Now this is surprising — I can, with confidence, fill most of the slots on the Favorite Edition 2011 list in the first quarter. Usually I’ll find at most five albums that may become year-end favorites, and of course, no rank is guaranteed this early in the year. But after SXSW, I had what felt like an abundance of good listening, and in compiling this list, that sense became more concrete.
- Duran Duran, All You Need Is Now The last time I enjoyed a Duran Duran album so thoroughly was Medazzaland in 1997 — a good 14 years ago. There’s a lot of press over Mark Ronson’s approach to producing this album, coaching Duran Duran to be as they were. Sure, long-time fans will recognize timbral snippets of "The Chauffer" and "Friends of Mine" in these tracks, but what’s more important is the band’s knack for melody. Ronson gets it. Timbaland didn’t. Justin Timberlake sure as fuck didn’t. All You Need Is Now sounds like Duran Duran because the hooks are actually there.
- Kronos Quartet/Kimmo Pohjonen/Samuli Kosminen, Uniko This album is Exhibit A in the case against David Harrington producing Kronos Quartet’s more cross-cultural albums. I liked Floodplain. It was a good collection, but it didn’t have that intangible spark to reel a listener in. Valgeir Sigurðsson, who’s worked with Nico Muhly and Sam Amidon, helmed Uniko. The work itself is energetic and appealing nine ways to Sunday, but Sigurðsson drew out from Kronos a performance more compelling than anything on Floodplain. As with Duran Duran, I think the last time a Kronos Quartet album really moved me was 2002′s Nuevo, which was produced by Gustavo Santalaolla.
- MO’SOME TONEBENDER, MO’SOME TONEBENDER This compilation for US audiences has a little bit of overlap with BEST OF WORST, the band’s recently released career retrospective. The 11-tracks span the band’s 13-album career, and it’s a nice cross-section of post-punk experimentalism. "STOP THE MUSIC" jumps from one style to another, while "Emperor Sun & Sister Moon" is a dance track with a heavy guitar presence. "Rockin’ Luuura" is garage rock without all the things annoying about garage rock, while "youth" could have been a NUMBER GIRL outtake.
- Kuriyama Chiaki, CIRCUS I probably wouldn’t have given Kuriyama Chiaki a second thought had Shiina Ringo not written "Oishii Kisetsu" for her. I didn’t even realize she was the actress who played Gogo Yubari, the mace-wielding assassin in Kill Bill, Vol. 1. Kuriyama possesses an appealing voice, which gets put to work on a collection of catchy rock numbers. If CIRCUS was meant to be a cross-format promo vehicle for a movie actress, it does a good job of disguising its intentions.
- James Blake, James Blake Despite hating his live showcase at SXSW, James Blake left enough of an impression for me to seek out his self-titled debut. I was right — this music is far more suited for home listening than for a live amphitheater. Other writers drop the term "dub step" when describing his music, which pretty much means nothing to me. I just know its sparse and soulful, with a lot of strange vocal effects used to great effect. And I like it.
- Abigail Washburn, City of Refuge Abigail Washburn was featured prominently on eMusic early in the year, but I didn’t follow up till I was checking out who would be preceding Emmylou Harris at SXSW 2011. I heard one track from Washburn and decided, yes, I would look forward to seeing her perform. She did not disappoint. Nor does this album.
- The Decemberists, The King Is Dead So I finally listened to Collapse Into Now, the new album by R.E.M., and it’s rather disturbing that the Decemberists are better at being R.E.M. than R.E.M. I’ve been joking that The King Is Dead is the best album R.E.M. has recorded since Document or Lifes Rich Pageant, but really — The King Is Dead owes a great debt of gratitude to those albums, to which front man Colin Meloy fully cops. (Peter Buck even shows up on the album.) The comparison doesn’t detract from the album’s own merits, which include solid songwriting and a beefy sound. Meloy’s high-minded interests still provide the foundation for the songs, but The King Is Dead feels much more relaxed even when it gets punchy.
- Gang of Four, Content It would be foolish to gauge this album against Entertainment!, but in context of everything else happening in music right now, Content, like All You Need Is Now, shows the up-starts how the originators really do it. I just didn’t know if the title is pronounced "content", as in material, or "content", as in satisfaction. The cover art clarifies the latter.