2011 was a weird year for me musically. There was certainly a wealth of good music released this year. I can remember as recently as 2007 or 2008, struggling to find 20 albums to fill a list. This year, not so much of a problem. An interesting cast of old reliables and young bucks stepped up to the plate and delivered this year, and there were also a couple of noteworthy comebacks and collaborations.

Initially, I had these albums ranked, but I changed my mind at the last minute: there really wasn’t a clear front-runner here; no album that absolutely blew me away and left me slack-jawed the way, say, Kanye’s album did last year. So I decided to just move forward with an alphabetical list. Here goes:

Adele-21

You remember the Looney Tunes cartoons where someone would be baking a pie (or something like that,) and the odor would waft into the next room, leaving the person (or animal) in that room so entranced by that smell that the fumes would literally carry them to the origin of said smell? That’s sort of what happened when I first heard Adele’s voice five or so years ago. In reality, all I did was walk 10 feet to an office and ask “hey, who is that playing?”, but you get the somewhat strained analogy, right? For all of that, her debut album, 19, didn’t give me the expected thrill once I finally bought it and took it home (it wasn’t available in theU.S.when I first heard it.) I mean, I liked it plenty, but it wasn’t revelatory in the way that herU.K.compatriot Amy Winehouse’s Back To Black was. Fast forward a couple of years, Adele’s sophomore album, 21, is released, and not only does it confirm the jollies I felt when I first heard her voice, but it resonated with millions upon millions of others, moving units like this was 2001 instead of 2011. It’s somewhat comforting to know that artists who don’t appeal to the lowest common denominator can still achieve commercial success.

21 is full of heartache, but Adele doesn’t come across as defeated on these songs at all. There’s a sassy strain to her voice, and you can tell that she’s going to get over the heartache she sings about and bounce back stronger than ever, “You’re So Vain”-style. The British singer’s sophomore effort contained more legitimate soul than just about any mainstream R&B album this year and stands up to repeated listens (although it probably helps that I don’t listen to the radio.) This might be the first year in my adult life that I’ll think it deserving if an artist cleans up at the Grammy Awards. 21 is that good.

Childish Gambino-Camp

Almost forty years after it’s inception, people still argue passionately about what hip-hop is vs. what hip-hop isn’t. Is it exclusively the province of black people? Can legitimate hip-hop only be made by people who are underprivileged? Can a suburbanite make a meaningful hip-hop record? Although those questions have been answered time and time again by (among others) The Beastie Boys, Eminem, Public Enemy, Rakim, Jadakiss and De La Soul (among many others,) these questions keep bubbling to the surface as though they’re still relevant.

Truth is, hip-hop was only confined to a specific space in it’s early infancy, if ever. It’s everyone’s baby now, and the only qualifications for making a good rap record are a killer flow and an interesting story to tell. Childish Gambino (AKA Donald Glover, actor on NBC’s Community and former writer for the same network’s 30 Rock) rhymes way better than anyone who shares space with Chevy Chase has a right to, and although his verses slide into sophomoric (and occasionally sexist) comedy, there’s a serious story being told once you get past the cracks about Donald’s lust for Asian girls. Camp is an album for the folks who color outside the lines of traditional stereotypes…like Kanye’s College Dropout pushed even further away from the mainstream. The fact that Donald got his rap moniker from a Wu-Tang name generator might be the least impressive thing about Camp-the best hip-hop album of 2011, representing for “blerds” everywhere.

David Mead-Dudes

Dudes was the “where have I been this guy’s whole career?” album of the year for me; a month after I bought it, I’m now the proud owner of 4 David Mead studio albums. I feel like an idiot for sleeping on this guy, but as they say, better late than never. So much songwriting these days is calculated and lazy-David actually tells stories in his songs. You could probably pick any track on this album and make a movie out of it. Whether writing about crossword puzzles (appealing to the nerd in me,) weaving Rachael Ray into a beautifully melancholy holiday-themed song (appealing to the sad sack in me) or writing the best Hall & Oates homage since “You Get What You Give” by New Radicals (appealing to the Hall & Oates fan in me,) Dudes dazzles.

