The present is an arbitrary sliver of time. Today's hot picks are tomorrow's forgotten oddities. Hands up, everyone who's still listening to Animal Collective's Merriweather Post Pavilion, the 2009 album of the year according to Spin and Pitchfork, and in hindsight clearly a shapeless, overwrought of mess of sound effects and tunelessness. This year's Animal Collective (at least in this town) is Shabazz Palaces. Don't start stoning me yet. Wait to see if Black Up still has that visionary, groundbreaking quality in two years, or if it's revealed as an overproduced pile of trying-way-too-hard. This is all by way of explaining that this list of the best songs and albums I discovered this year is, um, liberated from the constraints of "staying current," or whatever it is other critics do:
Henry Mancini, Arabesque (1966): The soundtrack to the Gregory Peck thriller is the perfect soundtrack for a Northwest winter. Lush, urgent, dark, romantic, and melodramatic, it sounds like the sky looks.
Abayudaya: Music From Jewish People of Uganda (2003): Half this album is cheesy Afropop. The other is impossibly sweet, exquisitely textured choral music. The timbre of the diverse voices that make up this community—from children to quavery old men—expresses a spirit of praise and humility so moving it actually hurts a little bit. If anyone is planning on dying, I recommend doing it to this congregation's rendition of Psalm 93.
Blind Willie McTell, Pig 'n Whistle Red (2003): I thought I was an expert on Bob Dylan's favorite blues singer, but I obviously didn't know shit, because I hadn't heard this amazing collection of his recordings of the '20s and '30s. The way Willie's reedy, mockingly laid-back voice lays over the superhuman storm of his finger-picking is like nothing else in all of recorded music. This is simply the greatest shit in the world.
Frank Black, "Horrible Day" (2003): Frank Black used to lead one of the greatest rock bands of all time. I'm of course talking about the Catholics. This tune is from Frank's 2003 album with the Catholics, Show Me Your Tears, one of his two brilliant divorce albums (the other is Honeycomb). It captures the emotional violence of a divorce—the defiance, relief, existential anxiety, and unexpected joy—in a way I've never heard. But I might be slightly prejudiced, as I credit this song with preserving my sanity as I listened to it on repeat while sobbing in traffic on the 520 bridge.
Potsa Lotsa: The Complete Works of Eric Dolphy (2011): Oops, I accidentally listened to something from this year. Potsa Lotsa gets deep into the spirit of the falling-down-the-stairs/drunk-boxer/bleating box of wonder that was the Eric Dolphy sound. And they keep things moving. The tracks' pop-song lengths make this like a dizzying series of miniature magic tricks.
Ron Sexsmith, "Get in Line" (2011): Well, shit, here's yet another one from this year. If you like pure pop pleasure, this song (from the album Long Player Late Bloomer) is like an enema made of sunshine and God.