TimeOut's top 30 albums of the year

By TimeOut reviewers

The top 6 albums of 2011 include The Black Keys, PJ Harvey, Foo Fighters, David Dallas, Andrew Keoghan and The Roots.
The top 6 albums of 2011 include The Black Keys, PJ Harvey, Foo Fighters, David Dallas, Andrew Keoghan and The Roots.

It's the final countdown - our annual selection of the year's top 30 albums. Here's the music which mattered most in 2011 to TimeOut reviewers ...

1. BLACK KEYS
El Camino

After narrowly missing out on TimeOut's top spot last year with timeless breakthrough album Brothers, the Black Keys hit straight back with El Camino - their finest and most accessible work to date. The thing that made the Akron, Ohio duo's seventh album so good is that it was a fun, straight-up and rockin' record from start to finish. In contrast to Brothers, guitarist and singer Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney upped the pace and took off on a joyous, and sometimes hell-raising journey. What was also remarkable was that after seven albums they continued to improve and reinvent themselves, while still keeping that solid base of blues, soul, rock 'n' roll and swaggering hip-hop firmly intact. Opener Lonely Boy was a thumping blues boogie, songs like Run Right Back and Stop Stop had you doing the mash potato as you sang along, and the cooler, cockier groove of Sister was a standout. There was little let up, apart from the acoustic start to Little Black Submarine, which soon spiralled off beautifully into Led Zep land, and the catchy Dead and Gone had more than a little of Outkast's Hey Ya to it.

This was rock 'n' roll you can dance to - so shake it, baby, shake it. SK

2. PJ HARVEY
Let England Shake

It was bleak, brittle and largely inspired by the events of a war which happened nearly a century ago but English singer-songwriter PJ Harvey's tenth studio solo album was among the year's most moving. Its dozen often ghostly folk-rock songs were steeped in the imagery of WWI (some referenced Anzac troops and Gallipoli) as well as contemplating the travails of contemporary Britain and its involvement in more recent conflicts. But this was no dry socio-political history lesson set to music, but something haunting and magical. It also won Harvey her second Mercury Prize and did wonders for the coolness of her new musical weapon of choice, the autoharp. RB

3 FOO FIGHTERS
Wasting Light

It was a year which saw many of US rock's top league largely failing to fire (Kings of Leon, Red Hot Chili Peppers) on much-anticipated albums, while much energy was spent celebrating the 20th anniversary of grunge via reissues of Nirvana's Nevermind and a Pearl Jam doco. But back in April came the brilliant seventh album by the band led by one-time Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl. The taut back-to-basics set was the best Foos' album since their Noughties elevation to stadium status. Some of the 11 songs had Grohl exorcising feelings about the demise of his previous band. But those musings didn't stop this being a vital infectious slab of pop-infused high-decibel rock music. RB

4 ANDREW KEOGHAN
Arctic Tales Divide

Immaculate baroque pop craftsmanship combined with Keoghan's enchanting vocals helped make this the top local album of the year, but it was the perfectly pitched fragility, and wry observation in the songwriting that produced goosebumps. Arrangements were imbued with remarkable light and space, born of his fascination with things both cosmic and arctic. Plucked and strummed violin, electronic bleeps, and shimmering guitar sat beautifully around Keoghan's crooning, as he contemplated everything from the life of a K Rd prostitute to grandparents. LJ

5 DAVID DALLAS
The Rose Tint

Mr D-a-double-l-a-s had a perceptive eye, and mellow nonchalance to his rhymes, a delivery that made you hang on every word, and first rate production and beats. His sophomore album told his story (in a Kiwi accent): his determination to take his music to the world and break out of New Zealand, while still paying homage to his roots, and that's what made it genuinely cool. When he said "my money's on me" it sounded like a good move. Released digitally for free in May, the official package released in November was a hip-hop classic. LJ

6 THE ROOTS
undun

Confirming themselves as one of hip-hop's great innovators, the Philadelphia band continued in the more laid-back and understated vein of 2010's How I Got Over. However, on undun - a concept album of sorts about a chap called Redford - they incorporated everything from yacht-rock (on the lovely lilting Lighthouse) and soul serenades through to interludes of crazed improv folk symphonies. But it's the conscious and clever rapping, and the band's unerring beats, that provided a toughness and staunch foundation for the singular music they conjured up. SK

