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The 64 best albums I heard in 2011

Welcome to my third annual orgasmic roundup of the best music I heard that was released in this calendar year. This time, in response to previous (and justified) complaints that there is no way of knowing the style or feel of these records when put in a massive scroll, I have managed to jot down some (pretty slapdash) impressions to provide some clues. I hope that will help this become more of an informed consumer guide.

The usual caveats apply. I'm sure I have missed out on many spectacular records and welcome input on those omissions (also on where you think I am off the mark or otherwise wrong-headed). I also will be slapping my head over records I heard, loved, and somehow forgot about when compiling this collection. Finally, my taste is thankfully ever-changing from day to day: The order here would be different each time I compiled it. But rest assured that I endorse all 64 selections, which are actually fewer than my two previous years' choices.

Look forward to your responses. And God bless music, which ranks somewhere between air, food and water (and sports!) in my list of necessities.

1) Robbie Robertson, How to Become Clairvoyant

Here's where I forfeit my (already outdated) hipster credential. Not even die-hard Robertson or Band lovers cared for this as much as I did. But the hypnotic, whispery ambiance (it could have been produced by Daniel Lanois) and Eric Clapton's choice, muted guitar seized hold and I couldn't stop playing it for about four months.

2) Wild Flag, Wild Flag

Thrilling straight-ahead, only slightly riot-grrl rock from alumni of Sleater-Kinney, Helium and The Minders.

3) Brooklyn Rider, Plays Philip Glass

Lush renditions of five string quartets that are both mesmerizing and intellectually engaging, upholstering my impressions of Glass' music in a more enjoyable and illuminating light.

4) tUnE-yArDs, WHOKILL

Merrill Garbus is the year's most original creative spirit, a hilarious, mischievous soundscaper who administers sage social commentary masquerading as whimsy amid her battery of low-fi pop riffs and textures.

5) James Carter, Caribbean Rhapsody

Neither "Third Stream" nor "Latin jazz," Rhapsody alternates Carter's collaborations with the Puerto Rican classical composer Roberto Sierra with awesome extended solo interludes on tenor and soprano sax.

6) Big K.R.I.T, Return of 4Eva

The best of his various mixtapes in wide release. Because K.R.I.T. is both rapper and producer, he creates organic songs of razor-sharp wordplay enveloped in a gauzy, "Dirty South" mesh.

7) Captain Black Big Band, Captain Black Big Band

A hard bop big band that swings with a vengeance and lets the soloists rip and holler.

8) Tom Harrell, The Time of the Sun

In which Harrell's indefatigably consistent quintet finally overtakes Dave Holland's group as the best working ensemble in jazz. Don't let the opening title track dissuade you — it is a failed experiment that uses magnetic sounds from the sun's outer atmosphere.

9) Foo Fighters, Wasting Light

Their best and most ferocious record. Dave Grohl is setting up an interesting debate over his ultimate legacy relative to that of Kurt Cobain.

10) Trio 3 + Geri Allen, Celebrating Mary Lou Williams

Oliver Lake, Andrew Cyrille, Reggie Workman and Geri Allen are names that promise a memorably wild, woolly, soulful and bluesy jazz ensemble — and make good on that promise while bolstering the legacy of Mary Lou Williams.

11) Bradford/Dresser/Ferris, Live In L.A.

A fabulous brass and bass jazz trio with inventive exchanges and ample space allowed for trumpet, trombone and bass. 

12) Gretchen Parlato, The Lost and Found

Parlato is a jazz vocalist who manages to blend the narrative virtues and modern songbook sensibility of Cassandra Wilson with the late, great Betty Carter's concept of the singer-instrumentalist as another improvising soloist in a great jazz ensemble.

13) Gillian Welch, The Harrow and the Harvest

Some days the coffee tastes just right and the walk to the mailbox at the end of the dirt driveway invites profundity. Through all the hurt and sorrow on this disc, there is that kind of glorious, happenstance beauty and revelation at work. 

