An Early Look At 2011's Best Music Most everyone would agree that 2010 is old news, which means it's time to start rolling out the best music of 2011. Here, NPR Music editor Stephen Thompson talks about forthcoming albums by R.E.M., Iron and Wine, James Blake, Adele and Wye Oak.
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An Early Look At 2011's Best Music

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An Early Look At 2011's Best Music


Music Reviews

An Early Look At 2011's Best Music

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(Soundbite of song, "Discoverer")


R.E.M. is hoping to get a whiff of the sweet smell of success with their new album, "Collapse Into Now."

(Soundbite of song, "Discoverer")

R.E.M. (Music Group): (Singing) Hey baby, this is not a challenge. It just means that I love you as much as I always said I did.

LYDEN: This track is called "Discoverer." It's from R.E.M.'s first record in three years, and it's one of the most anticipated new albums of 2011.

Stephen Thompson of NPR Music joins me now for a preview of some of those records.

Hi, Stephen.


LYDEN: Hi. It's nice to listen to R.E.M. again.

Mr. THOMPSON: It is. It's been a few years.

LYDEN: Yeah. These guys have got to be in their 50s by now, but this is a really muscular sound.

Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah. I think there was a stretch kind of in the early part of the last decade where REM was putting out some very, very tepid records. And I think the last couple, including this one, are a little bit more rock-sounding, and that's refreshing.

LYDEN: Let's hear a little more.

(Soundbite of song, "Discoverer")

R.E.M.: (Singing) Might have made a little less mess. But it was what it was; let's all get on with it now - discoverer.

LYDEN: It'll be a hit, my prediction.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LYDEN: That's new music from R.E.M. The album "Collapse Into Now" comes out in March.

Stephen, I know you're really excited about this next band. I really love listening to them. They're a duo from Baltimore called Wye Oak. What can you tell me about them?

Mr. THOMPSON: This is one of my absolute favorite bands. It's a man and a woman, just two people. Jenn Wasner is the singer and guitarist with a wonderfully sort of mysterious delivery. It's kind of hard to decipher her lyrics. And it gives the music kind of beauty and mystery all kind of rolled into one.

And the other member is a guy named Andy Stack who plays drums and keyboards. When you see it live, he plays them simultaneously. And it's a very, very rich, full but still beautiful sound.

LYDEN: Yeah. A young band. I really like them.

Mr. THOMPSON: This is Wye Oak. The song and the album are called, "Civilian."

(Soundbite of song, "Civilian")

WYE OAK (Music Group): (Singing) I don't need another friend when most of them I can barely keep up with. I'm perfectly able to hold my own hand but I still can't kiss my own neck.

LYDEN: That's Wye Oak with the title track to their forthcoming album "Civilian," also due out in March.

And so Stephen, moving on to an artist with a lot of buzz around him right now. He's an English electronic artist by the name of James Blake. Let's listen.

(Soundbite of song, "Lindesfarne II")

Mr. JAMES BLAKE (Singer): (Singing) (Unintelligible).

LYDEN: Now, of all the things you gave us to listen to, I found this the most experimental. Is this Lindesfarne?

Mr. THOMPSON: Yes. Lindesfarne II. There's a part one and part two of this particular piece. Yeah. James Blake is 21 years old and is a very popular sort of up and coming producer of a kind - of a style of music called dubstep.

LYDEN: Dubstep?

Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah. Dubstep - it's basically a style of almost production as much as performance where it involves sort of slowing down and kind of staggering out beat so everything feels a bit off kilter. And it creates a certain tension in the music. I'll put it this way. It's very difficult music to dance to.

(Soundbite of "Lindesfarne II")

Mr. JAMES BLAKE: (Singing) (Unintelligible)

Mr. THOMPSON: You know, he's been producing all of these records that have been enormously popular sort of in underground circles. And what has been very unexpected, I think, for a lot of people is he's put together this - his first full-length record comes out in February, and he's singing all over it and obviously, as you hear on that track, sort of mutating his vocals, you know, using a vocoder and creating this very dark, slightly unsettling but very, very beautiful sound. Kind of - like I said about Wye Oak, there's a certain mystery to what's going on here that is really grabby.

