In 2011, Beyoncé asked (rather rhetorically) “Who run the world?” The answer, of course, was girls, which was pretty apt, considering everywhere you looked this year, female artists were front and center, not only running the world, but flat out dominating it.
Adele’s had the year’s best-selling album, by a long shot. Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift each moved 1 million units in a single week. Katy Perry continued to nab #1 singles , as did Rihanna and Britney Spears. Nicki Minaj broke through to the mainstream, B made the leap with 4, Christina Aguilera moved like Jagger … the list goes on and on. Female artists did it all this year, to the point where you sort of forgot that dudes made music too.
Of course, they did and truly you can’t have a discussion about 2011 without mentioning Lil Wayne, Drake, Justin Bieber or Jay-Z and Kanye West’s high-profile Throne project. Girls may have run the world, but the guys definitely picked their spots, and delivered big time.
But who had the biggest year of all?
It’s a tough question to answer. Still, we’ve given it our best shot, organizing a brain trust to lead a roundtable — moderated by MTV’s Sway — on the Best Artists of 2011. Panelists James Montgomery and Rob Markman (MTV News), Yomi Desalu and Malika Quemerais (MTV Music and Talent) and Tamar Anitai and Nicole James (MTV.com) pored over the charts, debated stuff like Facebook friends and Twitter followers and watched a ton of music videos. After some rather zesty discussions, we’ve come up with a list of 10 who not only defined the year, but dominated it too.
10. Justin Bieber
This year, the teen pop superstar upped the ante: He toppled the box office with his 3-D concert flick, “Never Say Never,” and released a slew of new music, including his chart-topping holiday album, Under the Mistletoe. And when he wasn’t busy recording, shooting videos, rapping, shufflin’ , touring and tweeting, he romanced Selena Gomez . Not even tabloid headlines could rain on his parade. In fact, Bieber proved that if he wants to try something in his career, he won’t just try— he’ll probably succeed. — Jocelyn Vena
Drizzy claimed that all he cared about was money and the city that he’s from, but you’ve got to figure that making hits was pretty high on the Toronto MC’s list in 2011. Granted, his second solo album, Take Care, came out in November, but the singing rapper (or the rapping singer) still made his presence felt throughout the year. Duets with Rihanna (“What’s My Name”), posse cuts with Lil Wayne and Rick Ross (DJ Khaled’s “I’m On One”) and his own Internet leaks (“Marvins Room” and “Dreams Money Can Buy”) served as ample appetizers before Drake served his main course. When he did unveil his emotionally driven main course, 750,000 hungry fans came to the table and purchased it in the first week of release. So much for a sophomore jinx. — Rob Markman
8. Lil Wayne
Rap star or rock star? Or maybe he’s a pop star? In ’11, Lil Wayne proved he’s all of the above. With “6 Foot 7 Foot,” the thumping “John” and his free Sorry 4 the Wait mixtape, Weezy left no doubt that he’s still a premier MC. But over the acoustic guitar plucks of “How to Love,” Wayne once again penetrated the pop world. If covers by Justin Bieber and Demi Lovato weren’t enough , then consider Wayne’s appearances on J.Lo’s “I’m Into You” or Joe Jonas’ “Just in Love.” Tunechi also took his guitar on the road with his I Am Still Music Tour, rocked an MTV “Unplugged” special and closed out this year’s Video Music Awards. Oh yeah, his ninth solo album, Tha Carter IV, nearly went platinum in its first week out, selling more than 964,000 copies. What a year! — R.M.
