Anyone who tells you there are no good albums for grownups anymore just isn't listening. 2011 was a year as musically varied as it was inspired — filled with songs that were raucous, tender, naughty and nice.
Thousands of albums made it to your local record store and the digital shelves of Amazon.com and iTunes in the past year. To help sort through this very tall stack and find the music just right for the AARP audience, we enlisted, for the first time, a panel of respected music critics and artists. They selected AARP's 2011 Top 10 Albums for Grownups based on quality, uniqueness and relevance to AARP members.
We hope the judges' picks — which include pop, rock, soul and country titles — have made it into your collection over the past 12 months. If not, let this list be your guide to make some holiday purchases. What better way to spend the holidays than with some old friends and new music?
Paul Simon, So Beautiful or So What
With So Beautiful or So What, Paul Simon steps up to the plate, hits a home run and reclaims his career. Simon turned 70 this year, and his songwriting prowess is undiminished. So Beautiful or So What features tales of the afterlife, God's humor and the workingman's struggle to exist. It's an album filled with big existential ideas and musical riffs from nearly every part of the globe. The sounds and the tales are universal without becoming clichéd. Simon is one of America's best songwriters, but he's also a citizen of the world. Ultimately, what's really beautiful about So Beautiful is its humanity.
What the judges say: Rolling Stone music critic David Wild says, "Simon's best since Graceland." USA Today music critic Edna Gunderson echoes, "Rhymin' Simon's elegant, melodic, polyrhythmic soundscapes and simple, poetic verses add up to his loveliest and liveliest record since Graceland."
There's a long line of British female singers looking to lay claim to the throne left vacant by the late, great Dusty Springfield. Adele inches closer to the front of the line with 21. On this follow-up to her debut album 19, Adele surrounds herself with writers and producers who have one eye on the charts and another guarding her credibility. All that's left for her to do is sing her behind off. 21 is one of the rare albums that is unabashedly commercial while sounding more classic than derivative.
What the judges say: Award-winning jazz artist Dave Koz raves: "Arguably the most important young voice in pop music today. She's so young and yet, when you listen to the sound that comes out of her mouth and her way of communicating her message, you realize this is a very old soul."
Listen to Someone Like You by Adele...
Jill Scott, The Light Of The Sun
It's been a long four years since Jill Scott's last album, The Real Thing: Words and Sounds, Vol. 3. During that time, she divorced her husband and her record label, and she had a baby boy with her (now-ex) boyfriend. At last, Scott is ready to make music again. The Light of the Sun is a classic soul soundtrack sung by a woman ready to tell her tales of survival. Beneath the Philly strings, beat box rhythms, multilayered vocals and street poems, The Light of the Sun has a simple message: Stay strong, sisters.
What the judges say: Edna Gunderson says, "A strong sense of self-love, gratitude and determination bolster Scott's graceful and earthy collection of retro funk, hip-hop soul and sultry R&B."
Listen to So in Love by Jill Scott...
Tom Waits, Bad As Me
Tom Waits is the bard of the Boulevard of Broken Dreams. For nearly 40 years, Waits has presided over a musical landscape that's part vaudeville, part Dust Bowl, part drunken ragtime and wholly original. Yes, Tom Waits' voice and his approach to arrangement may not please all listeners. But underneath the gravel of his voice and the raggedness of his rhythm is the heart of a nostalgic romantic. Take a listen to "Last Leaf" with its chorus, "I'm the last leaf on the tree/The autumn took the rest but they won't take me" and you'll understand that Waits knows what it means to savor every moment.
What the judges say: David Wild says: "So good, so compelling, so Tom Waits."
Listen to Back in the Crowd by Tom Waits...
Raphael Saadiq, Stone Rollin'
Raphael Saadiq, a musical alchemist schooled by R&B legends, is loyal to old-school soul. Like the sounds of other revivalists, such as Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings or Fitz & the Tantrums, Saadiq's Stone Rollin' is a celebration of days when music was a hand-crafted affair, built with sweat and a fine tailor. Saadiq — who got his start touring with Prince at age 18 — sells us from the opening strains of the Motown-infused "Heart Attack." It's a soulful, joyful ride.
What the judges say: Edna Gunderson raves, "With unapologetic gusto and glorious results, the former Tony! Toni! Toné! singer marinates in old-school Motown and Philly soul."
Listen to Good Man by Saadiq...
Tony Bennett, Duets II
With Frank Sinatra gone, Tony Bennett is left holding the title of the last of the great American vocalists. On Duets II, he sings with country crooners, pop stars, soul-stirrers and opera maestros — showing them all how a standard is truly sung. The late Amy Winehouse's duet on "Body and Soul" grabbed most of the album's attention — and deservedly so. It's tragic in its subtext and tender in its delivery. Still, it's not the only classic worth revisiting. Duets II is full of goose bumps. In the hands of a master like Bennett, these standards feel like the first time.
What the judges say: Dave Koz sums it up when he says, "come on ... 85 years old and having a #1 pop album? Only Tony."
Barbra Streisand, What Matters Most
Aside from being a lovely lesson in friendship (Streisand has been singing Alan and Marilyn Bergman's songs for more than 50 years), What Matters Most is a master class in song craft and vocal interpretation. Here, Streisand is a model of self-restraint. The entire album is a love letter written by well-read friends who share the same fascination for sophisticated melodies and songs that play like stories — not slogans.
What the judges say: Record and multimedia producer Shawn Amos says: "Every singer should hope to grow old with such luck and grace."
Alison Krauss and Union Station, Paper Airplane
Now that her flirtation with Robert Plant is out of her system, Alison Krauss has returned to the other men in her life. Paper Airplane is her first album with Union Station since 2004's Top 10 hit Lonely Runs Both Ways. The time apart has been good for them. Paper Airplane is the sound of a band that knows all of the secret places between the notes. It's a hushed album with arrangements that make you hold your breath for fear of intruding on these private moments.
What the judges say: AARP multimedia producer Steve Mencher says, "this is great music, well played, cuts to the bone on first hearing, and doesn't erode with repeated listening."
Wilco, The Whole Love
Wilco's leader Jeff Tweedy took a year off before bringing his band into the studio to record The Whole Love. The time off served him well. This album strikes the perfect balance of experimentalism (Wilco sometimes goes too far in this department) and easy charm that make Wilco one of the best American bands we've had since — well — The Band (OK, there were some Canadians in that one). Truly listenable.
What the judges say: Shawn Amos says: "Just listen to the giddiness of 'Dawned on Me' to hear a songwriter and band enjoying their prime."
Listen to Dawned on Me by Wilco...
Yo-Yo Ma, Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer and Chris Thile, The Goat Rodeo Sessions
The musicians who play on The Goat Rodeo Sessions have said that their collaboration is "genre proof." That's putting it lightly. Their mixture of classical and bluegrass defies categorization. It's also impossible to ignore. Yo-Yo Ma is the biggest name on the marquee, but the other Goat Rodeo players are heavyweights in their own right. Their interplay is mind-boggling, with every part delicately balancing one another. The phrase "goat rodeo" refers to a situation in which everything needs to be right to avoid total chaos. In the hands of mere mortals, this music would have been pure chaos. However, as played by masters, a new genre is born — even if we can't name it.
What the judges say: AARP's Steve Mencher says: "God, this swings. It's edgy, modern, old, nearly perfect."