1 St. Vincent Strange Mercy (4AD): I love the creepy way Annie Clark sings passionate passages with her eyes wide open — not since the Hitler lookalike in Sparks has rock had such an effective Sphinx. Her singing "this is our champagne year" to the most depressing dirge anyone's come up with in 2011 is both funny and apropos — it might not be the Champagne year we want but it's the one we've got.
2 The Black Keys El Camino (Nonesuch): Many artists who rise to the top of critics' lists at year-end do so by devising wintry depressing music that sounds real good in December when they come up for final review. The Black Keys have thrown down a summer album anyone would consider fun, natural fun.
3 M83 Hurry Up We're Dreaming (Mute): You say this sounds like the '80s like it's a bad thing. If only the '80s went this far afield, maybe we wouldn't have had hair farming!
4 The Roots undun (Def Jam): I suspect this late 2011 release is making a lot of Top 10 lists as a way of high-fiving the Roots for Michele Bachmann's walk-on music, and really, that does deserve kudos in some year-end capacity. But so does an old-school birth-to-death concept album in the S.F. Sorrow sense of the word. Great to see The Roots finally live up to their full promise on record.
5 tUnE-yArDs w h o k I l l (4AD Records): Where experimental music finds tuneful melodies and creative rhythms and runs the gamut of moods.
6 P.J. Harvey Let England Shake (Vagrant Records): "Take me back to England and the gray, damp filthiness of ages/fog rolling down behind the mountains and on the graveyards, and dead sea-captains." You're on, sister!
7 Fleet Floxes Helplessness Blues (Sub Pop): It's not the renaissance Christmas album the debut was, but it does make strides into the secular. Not everything sounds like something a cloistered monk would listen to in his spare time, and that's a good thing.
8 Wild Flag Wild Flag (Merge Records): Riot Grrrl Supergroup sounds stupid. Luckily this doesn't. Sounds like early punk when it was vital.
9 Bon Iver Bon Iver (Jagjaguwar): Because Justin Vernon has a voice like no other and a lot of this is more musically out there than detractors would admit. C'mon haters, only one song really sounds like Bruce Hornsby. And that's the funniest track
10 Real Estate Days (Domino): Sunshine pop shouldn't have to be a guilty pleasure. It sucks that I have to keep telling myself that an irregular heart beats behind these jangly songs, as if being Real Estate without the sunny day weren't enough.