They might be new to us, but many of our favorite discoveries of 2011 have one foot solidly planted in musical history. But the blues, grunge, 20th-century classical, string-laden jazz, industrial metal and shoegaze traditions in which these musicians play don't keep them from pushing their sounds forward. At some point in 2011, each of our picks gave us something new to fall in love with. At the end of the year, we're happy to offer a little gift from each of them to you.
Download a track from each artist below and explore all of our picks for the best music of 2011.
The Alabama Shakes
The Alabama Shakes is from Athens, AL, a small town just outside of Huntsville. You fall in love with singer Brittany Howard the minute you see or hear her. I think they are going to blow up massively this coming year. --Ann Powers
Download "I Found You"
Caveman hits so many of my musical sweet spots. Those layers of guitars and electronics make a beautiful wash, and buried inside that wash are melodies with a hook and great lyrics to boot. I went to see them at the CMJ Music Marathon in New York City, and they were the first show that I couldn't get into. I guess that means a lot of you are discovering them this year, too. --Bob Boilen
Download "Old Friend"
The Finnish dream-pop band Delay Trees was, for me, the easiest sell of 2011: I could play "Gold" for anyone I encountered, say "Hey, listen to this," and look like some sort of curatorial genius. I love the way the group fits about 15 minutes' worth of brooding, epic build into four-minute pop songs. It's so efficient, you know? --Stephen Thompson
With a voice both beautiful and vicious, Erika M. Anderson sounds like your tough and loyal older sister who will kill to protect what she loves. Even upon first listen, you can hear desperation and passion burst out from underneath a threadbare artifice of indifference, cigarettes and leather jackets. On Past Life Martyred Saints, truths both personal and universal are set to a rolling boil, and EMA isn't afraid to invite you in to discover their noisy and sometimes uncomfortable darkness. --Eleanor Kagan
Vincent Soyez/Courtesy of the artist
Vincent Soyez/Courtesy of the artist
Fabian Almazan is a twenty-something, Cuban-American film composer. But he's probably best known as a stellar jazz pianist. In 2011, he released Personalities, an album for piano trio (and occasionally strings) which shows how much he's already learned through the lens of who he is. Here's a tune from said record, performed live in concert. – Patrick Jarenwattananon
Download "H.U.Gs (Historically Underrepresented Groups)"
recorded live at the Village Vanguard by WBGO
Flourishing embraces an era of undefinable music while acknowledging a rich history of extreme sound. Songs can swing from industrial grind to abstract death metal in a moment's notice, but never lose sight of their pummeling yet melodic heft. There is a lot to unpack at any one moment, but Flourishing is on the cusp of collapsing and reshaping metal simultaneously. --Lars Gotrich
Download "Fossil Record"
Gem Club is pianist Christopher Barnes, cellist Kristen Drymala and vocalist Ieva Berberian. Their hushed music seemed to make time stand still when I saw them in concert this fall. I could just as easily have been standing next to a stream with autumn leaves floating down. Frankly, the band brought me to tears — and made one of my favorite albums of 2011, Breakers. --Bob Boilen
You might not know who Mati Zundel is yet, but the Argentine artist and producer is poised to become a household name among electronica fans in the U.S. in 2012. Part of ZZK records' stunning lineup, Zundel's fantastic blend of cumbia, Andean folk and electronica is one of the most exciting musical experiences we've had this year, and one of the most stimulating ones you'll find in the next few months, as he debuts up north. --Jasmine Garsd
Download "Aero Tinku"
This stellar debut solo album by American tenor Nicholas Phan is a total pleasure on all fronts. Phan showcases lesser-known music by Benjamin Britten, including his stellar Winter Words and Seven Sonnets Of Michelangelo song cycles, along with six very charming folk song arrangements. Phan delivers the texts directly with affectless diction, powerful clarity and gorgeous tone, and pianist Myra Huang provides sensitive and lyrical accompaniment. --Anastasia Tsioulcas
Download "The Salley Gardens"
A couple of weeks before Nicolas Jaar's debut album "Space Is Only Noise" hit stores, I called him up to get the scoop before taping our "electronic edition" of the All Songs Considered podcast. Jaar was on his way to the Watergate nightclub in Berlin to play a sold out album release party. I told him how much I loved the record, and he said "you know you're the first person from the States to say that to me." I was shocked; here was a 21-year-old student at Brown University who could pack clubs across the Atlantic, but who was virtually anonymous in the country he grew up in. That's all changed now: Jaar's album (my favorite of 2011) earned him deserved buzz since its February release. If he keeps dropping new singles like "With Just One Glance You," his profile will only grow. --Sami Yenigun
Download "With Just Once Glance You"
STS hasn't yet hit the national stage, but he already has everything I love most in rap: in-the-pocket flow, heart-on-the-sleeve storytelling, jokes, word choice that values rhythm and sound as much as meaning, beat selection that promotes dancing. I started listening to him this fall — after a friend told me someone was rapping under the name Sugar Tongue Slim (how could I resist?) — and now being a fan of his feels like getting in on the ground floor. He's already hard at work on another project, due in February, collaborating with half of Philly (and anyone else that caught fire this year) and coining catchphrases left and right. Sugar's here! --Frannie Kelley
Download "Here Tonight"