The 50 Best Albums of 2011

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Every day between now and New Year’s Day, we’ll be looking back at the best music and pop culture of 2011. We start with the year’s best albums.

We had more than two dozen music critics vote, and 282 different albums showed up on their ballots. Our album of the year, however, ended up on 20 of the 29 ballots, making it the winner by a landslide. But, chances are, we missed some of your favorites when we narrowed it down to 50. Let us know what we got right or wrong in the comments section below. Our hope is that both our list and our readers’ comments will help you discover some new favorites you might have missed as we look back on the year.

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50. Frank Turner – England Keep My Bones
Frank Turner  fronted Doc Martens-scuffing punk bands before embarking on a solo career combining bare-chord strumming and folk storytelling with the galloping velocity of SoCal skate punks like Bad Religion. It’s a thoroughly effective mixture, delivering crunchy hooks and impassioned screeds at a ruthlessly uncluttered clip. It helps that at times Turner’s voice brings to mind an oddly appropriate blend of Billy Bragg sincerity and NOFX leader Fat Mike’s irreverence. Turner brings a compelling passion to his work (“no one gets remembered for the things they didn’t do” is one of his archetypical lyrics) and sings with enough gusto that you believe it when he speaks of rock ’n’ roll’s salvific powers, but he includes enough shameless shout-along choruses to ward off accusations of navel-gazing. Smart young miscreants who have outgrown the Warped Tour but aren’t ready for the Ted Leo back catalog could do worse, and acoustic rock fans that want more than somnolent campfire melodies couldn’t do much better.—Michael Tedder

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49. Mates of State – Mountaintops
Kori Gardner and Jason Gammel have spent a good portion of their 14-year career recharging whatever super-strength black market battery powers the married couple’s upbeat and complex synth pop. With an extensive catalog, the energetic pace of Mates of State’s albums mirrors a sugar-laced Red Bull/espresso fusion without taking an obnoxious route—a pretty awesome accomplishment considering the sheer amount of cutesy husband/wife pop duos that sprout up on an almost daily basis. On Mountaintops, the band’s seventh full-length, the pair delivers more of their polished pop while tastefully showcasing a handful of warped turns that partner lush synths with minor-key experiments.—Carey Hodges

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48. Drake – Take Care
Take Care is certainly is impressed with itself, but often rightfully so. It’s one of the quietest affirmations of confidence the scene has ever seen. The gorgeous “Marvins Room” was not a specific exception; the record smolders in the same auburn glow—downtempo bass-pulses, dulled synths, tinkering, unattached pianos and Drake’s feathery voice. It’s sexy, progressive, and surprisingly listenable for its hefty 80 minutes. In fact “Over My Dead Body” is one of the calmest, most wistful openers in rap history. A few simple, James Blake-ian chords, a faraway drum, and Drake in full loosened-tie mode—tossing hearty punchlines like he’s already on a comfortable slope.—Luke Winkie

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47. Real Estate – Days
Not much has changed on Real Estate’s sophomore album, Days. The band still paints washed-out scenes with swirling guitars and reverb-laden vocals that harken back to the “good ’ol days” just as well as anyone else. The third track on the album, “It’s Real, ” is a standout with a great melody that will make you want to relive the sunny days of summer all over again.—Luke Larsen

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46. Holy Ghost! – Holy Ghost!
Holy Ghost! are finally liberating themselves from the trappings of DJdom. For the last several years, these guys (New Yorkers Alex Frankel and Nick Millhiser) have been making quite a splash as record spinners, producers, and (most famously) remix artists, re-tooling tracks by the likes of MGMT, LCD Soundsystem, Cut Copy, Moby and Phoenix—basically a bunch of bands whose songs pretty much already sound like remixes in the first place. But the sexy, late night ‘70s groove-fest “Say My Name” and the bass-driven funk beast “Static on the Wire,” demonstrate why we’re paying attention to these guys. “Some Children” is elevated from average dance-funk to transcendent soul by the husky belting of former Doobie Brother/forever pop punching bag Michael McDonald. On these weirder, sexier, more adventurous moments, the hype is more than justified. As it turns out, Holy Ghost! haunts with more consistency under the sheets than on the dance floor.—Ryan Reed

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45. Those Darlins – Screws Get Loose
Whether you thought they were a quirky-obnoxious novelty act or a gang of infinitely charming, boots-are-made-for-rockin’ Americana party girls, forget your initial impression of Those Darlins. Over the last few years, the band has become the spirit of rock ’n’ roll incarnate — a slightly older, wiser, modern-day Southern-garage version of The Runaways. “Why should the boys have all the fun?” their mere presence seems to shout. “We will out-drink, out-party and out-rock all of you!” Screws Get Loose is a major creative breakthrough for the Murfreesboro, Tenn.-based Darlins. The album-opening title track, an alternately desperate/shrugging ode to holding it together on the road, is an instant garage/power-pop classic that would make everyone from Iggy Pop to the Apples in Stereo to King Tuff proud. With its unforgettable melody, chiming strums, erratic detuned anti-guitar solo and a bell part that channels the hypnotic piano lick from The Stooges’ “Gimme Danger,” “Screws Get Loose” is a perfect statement of purpose, kicking off an album that redefines what Jessi, Nikki and Kelley Darlin and their drummer Linwood Regensburg are capable of.—Steve LaBate

