Without a doubt, 2011 was a year of great music. Wrapping up the year is no easy task, especially with so many new emerging artists hitting the indie scene and settled greats releasing records as good or better than their efforts decades prior. Our picks for the Top 20 Albums of the year cover a lot of ground, ranging from Indie Beard Rock to Spaghetti-Western, Rockabilly to Hip-Hop, and everything in between. Check out our Top 20 Albums of 2011 after the jump …
20. Adele – 21
- Release Date: February 22, 2011
- Genre: Soul Revival
- Best Critics Quote: “Overall, “21″ shows that Adele, now 22, is towering in the same landscape where some of her contemporaries, bee-hived or not, have lost all their bearings.” Latimes.blogs.com
- Why We Love It: Arguably the top girl anthem (and guilty pleasure) of the year, “Rolling in the Deep” was as gut-wrenching a love song as any in 2011. This young Brit has made a name for herself amongst a soul-revivalist movement including Amy Winehouse and Duffy but she doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. Her voice is strong and yet so pained, especially on “Someone Like You.” While we don’t recommend playing 21 as a pick-me-up, this record captures the essence of heartbreak, plus she does a Cure cover (“Lovesong”)!
Buy 21 on iTunes for $10.99.
19. Tom Waits – Bad As Me
- Release Date: October 21, 2011
- Albums Sold: Experimental, Rock, Singer-Songwriter
- Best Critics Quote: ‘“Bad as Me” comes at a moment of conflict and change, which is a comfortable setting for Waits and his carnival. The present is a time when individual, personal pain is less interesting than it used to be; big-tent ideas are welcome, and a good sideshow doesn’t hurt.” The New Yorker.
- Why We Love It: Always a fan of the gruff-voiced virtuoso, we welcome any Waits project. For decades the eclectic, eccentric singer-songwriter has given us songs about the dregs, the doldrums, and the circus people among us. Waits’ focus on the sub-culture has given him license to be as purely off-kilter as he’d like. One of the most creative artists of our time, Waits’ latest installment is among the top of his work.
Buy Bad As Me on iTunes for $10.99.
18. DJ Quik – The Book of David
- Release Date: April 19, 2011
- Genre: Hip Hop, Rap
- Best Critics Quote: “His new disc, “The Book of David,” dusts off everything Quik loved back in the day and everything he was good at; it’s aggressively, self-consciously vintage — from its old-school drum machines to its ’80s-style R&B-meets-hip-hop beats.” TheWashingtonPost.com.
- Why We Love It: It’s a party in a record. The dj/producer has made his mark in the hip hop world, consistently bringing jams to get low to and The Book of David follows suit. Though some of the content on this latest DJ Quik iteration is heavy (see “Ghetto Rendezvous”), this was the perfect backyard BBQ summer listen.
Buy The Book of David on iTunes for $9.99.
17. Jay Z & Kanye West – Watch The Throne
- Release Date: August 2, 2011
- Genre: Hip Hop
- Best Critics Quote: “This is “luxury rap” defined, not to mention the best form we’ve seen from Jay since the American Gangster soundtrack. We hold these truths to be, essentially, self-evident: that Kanye West is making some exceptionally ambitious beats these days; that Sean Carter is hip-hop royalty; that both have more money than they could spend in three lifetimes.” Tinymixtapes.com.
- Why We Love It: While we may not think Kanye West is a very nice person, his collaboration with Jay Z on the rap-royalty heavy Watch the Throne helps soften the blow a bit. There’s even some acknowledgment that good music came before Kanye and Jay Z were worth more money than G*d on “Otis,” for which there was also a video that made everybody go nuts, to date reaching nearly 30 million views. “Murder to Excellence” is the album’s highlight and shows that the two hip hop giants can successfully address relevant topics beyond their own greatness. This record makes the top 20 because of its sheer grandiosity. It’s large in every way.
Buy Watch the Throne on iTunes for $11.99 (regular version) or $14.99 (deluxe version).
16. The Belle Brigade – The Belle Brigade
- Release Date: April 21, 2011
- Genre: Folk, Power Pop
- Best Critics Quote: “The Belle Brigade’s music is the sound of a record nerd’s dream come to messy, muscular life.”Latimes.blog.
