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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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