Drake, Adele And More: The 20 Best Albums Of 2011

From Girls to Beyoncé (and just about everyone in between), Bigger Than the Sound takes a look at the year's best albums.

In 2011, we all seemingly discovered dubstep and learned how to pronounce “Bon Iver.” We marveled at the success of Adele, Katy Perry and Rihanna, took the leap with Beyoncé and got royal with Jay-Z and Kanye. We said hello to bright new stars like Frank Ocean and the Weeknd and watched former breakouts Florence Welch and Drake take the next steps in their careers. Oh, and pretty much all of us bought Lady Gaga’s Born This Way, or at least debated its pricing schemes.

Yes, it’s been a pretty eventful 12 months, and now, it’s time to take a look back with my picks for the Best Albums of 2011. Rock, hip-hop, pop and electronic records — from artists big and small — that managed to stick with me through the entire year. Looking at it now, there are at least a half-dozen other albums I could’ve included — it really was that big of a year.

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That said, I’m sure I left a few off my list, so I’m counting on you to remind me of anything I might have missed. Let me know in the comments below, and now, let’s get right to my Best of 2011 list. These are my favorite albums, from a fascinating year in music.

20. Beyoncé, 4
An artfully anachronistic album — in that it takes its cues from Fela Kuti and Earth, Wind and Fire instead of, you know, David Guetta — it’s little wonder 4 confounded a large portion of the record-buying public when it was released this summer. But given time, most (myself included) have come to love its classy flourishes and classically influenced roots. From big-boned ballads to weirdo world-music jams, 4 is clearly the disc on which Beyoncé makes her bid for artistic credibility. Sadly, it just took us all a while to realize it.

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19. Gil Scott-Heron and Jamie XX, We’re New Here
The late Scott-Heron’s final album gets reworked by Jamie Smith (avowed superfan and beatmaker behind the XX), who deftly combines the poet’s gravelly ruminations with cutting-edge electro flourishes, yet never lets the latter outshine the former. And in that regard, We’re New Here stands apart from most remix albums, in that it is very much a labor of love. Released in February, it fittingly took on new life when Drake made its final track — “I’ll Take Care Of U” — the centerpiece of his Take Care disc.

18. Rihanna, Talk That Talk
Depending on your perspective, it’s either “the best pop album of the year” or maybe “the dirtiest ‘pop’ album since Madonna’s Erotica, though given some time, perhaps it’s best to just call TTT Rihanna’s best album, a streamlined, over-sexed, oft-adventurous thing that pushes everything to the limit. And while you can get caught up in the adjectives, the real proof of TTT‘s power lies in its ability to make you move, endlessly, effortlessly, excitedly so. That’s what pop albums are supposed to do, after all.

17. Gospel Music, How to Get to Heaven From Jacksonville, FL
Pocket-size pop from Owen Holmes, current (former?) member of Black Kids, whose deep croon recalls the likes of Calvin Johnson (not Megatron) and Stephin Merritt and whose erudition brings to mind Jarvis Cocker. High praise, but when the music comes this effortlessly (check “This Town Doesn’t Have Enough Bars for Both of Us” or “Let’s Run” for proof) and the lyrics are this heartbreakingly hilarious (“He pores over Poe, peruses Proust/ While waiting for sauce to reduce/ Buys only seasonal produce/ I don’t know what you see in him”), well, the dude’s sort of earned it, really. Quite possibly the year’s most underrated album.

16. Black Keys, El Camino
On the follow-up to their breakout Brothers, the Black Keys go full-throttle, tearing through 11 hard-riffing, deep-boogying tracks in something like 38 minutes. All handclaps and talk-box guitar solos, El Camino rattles and chugs along like the titular Chevy and, on tracks like “Lonely Boy,” “Money Maker” and “Little Black Submarines,” manages to get positively brilliant too — in a George Thorogood-meets-the Cramps kind of way, of course.

15. Florence and the Machine, Ceremonials
Florence Welch possesses a voice that can shatter glass, shift tectonic plates and quite possibly alter the very fabric of time, so it sort of makes sense that, on Ceremonials, producer Paul Epworth provides her with the appropriate backing tracks. This is an unapologetically massive album in just about every conceivable way, from the soaring heights of “Shake It Out” and “No Light, No Light” to the delving depths of “Only If for the Night” and “What the Water Gave Me,” which is to say it fits Florence like a glove. Or high-end Givenchy couture.

14. The Weeknd, House of Balloons and Thursday
Mysterious, majestically paced R&B from Canadian Abel Tesfaye, who rode his pair of (free) releases to breakout success. Both Balloons and Thursday tell the trope of the troubled loverman, but rarely are matters of the heart played out as honestly as they are here. An endless cycle of druggy nights, desperate flings and depressed dawns, Tesfaye makes no apologies, and with his two albums of masterful murk, he’s inadvertently created mood music for increasingly moody times.

13. Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues
“So now, I’m older/ Than my mother and father/ When they had their daughter/ Now what does that say about me?” That’s how Fleet Foxes frontman Robin Pecknold opens the band’s sophomore effort, and rarely does he relent from those notions. For an album so rich in wide-screen vocal harmonies and warm, finger-picked acoustics, Blues is far from atmospheric — in fact, it’s downright analytical. Pecknold roots through problems that are very real, and that balance is key to the album’s strength. Because for a band that so indulges in the space of the studio, this is an album that is rarely, if ever, self-indulgent.

12. Frank Ocean, Nostalgia, Ultra
The year’s most self-assured debut, courtesy of the only Odd Future member who seems to actually shrink from the spotlight. Like the title implies, Nostalgia is an album that longs for the past, both sonically — sampling Radiohead, Coldplay and the Eagles — and thematically, as Ocean tills through broken relationships and lost associates. The results are unflinchingly, almost unassumingly great, and wherever Ocean goes from here, I’ll be sure to follow.

11. The War on Drugs, Slave Ambient
Here’s a fascinating little album, one that pulls just as readily from Bruce Springsteen’s and Tom Petty’s wide-eyed-yet-wincing Americana as it does Sonic Youth’s and Spacemen 3′s hazy dirges. Part road record, part barroom soundtrack, it’s a compelling — and slightly confounding — listen, pairing jangly guitars with sleepy, bedheaded sonic sections, and frontman Adam Granduciel is frequently a man without a home, keening about freeways and harbors and great open expanses. In that regard, perhaps this is a record less about the final destination as it is the trip itself — a somnambulant trek in which the lines between awake and dreaming are constantly shifting.

10. Lady Gaga, Born This Way
When it was first released, it wasn’t a stretch to call BTW the year’s most anticipated album, and though the debate may rage about whether it lived up to the hype, you cannot deny that Gaga put everything into it. From the piston-pumping electronics of “Marry the Night” and the tarantula tango of “Americano” to the twitching, “Transformers”-huge techno of “Heavy Metal Lover” and the epic balladry of “Yoü and I” and “The Edge of Glory,” this truly is an effort that tries very hard to be everything to everyone. And, in the process, Gaga has created something entirely new. BTW is quite possibly the first multi-national, multi-hyphenate, multi-sexual pop album of our time. And sure, it’s probably too long, but that’s sort of the point, isn’t it? Gaga only operates on the hugest of stages, and BTW is her grandest mission statement to date. And if she didn’t please everyone, you can’t say she didn’t try.

9. Portugal. The Man, In the Mountain, In the Cloud
It is quite possible to argue Portugal. The Man may be the new Flaming Lips, especially if you’ve ever caught them live (and since the Lips seem content to simply embed songs inside human skulls these days). They are both from spots firmly off the musical map (Wasilla, Alaska, and Oklahoma City, respectively); they both indulge in frazzled, psych-tinged pop; and both seem hell-bent on doing things their way, no matter what the consequences. And if all that logic holds, then Cloud is either their Hit to Death in the Future Head (the one before they had the hit) or their Clouds Taste Metallic (the one before they got universal acclaim). On their major-label debut, Portugal got proggy, arty and unapologetically weird, and the disc sold about as well as you’d expect. Still, there’s true genius in tracks like “So American,” “Senseless” and “Sleep Forever,” and while they’ve still got, like, two decades to go before they can match the Lips in terms of longevity, consider this the next step on their voyage.

8. Jay-Z and Kanye West, Watch the Throne
The year’s highest-profile collaboration didn’t exactly play against type — except for the fact that, unlike most other meetings-of-the-egos, it actually ended up being really good. And that’s because, despite all the flash surrounding it (the globe-trotting recording sessions, the Riccardo Tisci-designed cover, the video where they sawed the top off a Maybach ) and all the boasts contained within it, WTT is very much an album that grapples equally with big themes — success, race, responsibilities, public perception — and, you know, big watches. And then, of course, there’s the incredibly odd “N—as in Paris,” surely the first rap song to give equal face time to Will Ferrell . A weird, wonderful, whirling album — the kind that, sadly, they don’t make all that often, mostly because it’s impossible to do so.

7. Bon Iver, Bon Iver
Justin Vernon has done the impossible: follow up a beloved, much-mythologized debut album (you know, the one that was recorded in a cabin) with a record that’s just as good — if not better. He’s always been one for atmospheres, but never before have those atmospheres been so dense — or so compelling. Here, he creates a singular, breathless world, building it with layers of echoing instrumentation and his own ghostly falsetto. There are moments where the sun shines through the cracks — a horn crescendo, a silvery sliver of bell — but for the most part, Bon Iver is a mesmerizing trip through a dewy dreamscape. And in that regard, it’s a momentous achievement (one made even more momentous by Vernon’s recent Grammy nominations ), even if the last song does sound like Bruce Hornsby.

