Honestly, 2011 was a pretty horrible year for Mainstream and Top 40 music. The bar is terribly low for a Pop hit these days, and even performance wise there’s nothing really exciting about the goings on of this year. So it’s a little difficult to try and make it seem exciting when it really was just BASIC on the whole. Adele slayed pretty much all year, and she was one of the only exciting things to happen to the industry this year. The under performing of Britney Spears and Beyoncé signaled a change in the winds, where formerly unstoppable Pop stars were being out peaked and out sold by the likes of LMFAO and Pitbull. Speaking of, Beyoncé may or may not be pregnant (*laugh). Katy Perry and Rihanna got closer to breaking chart records of Michael Jackson and Mariah Carey. Nicki Minaj got her biggest hit from her Pop-iest song and Foo Fighters put in a bid as the last great rock band of the 90’s. Other than all of that, and a few hot-mess feuds and shady comments, not much else happened this year that’s really worth reporting.
So here’s my take on the year, try to enjoy! And let’s hope 2012 kicks 2011’s Basic Ass!!
Artists Of The Year,
5. Kanye West
Coming off the critical praise of 2010’s “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy”, West took a seat instead of his usual loud-mouthed antics. He took a seat in the studio though with Jay-Z, and towards the end of the Summer released the Epic collaboration album “Watch The Throne”. So let’s raise our glass to Kanye shutting up long enough to keep the focus on his talent, which ended in him leading the Grammy nominations and co-headlining a sold out tour.
4. Lady GaGa
While the media excitement for GaGa trailed off towards the end of the year, Mother Monster still had a triumphant year overall. She clocked over a million sales of her third (or second) album “Born This Way” after record breaking sales of the first single of the same name. She was ever present on television, including an HBO concert and a network Holiday special that got healthy ratings. Most importantly, she made some risky single choices that worked in exposing a different and versatile side to her as an artist.
This might be a surprising choice, but Pitbull was every where this year. He’s been very consistent ever since his debut in the early 2000’s, but this year he almost became a household name. He had a Huge #1 hit with “Give Me Everything” and his feature work with Jennifer Lopez, Marc Anthony and Shakira further helped his exposure. He ended up being invited to perform at nearly every big Award ceremony of the year, and translated his new found mainstream fame into endorsement deals. He may just be the flavor of the moment, but he definitely crossed over to a new level of fame in 2011. And as hard of a worker he has shown he is, he could potentially get bigger down the line.
2. Katy Perry
Miss “I Kissed a Girl” didn’t necessarily break out as the “It” girl of this year, but she made a lot of accomplishments and set herself up to possibly be a force in the industry. Still continuing a hit streak from her 2010 album “Teenage Dream” she collected two more #1 singles this year, tying Michael Jackson for the most #1’s from one album. She ended the year with a hosting spot on “Saturday Night Live” and a 7th Top 5 Hit. Hopefully she’s in the studio working on a follow-up, and we’ll see how long her star will shine.
No surprises here, for whatever reason the beginning of the year all the way till the end Adele was on everybody’s lips and on top of every chart. And she did this without compromising her sound. In the field of sexed up Pop chicks talking about nothing on their songs with auto-tuned vocals, Adele really was a shocking success being the polar opposite of all that. Her “21” album, steeped in R&B Jazz and Balladry, became the #1 selling album of the year and her two hits “Rolling in the Deep” and “Someone Like You” used proper instrumentation and strong vocals to become huge hits as well. So proud of her, and if she can just get her nerves together for a tour she’ll be a Legend in no time.
Albums of the Year,
10. Chris Brown “F.A.M.E.”
Say what you will about Breezy, but “F.A.M.E.” showed off how truly talented he is. Not only does it cross genres from Pop to R&B to Hip Hop to Dance, but it’s all catchy and well-sung with some surprisingly great lyricism. A great step in the right direction, and a true testament to why he’s on top of the R&B heap these days.
9. tUnE-yArDs “w h o k i l l”
Crazy album, going from Folk sounds to Tribe Called Quest-like Hip Hop sounds and everything in between. This is something new and different and ultra experimental, but it works. It shows off the talents of Merrill Garbus, vocally and lyrically, and it gives listeners something totally fresh to counter-act all the same-sounding stuff released this year.