14) Anthony Hamilton, Back to Love

Hamilton's a delicious southern gospel-soul singer who can sound like Al Green on "Woo," Bill Withers on "Mad," and yet is utterly himself all the time.

15) Marcus Strickland, Triumph of the Heavy, Volume 2

A gruff and tough piano-less trio, with Marcus blazing on tenor while drumming twin brother E.J. Strickland and bassist Ben Williams provide ornery counterpoint like a dog gnawing on a bone.

16) William Parker, Crumbling in the Shadows Is Fraulein Miller's Stale Cake

Bold, avant-garde solo bass from one of the preeminent jazz masters.

17) Roy Haynes, Roy-alty

The ageless drummer unfurls another great disc, with extended guest appearances by Chick Corea and Roy Hargrove along with his sharp Fountain of Youth band.

18) Shelby Lynne, Revelation Road

An intimate, harrowing, self-recorded collection from this increasingly deep country singer.

19) Sonny Rollins, Road Shows, Vol. 2

Tenor sax delirium. Even at 81, Rollins remains the only musician alive who can outperform Bruce Springsteen in concert.

20) Pat Martino Quartet, Undeniable

Stroked soul-jazz that goes from toe-tapping to joint-bending to gleeful-hollering crescendos, courtesy of guitarist Martino and special special guest saxophonist Eric Alexander.

21) Rene Marie, Voice of My Beautiful Country

Her "covers" album. The patriotic songs are heartfelt without too much schmaltz, but her "Imagination" medley, concluding with the Temp's "Just My Imagination," is transcendent. ("White Rabbit" not so much.)

22) Matthew Shipp and Darius Jones, Cosmic Lieder

23) Darius Jones, Big Gurl (Smell My Dream)

Darius Jones is one of the more exciting talents to come along in jazz in the past five years. His duets with Shipp, in which the august pianist frequently defers to Jones and they pursue titles based on comic books, are durably satisfying, and his second disc as leader finds him honking and squealing the blues with his trio.

24) Smith Westerns, Dye It Blonde

Chiming alternative rock with some nifty guitars.

25) Dessa, Castor The Twin

It's been a treat to hear her grow from a solid piece of the Doomtree collective into a full-fledged spoken-word artist-singer, building on her rap foundation without betraying or diluting her essence.

26) The Civil Wars, Barton Hollow

Vocals harmonies as rich and detailed and sustainably simple as a heirloom quilt.

27) Muhal Richard Abrams, SoundDance

AACM founder and pianist Abrams duets with the blips and honks of trombonist George Lewis, and with the late Chicago saxophonist Fred Anderson in one of Anderson's final performances.

28) Drive-By Truckers, Go-Go Boots

A solid return to form — sprawling, messy, topical, surprising — by this thinking man's southern rock band.

29) Ernesto Cervini Quartet, There!

Rollicking Canadian drummer has the good sense to turn saxophonist Joel Frahm loose on his compositions in this live outing that is just right as house-cleaning music.

30) Various Artists, Miles Espanol

The Miles Davis legacy just keeps on giving. A few years after some fabulous Miles-goes-to-India interpretations, his songbook gets a Latin twist with folks like Chick Corea, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Ron Carter, John Scofield, Antonio Sanchez, John Benitez .

31) Cults, Cults

Retro-60s rock through the looking glass — think the Zombies and the Dave Clark Five with modern echoes and girl group vocals.

32) The Roots, Undun

They keep morphing, growing, sprawling. A concept album and not their best — just really, really good. The back-to-front narrative is too clever by half, but it can be languorous or thought-provoking as your mood warrants.

33) Bill Frisell & Vinicius Cantuaria, Lagrimas Mexicanas

34) Bill Frisell, All We Are Saying…

Our intrepid guitarist was typically busy in '11, engaging Brazilian guitarist Cantuaria in some gorgeous multi-culti folk-jazz tunes and unpacking the John Lennon songbook with a more uptempo group of top-drawer jazz folks.

