Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Best Most Listened-To Albums of 2011

I use Last.fm to keep track of all the music I listen to, and every year I like to look back and see which music I listened to most, then post the top 10 here for all to see and judge.

I've bolded ten albums throughout these lists. Call these my consciously chosen top 10, if I was going by something other than the number of times I've played them.

Before getting to the top 10, here are some honourable mentions that didn't crack the top ten. I'd totally recommend giving these a listen if you were into music.

  • The Black Keys - El Camino
  • Born Gold - Bodysongs
  • Cake - Showroom of Compassion
  • Cut Copy - Zonoscope
  • David Guetta - Nothing But the Beat
  • The Dears - Degeneration Street
  • The Decemberists - The King is Dead, and Long Live the King
  • Dum Dum Girls - Only in Dreams
  • Florence and the Machine - Ceremonials
  • Justice - Audio, Video, Disco
  • Kanye West and Jay Z - Watch the Throne
  • Ladytron - Gravity the Seducer
  • Man Man - Life Fantastic
  • Neon Indian - Era Extrana
  • Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds (self-titled)
  • Radiohead - The King of Limbs
  • The Rapture - In the Grace of Your Love
  • Rihanna - Talk That Talk
  • Tycho - Dive
  • Washed Out - Within and Without
  • Zola Jesus - Conatus

And now, the top ten:

10. Lights - Siberia

It may be hard to see past the Biebs when it comes to Canadian pop music, but Lights manages to shine through. Her second album avoids being more of the same, with a sound that borrows some of the griminess of dubstep without sounding like she's trying too hard (see #3 on this list), but avoiding the grime of cheap sleazy lyrics (again, see #3 on this list).

See also: my review of Lights' concert at London Music Hall. Oh and another lovely pop album this year was Ellie Goulding's "Lights."

9. MUTEMATH - Odd Soul

I hadn't paid much attention to MUTEMATH before 2011, despite their insistence on ALWAYS SHOUTING THEIR NAME. Their new bluesy, perhaps soulful sound managed to hook me. I couldn't stop listening to Odd Soul.

8. The Antlers - Burst Apart

It's not exactly a feel-good album, but Burst Apart pokes the same "happy to be sad" buttons as bands like Portishead. If you couldn't tell by the title, "Putting the Dog to Sleep" ends it in a place so depressing it almost circles back to funny.

7. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart - Belong

I tried turning The Pains of Being Pure at Heart into an acronym - TPBPH - then saying it out loud. Try it out, it's hilarious. TPBPH. Teepeebeepee. LOL. Anyway, good album.

6. Mister Heavenly - Out of Love

I've expressed doubt about supergroups before, but the unholy union of Islands' Nicholas Thorburn, Man Man's Honus Honus, and Modest Mouse's Joe Plummer is a possible exception. It starts with Bronx Sniper, which could almost be mistaken for an Islands song. But then Honus's gravelly vocals kick in, complementing and transforming the sound into something unique. Is this "doom-wop" any better than the members' individual projects? Probably not, but it's still worth sticking in your ear holes.

5. M83 - Hurry Up, We're Dreaming

M83 made #1 on my 2008 list, and this long-awaited follow-up is just as worthy. Its impact still relies heavily on being soaked in nostalgia, but it's now taken to a more epic scale, bringing in every genre, instrument, and cliche you can think of. It could've been a mess, but there is a certain feeling that holds on through all 22 tracks. This album is a dream come true and you should hurry up and listen to it.

4. Mother Mother - Eureka

Meh. I probably wouldn't have chosen to put this in my top ten, but there it is. Mother Mother has their own sound, and Eureka is a more Mother-Mother-ish album than any before. It almost borders on self-parody, with the cheesy little-girl voices and forced quirkiness. Like, in The Stand, "everyone's f---ed an they don't even know" is censored throughout, until the end, when he finally blurts out "fucked," then laughs as if it's the most edgy, uproarious trick to hit music since Get the Funk Out. Oh you. If the music itself wasn't so damn catchy, I could maybe hit the stop button.

See also: my close encounter with Mother Mother.

