It's pretty much common knowledge that 2010 was a suck-ass year for music. Besides Kanye's CD, and maybe Arcade Fire's and a few others, it was a dismal 12 months to be a music fan. Experts blamed the lack of superstar albums. Just wait till 2011! they said.
Well, here we are. And while the first three months of the year are typically the slowest, we've already heard new albums by Radiohead and the Strokes, two of the five best to emerge from 2011's first quarter.
What's the buzz? This 21-year-old DJ from London manages the near-impossible on his self-titled debut album: He takes a fragment of the fractured U.K. club scene — in this case dubstep — and turns it into a warm, soulful, and inviting piece of electronic music that falls somewhere between Prince and Radiohead.
Believe the hype? Blake loads his album with bleeps, bips, buzzes, and whirs. And he makes them all sound so sexy. On the best cuts, it's like a really hot robot is whispering seductively in your ear. The sonic landscape he spreads out here is gorgeous. Plus, it's a great headphones listen.
Chances it'll make it on year-end top 10 lists: 65 percent. All of Blake's technical savvy can't quite hide the fact that there's more style than substance here.
The King Is Dead
What's the buzz? The Portland indie rockers get their R.E.M. groove on with their sixth album, checking in with their most straightforward, catchy, and rootsy set of songs yet. After a decade of increasingly more convoluted records, with their eight-minute, multipart songs, these three-minute jangle-rockers are refreshing.
Believe the hype? These guys play straight into the hands of cultured NPR listeners. They look the part. They're well-read. They throw around big words. And now they're channeling R.E.M. The King Is Dead is the very definition of adult alternative.
Chances it'll make it on year-end top 10 lists: 80 percent. Music critics love the Decemberists, even when they make boring concept albums like The Hazards of Love. This one is actually good.
The Joy Formidable
The Big Roar
What's the buzz? The Joy Formidable are a trio from Wales led by a woman who has a big voice and an even bigger set of effect pedals for her guitar. The title of their debut album pretty much sums it up. The dozen songs howl in your face before washing over you in a torrent of sounds.
Believe the hype? The Big Roar isn't a pretty album, but you won't find another one that's so determined to convince you otherwise. The guitars ride riffs that are as huge as songs like "The Everchanging Spectrum of a Lie" require. At times it sounds like they blew in from the '90s. But the good part of the '90s.
Chances it'll make it on year-end top 10 lists: 70 percent. The Big Roar came out in January. By the time year-end lists are compiled in December, most critics will have forgotten all about it.
The King of Limbs
What's the buzz? Just like they did with 2007's In Rainbows, Radiohead unleashed this album online without much advance notice. That surprise attack pretty much fits the sound of the skittering, skeletal record, a product of the 21st century's consume-and-don't-digest culture.
Believe the hype? The best songs on The King of Limbs sound like Kid A. The worst sound half-finished. The overall effect can be a bit distancing (don't forget: this is computer music), but these minimalist flashes spark with electronic life. And it gets better the more you listen to it.
Chances it'll make it on year-end top 10 lists: 100 percent. It's Radiohead. Duh. There's no other band — Animal Collective, Arcade Fire, whatever — critics adore more than Radiohead.
What's the buzz? The Strokes get back to what they do best on their first album in five years: being the Strokes. The 10 songs zip by in about a half-hour, leaving a trail of the same hipster cool that fueled their landmark debut.
Believe the hype? There are some wobbly songs here (still not sure what "Machu Picchu" is or is about), but at least the Strokes try out a few different styles, giving dance punk a whirl here, Thin Lizzy-style rock there. When they sound like the Strokes, they're onto something.
Chances it'll make it on year-end top 10 lists: 80 percent. Is This It is a formative album for many critics. Angles sounds enough like it to carry it through the year.