The continually evolving rampage of an esteemed guitar-drums duo, a thoroughly redefined glimpse of country music tradition, a resourceful return to form by a folk icon, and rebel music born in the heart of the desert.
Disparate keepsakes from some pop-music mantelpiece? Perhaps. They might indeed seem like strangers when viewed on their own. But weave them together and you have the fabric that links up the finest contemporary recordings of 2011.
For a change, it was a banner year for new music. Whereas in recent years, finding albums to make up a Top 10 list worthy of shouting out to the world took some serious searching, 2011 boasted a bumper crop of extraordinary sounds. Among the recordings that were barely squeezed out of the list this year were fine new works by Wilco, Ryan Adams, My Morning Jacket, Garland Jeffreys, Bill Frisell and Real Estate.
That leaves us with this critic's pick top-10 look at the best pop music that abounded during the past year.
■ The Black Keys, El Camino. Teaming again with producer Danger Mouse, the guitar/drums duo of Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney streamline the sound of last year's sublime Brothers, rough up the plentiful pop hooks and come up with a crunchy, cranky, ear-grabbing party. Highlighted by choir-like vocal ambience and booming guitar riffs, El Camino is an ultra-fun yet elemental beast.
■ Jessica Lea Mayfield, Tell Me. Mayfield sings as if she belongs in a David Lynch movie. Her languid vocals are practically elastic as they stretch to embrace the bluesy, boozy melodies and noir-style guitar twang co-designed by producer Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys. Mayfield's songs are equally entrancing — a vulnerable, vampish mesh of queasy, after-hours sagas.
■ Buddy Miller, The Majestic Silver Strings. Americana everyman Miller enlists a stellar crew of co-guitarists (Marc Ribot, Bill Frisell, Greg Leisz) and vocalists (Emmylou Harris, Shawn Colvin, Lee Ann Womack) to warp and rewire early country traditions. Dang Me as a dirge? The angelic Womack singing Ribot's twisted Meds? Welcome to the music of an altogether new country.
■ Tinariwen, Tassili. Retreating again to the deserts of Southern Algeria after their homeland, northern Mali, was deemed unsafe for recording sessions, the nomadic musical renegades known as Tinariwen recruited members of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and TV on the Radio, along with Wilco guitarist Nels Cline, for an album of sly, incantatory rebel songs.
■ Paul Simon, So Beautiful or So What. On his best recording since 1990's The Rhythm of the Saints, folk/pop icon Simon implements the world-music lexicon that long ago became a mother tongue for his music to reflect on God, life, love and mortality. The resulting music possesses the same senses of sage lyricism and melodic wonder that remain Simon trademarks.
■ Daniel Martin Moore, In the Cool of the Day. A master of administering quiet to the art of folk songcraft, Kentucky native Moore examines a selection of original, popular and traditional spirituals, with the Jean Ritchie-penned title tune leading the light-as-air charge. Moore delivers them all with whispery, meditative reflection. An elegant, elegiac recording of pure folk contentment.
■ The Decemberists, The King is Dead. Distancing themselves from the fanciful, prog-flavored works that dominated their last two albums, Colin Meloy and company head to the country for a predominantly acoustic, hootenanny-style session that emphasizes The Decemberists' gift of literary gab. An album of summery splendor released during the dead of winter.
■ Tom Waits, Bad as Me. Armed with a guitar team that includes Marc Ribot, David Hidalgo and Keith Richards, doomsday troubadour Waits conjures another rogues' gallery of pop tales that run from ruinous snapshots of war's aftermath to surprisingly introspective ballads. And then there are instances, like Get Lost, when Waits lets loose with serious, bone-rattling jubilation.
■ Preservation Hall Jazz Band and The Del McCoury Band, American Legacies. New Orleans' most established jazz traditionalists pairing with the foremost family band in bluegrass? Believe it. American Legacies finds often-righteous common ground between the Crescent City brass and bluegrass strings of two stylistic varied but culturally like-minded ensembles.
■ Gillian Welch, The Harrow and the Harvest. Welch has tried a less-is-more formula before, with mixed results. But with producer and longtime cohort David Rawlings as her only accompanist, The Harrow and the Harvest offers an arresting glimpse of old-time folk and country as witnessed by very modern (and world-weary) ears and eyes.