Ann Powers' 10 Favorite Albums of 2011

Barton Hollow, by the Nashville duo The Civil Wars, was released in February, but took a long road to Ann Powers' list of albums of the year. (Tec Petaja)

2011 was the year that threatened to utterly defeat my powers of critical concentration. Everywhere I listened, I heard something new and interesting, from the top of the charts (Gaga! Adele!) to the Internet's hinterlands (tons of underground hip-hop and R&B). Acquiring a smartphone made things worse; it's a playlist machine, allowing me to jump genres and decades with a finger swipe. That made focusing tough.

It may seem strange, then, that I also found this year a great one for intense album listening. Every coin flips two ways: popular music's fragmentation produces a desire to hold something whole. Artists have responded by creating powerful, cohesive works that demand careful listening. Such major statements defeat the chatter of social media and invite the listener into new imagined worlds.

I know an album meets this high standard when I can't take it out of my car stereo (yes, I still play CDs in the green Mazda), or when I find myself walking an extra mile through the park to listen on headphones just one more time. Year-end "best" lists always make me uncomfortable — who am I to say if strawberry or chocolate ice cream is better? — but I'll rep for these singular sets, each one a reason to keep your engine running.

You've seen our picks, now tell us yours. Vote for your favorite albums of the year here.

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