- Why We Love It: Earlier this year, we reviewed this record and told you that “The brother sister duo have made a solid, happy folk album a la Simon & Garfunkel or Belle & Sebastian, with a sweet idealism that says, through music, these ought to be simpler times.” Achieving heaps of attention for their initial showing, The Belle Brigade makes the top 20 list because, for this writer, there wasn’t any other record like it. There were plenty of throw-back records but Barbara and Ethan Gruska have an incredible ability to sync with each other that make us want to start a family band.
Buy The Belle Brigade on iTunes for $9.99.
15. John Vanderslice – White Wilderness
- Release Date: January 25, 2011
- Genre: Orchestral, Singer-Songwriter
- Best Critics Quote: “Vanderslice is lighting out for the territories and keeping only what he needs of the past as he discovers the new. These songs are downright geographic—you can feel them establishing their own space, naming their own land, planting their flags before they send you off to the next one.” Popmatters.com.
- Why We Love It: The orchestra-backed record recorded in three days with the help of Minna Choi and her Magik Magik Orchestra is as mellow and cool as the day is long. We know John Vanderslice can rule the indie singer-songwriter scene, but White Wilderness shows he can share the stage with other musical greats without being overshadowed. It’s fun to hear the typically gentle singer alongside a full horn section.
Buy White Wilderness on iTunes for $8.99.
14. James Blake – James Blake
- Release Date: February 27, 2011
- Genre: Dubstep, Intelligent Dance Music
- Best Critics Quote: “Composed of tender torch songs, elegiac drifters, and soulful melodies, Blake’s first [record] puts him in the rare company of fellow singers– Thom Yorke, Karin Dreijer, Antony Hegarty, Justin Vernon, Dan Bejar– who’ve recently bent their own lavish voices, not samples, to make interesting pop music shaped with electronics.”Pitchfork.com.
- Why We Love It: One of the most interesting records of the year, James Blake’s self-titled release takes cues from indie darling Bon Iver and adds soul to his brand of intelligent, electronic, dance music. The young brit brings a collegiate, popped-collar wisdom to his slowed down lap-top rock that gives us hope for more great records in the future. “Limit to Your Love” is one the lowest, dirtiest tracks of the year.
Buy James Blake on iTunes for $9.99.
13. Radiohead – The King of Limbs
- Release Date: March 28, 2011
- Genre: Alternative Experimental Rock
- Best Critics Quote: “Percussive, groovy, spacious, ethereal and melodic, this is late night Radiohead, a stoned, somnambulistic wander through the urban wastelands shared by such post-Dubstep adventurers as Burial and James Blake.” Telegraph.co.uk.
- Why We Love It: Not only did Thom Yorke give us a five minute long interpretative dance for “Lotus Flower” but Radiohead gave us The King of Limbs, an experimental (even for Radiohead) and richly textured record that, once again, shows this band isn’t afraid of anything. At the same time, the record isn’t so experimental that only the snootiest of snooty music snobs can get into it. It’s quite melodic in its layered complexity. This band far surpassed indie status ages ago but Radiohead continues to make music that sets them apart from mainstream acts.
Buy King of Limbs on iTunes for $9.99.
12. Denison Witmer – The Ones Who Wait
- Release Date: April 26, 2011
- Genre: Singer-Songwriter, Indie Acoustic
- Best Critics Quote: “The Ones Who Wait, then, is honest and believable. How many times in life are we denied the solution we want, but given just enough strength to keep going? In the end, that’s the sentiment Witmer meditates on, and that makes this album a soul quencher.” Absolutepunk.com.
- Why We Love It: When we reviewed this record last April we said: “Taking cues from singer-songwriter greats like the departed Vic Chestnutt and Elliot Smith, Witmer bears more than skilled lyricism, he pours the pain of a hundred souls into each and every melody, hum, and strum.” The Ones Who Wait was as sincere a showing as any in 2011, making it, for this writer, the most heart-felt, but understated, project of the year.
Buy The Ones Who Wait on iTunes for $9.99.
