(The asterisk is to acknowledge I only listened to a small fraction of the hundreds of albums I normally heard all those 35 years I was pop music critic at the Los Angeles Times—though I tried to listen at year’s end to the most acclaimed albums of 2011. On the strong possibility I missed some of the year’s most commanding works, think of the 10 albums below as simply my favorite new releases for the year—recommendations from me to you. You can hear tunes from all these albums thanks to a podcast of my Feb. 12 radio show that ran on KCSN-FM in Los Angeles. Go to http://rocknrolltimes.kcsn.org and click on the Feb. 12 show. The show, “Rock ‘n’ Roll Times With Robert Hilburn” airs from 4 to 5 p.m. every Sunday on KCSN 88.5 in Los Angeles—or stream it at that time at www.kcsn.org).
ALBUM OF THE YEAR
Paul Simon, “So Beautiful or So What” (Concord)—This is such a passionate, ambitious and stylish collection that it deserves a place alongside “Graceland” on the shelf of great pop albums. Lyrically sophisticated and musically inventive, “So Beautiful” is a spectacular mix of ideas and emotions. Favorite track: “Questions for the Angels,” which includes this wise, witty line, “If you shop for love in a bargain-store/ And you don’t get what you bargained for/ Can you get your money back?”
2) Tom Waits’ “Bad as Me” (Anti)—In his best outing since “Mule Variations,” the wonderful and original singer-songwriter gives us a wide-ranging work that looks at everything from the state of our nation to relationships to aging. Special moments: the melancholy, bittersweet “Last Leaf” and “New Year’s Eve.”
3) P.J. Harvey, “Let England Shake” (Vagrant)—This is a serious and substantial project—dark reflections on England and its history of battlefields—that conveys Harvey’s brilliance as a writer and record-maker. Most unforgettable tune: “Hanging in the Wind.”
NEXT IN LINE
Adele’s “21” (XL/Columbia)—Don’t let all the Grammy awards and five months on top of the sales charts turn you off this fabulous young English singer. Adele Adkins’ voice is a soulful wonder. Start by listening to “Rolling in the Deep” and “Don’t You Remember.”
Florence + the Machine’s “Ceremonials” (Universal Republic)–Florence Welch’s voice lacks the jolting force of Adele’s, but she’s an extremely smart and stylish singer who frames her voice in a more exotic, edgy way. Try: “Only If for a Night” and “Breaking Down.”
The Decemberists’ “The King is Dead” (Capitol)—This consistently imaginative band’s literate, stylish country-edged folk songs remind you this time out of a mixture of R.E.M. and the Band. The tunes are sweet, intimate and enchanting. Listen to: “Down by the Water.”
Anna Calvi’s “Anna Calvi” (Domino)—Also from Britain, this newcomer applies a seductive Flamenco guitar to seductive musical shading that might best be described as “torch rock.” Recommended: “I’ll Be Your Man.”
The Black Keys’ “El Camino” (Nonesuch)--Rock ‘n’ roll that’s accessible and fun.
The Roots’ “Undun” (Def Jam)—The year’s hip-hop highlight.
The Pistol Annies’ “Hell on Wheels” (Sony Nashville)—Rowdy honky-tonk collection from a trio that is Miranda Lambert’s side project.