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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PJ Harvey, 'Let England Shake'

February found me cruising Pasadena in a rental car, as riots and occupations began defining public life worldwide. Polly Harvey's window-shattering sing-alongs about the lure of patriotism and the bloody costs of war threw fire on the manicured lawns all around me.

tUnE-yArDs, 'W H O K I L L'

Using Rube Goldberg technology, a firecracker voice, and an inexhaustible imagination, street theater kid Merrill Garbus utterly reinvented "world music" on her second studio album, and made the one soundtrack guaranteed to turn my dutiful spring walks into joyful jogs.

Shabazz Palaces, 'Black Up'

Visiting Seattle in June, I found myself looking at the city I thought I knew so well through a newly fractured mirror. This expansive, weird, brilliant project from former Digable Planets main man Ishmael Butler caused me to shake off the habitual way I saw his and my hometown and uncover hidden stories on corners I thought I knew so well.

St. Vincent, 'Strange Mercy'

Wet, treacherous highways through Connecticut took me to Rhode Island in midsummer. I almost spun out once or twice. The latest set from guitarist/singer/mastermind Annie Clark got me through: full of sex and risk and rebellion, it's a real feminist adventure story.

The Civil Wars, 'Barton Hollow'

At the start of the year, when I first heard this self-released debut from the year's breakthrough Americana act, it struck me as mostly pretty. But then in late fall I found myself playing it again while traveling the blank interstate in Northern Alabama. On repeat, it revealed itself as minimalist gem, a perfect vocal marriage, a still river running deep.

Drake, 'Take Care'

Some records, you're glad to find in the car; others motivate you to plan a trip. Four hours to Atlanta and back let me sink into the spectrally soulful, Xanax-cocktail sound that hip-hop's complex Casanova and his Toronto-based crew devised for this second studio album. I began to grasp the story behind his lonely swagger: one that encompasses the complexities of desire and responsibility for a young generation whose bank has been broken before it's learned to value itself.

The Roots, 'undun'

Last weekend, I thought my best-of was done. But then I decided to pop up to Whole Foods, an hour away from my house. More out of obligation than real interest, I played the new concept album by hip-hop's venerable big band. Five minutes later I was utterly absorbed in undun's story of lost ghetto boy Redford Stephens — and in the group's perfect blend of conscious rap, Moby-style electronica and Curtis Mayfield sophisti-funk. By the time I brought the groceries in, I'd rewritten my list to include it.

Kate Bush, '50 Words For Snow'

Sometimes traveling on dark, unfamiliar roads makes you cling all the more to the music inside your vehicle. A recent Nashville trip found me in that spot night after night, and so I was glad I had the gently bewitching new masterwork from art rock's great Kate to keep me company. Her ice-kissed, piano-rich song suites about strange angels and sexy snowmen floated me free of anxiety.

Anthony Hamilton, 'Back To Love'

My husband and I often disagree about our automotive soundtrack. He likes punk; I usually prefer something more chill. A full day's drive to Florida's beaches and back over Thanksgiving required a strict policy of mutual tolerance. Even our second-grader perked up, though, when we played the latest from one of soul's quiet younger giants. This honey-dripping set perfectly highlights Hamilton's versatile voice, and had us all dancing in our bucket seats.

Pistol Annies, 'Hell On Heels'

Singing while hiking is not usually advisable, unless you're in a scouting group and you bust out "The Happy Wanderer." But walking through the Mohonk mountain preserve in upstate New York this July, I couldn't stop harmonizing with this trio of Nashville star Miranda Lambert and two songwriting pals. Majestically simple little songs about loving and losing and other realities of modern-day womanhood.

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