Whatever else might have gone wrong in 2011 — the economy, Japanese nuclear reactors, Charlie Sheen, Kim Kardashian's marriage — it was an uncommonly great year for music of all types.
Below are my picks for the best local and national/international releases of the past 12 months. They are not perfect lists, and I agonized over them more than usual. In fact, I could almost replace the two lists entirely and be just as satisfied. Regardless of whether you agree, hopefully these choices will spark some thinking, some debate, and especially some listening.
1. North Mississippi Allstars
Keys to the Kingdom
(Song of the South Records)
The three years between their fifth full-length studio album, Hernando, and their sixth, this year's Keys to the Kingdom, were unusually eventful for the blues-rock trio, filled with death and birth and more music-making than many acts experience in their careers as all three members of the group — guitarist Luther Dickinson, his brother, drummer Cody Dickinson, and bassist Chris Chew — explored projects outside the group. When they finally reconvened on this record, it was clear that they had turned a corner. Audibly more confident and mature, they brought a new songwriting potency to add to their always-epic jams.
2. The Bo-Keys
Got to Get Back!
In a year that saw the death of Amy Winehouse, the English singer whose 2006 album Back to Black helped usher in a new strain of retro-soul in pop music, the trend suddenly seemed everywhere. Acts like Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings, Mayer Hawthorne and, to varying degrees, Nos. 1, 2, 4 and 5 on my national best-of list below, brilliantly showcased the sounds of '60s and '70s Motown, Stax and Philadelphia International in their music. But none perhaps was more soul-satisfying than the sophomore release from Memphis' Bo-Keys. With members of Isaac Hayes', Otis Redding', and B.B. King's bands on board for the multigenerational effort, this was less a homage than a defiant yawp that the past is still very much present.
3. Jack Oblivian
(Big Legal Mess)
The metamorphosis of Jack Oblivian, aka Jack Yarber, continues to thrilling effect. The former punk upstart (Oblivians, Compulsive Gamblers) has been evolving as a top-notch tunesmith since going solo more than a decade ago. He follows up 2009's The Disco Outlaw — a record that I thought could not be topped — with another surprising masterpiece. Bouncing between the guitar mania of his punk past and the tuneful rootsiness he has discovered since joining forces with bandmate John Paul Keith (whose own 2011 release, The Man That Time Forgot, just missed this list; consider it my No. 6), along with Ennio Morricone's Italy and other stops along the way, Oblivian is still perhaps the most unpredictable songwriter in town.
4. Amy Lavere
The route to recording Amy LaVere's third album was a long and tortuous one. The Memphis roots-rock chanteuse went through one producer (frequent collaborator Jim Dickinson was scheduled to helm before his 2009 passing) and two backing bands before finally gathering a new, largely unfamiliar host of players to work with her and veteran Arcade Fire producer Craig Silvey. Being on such unsteady ground seems to have been liberating for LaVere, resulting in her loosest, most wildly inventive effort yet.
5. Tiger High
Myth Is This
(Trash Creatures/Burger Records)
Another slot that almost went to someone else. (Consider the boogie rock trio The Dirty Streets' Movements my No. 7.) The brainchild of the musically profligate guitarist Jake Vest, Tiger High teams him with a familiar cast of characters, including keyboardist brother Toby Vest, Greg Faison on bass, and drummer Greg Roberson. One can hear traces of their other projects together here — the sonic experimentation of Augustine/The Third Man, the guitar-centric drive of The Bulletproof Vests, the garage-y playfulness of Ten High & The Trashed Romeos — but taken in aggregate, this is a wholly different beast. A lo-fi, neo-psychedelic soup of dense, varied guitar sounds, muddy rhythms, pop hooks and distorted vocals, it is a refreshingly out-there lab test in the spirit of Wilco and Radiohead.
Kind of a no-brainer. The sophomore record by the British singer, full name Adele Laurie Blue Adkins, was 2011's best-selling record and, with six nominations, is the odds-on favorite going into February's Grammy Awards. The album displays tremendous artistic growth on the part of Adele, just 21 years old when she made the record, with the addition of new dimensions — blues, country, singer-songwriter confessional — to her sound. But it soars on its direct, un-gimmicky musical approach, all the better to showcase the most powerful instrument in her arsenal, that one-in-a-lifetime voice.
2. The Roots
(Def Jam Records)
There is always a risk involved in sticking a year-end release on one of these kind of lists: Will the record really stand up in a few months' time, or was its inclusion a matter of fresh exuberance? Given the track record of Philadelphia's The Roots — arguably hip-hop's greatest band for a dozen years or so but on a particularly hot streak following 2010's excellent John Legend collaboration, Wake Up! — I'll chance it for the just-released Undun. A sonic tour de force, this is also The Roots' most thematically provocative work, a concept album about modern inner-city life that plays out with the harrowing intensity of an episode of "The Wire."
3. Fleet Foxes
(Sub Pop/Bella Union)
I'm generally weary of the kind of over-produced, car commercial-ready pop-rock that seems to send NPR listeners' hearts regularly aflutter these days. Would someone please wake me when the Civil Wars are done? That said, there were a handful of standout records this year that successfully managed to marry the twee with a folk or roots sensibility: Dawes, Deer Tick, the Decemberists, Bon Iver. But the second record from Seattle's Fleet Foxes, with its gorgeous, layered harmonies, seemed to lord over them all, cementing the group's reputation as a postmodern Crosby, Stills & Nash.
4. Black Keys
Akron, Ohio, duo The Black Keys' run of deeply felt, rockin' garage-blues records culminated last year with the Grammy-winning Brothers, a record that added soul and glam to the band's palette. Earlier this month, they followed that up with more of the same. El Camino finds the duo (formally signed to Oxford's Fat Possum label) reuniting with Danger Mouse (Gnarls Barkley), who both co-produced and co-wrote, on a leaner, more upbeat, more focused blast of bootie-shakin' grooves.
5. Raphael Saadiq
Clearly, retro was a predominant theme this year. (For me at any rate.) And almost no one has been doing it better for longer than Raphael Saadiq. Old soul has been a part of his DNA since the late '80s, when he got his start with the band Tony! Toni! Toné!, and it runs through his entire solo career. But it wasn't until his Motown-steeped, post-Winehouse 2008 release The Way I See It that critics and fans began to appreciate his deep assimilation of classic R&B. On Stone Rollin', Saadiq (real name Charles Ray Wiggins) expands on his sound with nods to Sly Stone, funk and more contemporary outré influences, all the time maintaining a timeless, undeniable beat.