Pop Music :: Year’s Best with DJ Taffy

by Bruce Derfler

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday January 3, 2012

It's late December, 2011, a time to look ahead (to a new year--perhaps our last one, if the Mayans are to be believed!) and a time to look back (just how good or bad was your 2011?). 

This critic strives for optimism and positivity (no, really), so in that spirit I've created a musical world where the likes of LMFAO and their ilk simply don't exist to torment my eardrums. My advice for the top forty wannabes of tomorrow: Back away from the Auto-tune, hone your songwriting skills, and experience the normal ups and downs of life. Hey, it worked for Adele!

And now, a word about my selection process for top albums and songs of the year. As always, they were released domestically in the past calendar year, and as always there is an exception or two. My number one song actually saw a commercial release in late 2010, but dominated my 2011 playlist so thoroughly that I couldn't ignore it. I've also deviated from my usual alphabetical order to attempt a loose ranking. Basically, I love all my children, but decided to show some sort of favoritism this year. Bring on the winners!

First, the top ten albums of the year...

1. The Young Professionals - 9:00 TO 17:00, 17:00 TO WHENEVER

This is superlative electro-pop from the Israeli duo of Ivri Lider and Yonathan Goldshtein. I guess it's a concept album, taking you through the day of a "young professional" from work to daydreaming at work to an evening of clubbing and abandon. 

It's clever and engaging. Musically polished but still slightly lo-fi, this song cycle really hangs together thanks to Lider's laid back, yet seductive, vocals. And no, they're not in Hebrew.

2. Mirrors - Lights and Offerings

If you're jonesing for the sound of classic Depeche Mode, here's your album. Other reference points are Kraftwerk, OMD, and New Order. 

Mirrors hail from Brighton, England, but sound so Teutonic it's a given they'll be huge in Germany. Much as with last year's "Happiness" album by Hurts, this functions perfectly as both homage to '80s synth and template for a new kind of retro-futurism.  

3. Penguin Prison - Penguin Prison

Chris Glover (for he is Penguin Prison) released a handful of singles prior to this, his debut album. Perhaps if the Pet Shop Boys collaborated with "Thriller"-era Michael Jackson they'd produce a dance-pop album like Penguin Prison has. 

Highlights include the bubbling surge of "Fair Warning" and the sweet MJ yearning of "The Worse It Gets," but really this album bounces along from peak to peak.

4. The Sound of Arrows - Voyage

Lush, uplifting, soaring--overused adjectives for sure, but aptly used to describe the long-awaited debut by these dreamy Swedes. While I would not refer to Voyage as "trippy," this album is nevertheless perhaps best listened to through headphones as you take that well-deserved winter vacation to the far reaches of your mind.  

5. Foster the People - Torches

LA based trio Foster the People broke out of nowhere with debut single "Pumped Up Kicks" (more on that ditty in the top ten tunes list) riding a huge wave of hype.  Luckily, "Torches" is stuffed with highly appealing sunny-side up California pop-rock. 

I'm rather partial to the rubbery beat of "Houdini" and the obscenely catchy earworm that is "Don't Stop (Color On the Walls)."

6. Johan Agebjorn - Casablanca Nights

Agebjorn is a composer and producer responsible for two albums by nu-disco chanteuse Sally Shapiro (a mysterious female vocalist who has never performed live) as well as production for other artists. Heavily indebted to classic Italo-disco, "Casablanca Nights" is simultaneously shimmering, spacey, and mournful. 

More properly billed as a Johan Agebjorn and Friends album, this release features like-minded guests (such as Shapiro and Queen of Hearts) on most of its tracks, adding wistful vocals to splendid effect.

7. The Vaccines - What Did You Expect From the Vaccines?

This new English band certainly looks to New York's finest (The Ramones, The Strokes) for inspiration, and their debut album storms out of the gates with breakneck opener "Wrecking Bar (Ra Ra Ra)." 

Even when the tempos lag, the energy doesn't, and you'll find yourself nodding understandably to the jealous ex-lover's lament of "Post Break-up Sex." Wise lads, those Vaccines.

8. Adele - 21

2011 was certainly the year Miss Adele Adkins single-handedly saved the music industry, if not all of womankind.  Just ten months after its release, "21" has achieved the rarified status of stone-cold, critic-proof classic. 

So be it. Adele's titanic vocals soar without bellowing, and the gospel/blues influences which infuse her pop songs of heartbreak keep her safely out of trite "journal entry" territory. 

"Rolling in the Deep" is a killer single deserving of its enormous hit status. Not to be a buzzkill, but I do wonder if she can mine happiness for inspiration. Or are we due a sequel of more jilted laments?

