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.
50. Frank Turner – England Keep My Bones
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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