Kanye's "Fantasy" conquered reality; the Black Keys locked into a groove; Arcade Fire burned down the suburbs.
(Rolling Stone) -- 5. Jamey Johnson, "The Guitar Song"
1: What does Jamey Johnson keep under all of that hair? Songs. Nashville's gruffest and grittiest star turns out to be its most reliable traditionalist, a Music Row pro who can write a song for every emotional season. Johnson pulled out a whole slew of them -- 25, clocking in north of 105 minutes -- for his double-disc fourth album: acoustic confessions and rugged boogie blues, big weepers and grim reapers, cover tunes and novelty ditties, not to mention "California Riots" and "Playing the Part," a pair of fiercely funny, unrepentantly redneck swipes at the frou-frou blue states.
4. Arcade Fire, "The Suburbs"
Arcade Fire don't do anything small -- so leave it to the Montreal collective to make an album of vast, orchestral rock that locates the battle for the human soul amid big houses and manicured lawns.
"The Suburbs" is the band's most adventurous album yet: See the psychotic speed strings on "Empty Room," the Crazy Horse rush of "Month of May," the synth-pop disco of "Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)." Win Butler and his wife, Régine Chassagne, sing about suburban boredom, fear of change and wanting to have a kid of their own -- always scaling their intimate confessions to arena-rock levels and finding beauty wherever they look.
3. Elton John and Leon Russell, "The Union"
Two rock giants, one largely forgotten, rekindle a friendship and make music that ranks with their best. Producer T Bone Burnett delivers his most spectacular production in memory, filled with shining steel guitar, chortling brass and gospel-time choirs. Ultimately, it's Russell's voice that shines brightest, drawing on the entire history of American popular music in its canny, vulnerable, knowing croon.
2. The Black Keys, "Brothers"
The duo boil it down on their best record yet: vivid tunes stripped bare and rubbed raw, with hot splashes of color and hooks popping through like compound fractures. "Howlin' for You" smears gnarly blues over a glam beat cribbed from Gary Glitter's "Rock and Roll Part 2," while a cover of Jerry Butler's broken-hearted hit "Never Give You Up" takes Dan Auerbach's falsetto-flashing soulman persona to the next level. It's rock minimalism pushed to the max.
1. Kanye West, "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy"
With "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy", Kanye West made music as sprawlingly messy as his life. When he wasn't feuding with Matt Lauer or bugging out on Twitter, Kanye was building hip-hop epics, songs full of the kind of grandiose gestures that only the foolish attempt and only the wildly talented pull off.
The more he piled on -- string sections, Elton John piano solos, vocoder freakouts, Bon Iver cameos, King Crimson and Rick James samples -- the better the music got. Never has Kanye rhymed so hilariously ("Have you ever had sex with a pharaoh? I put the [expletive] in a sarcophagus") or been so insightful about his relationship-torpedoing faults.
From the bracing prog-rock of "Power" to the spooky grandeur of "Runaway" to the shape-shifting "Hell of a Life," he made all other music seem dimmer and duller. Is the album dark? Sure. Twisted? Of course. But above all, it's beautiful.
Copyright © 2011 Rolling Stone.