1 Anna Waronker California Fade (Five Foot Two): Moving like a hazy sunset over Pacific Ocean blue, Waronker's sun-warmed voice sways delicately between the breathy and the intimate, whether she's serenading a newborn, nursing another's self-destruction, or cutting loose from a fucked-up scene.
2 Danny Brown XXX (Fool's Gold): The insanely alluring Brown is an absolute rap star — he's spindly, deceptively smart and, here, purposely low-rent like MD 20/20 and $20 whores; his proclivity for underbelly hilarity is upheld by a cockeyed (sexualized?) wisdom from experiences in downtrodden Detroit hoods.
3 Rich Robinson Through a Crooked Sun (Circle Sound Records): World's most underrated rock 'n' roll guitarist mines a heart-is-home mother lode, mixing riffs with beauty and personal truths. It takes years to write like this, with such subtlety and might.
4 The Black Watch Led Zeppelin Five (Eskimo): All tear-jerk guitar pop and rarefied songwriting — the kind a precious few can do. Soaring melodies summon House of Love at their best; George Harrison-ish drones (listen for "It's All Too Much"!) and lines like "I think I'll go and drink away some hurt."
5 The Roots undun (Island Def Jam): A concept of sorts that plays out like a David Goodis novel! A dead man-boy recalls an existence gone awry, partially by circumstance, partially of his own creation. And it's a proper live band with songs. More, ?uestlove's still like Buddy Miles incarnate, a beautiful thing indeed.
6 Chris Bathgate Salt Year (Quite Scientific) Every airy note is placed perfectly, where sadness is certain and singable, and literate songs hit in the gut, hit in the head, hit in the heart. No one writes like this.
7 The Morning After Girls Alone (XEMU): Five lean, sartorially pleasing dudes with good, unkempt hair embrace psyche, pop, shoegaze, folk, ambient and glam; pop in all of its arresting sexiness and melancholic joy.
8 Black Pussy On Blonde (Made in China Records): Sure, the band's Stones-y name is both racist and sexist (they should tour with a reunited Whitesnake!), but there's lotsa dumb junk riffs, bong hits and motor speedway rock circa '73 to fuel any cheap coke hangover. Jim Dandy to the rescue!
9 Drive-By Truckers Go-Go Boots (ATO): That they backed both Bettye LaVette and Booker T. Jones only informs this absolutely stunning Southern by way of Muscle Shoals band and record. That they often tribute Eddie Hinton says lots.
10 Smith-Westerns Dye It Blonde (Fat Possum): Not T. Rex or the Only Ones by any stretch, but a fun approximation for 2011.
Best hit song: Foster the People "Pumped Up Kicks" (Columbia) OK, a song about mass murder of hipsters with an absolutely inescapable power-pop chorus that goes top ten in America? A one-off to be sure.
Top 5 reissues
1 Crosby, Still & Nash Crosby Stills & Nash (Audio Fidelity) Never mind this album is likely centerpiece in your parents' album collections, it's still a peerless debut that at once captured Laurel Canyon's Manson-era mellow mafia and the entire nation in an insane war. And this numbered, limited edition gold CD is the one to own. First time it was ever mastered from the original source tapes, by one Steve Hoffman, this historical reenactment offers a level of resolution and dynamics heretofore unheard, vinyl or otherwise.
2 Barbara Lynn A Good Woman: The Complete Tribe & Jet Stream Singles (Kent/Ace): The lefty guitarist, "the belle from Beaumont, Texas," could sing circles around most Southern soul singers, male or female. This lovely anthology collects many Lynn essentials, from their original tapes, between '66 and '79.
3 Esther Phillips Performance (CTI/Sony): Finally reissued, this '74 gem from Phillips' run on Kudu finds the gutsy jazz chanteuse tackling with aplomb soul and R&B — songs by Dr. John, Isaac Hayes, Allen Toussaint and Eugene McDaniels; "Disposable society has thrown away sincerity" indeed.
4 Gene Clark White Light (Sundazed) An album of gentle power and absolute beauty; his voice is inescapable as a transmitter of vulnerability, of experience.
5 Bobby Charles Bobby Charles (Rhino Handmade): The album's frayed grace and blend of nomadic genres (he's backed by the Band) — gospel, rock, country, soul, R&B, folk and beer-drinker confessionals — sound as if Charles is unmoved by a world beyond the serpents of spliff smoke rising from his front porch in rural Louisiana.
Other notable reissues: Ella Washington Ella Washington (Reel/P&C), Aretha Franklin Take a Look: Aretha Franklin Complete on Columbia (Sony/Legacy), Phil Spector The Philles Album Collection (Sony/Legacy), Phil Seymour Archive Series Vol. 2 (Fuel), Jim Ford Harlan County (Light in the Attic), Carole King Music (Mobile Fidelity; hybrid SACD), Sky Don't Hold Back and Sailor's Delight (Zen), Paul Williams Someday Man (Now Sounds), Nat King Cole After Midnight and St. Louis Blues (Analogue Productions; hybrid SACD), Frankie Miller That's Who: Complete Chrysalis Recordings '73-'80 (EMI), The Temptations 50th Anniversary: The Singles Collection 1961- 1971 (Hip-O).