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44. Kurt Vile – Smoke Ring For My Halo
Philadelphia songwriter Kurt Vile was only half-boasting when he named his official debut album Constant Hitmaker. Before signing to Matador in 2008, he had been releasing homemade recordings and singles at a marathon pace for years, winning over local fans and vinyl collectors while continually refining his idiosyncratic, “midnight in a smoky dive bar” take on classic-rock balladry. Vile’s recent album Smoke Ring For My Halo, sees him working in a professional studio with a real producer (Dinosaur Jr./Hold Steady helmer John Agnello) for the first time, but the added sheen fortunately doesn’t dilute the nocturnal atmospheric approach he’s spent years cultivating. —Michael Tedder

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43. The Joy Formidable – The Big Roar
The Big Roar couldn’t be a more aptly titled debut. The album’s first song “The Everchanging Spectrum of a Lie” is such a tidal wave of crashing drums, heavy guitar and lead singer Ritzy Bryan’s harsh/soft vocals, that it’s exhausting by the time it’s over. The Big Roar never relents, with standout tracks like “Whirring” and the album’s perfect closer “The Greatest Light is the Greatest Shade.” Bryan’s vocals and the intense instrumentation blend beautifully throughout.—Ross Bonaime

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42. Wild Flag – Wild Flag
Two parts Sleater-Kinney (Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss), one part Helium (Mary Timony), one part The Minders (Rebecca Cole) and many parts other various bands these ladies have been involved in during the past couple decades (Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, Quasi, Autoclave, Excuse 17, etc.), the Portland/Washington D.C. foursome sounds utterly, unfuckwittably fierce on paper alone. Luckily, the promise is kept in the music as well. Throughout Wild Flag, guitars reign as king, like so many triumphant Brownstein rock kicks in concert. But on songs like “Romance” and “Boom,” the hooks creep in as well, so don’t be surprised if you find yourself singing along. In fact, the real joy of Wild Flag is just that: the joy.—Austin L. Ray

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41. James Blake – James Blake
British dubstep-minimalist artist James Blake has brought his unique sound Stateside with the release of his self-titled debut album. With a stripped-down, uncluttered sound, Blake’s creations are hauntingly beautiful. His voice echoes soulfully throughout his self-titled album, with lyrics as deliberate as the heavy beats that accentuate each track. Part of what’s so potent about his songs is that Blake tends to replicate the environments he sings about. On the track “Wilhelm Scream” he sings, “I don’t know about my dreaming anymore, all that I know is I’m falling, falling, falling, falling, falling,” and the floating music drops the floor away. Blake has managed to create something new, balancing his understated vocals with funky, dub beats, synthesizers and a vocoder. —China Reevers

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40. Portugal. The Man – In The Mountain, In The Cloud
It can be frightening when a smart indie band like Portugal. The Man signs to a major label. Expectations are heightened, and more often than not, an easily digestible sound is favored over something with real depth. Luckily, In the Mountain, In the Cloud avoids such pitfalls. From the vaguely “Space Oddity”-influenced intro of “So American” to the stunningly gorgeous album closer “Sleep Forever,” every track on In the Mountain, In the Cloud feels like it was meticulously chosen for the exact place it holds on the record.—Wyndham Wyeth

Every day between now and New Year’s Day, we’ll be looking back at the best music and pop culture of 2011. We start with the year’s best albums.

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39. Gillian Welch – The Harrow and the Harvest
If you’re an artist who plays music that sounds as if could have been written a century ago, what difference does it make if you take eight years between albums? No difference at all if you’re Gillian Welch. She and David Rawlings don’t seem to have tinkered much with their approach. Their interplay is as empathetic as ever, reminding us how rare it is to hear musicians with such highly developed senses of intuition. At times, it’s still difficult to know when Welch’s vocals end and Rawlings’ harmonies begin with the interweaving of string melodies as expansive and deceptively complicated as anything this side of vintage Grateful Dead.—Douglas Heselgrave

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38. Over the Rhine – The Long Surrender
The primary reason to care about The Long Surrender is Karin Bergquist’s remarkably supple, soulful singing. Stretching out syllables, whispering and wailing, Bergquist’s high-wire act is the consistent highlight of the 13-song set. But not far behind are Joe Henry’s intimate production and the marvelously intuitive band that supports these songs. Like every Over the Rhine album, the lyrics plumb the mysteries of love, divine and human, not so much blurring the boundaries as acknowledging that they are inseparable and integrally related. “All my favorite people are broken,” Bergquist sings on the closing vocal track. It’s a theme that is echoed throughout the album’s length and made explicit at the end. From the splintered shards of a life—from marital discord and tentative healing; from the middle, or perhaps end, of an uncertain career; from the vantage point of starting over when you’re already way, way down the line—Over the Rhine have pieced together a lovely, heartbreaking, and ultimately uplifting musical mosaic.—Andy Whitman