8. Beyoncé “4”
Like I said in my review of this album, it’s truly one from an artist that is so comfortable in her talents she can just do what she feels and not worry about fitting in. “4” is laid back R&B in a time when tempos must be high and lyrics must be repetitive, so in a way Bey took a risk but she really stayed in her zone and delivered a very solid and classic sounding album.
7. Adele “21”
Do I even need to go into detail about the album probably EVERYBODY has heard by now. Adele really goes back, with lots of early blues and soul inspired material, matched with a few funk tracks. The entire album is made to showcase the amazing voice of hers and why she’s one of the best singers in the game right now, and mission accomplished.
6. Frank Ocean “Nostalgia, Ultra”
This is a Mixtape, and I started not to include it. I couldn’t leave it off though because it was one of the most exciting and fresh pieces of music I’ve heard this year. From the out of the box concepts of the songs, to the pretty amazing and random samples he sings over, his knack for great lyricism and his love of singing. If you need to watch anybody that has major potential to blow up in 2012, than Frank is the one. “Nostalgia, Ultra” can be enjoyed by so many, even if it’s not what the masses are typically used to hearing.
5. Fleet Foxes “Helplessness Blues”
The mainstream-friendly Folk/Pop group delivered another set of very soothing, relaxing chill tracks that’s really true to the roots of the genre. A very natural continuation from their debut album, just elevated and with a much bigger sound. The stories clouded in very intelligent lyricism make it an album that can be enjoyed for decades, but it still somehow feels very now. And the harmonies and cascades of instrumentation is perfectly beautiful on every track. It truly deserves all the praise and hype it got, it’s definitely a go-to album if you need to relax.
4. Lady GaGa “Born This Way”
Unlike the rest of her Pop contemporaries, GaGa really tried hard on her third album to stand out from the pack. And she did in so many different ways with “Born This Way”, still catering to her Top 40 audience she manages to make little changes and explore different sounds. From Country, Industrial, House and Rock the album is clearly one of the most diverse of the year, yet the overall album works. And it’s not just the tracks, her attacking different vocal styles and writing some pretty impressive lyrics this go round “Born This Way” shows the artist behind the crazy outfits.
3. Jay Z & Kanye West “Watch the Throne”
The event album of the year, I almost didn’t believe it would ever come out but luckily it did. The album is Anthem after Anthem, it definitely caters to Kanye’s more energetic and humorous side. However mixed with Jay’s more serious verses, they both end up rubbing off on each other with Jay sounding like he’s having more fun and Kanye even waxing philosophical on some tracks. A great collaboration by two utter geniuses, how could it go wrong really?
2. Drake “Take Care”
Drake really is a surprising character in the industry. As much as you want to, you really can’t hate on what he brings to the table and it’s almost always unexpected and to the left of what you might have assumed. “Take Care” is a surprisingly deep and personal album at times, that transitions seamlessly from an Indie/R&B feel to a harder Hip Hop feel, and you don’t really notice because you are just captivated overall. His sophomore is just as good if not better than his very impressive debut, and this does show he has the chops to stay in the game for a long while.
1. James Blake “James Blake”
An album that takes a few listens to really appreciate, Indie self-produced “Dubstep Prince” (still don’t know why his music is classified as dub step but whatever) James Blake delivers a very minimalist album that even without many lyrics has such emotion and heart in the soundscapes he provides. It’s an album that plays well altogether and really stands out above anything else released this year, because it’s so non-conformist in almost every way. Tonally and emotionally it’s really an amazing album that shouldn’t be missed.
Singles of the Year,
15. Jessie J “Who You Are”
You would think the “love yourself” inspirational ballads died with Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful”, but UK star Jessie J makes a great bid for bringing them back. The lyrics match so well with the emotion and rawness of her vocals, it doesn’t feel like sap it feels much more personal.
14. Yuck “Rubber”
An eery, forever building ode to 90’s Alternative. With it’s strange and creepy instrumentation and slowly changing tempos, and the vocal delivery of Daniel Blumberg. It’s almost like a scary movie you can’t stop listening to until you get to the end.
13. Britney Spears “Til the World Ends”
Easily one of the best songs of Britney’s career, and apparently she owes it all to Ke$ha who wrote this incredibly addictive call to the dancefloor. It’s perfection in it’s intentional stupid-ness, and a perfect song to suit Britney’s (*cough) limitations. (And the remix is even better than the original)
12. Lady Antebellum “We Owned the Night”
A beautiful yet underrated single from the power trio of 2010. The song works on many levels with a cute storyline, beautiful harmonies and a relaxed track that gets some real country energy in parts.
