Discussion: The Year In Music, 2011 Pop acts embraced the ukulele and the saxophone. Rock bands crafted weird, widescreen albums that still brimmed with solid, hummable songs. And a few notorious recluses returned to the public eye.

Discussion: The Year In Music, 2011

Discussion: The Year In Music, 2011

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Language Advisory: This program contains songs with lyrics that some listeners may find offensive.

Clockwise from top left: Beyoncé, tUnE-yArDs, St. Vincent, Bon Iver, The Roots, Alabama Shakes. Courtesy of the artists / NPR hide caption

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Courtesy of the artists / NPR

Clockwise from top left: Beyoncé, tUnE-yArDs, St. Vincent, Bon Iver, The Roots, Alabama Shakes.

Courtesy of the artists / NPR

Was 2011 the year of the sneak attack? So many big musical moments in the past 12 months seemed to appear out of nowhere. There was the unlikely return of the ukulele, which took a starring role in one of the year's most fascinating and talked-about releases, the tUnE-yArDs album w h o k i l l. Wilco and Bright Eyes, each coming off a run of albums that divided fans, dropped career-defining records — no less odd or experimental than their predecessors, but packed top to bottom with hummable songs. The Roots seemed to spin a dense, story-driven concept album out of thin air, with barely a peep of advance press. And Neutral Milk Hotel's Jeff Mangum, missing in action for more than a decade, reemerged with a sold-out solo tour and heaps of previously unreleased music.

Bob Boilen, Robin Hilton, Stephen Thompson and Ann Powers take on these head-spinning moments and more — including their favorite songs, albums and discoveries of 2011 — in this year-end edition of All Songs Considered. You can listen to the complete show above, and complete selections from the discoveries and songs of the year in the list below. And don't forget: Once you've listened, head to the blog to vote for your own favorite music of 2011.

2011: The Year In Music

Alabama Shakes

No Alternative Text

"Hold On"

From 'Alabama Shakes'

Discovery: They're from Athens, Ala., a small town just outside of Huntsville. And they have this singer, Brittany Howard — you fall in love the minute you see or hear her. I think they are going to blow up massively this coming year. — Ann Powers

This release is available on Bandcamp.

Discussion: The Year In Music, 2011

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Little Scream

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"Cannons"

From 'The Golden Record'

Discovery: Little Scream is one person — her name is Laurel Sprengelmeyer. She's originally from Iowa, now based in Montreal. She put out what I think is an absolutely captivating record. It's got a lot of push and pull: It's very powerful, very delicate, very dreamy and meditative, but also very poppy and catchy. -- Robin Hilton

Discussion: The Year In Music, 2011

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Caveman

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"Old Friend"

From 'Coco Beware'

Discovery: The layers of the guitar are exactly what make this band hit all those sweet spots for me. There's a beautiful wash that you get from the guitar, but then you also get lots of great melody. I went to see them at CMJ, and they were the first show that I couldn't get into. -- Bob Boilen

Discussion: The Year In Music, 2011

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Delay Trees

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"Gold"

From 'Delay Trees'

Discovery: This is a record I particularly loved playing in the car. Each [song] takes a Sigur Rós song's worth of build and compresses into a little bit more digestible three- and four-minute pop songs. This one starts slowly and just gets bigger and bigger and bigger. --Stephen Thompson

This release is available on Amazon MP3.

Discussion: The Year In Music, 2011

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The Roots

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"The OtherSide"

From 'Undun'

Biggest Surprise: I have always admired and respected The Roots, but never have I loved a record instantly like I loved this Roots record. It bowled me over in a way that their music has never done before, and I'm just hooked. --Ann Powers

Neutral Milk Hotel

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"You've Passed"

From 'You've Passed / Where You'll Find Me Now 7"'

Biggest Surprise: This year, [singer-songwriter Jeff Mangum] started showing up doing live performances again — he actually went on tour. And he's got an amazing box set coming out of all these great previously unreleased tracks and demos. His absence has only made fans that much more rabid for his return. --Robin Hilton

This release is part of a new box set available at Neutral Milk Hotel's website.