LYDEN: I think it's a really sort of (unintelligible) song for, you know, 21. It's really evocative.

Mr. THOMPSON: It doesn't sound like a kid, that's for sure.

LYDEN: No. And that was James Blake, and his new self-titled album comes out in February.

My guest is Stephen Thompson from NPR Music, and we're getting a sneak peek of some of the big new releases of the first couple months of 2011.

Staying in the UK, another singer - she had a big debut album three years ago, and I love women who sing like this. This is the sophomore release from Adele. Let's hear some of her.

(Soundbite of song, "Rolling in the Deep")

ADELE (Singer): (Singing) There's a fire starting in my heart reaching a fever pitch it's bringing me out the dark. Finally I can see you crystal clear. Go head and sell me out and I'll lay your ship there. See how I leave with every piece of you.

LYDEN: Some people call her the new Amy Winehouse. I have to say I love these kinds of raw female voices. Years ago, Joan Armatrading, Bonnie Raitt's always had that. She's really fantastic.

Mr. THOMPSON: She won the Best New Artist Grammy a couple years ago. And there's this long running joke that being named Best New Artist by the Grammies was this gigantic kiss of death. You know, Christopher Cross and Milli Vanilli, and people who...


(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. THOMPSON: Exactly. And this particular song, it just sounds like a great hit to me.

(Soundbite of song, "Rolling in the Deep")

ADELE: (Singing) We could have had it all rolling in the deep. You had my heart and soul.

LYDEN: Now, she's another really young artist.

Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah. She is 22. And the album is called, "Twenty-One," which would signify presumably how old she was when she made it. And, you know, to be that young and be sort of as musically self-confident and self-aware as she is, I can't wait to hear what she does when she puts out a record called Twenty-Five, or Twenty-Seven, or Twenty-Nine.

LYDEN: I was checking out her website, and she's already admitting to, you know, serious life mistakes. She's (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. THOMPSON: I don't know if I knew what my life mistakes were at that age.

LYDEN: Men, honey.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LYDEN: Adele, with music from her album "Twenty-One."

One last song, Stephen, and this a little a sweeter, a little gentler. This is from the singer-songwriter Sam Beam. He records under the name Iron & Wine. Again, NPR Music has had him on a lot. His new record comes out later this month, and quite a departure, I understand, from his earlier work.

Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah. Sam Beam started out making records that are very solo, acoustic, folk music where he's sort of recording these tender ballads in his bedroom. And over time, he's kind of stretched that sound out into an increasingly full sound. And this particular record, which is called "Kiss Each Other Clean," is a very, very rich-sounding kind of full band record that is -yeah, as you said, it's a clear departure.

(Soundbite of song, "Kiss Each Other Clean")

Mr. SAM BEAM (Singer, Iron & Wine): (Singing) I saw children in a river but their lips were still dry, lips were still dry. I was walking far from home and I found your face mingled in the crowd. Saw a boat-full of believers sail off talking too loud, talking too loud. I saw sunlight on the water...

LYDEN: You know, listening to this, he's an American, I hear a little John Lennon sort of in that...

Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah, in the voice. And part of what I love about him is a lot of his songs unfurl. Like they're - like he's rolling out a mural and there's just image after image after image. He's not necessarily a guy who does a lot of catchy choruses. He's a guy who's sort of letting stories unfold.

LYDEN: New music from Iron & Wine, one of the picks for 2011 from Stephen Thompson who curates our Song of the Day feature on

This has really been fun. Thank you.

Mr. THOMPSON: Thank you, Jacki. Always a pleasure.

LYDEN: I feel like we just had a glass of bracing musical champagne. And you can keep watching the NPR Music website for a big announcement about that Iron & Wine record. You're not going to give us a hint?

Mr. THOMPSON: I'm afraid I cannot.

LYDEN: Tease, tease, tease. So check it out later this week at

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