The good thing about being an arts and entertainment writer?
You get exposed to a lot of things — plays, art exhibits, films — you might not otherwise experience.
The bad thing about not being a full-time music critic anymore?
I'm not to exposed to, nor do I listen to as much music as I used to.
That said, I still listen to a lot of music, I just don't have the time to devote to it like I did in my old life.
But living on the border in Texas exposes you to a lot of music you just don't hear about up north, where I lived for years. My annual list of favorite music of the year (I don't call it a "best of") has more local flavor, and not many of the critic's darlings.
Some of the other stuff that made the list includes superlative efforts by some artists I've been following for years.
So, here goes, my favorite albums of 2011, in alphabetical order by artist:
•Adele, "21" — The young Brit not only made the year's best selling album (more than 4 million and counting in the U.S. alone), but the six-time Grammy nominee's alternately elegant and gritty soul songs about a broken relationship get to the heart of the matter without gimmickry.
•Belle Brigade, "Belle Brigade" — This brother-sister act from L.A., the grandchildren of film composer John Williams, features their seamless, soaring sibling harmonies, driving, melodic rockers and songs about fairly standard subjects that sound fresh and timeless.
•Dusty Low, "Go For Broke ..." — Essentially an outlet for Liquid Cheese member Jesse Sullivan's seductive melodies and imagistic lyrics, the El Paso sibling band confidently maneuvered through a timeless mix of traditional rock, alt-country, folk, even jazz.
•Explosions in the Sky, "Take Care, Take Care, Take Care" — The Austin instrumental rockers really pushed their boundaries on this absorbing collection of melodic, yet forward-thinking songs recorded at Tornillo's Sonic Ranch. Hardly background music, the band's melodies and dynamic tension tell stories aplenty.
•The Gourds, "Old Man Joy" — These enduring Texas rockers wear their influences on their sleeve while putting their own, distinctive stamp on songs that vamp early Who, classic Stones, vintage Band and the legendary Bob Marley on the beautiful "Two Sparrows."
•Anthony Hamilton, "Back to Love" — I fell in love with this modern soul singer's sound the first time I heard him on Dave Chappelle's TV show. He never fails to disappoint and his newest effort offers ruminations on enduring love (with a little seduction) that combine old-school soul with a new-school feel, all sung in his warm rasp of a classic voice.
•Alison Krauss and Union Station, "Paper Airplanes" — Few roots music singers do heartache and longing the way veteran Krauss does, and this followup to "Raising Sand," her Grammy-winning collaborative with Robert Plant, sounds like a beautiful lament to a love she can't have.
•Dan Lambert, "Double Drum Trio" — El Paso's resident musical restless spirit has evolved from blues to world music in a career that never stays in one place. This instrumental album is like a musical travelogue, with Lambert often trading in his acoustic guitar for exotic instruments, like the Indian Sarod, darting in and out of two Latin-flavored percussionists.
•Robbie Robertson, "How to Be Clairvoyant" — The veteran Band man's fifth solo effort has the benefit of hindsight (thus, the title), with a musical mix of new and old fleshing out songs that reflect band on his Band days, draw inspiration from stubborn old bluesmen and pay tribute to his guitar brethren, plus there's a great, poppy duet with Eric Clapton.
•Tom Russell, "Mesabi" — The El Paso-based, internationally acclaimed folkie has been making records for nearly 40 years, but seems to be on a hot streak the last several years. "Mesabi" is no exception, with its mix of reflective songs about boyhood heroes (mostly fallen idols) and responses to the world around him, including the powerful requiem "Goodnight, Juarez."
•U2, "Achtung Baby" reissue — The six-CD "uber" edition of this remastered 1991 classic not only serves as a powerful reminder of how vibrant these songs are 20 years later, but adds serious context to the pre- and post-release period in which the band reinvented itself. Fascinating stuff for hardcore fans.
•Tom Waits, "Bad As Me" — The newly minted rock 'n' roll hall of famer returned with one of his more direct (read that: less cryptic) albums. He's not for everyone, especially with that decidedly uncommercial but completely expressive growl of a voice, but this compelling blend of Waitsian storytelling, experimental bop and rollicking roll make "Bad As Me" as good as it gets for Waits fans.