Of the nearly five years I've been listening to the music pouring out of North Texas, these past 12 months have been the most difficult to pare down to just 10 great albums.
This past year was a very, very, very good one for those attuned to the musicians living and working in cities in the Metroplex: best friends and scene veterans, brand-new bands going for broke or young men and women with something singular to say. All of it resonated and deserves your time, your attention and your dollars.
Without further ado, my 10 favorite North Texas albums of 2011.
1 Burning Hotels, self-titled: A seamless transition from sharp-elbowed post-punk into something deeper, darker and more mature. Chance Morgan and Matt Mooty seized the opportunity to reinvent themselves as Fort Worth's pre-eminent rock band, stripping away all but what is essential, while adding tremendous character to aching songs (the insistent Beard; the luminous Sound City) that linger in the mind long after the final notes have evaporated.
2 Calhoun, Heavy Sugar: Back from the dead, this Tim Locke- and Jordan Roberts-led outfit picked up as though scarcely any time had passed. Try and name another area band so consistently turning out perfectly conceived pop gems like the sort found throughout Heavy Sugar. Signed to local mainstay Idol Records and the beneficiaries of national airplay on MTV and a European tour, one hopes Calhoun never, ever leaves us again.
3 Quaker City Night Hawks, Torquila, Torquila: A tightly controlled burst of bawdy, soul-and-blues-soaked rock 'n' roll evoking a golden era before iTunes. Capable of equal parts rowdiness and introspection, the Hawks create lovingly constructed songs best enjoyed with a cold beer in hand.
4 Alan, The Universal Answer Is Both: You don't listen to The Universal Answer Is Both so much as you give yourself over to it, collapsing into the gorgeously rendered splashes of sound. Alan's mastermind, Christopher Hardee, has, with this experimental-rock effort, crafted a transporting, almost cinematic work of art that slips under your skin and stays there.
5 Old Snack, Everything Is Happening So Fast: Twenty minutes is all it takes for this Denton three-piece to blow your hair back. This debut LP is a case study in doing more with less; the songs, outfitted with gleaming melodies, scarcely have to make an impression before they are over and it is on to the next track.
6 Maren Morris, Live Wire: Quietly, this 21-year-old singer-songwriter (originally hailing from Grand Prairie, late of Denton) has evolved into one of the area's brightest talents. Delivering on the promise demonstrated on her sophomore album, All That It Takes, this third full-length balances smart, radio-ready tunes with an insight far beyond her years.
7 Nicholas Altobelli, Radio Waves and Telephone Wire: A stalwart of the local folk scene, Altobelli is a thinking-man's troubadour, refusing to flinch from the darker side of love. Although his year was mightily prolific (not long after releasing this full-length, he set about working on its follow-up, along with releasing a new EP, When Now Becomes Then), these songs suggest a knowing stillness, not a rush of forward motion.
8 Seryn, This Is Where We Are: Although it has become fashionable for scenesters to dismiss Seryn as overblown, naggingly pretentious folk-pop, it's impossible to ignore the power of this quintet's debut. Steeped in earthy imagery, these 10 tracks burst with life, given tremendous texture by the close harmonies and densely layered instrumentation. Seeing them perform live -- whether it's in the hushed environs of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth or at a lively outdoor setting like the Fort Worth Music Festival -- only ups the level of respect.
9 Sealion, Keep the Camera Rolling: One of the buzzier bands to burst onto the scene in 2011, Dallas foursome Sealion embraces a surf-punk aesthetic without falling into the short-but-forgettable song trap. Keep the Camera Rolling is an addictive debut, one that will have you reaching for the repeat button as soon as the final track fades from the speakers.
10 The Demigs, Cities Can Wait: In a region packed tight with top-notch songwriters, Denton's Chris Demiglio is practically without peer. Looking askance at life and love, pouring his unique insights into kinetic songs brimming with drama and melody, his band, the Demigs, is a criminally overlooked jewel of pop artistry.
Best pop music concerts
What crumbling music industry? The slate of shows marching through venues large and small in North Texas this year was an impressive one; picking the best proved to be exceptionally difficult -- like selecting the prize jewel from an embarrassment of riches.
