1. Tom Waits, Bad as Me (ANTI-)
If you agree—in any way—that "Hell Broke Luce" in 2011, then Bad as Me is the record to turn to for some wisdom and advice amid the chaos. Dark, preposterous, incensed and confrontational, Bad as Me encapsulates a year that saw misery boil over into anger. The message Waits delivers, through stomps and shouts: This year's optimism is found in revolt.
2. The War on Drugs, Slave Ambient (Secretly Canadian)
Adam Granduciel takes some cues from Dylan and Springsteen, but Slave Ambient is on an entirely different sonic plane. On a dense bed of layered loops, ambient tones and swirling textures are striking and forceful rock songs, a sort of classic rock from some alternate universe.
3. Wye Oak, Civilian (Merge)
Psychedelic folk might be an accurate label, but it falls far short of capturing what's so successful about Wye Oak's dynamic sound. "Civilian" is my top song of the year, a gathering storm—tense, beautiful and otherworldly—that then explodes with chaotic energy.
4. Bon Iver, Bon Iver (Jagjaguwar)
Justin Vernon buried his quiet, somber muse and set out to chase a multihued adventurous one on Bon Iver. It's a provocative shift, but the album's complexity feeds off an exploratory urgency that pushes the songs into a bigger world, with rich instrumentation and an impressive depth and fluidity.
5. Richard Buckner, Our Blood (Merge)
An esoteric and challenging songwriter, Buckner is second to none. Our Blood is an album of resuscitated and patched sounds, of peripheral intrusions, of expelled breath. Its songs are full of strange and seemingly disconnected details, short on explanatory meat, but marvelously evocative.
6. Roadside Graves, We Can Take Care of Ourselves (Autumn Tone)
Using S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders as a cornerstone, the Roadside Graves explore the struggles of outsiders everywhere, with a sprawling sort of Americana that expertly keys in on the songs' emotional shifts.
7. Paul Simon, So Beautiful or So What (Hear)
On his best album since Graceland, Paul Simon is both meditative and fearless, writing songs with restless curiosity to probe spirituality, mortality and the endless, mysterious power of love.
8. Akron/Family, Akron/Family II: The Cosmic Birth and Journey of Shinju TNT (Dead Oceans)
An album written on a Japanese volcano and recorded in an abandoned Detroit train station, this is a musical collage of ideas and sounds, pushing the experimental boundaries of folk music.
9. Murs, Love and Rockets Vol. 1: The Transformation (BluRoc)
One of hip-hop's most distinctly talented lyricists, Murs teams with producer Ski Beatz on an album of odes to love and marriage, international travelogues and vivid narratives.
10. Crooked Fingers, Breaks in the Armor (Merge)
Sparse in sound and blunt in lyrics, Eric Bachmann's latest is an album about vulnerability and perseverance, songs that speak to intensely personal struggles.
Honorable Mention: As one of the organizers/producers of the Luz de Vida compilation, it's hardly fair for me to include it in the list. But it's a stunning collection of songs that meant more to me this year than any other music.
Wilco, The Whole Love; Mr. Gnome, Madness in Miniature; Amos Lee, Mission Bell; Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues; The Low Anthem, Smart Flesh; Gillian Welch, The Harrow and the Harvest; The Roots, Undun; Iron and Wine, Kiss Each Other Clean; Smith Westerns, Dye It Blonde; Generationals, Actor-Caster; St. Vincent, Strange Mercy; Kurt Vile, Smoke Ring for My Halo.Published Jan. 5, 2012 in the Tucson Weekly.