35) Random Axe, Random Axe

The raps are merely above average, but I can't get enough of that cavernous, old-school production.

36) Terell Stafford, This Side of Strayhorn

The trumpeter honors the composer with the best playing of his career.

37) My Morning Jacket, Circuital

A stylistic tour de force masterfully sung by Jim James.

38) Mayer Hawthorne, How Do You Do

Effervescent and plush blue-eyed soul, even better than his sparkling debut. If this is a guilty pleasure, you're thinking too much.

39) DJ Quik, The Book of David

Living proof that a middle-aged hip-hopper can keep honing his craft, expanding his vision and adding depth and weight to his emotional heft.

40) Thao & Mirah, Thao & Mirah

21st Century folk-pop.

41) Rene Marie, Black Lace Freudian Slip

Her "originals" album, brimming with sass and playful self-revelation — check especially the title track and "Rim Shot."

42) Gang Gang Dance, Eye Contact

I run hot and cold on tightly produced dance music (not so much an M83 fan, for instance), but this stuff hooks me whenever I put it on.

43) 3 Cohens, Family

As in the Anat, Avishai and Yuval Cohen — Jewish jazz kin who nail the complex soul of Mingus and the beguiling froth of "Tiger Rag."

44) Eleanor Friedberger, Last Summer

I like this better than anything by the Fiery Furnaces, the band she shares with her brother.

45) The New Gary Burton Quartet, Common Ground

A perfect title for a vibraphonist whose playing is like water in that it seeks its own level in the natural order of things, here alongside emerging guitarist Julian Lage and a rhythm section of Scott Colley and Antonio Sanchez.

46) The Chiara String Quartet and Matmos, Jefferson Friedman: Quartets

Modern classical quartet music lovingly rendered by Chiara and deconstructed by Matmos.

47) Raphael Saadiq, Stone Rollin'

Of a piece with 2008's retro-soul keepsake, The Way I See It, the ex-Tony!Toni!Tone! leader Saadiq has vintage Motown in his DNA.

48) Lupe Fiasco, Lasers

Supposedly, at least for the sake of his cherished street cred, the record company ruined this record. But I saw him work it hard live in New Orleans, and it sounds nearly on a par with his best work.

49) Miguel Zenon, Alma Adentro: The Puerto Rican Songbook

MacArthur "genius" grant winner and alto saxophonist Zenon continues his fascinating meld — begun on Jibaro and Esta Plena — of the unique music of his native Puerto Rico with sharp writing and arranging in accordance with the bop and post-bop jazz tradition.

50) Jay-Z and Kanye West, Watch The Throne

It's lonely at the top of African American musical aristocracy. But Kanye's production and Jay-Z's flow make any complaints less tedious.

51) Hiromi, Voice

A dynamo on the piano, she keeps churning out great discs and is criminally underrated by critics.

52) Dawes, Nothing Is Wrong

Instantly familiar SoCal-style rock, they wed the hooks with the riffs in seamless fashion.

53) Paul Simon, So Beautiful or So What

Overhyped, but still his best collection of songs since Graceland.

54) Kenny Werner, Balloons

The composer's best record, with a great band featuring saxophonist David Sanchez and trumpeter Randy Brecker in the front line and John Pattitucci and Antonio Sanchez in the rhythm section.

55) Atlantis Quartet, Lines in the Sand

This ever-evolving local jazz band features four strong writers and players who give generously to the ensemble cause, and are perfectly showcased on this sprawling live set.

56) Patrick Cornelius, maybe steps

Saxophonist-composer who writes autobiographical tunes that stick to head and the soul, partly because his playing is fresh and so simpatico with both the song and the ensemble.

57) Adele, 21

I'm sick of it by now, but I can't deny it.

58) Gregg Allman, Low Country Blues

A weather-beaten, deliberate blues-roots-rock record from the Allman Brothers band survivor and singer who has earned his liver transplant.