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37. The War on Drugs – Slave Ambient
Even with the departure of Kurt Vile, The War on Drugs is still very much a band; helmed by Adam Granduciel, their post-Vile songs have kept them steady, and, as proven by the almost defiantly solid Slave Ambient, they can be memorable and engaging all by themselves. The band still carries that dusty, road-poet glamour that earned them reverence in the first place. Guitars jangle loosely, and Granduciel’s voice is constantly at cruising altitude—this is music for rambling, music for prairie towns, and most importantly, for road trips.—Luke Winkie

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36. Mister Heavenly – Out Of Love
On paper, Mister Heavenly—which combines the talents of Man Man frontman Ryan Kattner, Islands mastermind Nick Thornburn and Modest Mouse drummer Joe Plummer—looks like an intriguing concept, but also a likely disaster. After all, Kattner (known professionally as the eloquent Honus Honus) earns his living grunting like a possessed lumberjack over indie’s quirkiest kitcken-sink rumble, while Thornburn is an indie-rock classicist with a sweet, almost anonymous voice and a stylistic palette that, even at its most exploratory, puts melody before mayhem. But these songs feel like true collaborations in terms of their sonic DNA—you can hear the hallmarks of each individual player” Plummer’s disco-prog strut, Thornburn’s instrumental finesse, Kattner’s schizoid passion. The pairing, in spite of (or perhaps because of) its head-scratching premise, turns out to be…yes, Heavenly.—Ryan Reed

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35. Childish Gambino – Camp
“Man, why does every black actor have to rap some? / I don’t know – all I know is I’m the best one.” Those lines from Childish Gambino’s “Bonfire,” the first single off of his first release on Glassnote, perfectly exemplify one-half of Donald Glover’s rap persona. He’s cocky, arrogant and knows he’s about to break out of this stratosphere. The other half, however, is more humble and still angry and insecure about events that transpired in his life. The duality of Childish Gambino’s lyrics plays off better than it ever has. No song seems out of place and every single one is extremely quotable. Childish Gambino created an album that is so raw and still so peaceful that even after a dozen times listening to it, Camp still doesn’t get old.—Adam Vitcavage

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34. Seryn – This Is Where We Are
With mostly acoustic instruments—ukulele, banjo, accordion, violin, cello and trumpet—and soaring choruses, this Denton, Texas, quintet builds nearly every song into a joyful crescendo adding voices—and urgency—as it progresses. That’s never more apparent than on “We Will All Be Changed,” which gets exponentially better with every decibel you turn it up.—Josh Jackson

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33. The Head and the Heart – The Head and the Heart
Scruffily handsome folkies are a dime a dozen in Seattle. What differentiates The Head and the Heart from the rest of the flannel-wearing pack, beyond the band’s unnaturally speedy climb from dive bars to main-stage festival spots, is its penchant for mixing rootsy Americana with orchestral, chest-swelling chamber-pop. Violin and piano help elevate the songs beyond their earthy origins, and three-part harmonies—anchored by co-frontmen Josiah Johnson and Jonathan Russell, and boosted by the Cat-Power-gone-Appalachian crooning of violinist Charity Rose Thielen—sweeten the deal. —Andrew Leahey

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32. Ryan Adams – Ashes & Fire
Ashes & Fire was produced by Glyn Johns—known for producing acts like The Beatles, Bob Dylan, The Clash and The Rolling Stones— and features the talents of Norah Jones singing backup and playing piano and Benmont Tench (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers) on keyboards. It starts with the song “Dirty Rain,” classic Adams, uncontrived emotion painting pictures of time and space. From there the album shifts gears easily as it saunters on, from the heel-tapping shake and rattle of the title track to “Do I Wait,” pretty much a perfect love song, the kind that would make Motown proud, because it isn’t about just the good parts of love, but lives in the questions that define it—between what we think it should be and what it is, between where we want to be and where we are.—Jeff Gonick

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31. Telekinesis – 12 Desperate Straight Lines
What Michael Benjamin Lerner did on 12 Desperate Straight Lines is what listeners wish for on every artist’s sophomore effort. Partnered once again with Death Cab For Cutie’s Chris Walla, the group mastered what audiences loved about the band’s debut, Telekinesis!. This time, the tunes are more infectious, the drum beats more thundering and the bass guitar fills the empty spaces with fuzzed out rhythms and punchy melodies. The first track, “You Turned Clear In The Sun” builds from acoustic guitar and vocals to the fuzzed-out bass guitar and thundering drums that pace the album throughout its 12 songs.—Alex Skidmore

Every day between now and New Year’s Day, we’ll be looking back at the best music and pop culture of 2011. We start with the year’s best albums.