11. Wanda Jackson – The Party Ain’t Over
- Release Date: January 25, 2011
- Genre: Rockabilly
- Best Critics Quote: “If The Party Ain’t Over proves anything, it’s that Wanda Jackson is flat out refusing to go out quietly. Retirement is for quitters, boys and girls. Rock & roll, on the other hand, is a lifelong commitment – and it’s something that both White and Jackson are very much dedicated to.” Sputnikmusic.com.
- Why We Love It: The Jack White produced project shows that raspy-voiced Rockabilly queen still has some of the tightest chops after more than 50 years in the business. She’s as defiant today, in her seventies, as she was when she sang, “I’ve been to Nagasaki, Hiroshima too / The things I did to them baby, I can do to you!” on her No. 1 hit, “Fujiyama Mama,” in 1959. The Party Aint Over is the most fun you are likely to have with a woman over 70 this year.
Buy The Party Ain’t Over on iTunes for $9.99.
10. Cults – Cults
- Release Date: June 7, 2011
- Genre: Noise Pop
- Best Critics Quote: “The result is an album full of comfortably similar songs, but with an underlying complexity that renders the record an easy one to fall for. Looking to lyrically analyze a falsely cheery album that is full of self doubt and confusion? Look no further.” Prettymuchamazing.com.
- Why We Love It: After “Go Outside” it was like we couldn’t get away from the catchy, sweet dance inspired cuts of Cults, a Manhattan based duo with a youthful innocence that many of the indie-city bands can lack. Thankfully, “Go Outside” isn’t the only thing good about Cults. Their self-title full length is packed with “ABC”-era Jackson Five-like jams that make us giddy.
Buy Cults on iTunes for $7.99.
9. Washed Out – Within and Without
- Release Date: July 12, 2011
- Genre: Chill Wave, Ambient
- Best Critics Quote: “No musician has mastered the slippery genre called “bedroom music” quite as well as Ernest Greene, better known by his stage name Washed Out…. Much as its title suggests, Within and Without is a juxtaposition, matching an assortment of warm, decades-old retrograde styles with the despondent, isolated, and decidedly modern mood of Greene’s alienated narratives.” Slantmagazine.com.
- Why We Love It: This year’s equivalent to The XX, Washed Out’s Within and Without is a sexy, under-the-covers kind of record that just keeps getting deeper and deeper into your bloodstream with each listen. There’s nothing washed out about it. If a record could be clothing, this one would be a silk robe worn by someone like Jonathan Goldsmith. It’s that smooth.
Buy Within and Without on iTunes for $8.99.
8. Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues
- Release Date: May 3, 2011
- Genre: Beard Rock
- Best Critics Quote: “Helplessness Blues‘ analytical and inquisitive nature never tips into self-indulgence. Amidst the chaos, the record showcases the band’s expanded range and successful risk-taking, while retaining what so many people fell in love with about the group in the first place.” Pitchfork.com.
- Why We Love It: Lovers of Neil Young, big sky, and facial hair can hold hands and revel in yet another beautiful delivery from these Seattle hirsutes. The newest release from the sextet is as poetic and mystical as it is full of gospel-like revival songs. Full of empty-church echoes and siren-like calls to the heavens, Helplessness Blues is dense with incredible harmonies for which Fleet Foxes are getting more and more well known and proves that Fleet Foxes are stellar song-writers even during a brutal touring schedule.
Buy Helplessness Blues on iTunes for $9.99.
7. The Dodos – No Color
- Release Date: March 15, 2011
- Genre: Indie / Folk Rock
- Best Critics Quote: “No Color is the noisiest, prettiest album of The Dodos’ career. It’s good and on.” AVclub.com.
- Why We Love It: Much like Los Angeles favorites, Local Natives, The Dodos are serious about their vocal harmonies. On No Color, we are amazed how the two-man team brings such a full sounding record. Known for their ability to fill a massive space with just an acoustic guitar and an almost violent attack of the drums, The Dodos manage a sweet nostalgic sound, building on layers of vocals and instruments that could easily be a ten-piece. No Color is a briskly paced, brilliant indie-folk endeavor.
Buy No Color on iTunes for $9.99.
6. Danger Mouse & Daniel Luppi – Rome
- Release Date: March 13, 2011
- Genre: Western-esque Film Score
- Best Critics Quote: “From start to finish, the album provides a timeless, arduously arranged backdrop to past generations’ visions of panoramic vistas and blood-stained betrayals.” Npr.org.
