Putting together a Top Ten list of the best albums of 2011 isn't the toughest job in the world, but when there are virtually no barriers to making music and distributing it on the Internet, it can be a challenging one.
Sometimes the difficulty is wading through the muck - with a laptop, anyone can make a record, and sometimes it seems as though everyone did. But once you focus on the good stuff, you remember that there was a lot of it, dating back to the Decemberists' The King Is Dead, which came out in January, to the Black Keys disc last week.
The three W's you'll find below - Philadelphia indie band the War on Drugs, long-standing Chicago rockers Wilco, and freshly minted grrl-rock supergroup Wild Flag - have been in rotation for much of 2011. On the other hand, undun, the gripping concept album by Philadelphia hip-hop octet the Roots that came out this month, and Ry Cooder's Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down, the Occupy Wall Street-ready set of songs for hard times, are more recent enthusiasms.
No list can give a complete picture of what went on in pop music in a given year. That's why we've included a playlist of songs that makes way for such key players as Tom Waits, St. Vincent, James Blake, Nicki Minaj, and Adele, the British singer-songwriter whose 21 is the year's best-selling album and is set to clean up at the Grammy Awards in February.
Ry Cooder, Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down (Nonesuch). Slide guitarist and genius folklorist Ry Cooder puts a prickly exclamation point on a storied career with this stunning collection for the New Depression. Cooder's angry all right, but he's also shrewd and funny, with the dark humor of the deceptively jaunty "No Banker Left Behind" growing blacker still on the Flaco Jimenez-powered antiwar conjunto "Christmas Time This Year." He rocks out, stomps the blues, and gracefully rewrites Woody Guthrie. Like Tom Waits, Cooder knows his way around any number of musical styles. But rather than sound world-weary, Cooder is righteously ticked off, which gives Pull Up Some Dust an extra kick. Download: "No Banker Left Behind."
F- Up, David Comes to Life (Matador). The third full-length by the six-piece Toronto hardcore punk band with the unprintable first name is the first of two concept albums on this list. And compared with the Roots' comparatively understated undun, it's a sprawling mess, with an 18-song plot about romance and death in a lightbulb factory in Thatcherite England that's hard, if not pointless, to follow. But it's the music, not the words, that gives this coming-of-age tale its power: Singer Damian Abraham's furious vocal attack is backed by a noisy-yet-melodic wall of guitar sound. Download: "Queen of Hearts."
Girls, Father, Son, Holy Ghost (True Panther Sounds). With 2009's Album, the buzz was all about Girls' back story: singer Christopher Owens growing up in a Children of God cult, only to miraculously emerge with a proclivity for sunny Southern California pop. This time, Owens and bassist-producer Chet "JR" White no longer have that new-car smell but they've turned in an even better record, with emotionally charged songs that add Pink Floyd-style grandeur to their Elvis Costello and Beach Boys moves. Download: "Forgiveness."
Jay-Z and Kanye West, Watch the Throne (Roc-A-Fella). Were it not for these two gentlemen, one could argue that this list is short of star power; in fact, you could make that argument about popular music as a whole. But by pooling talents for their first full-length collaboration, Hova and Yeezy do their best to rectify the situation. Watch the Throne steps back occasionally to muse on fatherhood, black-on-black crime, and how the fortunes of two hip-hop mahoffs fit in the context of the African American struggle. Mostly, and most enjoyably, though, it takes a look in the mirror and admires its own awesomeness. Download: "Otis."
The Roots, undun (Def Jam) The disciplined-yet-ambitious undun is the self-effacing flip side of Watch the Throne. When Tariq "Black Thought" Trotter of the Philadelphia hip-hop crew - which also put out a rock-solid album with soul singer Betty Wright this month - uses the word I on undun, he's putting the internal struggles of a fictional character named Redford Stephens into rhyme. There are no idle boasts, no clever couplets to take the focus away from the story, which is told in a reverse narrative to illustrate how a kid from the corner wound up dead on the streets of Philadelphia. Download: "One Time."
Tune-Yards, w h o k i l l (4AD). I don't know if I ever had as much fun listening to music in the car this year as I did with w h o k i l l blasting out of the speakers. The second album by wide-eyed and wildly inventive auteur Merrill Garbus is so filled with restless sonic curiosity and love of rhythm, from random street sounds to Afro-pop breakdowns, that it hardly ever sits still. Garbus is a singer of remarkable range who creates her own samples live in the studio, or on stage, before looping them into a riotous carnival of sound. If that all sounds too aggressively experimental, Garbus keeps it (relatively) straightforward when she wants to, as on the quietly fetching lullaby "Wooly Wolly Gong." Download: "Bizness."
Van Hunt, What Were You Hoping For? (Godless Hotspot). Van Hunt's last album was called Popular. It's doubly ironic, given that not only is the rock-soul-funk guitarist and singer not all that popular - unjustly so - but Popular was never released by EMI, which had him on its roster. But now, like Prince, with whom he shares a penchant for enthusiastic genre-melding, Van Hunt has been freed from the shackles of a major label. The singer, who sometimes sounds like Curtis Mayfield, is quite happy to mix thrash punk with gauzy country balladry, and has produced one of the most thrilling records of the year, if not one of the most popular. Download: "North Hollywood."
The War on Drugs, Slave Ambient (Secretly Canadian). It's not held together by any particular concept or thematic idea, but Slave Ambient, the second full-length effort by the Philadelphia (Fishtown, to be precise) band the War on Drugs, works as a start-to-finish album as well as any record this year. From the opening "Best Night" to the closing "Black Water Falls," singer and sonic architect Adam Granduciel takes painstaking care with his trademark arpeggiated guitar sound, one song flowing into the next like a smartly sequenced mixtape. It's heady, intoxicating music in which Granduciel's slightly sneery vocals - evocative of, yes, Bob Dylan - are brushstrokes that add texture and flourishes of color. Download: "Brothers."
Wilco, The Whole Love (dBpm/Anti-). After the anxious, migraine-induced music on early-2000s albums such as Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost Is Born, the restless Chicago rockers chilled out with the more melodic, mellower, roots-rockers Sky Blue Sky and Wilco (The Album). The Whole Love splits the difference, most satisfyingly. For those who need a little dissonance, there's "Art of Almost," in which an opening burst of static gives way to a mind-bending Nels Cline guitar solo. Anyone pining for Jeff Tweedy's tender side will find a handful of the prettiest songs he has ever written. That's the whole Wilco, all in one 12-song package (plus, on the deluxe edition, a cover of Nick Lowe's "I Love My Label"). Download: "Open Mind."
Wild Flag, Wild Flag (Merge). Did I say that the most fun I had listening to music and driving was to Tune-Yards' w h o k i l l? Well, that was in traffic. For dead-on straightaways, I'll take Wild Flag, the femme supergroup fronted by renaissance woman Carrie Brownstein (who also stars in the IFC comedy Portlandia) and Mary Timony, formerly of Helium. Brownstein excels at pedal-to-the-metal rave-ups like "Racehorse," while Timony favors trippier fare such as "Glass Tambourine." Together with keyboard player Rebecca Cole and powerhouse drummer Janet Weiss, they made the most irresistibly propulsive album of the year. Download: "Romance."
Honorable mention: The Black Keys, El Camino; The Decemberists, The King Is Dead; Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit, Here We Rest; Lykke Li, Wounded Rhymes; Pistol Annies, Hell on Heels; Real Estate, Days; St. Vincent, Strange Mercy; Those Darlins, Screws Get Loose; Tom Waits, Bad as Me; and Yuck, Yuck.