I’ll dispense with the usual preamble about how it was a great or horrendous year for music – it was both at the same time, of course. (These days there’s so much output coming from so many microslivered scenes, it’s ridiculous to make broad proclamations anyway….). They’re in no particular order – as Bob Dylan likes to say, it’s all good. Enjoy!
Tom Waits: Bad As Me . These songs start from a place where everything is broken, honor is long gone and everybody’s locked in the grand drain-circling swirl of destiny. Then the band kicks into its higher gear, stomping out lusty if slightly preposterous marches, rambles and elegies. Waits’ characters fall right in, and though they’re well acquainted with futility, they press on, endearingly, lost in the search for love, hope, and redemption. Which they do not typically find. Doesn’t matter.
Miles Davis: Live in Europe 1967. The Paris version of “Masqualero,” on disc three of this collection of mostly unreleased live performances, lasts ten minutes. That’s all it takes to develop renewed awe for the astoundingly interactive on-the-fly genius of this ensemble. Davis’ stark melodies are set against lovely watercolor chords and endlessly elastic metric machinations – check out how often these five supremely alert musicians completely transform a mood in the space between downbeats. 2011 was a solid year of creativity in jazz – or, in the parlance of the latest Facebook “movement,” Black American Music (please, let us know when the fences and tollbooths are in place!) – but somehow everything current sounds anemic next to this.
Bon Iver: Bon Iver. Fragile songs riddled with questioning and doubt, rendered in spectacularly harmonized falsetto floral arrays. (The solo vocal tunes, deep into the record, are pretty great too….).
Wilco: The Whole Love. Here’s the balance between daydreamy folk-rock confessional and adventurous avant-downtown dissonance Wilco has been aiming for on the last few records. It seems clinical when described this way in words; in music, it sounds like pure giddy genius.
Black Keys: El Camino. Bachman-Turner Overdrive roaring out of the classic-rock deep freeze on a nasty tequila bender.
Jonathan Wilson: Gentle Spirit. Speaking of the ‘70s, here’s a slice of idyllic, gorgeously poised (and wondrously nostalgia-free) Laurel Canyon rock. Framed by intertwined guitar leads and lit from within by trance-state melodies, Wilson’s songs occupy a zone of warm, open-hearted reflection.
James Farm: James Farm. There was lots of new orchestrational thinking in improvised music this year, and among the most pleasant examples is this debut from a quartet that sounds like a real band. Imagine that.
Adele: 21. File this one under “admiration, not love.” When I first heard it, I felt that the plush production rounded off some of Adele’s crucial sharp edges. After endless repeat exposure to the songs, my quibbles with the production remain. But I have to give it up: There is just no denying that voice.
Radiohead: The King of Limbs. As with pretty much everything the band has done, this record opens genuinely new doors, suggests new combinations of texture and emotion, offers new takes on the peculiar alchemy of a rock song.
Drake: Take Care. Lots of prominent rappers kvetch about the trials of fame – Eminem dines quite well on that theme, and Kanye West blew it to smithereens on the ultra-dense My Beautiful Twisted Fantasy. Drake goes in a brutally honest introspective direction here, singing and rapping as though he’s just emerged from a meditation retreat where he discovered all kinds of loathesome things about himself. Along with Undun, below, this feels like a necessary (and overdue) course correction for commercial hiphop.
The Roots: Undun. This is the record to play for your friend who complains about the rampant ego glorification that dominates so much hiphop discourse. A musically exuberant, lyrically sobering tour through the mind of an average tortured urbandweller, Undun represents a storytelling peak for the Roots, but that’s not all: Its sung refrains (“Tip The Scales”) give voice to the sad disillusionment that settled in after those Obama-led “Yes We Can” chants died down.
The Decemberists: The King Is Dead. After unleashing a sprawling prog-rock opus, what else is there to do but create a series of diabolically focused little songs that strive for the sorrow-filled, world-weary tones of the great Hank Williams?
tUnE yArDs: Who Kill. Technology has come a long way since Solex’ monstrously inventive Low Kick and Hard Bop from 2001, and this album, which is the spiritual heir to that one, harnesses it brilliantly, dropping listeners into the middle of an African ritual one minute and a beautifully layered Joni Mitchell confession the next.
My Morning Jacket: Circuital. Epic journeys and existential mindgames coalesce into the most consistent set of songs from the band that is arguably the most consistently rousing live act on the road.
Paul Simon: So Beautiful or So What. Worth hearing just for the title track, which captures the thoughts of a numb Everyman as he struggles to comprehend the unhinged opinions and unwelcome advertisments, the trash and transcendence and “look at me” ravings that constitute the modern media assault.
Bill Frisell 858 Quartet: Sign of Life . These pensive etudes glide right across the territorial lines that divide jazz, bluegrass and chamber music, describing an elusive and endlessly fragile shadow world.
J.D. Allen Trio: Victory! This year some tenor player put out a record proclaiming The Triumph of the Heavy. It wasn’t. This is.
Various Artists: El Barrio: The Ultimate Collection of Latin Boogaloo, Disco, Funk and Soul. Fania Records was never just the incubator of New York salsa – the label was also responsible for some monstrously energetic backbeat music. Surveying commercial hits and influential album tracks, this four-disc compilation shows how the flirtatious Latin-soul boogaloo pulse of the ‘60s evolved into muscular, utterly unique strains of funk.
Gretchen Parlato: The Lost and Found. Bassist and vocalist Esperanza Spalding snagged all of this year’s jazz love in the media. But several people in her circle – most notably the singer Gretchen Parlato – made far more interesting records than her cluttered Chamber Music Society. Parlato has a great sense of space and impressive command of a carefully controlled stage whisper; on the best moments here (“Still,” a delightfully loose version of Wayne Shorter’s “Juju”), she kills softly.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: Amos Lee: Mission Bell; M83: Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming; Iron and Wine: Kiss Each Other Clean; Lisa Hannigan: Passenger; The Weekend: House of Balloons; The Beach Boys: Smile!; The Rolling Stones: Some Girls.