The best national music releases of 2011

There were a ton of albums released this year, and while we spent a great deal of time with the staggering number of outstanding local releases from the past twelve months (see last week's annual Moovers and Shakers list), we also found time to devote to the imports. And while there was some crossover, when it came down to it, we were all listening to vastly different stuff. Here are the national releases that filled our playlists in 2011:

Ambrose Akinmusire, When the Heart Emerges Glistening (Blue Note). Not yet thirty years old, Ambrose Akinmusire has been playing professionally for over a decade. On When the Heart Emerges Glistening, his major-label debut, the trumpeter proves he's got chops way beyond his years. Adept at both lyric and melodic phrasing, Akinmusire isn't afraid to push boundaries, either. Jon Solomon

Beats Antique, Elektrafone (Antique Records). On its sixth release in four years, Beats Antique enlists guests like ill.Gates and Tarran Tailor to help cover a lot of musical ground, from bluesy, acoustic instrumentals to glitched-out electronic beats. Elektrafone is yet more proof of how far this trio is willing to push the envelope of creativity. Britt Chester

Ben L'Oncle Soul, Ben L'Oncle Soul (Wrasse Records). The notion of someone having a voice so striking that he can sing lines from the phone book and still have you spellbound is put to the test here. Unless you happen to be fluent in French, you won't understand most of what's being sung. But Ben L'Oncle sings with such passion and conviction that it really doesn't matter. Dave Herrera

The Black Keys, El Camino (Fat Possum). El Camino is one of the best and most gratifying straightforward rock records in recent memory. Fueled by the high-octane spirits of the Stones and Zep, the Black Keys pulled the old bucket of bolts back into the garage and gave it a tune-up and a fresh coat of glam-flecked swag. This muscle car's ready to roar. — Herrera

Charles Bradley, No Time for Dreaming (Daptone). This is the best soul record you're going to hear this year that wasn't made in the '50s or '60s. Little surprise that Daptone, home to fellow classic soul revivalist Sharon Jones, is the imprint responsible for bringing this gem to the market. Produced by Dap-Kings guitarist Thomas Brenneck, Dreaming finds Bradley channeling all the greats from Otis Redding to Al Green on one record. — Herrera

Danny Brown, XXX (Fools Gold). Spewing disjointed rhymes like habanero seeds searing his tongue, Danny Brown sends caustic words skittering nervously across dense, synth-drenched beats. The neurosis in his voice on songs like "Adderall Admiral" is as affecting as the urgency on cuts like "XXX," where he talks about getting old and time running out, popping pills as he writes and never leaving the house. Most intriguing mixtape of the year. — Herrera

Kate Bush, 50 Words for Snow (Anti-). Always blurring the boundary between art and experiment, Kate Bush returned to the studio twice this year for this album and its immediate predecessor, Director's Cut. With one song devoted entirely to the Yeti, the album is evidence that Bush's mix of bizarre, batshit and lovely pays off tenfold in the melody department. Kelsey Whipple

Civil Wars, Barton Hollow (Sensibility). One of the most stirringly beautiful albums to come out this year, Barton Hollow was immediately captivating. The deeply expressive voices of John Paul White and Joy Williams blend together seamlessly in a way that adds an unmistakable gravity to every syllable on songs like "Poison and Wine," in which an economy of words is observed and elevated to an art form. — Herrera

Cut Copy, Zonoscope (Modular/Interscope). It took almost three years for the Australian dance crooners in Cut Copy to release a third album, and by the time they did, their last series of jams had yet to leave either airwaves or dance clubs. With Zonoscope, the guys augment their consistently retro use of synthesizer with tribal beats and put a greater focus on diversifying the electro-pop genre. — Whipple

Dark Castle, Surrender to All Life Beyond Form (At a Loss Recordings/Profound Lore). Stevie Floyd and Rob Shaffer have woven together strands of death metal and doom rock with non-Western harmonics and dark psychedelia for a relentlessly cathartic standout album. The songs are heavy, but fluid and dreamy, blasted through with grit and anchored by roots against the hurricane force of the music. Tom Murphy

Kimya Dawson, Thunder Thighs (Great Crap Factory). Dawson is no stranger to deeply confessional lyrics, but it seems as though for this record she completely stripped off any veneer of humorous distance. "Walk Like Thunder" is the classic, a fully realized, achingly poignant and beautiful bit of unvarnished self-examination. — Murphy

Destroyer, Kaputt (Merge Records). Dan Bejar is obviously a genius, but whether he's an evil one remains to be seen. With Kaputt, the Canadian ringleader toys with both his listener's sensibilities and popular notions of what is good music and bad music to add dense texture to an artful combination of both. The resulting gray area is impressive. — Whipple

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