2011 presented music both really good and super weird. It showed that the future of popular music may not be as dysmal as many have predicted. It also discredited the theory that anything that can be done has been. Artists truly stepped outside the box, created new sounds–even new genres–and made some incredible albums, among which we had the extremely difficult task of choosing the top ten:
10. Bon Iver Bon Iver. When Justin Vernon dropped his freshman album, many considered him to be just another folk singer. Three years and one ingenious ongoing collaboration with Kanye West later, Vernon comes back as a mysterious legend with his grammy-nominated sophomore album. The art-folk album takes us on a mythical journey through the heartland. The layers of soothing synth, crisp strings, bold saxophone, and trippy vocals blur the lines of genre, but genre seems so irrelevant when the tale the music tells resonates among so many.
9. Tune-Yards W H O K I L L. Evocative and eclectic, Merrill Garbus brings a different swag than her freshman album “Bird-Brains” (which by the way is brilliant in its own right). Perhaps it’s the fact that this one wasn’t recorded in her bedroom with a dictaphone. Or perhaps it’s her aggressive musical approach on tough political issues like police brutality, community violence, and the Occupy movement. Regardless, her multi-sonic, wide-ranging vocals on funky, lo-fi art-pop will not likely make for another catchy pop tune, but that’s why we like it. Best tracks: “Gangsta”; “Riotriot”; “Powa”; “Bizness”; and “Wooly Wolly Gong”.
8. Foster the People Torches. This album has been criticized, and hence left off many top albums lists, due to its clear influence by MGMT and it’s happy and pleasant listening qualities. If those are the worst things about an album, it’s position on any list should be given. The LA-based, indie-pop band puts a new age, disco hipster-spin on production on an ordinarily hippie psych-pop sound featuring Mark Foster’s high-pitched, surfer-boy vocals. The trio qualifies for mainstream, given how well-received their first single “Pumped Up Kicks” was on American radio. But they made splashes across festival scenes all summer as well. Whether their popularity will continue into 2012 is anticipated, but we can enjoy Torches for a while in the meantime. Best tracks: “Pumped Up Kicks”; “Helena Beats”; “Waste”; “Houdini”; “Life on the Nickel”.
7. Radiohead The King of Limbs. The evolution of this visionary group is evident across their eighth album. The latest sound incorporates hints of eroticism, Afrocentrism, and sensationalism. The genius of Radiohead and this album alike could easily go over many heads (not to be confused with “‘Heads,” who likely would readily appreciate it), but do not be fooled by the jazzy eccentricities demonstrated. Listening through feels much like a journey as a feather from first air; floating lightly over people, places, and things; and finally landing in a new place. Best tracks: “Codex”; “Bloom”; “Lotus Flower”; and “Give Up the Ghost.”
6. The Weeknd House of Balloons. Appearing out of the blue this year was Abel Tesfaye’s mysterious alterego The Weeknd with a decisive sound formed, combining solid R&B with experimental trip hop. All three released mixtapes–Thursday, House of Balloons, and Echoes of Silence–break barriers, but if we had to pick one, House of Balloons pumps our blood just slightly more than the others. Lying somewhere between Drake and Frank Ocean, the mixtape comes from the comedown of a reckless night filled with hedonistic adventures. Sharp vocals and bang-on production quality, however, makes it more than a drug-hazed soundtrack. In fact, the artist is featured on Drake’s album and in the final season of “Entourage.” Still, after three mixtapes, the world has yet to be introduced to the mystery man behind the music. Perhaps 2012 will reveal, but at least we have these EPs to blow our minds for now. Best tracks: “High for This”; “Loft Music”; “Glass Table”; and “The Party & the Afterparty.”
5. Drake Take Care. This is easily Drake’s best work to date. Released just last month on November 15, it has already placed first on multiple charts internationally, including US Billboard 200–and continues to climb. The album boasts a variety of sounds and themes with each song, and the extra time he put into this album shows through deeper lyrics, innovative beats, and mature rhymes. Production on this album is top notch, stepping outside pure hip hop and venturing into trip hop and even dub. Drake’s clear mission to prove to his haters and perhaps himself of his lasting presence at the top is accomplished. Best tracks: “Shot for Me”; “Crew Love”; “Take Care”; “Marvin’s Room”; and “Underground Kings.”