7 TINY RUINS
Some Were Meant For Sea

Painting gentle pictures with the brush strokes of her warmly rung vocals, Auckland artist Tiny Ruins (aka Hollie Fullbrook) spent several wintry weeks in an old schoolhouse. recording the delicate guitar, cello, wonky piano and occasional percussion that made up her astounding debut album. There's a quiet strength to her songs, which delighted with their contemplation of a woman old as the hills, gardening and cooking minnows, or a Brazilian priest who floats off a cliff with 1000 balloons. There was heartbreak and loneliness, but also a shining touch of hope and whimsy. LJ

8 BEASTWARS
Beastwars

It has been a big year for the mighty Beastwars. The unbridled intensity of their debut album - like a mongrel mix of metal, rock, weighty psychedelia and fire-breathing fantasy - has got them all sorts of accolades that this sort of music doesn't normally get. For example, Beastwars was a finalist in best rock album category at the Tuis alongside Cairo Knife Fight and predictable winners Shihad, who proclaimed Beastwars and Cairo the future of music in their acceptance speech. And in Beastwars' case, with the likes of Red God's heavy strutting groove and Cthulhu's seething plod, who could argue? SK

9 FLEET FOXES
Helplessness Blues

Shedding just a few of their Anglofolk references and pulling in close harmonies akin to classic Beach Boys, mixing up the wide-screen cinematic with quieter solo passages, and offering reflective songs alongside the heart-swelling ones made for an album of rare breadth and depth which you could also sing along to. By pushing themselves and the idiom they occupy (loosely folk-rock), Fleet Foxes escaped from a corner they might have painted themselves into and delivered an album which was a high point as well as a turning point. GR

10 GILLIAN WELCH
The Harrow and the Harvest

The fifth album by country folk gal Gillian Welch was a heavy harvest. You could even say the Nashville-based singer-songwriter was the harvester of sorrow. But what makes these tunes (written with musical companion David Rawlings) so uplifting and moving was the mix of delicacy and guts with which they were played. And then there were Welch's lyrics, which had a dark but wry twist as she sang about everything from being a bad girl at Sunday school to Gatling guns and "gay guitars". The perfect record for having a whiskey and kicking some tumbleweeds around. SK

11 RYAN ADAMS
Ashes & Fire

It might have been the American singer-songwriter's 13th official album in 11 years, but this set marked not only a return after supposedly quitting the music biz in 2009 but also a return to form. The album's intimate setting and contemplative moods recalled his 2000 solo debut Heartbreaker with one elegantly aching song about love gone wrong - or in some cases right - after another. Some songs, like Chains of Love with its windswept strings, still soared. But reflective balladry with a pinch of pedal-steel plaintiveness is what Ashes & Fire did best. RB

12 GLEN CAMPBELL
Ghost on the Canvas

The voice may be frayed and some of the vocal lines obviously edited together, but this self-referential farewell note from Alzheimer-affected Campbell was dignified, life-affirming, and moving, without resorting to cheap sentimentality. It also boasted memorable self-penned songs and contributions from others which are refractions of a man standing on a threshold and staring into terrible darkness, but giving thanks for the person he has been - sometimes admittedly flawed - the faith which has sustained him and the life he has enjoyed. GR

13 GIN WIGMORE
Gravel & Wine

On her sophomore album, Gin took control, and had enormous fun playing the role of a scorned southern belle. There were still catchy hooks aplenty, and the bountiful arrangements that made Holy Smoke appealing, but there was a cohesive arc to Gravel & Wine. There was rollicking country and Americana, but she also picked up the deep, swampy, alchemy of the Mississippi, complete with a parade of horns, lots of honky tonk keys and soulful masculine backing vocals. LJ

14 BEIRUT
The Rip Tide

Gypsy folk sounds still danced around the songs of Beirut on their third album, with trumpets and french horns, and ukulele all to the fore. But band leader Zach Condon took a simpler, more understated approach to songwriting here, and the strong melodic and rhythmic statements rang out. With moods ranging from triumphant and regal to forlorn, this proved Beirut was as at home writing breezy, toe-tapping pop hits as dark and lovely ballads. LJ

