Ah, the Top Whatever of the Year list. It’s ubiquitous, it’s obligatory, and it inevitably will leave somebody, somewhere calling foul. When it comes to music, I’ve grown to love and hate The List. I love to read them because they either remind me of great albums I heard at some point and forgot or finally persuade me to discover a new favorite. I hate the stressful feeling of whittling down and ranking my list. Who am I to say acclaimed, hipster-approved album of the year is a better, more worthwhile piece of music than that ignored record I actually listened to so many times I have every word memorized and still haven’t gotten sick of it?
I already made a couple of Christian market lists this year…. one for JFH and another for Under the Radar’s Critic’s Panel. That was hard enough, but when I start factoring in all genres, it just gets messy.
So to kick off the 2nd Annual Awesome of the Year series, I thought I’d try something different for my top albums list. Rather than attempt to rank and file and convince you my picks are the best, I’m presenting a no-particular-order list of favorites divided into arbitrary categories. This is a multi-part post, because there were far too many to squeeze into one! I hope something fits your style and that you’ll seek some of these out.

Sweet Singin’ Duos

Did you hear about the indie band that popped out of nowhere and dominated iTunes for all of their street week in February 2011? The Civil Wars seem like an unlikely overnight sensation, but there were a few years of buzz leading up to their debut. Barton Hollow, the long-awaited debut LP, became a critical darling for good reason: sparse production, gorgeous melodies, spot-on harmony, and heartbreaking songwriting. I bought this at 7am on release day, and I still love to visit it now and then, especially as the days turn colder. (Highlights: I’ve Got This Friend, C’est La Mort, Poison & Wine, Barton Hollow)

In a similar vein, this was the year I discovered Over the Rhine. When I downloaded “The Laugh of Recognition,” it was a “where have you been all my life?” moment. (and really, they’ve been making music almost my whole life.) Their latest release The Long Surrender is a richly layered mix of Americana folk, smoky barroom jazz, and soulful gospel choirs with stunningly poetic songwriting. Seriously, where has OTR been all my life? Oh yes… making music… as they were meant to be. Exploring their back catalog is a priority for 2012. (Highlights: The Laugh of Recognition, Rave On, Infamous Love Songs, All My Favorite People)

No really, I Hate Country Music

One of my favorite performances at last year’s Grammy Awards was Mumford & Sons playing their hearts out together, and I ended up semi-involved in a Twitter debate/discussion whether it was possible to love that and still profess distate for country. I say yes. But still, country flavored music has been sneaking more and more into my listening these past few years, and it would be dishonest to ignore that fact. I’m a sucker for a good dose of banjo magic, and while it’s not boots and beer cowboy music, the latest from The Decemberists The King is Dead certainly pushes me closer to that line. Trading in the dramatic metal/folk opera tendencies of The Hazards of Love for a sound closer to REM and rootsy Americana, with some appropriate help from Peter Buck and Gillian Welch, this record has an honest, earthy vibe I love, and I find it a joyous listen every time. (Highlights: Don’t Carry it All, Calamity Song, Down by the Water, Rox in the Box, June Hymn)

Underground, Underrated, And Rabbit Approved
As always, some of the best music on earth is hidden treasure, and the secret to finding the good stuff is following websites and friends who have better taste than you. I’m fan of almost everything endorsed by The Rabbit Room, and once again, they showed me a couple of gems that I might have missed otherwise.

Before I noticed the Josh Garrels buzz on Noisetrade, I saw a rather gushing post about his new album Love & War & the Sea In Between on The Rabbit Room, which is generally enough to at least get me curious. And wow, is it great. The lyrics are the heart of a poetic folk songwriter, but the music is a stunning mix of earthy acoustics, gritty urban beats, and stirring orchestration. Oh yeah, and it’s free until June. Get thee to his website and enjoy. (Highlights: Farther Along, The Resistance, Ulysses, Beyond the Blue) My JFH review

Speaking of epic… Ben Shive’s The Cymbal Crashing Clouds was a record I couldn’t get enough of in the latter half of 2011. This indie project surpassed all my expectations as a whimsical, brilliant record that meshes elements of The Beach Boys, The Beatles, and alternative pop with dreamlike imagery, witty lyricism and modern parables. From the opening train whistle of “Listen!” (and who knew a train whistle could sound so lovely?) to the beautifully sad and hopeful closer “A Last Time for Everything,” this is a journey worth taking again and again, and opens itself to something new with every listen. Plus, there’s a super cool illustrated book to go with it. Amazing. (Highlights: Listen! EGBDF, The Fall, She’s Invincible, A Last Time for Everything… oh, all of it.)

Next Week: Christian music doesn’t have to suck, new albums by a few of my favorite artists, and how I kissed my imaginary hipster cred goodbye.