Mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato’s aria collection “Diva Divo” is the best-reviewed classical album of the year. How can anyone make such an apparently definitive claim? Well, one way – which is the way I did it and therefore for the purposes of this article is the way – is to gather together all the reviews of all the past year’s albums that have been published in the major classical CD review magazines, combine them with reviews posted online, assign a score to each review, perform some calculations, and produce an average review score for each album. It’s the sort of thing Metacritic does, only applied to classical recordings. 2011 marks the fifth year I have been doing this and, because when I first started it I was running a site called Nereffid’s Guide, the results go under the moniker of the Nereffid’s Guide Awards. The year’s releases (because the world of classical reviews is sometimes slow-moving, “the year” covers August 2010 through July 2011) are divided into 16 categories. And here are the winners, the best-reviewed albums in each category:
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Here as elsewhere, 2011 finished with the customary best-of-year lists, inevitably confronting the dedicated music lover with large numbers of as yet unpurchased albums said to be the cream of the crop; catching up would cost a small fortune, even if 2012 held no new promises. Well, 2011 also saw the release of some excellent albums offered for free download, and a few of the Music is Good authors have put together a list of their favorites across several genres. All of the albums listed below can be downloaded either for free or on a “name your own price” basis (donations encouraged, but with no minimum) from the artists or labels or at bandcamp. You can also stream some of them below. Our thanks to these artists for making such good music freely available.
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I confess to being a skeptic regarding best-of-year lists, though I suspect I am far from alone. The general arbitrariness of the exercise (my own list might look different if you asked me in a different week*) combines with inevitable comparison of apples and oranges (is it really possible to say that a given ambient release is slightly “better” than a given rock album?). What’s more, I usually fail to find my own listening reflected in most published lists (this year I trawled several prominent top 50 and top 100 lists and found almost zero overlap with my own personal list). Adding another may well be simply adding to the futility.
I’m going to go ahead though, largely because of the small chance that as a result someone might discover one of the titles listed below and come to love it. After all, I discovered several of them through the gratefully received recommendations of others. Moreover, each of these releases deserves to be noted on a list somewhere. I make no claim to judge cosmic significance, attribute enduring worth, or arbitrate taste. The following albums are simply 2011 releases that I’ve played many times each and that have left me delighted or fascinated and wanting to keep hearing them in 2012.
[*Addendum – as if purposely to prove this correct, two days after posting this list I discovered the album Hoping for the Invisible to Ignite by FareWell Poetry; had I heard it a week earlier it would have made my top five.]
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2011 has been another good year for music, with a deep list of very good albums released. This depth has allowed me to extend my usual Top Ten list to a Top Twenty that could easily have gone to 25 or 30 without me breaking a sweat. That said, ordering the below albums was a little harder than usual because for me there weren’t any truly mind blowing albums released this year. Ordinarily there is at least one album, if not two or three, that stand head and shoulders above the rest and demand the top spot(s), but that did not happen for me in 2011. In fact, had this year’s #1 album been released in 2010 it would have been at most #5 on that list (behind Titus Andronicus, Kanye West, Owen Pallett, and Dessa).
I think a big part of my not seeing a true #1 album this year is simply a matter of taste. A whole lot of lists are putting Bon Iver, Bon Iver at the top but that album simply does not work for me. While I loved For Emma, its follow-up feels like it is trying too hard (although it would appear successfully) to cross over into the pop realm and sanded off the rough edges that made For Emma so fantastic. I was even more disappointed in Watch the Throne, which comes off as nothing more than self-indulgent ego stroking. Add to these disappointments the fact that I’ve never been a fan of Fleet Foxes or My Morning Jacket and some of the years best reviewed albums are off the table for me.
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