11. Maroon 5 “Moves Like Jagger”
Surprisingly great Pop track, not very deep but do you really expect that from a Top 40 song? No! What you expect, and what you get here, is a nice dance tempo and an insanely catchy hook. Add Christina Aguilera’s power notes and you have one of the best Pop offerings of the year.
10. Jason Aldean “Dirt Road Anthem”
Aldean has had a great run in the country world, and this rap/country hybrid (later remixed with a verse from Ludacris) does a lot to gain unlikely fans. He goes from his southern rap to belting it out towards the end over a very simple backing sample.
9. Rihanna “S&M”
The MOST Fun Dance song released this year, there are several portions that are crazy addictive and Rihanna’s sexy but coy vocal delivery takes it to another level. Another reason why no one can touch Rihanna in the Dance/Pop field, she consistently delivers the most dance-ready (and most true to the classic House sound) tracks of all her contemporaries. (And for the record, I’m pretending that Britney remix never existed! *awful)
8. Cage the Elephant “Aberdeen”
A great rock track, with clear homages to a more alternative 90’s rock sound but adding the groups standard weird effects and instrumentation to make the song totally fresh. Addictive and creative, what more do you want.
7. Chris Brown “Look at Me Now”
This is a Chris Brown song, but most of the praise for this weird electro/Hip Hop winner goes to producer Diplo and featured rapper Busta Rhymes whose flawless and breathless flow made this The urban track of the year, and once again showed he’s still a relevant player.
6. Lady GaGa “Yoü and I”
Mother Monster delivered a Pop Anthem, an Industrial Dance track, and a ballad-like House-r this year but her Country/Pop/Rock rump “You and I” is clearly the most memorable and the one that shows what a great artist she is. A great storyline, a confident vocal and a track so hype and powerful you’ll be singing and clapping along in no time.
5. James Blake “The Wilhelm Scream”
This is the genius of James Blake, at first the song is really unassuming. A simple repetitive vocal over scant electronic backing, but if you listen you start to feel and appreciate the layers and how the song builds to a beautiful climax. His songs just creep up on you and force you to feel something.
4. Miguel “Sure Thing”
In case anyone thought R&B was dead Miguel came through with a beautiful and loving R&B track that Urban Radio has been lacking for years. The writing is exceptional, a love song without any contradictions or stipulations like the “I love you but I’m probably gonna cheat on you” type songs we’ve been forced to accept in the past few years. A great return to form for R&B.
3. Jay Z & Kanye West “Otis”
Like I said in my review of “Watch The Throne”, this hit single has a very complicated and technical use of the Otis Redding “Try a Little Tenderness” sample. Everything else about the song feels so laid back and breezy in comparison, with two of the biggest Hip Hop Icons of the day genuinely having fun and not being try-hards with their second single. Epic song that’s downplayed to just being a fun record.
2. Adele Rolling in the Deep
Incredible vocals. Amazing (and LIVE) instrumentation. Killer lyrics. End.
1. Kanye West “All of the Lights”
One of Kanye’s most simple songs, in both production and verses. However the more you listen, the deeper it gets when you realize the story he’s trying to tell about the inner cities. And though the calvacade of featured artists are nice, they aren’t necessary. It’s a strong, powerful, energetic, catchy and flawless song.
Disappointments of the Year,
3. Rihanna “Talk That Talk”
I LOVE Rihanna, this won’t change anytime soon. And because of my love, I was really excited for her 6th album even if it was clear it would be a bit rushed with the busy year she had. Now, over a month after it’s been in stores, I tend to listen to her previous album “Loud” over this one. Too many un-done songs, which gives the bare minimum in song structure, almost like her label said “whatever you have now is fine we’ll just release it”. I feel like her label jipped us fans and gave us a half-ass outing for Holiday sales, when with just a month or three more it could have been a pretty great album.
2. The Strokes “Angles”
After waiting 5 years for a new album from the once great Garage Rock band, when it album finally came it was a bit of a dud. “Angles” was way too all over the place and not making any real statement of their growth as a band. Not a terrible album by any means, but definitely not worth the long wait. Hopefully there is a quick follow up to redeem themselves.
