In 2011, we were equally charmed by Adele's broken heart and Beyonce's marital bliss. We were thrilled when The Book Of Mormon became the first Broadway cast album to hit the top ten on the Billboard pop charts in 40 years and pleasantly surprised when the Grammys discovered a guy in a Wisconsin cabin. The list of our 50 favorite records of 2011 starts with Adele, Alexandre Tharaud and more artists from A to B.
"Someone Like You"
Here it is: the album that, in 2011, is the end to every argument. Young Adele Adkins' massive international breakthrough is a deeply confessional work that's also an impeccably crafted commercial pop gem. It's soul music sung by a young Englishwoman who's a major country-music fan. Launched by a barn-burner, "Rolling in the Deep," which was remixed multiple times to rule the dance floor, the album's place in history was cemented by "Someone Like You," a perfectly modulated tearjerker. For many people, loving pop music is all about choosing your niche; even mainstream artists like Lady Gaga treat their fan bases like marginalized subcultures. But by telling a classic story of romantic sorrow and recovery, Adele won hearts across the board. (Ann Powers)
Alexandre Tharaud, 'Scarlatti: Sonatas'
"Sonata in D Major, Kk.29"
Somehow, Alexandre Tharaud makes these nearly 300-year-old keyboard sonatas sound fresh, even spontaneous. They're filled with finger-twisting tricks (for their time) like leaping octaves, crossed hands, odd syncopations and enigmatic modulations. And, since Scarlatti lived for years in Spain, you can sometimes hear the strumming of guitars and the clack of castanets. Tharaud taps into the sheer delight in these sonatas, some with showers of notes (K.29) and others with the wistful poignancy of an operatic lament (K.208). (Tom Huizenga)
The Antlers, 'Burst Apart'
"I Don't Want Love"
The Brooklyn band The Antlers made a powerful breakthrough with 2009's Hospice, a devastating concept album whose narrative addressed an abusive relationship. The group's new album, Burst Apart, makes an equally emotional connection with the same self-awareness and raw honesty, but the band never repeats itself. Filled with slow-building crescendos and crystalline sound, Burst Apart is as delicately hypnotic and seductively soothing as it is full of energy and intensity. Peter Silberman, Darby Cicci and Michael Lerner have created an expansive, textured soundscape with a mixture of upbeat guitar, mournful organ, undulating synthesizers, mesmerizing drum loops, gorgeous electronic textures and cascading horns. Silberman's soaring falsetto lies at the core of these cathartic and magnificent songs about joy, sorrow, hope and despair. (Cheryl Waters, KEXP)
Ashton Shepherd, 'Where Country Grows'
"More Cows Than People"
Ashton Shepherd's life is a country song. The 25-year-old mother of two lives half an hour from the tiny Alabama town of Coffeeville, where she was born, and when she's not touring, she's tending to her family farm. But that's not what makes her music special: It's her voice, an alto as wide and subtly shaded as a sunrise over a fallow field, and her plainspoken songwriting in the tradition of her idol, Loretta Lynn. Shepherd's second album, poppier than her 2008 debut, provides plenty of hooks for her to sink her teeth into, whether she's telling off a no-good man, celebrating simple pleasures like drinking beer on a motorboat, or remembering teenage mischief with her brother, who died young in a car accident. The sound is classic without ever getting precious. This gifted young woman is no drama, all joy and transcendence. (Ann Powers)
Ballake Sissoko & Vincent Segal, 'Chamber Music'
Ballake Sissoko is from Mali and plays the kora, a 21-string instrument much like a harp. Vincent Segal is from France and plays cello. The kora makes bright, bubbly, percussive melodies, while the cello more often produces deep, long, thoughtful tones. These opposite instruments, in the hands of these brilliant players, make magnificent music. Sometimes, the long harmonic overtones of the kora shimmer down and blend with the intricate overtones of the cello; at other times, the cello gets percussive and dances with the kora melodies. Then there are times when both instruments meld to make something wholly new. This is the most beautiful world-music record of the decade, as far as I'm concerned, and I'm ready for more. (Bob Boilen)