9. Cults - Cults

New York duo Cults do a deft job of fusing dreamy indie rock with 60s girl group touches. 

There's an appealing sense of mystery about this band and album--imagine if forgotten girl group the Jaynettes (one-hit wonders with 1963's "Sally Go 'Round the Roses") were locked away nearly a half century, only to be led out to an echo-y studio to sing while a shoegaze band played sympathetic backup. It would be a delight. Like Cults.

10. Blondie - Panic of Girls

It's been a torturous journey for this, the first album in eight years from original first-wavers Blondie. 

Finally self-released well over a year after completion, "Panic of Girls" is a little frustrating, but ultimately satisfying for Blondie fans casual and obsessive alike. The album opens with the fuzzy Garbage-esque "D-Day," then skips playfully from classic late 70's era power-pop ("Mother," "What I Heard") to reggae, world music (Debbie shows off her high school French and Spanish) and pretty balladry. 

Sadly, the American version lacks several fine tunes relegated to Euro-only deluxe editions. Seek 'em out, completists.

Go to the following page for the Top Ten Songs of the Year:

1. Martin Solveig featuring Dragonette - "Hello"

Yeah, this was my jam of the year, so go ahead and sue me that it saw a late 2010 release.  Fusing a stomping Gary Glitter intro to a ringing electro-dance melody, this never failed to please, whether played through a club sound system or my own iPod.

2. The Young Professionals - "D.I.S.C.O."

Initial single from TYP's superlative album, and yet another absurdly catchy electronic anthem.  I've only just learned that it's not an original but based on a sample from the French band Ottawan's own 30+ year old song "D.I.S.C.O.."  No matter - it remains a top tune in any decade.

3. Bright Light Bright Light - "Disco Moment"

Rod Thomas recorded sweet acoustic ditties under his own name before taking on the persona of Bright Light Bright Light and turning to impeccably polished electro-pop.  "Disco Moment" combines gorgeously sad lyrics about an imminent break-up with the most uplifting of tunes.  The Pet Shop Boys excel at this sort of songwriting; to be compared with them favorably is high praise indeed for Bright Light Bright Light.

4. Foster the People - "Pumped Up Kicks"

This strange little gem became an unexpected monster hit; the first "alternative" rock song to score high on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in several years.  Despite its dark lyrical subject matter (probing the mind of a possible Columbine-like high school shooter), "Pumped Up Kicks" sounds deceptively cheery with its slinky rhythm and quirky vocal effects.

5. The Primitives - Never Kill A Secret EP

This is sort of a cheat, as it's a four song EP (or extended play, which in the age of vinyl and CDs would possibly have figured on the regular singles chart).  Anyway, I make the rules, I break them.  After a 20 year dormancy, British fuzz-poppers The Primitives sprang back to life with these four fizzy garage rock nuggets, any one of which could have found life on college radio in the mid-80s (or mid-60s).

6. Lykke Li - "Get Some"

The tribal beat and sexy chanting of "Get Some" was quite unexpected after Li's relatively sedate sounding 2008 debut album "Youth Novels."  "Like a shotgun needs an outcome, I'm your prostitute, you gon' get some."  Couldn't have put it better myself.

7. Holy Ghost! - "Wait and See"

More DOR (dance oriented rock) from the New York hipsters at DFA Records.  This is some good stuff, kinda retro (echos of New Order, Simple Minds) and kinda current (Hot Chip, Cut Copy) in influence.

8. Patrick Wolf - "The City"

Patrick Wolf is in love with a capital L - joyous, delirious love - and it shines throughout this giddy paean to his boyfriend.  The opening cut on his new album ("Lupercalia"), "The City" is exhilarating and universal in its simple sentiments.  It can be equally enjoyed in its original version or the Richard X Remix, which amps up the dance-floor suitability but leaves the standout melody intact.

9. Cut Copy - "Need You Now"

Lifted from excellent parent album "Zonoscope," "Need You Now" is a slow burner which just ever so slightly builds and builds and builds over the course of six glorious minutes.  By the end of the song you realize the payoff didn't actually come towards the finish, but was there all along in subtle ass-shaking perfection.

10. Florrie - "Begging Me"

Florrie began drumming for famed British production team Xenomania, and now writes and releases her own songs independently.  "Begging Me" is a stellar slice of pop songcraft, nestled on her Experiments EP.  Sure, Girls Aloud or Kylie could've taken this to the top of the British charts, but given the chance we'll likely see Florrie successfully competing with those broads in the big leagues.

Bruce Derfler (aka DJ Taffy) is musically opinionated, as it should be. Does that make sense? Or should it read: ...is musically opinionated, as he should be.