1. Britney Spears “Femme Fatale”
I don’t know why (maybe because her team kept Tweeting about it), but I expected this album to be a sign of growth for Miss Spears who has been stuck in Robot-Mode for almost 5 years now. Unfortunately, the album was yet another Dance/Pop heavy, heavily vocally altered singles album with virtually no real effort coming from the star. And even with hype about insane choreography and performance lessons, Spears continued to disappoint by doing the bare minimum performance wise this year. Signaling the fact that Britney will probably never get any better as an artist, thus the potential demise of her career. (Her fans are the most faithful of any stan base though, as long as they are easily impressed she’ll be fine)
Guilty Pleasures of the Year,
5. Big Sean “My Last”
This, for any other rapper, would have been pure filler. There’s nothing truly stand out about anything in the track, and the whole”we do it big out in public” concept is so annoying. Than the “a-a-a-all, a-a-a-all” hook pulls you in and you spontaneously start singing along.
4. Jennifer Lopez “On the Floor”
Could the lyrics get anymore elementary, or the track be anymore basic? I doubt it, but somehow the “La la la la”‘s and the overly repetitive “On the Floor”‘s were too catchy to deny.
3. LMFAO “Party Rock Anthem”
Overproduced, Pointless, Stupid, Basic… yet after a few times being forced to hear it on the radio you kinda get used to it. I know for me, the first time I heard it “Noisy Garbage” came to mind, after about 4 listens I was actually anticipating hearing it. Shameful, but that’s the beauty of a Guilty Pleasure.
2. Rihanna “We Found Love”
I called this when I first reviewed the single, the song is basic in every sense of the word. Random lyrics, and a hook that seems to never end. Not even the production is anything all that noteworthy, as Rihanna has had much better Dance singles. However that hook, after about the millionth time, engraves itself in your brain and you go a little crazy for 3 minutes.
1. Pitbull “Give Me Everything”
Pitbull’s verses are rather weak, Nayer is like a non-factor, the track is almost a “paint-by-numbers” dance track… but who can deny Ne-Yo’s infectious and addictive hook. Overall, everything comes together pretty nicely and you just get in a zone when the track comes on.
Flops of the Year,
3. Kelly Rowland
Kelly’s solo problems have always been that she’s choked at the wrong opportunities. Her BET Award performance was all everybody could talk about, that was the time to hit us with a new single and video capitalizing on that exposure. But she waited until after her very decent album “Here I Am” had already flopped. And the supposedly “dance heavy” UK edition fared even worse, and that’s after all her “X-Factor” exposure. She seems to be stepping her performance game up, so there may be a chance next year.
2. (tie) Beyoncé, Britney Spears
How the mighty have fallen! Even though both divas posted respectable numbers in either album or single sales, 2011 showed that their time as relevant artists might be up.
Britney had major success on the singles charts, but her album sales took a steep dive given her track record. She truly became a singles artist this year, in the same realm as Ke$ha and LMFAO. And most of that is due to her consistently lazy performances, and refusal to do any interviews or press.
With Beyoncé, her album “4” posted good numbers but her single choices were disasters and … well, plain stupid. Her mistakes were clear, and she didn’t seem to take the hint (or maybe she didn’t care because of her pregnancy). She saves face with a few great live performances including the now iconic pregnancy reveal at the VMA’s, but now that she’s ditched her father as manager she’s totally accountable for this flop.
1. Joe Jonas
Poor Kid. He’s cute, he’s at least minimally talented, and you’d think with the success of The Jonas Brothers his solo career would make some kind of sales dent. Unfortunately, after hyping his first single for what felt like months it only peaked at #92 and the album “Fast Life” only managed to stay on the Billboard 200 for 2 weeks. I guess with Bruno Mars and Justin Bieber there was no spot left on the charts for another “teen heart throb”.
Music Videos of the Year,
5. Beyoncé “Run the World (Girls)”
Beyonce went as big as she could to try to salvage the poor first single choice of “Run the World (Girls)”. Hyenas, Lions, Task Forces, Exploding Cars, a Few Hundred Backing Dancers. She threw the kitchen sink in there too, but luckily it’s saving grace is the dancing. She incorporates different styles and attacks, the type of big dance video Janet or Michael Jackson would do.
4. Jason Aldean “Tatoos On This Town”
They could have went a totally different way with this song, but they gave us the tear-jerker storyline. And it actually really works in a beautiful way with the lyrics of the song.
3. Lady GaGa “Born This Way”
Enter the crazy world of Mother Monster, where there’s no judgement and… blah blah blah. GaGa is known for being a bit pretentious, but overall this video came off visually very different from most Pop videos. And it’s always nice to see GaGa drop the seriousness and have fun, which she does towards the end.
