Putting together a Top Ten list of the best albums of 2011 isn’t the toughest job in the world, but when there are virtually no barriers to making music and distributing it on the Internet, it can be a challenging one.
Sometimes the difficulty is wading through the muck — with a laptop, anyone can make a record, and sometimes it seems as though everyone did. But once you focus on the good stuff, you remember that there was a lot of it, dating back to the Decemberists’ “The King Is Dead,” which came out in January, to the Black Keys disc last week.
No list can give a complete picture of what went on in pop music in a given year. That’s why we’ve included a playlist of songs that makes way for such key players as Tom Waits, St. Vincent, James Blake, Nicki Minaj, and Adele, the British singer-songwriter whose “21” is the year’s best-selling album and is set to clean up at the Grammy Awards in February.
n Ry Cooder, “Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down” (nonesuch). Slide guitarist and genius folklorist Ry Cooder puts a prickly exclamation point on a storied career with this stunning collection for the New Depression. Cooder’s angry all right, but he’s also shrewd and funny, with the dark humor of the deceptively jaunty “No Banker Left Behind” growing blacker still on the Flaco Jimenez-powered antiwar conjunto “Christmas Time This Year.” He rocks out, stomps the blues, and gracefully rewrites Woody Guthrie. Like Tom Waits, Cooder knows his way around any number of musical styles. But rather than sound world-weary, Cooder is righteously ticked off, which gives “Pull Up Some Dust” an extra kick. Download: “No Banker Left Behind.”
n Jay-Z and Kanye West, “Watch the Throne” (Roc-A-Fella). Were it not for these two gentlemen, one could argue that this list is short of star power; in fact, you could make that argument about popular music as a whole. But by pooling talents for their first full-length collaboration, Hova and Yeezy do their best to rectify the situation. “Watch the Throne” steps back occasionally to muse on fatherhood, black-on-black crime, and how the fortunes of two hip-hop mahoffs fit in the context of the African-American struggle. Mostly, and most enjoyably, though, it takes a look in the mirror and admires its own awesomeness. Download: “Otis.”
n The Roots, “undun” (Def Jam) The disciplined-yet-ambitious “undun” is the self-effacing flip side of “Watch the Throne.” When Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter of the hip-hop crew — which also put out a rock-solid album with soul singer Betty Wright this month — uses the word I on “undun,” he’s putting the internal struggles of a fictional character named Redford Stephens into rhyme. There are no idle boasts, no clever couplets to take the focus away from the story, which is told in a reverse narrative to illustrate how a kid from the corner wound up dead on the streets of Philadelphia. Download: “One Time.”
n Tune-Yards, “w h o k i l l” (4AD). I don’t know if I ever had as much fun listening to music in the car this year as I did with “w h o k i l l” blasting out of the speakers. The second album by wide-eyed and wildly inventive auteur Merrill Garbus is so filled with restless sonic curiosity and love of rhythm, from random street sounds to Afro-pop breakdowns, that it hardly ever sits still. Garbus is a singer of remarkable range who creates her own samples live in the studio, or on stage, before looping them into a riotous carnival of sound. If that all sounds too aggressively experimental, Garbus keeps it (relatively) straightforward when she wants to, as on the quietly fetching lullaby “Wooly Wolly Gong.” Download: “Bizness.”
Honorable mention: The Black Keys, “El Camino”; The Decemberists, “The King Is Dead”; Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit, “Here We Rest”; Lykke Li, “Wounded Rhymes”; Pistol Annies, “Hell on Heels”; Real Estate, “Days”; St. Vincent, “Strange Mercy”; Those Darlins, “Screws Get Loose”; Tom Waits, “Bad as Me”; and Yuck, “Yuck.”