthem "I Still Believe" to the acoustic-turned-metal "One Foot Before the Other" to "Glory Hallelujah," his tongue-in-cheek, atheistic version of "Imagine" (which Turner admits that he had sung many Christian songs -- and enjoys them -- on stage but that he wanted to write the devil's advocate to the song "Will the Circle Be Unbroken?"). I have this album on repeat pretty often. Favorite track: "I Still Believe."
The Vaccines - "What Did You Expect From The Vaccines?"
I first heard these guys at SXSW and instantly had to own this album! I even ordered it from the United Kingdom because this album was released there earlier. Then, in May, The Vaccines' already hit album was released here in the U.S. They bring something to the musical table that I haven't heard in a while; and by that, I mean that there have been bands that have their sound, but there have been none that have their sound and make great music. The entire album grows on you and before you know it, you're listening to the entire thing every chance you get! These guys need to go on tour with -- who I believe to be their female equivalent -- the Dum Dum Girls (also on this list)! That would be a concert worth going to. Favorite track: "All in White" (Warning: there is brief nudity in this video).
Various Artists - "Bridesmaids Soundtrack"
Easily the best comedy of the year! It's no surprise, then, that the soundtrack is one of the best of the year. With a majority of female artists, including Blondie, Fiona Apple, Britney Spears, Hole, Kate Nash, Inara George, and Wilson Phillips, this album comes close to the same style of the soundtrack for Drew Barrymore's Whip It. Favorite track: (tie) "Do Wah Doo" by Kate Nash, and "It's Raining" by Inara George.
Various Artists - "Sucker Punch Soundtrack"
A lot of critics could not stand this film (I didn't think it was as bad as most painted it)! But the soundtrack just plainly kicks ass! Covers of "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)," "White Rabbit," "Search and Destroy," and "Tomorrow Never Knows" are all provided by female artists (the first one by star Emily Browning) who bring an appropriate feel to the material that suits the film. Also, the Queen mash-up -- which does have a heap full of rap -- is alone worth purchasing the album. Favorite track: "I Want it All/We Will Rock You Mash-Up" by Queen feat. Armageddon.
Eddie Vedder - "Ukulele Songs"
Former Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder is proving that a musician can improve with age. After his successful venture into acoustic -- as well as ukulele -- songwriting with the Into The Wild soundtrack, Vedder wrote and released this album that heavily features the instrument that, according to him, he has "fallen in love with." The original songs and one cover ("Dream A Little Dream") -- especially the Everly Brothers-like "Sleepless Nights" which features Glen Hansard from the film Once and the group The Swell Season -- are a welcome piece in the time of glam rap, alt. rock radio and sappy love songs. Carry on, Mr. Vedder. Carry on. Favorite track: "Sleepless Nights."
We Are Augustines - "Rise Ye Sunken Ships"
We Are Augustines came out of nowhere this year! Actually, they came from Brooklyn. When the band Pela broke up, two of its members formed this band. With touches of The Pogues and Bright Eyes, Augustines bring good straight-up alternative rock to the masses. Each song is peppered with catchy hooks and unabashed lyrics that demand the listener's respect. It takes a listen or two to fully take in the music, but when you do then you're likely to get addicted. I read a review of this album where the critic compared it to The Gaslight Anthem's "The '59 Sound." Whoa, whoa. Let's not go that far! While it's not that great, this is still a really good album and I'm hoping we'll hear more to come from these guys. Favorite track: "New Drink for the Old Drunk."