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30. Tom Waits – Bad As Me
For his 20th studio album, Tom Waits’ wife and longtime musical collaborator, Kathleen Brennan, advised the gravelly voiced Rock and Roll Hall of Famer to keep it simple. No long, winding epic songs about soldiers at war, no massive, meandering epics. Much of Bad as Me sticks to this modus operandi, especially its best tracks like quick, horn-led opener “Chicago,” the hiccuping, rollicking “Get Lost” and monster single “Bad as Me.” Bottling Waits’ overflowing personality and unusual voice serves to make it that much more frenetic and affecting. Elsewhere, he stretches out, but only a little, with the help of his son Casey on drums, longtime collaborators Marc Ribot (guitar) and Les Claypool (bass), and various other big names like Keith Richards, Flea, Ben Jaffe and Daivd Hidalgo. The whole thing is a bit ramshackle, but when he listens to his wife, Bad as Me is as good as anything Waits has ever done. —Austin L. Ray

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29. Feist – Metals
The very qualities that make Leslie Feist such a distinctive pop artist are also the very things that make her too easy to dismiss: her understated melodies, restrained performances and thoughtful arrangements. Feist makes music that requires close attention and repeated spins, and yet there’s almost always a payoff—some revelation that rewards the listener’s investment. The new songs are much more introverted and downbeat—not a conscious step away from The Reminder’s pop pleasures but a logical flip side. The music, however, remains sophisticated and rhythmically feisty (pun thoroughly intended) even when so thoroughly keyed down. Above all else, Metals emphasizes Feist’s vocals, which sound as though they were recorded very closely to capture even the finest textures and subtlest tones.—Stephen M. Deusner

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28. Lykke Li – Wounded Rhymes
At the drop of a programmed snare hit, Lykke Li, the Swedish princess of off-beat art-pop, can turn from sugar-coated sweetheart to devilish temptress to futuristic night club siren. On Wounded Rhymes, Lykke Li has stepped up her game, crafting a brasher, more well-rounded effort that fully realizes the potential she showed on her debut. Li’s voice is basically a mixture of every great female art-pop artist you’ve heard; there’s a bit of Kate Bush’s alien whine, a pinch of Bat for Lashes smoke-screen atmospherics, even a hint of fellow Swedish pop sensation Robyn’s sassy croon. Tribal sounds loom large, kettle drums popping holes in the mix over deadpan synths and cozy blankets of noise. While her debut, Youth Novels, was a cool little hand-drawn doodle done in pencil—this is an oil painting, rich with color and more vivid detail. —Ryan Reed

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27. Black Lips – Arabia Mountain
Drinking champagne out of Mark Ronson’s Grammy Award may be the best move that the Black Lips have ever made. In addition to continuing their badass reputation, it sparked a collaboration between the Atlanta punk rockers and the retro-minded producer on their latest album Arabia Mountain. While the pairing may seem odd, it’s a good kind of odd. For the first time in the band’s history, the Black Lips’ music truly outshines their antics. In particular, Ronson helped the Black Lips shape this record into a focused, tight-knit garage-rock collection, retaining everything the band does right while doing away with the unnecessary frills. Despite being 16 songs long, the record punches through with hook after hook of infectious punk rock.—Max Blau

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26. The Low Anthem – Smart Flesh
If you decide to give Smart Flesh your full attention (and you should), you’ll hear an album full of echoes, hushed vocals and stripped-down beauty. You’ll be greeted by gorgeous harmonies. And most importantly, you’ll hear some great stories. It’s the lyrics that make Smart Flesh truly shine with richly developed characters, whether they’re crippled with grief after the death of a loved one or searching for redemption as their own lives start to slip away. There are enough abandoned graveyards, bouts with alcoholism and visits from the Grim Reaper here to make a David Lynch movie seem sunny, but it never feels overwrought. Smart Flesh is subtle, but if you listen closely enough, you’ll find yourself immersed in its drama.—Bonnie Stiernberg

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25. The Antlers – Burst Apart
This is a band still using their simple, seductive method of building quiet texture into a crash of energy. They reach for the stars with every chance they get, and “Putting the Dog to Sleep” might be the best song Silberman has written thus far—like most of his songs, it’s wrenching, dramatic and ultimately triumphant. He croons like a soul singer, his voice occasionally cracking under the weight of emotion, with each of his heavy admittances punctuated with a clashing guitar. Burst Apart is a record of big songs from a band that’s good at generating big songs, and we should be relieved that The Antlers can be impressive without an overarching concept behind them. —Luke Winkie

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24. TV on the Radio – Nine Types of Light
Where Dear Science emphasized groove and density, Nine Types of Light is more restrained and elegant. There’s a sense of nakedness here that renders its results more personal and directly affecting. Sitek’s production is still trippy and headphone-worthy, the songs still arranged in colorful swirls of instrumentation, but the layers are easier to pick apart, the catapulting rhythms and noises given more space to breathe. The songs themselves are hazier and more insular, less emphatic and far more patient. Acoustic instruments, a first for the band, pop up on occasion—banjo plucks on the slow-building, cathedral atmosphere of “Killer Crane;” acoustic guitars in the Sunday morning soul of “Keep Your Heart”—and the ratio of ballads to bangers is staggering. They’ve been freaks; they’ve been lover-boys. Now they’re spaced-out romantics.—Ryan Reed

