Best albums of 2011: Hidden gems worth digging for

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While mainstream radio was populated by plenty of fluffy (albeit fun) dance-pop, R&B and hip hop, much of the best music of 2011 was off the grid – released, almost without exception, on an ever-ballooning number of independent labels. So as we say goodbye to 2011, here are my picks for the year’s best CDs that flew under the radar and didn’t get nearly the attention or popularity they deserved.

1. Sleeper Agent: “Celebrasion” (Mom + Pop) — On riffy rockers like “Proper Taste” or “Force a Smile,” Sleeper Agent sounds like The Who on speed. But just when you think you have a fix on the band’s sound, out comes a sweet pure pop tune like the ballad “That’s my Baby” or a Strokes-ish rocker like “Get Burned.” With its energetic and irresistible tunes, the arrival of Sleeper Agent is cause for “Celebrasion.”

2. Centro-Matic: “Candidate Waltz” (Undertow Music Collective) — Though its music falls under the roots rock/Americana umbrella, Centro-Matic is more sonically adventurous and creative than most such acts. There’s crunchy rock (“All the Takers”), lovely but sturdy balladry (“Shadow, Follow Me”) and ghostly, grainy, yet pretty pop-rock (“Estimate x 3”). With a career that dates back to 1995, Centro-Matic should be vastly better known.

3. Tommy Keene: “Behind the Parade” (Second Motion) — Since the early 1980s, Keene has been turning out tightly crafted, highly melodic and lyrically smart rocking pop. “Behind the Parade” follows suit. “Deep Six Saturday,” “Running for Your Life” and “Already Made Up Your Mind” sound like pop classics in waiting — and they are just a few of the keepers on “Behind the Parade.”

4. The Dears: “Degeneration Street” (Arts & Crafts) — The Dears might be considered a poor man’s Coldplay, except The Dears’ catalog of albums is stronger than Coldplay’s, even with a disappointing 2008 CD, “Missles.” The Dears bounce back from that CD on “Degeneration Street,” which combines epic and passionately delivered rockers like “Lamentation” and “Galactic Tides” and more direct, brisk and poppy fare (“Yesteryear” and “5 Chords”). Some day, maybe the world will discover this sorely under-appreciated group.

5. Caitlin Rose: “Own Side Now” (Theory 8 Records) — Rose wants to write simple songs that are dressed in simple sounds. The approach works because Rose’s vocal melodies are pretty and deceptively sturdy and her backing musicians add just the right muscle and color to the songs. Add in her plain-spoken but expressive lyrics about longing and imperfect love and you have a complete package.

6. Jack Oblivian: “Rat City” (Fat Possum) — A fixture from the Memphis garage rock scene, Jack Yarber, aka Jack Oblvian, plays a broad spectrum of this music on “Rat City.” “Mass Confusion” is a rocker with a disco beat, “Old Folks Boogie” is a garage blues track, “Kidnapper” puts some serious boogie in its soul-ish sound. The variety and quality continue throughout the rest of “Rat City,” a CD that gives garage rock a good name.

7. Locksley: “Locksley” (Feature Records) — Locksley’s songs have a seemingly endless supply of power-pop hooks and exuberance, be it the energetic “Don’t Make Me Wait” and “The Whip,” or the more textured “Days Of Youth.” Want another recommendation? Kinks frontman Ray Davies has used Locksley as his backing group. ’Nuff said.

8. Papa Juke: “Out Of The Blues” (self-released) — This band’s music would heat up any juke joint, but its songs also make blues and roots rock sound fresh and alive. Papa Juke pulls in elements from across the roots music spectrum, but the bottom line is, bluesy roots rock doesn’t get much better — or original — than on “Out Of The Blues.”

9. Imelda May: “Mayhem” (Decca Records) — May gained visibility as Jeff Beck’s vocalist on his tribute CD to Les Paul, but she’s even more impressive on “Mayhem.” The music here (nearly all of which was written by May) ranges from high-octane surfabilly (“Psycho”) to rocking swing (“Mayhem”) to jazzy balladry (“All For You”). It’s all done well, and May’s considerable vocal talents and vibrant spirit make quite an impression.

10. Garland Jeffreys: “The King of In Between” (Luna Park Records) — Jeffreys went 13 years without a CD before releasing “The King of In Between,” but this musically diverse album was worth the wait. Jeffreys serves up potent rock on “Coney Island Winter,” gives “All Around the World” a sweet reggae sound, kicks out some driving blues on “‘Til John Lee Hooker Calls Me,” and jumps, jives and raves on through the standout song “Rock and Roll Music.” This is comeback-of-the-year (or maybe decade) stuff.

Best of the rest

Smith Westerns: “Dye It Blonde” (Fat Possum)

Meat Puppets: “Lollipop” (Mega Force)

Deer Tick: “Divine Providence” (Partisan)

Matt Schofield: “Anything But Time” (Nugene Records)

Moonlight Towers: “Day Is The New Night” (Chicken Ranch Records)

Yuck: “Yuck” (Fat Possum)

Luther Russell: “The Invisible Audience” (Ungawa Records)

The Sharks: “The Joys of Living 2008-2010” (Rise Records)

The Features: “Wilderness” (Serpents and Snakes/Bug Music)

The Smoking Popes: “This Is Only A Test” (Smoking Popes/Asian Man Records)