1 Jay-Z and Kanye West (American Airlines Center, Dec. 6): Call it high-dollar sensory overload with an impeccable pedigree. A pair of rap icons who have nothing left to prove decided to attack the American Airlines Center as though they were hungry young comers, leaving it all on the stage. The long-time collaborators and friends did just that, with a relentless 2-1/2-hour set packed with hits and tracks from the year's best album. Put another way: That s--- cray.
2 Paul Simon (Verizon Theatre, Oct. 28): Against the backdrop of what would prove to be a heartbreaking seventh game of the World Series, Simon, a remarkably spry 70, balanced his beloved past with his restless present, delivering a salve of song that reminded everyone precisely why he is revered as one of America's most essential pop craftsmen.
3 Bon Iver (Winspear Opera House, Sept. 12): The backlash against the recent Grammy nominee is already mounting, but no amount of blog sniping can mar the memory of his transcendent turn on one of the area's best stages. Justin Vernon, along with his Bon Iver bandmates, rendered his lovely, textured sonic panoramas with stunning skill, building from hushed layers to full, nerve-jangling roars.
4 Arcade Fire (Gexa Energy Pavilion, April 30): It's a mark of how many quality shows came through North Texas in 2011 that this performance -- which, eight months ago, I was certain stood a very good chance of topping my year-end list -- came in fourth. But don't let the numerical standing fool you: The Canadian indie-rock collective, in full, post-Grammy glow, demonstrated why it has a long, artistically satisfying future ahead of it.
5 Emmylou Harris (IFC Crossroads House in Austin, March 18): Fewer than 50 people crowded into the still, slightly stifling studio in downtown Austin during this year's South by Southwest to witness Harris run through her entire new album, Hard Bargain. Backed by a pair of ace musicians, the affable singer-songwriter made brilliance appear effortless, her well-creased soprano threading through sharply observed tales of heartache and hardship.
6 Miranda Lambert (Billy Bob's Texas, Feb. 18): The first installment of the Lindale native's sold-out, two-night stand at the legendary honky-tonk was plenty emotionally charged -- less than a week removed from her first-ever Grammy win -- and then she stopped before her hit single, The House That Built Me. She shared the sad news that, the same day as she was claiming her trophy, her grandmother had died. The beautiful and terrible collided, lending incredible weight to an already moving song. Her silent tears, that performance and the crowd's reverent silence in the moment will stay with me for the rest of my life.
7 Sleigh Bells (Granada Theater, April 22): Thirty minutes was all it took for Derek Miller and Alexis Krauss (the duo better known as Sleigh Bells) to lay waste to the Granada, thoroughly upstaging the headliner, Brazilian dance-rockers CSS. Concussive waves of sound, roaring out of the thick, smoky darkness, reached deep inside and took hold of your gut, inducing a sense of delirium even as it dared you to ignore it. Sometimes, more is more.
8 Soundgarden (Verizon Theatre, Oct. 26): The year was rife with fond looks back at the grunge era, from Nirvana's massive Nevermind reissue to Pearl Jam's celebration of two decades in the business. Rather than cobble together a greatest-hits package, Chris Cornell -- long resistant to the idea of reuniting the old gang -- and his bandmates simply hit the road. All they needed was a riveted crowd and those still-mesmerizing songs from the Clinton administration. The result was proof that, occasionally, you can go home again.
9 Feist (Majestic Theatre, Nov. 8): Canadian chanteuse Feist elected to strip her folk-pop songs to the bone, resulting in Metals, a low-key album that crept up on you with repeated listens. Not so in concert where, backed by the simply amazing a cappella trio known as Mountain Man, Feist's work blossomed like some kind of dark, beautiful, captivating flower.
10 St. Vincent (Kessler Theater, Oct. 22): Hometown heroine Annie Clark keeps working the ragged seam between art and artifice, cloaking her wry pop songs in jagged, visceral guitar lines and howling, violent vocals lined with desperation and wonder. Returning to her old stamping grounds (a stone's throw from where she recorded her latest LP, Strange Mercy) for two nights in Oak Cliff's jewel box of a listening room, Clark dispensed with idle chatter and just rocked.