Best Music of 2011 (in no particular order)

[PRODUCER’S NOTE:  Click the name for the artist’s website, the title of the album for a link to purchase it on Amazon and click the song title for a link to hear a sample or to buy a download.]

 

by Rolling Stone contributing editor Anthony DeCurtis

 

Robbie Robertson

Album: How to Become Clairvoyant

Song: When the Night Was Young

The main songwriter of the Band is working on an autobiography, and these songs reflect that exploration of his eventful life. “When the Night Was Young,” which nods to Robertson’s masterpiece “The Weight,” evokes the hopefulness and vision of his early days.

 

Adele

Album: 21

Song: Rumour Has It

This was arguably the album of the year, an unexpected explosion that had people fondly recollecting the music industry’s commercial glory days – and hoping for their return. The title refers to Adele’s age when she recorded the album, which draws on a soulful maturity well beyond her eyes. “Rolling in the Deep” was the hit that propelled the Adele phenomenon, but the spooky “Rumor Has It” recalls the dark pop desperation of Martha and the Vandellas’ “Nowhere to Run.” It’s as distinctive a hit as has rocked the charts in recent memory.

 

Teddy Thompson

Album: Bella

Song: The One I Can’t Have

Teddy Thompson is the son of Richard and Linda Thompson, and the honest truth is he is neither the virtuoso guitarist his father is nor as heart-rending a singer as his mother. The consolation prize is that he is more accessible than either and quite a winning performer, as Bella makes clear. “The One I Can’t Have” nicely captures his intelligence and wit, lifted by a memorable hook that accents the appealing good humor and wry insight of Thompson’s songwriting.

 

Wynton Marsalis and Eric Clapton

Album: Wynton Marsalis and Eric Clapton Play the Blues

Song: 44

It’s not a pairing you’d immediately think of, and I came to this set with some trepidation. Both Marsalis and Clapton can be a bit too cautious and formal, and I feared that they would encourage each other’s most conservative tendencies. Instead, they sound loose and relaxed, as if the presence of another top-level talent freed them to play in unfettered ways that don’t come easy when they’re leading the band. This seductive reading of Howlin’ Wolf’s “44” – again, not the repertoire I would have expected – packs real punch.

 

Amos Lee

Album: Mission Bell

Song: El Camino Reprise (featuring Willie Nelson)

Lee has been making great music for a while now, but Mission Bell is the strong, consistent album his fans (myself very much among them) have been waiting for. He’s a wonderful singer – soulful, restrained, eloquent – and on Mission Bell he’s found themes of distance, travel and searching for love that suit his introspective style perfectly, as his affecting duet with Willie Nelson on the reprise of “El Camino” that closes his album demonstrates.

 

The Decemberists

Album: The King Is Dead

Song: Down by the Water

Despite the highfalutin title, the Decemberists shed some of their folkloric grandeur here and opt for greater concision and focus – to compelling effect. Colin Meloy, the band’s mastermind, has cited R.E.M. as an key influence, and guitarist Peter Buck hops on board for three tracks. The album’s opening song, “Don’t Carry It All,” suggests that we “let the yoke fall from our shoulders,” and the Decemberists do sound as if they’ve freed themselves on this outing. “Down by the Water,” my favorite track on the album, displays the Decemberists’ ability to bring fresh contemporary energy to ancient folk themes. That the Decemberists are now taking a long hiatus is sad news for the group’s devoted following.

 

The Wilderness of Manitoba

Album: When You Left the Fire

Song: November

In purely sensual terms this may be the album I loved the most this year. I enjoy listening to it so much that I was reluctant to find out much about either the band or what that album is actually about – my own impressions of it had become so precious to me. The gorgeous “November,” for example, beautifully suggests the turning of fall to winter. These are swirling, sumptuous tone poems about places and times, and once you’ve heard them, you won’t be able to get them out of your head or your heart.

 

My Morning Jacket

Album: Circuital

Song: Holdin’ On to Black Metal

From Louisville, Kentucky, My Morning Jacket has become one of the most adventurous and uplifting bands in America. Circuital is the group’s sixth album, and it’s a meditation on what you take with you and what you leave behind as you grow older. “Holdin’ on to Black Metal” addresses that theme directly. It’s about how heavy metal helped the singer get through adolescence, but seems less appropriate for adulthood – and the difficulty of letting go of things that were once so important to you.

 

The Civil Wars

Album: Barton Hollow

Song: Poison & Wine

The Civil Wars shoot the gap between alt-country rootsiness and pop-country flash. Their songs are spare and acoustic, but rich with melodic elegance. The lovely harmonies of Joy Williams and John Paul White are the band’s signature. “Poison & Wine” gets at what the Civil Wars do best – somehow render both the male and female perspectives on a relationship, in this case one ripe for heartbreak.

 

Paul Simon

Album: So Beautiful or So What

Song: Getting Ready for Christmas Day

Seventy-year-old Paul Simon ponders mortality and the world beyond with wit, wisdom and impressive equanimity here. The album’s rhythmic liveliness and characteristically deft art-song lyrics combine to leaven the seriousness of the singer’s concerns while acknowledging his right to big ideas. “Getting Ready for Christmas Day” locates Simon entirely in his element, sampling a gospel sermon and serving up his own homily on Christmas and its message of hope amid the darkness of winter.