2. P!nk “Fuckin Perfect”
Speaking of GaGa, P!nk this year proved you don’t have to make an 11 minute video to tell a compelling and emotional story that unfolds in surprising and beautiful ways. Really one of the most heart wrenching and inspiring videos of the year.
1. Rihanna “We Found Love”
This video is one that didn’t try too hard, but did an amazing job of bringing alot of depth and rawness to the basic song and it’s lyrics. In very quick glimpses yo almost see the entire length of a destructive relationship, the highs and lows, and with the flawless editing job it really does get surprisingly real, but still a beautifully shot video.
Award Show Performances of the Year,
3. Bruno Mars “Valerie”
Bruno finally showed he has the chops to deserve his spot at the top right now. His 2010 Grammy performance showed a performer who truly loved music, but his vocals were a bit off. At this VMA tribute to Amy Winehouse, he really makes the song his own and is almost perfect vocally. His energy, and clear love for performance and singing really shined.
2. Beyoncé “Love on Top”
(this clip is mirrored, so it looks a little weird. sorry)
Bey pulled out all the stops for her Billboard Award performance, but this simple VMA routine was the one that got everybody talking. She’s known as a great performer, so she doesn’t have to do much to impress. And her flawless vocals before her reveal already clinched this as another great one in her long list of live performances. It’s the pregnancy reveal, and the reaction of the crowds, that made this what it is though.
1. Mumford and Sons “The Cave”
This is the kind of performance I love to see, where the group is ecstastic to be performing and you get a true sense that they really love what they are doing. Mumford and Sons delivered an un-jaded, energetic, and technically perfect Grammy performance this year. It helped “The Cave” become a major player on the charts as well as their debut album “Sigh No More”.
So, what have we learned this year. It’s actually a little hard to say because it was so crazy and unpredictable. You never really knew what song would hit, what promotional opportunity would help sales. Random circumstances like YouTube videos ended up helping singles more than “American Idol” appearances (case in point Nicki Minaj’s “Super Bass” aided by Selena Gomez and Taylor Swift videos). The industry continued to get majorly shaky, but it seemed whatever Radio was backing would determine who would shine.
Which brings up a weird issue with Adele being so huge, it was kind of funny to hear one of her songs (like the piano ballad “Someone Like You”) on pop radio than right after hearing Cobra Starship or LMFAO dance trash single. You’d think radio might take the hint that people are ready for talented vocalists and great song structure. Obviously they didn’t, but they need to realize that a little diversity never killed anybody.
And I have a few remarks for two of Radio’s biggest stars Katy Perry and Bruno Mars. They both get the Step Your Game Up Award, because both are talented in their own ways. Bruno is a great performer and a good writer when he wants to be. It’s just the songs he’s been putting out are very below the bar and elementary, when he’s capable of putting out some classic and creative stuff. And Katy really needs to take her exposure and step out of the “Pop Top 40″ realm a bit and get a little deeper. “Teenage Dream” actually does offer some depth and artistry (“Circle the Drain” “Pearl”), so she needs to let the world hear a different edge to her.
My I Don’t Get It Award goes to Foster the People and Florence and the Machine. “Pumped Up Kicks” was a huge single this year, but to me it just sounds like a horribly distorted MGMT rip-off with a forced catchy hook. It’s not just that they took their sound and tried to process it through a Mainstream filter, but it doesn’t even sound good and it’s surprising that it fit into the Mainstream machine at all. With Florence, I just can’t get into her voice long enough to hear an entire song, but she’s hyped as this amazing vocalist somehow. I just don’t get it.
The Have a Seat Award goes to Rihanna, and we know I love her by now. She is just over-working herself, and I need for her to be healthy and ready because she’s clearly being run to the ground. I already talked about her latest album, but her performances went from a major high earlier this year to a drastic and saddening low at the Jingle Ball in December. Six months of not working wouldn’t kill her, but Three more months of her pace might actually do it.
I WAS gonna Go In on Nicki Minaj. With touring with Britney, the success of “Super Bass”, and her recent David Guetta collaboration has become more of a Pop sensation than a Hip Hop Star. I won’t though because I’m hoping “Roman’s Reloaded” will make me love her again. And that’s pretty much all I have for this year, which like I said was pretty boring but some good things came out of it I guess.