Best Pop Album: 'Watch the Throne'


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There are pros and cons to running this list on Dec. 22, all of which relate to seeing lists from other publications. If you're keeping score for Top Album, it's Adele (Rolling Stone, EW and Amazon), Bon Iver (Pitchfork and Paste) and [Expletive-d] Up (Spin), to name a few.

That leaves me just a bit out on a limb. I flipped back and forth on my No. 1 and 2 multiple times, and ultimately decided on the one that excites me the most. It certainly didn't do that right out of the case.

It's no coincidence, though, that Kanye West is at the top of this list for the second straight year. Ever since he played the fool, he's been in a class by himself.

1. Jay-Z & Kanye West, "Watch the Throne": The "event" record of the year wasn't the blockbuster everyone expected, but not because it wasn't great. There's so much going on here, you couldn't grasp it on one or two or even 10 listens. Picking up where "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy" left off, it casts aside ready pop formulas in favor of a journey that's heavy with ideas and challenges the listener sonically at every turn. When one song ends, there's a second pause and you have no idea what's coming. The musical palette is immense, but not bigger than the swagger of these two kings. When Jay raps of Otis Redding, "sounds so soulful, don't you agree?" he could be talking about the "Throne."

2. Adele, "21": Simply, the "voice" of 2011. This is a pop-soul record that's slickly, elegantly produced but also packed with the raw, brutal and tender emotions of a messy breakup. She struggled vocally when she hit the road, but on these sessions at least, Adele proudly took her place as the goosebump-inducing Queen of Soul. From Urban to Top 40 to Triple A, everyone seemed to be on board with this sophomore album that has at least one song, "Rolling in the Deep," that belongs with the all-time greats.

3. Kurt Vile and the Violators, "Smoke Ring for My Halo": The Philly singer-guitarist favors a hazy, psychedelic sound that's as much a product of old Rolling Stones as it is the '90s lo-fi movement. The Stones certainly factor into his sound -- from the churning riffs to the swag in this vocals -- but the sound goes well beyond that, to include a range from John Fahey to Tom Petty to Animal Collective.

4. Paul Simon, "So Beautiful or So What": It took 20 years, but Paul Simon finally released what sounds like the natural follow-up to "Rhythm of the Saints" and "Graceland." Once again, the world beat rhythms are percolating and the melodies are flowing, both sweet and somber. Amidst the bouncing grooves, the 69-year-old singer-poet tackles nothing less than the mysteries of life, love and salvation.

5. Wild Flag, "Wild Flag": Albums by "supergroup" are lame, right? Well, move over, guys. Here, the inimitable Carrie Brownstein leads the way with Sleater-Kinney cohort Janet Weiss, Mary Timony (Helium) and Rebecca Cole (The Minders) on this wild, raging set of post-punk guitar nirvana.

6. Wilco, "The Whole Love": The first notes of the first song on "The Whole Love" declare that Wilco is back in the adventurous mode of "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" and "A Ghost Is Born." On this first album on its own label, Wilco rediscovers its melodic tension, playfulness and, more importantly, its mystery. Jeff Tweedy's warm, weathered voice and the veteran ensemble hit all the right notes, from the dissonant "The Art of Almost" to the pretty 12-minute closer "One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley's Boyfriend)."

7. The Decemberists, "The King Is Dead": With what sounds like the opening of a classic Neil Young album, the Decemberists signal that they'd stripped things back down, and the Portland, Ore., band seems thrilled to be back in that comfort zone, spinning sweet melodies on simpler songs (about love and war). Peter Buck jangles in with a heavy R.E.M. vibe and more than half the album has alt-country diva Gillian Welch harmonizing with Colin Meloy.

8. Smith Westerns, "Dye It Blonde": The Chicago garage-rock band reboots on this second album, which calls to mind Phil Spector's wall of sound on George Harrison's "All Things Must Pass." Frontman Cullen Omori and guitarist Max Kakacek weave big exquisite melodies, while still lurching you around with youthful energy.

9. Lykke Li, "Wounded Rhymes": Some records you just listen to. Some are like a whole other world you cautiously step into and find yourself like Alice in the Wonderland. Although it was made in California, this second effort from the Swedish snow queen is a lonely place dripping with dark atmosphere. At times it sounds like Kate Bush meets Phil Spector.

10. The Black Keys, "El Camino": The sludgy Akron blues-rockers take a leap into arena rock with this super-charged release that starts with a song, "Lonely Boy," that's an instant classic. If I had the vinyl, I wouldn't play side two much, but side one is all killer, including "Little Black Submarines," a lovely Zeppelin-y ballad that halfway through rises to the surface with a roar.

BEST SINGLES:

1. Adele, "Rolling in the Deep": A new pop-soul classic that actually stands alongside the likes of "R.E.S.P.E.C.T." or "River Deep, Mountain High." How'd this even happen?

2. Black Keys, "Lonely Boy": The album comes stamped with a "PLAY LOUD" sticker and the first song, a gutbucket blues-rock stomper, explains everything.

3. Tom Waits, "Satisfied": Mr. Waits stomps, rattles and howls through this blissfully demented response to the Stones' classic.

4. Britney Spears, "Till the World Ends": Britney doesn't do a lot here, but she doesn't need to on this sultry, hook-filled electro-pop smash.

5. Nicki Minaj, "Super Bass": A sonic boom of a club banger and a catchy pop song to boot.

6. Adele, "Someone Like You": This tearful ballad wasn't meant to be played every half-hour on the radio, so it lost a lot of impact. But, wow, what a performance.

7. Radiohead, "Lotus Flower": The most dynamic piece on the band's latest album was a melancholy love song with a menacing bassline and one of Thom Yorke's most fragile vocals (not to mention an unforgettable dance performance on the video).

8. Wild Flag, "Romance": Post-punk surf-rock gem from Seattle supergroup is a sonic update on college radio hits from the late '70s/'80s.

9. Mac Miller, "Donald Trump": Count me among the people who thought that the "Best Day Ever" mixtape was better than the "Blue Slide Park" album. This rousing single is one of the main reasons.

10. Wiz Khalifa, "No Sleep": The third single from "Rolling Papers" was a catchy, high energy party anthem blending rap and pop-punk.


Scott Mervis: smervis@post-gazette.com ; 412-263-2576; Twitter: @scottmervis_pg; blog: www.post-gazette.com/popnoise . First Published December 22, 2011 5:00 AM


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