The 75 Best Albums of 2011

15. Yuck – Yuck [Fat Possum]

Yuck didn’t do anything revolutionary, innovative, or new with their debut album. Instead, they just did one thing (’90s alternative rock-revival) and did it better than anyone else. Although Dinosaur, Jr. and Pavement influences weave in and out of the band’s debut with an almost reckless abandon, the truth of the matter is that even with these rock giants looming over them, the group is not a bunch of mere imitators: they are synthesizers of the highest order. Although singles like the J. Mascis-indebted “Get Away” and the storming “The Wall” get all the attention, it’s the album’s quieter moments — the gorgeous “Rose Gives a Lily”, the laid-back “Sunday”, the winsome “Shook Down” — that wind up staying with you the most. For more cynical rock enthusiasts, this disc is nothing more than a game of spot-the-influence, but for curious ears and minds, this is a blast of nostalgia so vivid and clear with intent that it sounds fresher than just about any other rock album released this year. — Evan Sawdey

14. James Blake – James Blake [Atlas/ A&M]

London producer and songwriter James Blake has already seen more than his fair share of media hype and ensuing backlash. When the dust settles, his eponymous debut full length should be judged as the work of a gifted young songwriter who draws from a variety of styles and influences to create music that is entirely his own. Blake’s early EPs were heralded as promising and groundbreaking works within the British electronic music scene, and his decision to incorporate soul-inflected vocal stylings and traditional pop song structures throughout James Blake is sure to alienate some fans of his earlier work.

Blake utilizes many of the same production techniques as his more mainstream contemporaries on this album: processed vocals, bass-heavy electronic beats and the kind of ethereal and somber arrangements that are showing up in a range of chilled out acts these days from the xx to the Weeknd. But Blake’s unique talent is found in the subtle touches: the sputtering triplet counter-rhythm of album opener “Unluck”, the folding, almost obsessive repetition of phrases in “I never learned to share”, and “The Wilhelm Scream”, and the shuddering, enveloping bass tones that flow like waterfalls in slow motion throughout his cover of Feist’s “Limit to your Love.”

Not since Radiohead’s Kid A has there been an album that so powerfully synthesizes elements of electronic music with pop songcraft to produce a truly emergent and distinctive world of sound. Blake sets the bar very high here for himself and an entire upcoming generation of independently-minded songwriters. — Robert Alford

13. The Decemberists – The King Is Dead [Capitol]

The King Is Dead was 2011’s first great album, and by serving up enduring hymns for both winter and spring, the Decemberists’ sixth album kept bearing fruit all year. After the relative bloat of 2009’s The Hazards of Love, the ‘Rists turned to stateside roots-music influences with help from folk mama Gillian Welch, who helps smooth out singer Colin Meloy’s earnest bleat, and the guitar jangle of Peter Buck. By soft-pedaling the narratives of forest queens and ornithological wives, Meloy & Co. simplified lyrics and song structures but remained fastidious in musical arrangements, resulting in a gorgeous cross-section of life’s rich pageant, rustic musical idioms, and catchy jubilation. The King Is Dead is a near-perfect set of irresistible Americana and the Decemberists’ most consistently listenable album to date. At ten songs over 40 minutes, there isn’t a wasted second anywhere on the record. — Steve Leftridge

12. Adele – 21 [Columbia]

Add 21 to the list of great breakup records like Blood on the Tracks and Shoot out the Lights. But as gripping as the material is, it’s Adele’s extraordinary voice that carries the day. Smoky, world weary and possessing an uncommon ability to express longing, regret and damnation that belies her young age. A hit song like “Rolling in the Deep” drops every 10 years or so and when it comes on the radio following a torrent of bland and banal hits, time just stops. You stop. You pull to the side of the road so you can really listen. We need Adele like the NBA needed Magic Johnson. Someone who elevates the medium itself. And then there’s the delightful fact that this is not your mother’s pop diva. Here’s a woman who not only lacks the long legs and lithe frame, but she is brazenly comfortable with it. “I don’t make music for eyes. I make music for ears,” she says. It’s hugely significant that Adele’s appeal stretches from middle-aged folks to teenage girls struggling with body issues. If there’s Adele stock, I’m buying in bulk. — Bill See

11. Kurt Vile – Smoke Ring for My Halo [Matador]

On his fourth album, Kurt Vile has stumbled onto a kind of blissed-out perfection. “Stumbled” seems the right word, as a central part of his persona is that of a sleepwalking young rebel. Yet for all the cynical nonchalance about the world that’s expressed in his lyrics, musically he seems right on top of what he’s doing, which is an eccentric version of guitar-led folk-blues troubadour music that carries in it both a stoned romanticism and a steady streak of punk nihilism. As he’s moved from lo-fi DIY recording to something more polished, and to a larger record label, his music has gotten much lovelier sounding, playing up the melodic and dreamy sides. More so than ever, it’s pretty music, while also still humorously bitter and biting. The mix of anger and who-cares, romance and despair, jokes and ideas, rock nonconformity and pop transience, historicism and live-in-the-moment seems somehow just right for 2011. — Dave Heaton