4. Beyonce, 4. Though still a pop singer, the talent does not let us forget her contribution to music. Setting herself apart, “4”–aptly named as her fourth solo studio album–brings in the seventies’ soul and funk vibe, feministic themes, and heart-warming ballads. Featuring the brightest of producers and writers such as Frank Ocean, Babyface, Kanye West, The-Dream, and Diplo and artists like Andre 3000, Beyonce does them justice with limitless vocals. The album–both soothing and shocking–makes for an affable adult-pop topper this year. Best tracks: “1+1”; “I Care”; “Best Thing I Never Had”; “Party” featuring Andre 3000; “End of Time”; “I Was Here”; “Run the World (Girls)”.
3. Kanye West, Jay-Z Watch the Throne. This collaborative album aroused the skeptics, but ended up being a top album of 2011 by showcasing the best of both hip hop giants. The hard-hitting production by Kanye West is unbeatable as always–and matched with Jay-Z’s effortless flow, the album spins gold like its cover art. It pumps out bangers possessing a good mix of retrospective and hopeful character, of course not without copious swag and the help of featured artists including Frank Ocean, Mr. Hudson, and Beyoncé. Best tracks: “Otis” featuring Otis Redding; “N***as in Paris”; “New Day”; “No Church in the Wild” featuring frank Ocean; and “Made in America” featuring Frank Ocean.
2. Frank Ocean Nostalgia, Ultra. Possessing qualities we’ve never heard before, each track on this album is delectable in its own way. Even his covers of Coldplay’s “Strawberry Swing,” MGMT’s “Electric Feel,” and the Eagles’ “Hotel California” are refreshingly original. Ocean revolutionizes R&B and pop by expanding his range of subject matter to stunningly real material such as suicide and abortion, and incorporating harder electro/hip hop beats–allegiant to his Odd Future belonging. His first single, “Novacane,” swarmed the airwaves this year, making people ask questions and seek more. The rest of the album, just as brilliant but even more contraversial, will not be heard on the radio–but definitely must be heard. Best tracks: “Novacane”; “Swim Good”; “Strawberry Swing”; “We All Try”; “Nature Feels”; “Love Crimes”; “American Wedding.”
1. Adele 21. Adele’s sophomore album took over the world in 2011, one heart at a time. The album, written entirely about her former poisonous relationship, touches everyone through each track’s emotional lyrics, soul-bursting vocals, and simplistic instrumentation. Billboard even dubbed 2011 the “Year of Adele,” as she breaks yet another record as the first woman ever to earn the No. 1 position on three of Billboard’s biggest year-end charts honors: No. 1 on Top Artists; No. 1 Billboard 200 Album; and the No. 1 Hot 100 song (for “Rolling in the Deep”), hence earning her the super-category of “Artist of the Year.” It’s unquestionable as to why, considering that since its debut at No. 1 on February 22, “21” spent 13 consecutive weeks in the top spot. The album’s two biggest singles, “Rolling in the Deep” and “Someone Like You,” spent seven and five weeks, respectively, at No. 1 on the Hot 100. Something is wrong if she doesn’t win more Grammys for this album than the several she won for ’19.’ Best tracks: “Someone Like You”; “Set Fire to the Rain”; “Turning Tables”; “Lovesong”; “Rolling in the Deep”; “Rumour Has It.”
Again, choosing just ten to mention was truly difficult this year, so including albums 11-20 was a must:
11. Das Racist Relax
12. Jill Scott The Light of the Sun
13. Bad Meets Evil Hell: The Sequel
14. The Roots Undun
15. Zola Jesus Conatus
16. M83 Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming
17. James Blake James Blake
18. PJ Harvey Let England Shake
19. The Black Keys El Camino
20. Lady Gaga Born This Way
Tell us your favorite picks in the comments below.