Wilco

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"Art of Almost"

From 'Whole Love'

Biggest Surprise: I just love the way this record splits the difference between these kind of experimental wanderings, but also that concise craft that this band just has that amazing ability for. [The members] are unbelievably proficient, but they do it in the service of great songwriting. -- Stephen Thompson

Discussion: The Year In Music, 2011

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tUnE-yArDs

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"You Yes You"

From 'w h o k i l l'

Trend: The reclamation of things that are much-maligned [was a big part of music in 2011]. [I've been] thinking about the immense amount of '80s influence in not only pop music, but in, you know, Bon Iver, where there's a song that sounds like a Bruce Hornsby outtake. The example that I'm going to actually play is the return of the ukulele. --Stephen Thompson

Apparat

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"Black Water"

From 'The Devil's Walk'

Trend: [There was] a lot of electronica this year; I think the songs are getting better. The technology made the sounds really cool, and I think there was a lot more understanding of how to make these records more accessible. -- Bob Boilen

St. Vincent

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"Cheerleader"

From 'Strange Mercy'

Trend: I was amazed by the number of, let's call them, "lady auteurs" or "daughters of Kate Bush" who made records this year. Annie Clark [of St. Vincent], you know, she's a killer guitarist, an amazing conceptualist, an amazing vocalist. It's all there. -- Ann Powers

Bright Eyes

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"One For You, One For Me"

From 'The People's Key'

Album of the Year: There were other albums with songs I liked more, but as a whole album The People's Key stands out the most. It's a concept record, it's a very heavy record, and it gets into themes of, really, the whole meaning of life. -- Robin Hilton

Drake

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"Take Care"

From 'Take Care'

Album of the Year: We're going from this message of sharing to material wealth, fame — kind of the flip of that coin. I think [Drake's album Take Care is] also very deep look into the strange mix of entitlement and burden that a lot of young people feel today. -- Ann Powers

Discussion: The Year In Music, 2011

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King Creosote & Jon Hopkins

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"Bubble"

From 'Diamond Mine'

Album of the Year: It's a look and a study, in song and in sound, of life in a small Scottish town. It doesn't romanticize it — it paints sort of hard pictures of what life is like there and what people think. -- Bob Boilen

Discussion: The Year In Music, 2011

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Bon Iver

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"Perth"

From 'Bon Iver'

Album of the Year: There is a certain smarty-pants backlash against this record, primarily directed at its last song — which, fine, you are welcome to hate. But this is a glorious, wonderful, beautiful, heartfelt, sincere, gorgeous record that I listened to again and again. -- Stephen Thompson

Herzog

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"Silence"

From 'Search'

Song of the Year: That voice at the beginning of the song [by Cleveland's Herzog] is former Cincinnati Bengals head coach Sam Wyche. I guess fans had been throwing garbage and whatnot onto the field, and he finally grabbed the PA mic, and you hear him yell, "You don't live in Cleveland, you live in Cincinnatti!" I don't even know what that has to do with the rest of the song, but it's so perfect. --Robin Hilton

This release is available at the Exit Stencil Recordings store.

Discussion: The Year In Music, 2011

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The Mountain Goats

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"Estate Sale Sign"

From 'All Eternals Deck'

Song of the Year: I wanted to pick "We Found Love" by Rihanna, because I wanted to end my year on All Songs Considered on a cheerful, beautiful, upbeat, life-affirming note of compassion and grandeur. Bob was like, "How about something else?" So I will go with my second-favorite song ... about the detritus from destroyed lives. -- Stephen Thompson

Discussion: The Year In Music, 2011

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Cults

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"Abducted"

From 'Cults'

Song of the Year: My song of the year sounds like a song that could have come out around 1963 or '64, except it kicks a lot more. It's darker than almost anything I can remember from that time, except maybe "He Hit Me and It Felt Like a Kiss." It starts off super-quiet so that you go your dial and turn it up — and then when it kicks in, it kicks in extra loud. -- Bob Boilen

Discussion: The Year In Music, 2011

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Beyoncé

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"Countdown"

From '4'

Song of the Year: What do you give the woman who has everything? You give her a song — which she did co-write with about 300 other people — that contains dancehall, funk, reggae, brass band, soul, Vegas. Everything is in this song. -- Ann Powers

Discussion: The Year In Music, 2011

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