6. PJ Harvey, Let England Shake
The iconic Brit shape-shifts with seemingly every record she releases, and on Shake, she’s reborn as an old-fashioned protest singer (with a newfound upper register too). The sad thing is, the subjects she’s singing about — conflict, bloodshed, man’s unending cycle of self-immolation — are just as timely now as they were 50 years ago. Through it all, Harvey weaves a partial history of her oft-troubled homeland, and does so with haunting, harrowing specificity: the quivering flesh of the dead, the fog rolling over the bones of deceased sea captains, the tread of tanks plowing the countryside. That she manages to do so without ever gnarling into full-on outrage is a testament to both her skill as an observer of the human condition and her love of England, which is perhaps the most impressive feat of all on an album brimming with them.

5. The Horrors, Skying
Is there a band with a more inexplicable career arc than the Horrors? They started off as spooky-ooky figureheads of London’s goth-garage scene (or whatever you want to call it), reimagined themselves as psych disciples on 2009′s Primary Colours and, finally, on the wildly emotive Skying, they’ve emerged as one of the U.K.’s best rock acts. It’s a rhetorical question — there is no band quite like them, and their aptly named latest captures them at the height of their abilities. Skying is a bold, big, decidedly Technicolor affair, packed with synth peaks and piles of echoing guitars, and much like its title implies, it positively soars. The great moments abound, though it’s on lengthy tracks like “Moving Further Away” and “Oceans Burning” — when they break through the clouds and let the daylight pour in — that they really, truly shine in ways no one thought imaginable.

4. F—ed Up, David Comes to Life
A wrecking-ball sorta rock opera courtesy of Toronto’s hardest-working (and, most likely, only) six-piece punk collective, David Comes to Life tells the story of a downtrodden factory worker who may have killed his true love. I think. Because, along the way, there’s also betrayal, heartache, bomb blasts, fisticuffs and a whole lot of plot-twisting shifts in narration too. Of course, the story behind the album is largely unimportant (if you want to keep score at home, here’s a handy guide), especially when the album itself hits so hard. The (multi-multi-multi-)tracked guitars squeal and chug for days, and frontman Pink Eyes’ screams are so visceral you can practically feel his blood welling up in your headphones. It’s an ambitious, ringing, raging success, the kind of record you’ll listen to over and over again, either to try and follow the plotline or just get pummeled by the sheer might of the thing. Either way, you’ll enjoy yourself.

3. Drake, Take Care
What was that line Drake dropped a few years back? “Last name ever, first name greatest?” Right. Well, here’s the proof that he wasn’t lying. Take Care is his masterpiece of mope, an agoraphobically artistic exploration of late-night excesses and early morning regrets, of being smothered by fame and troubled by success, of drunken phone calls and drugged-out epiphanies. You can chalk it up to him being “emo,” but I prefer to think of it as him just being honest, unafraid to play the villain or point out his own shortcomings. And that’s what makes this album so wonderful: It is very much about losing contact, fracturing relationships and attempting to put the pieces back together again. Much like Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (or 808s & Heartbreak), on Take Care, Drake and producer Noah “40″ Shebib craft an insular, downright claustrophobic world, one fraught with perils both real and imagined. Though, when your life is as fantastically surreal as Drake’s, it’s often difficult to tell the difference — much to his dismay, and our benefit.

2. Adele, 21
It’s nice when the year’s best-selling album also ends up being one of the flat-out best, but, in the case of Adele’s 21, we should have seen it coming. After all, she wowed critics and fans with her debut, but this time, well, she’s stumbled onto something else entirely. She created a classy, classic album that moved units the old-fashioned way: namely, on the strength of some hits and her prodigious pipes. On 21, she’s also grown as an artist, become a singer capable of both tremendous power (like on the smash “Rolling in the Deep”) and terrifying tenderness too (like on the smashing “Someone Like You”). A roiling collection of breakup ballads, revenge fantasies, heartbreaking honesty and even a little humor, there truly was no other album quite like 21 released this year. It’s a throwback in every way, though it recalls nothing else so closely as it does the heady times when great albums were also great-selling albums. Hopefully, it’s a sign of things to come.

1. Girls, Father, Son, Holy Ghost
In a year when dance music slithered its way onto the top 40 and dudes like Skrillex pick up Best New Artist Grammy nods, I found solace in the bristling, brokenhearted Father, Son, Holy Ghost, a masterful collection of retro-leaning rock (Elvis Costello, Pink Floyd, the Beach Boys) that rang true above everything else. That’s mostly because it is an undeniably real album, both sonically (the surging guitars and crashing drums that open “Honey Bunny,” the pealing organ that closes “Jamie Marie”) and spiritually pining over lost loves and the emptiness of sex. And on two epic, excellent tracks — “Vomit” and “Forgiveness” — songwriter Christopher Owens lets his sadness and frustrations boil over, resulting in two of the most visceral moments of the year. It’s a chilling, hair-raising ride, a heartbreaking listen that channels genuine emotions; full of sadness, self-loathing and real anger, it doesn’t pull any punches, and somewhere in that morass, it also stumbles across true beauty too. In a time when everyone’s got a DJ and people continue to sing like robots from the 23rd century, I’ll take Father, Son, Holy Ghost‘s unflinching realness any day. After all, sadness is a virtue too.

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