30 Cary Ann Hearst - Lions & Lambs: Big year for Cary Ann (and husband Michael Trent), who found a spot on the Americana tour circuit as reliable openers for the likes of Justin Townes Earl and Jason Isbell. Carry Ann's solo album dropped earlier this year. Shovels and Rope is better, but Hearst's chops are always worth the time.
29 Black Keys - El Camino: December releases always suffer in the polls, but never mind. It's a concise line-up, spotlighting the Keys' trademark snappy licks and tight arrangements. Dan Auerbach continues to develop as a singer.
28 Middle Brother - Middle Brother: Better than any one of the individual members' 2011 releases, it's about what you'd expect. Crunchy folk rock, a smattering of ballads, and one outstanding Replacements cover. It's stupid fun.
27 Fionn Regan - 100 Acres of Sycamore: I'd largely ignored Fionn since his outstanding debut back in 2007. But I heard good things about 100AOS, and I wasn't disappointed. Orchestral, delicate--think dark, starlit snowfields. Able musical complement for the short winter days.
26 Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks - Mirror Traffic: Coming off the Pavement reunion, I'd imagine Malkmus' was ready to move on from back catalog run-throughs and set out into new creative territory. I don't think any of his solo stuff sounds far removed from Pavement, which is fine as far as I'm concerned. Mirror Traffic: Warm. Sprightly. Soundtrack to the late summer broil.
25 Yellowbirds - The Color: Saw these guys open for Josh Ritter and was pleasantly surprised by how magnetic their set was, particularly lead singer Sam Cohen's vocals. It's easy to get excited when you hear an opener who's not horrible, but that usually fizzles quick. But I saw The Color on some blog site and it turns out it's worth its salt.
24 The Low Anthem - Smart Flesh: It's not the crowning achievement of either of their last two albums, but Smart Flesh had its moments. The Low Anthem spends most of their time sounding like the musical equivalent of an attic, they do have the ability to plug in. "Boeing 737", for example. Explosive. Electric. Highly smashy. Sidebar: Check out the band's alter-ego, Snake Wagon. The goof-around project released a (free) album only last week, full of silly folk numbers. But it's actually not half-bad. Certainly a few worthy tracks to be found within.
23 Ryan Adams - Ashes and Fire: Not a wholesale return to form, but Ryan veered away from the pop-rock highway down which he's cruise-controlled since putting a bow on his 2005 trilogy. Ashes isn't immaculate, but it's got enough stirring content to remind you why his fans expect so much of him.
22 Atlas Sound - Parallax: Coming on the heels of the brilliant Halcyon Digest, Bradford Cox stepped away from Deerhunter to focus on his Atlas Sound project. The verbed-out Parallax isn't all that different from Halcyon, but it has an experimental streak that distinguishes it as an imperfect but fascinating side project.
21 Feist - Metals: Opener "The Bad In Each Other" is one of the best damn tracks I heard all year, but is it telling that it's about the only one that sticks in my subconscious? In fairness it was competing for spins with the likes of Wilco, Megafaun, and Tom Waits, so I'm not sure I gave it a fair shake.
20 Black Lips - Arabia Mountain: Sloppy and raucous, a nice turn-to when I'm feeling a little caffeinated. "Family Tree" on repeat? Guilty.
19 Cass McCombs - Humor Risk: Since WITS END didn't really do it for me, I was happy to hear Cass was releasing a second LP in 2011. Humor Risk hasn't had long to settle, but it's already more inviting (as McCombs' music goes, anyway.) It's lively and thoughtful, but grounded by McCombs' sorrowful vocals. Is he Mark Kozelek's kid brother? Cause he sounds like Mark Kozelek's kid brother.
18 TV On the Radio - 9 Types of Light: Not quite the earthshaker that either Dear Science or Return to Cookie Mountain were, TVOTR's latest still offers plenty of the band's trademark art-rock soulfulness. "Keep Your Heart" is a top tier effort, and their catching live show only magnified the appeal of the new material.
17 Richard Buckner - Our Blood: An expectedly minimilast effort from a guy who keeps on chugging, despite a lifetime of underappreciation. Fraying downerfolk, massaged by Buckner's aching baritone. Not overly complex or grand, it delivers the kind of gutpunch that you just don't find outside of sad bastard Americana.
16 Smith Westerns - Dye It Blonde: This year's Oracular Spectacular, it's tremendously catchy music made by pretentious young guys who probably wouldn't be doing much else if they weren't making music.
15 Girls - Father Son and Holy Ghost: I sorta thought Girls would be a one-album-wonder. Welp...glad I was wrong. Christopher Owen certainly grasps writing an doe-eyed rocker named after a girl.
14 My Morning Jacket - Circuital: It came as a relief to many when lead single and title track "Circuital" dropped in advance of the album, and it didn't sound like Prince blowing a robot. (I did like Evil Urges, btw.) On the whole, the album's a little safer than necessary, Circuital comes a step closer to golden era MMJ.
13 Toro Y Moi - Underneath the Pine: As I'd hoped, Chaz Bundick was ready to shed his bedroom-producer tag and get back to writing for a full band. While still highly danceable and synth-friendly, Pine is the natural progression for a guy who's no longer hemmed in by a lack of resources.
12 The Decemberists - The King Is Dead: If you'd have asked me in January, I would have told you The King Is Dead was a lock for album of the year. But as the year wore on, I found myself referencing the back catalog more steadily than the new release. King is a wildly successful Americana turn, but I hope the D's don't forget about the well-read weirdness that endeared them to us in the first place.
11 Radiohead - The King of Limbs: Once again, Radiohead released an album only days after announcing it. And like its predecessor In Rainbows, it's an ethereal shadowdwelling affair. Distinctly segmented into halves, the first quartet of songs are defined by blustery electronics and sinister atmospherics. From "Lotus Flower" on, it gets a little less abstract but no less affecting. "Codex" employs a similar piano pattern as all-timer "Pyramid Song", while "Separator" offers a rarity in the Radiohead canon: ending an LP on a relatively upbeat note. There was a modest amount of backlash stemming from the brevity of Limbs--at 8 songs and 37:24, it's the shortest Radiohead album. I'll take a short Radiohead album over a standard-length album by pretty much anyone.