Dawes-Nothing Is Wrong

My “okay, NOW I get it” moment with Dawes came after two years and four concerts: standing in the venue trying to cover up my irritation (because I could only drink light beer) and awkwardness (because I’d had a bizarre encounter with the venue’s sound guy just a couple of weeks before the show,) I was transported away from my grumpiness by music. Taylor Goldsmith sells every single word he sings like very few artists around these days; it’s like he’s a junior Springsteen in training (and a sea of Bruce fans just threw their shoes at their computer screens, I’m sure.) I’d liked Dawes before, but this was the transformative moment for me. I went back home, listened to Nothing Is Wrong with fresh ears that weekend. Smiled at some of the lyrics, teared up at others, pondered the magnificence of younger brother/drummer Griffin Goldsmith’s blond ‘fro (and the bizarre O faces he makes while playing,) and marveled at how one concert (by a band I’d seen numerous times before) could pull a band out of the “I like them” pile and onto the “these guys are awesome!” list.

Duran Duran-All You Need Is Now

In a not totally uncommon night of show-going for me, I ducked out of the Dawes show shortly after the co-headliner, Blitzen Trapper, went on stage, and headed across the street to fulfill a childhood fantasy-seeing Duran Duran live in concert. While the show was underwhelming (talk about autopilot,) that doesn’t change the fact that All You Need Is Now is the band’s best album since those heady days of MTV world premieres, Tiger Beat covers and board games (yes, I had the Duran Duran board game,) when I first fell in love with John, Nick, Roger, Simon and An…oh, right. He’s not there anymore.

Anyhow, producer Mark Ronson was somehow the first person in two decades to realize that in order for a Duran Duran album to be good, it had to sound like…wait for it…A DURAN DURAN ALBUM!!! So, the keyboards brightened, John Taylor resumed his quest to sound like the best Bernard Edwards knockoff in history, and Simon went back to desperately whining about exotic animals and panicking girls in a manner that had you checking the calendar and wondering if it was still 1984. Comeback of the year.

Fountains Of Wayne-Sky Full Of Holes

There are some artists and bands that can do no wrong in my eyes-er, ears. A few of them released albums this year. I almost held FoW off this list for the same reason I omitted Meshell Ndegeocello’s Weather (which is probably my #12 album of the year) and The Roots’ Undun. When perfection is the norm, it’s really difficult for a fan to be wowed. The sky is blue, water is wet, and these artists keep making great albums.

With Sky Full Of Holes, however, there was something ever so slightly different. Maybe it’s the fact that the Fountains were gone longer than Meshell (who releases albums on a reasonably regular basis) and The Roots (who are as ubiquitous as anyone can be these days.) Maybe it’s the weird lump in my throat I get whenever I hear “A Road Song.” Maybe it’s the fact that this album has what the other two albums I mentioned lack (for the most part): a sense of humor. At any rate, Sky Full of Holes is neck and neck with the aforementioned Dudes (which was produced by FoW’s Adam Schlesinger) as the pop-music-for-grown-folks album of the year. Now, can we get a new album a little quicker this time please, gentlemen?

Gil Scott-Heron & Jamie XX-We’re New Here

I’m New Here, Gil Scott-Heron’s first album of new material in over a decade and a half, was my favorite album of 2010, which I feel should probably serve as a reason to exclude this remix project from the list. Three things made me change my mind. One: if my opinion has the ability to make even one person go to a record store and buy anything by Gil Scott-Heron, I will put an album of his on every year-end list I make until I die. Two: I didn’t think it was possible to make an album like I’m New Here sound any more haunting than it did originally, but somehow, Jamie XX did it (specifically on “I’ll Take Care Of You,” a sample of which provides the backbone for the lone transcendent moment on Drake’s new album.) Three: we lost Gil this year, shortly after this project was released. If this album, in remixed form or in it’s original incarnation, doesn’t move you, then quite simply: you have no soul.

