Unlike the movies, which roll out the year's biggest releases over the summer, most music that comes out during the warm months isn't the year's best. The big boys are usually saved for the fall and spring. And this spring was no exception. The past three months saw some of 2011's biggest releases, including new albums by Lady Gaga and Foo Fighters (two of the very few records that could break Adele's stranglehold at the top of the charts). Here are five of our favorites from 2011's busy second quarter.
What's the buzz? Justin Vernon famously recorded Bon Iver's debut album For Emma, Forever Ago while holed up in a Wisconsin cabin. He heads outside on his second album, which follows a much-publicized and certifiably awesome collaboration with Kanye West last year.
Believe the hype? Vernon is one bearded folkie we're not tired of yet. That's because he's moved on from his isolation, filling Bon Iver's spaces with horns, synths, and Auto-Tune. His falsetto is filled with genuine soul here. That's not something you find in a backwoods cabin.
Chance it'll make year-end top 10 lists? 85 percent. For Emma, Forever Ago was a slow-burning, indie-folk favorite in 2008. Bon Iver grabs you more immediately. You don't need a late winter night to discover and soak in its splendor.
What's the buzz? Tons of people — from old singer-songwriter types to young hipsters — loved the bearded Seattle band's self-titled 2008 debut because the laid-back, folky songs sounded like Crosby, Stills & Nash and other Woodstock-era hippies. Helplessness Blues is more of the same.
Believe the hype? There's a bigger scope to this album, which tightens the band's sound while simultaneously expanding it. Frontman Robin Pecknold writes about growing up and fitting in, finally finding peace on Helplessness Blues' eight-minute centerpiece, "The Shrine/An Argument."
Chance it'll make year-end top 10 lists? 80 percent. Fleet Foxes' vocal harmonies and melodies can be so crisp and clean at times that they're in danger of breaking into little pieces. But Pecknold holds it all together, at least for now.
David Comes to Life
What's the buzz? It's a 78-minute concept album about a post-apocalyptic guy thinking back on his life in the late 1970s. Like most concept albums, things get scrambled midway through (it doesn't help that the narrator turns out to be an unreliable weirdo). But damn does it smoke.
Believe the hype? These Toronto punks don't let the fact that they're a punk band from Toronto stop them from making one of the year's most ambitious records. There's plenty of hooks here keeping it all together, even when the story doesn't make much sense.
Chance it'll make year-end top 10 lists? 70 percent. Frontman Damian Abraham growls over his band's chunky guitar riffs, psychedelic feedback squalls, and some of the most triumphant sounds you'll hear this year. It's quite epic ... and just a little bit draining.
Born This Way
What's the buzz? Unsurprisingly, Lady Gaga's second album sold a shitload of copies. It's also one of the most sweeping pop records made this decade, with classic rock, world grooves, club beats, and outer-space disco all getting a piece of the action.
Believe the hype? The title track sounds a lot like Madonna. There are a couple other songs that sound like Madonna too. Still, Gaga manages to blast a bunch of her own personality onto the album. And just try shaking "Judas"' massive chorus once it gets stuck in your head.
Chance it'll make year-end top 10 lists? 50 percent. Gaga plays up her artsy side, which scores her points. But you've heard much of this before, like on, um, Madonna records. And on Madonna records.
What's the buzz? Back when he was fronting Tony! Toni! Toné!, Saadiq injected old-school soul into his new jack swing. His solo albums aren't so much nostalgic trips as modern-day soul and funk romps filtered through traditional R&B sounds.
Believe the hype? The Way I See It (from 2008) sounded like a long-forgotten album from soul music's peak mid-'60s era. Here, Saadiq channels Stevie Wonder, Sly & the Family Stone, and Marvin Gaye, hurling five years of glorious late-'60s/early-'70s R&B into the future.
Chance it'll make year-end top 10 lists? 65 percent. Stone Rollin' is a darker and less hook-oriented album than the terrific The Way I See It, depending on the groove, which takes a little more dedication. Your commitment is worth it.