When listing the top albums of 2011, Adele deservedly takes top billing. But it’s also worth noting that this was a very good year for rock. Five of my top 10 albums rocked convincingly, and that’s not counting Radiohead, the Tedeschi-Trucks Band or Wilco, which could be considered rock bands, albeit with a slightly lighter touch. Here are the CDs that rocked me in 2011.
1. Adele: “21” (Columbia Records). The competition for album of the year ended when “21” arrived. Headlined by “Rolling in the Deep,” an emphatic soul-flavored thumper of a tune, with a powerhouse vocal, “21” shows that Adele has only grown more dynamic as a songwriter and performer since her auspicious 2009 debut, “19.” While she hasn’t forsaken the soul-edged balladry of her debut, Adele’s sound is a bit tougher and more rocking on “21.” Still young at only 23, Adele is growing in all the right ways on “21.”
2. Wild Flag: “Wild Flag” (Merge). Out of the ashes of Sleater-Kinney emerged Wild Flag, with Janet Weiss and Carrie Brownstein from that fine Portland group. Some of Sleater-Kinney’s jagged punk sound carries over to Wild Flag, which is based in both Portland and Washington, D.C. But this band shows a poppier slant (“Romance” and “Endless Talk” have particularly catchy moments). Fans still lamenting the breakup of Sleater-Kinney can cheer up now.
3. Radiohead: “The King of Limbs” (self-released). Radiohead continues to delve into skittering synthetic rhythms and layered keyboard and electronic tones here, but “The King of Limbs” is more approachable and melodic than some of the band’s other recent albums. The CD winds down with three ballads that rely less on futuristic electronics and add an organic dimension that could signal yet another stylistic frontier for the ever-exploring, ever-adventurous Radiohead.
4. R.E.M.: “Collapse Into Now” (Warner Bros.). With the band splitting up in the fall, this was a bittersweet year for R.E.M. fans. But at least this great and influential group went out on a high note with “Collapse Into Now.” The band hits the mark on rockers like “Discoverer,” “All the Best,” and “Mine Smell Like Honey,” as well as acoustic-based ballads such as “Oh My Heart” and “Walk It Back.” Thanks, R.E.M., for the great music and the memories.
5. The Roots: “Undun” (Island/Def Jam). “Undun” was the most captivating and challenging hip-hop album I heard this year. It smartly blends touches of soul, R&B, funk, rock and other styles with hip-hop to create fast-moving, musically rich and lyrically thought-provoking recording. It’s just the latest evidence that the Roots remain the premier group in hip-hop.
6. The Black Keys: “El Camino”(Nonesuch). Coming off an impressive commercial breakthrough album, “Brothers,” the Black Keys returned with another sterling effort. “El Camino” adds a pop element to the duo’s raw and bluesy sound, and the songs are once again strong, with “Lonely Boy” (check out that great opening guitar riff), “Little Black Submarines” and “Hell of a Season” among the best cuts. “El Camino” may not quite equal “Brothers,” but it’s awfully close.
7. The Strokes: “Angles” (RCA). After a five-year hiatus, the Strokes returned with a retooled sound that added synths without losing the rock edge. They offered up some hugely catchy songs, such as “Under Cover Of Darkness,” “Metabolism” and “Machu Picchu.”
8. Tedeschi Trucks Band: “Revelator”(Sony Masterworks). This debut comes from an 11-member big band led by the husband-wife team of Derek Trucks (guitarist for Eric Clapton and the Allman Brothers Band) and singer/guitarist Susan Tedeschi. It delivers some sweet soul music, mixed with rock, blues, funk and gospel. A superior vocalist, Tedeschi shines here, and the songs, which range from such forceful uptempo tracks as “Come See About Me” to invigorating ballads like “Don’t Let Me Slide,” are strong. This could be the start of something great.
9. Wilco: “The Whole Love” (dBm/Anti-). “The Whole Love” merges the adventurous stylistic and sonic forays of Wilco’s watershed album, “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” with the more accessible rootsy pop that flavored its two most recent CDs, “Wilco (The Album)” and “Sky Blue Sky.” Overall, it’s another excellent Wilco offering. Coming from a band that for years has been one of rock’s best acts, that’s no surprise.
10. Foo Fighters: “Wasting Light” (Roswell/RCA). The Foo Fighters returned to prime form on this album, headlined by the bracing rockers “Bridge Burning,” “Walk” and “White Limo.” Anyone who worried that the Foo Fighters seemed to be fading on its previous couple of CDs has to be excited by “Wasting Light.”
• k.d. lang and the Siss Boom Bang: “Sing It Loud” (Nonesuch).
• St. Vincent: “Strange Mercy” (Merge).
• The Decemberists: “The King Is Dead” (Capitol).
• Willie Nile: “The Innocent Ones” (River House Records).
• Dawes: “Nothing Is Wrong” (ATO).
• Jay-Z/Kanye West: “Watch The Throne” (Island).
• John Doe: “Keeper” (Yep Roc).
• Paul Simon: “So Beautiful or So What” (Hear Music/Concord).
• The Civil Wars: “Barton Hollow” (Sensibility Music).
• Mastodon: “The Hunter” (Reprise).