The Friday Morning Listen: Mark Saleski's Top Albums for 2011

Here’s the way it usually works. The end of the year draws closer, and all of the music publications and websites release their “best of” lists. This is almost always followed by various rants about how the lists are “too safe,” “predictable,” or “pretentious.” And remember, you’ve got to toss around the word “hipster” a few times. After all of the lists have been out for a while then we get the yearly variations on “There are just too many year-end, top 10 lists,” with all angles covered from “They’re just recycling old content for extra page views” to “You’re just a blog, so nobody really cares.”

I had no intention of doing a 2011 Favorites list because the entire year has been an “off” year for my writing. Of the entries below, I’ve reviewed only three. But hey, at least Mr. Smartass can’t accuse me of recycling old content now, can he?

So here are my favorite recordings for 2011 in all genres. As I’ve said before, I’m not much of a hierarchical, this-better-than-that kind of writer, so this list is in order of frequency of play (more or less…c’mon you think I actually kept track? Like, with software or something?)

What the heck is a “hipster” anyway?

12. Jeff BridgesJeff Bridges

I didn’t even know Jeff Bridges could sing. But then the rave reviews came in for the songs he did for the film Crazy Heart. So when this album came out, I pretty much wore it out for the first couple of weeks. Yes indeed, the man can sing and write some fine songs as well.

11. BjorkBiophilia

The woman draws from an endless well of creativity. I still haven’t seen the iPad app (and probably won’t) but the music just keeps right on giving.

10. Keith JarrettRio

Jarrett extracts himself from a bad marriage, finds a new love, and puts out one of the best recordings of improvised music he’s done in years.

9. The Low AnthemSmart Flesh

The Low Anthem’s brand of Americana manages to feel both new and old at the same time. A fine follow-up to Oh My God, Charlie Darwin.

8. Pat MethenyWhat’s It All About

Pat pays tribute to some of the music that inspired him in his youth. Hilariously, the Grammy folks nominated it for Best New Age Album. Yikes.

7. WilcoThe Whole Love

This is the record that the cynics use to blast publications as being predictable. Sometimes, the writers come to agreement. Yeah, this is one fantastic album right here, with so many nooks & crannies of goodness that if you’re not careful, you won’t find your way out for weeks. Trust me on this.

6. Greg BrownFreak Flag

Truly heartfelt music from the heartland. Not to be missed: Brown’s muscular baritone paired with Mark Knopfler’s guitar on “Flat Stuff.”

5. Sallie Ford & The Sound OutsideDirty Radio

I can’t even remember how I found out about this group. A mention at No Depression maybe? Dunno. Ford sounds like Bjork’s weird American cousin fronting a garage band — she leans into her lines, forcing them out with a physical grunt. I was mesmerized. I still am.

4. Bronwynne BrentDeep Black Water

I swear, I must have tried to review this at least five times. At every attempt, I would get lost in this lady’s voice and kind of forget what I was doing. Don’t worry, I’ll try again soon.

3. Mary Halvorson & Jessica PavoneDeparture of Reason

It’s always a special occasion when my NewFavoriteGuitarPlayer™ and her cohort put out a new record. Here we have another fine collision of pop and jazz and who-the-heck knows what else. Believe me, you’ve never heard anything like this before.

2. Tom WaitsBad As Me

Mr. Waits is my long lost uncle. Yeah sure, the name Wait’s isn’t Polish. I know. Gees, what a killjoy you are sometimes.

Mark’s Favorite Album of 2011

Skúli SverrissonSería II

When I first listened to this album, I kind of braced myself for the eruption to flow out of the speakers. The bassist/composer has worked with the likes of Arto Lindsey, Wadada Leo Smith, Jim Black, Chris Speed, and Derek Bailey. Instead of sonic squall, a kind of gentle music unfolds…and unfolds some more. I swear, it is still unfolding! Basses and strings, a glockenspiel and clarinets, wordless vocals and trumpet — it’s completely engaging and rewards repeated listens with detail upon fresh detail. 40 or 50 spins in and I still feel like I’m at the beginning.

Mark Saleski

Mark Saleski is a writer and music obsessive based out of the woods of central New Hampshire. A past contributor to, and Salon, he writes several weekly features including the Friday Morning Listen, (Cross the) Heartland, WTF! Wednesday, and Sparks Fly on E Street. Follow him on Twitter: @msaleski. Contact Something Else! at