59) David S. Ware/Cooper-Moore/William Parker/Muhammed Ali, Planetary Unknown

Speaking of transplants, Ware's new kidney is up to snuff as the saxophonist engages with three other free-jazz luminaries in a wide-ranging and playfully intense, by turns taut and meandering, outing here.

60) Rebirth Brass Band, Rebirth of New Orleans

Partay! Beer-soaked ‘Treme blowing, complete with anthem for the football Saints.

61) Brian Lynch, Unsung Heroes

The Art Blakey Jazz Messengers alumnus honors some of the more obscure but important jazz trumpeters with his typically stirring blend of hard-bop and latin jazz.

62) Dave Alvin, Eleven Eleven

Slightly clichéd but firmly grasped roots-rock from an ex-Blaster whose heart and soul are in the right place.

63) Kendrick Lamar, Section.80

This young dude can certainly spit rhymes — he's got a tremendous future. I just wish the tunes lived up to the flow.

64) R.E.M., Collapse Into Now

RIP to one of the all-time great bands of my lifetime.

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Comments (12)

I love year-end lists like this. It's like a homework assignment.

Frist!

Seriously, a pretty good list. I would only add a few others.

Boston Spaceships -- Let It Beard. A sprawling 2 disc, 26 song opus that hearkens back to those great 2 album sets of the 70s. The middle third is worth the price of admission alone.

Wilco - The Whole Love. The first time I heard it... meh. The second....hmmm. The third.... hey? The fourth....wow!

Lydia Loveless -- Indestructible Machine. Country-Rock crooner singing about breaking hearts, kicking ass, and taking names.

Oh sorry one more thing. Thanks for not including the latest from Bon Iver. Talk about an extremely overrated piece of tripe. Has our sense of music fallen so far that are have to now laud such wretchedness?

Thanks for the feedback.

Yes, I have an aversion to "pretty" music sometimes, and both the Bon Iver and the Fleet Foxes records felt that way to me--they aren't "bad" by any means, just not my cup of taste.

There are a few I forgot, however, including Florence and the Machine and Mary J. Blige, both of which would probably fall in the lower realms of the list, but certainly worth recommending.

But please folks, if you're so inclined, what did I miss? What records really did it for you this year?

Foster the People - Torches. Forget Pumped up Kicks and listen to everything else. Helena Beat is my personal favorite.

I guess pretty is a good word for Fleet Foxes but I was too busy flashing back to Crosby Stills Nash and whatever to notice.

Mostly though I'd love to see someone break down your list to see if any of your faves were ever actually played on local radio. Hate to be a pessimist, but I think taste and broadcasting can no longer be used in the same sentence.

Mark, of the 64 albums I can say for certain that at least 21 have had a track or two played on the local radio station, possibly more. I do agree with your pessimistic sentiment however when it comes to most radio.
I would add to this list "Nine Types of Light" by TV on the Radio. The 4th studio album from the art rockers out of Brooklyn did not disappoint. Their show at First Avenue would be in my top 5 were I to make a list of best live shows of 2011.

Oh and I completely agree with Dean about the new Wilco album, it was a great recovery from the lackluster "Wilco (The Album)".

Many many thanks for turning us on to music which we'd otherwise not heard about!!

Hayes Carll, "KMAG YOYO" is pretty awesome.

Thanks for the list! I agree with #1.
Malena Handeen put out an album early this year. The Field of Medicine, I think was the title, and can be found under that name at Facebook. A Minnesotan who deserves more attention. The song "Quiet" is a fine example, but sure doesn't represent all on the album.
I also am appreciating the new Wilco album as I continue to listen.

I always look forward to this list from a trusted jazz and ``soul'' enthusiast who does check other stuff. If it's light on alternative and indie pop/rock, there are a thousand other sources for that. Still, it might be interesting to read a companion 36 or so celebrated records you actively D-listed since you are honest -- as all should be -- that they didn't hear it all. But how would I know? (Notations not necessary.) That said: Nick Lowe, The Old Magic. Too muted? And bravo for noting just one local record; it was not a great a year here, despite what every local blogger wants to -- and wants us to - believe.