10. Radiohead – The King of Limbs

Some Radiohead fans have expressed disappointment over The King of Limbs, the group’s shortest, most concise album to date. It doesn’t feature the same cerebral guitar muscle that OK Computer had nor does it rewrite the rulebook the way Kid A did. Instead, The King of Limbs is the sound of Radiohead being completely at ease with themselves, having to answer to no one’s expectations but their own. Perhaps that’s why The King of Limbs sounds as fluid as it does: never once does it sound like the band have overlabored themselves. Not during the daring dubstep-influenced opener “Bloom”, not during the funky shadow dance “Lotus Flower”, nor during the closest thing the band will ever get to having a Rocky Raccoon moment with campfire singalong “Give Up the Ghost”. It’s an album of small charms and large rewards. Radiohead doesn’t have to be constantly innovative to make great albums, and here lies the proof. — Evan Sawdey

9. Gillian Welch – The Harrow and the Harvest [Acony]

When the waiting time for Gillian Welch’s fifth album reached the six-year mark, Alan McGee of Creation Records blogged that “the long gestation period signals nothing less than a perfect album”. The Harrow & the Harvest would not appear for another two years, but when it did, everything had fallen into its rightful place. Welch and her partner David Rawlings have honed their strengths yet again to craft discomforting Americana that swears no allegiance to the past, present or future. These songs offer up small town life that never quite escapes its dark grey overcast, complete with dying mules, vanishing cornbread, thorns in the ground, drug needles and a hell of a lot of whiskey. Rawlings’ unobtrusive production job and flawlessly centered vocal harmonies, to say nothing of his lead guitar skills, only make a great product even better. Hopefully we won’t have to wait until 2019 for the next one. — John Garratt

8. PJ Harvey – Let England Shake [Island]

So much (wholly earned) praise has been steeped upon Harvey’s tenth release that there is little left to say. While Let England Shake‘s songs of war raise many important notions, the album’s artistic statement (or Harvey’s gall of releasing a very uncommercial album in a market oversaturated with commercialism, and succeeding) is just as intriguing. When Harvey took home her second Mercury Music Prize (becoming the first artist to ever do so), it was a moment of triumph within an ailing industry. In a time when so much glory is reserved for hottest flavors, Harvey’s victory came as a welcome reminder that art can still prevail over commerce. What’s more, PJ Harvey, with her relentless reinventions, has somehow become the antidote to Lady Gaga: Harvey is an artist first and foremost, so there is no shortage of substance with which to back her odd glamour up. — Maria Schurr

7. St. Vincent – Strange Mercy [4AD]

In June, blog posts announcing Strange Mercy‘s release date commonly featured the video of her performing Big Black’s “Kerosene”. There had always been glimpses of something a bit more manic and menacing behind St. Vincent’s ethereal appearance, but in this clip she was like a woman possessed, evoking fear that she’d rip herself in two with a particularly violent jerk forward. Strange Mercy, which came out a few months afterward, was similarly a violent jerk forward. The album, her first written on guitar instead of composed strictly on a computer, is her most uncomfortable and sinister, while also being her most tuneful and approachable. The album floats effortlessly between styles — a metal falsetto swiftly morphs into a disco one — but the impression is always distinctly St. Vincent. Now three for three with album releases, Strange Mercy represents the moment Annie “St. Vincent” Clark accepted her position as the full-blown star she is. — Jesse Fox

6. The Weeknd – House of Balloons [Independent]

When the Weeknd’s House of Balloons mysteriously dropped earlier this year with just a handful of seedy black and white images and a curiously misspelled artist name to put to the music, enthralled listeners were quick to seek out the source. The ambiguity surrounding the release was punctuated by the music, an isolated, distressing brand of R&B that sounded like an emotionally shattered The-Dream plugged full of cocaine and dipped in ice water. “You don’t know what’s in store / But you know what you’re here for,” howled the acidic vocalist on opener “High For This”, but did we know what we were getting ourselves into? Toronto singer Abel Tesfaye emerged as the man behind the music, but House of Balloons works best as a journey through the most debauched weekend of our faceless host’s life. It’s a nine-track tale of lurid sex, heartbreak and drug indulgence, set in a hauntingly beautiful world built on synthetic drum machines and striking samples. — Dean Van Nguyen