Marsha Ambrosius-Late Nights & Early Mornings

I’ll admit to having never been that much of a fan of Floetry. So, the fact that Marsha Ambrosius’ maiden solo voyage was so good came as something of a surprise. Or maybe I’m just slowly beginning to realize I have an unhealthy fixation on British women who sing. Either way, this collection of midtempo and slow joints from a singer/songwriter who’s collaborated with everyone from Michael Jackson (“Butterflies”) to one of the many wanna-be MJs (Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me A River”) was one of the most entertaining efforts of the year. From the “real talk” of “Hope She Cheats On You (With A Basketball Player)” to the trip-hop accents of “Chasing Clouds,” Marsha’s songwriting skills are near-peerless. And she’s got this quiver in her voice that gets me every time. Plus, how can you be mad at anyone who covers Portishead?

Paul Simon-So Beautiful Or So What

Listening to a good Paul Simon album, to me, is a bit like watching one of the better “Seinfeld” episodes. There’s a wry quality about his best lyrics that’s quintessentiallyNew York. If you’d asked me in January whether I’d care much about a new Paul Simon album, I would’ve said no. This despite my love for S&G and my recent discovery of Paul’s excellent early Seventies solo albums. However, NPR streamed So Beautiful Or So What prior to it’s release, and I was wowed. Honestly, I have no concept of anything Paul’s recorded since I was in high school, everything I’ve discovered of him has been a retroactive discovery, so I can’t say whether So Beautiful Or So What is truly the return to form a lot of people have been calling it. I will say that it’s easily the best album made this year by someone over the national retirement age, though. The chorus of “The Afterlife” (“you gotta fill out a form first/then you wait in the line”) has been stuck in my head since the very first time I heard it.

Phonte-Charity Starts At Home

How dope is Phonte’s Charity Starts At Home? Consider that this album is one of the two hip-hop titles to make the list. Not Undun. Not Watch The Throne. And y’all know how much I love me some Roots and Kanye (and Jigga.) Also consider: I’m not the world’s biggest Little Brother fan. God knows I tried. I really did. Then I realized dude sang, picked up a couple of Foreign Exchange albums, and was like “why can’t this dude sing all the time?” I picked up Charity, a little salty that Phonte was headed back to emceeing full time and wondering if it was gonna be worth the purchase. Surprise, surprise. Tigallo (despite his annoying habit of verbalizing that moniker on EVERY got-damn track on this album) came with the goods this time. Folks keep saying that hip-hop is a young man’s game, but while all the Young Money folks (I mean that literally and figuratively) chase the dollar, folks like Phonte focus on creating meaningful music. This isn’t hip-hop for the clubs, it’s hip-hop for the heart and soul.

Rahsaan Patterson-Bleuphoria

It’s soul. It’s gospel. It’s dance. It’s rock. Rahsaan’s fifth studio album combines genres better than any other album released this year. Far deeper than the average singer/songwriter, Rahsaan’s work explores relationships, sure. But it also explores the complexity of relationships-with romantic partners, with friends and family, with God, with self. And the man managed to file through his Rolodex (or whatever the technologically updated equivalent is) and get guest appearances from just every diva that means something in the music business; from Faith Evans assisting on the chorus of “Crazy (Baby)” to Jody Watley reprising her “I’m going home now…where are my keys?” line from “Still A Thrill” on “Ghost.” If you read my Fountains ofWayneentry a few paragraphs above: be aware that Rahsaan fits the same criteria that FoW, Meshell and The Roots do. Perfection so often that you almost take him for granted. Almost.

For the record…and to prove that there really was a lot of good music released this year, here’s another 11 albums worth owning:

Amy Winehouse | Lioness: Hidden Treasures
Beyonce | 4
Brad Paisley | This Is Country Music
Kanye West & Jay-Z | Watch The Throne
Meshell Ndegeocello | Weather
Mike Doughty | Yes And Also Yes
Patrick Stump | Soul Punk
Richard Ashcroft | United States of Sound
The Lonely Island | Turtleneck & Chain
The Original 7ven | Condensate
Van Hunt | What Were You Hoping For?

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