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Cherrytree Records, AP Photo/Interscope
In this CD cover image released by Interscope/Cherrytree Records, Ellie Goulding's 2011 release "Lights," is shown.

When you cover entertainment, the music never stops. The albums come in by mail every day but Sunday and pile up in the inbox. The stack of albums grows exponentially, and despite good intentions, certain albums get pushed aside, and by the time you've listened, the release date has long since passed.

Most times, you're not missing that much. But every so often, there's an album that makes your heart simultaneously skip and sink upon hearing it — it skips at how amazing the music is, and sinks when you realize that you ignored something so great for so long.

So now, we look back at those gems — the overlooked diamonds left among the zirconia piled about the desk in 2011.

Robert Ellis, "Photographs" (New West)

We caught the last 10 minutes of a spirited Robert Ellis show in Nashville recently and it sent us racing back to the record player. And that left us wondering how we missed it on our first spin of "Photographs"? The quiet perfection of each song. The knockout songwriting. The curator's knowledge. And the timeless voice.

All that adds up to what might be our favorite album of the 2011.

Ellis, a 23-year-old from Houston, is definitely headed down a path not often travelled. While most of his peers are honky-tonkin' and rock 'n' rollin', he steeps second album "Photographs" in a long-gone era of traditional country music. He shows an uncommon patience, especially for one so young, and displays an ageless wisdom as he earnestly reflects on the nature of loss ("Bamboo"), friendship ("Friends Like Those") and relationships ("Two Cans of Paint," ''Westbound Train").

He shows an uncommon subtlety in songs like the rollicking "Comin' Home," which reads as both a simple back-to-my-baby road song and a refutation of his folkie past as he puts Austin in the rearview mirror and heads back home to his roots.

We're anxiously awaiting more.

—Chris Talbott, AP Entertainment Writer


Ellie Goulding, "Lights" (Interscope/Cherrytree Records)

Yes, Ellie Goulding's debut album "Lights" is full of electro-dance beats and some tracks even make use of Auto-Tune, but it's not another overproduced dance album: She's got artistic heft. Her voice drips with emotion and her lyrics are honest and straight forward, both ingredients that make for a top-notch album.

The songs are as appealing as Goulding: She's telling her lover she isn't sticking around on the drum and electric guitar-fused "Every Time You Go," and she's pleading — in a lovely cry — that he stay around on the eerie-sounding "Salt Skin." And on one song she sings: "We're under the sheets and you're killing me."

Even when Goulding is not saying it in her own words, she is still convincing — check out her brilliant cover of Elton John's "This Song," which was produced by Ben Lovett of Mumford & Sons.

Besides that tune, the 25-year-old co-wrote every track on the 11-song set, working on most of the album with producer Starsmith. She's won over the United Kingdom: She's multiplatinum there and has two Top 5 hits. She also performed at the reception for the royal wedding.

Now America just needs to catch on.

— Mesfin Fekadu, Associated Press


Idle Warship, "Habits of the Heart," (Blacksmith/Element 9/Fontana)

Res put out her debut album in 2001 with "How Do I," but the singer-songwriter, who blended her soulful music with elements of rock and pop, fell off the mainstream map despite that wonderful first effort. Still, Res has remained on the music scene for the last few years and makes perhaps her biggest splash yet with Talib Kweli as the eclectic, electric duo Idle Warship.

Though the two put out a few songs in 2010, they made their official debut late last year with "Habits of the Heart," which kicks off with the feverish "Enemy," where Kweli plays Ike to Res' Tina — and not in a good way. It's uncomfortable yet irresistible listening.

The rest of the album is just plain alluring. The grooves range from the slow ballad "Beautifully Bad" to the reggae-influenced "God Bless My Soul," with other songs that blend rock, dance, a bit of electronica and more without sounding disjointed — it all flows beautifully, and is aided by guest appearances by Jean Grae, Michelle Williams and John Forte.

— Nekesa Mumbi Moody, AP Music Writer

(http://www.twitter.com/nekesamumbi )

Nicolas Jaar, "Space Is Only Noise" (Circus Company)

In today's music scene, dominated by imitators of dance beats and some of its originators, Nicolas Jaar is almost the antithesis to that upbeat world — his sound is downbeat, still echoing an electronic mood mixed with more emotion, at times mirroring the new wave of R&B from acts like The Weeknd and Frank Ocean.

His refreshing debut, "Space Is Only Noise," is an instrumental album and 13-song adventure, wonderfully blending genres, making its full sound calming, mysterious and at most times, epic. "Keep Me There" transitions beautifully thanks to the saxophone, and then there's "Problem With the Sun," which could be mistaken for a Gorillaz song. The opening and closing tracks range from water streaming to a kid screaming to the piano playing. It's noisy, but not annoying.

Jaar is a student at Brown University and the son of Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar. What he has created is a reflective sound that makes you think, and at times, dance.

— Mesfin Fekadu, Associated Press


Explosions in the Sky, "Take Care, Take Care, Take Care" (Temporary Residence)

It would have been easy to ignore Explosions in the Sky at first. The Austin, Texas-based rock quartet puts out epic star-gazing instrumentals — long past the time when those kinds of things were hip. It had been been four years since the group's last album and some wondered if there'd be a seventh.

