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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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