15. Lady Gaga- Hair
Say what you want about Gaga, but there really doesn’t seem to be many others out there that work as hard as she does. Here we have a mainstream pop star that writes her own material, relentlessly tours, does insane amounts of philanthropy and advocacy, and consistently seems to have a hit in the Billboard top 10. Sure- she’s influenced by Madonna, but since when has an artist not been inspired by another? Gaga has captured the pop culture zeitgeist over the past few years and has created a dedicated fanbase that will be with her for the rest of her career. Her sophomore effort “Born This Way” isn’t perfect by any means. It’s just like her- over indulgent, theatrical, and egocentric- but it’s not necessarily a bad thing. “Hair”, an absolute standout track (and hopefully future single) contains borderline silly lyrics about her hair representing her personal freedom, but it’s incredibly catchy and perfectly fits the dance-pop mold that made Gaga Gaga.
14. Kanye West & Jay-Z- Otis
Thank God that the collaborative effort from Kanye and Jay didn’t end up like the ill-fated Jay and R. Kelly collaboration “Best of Both Worlds” about 10 years ago. Everything Kanye ever releases is met with critical adoration (justifiably so) and it doesn’t stop with the lead single from one of the most anticipated releases of the year- “Watch the Throne”. If we dissect the song “Otis” itself, it plays to Kanye’s strengths- but it seems like a very bold and assertive statement to release this as the lead single off the album. Radio supported the song somewhat, but when’s the last time you’ve heard a song on the radio with no chorus and very little bass? (Besides Adele of course) “Otis” mine as well have been billed as Kanye West featuring Jay-Z, as it feels more like “Diamonds from Sierra Leone” or “Can’t Tell Me Nothing”- a promotional single not intended to make huge waves, showcasing artistic integrity before the real money-making “Gold Digger” or “Stronger” is released. In this case, it’s “Ni**as in Paris”, which should hit the top 10 in a week or two.
13. Cut Copy- Take me Over
Aussie band Cut Copy has been one of my absolute favorites over the years, and while 2011’s “Zonoscope” didn’t quite measure up to their astounding 2008 effort, “In Ghost Colours”, it’s still a fucking solid album. My favorite song from the effort is “Take Me Over”, a carefree, mid-tempo, sugary pop record tweaked to perfection. Cut Copy takes the best elements of 80’s pop music and mixes that nostalgia with killer hooks, creating a sound that in 2011 seems ultimately timeless. Why does Rihanna have to be the face of 2011 pop music when we have bands like this?
12. Terius Nash (The-Dream)- Long Gone
I’ve probably spent more time listening to The-Dream than any other artist over the past few years. Yes, really. The guy who infamously wrote Rihanna’s “Umbrella” in 15 minutes has an ear for perfection in R&B production, and it results in endless replay value. Every track he’s ever produced sounds like it’s been meticulously thought over- every sound coming out of the speaker is there for a very important reason. “Long Gone” takes on a new subject- his breakup from former R&B B-lister Christina Milian. Nothing from “1977”, the free mixtape from which this song is spawned, (much to the dismay of his label) compares to the highlights from his first 3 albums, but it’s still held to a much higher caliber than any of his contemporaries.
11. PJ Harvey- The Words that Maketh Murder
Where do I start with PJ Harvey? I’m the ultimate fanboy. I bought her 2000 album “Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea” when I was 14, and not long thereafter- 1993’s “Rid of Me” became my quintessential high school angst album of choice. Almost 10 albums in, she makes it a point for every release to be completely different from the last. After 2007’s sparse, piano-based “White Chalk”, Harvey taught herself yet another instrument (harpsichord) and released the very politically charged “Let England Shake” in February. The album garnered outstanding critical reviews, and will be in most critics’ top 10 lists. The single from the album, the mid-tempo “The Words That Maketh Murder”, makes blatant political references and is an instant classic addition to the Harvey library. Almost 20 years in, Harvey has consistently gained the respect of critics and fans with her brilliance. For the sake of popular music, let’s hope it continues.