- Why We Love It: How could we not?! Rome is a spaghetti-Western record by Danger Mouse and Italian composer, Daniele Luppi, featuring Jack White and Norah Jones. It’s like everything Danger Mouse touches turns to gold andRome is no exception. It combines the desert dirt of bygone days with adulation for classic composers like Ennio Morricone. The record is true to itself as a soundtrack for a western shootout film, slow and brooding, threatening death at high noon.
Buy Rome on iTunes for $9.99.
- Release Date: April 12, 2011
- Genre: Art Rock
- Best Critics Quote: “The incessant perfectionism of all five members of this band and its glimmering results vindicates us when we say: Nine Types Of Light is indeed the band’s best work to date.” Antiquiet.com.
- Why We Love It: Simply put, this love-songs record is just so much fun. It’s a dance ready rock retrospective thick with a bonafide lovesickness that really only singers, Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone can master. Nine Types of Light is all sorts of cool with its nod to disco, jazz, and soul, but remains experimental in the way that we expect from TV on the Radio.
Buy Nine Types of Light on iTunes for $9.99.
4. Mogwai – Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will
- Release Date: February 15, 2011
- Genre: (mostly) Instrumental Post-Rock
- Best Critics Quote: “Mogwai has always resisted the conventional verse-chorus-verse trappings, but on “Hardcore,” there seems to be a much greater emphasis on structurally grounding the songs. A trail of bread crumbs keeps the listener from floating into space.” Latimesblogs.com.
- Why We Love It: Mogwai have always been a band that challenges conventional songwriting. On Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will, the math-rock Scots make beautiful, sprawling music, respecting their audience of many years may have grown up a bit since the release of their first record way back in 1997. HWNDBYW is stoner rock with a focus.
Buy Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will on iTunes for $9.99.
3. Fruit Bats – Tripper
- Release Date: August 2, 2011
- Genre: Indie Rock, Singer-Songwriter
- Best Critics Quote: “Fruit Bats’ fifth album feels like a labour of love that was a long time in the making, Johnson carefully establishing all the subtle interweaving of phrases and instrumentation with an academic’s hand. The result is the best album he has yet put his name to.” Thequietus.com.
- Why We Love It: The 70s-influence heavy record is as much an homage as it is a re-invention of the genre. In every track we can hear Eric Johnson’s affinity for detail. He creates a mood with gorgeously crafted lyrics and enveloping sound. Johnson’s fifth release, Tripper, is his best showing yet, ripe with deep and lingering echoes.
Buy Tripper on iTunes for $9.99.
2. Mister Heavenly – Out 0f Love
- Release Date: August 16, 2011
- Genre: Doom-Wop
- Best Critics Quote: “Out of Love is a constant battle between love and hate, carefree pop vocals and guttural cries creating a demure angst guided by a romantic sensibility. Sometimes, you’re not sure what you’re listening to, but it’s strangely addictive.” Undertheradarmag.com.
- Why We Love It: The indie super group made up on members of Man Man, The Unicorns, The Shins, and Modest Mouse are not playing around here. They even invented their own genre of music (hashtag Doom-Wop) that feels as fresh as it does reverent. Skeptics were convinced that the first record from the threesome separated by 3000 miles of America could never be greater than the sum of their parts but Mister Heavenly makes every effort to prove them wrong. At first listen, Out of Love had us hooked.
Buy Out of Love on iTunes for $9.99.
1. Girls – Father, Son, Holy Ghost*
- Release Date: September 13, 2011
- Genre: Indie Pop
- Best Critics Quote: “Perfectly Maybe: Girls write the songs that make the whole world codependent.” Spin.com.
- Why We Love It: These enigmatic San Francisco ingénues don’t do anything half-heartedly. Father, Son, Holy Ghost, the second full length from the curiously named band, is full of passion and sass that is unapologetic in every sense. This is a record that you can both dance and wallow to. It combines sweet syrupy lyrics and a true indie hardcore with brilliant results.
Buy Father, Son, Holy Ghost on iTunes for $9.99.
(*Girls made our list of Top 20 Albums in 2009 with Album, then in the 8th position.)