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23. The Belle Brigade – The Belle Brigade
There’s nothing particularly complicated about The Belle Brigade. The band, made up of brother/sister duo Ethan and Barbara Gruska, writes simple songs about common themes like being in love, loneliness and feeling like an outcast. But it works. The most ear-pleasing quality of the band is the way their DNA-sharing vocal cords are able to vibrate perfectly together, creating full, textured harmonies that seem to rise above the instrumentation while flowing along it. The debut LP is a fun album full of breezy melodies straight from the highways of California; it’s damn near impossible not to bob along to the freewheeling music the pair has compiled for this first LP. —Wyndham Wyeth

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22. The Black Keys – El Camino
The Black Keys’ seventh album isn’t due out until next Tuesday, but we sat in a publicity office in New York last month, just to get a preview. What we heard were more of Dan Auerbach’s giant, fuzzy, bluesy riffs and Patrick Carney’s propulsive drums. Lead single “Lonely Boy” tosses in a chorus of back-up singers to fill out the already huge sound that has made the duo sound right at home, even on some of the biggest festival main stages this year.—Josh Jackson

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21. Charles Bradley – No Time For Dreaming
Over the past decade, Daptone Records has established a reputation not only as a cohesive record label, but also as a cultural institution responsible for curating a neo-soul revival with a distinct sound. It’s out of this tradition that 62-year old singer Charles Bradley finally overcame a lifetime full of setbacks to debut No Time For Dreaming—one of the best Daptone releases to date. No Time For Dreaming opens up with “The World (Is Going Up In Flames)” as Charles Bradley’s wail reflects the long road he has walked over the years. The soul-stirrer cries out with utmost conviction on “I Believe In Your Love” and “Why Is It So Hard” with six-plus decades of pent-up emotion pouring into his songs. “Heartaches and Pain” resonates warmly through its powerful honesty, as Bradley echoes the evocative delivery of Otis Redding. The Menahan Street Band hits their sweetspot as they lay down a lush, funk-laced backdrop for Bradley to work his magic. No Time For Dreaming prevails as a defining culmination of Bradley’s lifetime of making music.—Max Blau

Every day between now and New Year’s Day, we’ll be looking back at the best music and pop culture of 2011. We start with the year’s best albums.

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20. Beirut – The Rip Tide
Zach Condon’s Beirut is in a funny position. He’s cut his teeth on staunchly outsider Balkan folk, but he’s also one of the premier indie-Billboard crossover successes. His band spans 11 members, but he primarily composes lighthearted, three-minute pop songs. He’s got all the trappings of a critic’s darling, but his pedigree has yet to position itself in the auteur company of singular songwriters like Justin Vernon and Will Oldham. With that propulsive buzz (and the fact that the third full-length in a career forms something of an arc) you might expect The Rip Tide to be a towering statement, but that isn’t the case. Not only is it the shortest item in the Beirut catalog, it’s also the breeziest; sounding confidently assure in its identity—which unsurprisingly makes it Condon’s most immediately enjoyable record to date.—Luke Winkie

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19. Cults – Cults
Cults isn’t simply a record mired in instantaneous pop hooks, but one that impressively reveals itself over subsequent spins. The pair wastes no time getting down to business, busting out with “Abducted”—a roaring blend of frontwoman Madeline Follin’s heartrending cries with an ethereal double-time accompaniment. “Go Outside” quickly follows up as the band’s loveable, carefree hymn, demanding to be heard over and over like few other tracks manage to do. With these two tracks alone, Cults kicks off its proper debut LP with a brilliantly juxtaposed display of the sweet and the sour, the fierce and the tender range of their work. Ultimately, Cults is an album that can be enjoyed as either a summer soundtrack or as something with a darker, more concrete substance. The beauty of this notable debut is that either way works just as well as the other.—Max Blau

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18. Wye Oak – Civilian
On Civilian, Baltimore duo Andy Stack and Jenn Wasner have crafted their best work to date. After easing in for the first minute-and-a-half, album opener “Two Small Deaths” takes flight with a series of swooning and layered textures seasoned with pleasant distortion. “Holy Holy” continues building toward a blistering, noisy melodic euphoria three quarters of the way through the track—it’s polished but emotionally raw. While there are moments where the wails and wallows of Wye Oak immediately grab your attention, Civilian mostly gives back what the listener puts into it. The depth of each of these 10 tracks becomes clearer with each passing listen, letting Wye Oak’s momentous peaks and hushed valleys fully reveal their striking and lush sonic landscape.—Max Blau

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17. The Civil Wars – Barton Hollow
The Civil Wars  seems like the moniker for a band exploring overt, loud disagreement. But the brand of longing, melodic chamber-pop and folk from the duo of John Paul White and Joy Williams puts the emphasis on “civil”—“courteous or obliging; polite.” Barton Hollow approaches relationship and life dissatisfactions with a subdued presence reminiscent of Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’ duets. But the tranquility dissipates as the songs peak, with White and Williams escalating the volumetric power of their playing and singing, taking full control of the songs’ directions. They have no problem transitioning from tempered introspections to fiery declarations, at times within a single track. War has never been so pleasant.—Nathan Spicer