Beirut, 'The Rip Tide'
If you've been following Beirut since its 2006 debut, you'll have likely noticed that bandleader Zach Condon continues to evolve more closely to mainstream indie-pop. Still the worldly musical tour guide, he focuses his songwriting on The Rip Tide, Beirut's third full-length album. Condon continues to mature, honing his songwriting and arrangements and focusing as a performer. While The Rip Tide continues Condon's love affair with baroque instrumentation, flair-filled horn arrangements, cinematic strings and well-placed ukulele riffs, the album also benefits from its restraint, never veering into self-indulgence or over-instrumentation. Condon creates a sense of place where "The Peacock" and "Payne's Bay" capture the dramatic, picturesque visions of a culturally out-there musical bohemian. (Bruce Warren, WXPN)
Beyoncé has given us many important questions to ponder. Just how does her hair stay consistently windblown? What is "swagu," and can I have some? And of exactly what relation is your "boof"? All of which is to say, no pop album this year was more fun and self-aware than hers. Sure, 4 has moments of schmaltz and overblown theatricality, but it's hard to turn a cynical eye to a record that contains, unequivocally, the song of the year. "Countdown" commands sing-alongs — preferably with the wrong words; "grind a'pony girl"? — and fevered discussions with theory nerds over its irregular song structure. A record made up of amazing singles, 4 leaps beyond the restraints of its Top 40 cultural signifier to cultural significance, as Beyoncé celebrates her lasting, loving relationship with her man, as well as her fluidity as an artist who refuses to be thrust into any single box. The year belongs to her. (Eleanor Kagan)
On first blush, Omara Moctar, a young guitarist and songwriter better known as Bombino, seems like he might be just another aspirant in the "Tuareg rock" or "desert blues" line spawned by the likes of Tinariwen. Certainly, there are similarities; like his elders, Bombino comes from a community of Tuareg in the Sahara Desert. Like them, his people were torn apart by drought and then war, during which his family fled from Niger to Algeria. And, on Agadez, you hear commonalities in their music-making, like the loping, hypnotic rhythm of "Ahoulaguine Akaline (I Greet My Country)," which mimics a camel's gait. But by the time Bombino tears into "Tar Hani (My Love)" and blazes into "Kammou Taliat (You, My Beloved)," you realize that Bombino stands on his own two feet, and that you're hearing the emergence of a major talent — his riffs are sublime and miles ahead. (Anastasia Tsioulcas)
Bon Iver, 'Bon Iver'
In just four years, the powerful music of Bon Iver's Justin Vernon has moved from a cabin in the Wisconsin woods to prominence on a national scale. Bon Iver is written from a different place than the isolation that informed For Emma, Forever Ago; these 10 songs were written over the course of a handful of years. "Perth" opens the album with a lush sound and multi-part harmonies, prominent drums and horns. But the new record also maintains its predecessor's simplicity, especially in "Holocene," with its pairing of Vernon's falsetto and reverb-heavy guitar. While Bon Iver plays large festivals — and Vernon collaborates with the likes of Kanye West — the feel of Bon Iver is that you're still in that cabin, still in the north woods, but with more clarity this time around. (Lindsay Kimball, The Current)
'The Book Of Mormon'
I wrote about two cast albums for NPR Music in 2011, and though the theater nerd in me wants to insist I loved Follies better, I have to go with The Book of Mormon. Middle-aged rue has its charms, but joy wins out, and that's what drives the year's biggest Broadway hit. Sure, it's vulgar — but life is vulgar, and laughing at the nonsense will keep you sane while you figure out how to untangle it. The show's deft parodies and cheerful pastiches take on despair-making realities and universal yearnings alike, with an affection for the form — and for humanity — that's positively inspirational. (Trey Graham)