Adele, 21 (XL)
How does such a gifted performer rule the charts when popularity and quality seem so at odds? Adele's electrifying clarity was a gift to anyone trapped near the Auto-Tune swamp of hit radio.
Charles Bradley, No Time for Dreaming (Daptone)
If Otis Redding and Marvin Gaye had lived, they could hardly be more relevant than this senior soul man, whose time has come. The title describes America today. The voice embodies struggle and survival.
Ry Cooder, Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down (Nonesuch)
The Great Depression energized roots music. This observation and recent events are not lost on the master guitarist/storyteller. Jesse James and John Lee Hooker weigh in from heaven, credibly and copasetically.
Morgan Davis, Drive My Blues Away (Electro-fi) LOCAL
Nova Scotia's favourite blues transplant shares a glimpse of his early promise, pays tribute to Jimmy Reed and Robert Johnson, and keeps up the fine songwriting. "Anticipation" sparks more insight into human nature than a stack of psych papers.
Laura Marling, A Creature I Don't Know (Ribbon)
With her third album, the youthful Brit folkie's vision is so resolved, precocious understates it. An eight-syllable "wounded" in "Sophia" launches the year's most thrilling vocal flourish.
Marcia Ball, Roadside Attractions (Alligator)
Steve Cropper, Dedicated (429)
JJ Ipsen and the Paper Crowns, Entertainment Ordinaire (Label Fantastic!)
Paul Simon, So Beautiful or So What (Hear Music)
Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, Mirror Traffic (Matador/Domino)
Gillian Welch, The Harrow and the Harvest (Acony)
Favourite album: Aretha Franklin, Lady Soul. Favourite city: Rome. Top moment in 2011: In September, yelling, "this is fun!" after making a decent running catch at a crucial point in the final game of Propeller's undefeated softball season. Athlete whose fortunes he follows most closely: Former Expo (and current Oriole) Vladimir Guerrero.