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16. Yuck – Yuck
Yuck’s self-titled album captures a buzz band actually capable of exceeding lofty expectations. With the despondent pop of “Suicide Policeman” and warm mid-tempo riffs of “Suck,” the power in Yuck’s eponymous effort comes not from their musical survey of an early indie-rock landscape, but from their ability to integrate contrasting and complimenting dynamics few noise-rock bands master this early in their career. Even with all the musical mechanics working at the core of Yuck’s sound, it’s the seamless simplicity in which the record flows that defines this masterful debut. This is nothing but 50 minutes of substantive noise-pop bliss. —Max Blau

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15. Deer Tick – Divine Providence
John McCauley’s career in music has been fixed on a path of steady evolution ever since the release of Deer Tick’s studio debut War Elephant in 2007. With each subsequent record, his band has risen to the self-imposed challenge to outdo themselves—to do something they haven’t done before. Following last year’s brooding Black Dirt Sessions comes Divine Providence, a double-shot, rough-and-tumble rock ‘n’ roll record that only McCauley and company could craft. The frontman has stated that the band set out to capture their live sound on record. Loud, raw, gritty? Check. Sometimes silly, often earnest lyrics ripping from whiskey-soaked vocal chords? Got that, too. Everything one would come to expect from the band that lovingly performed an entire set in tribute to their grunge heroes under the moniker “Deervana” is represented on the record. Divine Providence is a celebration of music by a band who likes nothing more than to have a good time—and what is more respectable than that?—Wyndham Wyeth

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14. Adele – 21
Ahh, the wisdom that comes with old age. British alt-soul prodigy Adele Adkins’ debut, 19, was stunning in spots, earning both a watchful eye from critics and a should-have-been-huger hit single, “Chasing Pavements,” that perfectly demonstrates what makes her offbeat charm so appealing: a panache for gigantic hooks strung together in melismatic webs of old-school vigor; an instrumentally-dense arrangement equally referencing big-band and indie-rock; and most importantly—that voice. Oh, God, that voice—a raspy, aged-beyond-its-years thing of full-blooded beauty. On 21, she sounds refreshed and poised to attack. There’s no change in style—this is still the stuff of a sensual modern pop-noir landscape, heavy on retro textures and relationship drama. But she’s sacrificed some of her debut’s sparse moodiness, resulting in a more cohesive, immediate batch, littered with knock-outs. Working with an eclectic all-star production team (including Rick Rubin, Paul Epworth, and Ryan Tedder), Adele emerges with a well-manicured batch of songs that, while still showcasing her interest in layered musicality, shoot straight for the pop charts with each go-round—which is exactly where she should be aiming. This is what American Idol should sound like. This is what pop radio should sound like. This is what Adele should sound like.—Ryan Reed

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13. Radiohead – The King of Limbs
The King of Limbs feels more like it’s actually split into two halves: one that’s much more experimental and electronic and one that is fairly straightforward. If Kid A and Amenesiac are “twins separated at birth,” as Thom Yorke has suggested, then The King of Limbs is their cousin who comes to visit from out of town. He’s kind of odd, and no one really likes him at first, but once you get to know him, he’s actually a pretty cool guy. The first half of the album is composed of anti-songs, rebelling against any notion of typical songwriting in favor of a showcase of technique and engineering skill. But once the album starts to resemble something familiar, we’re presented with some truly gorgeous ballads.—Wyndham Wyeth

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13 (tie). Girls – Father, Son, Holy Ghost
This album was inadvertently left off the list despite appearing on nearly half the ballots. Yes, we know that makes this list 51 albums long. But this one is worth it.
While not exactly a pop savant, Owens has sharpened his songwriting in the few years since Album, and the new tunes sound more open-ended, allowing them to build on and play off one another naturally and easily, without being forced into a self-conscious song cycle or concept album. This is an album about juxtaposition and contrast, so the yearning “Alex,” which sounds lit by a beach campfire at twilight, segues into the riff-heavy “Die,” with its classic rock noodling and harried lyrics. Girls do pop melancholy and metal misanthropy equally well. The whole album is full of such odd, unexpected pleasure, which all the more impressive considering how familiar the elements are. That’s perhaps Girls’ most impressive trick: finding so many new ideas and emotions in pop’s well-worn sounds. In that regard, this album not only surpasses its predecessor but raises the bar for any band, indie or otherwise, mining the past for inspiration.—Stephen M. Deusner

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12. Iron & Wine – Kiss Each Other Clean
From the first notes of the fantastic, reverb-soaked “Walking Far From Home,” it’s clear that Kiss Each Other Clean picks up where 2007’s The Shepherd’s Dog left off. Sam Beam takes another step away from his lo-fi origins and experiments with more layered sounds. But the subtle power of Beam’s voice never gets drowned out or dominated by the organs, flutes and percussion. Even with a handful of new elements, the album fits comfortably into the ever-transforming Iron & Wine catalog. It may be miles away from the stripped-down beauty of 2002’s The Creek Drank the Cradle, but it’s the fruition of a series of gutsy moves by an artist who no longer needs to whisper.—Bonnie Stiernberg

