The year 2011 brought a bumper crop of excellent recordings, so many it was difficult to narrow the field to 10. An overwhelming number of female artists led the charge with superb eclectic releases. There were a plethora of outstanding solo releases: the innovative hybrids of tUnE-yArDs (aka Merrill Garbus), the dark, intense lyricism of composer/violinist Jenny Scheinman (contemporary jazz), the Gothic narratives spun in an updated folk delivery by Gillian Welch (with David Rawlings) and the perfect accompaniment that blanketed Marissa Nadler's quietly operatic vocals. Honorable mention to Anna Calvi (rock), Lisa Hannigan (Irish folk-pop) and Julianna Barwick (experimental vocals). There were also killer releases by female-led rock groups, among them Kristen Gundred's Dum Dum Girls (Only in Dreams), Jenn Wasner's Wye Oak (Civilian) and Wild Flag, the female indie supergroup fronted by Carrie Brownstein from Sleater-Kinney.
Old dogs learned a few new tricks. The year welcomed refined releases from maverick veteran masters Tom Waits, Ry Cooder and Wilco. Nick Lowe's songwriting nuggets shined with direct, no-nonsense execution, while Brian Wilson's '67 symphonic pop vision finally saw the proper light of day. Waits, Cooder and Welch all drew inspiration from our current hard times (with no pulled punches).
New Folk Interpreters, notably Pokey LaFarge and The South City Three and Frank Fairfield, stretched the neo-traditionalist genre, each taking a distinct path. LaFarge & Co. have honed their self-proclaimed "riverboat soul" with an assured swing and confidence, while Fairfield's mastery of guitar, banjo and fiddle and his eerie channeling of past musicians, such as Buell Kazee or Clarence Ashley, suggests his encyclopedic skill isn't simply "traditionalist," it's branded in his soul.
Charles Bradley delivered a powerful soul debut with the awesome backing of Brooklyn's Menahan Street Band. "World" bands such as Dengue Fever and Tinariwen (who collaborated with members of TV on the Radio) blurred convenient lines of categorization. Lastly, two elders of ‘90s indie rock, J Mascis and Thurston Moore contributed surprisingly sensitive (and strong) offerings.
Musically speaking, 2011 was a horn of plenty. The list:
whokill, tUnE-yArDs (4AD)
Bad As Me, Tom Waits (Anti-)
The SMiLE Sessions, The Beach Boys (Capitol)
Whole Love, Wilco (dBpm)
Mischief & Mayhem, Jenny Scheinman (self released)
The Harrow & The Harvest, Gillian Welch (Acony)
Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down, Ry Cooder (Anti-)
No Time For Dreaming, Charles Bradley (Daptone/Dunham)
Out on the Open West, Frank Fairfield (Tompkins Square)
Marissa Nadler, Marissa Nadler (Box of Cedar)