Mark Hellenberg’s Top Music Picks for 2011

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I am fortunate to be in a position where a part of my day job is listening to a mind-boggling number of new releases.

Compared with last year's offerings, I thought 2011 was a good year for music. Any year where the most popular and commercially-successful recording is actually decent (Adele's 21) is a better year in my book.

I enjoy reading "best of" lists at the end of the year. Of course, there is no definitive "best of." What makes these lists interesting is seeing favorites from people who, for the most part, listen to a lot of music and whose tastes are quite different from my own. I suspected my list might resemble those of David Dye (The World Cafe) or Bob Boilen (NPR), but was surprised to find we agreed on Wilco and that was it.

Here are some recordings I enjoyed this past year in no particular order (except the number one slot which belongs to Wilco):

Wilco, The Whole Love (dBph/Anti-): There has been much discussion this year on NPR's music blog about indie-rock becoming the new Adult Contemporary music (say it isn't so!). In fact, Wilco has been called “Dad Rock.” Feist's name is also disparagingly tossed around. I say "who cares and get over it." Wilco certainly has. It sounds like they're pretty comfortable being who they are while aging artfully and gracefully. When I saw a 12-minute song on the album, "One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley's Boyfriend)," I was a bit skeptical until I listened to it (over and over again). It might be the most beautiful song I've heard all year. Over the past 15 years, Wilco’s sound has remained instantly recognizable. They’ve consistently grown, releasing excellent albums and writing tuneful, well-crafted lyrics over memorable melodies, which makes them, in my book, one of the greatest rock and roll bands playing music today. Which brings us to…

Feist, Metals (Cherrytree/Interscope): I'm sure Leslie Feist thought long (four years) and hard about following up her big commercial breakthrough The Reminder. I had the pleasure to interview her a few years back and it was evident to me then that even though she was grateful for her success, she cared more about music than the music business. This recording is evidence of that ethos. There's no potential iPod jingle on Metals and that probably suits her fine. It works for me. Metals, from beginning to end, offers a satisfying listening experience performed by musicians who, for the most part, performed live in the studio with limited overdubbing, few synthetic sounds, and no gimmickry.

Ollabelle, Neon Bluebird (Thirty Tigers): There is something so timeless and rooted in Ollabelle's music. I knew when their first release came out on a major label that the artist-label relationship would be short-lived. Theirs is not mass marketable material. All of the songs are original except for the Stephen Foster-penned closer. All the members are exceptional writers, singers and players but one member, Amy Helm, Levon's daughter, may be one of the best singers in contemporary American music.

Tinariwen, Tassili (Anti-): Every release from this Malian band (former Tuareg freedom fighters who went from a desert rebel camp to become North Africa's biggest rock band) usually makes it onto critics’ end-of-year picks. Tassili, their fifth, is no exception, but it introduces their fans to a mellower Tinariwen. The band recorded the tracks in a tent in the Sahara, near the Algerian border. The toned-down sound, coupled with intriguing guest performances by members of TV on the Radio, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and Wilco, makes Tassili one of Tinariwen's most haunting and outstanding recordings.

Dawes, Nothing Is Wrong (ATO): This is the album I was hoping Dawes would make. Their debut, North Hills, had more promise than most bands' first recordings, but so many sophomore efforts fall short of that promise. Dawes took all their obvious influences, from The Band to Jackson Browne, and melded them into a sound of their own. It's obvious that Dawes did a lot of roadwork in the past few years. They sound like an ensemble that knows how to play together as a band. They've not only honed their sound, but most importantly, have become exceptional songwriters as well.

Bon Iver, Bon Iver (Jagjaguwar): Speaking of debuts, when Bon Iver's debut, For Emma, Forever, burst out of nowhere from some isolated cabin in Wisconsin to become everyone's pick hit a few years back, I said it was the fifteen minutes of fame that most artists never get and most likely won't ever get again. I take it back. That first album was essentially a Justin Vernon solo project. Like Dawes, hiring musicians to back up that material on the road transformed Bon Iver into an ensemble that can flesh out and fully realize the material. This is a full-blown, interestingly-arranged album that is as satisfying as it is surprising.

Martin Simpson, Purpose + Grace (Topic): I was introduced to this English guitarist's work over three decades ago on A Cut Above, the collaboration he did with June Tabor, the queen of English folk singing. June is back on Simpson's 2011 release, Purpose + Grace, to revisit "Strange Affair." Even though there are plenty of "trad. arr." tunes on this collection, this is not strictly a folk album. The cover of Springsteen's "Brothers Under the Bridge," featuring guitarist Richard Thompson, is one of the best readings of The Boss's works ever recorded. Simpson's time spent in New Orleans is evident on an inspired version of "Little Liza Jane." Purpose and Grace is a perfect title for this project.

The Unthanks, Last (Rough Trade): Another English folk album…kind of. Like Martin Simpson's latest release and like many folkies coming out of English and Irish traditions these days, this second album by Northumbrian sisters Rachel and Becky Unthank has a fair share of beautifully arranged dark ballads, original songs, and contemporary material by the likes of Tom Waits and King Crimson. Although the ensemble boasts exquisite sibling harmonies from the singers, what I come away with after listening to The Unthanks is that they are just that: an ensemble.

Jessica Lea Mayfield, Tell Me (Nonesuch): There were some waves made by twentysomething women this year (besides the tsunami-size wave from Adele). In the folk world, Tim O'Brien protege and New England Conservatory student Sarah Jarosz had a commendable sophomore effort, as did Jessica Lea Mayfield from Kent, Ohio. Mayfield's second release, Tell Me, produced by The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, is an engaging collision of Indie-rock and folk sensibility. One would be hard-pressed to find two more startlingly-contrasting renditions of the same song as her pop reading of her brother David's song "Blue Skies Again" (which also appears on his 2011 release The David Mayfield Parade). What makes Tell Me exceptional is Auerbach's perfectly-balanced approach to producing Mayfield's material and performance.

Fountains of Wayne, Sky Full of Holes (Yep Roc): What can I say? This band is my guilty pleasure. I'm a sucker for Adam Schlesinger's songwriting and Chris Collingwood's vocals. They've retired the synths and heavy-handed production of the rather misguided Traffic and Weather and released a stripped-down, tuneful power-pop gem with characteristically clever lyrics and Moby Dick-sized hooks.

And briefly:

Gillian Welch, The Harrow and the Harvest (Acony): Another great collection of songs simply arranged and performed by Welch and her longtime partner, David Rawlings.

Eilen Jewell, Queen of the Minor Key (Signature Sounds): Jewell's roots-rock quartet delivers the goods once again.

Paul Simon, So Beautiful or So What (Hear): His best since Graceland.

The Decemberists, The King Is Dead (Capitol): Thank God they retreated from overblown sound of The Hazards of Love and decided to pay homage to the likes of Neil Young and R.E.M.

Also recommended:

Tom Waits, Bad As Me; Vetiver, The Rant Charm; Blitzen Trapper, American Goldwing; Ryan Adams, Ashes and Fire; Iron and Wine, Kiss Each Other Clean; Beirut, The Rip Tide; Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, Kings and Queens; Nick Lowe, The Old Magic; Crooked Fingers, Breaks in the Armor

In addition to his music director and hosting duties (Crossing Boundaries) at WOUB, Mark Hellenberg has been featured as a percussionist on over a dozen recordings, including releases by The Sevens, Notorious and Wild Asparagus.

This is part of a series of year-end blog posts by WOUB staff, volunteers and contributors, as well as area musicians, music retailers and plain old music fanatics. Think we missed something? Let us know at