Best Music of the Year 2011

Best Singer-Songwriter Albums

Joe Henry Reverie

Another extraordinary album from Joe Henry. Like his last six LPs, Reverie is rich mix of blues, jazz, folk, and Americana. The songs on Reveriee feel loose yet masterful. It takes a couple of listens for the loveliness and insight to reveal themselves. This is songwriting that feels as deep and measured as great fiction or poetry.

Points of Reference: Van Morrison, Tom Waits

Standout tracks: Odetta, Sticks and Stones, Tomorrow is October

King Creosote &
Jon Hopkins
Diamond Mine

A gorgeous album, and one of the 2011 releases you never heard of. It's a spare and simple and yet wonderfully haunting song cycle. The gorgeous voice belongs to King Creosote and the subtle electronica flourishes come from Jon Hopkins. Together they've tapped in to something mysterious and lovely.

Points of Reference: Neutral Milk Hotel, The Waterboys

Standout tracks: John Taylor's Month Away, Bats in the Attic

Best Folk Rock Album

Fleet Foxes Helplessness Blues

This is a young band full of precocious talent. (It's amazing how adept at songwriting and arrangement some young musicians can be.) Fleet Foxes have distilled everything wonderful about Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, and filtered it through their own carrousel of instruments. Helplessness Blues is packed with gorgeous rifts, clever bridges and souring melodies.

Points of reference: Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young

Standout Tracks: Sim Sala Bim, Helplessness Blues

Best Rock Album

The Black Keys El Camino

El Camino offers what The Black Keys do best: the growling guitar and fierce drums that drive the songs. But thanks to Danger Mouse, you also have a layer of production that expands and rounds out the sound (without ever overwhelming the song). I, for one, like this fuller-sounding band. El Camino is a first- rate collection of rock songs.

Points of reference: The White Stripes, Bad Company

Standout Tracks: Money Maker, Gold on the Ceiling, Lonely Boy

Best Pop Albums

Elbow Build a Rocket Boys!

Always there's the comparison to Coldplay, but Elbow is following progressive pop's truer path. The songs on Build a Rocket Boys! are stately and grand, and they twist and turn and arrive at unexpected but satisfying places.

Points of reference: Peter Gabriel, Coldplay

Standout Tracks: Lippy Kids, Open Arms, With Love

Fountains of Wayne Sky Full of Holes

It's an odd and remarkable thing that a pop band like Fountains of Wayne can move into middle age and still sound so youthful and exuberant. (That said, Fountains of Wayne songs have always contained thoughtful musings on suburban malaise, unfulfilled dreams...the stuff of middle-age melancholy.) What's even more admirable is the remarkable consistency Fountains of Wane have shown over their career. Song by song, melody by melody, Sky Full of Holes is as good--or better--than anything they've done.

Points of Reference: The Beach Boys, Cheap Trick

Standout Tracks: Someone's Gonna Break Your Heart, Firelight Waltz

Crowded House Intriguer

Intriguer appeared in 2010 and I should have written about it then. Yes, this is pop music (whatever that implies) but there's always been something grand and classic about the way Neil Finn sings and composes songs. He's one of the very best, old-school in a way that hints at McCartney and Sinatra. I'm afraid to say that Crowded House's first comeback album in 2007, Time On Earth, felt like a middle-aged pop band trying to find its way. But Intriguer is much, much better. It feels both classic and of--the-moment, and it's a gorgeous return to intimate and layered and innovative pop songs.

Points of Reference: The Beatles

Standout Tracks: Amsterdam, Twice If You're Lucky

© 2010-2012, John Dalton

Photo of cabin used in illustration by StormeTX

Others used in illustration by Katharine Roberds

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