Like every other Beyoncé fan, I’m thrilled the star is expecting her first child with hubby Jay-Z, but the delivery of her album 4 was just as exciting. The LP, her most mature to date, is a collection of soulful ballads and midtempo tracks tempered with a deep nostalgic streak. And those singles, the best of which were joyful, horn-blasting throwback jams like “Love on Top” and “Countdown,” were unlike anything else on pop radio. Maybe that’s why 4 didn’t connect commercially the way many of her past records have. But B’s 2011 arc has been steady and, most important, certain. Everything she touched in 2011, from 4 to those acclaimed dates at New York City’s Roseland Ballroom in August (to that belly !), was golden. — John Mitchell
Rihanna had us buzzing about songs off not one, but two albums in 2011. There were a number of hits that dropped this year from 2010’s Loud, including a remix of “S&M” with the one-and-only Britney Spears. And while she was still riding high off the momentum of her fifth album, Rih went back into the studio mid-tour and cranked out the sexy, grinding Talk That Talk. Thanks to “We Found Love,” the chart-topping lead single off TTT, Rihanna reinvented herself as a punked-out club kid looking for love … knowing that it’s not always easy to find. — J.V
5. Lady Gaga
Gaga is that girl you knew in college with a triple-major in finance, modern dance and molecular chemistry who also played cello and made her own whole-wheat gnocchi on weekends. In 2011, she hit just about every talk show and awards ceremony known to man. And while she did all that, she also toured, released a string of controversial high-concept music videos , spoke out against bullying and starred in an HBO concert film and a prime-time Thanksgiving special . Oh, she also spent the year spinning off a string of hits that mined everything from classic rock to decadent disco. She never slows down, it’s never enough and she’s set a torrid pace for all divas to come. And that’s exactly how she likes it. — Gil Kaufman
4. The Throne
Be honest, you didn’t think this was going to work out. After all, the track record for superstar team-ups isn’t exactly great (just ask Jay-Z about the Best of Both Worlds Tour), and the Throne are perhaps the super-starriest team-up in recent history. But somehow, Jay and Kanye made it happen, ditching their egos and delivering a classic album … and a sold-out tour too. Sure, they may play “N—as in Paris” 15 times a show, but that’s only because they’ve earned the right to do so. — James Montgomery
No artist was more quietly ubiquitous this year than Adele. When it came to the charts, she dominated: 21 was the top-selling album of 2011 and “Rolling in the Deep” was the year’s biggest song. She ruled because everyone, from millennials to their mothers and maybe even their grandparents, could all agree that hers was the best, most universally appealing mainstream music released this year. There was no need for a year-round media assault, no reason to cause a Twitter beef; heck, she only needed to release two singles to keep it all afloat. Why? Because she’s just that good. — J.M.
2. Nicki Minaj
Minaj released her debut album Pink Friday in November 2010, but her popularity hit fever pitch this year. Minaj joined her YMCMB family on Lil Wayne’s I Am Still Music Tour and then surprised even herself by landing an opening stint on Britney Spears’ Femme Fatale Tour, where the two treated audiences to joint performances of Spears’ “Till the World Ends” remix. Nicki’s following grew even more after her monster single “Super Bass,” which became a pop-culture phenomenon and landed at #2 on MTV’s Best Songs of 2011 list. The colorful clip that accompanied “Super Bass” nabbed a Moonman for the year’s Best Hip-Hop Video at the VMAs , and the Young Money rapper took home a trophy for Best Female Hip-Hop Artist at the BET Awards. Top that off with Billboard‘s 2011 Rising Star Award and a much-coveted 2012 Grammy nomination for Best New Artist .
1. Katy Perry
In 2011, no one shined as brightly as Katy Perry. She found success by unapologetically being herself. She sang about aliens, her foggy memories of house parties, lost love, true love, being yourself and everything in between. It’s easy for fans to connect to Perry and her music: She’s an open book. And in 2011, she turned a few more pages. Riding high off the success of 2010’s Teenage Dream, Perry didn’t rest on her laurels. Instead, she set the bar even higher by hitting the road on the California Dreams Tour, where night after night, decked out in candy-colored clothes, she belted out her greatest hits and empowered her fans with tracks like “Firework.” That anthem, originally released late last year, became so ubiquitous this year that it finds itself at #10 on MTV’s Best Songs of 2011 list. In August, she took home the VMA for Video of the Year for — you guessed it — “Firework.” What would 2011 have been without Katy?