15 BIC RUNGA
Belle

Worried about repeating herself when it came to writing her fourth album, Runga opted to freshen things up by collaborating. Lawrence Arabia, Dan Hume (of Evermore) and Kody and Ruban Nielson (of the Mint Chicks) got involved, with Kody Nielson also co-producing. The arrangements were colourful, and his influence shone through with surreal lyrics, baroque organs, spacious harmonies and linear drumming. There was still a touch of melancholy, but it was offset by a joyous sense of daring and excitement. LJ

16 WILCO
The Whole Love

If long-time Wilco followers thought their recent albums had started playing it safe, then help was at hand with this. The opening track, pulsating, guitar-scorched epic Art of Almost, constituted among the seven most remarkable minutes in the avant-Americana band's recorded history. The rest of the album, though nowhere near as experimental, offered rousing askew powerpop, and pastoral psychedelia underneath frontman Jeff Tweedy's wry observations on life and - on the affecting epic final track, One Sunday Morning - the death of a loved one. RB

17 UNKNOWN MORTAL ORCHESTRA
Unknown Mortal Orchestra

For a bunch of tunes knocked out in Ruban Nielson's Portland bedroom as a way of getting back into music, this sure was an accomplished and unique record. Ffunny Ffriends was a pop song that could be the theme to a twisted kids' TV show, Nerve Damage! had the obnoxious melodicism of his old band the Mint Chicks, and the fringe-shaking beat of How Can You Luv Me was a joyous boogie. SK

18 THE CHECKS
Deadly Summer Sway

This rockin' young five-piece outdid themselves with their third album. Groove-laden, and funky as a fruit bowl, there was a gleeful, cheeky sense of humour to some tracks, like the swooning tongue-in-cheek summer style of Perfect Lover, or the tropicana heatwave of Candyman Shimmer. Elsewhere they delivered poignant folk-rock (Winter Sun), and swinging horn lines (Spiders), with frontman Ed Knowles' brilliantly versatile vocals in full flight. Here, the band wore their 60s and 70s influences with ease, while still sounding tight and fresh. LJ

19 UNFAITHFUL WAYS
Free Rein

That the recordings for this terrific debut album by this Christchurch quartet had to be dug out of quake rubble before its release probably meant its earthiness was always guaranteed. But the real surprise of the album, apart from its Red Zone survival, was how the band delivered convincing, refreshing and utterly straight country without any recourse to "alt" trappings. Its strengths were the fine harmonies, often funny, occasionally heartbroken songs and in closing track Trouble I'm In a fitting ode to life in a munted town. RB

20 MASTODON
The Hunter

The pop album of the year. Well, in metal circles at least. The Atlanta extremists did away with the idea of a concept album and 10-plus minute epics, and they wrote some catchy tunes like glam groove metal masterpiece Curl of the Burl. Though the unhinged attack and wild time signature changes may have been more subtle, they were still there, like when the meandering metal mood of Black Tongue suddenly got menacing when it snapped into something more bludgeoning and chunky. Simple, blood-curdling moments like that make Mastodon one of rock's most important bands. SK

21 LUCINDA WILLIAMS
Blessed

Anger at a suicide (her friend Vic Chesnutt) and sadness about the passing of her manager and mother, another heart-aching open letter to her estranged brother, encouragement to those who are hurting and sometimes a furious rage. It was all here. In dealing with the rawer emotions -whether they be about America's foreign wars, self-centred and self-indulgent people or close family - Williams once again turned the personal into the universal, and reduced the big stuff to astutely observed detail. GR

22 THE BATS
Free All Monsters

Released just as the Flying Nun label's 30th anniversary celebrations were taking over the band bars of the nation, the Bats' eighth album was a fine argument for some bands getting better with with age. Its captivating songs, melodic warmth and gently crackling guitar energy made for a mellow wonder of an album. No, it didn't stray far from their familiar folk-rock template but this still sounded as if someone had finally cranked the colour control up to full. RB

23 BEASTIE BOYS
Hot Sauce Committee, Pt. 2

It sounded like a Beastie Boys' record from 20-or-so years ago. And so, by conjuring up the spirit of their heyday they came up with their best album since 1992 classic Check Your Head. From the trademark cheeky beats of opener Make Some Noise, the punk and Pixies-inspired Lee Majors Come Again, and lines like "Pass me the scalpel, I'll make an incision, cut off the part of your brain that does the bitchin"', Hot Sauce Committee showed these 40-something white boys have more of a sense of humour and party-hard energy than most other hip-hop acts half their age. SK

