The best pop music of 2011: Kitty Empire's choice

Adele, PJ Harvey and Björk led the way in a great year for female performers

Sports commentators quickly get used to bandying about the phrase "torn anterior cruciate ligament" – the knee injury that commonly hobbles footballers. This year, pop received its own quickie medical degree. You could almost chart the year in injury time. The biggest-selling artist of the year, Adele, was forced to cancel her US tour last spring due to laryngitis. Even those who'd never paid attention in biology lessons were drawn into online discussions about nodules. Adele has since undergone surgery for a vocal cord haemorrhage, and is reportedly currently maintaining a Trappist silence with the aid of a talking app while she heals. She can take some comfort in more than 14m album sales for her record-breaking second album, 21, six Grammy nominations and her own exponentially increased scarcity value. Her next tour is going to sell out quicker than a songbird's heartbeat.

Jessie J has been feeling Adele's pain. She ends 2011 as the author of the bestselling debut album in the UK, Who You Are, but with her own ruptured foot tendons, cancelled festival appearances, surgery, plaster, and – on the plus side – a golden throne for performances at Glastonbury and the VMAs. There have been other casualties. Poor George Michael's got pneumonia. Recently, one of 2010's brightest hopes, Rumer, gave an interview detailing her own struggles with manic depression, ADHD, respiratory infections and panic attacks – the dark side of a year otherwise gilded with Brit nominations, Royal Albert Hall performances and healthy sales of her sublime music. Darkest of all, though, was the news of the desperately sad coroner's report no one ever wanted to read, and the posthumous album, Amy Winehouse's Lioness, that should never have been.

Even afflicted, hobbled and gagged, female performers have continued to outshine males this year. Every year since about 2008 has been declared the year of the woman, so this pop gender divide angle is wearing thin. But at the risk of sounding tribalist, 2011 has been yet another one of those double X chromosome years. PJ Harvey bagged the Mercury prize for Let England Shake, her extraordinary album about nationhood and war; Uncut magazine, Mojo and all manner of other critics polls are falling into line as I write.

Human hurricane Florence Welch came back even gustier than before, selling a million copies of her Ceremonials album and counting. Always ahead of her time, Björk welded technology with nature to produce the jaw-dropping Biophilia, an app-album written on touchscreens, played by ghostly bespoke retro instruments and performed in the round at the consistently ace Manchester international festival. Kate Bush came in from the cold bearing love songs for yetis and snowmen, and Rihanna sparked an international incident when she was instructed to wrap up warm in a field in Northern Ireland. Three more women, meanwhile, lit up left-field: rude rapper Kreayshawn, the sprawling, gutsy EMA, and Lykke Li, whose bleak, heartbroken take on the girl-group sound packs some of the tingle of Back to Black.

My favourite album of the year, meanwhile, was very much a team effort. The Harrow & the Harvest bore a woman's name – that of Gillian Welch – but was made by a pair of gifted perfectionists; Welch and her partner, David Rawlings. Raw and ancient-sounding, it was a musical collaboration that wasn't just a small masterpiece but one that put the very idea of gender-divided music to shame.

TOP 10

Gillian Welch The Harrow & the Harvest

PJ Harvey Let England Shake

Lykke Li Wounded Rhymes

Fool's Gold Leave No Trace

Fleet Foxes Helplessness Blues

James Blake James Blake

Gang Gang Dance Eye Contact

Björk Biophilia

Tom Waits Bad As Me

Childish Gambino Camp


Viva Brother Famous First Words


Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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