If any one musician held center stage in pop music this year, it was probably Adele, the English singer whose 21 was one of the bestselling albums of the year, as well as one of the most highly praised by critics. I would daresay it reached the widest range of listeners, too.
That last element has become increasingly unimportant in compiling a year-end best list. Sales figures and broad demographics don't mean much, quality-wise, in a music industry that's become so splintered into genres and cults. You may say you love popular music, but someone who likes, say, Beyonce may never listen to Deer Tick, and Deer Tick fans would likely think that Paul Simon is way uncool. Yet Simon's So Beautiful or So What is an album that I underrated when I first reviewed it here. The more I listened to it, the richer its rewards became.
This was a very strong year in country music, with fine albums from veteran performers (like Dolly Parton) and new acts (like Pistol Annies) alike. Pistol Annies is a trio whose guardian angel is Miranda Lambert — she's one of the three singers in this side project. I reviewed Miranda Lambert's album, Four the Record, for Fresh Air, but only recently got into the Pistol Annies album, Hell on Heels, and I think it's as good as any country record out there. There's also another, definitely non-country group I didn't get around to reviewing, tUnE-yArDs, and the intricate pop-rock clatter tUnE-yArDs founder Merrill Garbus makes on the band's album w h o k i l l. It kept coming back around on my playlist so often that it worked its way into my Top 10.
I wouldn't say there were any big, obvious trends in 2011 pop — it was a Lady Gaga-slash-Adele kind of year. But working within an R&B tradition proved fruitful — not only for Adele, but also for a singer such as Anthony Hamilton on his rich new album Back to Love, and on Raphael Saadiq's continually amazing revitalization of soul music on Stone Rollin'.
If one voice defined the year for me, it was that of John McCauley, singer for the band Deer Tick and part of a small-time supergroup called Middle Brother. Both the Middle Brother album and Deer Tick's Divine Providence were examples of rock 'n' roll powered by McCauley's raw, jagged, sensitive and soulful vocals.
My Top 10 list also includes a book: Everything Is an Afterthought: The Life and Writings of Paul Nelson, by Kevin Avery. Nelson, who died in 2006 at age 69, was part of the first generation of rock critics, instrumental in bringing attention to musicians including Bob Dylan, Jackson Browne, New York Dolls and Warren Zevon. The book is both an anthology of his best writing and a tragic recounting of a life that shut down too soon.
Like you, I find my music in various ways: on albums, on the Internet, through books. It was a challenge and a pleasure to pick through a year as ripe as this one proved to be.
1. Beastie Boys, 'Hot Sauce Committee, Pt. 2'
"Make Some Noise"
A triumphant return from the hip-hop trio, crammed with witty wordplay and positive vibes.
2. Middle Brother, 'Middle Brother'
"Me Me Me"
John McCauley from Deer Tick, Taylor Goldsmith from Dawes and Matthew Vasquez from Delta Spirit got together to make an album full of off-kilter rock, folk and country music.
3. Adele, '21'
"Rolling In The Deep"
If any song could be said to work as the soundtrack of 2011, it was the dramatic yet kinetic gospel-inflected ballad "Someone Like You."
4. Raphael Saadiq, 'Stone Rollin"
Saadiq continues to freshen and funk up classic soul and R&B riffs, with music and lyrics as sly as his horn-rim-glasses, hipster-nerd image.
5. tUnE-yArDs, 'w h o k i l l'
An album conceived by singer-songwriter-producer Merrill Garbus as a joyfully clattering mixture of pop, soul, rock, reggae and any other rhythm that catches her fancy.
6. Pistol Annies, 'Hell On Heels'
"Hell On Heels"
Miranda Lambert got together with her pals, singer-songwriters Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley, to create the year's best music-star side-project.
7. Low Cut Connie, 'Get Out The Lotion'
This naughty bar-band self-released a collection of raucous come-ons, romantic pleadings, bragging and sodden exhaustion cast as hard-won victory.
8. Dolly Parton, 'Better Day'
"Together You And I"
A call for optimism during hard economic times, sung with full-throated conviction.
9. Paul Simon, 'So Beautiful or So What'
Instead of his recent strategy — trying to make pop songs do the work of short stories — Simon aims, and achieves, an elliptical lyricism. This, even with an excellent, very short-story-ish song, "Rewrite."
'Everything Is An Afterthought: The Life And Writings Of Paul Nelson,' by Kevin Avery
Avery's book is divided into two parts. The first is a biography titled "Invitation to a Closed Room: The Life of Paul Nelson." The second is a collection of some of his most famous and/or influential pieces, titled "Good Critic Paul: The Writings of Paul Nelson." Nelson died in 2006 at age 69, was part of the first generation of rock critics, and was crucial in bringing attention to musicians including Bob Dylan, Jackson Browne, New York Dolls and Warren Zevon.