24 THE ADULTS
The Adults

Jon Toogood may have steered the ship but it was the many voices and musical touches from the likes of Shayne Carter, Julia Deans, Anika Moa, Ladi6, drummer Gary Sullivan, and Tiki Taane among others, that created the Adults' diverse and seductive sound. The highlights were the pent-up perfection of Nothing to Lose (with Ladi6), and Toogood and Carter's brooding stalker Long Way Off, which sounded exactly as you'd expect a collaboration between those two to sound. Elsewhere there were the sweeter singer-songwriter moments of A Part of Me, poignant beauties such as Most Important, and the intense fragility of Please Wake Up. SK

25 PAUL SIMON
So Beautiful or So What

Few songwriters who made their reputation 45 years ago still possess this much dry wit and joyousness, let alone a willingness to experiment with Indian percussion, African instruments and sampling. And who else but Simon - who has a gift for lyrics and melody - would deliver songs that question life, religion and God's existence with this much melody, scepticism and grace? He also took a few oblique pokes at himself, dropped in a thought-provoking Christmas song, offered deeply spiritual songs (Questions For the Angels) and on The Afterlife said when you get to the gates of heaven you'll have to fill out a form. Sometimes as funny as it is serious (often both), but every song and sentiment was memorable. GR

26F***** UP
David Comes to Life

When this bunch of melodic hardcore punk oddballs from Canada are not supporting the Foo Fighters - as they did last week in Auckland - they are recording howlers like this. The sprawling 18-track concept album, about the trials and tribulations of a bloke called David who lives in a British industrial town during Margaret Thatcher's reign, moved from the scene-setting sing-along of Queen of Hearts, the relentless ravaging of Serve Me Right, and the Who-meets-Husker Du frenzy of The Recursive Girl. The result was the rowdiest, most beautifully caustic guitar pop around. SK

27 KIMBRA
Vows

It was an album full of theatrics, drama, angular ideas, and a cross-pollination of influences that rolled across the tracks with dizzying pace. But it was Kimbra's voice that stood out. Her vocal layering and riffing, and her huge range (both emotionally and physically) were a delight, and it was an album full of youthful energy, showing exceptional promise from this 21-year-old ex-Hamiltonian. LJ

28 TOM WAITS
Bad As Me

Seven years after his last studio album, Waits returned to deliver slivers of his familiar rambunctious and sometime sentimental styles, but also threw himself into outta-shape rockabilly, roughhouse Chicago blues (Satisfied with Keith Richards which poked fun at the Stones' Satisfaction) and showcased a surprisingly beautiful falsetto on the soul ballad Talking at the Same Time. As always there were standout emotion-tuggers (the slurry Hispanic-Hawaiian ballad Back in the Crowd which sounded beamed in from the 40s, the ineffably sad Pay Me) and if New Year's Eve at the end echoed the Pogues' Fairytale of New York and his own Tom Traubert's Blues, few would complain. The originality preceded it in diverse songs which were mostly blues and soul-based, then churned in the Waits concert mixer. GR

29 TINARIWEN
Tassili

The music of this Malian desert blues band has always been meditative, powerful, and often whips your body and mind into a swinging, soulful trance. On their fifth album they took a more meditative approach and branched out musically by downing their electric instruments in favour of acoustic ones, stripping their already spare sound back to an even purer form. Though it featured guest contributions from members of New York's TV On the Radio and Wilco's Nels Cline, among others, it still sounded like it was recorded the way it should be - in a tent in a secluded part of a vast desert. Hallucinatory and potent stuff. SK

30 JAY-Z & KANYE WEST
Watch the Throne

When the mogul and the ego teamed up for this joint album it could have easily been a posturing vanity project. Instead, hip-hop's first gentlemen knuckled down and did what they do best: made sharp, innovative, and potent music. From the lurch and shuffle of opener No Church in the Wild, to poppy party tunes That's My Bitch and Lift Off (with Beyonce), and then the beautifully menacing moods of Murder to Excellence and Who Gon' Stop Me, this was about two pros sitting on their throne showing the musical minions how it was done. SK

* Reviewers Scott Kara (SK), Lydia Jenkin (LJ) Russell Baillie (RB) and Graham Reid (GR)

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