If you're looking for the best of 2011's first half in virtually every major musical genre, here's a good starting point. The list of our 25 favorite albums of the year (so far) begins with Adele and more artists from A to B.
No singer can appeal to everyone, but Adele has come about as close as anyone can in the splintered pop-music landscape of 2011. A U.K. soul singer with pop chops and the ability to pack pain and nobility into a single inflection, Adele is the real deal: a multimillion-selling star with staying power. On her sophomore album, 21, she mixes rollicking belters ("Rolling in the Deep") with heartsick ballads ("Someone Like You") that take common emotions — jealousy, self-pity — and invest them with wounded, grown-up grace. (Stephen Thompson)
Alexandre Tharaud's weakness is his strength: He can't stop making albums of baroque keyboard music. Here's hoping he never quits the habit. Alongside his imaginative Bach, Couperin and Rameau records stands this new account of 18 Scarlatti sonatas. Tharaud's touch is multifaceted — sparkling sunlight, delicate lace, rivulets of melody and, as in this D major sonata, showers of cross-handed notes sprayed in many directions. Near the end, a gruff bark virtually shakes the piano. Scarlatti's sonatas come in all styles: lyrical like opera arias, folksy with dashes of flamenco and graceful like courtly dances. Tharaud makes them all come vividly alive. (Tom Huizenga)
Vincent Segal is a cellist and former member of the French National Orchestra. Ballaké Sissoko plays the kora, a harp-like instrument rooted in West Africa. The two might seem like an unlikely duo, but on their album Chamber Music, they bridge cultures and musical traditions with such grace and quiet soulfulness, you'd think this combination of string instruments had been joined centuries ago. Segal makes his cello sing beautifully, but he also disguises it as a jazz bass or an African flute. In the album's title track, Sissoko and Segal trade off between taking improv-like solos and entwining themselves in the plaintive main theme. (Tom Huizenga)
Most jazz musicians today didn't grow up in the era when jazz was pop music. So their first musical loves were probably elsewhere: rock, or R&B, or rap, or what-have-you. The bassist Ben Allison — also known as a great composer and arranger — has been gradually merging this musical history into his jazz training. It hits a high-water mark with Action-Refraction, an album of covers from Thelonious Monk and Samuel Barber to PJ Harvey, The Carpenters, Donny Hathaway and Neil Young. Sometimes this sort of thing comes up hobbled by compromise. On this record, when it rocks, it really rocks. Allison's arrangements exude beauty, spontaneity, experimentation. Even if you don't know the originals, you can hear the creativity here. (Patrick Jarenwattananon)
Is Big K.R.I.T. the nicest man in show business? He's humble and grandma-pleasing polite in interviews. He writes songs about getting up early and swears "the latest [he] could be was on time." Is he the hardest-working man in show business? He produces his own beats, he alternates flows every other track (once he calls it out before he drops in — "old school flow: they used to say") and he's not afraid of double time. "I came from nothing," he says, "and I want more." He's from Mississippi, but on Return of 4Eva he's a regional rapper, even printing the words "3rd Coast" on his album cover. As such, he drops references (both lyrical and in production) to everybody he should — Goodie Mob, OutKast, UGK — and head-nods to current regional heroes and rap blog champions like Lil Boosie and Yelawolf. He's warm and logical, constructing "Amtrak" around a beat that stays funky as it motors and sampling keys shifting in somebody's hands in "My Sub," an ode to bumping songs out of his car — not coincidentally the best venue for hearing the songs of a hardworking southerner with a portfolio and promise. (Frannie Kelley)