50 Favorites: From Frank Ocean To June Tabor

Cover art for Frank Ocean.

In 2011, Frank Ocean sang hooks for Jay-Z and Kanye West, wrote for Beyoncé, toured with Odd Future and still managed to release the smoothest R&B album we've heard in a while. We enjoyed opera's return to form with vibrant young tenor Joseph Calleja and fell in love with a rock opera from a band whose name we're not even allowed to say on NPR. The list of our 50 favorite records of 2011 continued with Frank Ocean, F——- Up and more artists from F to J.


Frank Ocean

Frank Ocean, 'Nostalgia, ULTRA'

  • Song: Songs For Women

Frank Ocean did so well in 2011 as a supporting player — singing hooks for Jay-Z and Kanye West, writing for Beyoncé, touring with Odd Future — that it's easy to forget he off kicked the year with a fascinating release of his own. Ocean's rock-savvy debut is an introvert's answer to modern R&B, pushing aside the glamour of sexual conquest to examine its emotional consequences. And yet, amid all the jealousy, inadequacy and humiliation, Nostalgia, ULTRA is often as funny as it is dark. "Songs for Women" casts Ocean as a songwriter whose lover has lost interest in his music — "but she be bangin' that Drake in my car." (Daoud Tyler-Ameen)


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  • "Songs For Women"
  • Album: Nostalgia ULTRA
  • Artist: Frank Ocean
  • Label: Frank Ocean
  • Released: 2011
Fucked Up

F----- Up, 'David Comes To Life'

  • Song: Queen of Hearts

To borrow a phrase from a colleague, for a band that constantly makes left turns, F---- Up's rock opera is the coastline-riding, hands-outstretched-to-the-sky left turn no one was expecting. Ambitious isn't the right word here, because "ambition" implies an impossible feat just barely achieved. David Comes to Life is a challenging, sprawling, fully formed work that affirms life as much as it questions it. (Lars Gotrich)


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  • "Queen of Hearts"
  • Album: David Comes To Life
  • Artist: F----- Up
  • Label: Matador
  • Released: 2011
Girl in a Coma

Girl In A Coma, 'Exits And All The Rest'

  • Song: Smart

It's taken San Antonio's Girl in a Coma a decade of road-pounding to transcend the "riot grrl" clichés imposed by reviewers, but with Exits and All the Rest, GIAC finally hit the big time. The songs here showcase new confidence and an enormous range of influences, from the slithery twang of "Sly" to the Morrissey-esque new-wave of "Smart." To be honest, that stylistic inconsistency makes it tough to call Exits and All the Rest a truly great album. But it's an undeniable breakout that's likely to turn this little-known truth into a well-established fact: Nina Diaz is one of the two or three most exciting, scary-good vocalists in rock today. (David Brown, KUT)


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  • "Smart "
  • Album: Exits & All The Rest
  • Artist: Girl In A Coma
  • Label: Blackheart Records
  • Released: 2011
Cover for The Wanting

Glenn Jones, 'The Wanting'

  • Song: The Wanting

It's hard to write about any modern fingerstyle acoustic guitarist without pointing to the spirit and influence that Jack Rose had before his death in 2009. Coming out of the same 1990s experimental rock scene, Rose's friend and collaborator Glenn Jones has actually studied the style passed down from John Fahey much longer. The Wanting is Jones' fourth and most compelling solo album — a deceptively humble yet expressive collection of soul-searching 6- and 12-string meditations, downtrodden bottleneck blues and time-lost mountain banjo. While Jones' Takoma school influences are apparent and acknowledged, The Wanting is wholly his own. (Lars Gotrich)


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  • "The Wanting"
  • Album: The Wanting
  • Artist: Glenn Jones
  • Label: Thrill Jockey
  • Released: 2011
Gretchen Parlato

Gretchen Parlato, 'The Lost And Found'

