Looking back, 2011 was a stellar year for music. No matter what your tastes—from Americana to Rap, R&B to Country—artists were delivering some of their best work, and independents led the pack. With their originality, direct-to-fan marketing and good old hard work, they’ve found a fertile place to flourish while enjoying devoted fan bases. The winning music business model for the next decade is looking pretty clear.
These 10 CDs happen to be my personal favorites of the year; ones I listen to repeatedly in my car, on my walks, in my kitchen … you get the picture. Huge congrats go out to all of these artists as well as everyone else who released music in 2011. And now that I’ve finished this list, I’m looking forward to all 2012 has in store … new releases from Bonnie Raitt, Gretchen Peters, Leonard Cohen, Ani DiFranco, Ingrid Michaelson, Rufus Wainwright, Bruce Springsteen, and many more. It all adds up to a perfect ending and an exciting beginning. Happy new year, everyone.
GILLIAN WELCH: THE HARROW & THE HARVEST
This was my favorite CD of the year. Period. I’ve always loved everything Gillian Welch and David Rawlings do, but this album—her first in eight years—is a showcase of their originality, flawless musicianship and vivid songwriting in which nary a word is wasted. If I had to pick a standout track on this disc of standout tracks, it would have to be “Hard Times.” I totally wore out the “repeat” button on that one. (By the way, don’t miss Terry Gross’ interview with Gil and Dave on NPR’s Fresh Air.)
THE CIVIL WARS: BARTON HOLLOW
Joy Williams and John Paul White released one of the finest debut albums of the past decade with Barton Hollow, and set the bar mighty high for independent music. A disc with no filler songs, they’ve sold over 235,000 copies in 2011 and racked up Grammy nominations, landed on dozens of best-of lists, and took home the ASCAP Vanguard Award. They and their management team have also set an example in the industry of how to run a successful independent business—huge congrats and kudos for all the well-deserved praise. (The Civil Wars’ Barton Hollow was featured in Performing Songwriter’s Be Heard Jukebox.)
The second studio album for Adele, 21 made me feel like I did when I first heard Amy Winehouse’s debut: I knew it was something special. Combining her powerhouse voice with the best elements of pop, Motown, folk and blues, it has across-the-board appeal. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of listening (or singing along). With sales of over 16 million copies and six Grammy nominations, 2011 belongs to Adele.
JD SOUTHER: NATURAL HISTORY
The legendary writer of such timeless songs as “You’re Only Lonely,” “New Kid in Town” and “Best of My Love” took his time in releasing this best-of collection, and it was worth the wait. These stripped down songs allow the melodies and lyrics to shine, and showcase JD’s voice which has only gotten better with age. Natural History is a lesson in great songwriting. Don’t miss it. (JD Souther’s Natural History was featured in Performing Songwriter’s Be Heard Jukebox.)
FLEET FOXES: HELPLESSNESS BLUES
Helplessness Blues is the second album from this Seattle band, and it’s crazy beautiful. With their CSNY meets the Beach Boys harmonies over haunting sounds, they splash poetry against the wall of folk-rock and take us to some pretty unexpected places. And with a whisper, a fiddle lick and a cymbal crash they’re heading into 2012 with a Grammy nomination for best folk album.
LORI MCKENNA: LORRAINE
Lori McKenna has written some of country music’s biggest hits recorded by the likes of Faith Hill, Tim McGraw and Sara Evans. But it’s her own albums that are the real show stoppers, and 2011’s Lorraine had Lori chronicling our most vulnerable, human moments and delivering them as perfect three-minute gifts. This is a must-have album. (Lori McKenna’s Lorraine was featured in Performing Songwriter’s Be Heard Jukebox.)
COLDPLAY: MYLO XYLOTO
I confess, I love pop music. Whether it’s songwriter pop (think Sara Bareilles) or stadium-ready pop (that would be Coldplay), it simply makes me feel good. Which is why I like Mylo Xyloto so much: It’s ambitious, fun and easy to sing along to—all hallmarks of pop at its best—while throwing in beats, R&B and electronica. With this release Coldplay sounds like Coldplay again, and that’s something to smile about.
THIS ONE’S FOR HIM: A TRIBUTE TO GUY CLARK
This was an end-of-the-year treat that completely thrilled me. With 33 artists interpreting 30 of Guy’s songs—including Emmylou Harris, John Prine, Lyle Lovett, Patty Griffin, Shawn Colvin, Rodney Crowell and Rosanne Cash—this 2-disc collection is perfection from beginning to end. (This One’s For Him: A Tribute to Guy Clark was featured in Performing Songwriter’s Be Heard Jukebox.)
MATRACA BERG: THE DREAMING FIELDS
Matraca Berg is one of Nashville’s finest and most respected songwriters, and this is a shining showcase of her work wrapped in her gorgeous voice. The Dreaming Fields is Matraca’s first release in 14 years, and is a complete delight. She’s simply one of the best. (Matraca Berg’s The Dreaming Fields was featured in Performing Songwriter’s Be Heard Jukebox.)
RYAN ADAMS: ASHES & FIRE
This CD was a total surprise for me. I haven’t been a fan of Ryan Adams’ work in the past—the self-destructive genius/implosive victim thing was never my cup of tea. But with Ashes & Fire Adams is shining in a completely different light, and all I can say is, “Wow.” The production, musicianship, songs and his voice are all presented in a solo sparseness that is intriguing and soulful. Ashes & Fire made a Ryan Adams fan out of me.