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11. St. Vincent – Strange Mercy
Strange Mercy is an album that’s full of ambitious attempts to create rich tableaus that defy the expectations they create. A few songs in, it’s spring-water clear that Annie Clark hasn’t rested on her laurels. Track after track leads you one way, guides you down a path your feet have found before, and then, just when you’re used to going right, the music takes a sharp left. Clark uses the mini Moog, Arp and Wurlitzer of Bobby Sparks, the drums of Midlake’s McKenzie Smith, Daniel Hart on violin and her own soaring vocals to create tapestries of disparate yet not dissonant instruments and sounds. Her lush arrangements pack a prize fighter’s frequency of emotional punches and move smoothly from mellow drifting vocals to marching drums and electric trills.—Jeff Gonick

Every day between now and New Year’s Day, we’ll be looking back at the best music and pop culture of 2011. We start with the year’s best albums.

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10. The Decemberists – The King Is Dead
The Decemberists’ medieval rock opera The Hazards of Love pitted the band’s diehard supporters against those with little tolerance for Elizabethan syntax and folk-metal guitars. Released two years later, The King is Dead is a tuneful concession to the latter group. Most of the frills and festoons have been trimmed from the Decemberists’ sound, leaving behind a lean, rootsy mix of Americana and Celtic-flavored folk songs. Meloy still tosses multiple SAT words into his lyrics, whose portrayals of the American heartland owe more to William Faulkner than, say, Larry McMurty, but he doesn’t sound so overzealous here. Framed by crisp layers of pedal steel, acoustic guitar and harmonica, the album’s tracklist is an exercise in rustic restraint, with only one song topping the five-minute mark. Gillian Welch sings harmony on seven numbers, playing the Nicolette Larson to Meloy’s Neil Young, while former R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck lends his familiar jangle. The King is Dead is one of the Decemberists’ most personal efforts to date, packing light and still packing a punch.—Andrew Leahey

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9. M83 – Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming
Maybe Anthony Gonzalez is just working his way back through the years, one album at a time. On his 2005 breakout as M83, Before the Dawn Heals Us, he took the shoegaze guitars of My Bloody Valentine and combined them with cinematic electronics with sci-fi trappings. For 2008’s Saturdays = Youth, he turned his space-loving disposition toward the John Hughes 1980s and all its synth-heavy jams. For his ambitious double-album Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, Gonzalez digs even deeper into the ‘80s and even the late ‘70s, channeling Simple Minds here (“Reunion”) and Kraftwerk there (“Raconte-Moi Une Histoire”). As with everything the Frenchman’s done so far, the album is lush and ably produced, crescendo after crescendo. Zola Jesus guests, chiming guitars dominate and even some saxophone makes an appearance. Maybe he could tackle the Nuggets-era ‘60s next?—Austin L. Ray

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8. Dawes – Nothing Is Wrong
The men of Dawes have certainly grown up since their debut album was released just two short years ago. The songwriting, musicianship and emotion are even more impressive on Nothing is Wrong than the band’s stellar debut. The influence of the North Hills and Laurel Canyon music scenes are still present as well, right down to Jackson Browne’s supporting vocals on “Fire Away.” And after two years of fine-tuning their live sound, all of the members of Dawes have become master musicians not only individually, but as a collective.—Wyndham Wyeth

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7. Wilco – The Whole Love
The Whole Love sounds less self-conscious and more natural than anything Wilco has ever recorded, even though the music itself is full of rich, headphone-worthy details. It sounds a bit like every form of Wilco you’ve come to know and love over the past several years—basically a new millennium “Best of” package. Tweedy has called the album a split between “snot-nosed, obnoxious pop songs” and “atmospheric country,” and there certainly is a lot of that here. It’s the sound of Wilco out to prove nothing, driven only by their desire to craft great songs. In that regard, they’ve succeeded from start to finish.—Ryan Reed

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6. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. – It’s A Corporate World
It’s A Corporate World isn’t just two guys on the same page, but the same syllable. “Vocal Chords” is a heady brew of vocals that beam like high-noon sun during their choral peaks, the marching thump of a drum machine and plenty of dancing digital distractions. “Nothing but Our Love” and “Simple Girl” set the diametric ends of the Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. experience, the former a mix of slow-machined drums and R2D2 on back-up vocals, the latter a well-crafted piece of indie-pop, with enough finger picking, electric keys, whistling and da-da-da-ing to make a death row inmate crack a smile. Overall, it’s an album full of songs Lloyd Dobler could have played during his window-call, boom-box confession of love. If he had, there’s a good chance that movie might have had an even happier ending.—Jeff Gonick

