It seems that it was a year for something new. My favorites of 2011 included numerous established artists, including classical superstar Yo-Yo Ma and country diva Miranda Lambert, but they were in new configurations with new collaborators. And there were brand-new voices that made 2011 a year that was rewarding to take a chance on something I hadn't heard before.
Here are my favorites:
■ Stuart Duncan, Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer and Chris Thile, The Goat Rodeo Sessions. What do you get when four world-class musicians throw away any notion of what their respective genres should be and embrace what they can be together? A marvelous concoction that shows that musicianship trumps categorization every time. This trio of classical and bluegrass/country stars delivered an album that showed the best of what they collectively offered.
■ Foster the People, Torches. The overwhelming feeling that comes through on this album is the excitement of a young band getting its first chance to play to the world. The youth belies maturity, though, because debuts usually don't boast such a sonic mix — from the snarky Don't Stop (Color on the Walls) to the soundscape Life on the Nickel to the signature pop anthems Helena Beat and Pumped Up Kicks, a guilty pleasure that I have to admit is my song of the year.
■ The Civil Wars, Barton Hollow. We are told that Joy Williams and John Paul White are platonic friends. With Barton Hollow, we know that the union of their voices is a marriage made in Americana heaven. In the duo's debut, Williams and White build on the longing of their viral sensation Poison and Wine and show us other ways they go great together, including the wailing title track.
■ Bon Iver, Bon Iver. This album changed my notion of summer music. Released on the summer solstice, the second album from Justin Vernon's enterprise evokes the bleak northern landscapes that we already associated with him. But cue Holocene on a hazy afternoon and it works perfectly. So does punctuating the whole thing with the adult-contemporary schmaltz of Beth/Rest. Keep challenging preconceptions, Justin.
■ The Pistol Annies, Hell on Heels. This sounds like the album to listen to on a hot afternoon, driving out of town on an increasingly narrow road in a rickety old pickup. The trio of Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley come across as women who keep picking the wrong guys but have the sense to wise up and get away from them. That sensibility bled over to Lambert's latest, but here's a shot of cheap whiskey to more from the Pistol Annies.