  • Song: Still

Gretchen Parlato possesses what Brazilians call saudade. This mysterious quality, found only in the best singers, is reflected as the sound of deepest longing — for love, for home or for country, for the past and a future unknown. Although Parlato isn't Brazilian, as some of her repertoire might suggest, she's comfortable voicing this insatiable state of desire. On her third album, The Lost and Found, she brings that yearning to her original compositions and popular R&B covers. In Robert Glasper, Parlato could not have recruited a better co-producer for such a project. Glasper's vision — along with those of pianist Taylor Eigsti, bassist Derrick Hodge and drummer Kendrick Scott — provides the perfect backdrop for her introspection, especially in Simply Red's "Holding Back the Years," Mary J. Blige's "All That I Can Say" and Parlato's own "Winter Wind." (Simon Rentner, WBGO)


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  • "Still"
  • Album: The Lost and Found
  • Artist: Gretchen Parlato
  • Label: ObliqSound
  • Released: 2011
Cover for James Blake

James Blake, 'James Blake'

  • Song: To Care (Like You)

It didn't take long for James Blake's debut full-length to squeeze a wrench around my gut — just 28 seconds, in fact. But ever since the Englishman's paralyzing croon first grabbed me, it hasn't let go. Driven by the staggering production style prevalent on his first three EPs, Blake's vocals separated his music from the dubstep shuffle, and gave unfamiliar listeners a way into a fast-growing genre. This isn't the sawtooth-synth-heavy wobble that American dubsteb producers like Skrillex and 12th Planet have popularized, and Blake clearly doesn't want it to be. Instead, it's a meticulously built body of work that jars its listeners with syncopated rhythms and a lucid sound that's unlikely to let anyone wander too far from its hold. (Sami Yenigun)


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  • "To Care (Like You)"
  • Album: James Blake
  • Artist: James Blake
  • Label: Republic
  • Released: 2011

Joseph Calleja, 'The Maltese Tenor'

  • Song: Mefistofele, opera in prologue, 4 acts & epilogue: Act 1. Dai campi, dai prati

At a time when fans and critics complain about the homogenous sound of classical music performances — from soloists to symphony orchestras — tenor Joseph Calleja stands out brilliantly. With its flickering vibrato, aristocratic phrasing and heavenly soft notes, his old-school style of singing was modeled after pre-WWI tenors like Tito Schipa and Alessandro Bonci. At 33, Calleja is young by operatic standards, and in The Maltese Tenor, it's fascinating to chart the vocal changes. The trademark warmth and golden glow still shine, but I now hear a slightly larger, richer voice with a tad less vibrato. Let's hope he guards his vocal resources wisely, because I want to be listening to Calleja 25 years from now. (Tom Huizenga)


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  • "Mefistofele, opera in prologue, 4 acts & epilogue: Act 1. Dai campi, dai prati"
  • Album: The Maltese Tenor
  • Artist: Joseph Calleja
  • Label: Decca
  • Released: 2011
Julianna Barwick

Julianna Barwick, 'The Magic Place'

  • Song: Bob in Your Gait

For a record which conjures the massive space normally reserved for cathedrals, The Magic Place sure does feel as if it were made right in front of you. Pulled tight around your chest like a tattered wool blanket, Julianna Barwick's disembodied voice provides the compositional core, an instrument looped and spun into celestial choral songs, sometimes bedded by submerged riddims and sparse piano. (Lars Gotrich)


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  • "Bob in Your Gait"
  • Album: Magic Place
  • Artist: Julianna Barwick
  • Label: Asthmatic Kitty
  • Released: 2011
June Tabor

June Tabor, 'Ashore'

  • Song: The Bleacher Lassie of Kelvinhaugh

English folksinger June Tabor doesn't need any accompaniment; all she needs to do is open her throat to sing. And what you hear, when she delivers a traditional ballad like "The Bleacher Lassie of Kelvinhaugh," is a voice timeless in its honesty and direct in its purity. Ashore, one of the year's best vocal performances in any genre, is Tabor's tribute to the sea and our myriad connections with it. In her exquisite restraint, you get a keener sense for emotions: the unspoken fear in "Shipbuilding," or a sailor's melancholy in "The Grey Funnel Line." The album unfolds like a suite of songs — some old, some new — beginning with a magisterial rendition of "Finisterre" and ending with "Across the Wide Ocean," a 12-minute saga of Scottish emigration history, delicately scored for piano, bass and accordion, leaving plenty of space for that incredible voice. (Tom Huizenga)


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  • "The Bleacher Lassie of Kelvinhaugh"
  • Album: Ashore
  • Artist: June Tabor
  • Label: Topic Records

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