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5. Middle Brother – Middle Brother
Very rarely does a supergroup manage to come up with something as good as the sum of its parts. Just like a movie starring a crowd of A-listers doesn’t necessarily equal anything Oscar-worthy (we’re looking at you, New Year’s Eve), it isn’t a given that a band with three frontmen will be able to effectively pool its talents. But on their self-titled debut, the men of Middle Brother sound as if they’ve been playing together for years. John McCauley (Deer Tick), Matt Vasquez (Delta Spirit) and Taylor Goldsmith (Dawes) take turns singing lead, and from the first harmonies on “Daydreaming” it’s clear that we’ve got a true collaboration on our hands. At times they sound so in tune with one another that the record starts to feel like a concept album, like a time capsule crafted by the trio of rock ‘n’ roll troubadours to document their rise to fame.—Bonnie Stiernberg

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4. tUnE-yArDs – w h o k i l l
At times, Merrill Garbus is Annie Lennox, and at others, she’s Prince. One thing’s for sure though—she’s always entertaining, and her powerhouse voice makes W H O K I L L one of the year’s must-listens. Although she can do ethereal and understated better than most, Garbus is truly in her element when she’s belting, her hurricane of a voice ripping through a uniquely layered soundscape of ukulele, bass, saxophone and percussion. On “Killa,” she proudly declares, “I’m a new kind of woman, I’m a new kind of woman, I’m a don’t-take-shit-from-you kind of woman.” It’s nearly impossible to listen to a tUnE-yArDs track and not feel empowered.—Bonnie Stiernberg

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3. My Morning Jacket – Circuital
Five years removed from their best album and three years since their worst, My Morning Jacket stood at a particular crossroads during the making of their latest record. Circuital is a return to form, and several tracks—including “Circuital” with its slow-building dynamic declaration and the ominous “Holdin’ On To Black Metal”—almost instantaneously can be placed among the band’s best songs. It’s an album partially infused with their classic warmth and partially dashed with intriguing progressions into unchartered territory. In doing so, the band has recreated the reverb-drenched twang of their earlier years, while successfully experimenting with some darker endeavors.—Max Blau

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2. Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues
After their eponymous debut album earned a well-deserved standing ovation from critics, Fleet Foxes set the bar high for their sophomore album. The alt-folk band was up to the challenge. Helplessness Blues is sweet and comforting at its worst and inspiring at its best. The foundations of many tracks are similar—the band frequently returns to the strumming, “ohhs” and “ahhs” that define opener “Montezuma”—but Fleet Foxes know how to layer sounds to add depth and make each song distinctive. The album is often about love — and the emptiness that often accompanies its euphoria.—Ani Vrabel

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1. Bon Iver – Bon Iver
Not since a creek drank a cradle in 2002 had anyone so quietly overtaken the indie-music community as Justin Vernon did in 2008 with Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago. That post-break-up album was drenched in the kind of sadness that feels a lot like joy. Rather than wallowing in loss, the music was a hopeful contrast to lyrics like “Saw death on a sunny snow.” It was less like the end of a relationship and more like the promise of a new beginning. But it was only a beginning. Recorded in famous isolation, For Emma needed a band to reproduce it live. The Blood Bank EP followed, as did an open-ended hiatus which saw the bearded folkie make it harder to describe him that way, collaborating with Kanye West on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Gayngs on “The Gaudy Side of Town.” Interim songs like “Blood Bank” and “Brackett, WI” off the Dark Was the Night charity compilation were as good as anything on For Emma, but less sparse. When he finally announced a Bon Iver follow-up in March, few people expected a song set as hauntingly barren as the debut. And it’s certainly not. Bon Iver starts off quietly with a lovely little guitar riff on “Perth,” but a keyboard wash and military drums kick in before we hear Vernon’s falsetto. Three-quarters of the way through, the song has swelled to its peak, something he and his bandmates Michael Noyce, Sean Carey and Matthew McCaughan became masters of while touring behind the debut. By track two, the band is highlighting Colin Stetson’s guest saxophone (magnificent later on “Michicant”) and Greg Leisz’ pedal steel, along with Vernon’s vocal range—he begins with a deep baritone before breaking into falsetto and then using his high natural register. And that’s what makes Bon Iver one of the most satisfying responses to a hyped debut. It retains the beautiful melancholy of For Emma, but in nearly every way, it’s just more. More layered, more diverse, more interesting. He brings in collaborators to do what they do best, but never at the expense of his sound and vision. It treads into new sonic directions without getting lost. “Hinnom, TX” gets most adventurous, with Deep-Voiced Vernon dueting with Falsetto Vernon in front of some slow, echo-y U2 guitars. But there are elements on nearly every song that erase the memory of “that folk guy with a guitar singing introspective, personal songs.” For Emma could be oblique at times, but the lyrics on Bon Iver often border on non-sensical. A majority of song titles reference places, but most meaning for the listener will come through the cathartic choruses.” “Still alive who love you.” “Never gonna break.” “I could see for miles, miles, miles.” And this one from “Calgary”: “So it?s storming on the lake, little waves our bodies break / There’s a fire going out, but there’s really nothing to the south / Swollen orange and light let through, your one piece swimmer stuck to you.” These all come as the music builds and emotions rise, and they’re the moments on the album which linger throughout the day.—Josh Jackson

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