It's that time again. In the first part of a three-week look back at the year in music, I'm listing my national favorites. I've stripped the album list of local entries — which will be featured next week — but, for the record, Cities Aviv's Digital Lows, Amy LaVere's Stranger Me, and Don Trip & Starlito's Step Brothers would have found a home on this list. And I kept the local selections on the singles list.
1. w h o k i l l — tUnE-yArDs (4AD): This beefed-up second album from Merrill Garbus and her merry band of studio helpers works as music first: skronk guitar, dub bass, polyrhythmic percussion, honking-session horns, and innumerable bells and whistles setting a foundation of sprung rhythms giving way to unexpected melodies; Garbus darting around with a vocal range that incorporates fluttering, swooping, scatting, and guttural.
Bracing on contact and surprising no matter how many times you play it, w h o k i l l evokes such left-field sound savants as Captain Beefheart and Tom Zé while being more accessible than either. Conceptually, this musicality is put to the service of a set of slippery "protest" songs that address inequality and unrest from provocative and novel angles. I know of no work of art in any medium that captures 2011 as fully.But though it was a down year for great albums, this would have been a worthy #1 any year.
2. Hell on Heels — Pistol Annies (Columbia): Newly arrived country megastar Miranda Lambert sacrifices songcraft on her merely fine new solo album to save the good stuff for this inspired girl-group side project, where she pulls Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley up the ladder with her. The best "roots" album of the year proved to be too arty for the Nashville mainstream, too pop for the "Americana" and indie-folk scenes, and too smart — really, too good — for either.
3. So Beautiful or So What — Paul Simon (Hear Music): Or, Paul Simon's Tree of Life. An unexpected triumph from a soon-to-be-septuagenarian legend that consolidates previous career peaks (1972's Paul Simon, 1986's Graceland) while looking toward the eternal. Funnier and lighter than it sounds.
4. Carolina Chocolate Drops/Luminescent Orchestrii — Carolina Chocolate Drops/Luminescent Orchestrii (Nonesuch) and Bright Lights EP — Gary Clark Jr. (Warner Bros.): Does the blues have a future as a living pop form? Here are two reasons for optimism: wildly different four-song EPs from the genre's greatest young hopes. On the former, a North Carolina string band teams up with a New York gypsy band for a lusty, high-stepping culture crash. On the latter, a Texas guitar-slinger with ample star potential proves that blues-rockers can have taste, tone, and song sense and don't need to show off.
5. Wild Flag — Wild Flag (Merge): Sure, the gravity and vocal power of Corin Tucker is missed, but spacier co-frontperson Mary Timony provides a different personality and keyboardist Rebecca Cole adds a new bounce. Mostly, though, this album is about the two-thirds of Sleater-Kinney that remain, guitarist Carrie Brownstein and drummer Janet Weiss, an indie-punk Richards/Watt who motorvate like no guitar/drum duo in decades.
6. Watch the Throne — Jay-Z and Kanye West (Roc-a-Fella): Too many were eager to dismiss this summit meeting on principle, but its musical command, pop power, and force of personality thunders with nearly as much grandiosity as they boast about and worry over. And West is still smarter about his faults than most of his critics, even offering up his own preemptive, Tweet-worthy pan on that Stax-biting lead single: "Luxury rap/The Hermes of verses/Sophisticated ignorance/Write my curses in cursive."
7. Divine Providence — Deer Tick (Partisan): Rambling twentysomethings finally find the sweet spot amid fake country, garage-y post-punk, and Stones strut for an album reminiscent of the Replacements' Hootenanny. Do they have the heart and vision to follow up with their own Let It Be? The way they puncture their swagger on the opening "The Bump" suggests they just might.
8. Dedicated: A Salute to the 5 Royales — Steve Cropper (429): More purposeful and less indulgent than most tribute albums, here former Stax guitarist/producer Cropper corrals a bunch of like-minded players and singers for a celebration of the too-little-remembered '50s R&B titans.
9. Undun — The Roots (Def Jam): For years I thought their jazzbo tendencies and the limited vocal personality of frontman Black Thought relegated the Roots to being an interesting good band rather than the great band they were purported to be. That's changed over the past few years, partly because their evolving music has developed a tough grace akin to prime Curtis Mayfield but mostly because the incorporation of multiple rappers has turned anonymity into a virtue by positing their music as the collective voice of a living community. If Undun isn't quite as strong as Rising Down or especially How I Got Over, it belongs in the same company.
10. Go-Go Boots — Drive-By Truckers (ATO) and Strawberry — Wussy (Shake It): Too old and too trad to make waves in an indie media culture focused on the trendy and ephemeral, these two Middle-American bands, each built on the rich chemistry of dual singer-songwriter-guitarists, are still among the very best indie rock bands of the past decade and fall only a little short of their peaks here.
Honorable Mentions: The King of In Between — Garland Jeffreys (Luna Park); Let England Shake — PJ Harvey (Vagrant); Devil's Music — Teddybears (Big Beat/Atlantic); The Year of Magical Drinking — Apex Manor (Merge); This Is Country Music — Brad Paisley (Arista Nashville); Chief — Eric Church (EMI); Hot Sauce Committee Part II — Beastie Boys (Capitol); Nostalgia, Ultra — Frank Ocean (Odd Future); The Road From Memphis — Booker T. Jones (Anti-); Four the Record — Miranda Lambert (RCA); The Book of David — DJ Quik (Mad Science); Black Up — Shabazz Palaces (Sub Pop); Screws Get Loose — Those Darlins (Oh Wow Dang); In Light — Givers (Glassnote); The Return of 4Eva — Big Krit (self-released).
Top 20 Singles: "Letter to My Son" — Don Trip; "Mean" — Taylor Swift; "Rolling in the Deep" — Adele; "Call Your Girlfriend" — Robyn; "Gangsta" — tUnE-yArDs; "Will Do" — TV on the Radio; "Coney Island Winter" — Garland Jeffreys; "We Found Love" — Rihanna featuring Calvin Harris; "Countdown" — Beyoncé; "Bulletproof" — Steel Magnolia; "Coming Home" — Diddy Dirty Money; "Nasty" — Nas; "212" — Azealia Banks featuring Lazy Jay; "Coastin'" — Cities Aviv; "Hell on Heels" — Pistol Annies; "Bizness" — tUnE-yArDs; "Up Up Up" — Givers; "Novocaine" — Frank Ocean; "Cruel" — St. Vincent; "Someone Like You" — Adele.