The irony is thick and delicious. Just as rumors have the remaining major labels teaming to kill off the CD and go "all digital" in 2012, and theses pontificating on the "death of the album" and "rebirth of the single" spread like the plague through the ether, 2011 turns out to be a year when great albums dropped from the skies in abundance.
Not just great collections of songs, mind you -- genuinely great albums, recordings that were crafted to be listened to as a whole, preferably through a great pair of speakers and not lame-sounding earbuds.
I won't bother trying to posit some connective thematic tissue stringing together the best albums released this year -- there really isn't any, and the stylistic diversity of the music is really all that connects it.
I will also avoid any pretension to the fact that what I've chosen as the year's best is somehow emblematic of the zeitgeist, or the combustible culture, or the Occupy Movement, or whatever. I simply chose the albums that spoke to me, and avoided doing the whole faux "fair and balanced" thing where a critic feels guilt if he or she doesn't include at least one album from each musical style, and present an even scale between male and female artists, etc.
Why? Because none of that has anything to do with the music itself. And it's the music that made 2011 an inspiring year, artistically speaking.
With that, here are my Top 10 picks, with a much longer than usual listing of "honorable mentions" -- records that could have easily been in the Top 10, and might have been, if I'd penned my list on a different day.
The whole point of these silly lists is simply to celebrate something we love and to generate some discussion, so please, write in with picks of your own. Certainly, you'll remind me of something I missed, or hip me to something I've never heard. You always do!
1) Radiohead, "The King of Limbs" (Independent). Hardly the band's most warmly received album, but certainly among its best. Such a highly inventive take on 21st century song construction, recording and the marriage of the technological and the human. Prime Radiohead.
2) Tom Waits, "Bad As Me" (Anti-). He didn't reinvent the wheel this time. He didn't need to, having done so several times already. Just another wild, weird and wonderful Waits album, which is something that always arrives feeling like a gift.
3) Steven Wilson, "Grace For Drowning" (Independent). The erstwhile Porcupine Tree leader ups the ante on his own art by going deeper into progressive stylings, and adding new colors to his palette. If it isn't wholly flawless, it's pretty damn close.
4) Battles, "Gloss Drop" (Warp). Brainy pop-prog that you can dance to. The drum sound on this album is one of the finest since the Flaming Lips' "Soft Bulletin."
5) Panda Bear, "Tomboy" (Paw Tricks). The dreamiest aspects of Panda's day-gig in Animal Collective are front and center here. A strange but beautiful collection. Also one of the year's finest vinyl releases, sound-wise.
6) Zombi, "Escape Velocity" (Relapse). New wave, prog-rock and techno-dance meet at a roller disco. Beards and irony optional.
7) Tech N9ne, "All 6's and 7's" (Strange Music). The fastest mouth in the Western world! Hip-hop hasn't been this radically refreshing since Public Enemy's heyday.
8) Beastie Boys, "Hot Sauce Committee Part Two" (Capitol). So funky, so sly, so smart, so funny, so good to have them around!
9) Peter Gabriel, "New Blood" (Peter Gabriel Ltd.). Gabriel revisits his past with daring orchestral arrangements. More reinvention and reinterpretation than cash-in.
10) Kate Bush, "50 Words for Snow" (Fish People). If you insist on purchasing this digitally, please remove the Elton John cameo from the playlist. Doing so makes this yet another in a long string of simply perfect Bush albums. Eccentric, emotional, deeply musical, dreamlike and sexy.
Honorable mentions: Adele, "21"; R.E.M., "Collapse Into Now"; Iron Maiden, "The Final Frontier"; Mastodon, "The Hunter"; Paul Simon, "So Beautiful Or So What"; Ryan Adams, "Ashes & Fire"; My Morning Jacket, "Circuital"; St. Vincent, "Strange Mercy"; Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo -- Soundtrack"; Sigur Ros, "Inni"; Tony Levin, David Torn and Alan White, "Levin Torn White"; Puscifer, "Conditions Of My Parole"; Foo Fighters, "Wasting Light"; Eddie Vedder, "Ukulele Songs"; Tres Mts., "Three Mountains"; Gary Clark Jr., "The Bright Lights EP"; Black Country Communion, "Black Country Communion 2"; Umphrey's McGee, "Death by Stereo"; Hammers of Misfortune, "17th Street"; Bruce Cockburn, "Small Source of Comfort"; and Bjork, "Biophilia."