3. Britney Spears - Femme Fatale

Errr. Whatever. Like I said last year, I'm no longer reluctant to admit that I listen to a lot of painfully mainstream music. And as far as mainstream goes, Britney does it well. The first half of Femme Fatale is some of the best dance-pop I heard this year. Its thrills come cheap—the breakdown in Hold It Against Me is a blatant grab at dubstep's exploding popularity, and the album's lyrics scream "omg sex! Look how much sex is here!"—but still, it works. There are even moments that could be considered clever, like in the weirdly moving ode to breakup sex, Inside Out, when Britney moans "hit me one more time," then "you're the only one who ever drove me crazy," jamming her past hits into a new context. The last few songs lose steam, but there are a few that I can't help but listen to over and over, so Britney's handlers done good.

2. The Sounds - Something to Die For

I was only vaguely familiar with this Swedish band before this year, but then my girlfriend sent Something to Die For over, thinking I would like it. She knows me well. I'm a sucker for music inspired by the 80s, and on this album The Sounds embrace the synth-pop aspect of that decade. The lyrics aren't exactly deep, or entirely comprehensible English ("something is worth to die for"???), but that hardly matters when you're bobbing your head and longing to bounce on a pogo ball.

1. Lady GaGa - Born This Way

Oh how things have changed. Lady GaGa won the only "worst album of the year" award I've ever given out, back in 2008, for The Fame. Yet things haven't really changed much, because she still makes catchy but vapid songs that get stuck in your head and your iPod. I was hoping for more from Born This Way. With GaGa pushing the boundaries in her videos and fashion choices, and Fame Monster going in some new directions musically, Born This Way could have taken it to the next level. Yet we're left with more of the same: some irresistible but by-the-numbers pop songs, with lyrics that are too literal and obvious to drum up any meaningful controversy (you're in love with Judas?! Oooh, scandalous!). But it's 17+ tracks, few of which are boring, so I guess I listened to more songs from this album than any other.

Criticism aside, YoĆ¼ and I is one of the best pop songs of the year, and comes with one of the best videos of the year:

There's the list. Oooh, and here's a pretty visualization from LastGraph:

Did I miss any music that you jammed in your ears this year? Let me know.

See also:

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Book Review: The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins

[Very minor spoilers lie ahead]

The Hunger Games tells the story of a teen girl living in a future, post-post-apocalyptic world, where an obviously-evil government keeps the people in line by throwing a handful of them into a televised fight to the death in an outdoor arena once a year. Although it doesn't happen right away (more on that later), it's pretty easy to guess that she gets involved in the titular Hunger Games.

The concept may sound like a sci-fi trope, but Collins does a good job of painting a world that feels unique despite borrowing pieces from other stories in its genres. The first third or so of the book is mostly setup for the inevitable beginning of the Games. It could've been boring, knowing the story is taking its time to begin, but it's interesting enough due to the colourful character development, world-building, and writing style.

Then the action kicks into gear, and something odd happens. The writing quality drops immediately the moment the Hunger Games actually begin. It's as if the latter two-thirds were written by another author (or an author who wrote the first chapters years after the latter ones). What begins as straightforward YA-level prose begins sounding like a teenager's blog. Rambling tangents come back with "anyway", ellipses replace proper punctuation, and there are outright typos. I half-expected sentences to start ending in "lol."

It's not too distracting, and makes some sense given the first-person narrator's age, but the fluctuation in style was a bit jarring.

Anyway, the story itself is about what you'd expect given the premise. There is some mild satire of reality television and some mild violence (but this ain't no Battle Royale). Some unexpected twists have impact, but some expected showdowns are a letdown. Maybe it's a further subtle bit of satire to have some of the major plot points happen "off camera," but it's anticlimactic storytelling. Despite my pickiness, it's a good story that's often hard to put down, and anyone who's up with the premise would enjoy it. I'm looking forward to the movie.

This was also the first book I read on a Kindle. I have mixed feelings about that. On one hand, it was a joy being able to sit under a tree in the sunshine (yeah, took me a while to get around to this review) with the tiny Kindle in one hand, flipping pages with the push of a button. On the other, when I wanted to skim the book while writing this review, I couldn't. And what if I wanted to come back to it in 10 years? If technology changes too much, or Amazon bites the bullet, or I get another company's incompatible device, my DRM-infected e-book is lost.

I'll probably only use the Kindle for cheap books I'll never want to read again (Hunger Games fits that bill). In other words, my feelings haven't changed since I wrote this: Vote for Books: Screens vs. Real Paper. Go print that out and read it.