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The 2011 Artists of the Year

This year's top artists are a diverse lot represented by two of the world's biggest pop divas, a plethora of critically adored indie faves, some new talents emerging from the hip-hop underground, a couple of veteran Americana acts, and a few alt-rock legends among many more.

Artist: M83

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From the pulsating synth stabs of album opener "Intro" to the fading ambient tones and wandering piano lines of the closing "Outro", M83's Hurry Up, We're Dreaming is an album tinged throughout with urgency and grandeur. It is Anthony Gonzalez's magnum opus, an expansive double album in the age of digital downloads, and every single moment of its 74-minute running length feels absolutely vital. Even the one where the little girl tells a blissed out story about turning into a magic frog. There are many highlights here: the impassioned vocal interplay with guest Nika Danilova of Zola Jesus on "Intro", the incessantly catchy refrain of the single "Midnight City" and the rising, swelling build of "Steve McQueen", to name a few. But what sets Gonzalez apart from many of his contemporaries is his unwavering commitment to the aesthetic relevance of the album as art, and on Hurry Up We're Dreaming, he solidifies his position as one of the contemporary masters of the form. Robert Alford

Artist: Gillian Welch

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Gillian Welch

In Richard Elliot's review of Gillian Welch's 2011 release The Harrow & The Harvest for PopMatters, he notes that the Americana that Welch does so well "embraces darkness alongside light, pain alongside joy, the briar as one with the rose, clear-eyed truth and hazy obfuscation". All of these are true of Welch and her music, but perhaps one word distills all of those into an even truer fact of Welch: she is authentic. Welch inhabits her music with an authenticity that at once pays tribute to the artists who helped shape Americana into the music as it is now and distinguishes herself as a wholly outstanding songwriter.

Eight long years had passed since Welch (along with her longtime collaborator David Rawlings) had released a studio recording; yet, with The Harrow & The Harvest, it's almost as if she never left. The album resonates in such a fashion that the feelings of longing seem as if they were never there. Welch's presence is entrancing to the point that one just gets engrossed in the music and forgets everything else. In a time where culture always seems to be looking for the next best thing or the next biggest craze, it's deeply refreshing to know that there are artists out there like Welch and Rawlings, who in their music don't cling on to the past out of fear for the future, but instead remind us all that the past never leaves us. The past is present in every note played of every instrument, for music does not exist in a vacuum. The rich musical heritage and unique contemporary artistry found on The Harrow & The Harvest is a thing that few can do well, but Welch and Rawlings seem to do it near effortlessly. Brice Ezell

Artist: Fleet Foxes

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Fleet Foxes

The sophomore album, Helplessness Blues, from this Seattle group is already the subject of a great deal of mythology-making. It took a few years to record, with ideas being scrapped left, right and centre, cost the band $60,000 of their own money due to their insistence on perfectionism, got delayed numerous times as a result of that quest for perfectionism, and even caused a great deal of strain on frontman Robin Pecknold's personal relationships, including one with his girlfriend. However, the end result is one of 2011 most breathtaking and arresting records, one that holds its own with the more upbeat 2008 eponymous album.

Quite simply put, Fleet Foxes have yet to release a bad song, let alone a terrible album (which is easy to say, granted, when you only have two records and an EP), and that categorically puts them on an indie rock pedestal as one of the most admired bands to make it out of 2011 in one piece, despite the tumultuous recording process. Helplessness Blues is simply a genius work of art from a band that is consistently evolving and honing its craft, and that alone makes Fleet Foxes worth celebrating -- if not for the lesser to-be-lauded fact that they are, despite enduring the growing pains of recording a successful follow-up to a successful debut, still among us. With the unveiling of Helplessness Blues, Fleet Foxes, simply, deserve all the credit they can get. And that is credit much deserved. Zachary Houle

Artist: EMA

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I think by now we might have hit post-post-post-postmodernism, so how on earth do we have the breathtaking chutzpah to call anyone the "artist" of the "year", am I right? As we can now register via the endless backtalk of the internet, anyone we pick would be viewed as both too safe and too out there, too reactionary and too radical, summing up a dozen scenes, themes, and trends that have run roughshod over the year and ignoring dozens more. In short, we're very much damned if we do and damned if we don't. But that means, of course, that anyone we pick for Artist of the Year in 2011 had better damn well be a passionate, confident choice. And quite frankly, whatever album winds up being my "favourite album of 2011" (an even more fraught, impossible category), I just can't escape the feeling that Erika M. Anderson put her stamp on the year in the way the other artists and bands I loved didn't, not quite. Past Life Martyred Saints and her other output sears and comforts in equal measures. As I said back in May, she's made the kind of record that 2011 needed and deserved. Whether or not we appreciate it is our problem. Ian Mathers

Artist: Big K.R.I.T.

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Big K.R.I.T.

Big K.R.I.T. is something of an anomaly in hip-hop, a true renaissance man arriving at just the right time. His own music recalls the work of two legendary Southern duos, OutKast and UGK, which is made all the more impressive by the fact he writes the raps and makes the beats for nearly all of it while channeling the spirits of four distinct pioneers. But he's also capable of branching out into nearly any other field, having spent 2011 not only creating PopMatter's Hip-Hop Album of the Year but producing smoker's anthems for Curren$y and Ludacris and Alley Boy's "Rob Me a Nigga", impersonating a president on CunninLynguist's Oneirology and providing features to everyone from up and comers like the west coast's Berner and Yelawolf's cohort Rittz to veterans like Phonte and Pimp C. There were a few harder working artists in 2011, but none made their efforts count more than Big K.R.I.T. David Amidon

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