In this age of on-demand micro-niches, the consensus implied by year-end top-10 lists is truly a thing of the past. The very idea of "albums" seems pretty dated, too. And yet good ones are still coming out all the time, albums that hold up as complete listening experiences. Here are the 10 that I found myself returning to most often during 2011, most (but not all) of them far from the charts.
(1) Wilco, "The Whole Love" (dBpm) -- Proof that clean and sober does not necessarily equate to dull. Thanks to Jeff Tweedy's anguished yelp, "The Whole Love" courses with a tension that does not release until the epic closer, "One Sunday Morning," which is as pretty and hopeful as a sunrise.
(2) Bon Iver, "Bon Iver" (Jagjaguwar) -- Who knew that Justin Vernon had a musical crush on Bruce Hornsby? Vernon's second full-length as Bon Iver follows up his debut's rustic folk with the sort of lush synthesizer ambience that was topping the charts 25 years ago, without sounding the least bit musty.
(3) Gillian Welch, "The Harrow & The Harvest" (Acony) -- How Welch and David Rawlings get so much out of so little remains one of the wonders of our time. This is just voice and acoustic guitars, yet it somehow conjures up vast and deep galaxies of feelings and images.
(4) The War on Drugs, "Slave Ambient" (Secretly Canadian) -- Where Bon Iver uses technology to evoke crystalline frigidity, Adam Granduciel conjures up something far warmer with The War on Drugs. "Slave Ambient" sounds like a combination of Bob Dylan and Tangerine Dream, and it's brilliant.
(5) Youth Lagoon, "The Year of Hibernation" (Fat Possum) -- In a similar vein is Youth Lagoon, nom de plume of Trevor Powers, a young man from Idaho who makes dreamy bedroom pop. It sounds impossibly far away until you realize it has wormed its way into your heart.
(6) Black Keys, "El Camino" (Nonesuch) -- Beck hasn't been heard from in a couple of years, but this Ohio garage-rock duo fills in for him admirably. "El Camino" stands as a very tasty junk-culture pastiche that's more pop than blues, but it's still plenty of both.
(7) Megafaun, "Megafaun" (Hometapes) -- So much popular music can seem like a huge dead end. But in the capable hands of this Triangle trio, it's a living, breathing thing on their third album -- a sprawling, weird and wonderful folk-rock concoction.
(8) Wye Oak, "Civilian" (Merge) -- Take the earnestness of revivalist folk, add a bit of electronic texture and guitar wizardry, turn the seriousness way up and add a chewy pop center of catchiness. Presto, you've got the latest from this Baltimore duo. The best album Durham-based Merge Records put out this year, and that's saying something.
(9) Smoke Fairies, "Through Low Light and Trees" (year 7) -- This British twosome is aptly named, in that their music evokes misty mountains cloaked with the forest primeval. You half expect King Arthur himself to come riding up.
(10) Tom Waits, "Bad as Me" (Anti-) -- Waits' albums all sound like he's cut out a small piece of himself and set it to deep, primitive blues. "Bad as Me" is no exception and it's not an easy listen -- but it is an effective one, heavy on the bangs and clangs. There's still no one better at always sounding exactly like himself.