Give "Take Care, Take Care, Take Care" a listen, though, and you'll find more real emotion in the wordless universe the band creates over these six songs than in much of the music you've listened to in 2011.

From the soaring opener "Last Known Surroundings" — rolling guitars over a marching drum beat does convey a sense of euphoric wandering — to the playfulness of "Be Comfortable, Creature" and the impressionistic "Let Me Back In," Explosions in the Sky create a playground for the imagination.

—Chris Talbott, AP Entertainment Writer


Deep Purple with Orchestra "Live at Montreaux 2011" (Eagle Rock)

It was 27 years ago that former Deep Purple guitarist Ritchie Blackmore brought a symphony orchestra out on tour with his successor band, Rainbow. Now, the Blackmore-less Deep Purple does likewise.

They're actually somewhat late to this party: a slew of classic rock artists from Metallica to Kiss to The Moody Blues, Three Dog Night and even Grand Funk Railroad have performed with symphony orchestras. But for the most part, it works well here. The strings and brass give new heft to FM staples like "Knocking At Your Back Door" and "Woman From Tokyo."

They also sound fine on my favorite Purple song of all time, "Highway Star," but the track is ruined here by singer Ian Gillian's inability or unwillingness after all these decades to hit the screaming high notes of the chorus, "I LOVE it, I NEED it!" Instead, he opts for a flaccid falsetto that kills the whole buzz on what is a legendary classic rock anthem. Dude: If you can't sing it, don't try it.

The orchestra lends a tender, emotional feel to a more obscure track,  "When A Blind Man Cries" that shows the full potential of wedding symphonic style to classic rock bombast.

Guitarist Steve Morse (previously of Kansas and The Dixie Dregs) brings his own touches and flourishes to songs Blackmore made famous, and deserves kudos for bringing something new to the party.

The concert,  from the closing night of the Montreaux festival on July 16, is sold separately as a CD and a DVD.

— Wayne Parry, Associated Press

(http://www.twitter.com/wayneparryac )


Curren$y, "Weekend at Burnie's" (Jet Life Recordings/Warner Bros.)

Before there was Drake and Nicki Minaj, rapper Curren$y was the flagship rapper of Lil Wayne's Young Money Entertainment. He was impressive on the 2006 song "Where da Cash At" featuring Lil Wayne and Remy Ma.

But Curren$y struggled to find his artistic niche and eventually left Lil Wayne's imprint and Cash Money Records. He went on to release a series of enjoyable mixtapes and dropped four solid albums between 2009 and 2010.

In 2011, Curren$y released his fifth solo album, "Weekend at Burnie's," which is by far his best album to date. With his strong southern drawl, the New Orleans-based rapper has a laid-back demeanor that works well with the melodic tracks, produced mostly by Monsta Beatz.

Curren$y's lyrical content is much easier to understand on this album. On "She Don't Want a Man," he touches on the subject of adultery by a woman who would rather run off on secret excursions with a thug than spend time with her financially secure husband.

Other standout songs are "(hash)JetsGo"; "Still," and "Get Paid" featuring TradeMark Da SkyDiver and Young Roddy on both tracks; and "Televised" with Fiend.

— Jonathan Landrum Jr., Associated Press


Livan "Off The Grid" (Pumpkin Music)

This guy is going to be huge someday.

The Greek-born, London-raised singer Livan defies easy categorization. His voice has the snarl of Johnny Rotten and the exaggerated bass of Iggy Pop. His shaved head evokes Rob Halford, and his over-the-top stage presence evokes Freddie Mercury, clad one night in hot pink spandex and combat boots, the next in a leather fringed kilt.

And he rocks.

All-at-once angry, pensive, wistful and hopeful, Livan's songs run the gamut from post-punk slashing guitars to the dissonant power chords of classic 1970s rock, with just enough melody and harmony thrown in to make it commercially appealing. "Meet Me On The Other Side" is built around a two-chord riff very reminiscent of Black Sabbath's self-titled track "Black Sabbath," and guitarist Will Crewdson's solo has the type of frenzied crescendo that Cheap Trick's Rick Nielsen used early in his career.

"Little White Lies" would have been right at home on a Sex Pistols album, while "Sad" could have been a mix of Blink 182 and Billy Idol. "King Of The World" and "Many Happy Returns" hew more closely to pure punk tradition, while the album's best track, the ferocious "Undead" pairs menacing bass and guitar lines with a seething, barely controlled rage that would have made Livan a perfect villain in a Batman movie. (Hey, Hollywood, there's still time...)

Little known in this country, Livan has been wowing audiences and making a name for himself since the summer as the opening act for Alice Cooper. With those shows, he proved himself to be a breath of fresh air in a hard rock music scene desperately in need of some new excitement and a new Rock God. He's got the pipes, the songwriting ability, and the charisma to pull it off. Of all the albums you might have missed this year, go buy this one first.

— Wayne Parry, Associated Press