The Best Albums of 2011: #1 through #10

Another year is almost over and I've been spending many hours putting together this list of the very best albums released in 2011. After much deliberation I've selected what I feel are the top 100. I freely admit that I've probably missed some that deserve to be here. As is true for all people, I have a finite amount of time available. So even with listening to upwards of 400 new albums each year, I simply can't hear them all. So please add your own favorites to the comments if you feel I've overlooked something deserving. All I ask is that you review the whole list first and tell us WHY your favorite album should have made the cut. A comment like, "What! No Lady Gaga!" or "PJ Harvey sucks!" is not an valid argument and will promptly be laughed at and ignored. Additionally, pointing out that you have not heard something automatically disqualifies you from having an opinion about it.

I've included the highest Billboard album chart positions and Metacritic score for each of my selections. Obviously, any list like this is skewed by the author's personal tastes. My hope is that by providing the numbers about how each record charted, and how critically acclaimed each one is, you can get a more rounded view of my picks.

To clarify some of my parameters:

In order to to be considered for my year end list the record had to be a full-length studio album. I did not consider live albums, greatest hits albums, compilation albums, or reissues. Also, the record had to be released in the U.S. sometime in 2011. Some of my picks may have had a limited release on an small label, or may have come out in a different country in late 2010.

So with those parameters in mind, here are my selections for #1 through #10.

#1. Let England Shake by PJ Harvey

Released: February 15, 2011
Label: Vagrant
Metacritic Score: 86
Album Charts: #32 The Billboard 200, #7 Top Independent Albums, #6 Top Modern Rock/Alternative Albums, #6 Top Rock Albums

I tossed and turned about whether to make Let England Shake #1 over Bon Iver's self-titled album this year. Both are fantastic records, but very different. Ultimately, I decided to go with PJ Harvey because Let England Shake is less of a "one trick pony". PJ stretches herself here, which I don't think is true for Bon Iver's effort. Harvey has delivered an album that is both a piece of art forging new ground, and an incredibly entertaining listen. That's something incredibly hard to do, but she's done it in a way that sounds effortless.

#2. Bon Iver by Bon Iver

Released: June 20, 2011
Label: Jagjaguwar
Metacritic Score: 86
Album Charts: #2 The Billboard 200, #6 Top Canadian Albums, #1 Top Digital Albums, #1 Top Independent Albums, #1 Top Modern Rock/Alternative Albums, #1 Top Rock Albums

As I mentioned above, it was hard for me to put this record second because it's such a damn fine and exceptionally beautiful record. And it's not the delicate guitar lines, the highly tasteful supporting instrumentation, or the unique tonal quality of the vocals -- it's all those things put together that create something that moves you. Even when you can't make out the mumbled lyrics it doesn't matter. Bon Iver has a direct connection to whatever it is that makes us feel music. It's hard to explain it, but you know it when you hear it.

#3. Black Up by Shabazz Palaces

Released: June 28, 2011
Label: Sub Pop
Metacritic Score: 82
Charts: #38 R&B Albums, #4 Top Heatseekers, #33 Top Independent Albums, #23 Top Rap Albums

My favorite hip hop album of the year was not the super-duos of Eminem and Royce da 5'9", or Jay-Z and Kanye West. Instead, the best hip hop album of the year comes from a new project by ex-Digable Planets member Ishmael "Butterfly" Butler. Black Up has the distinct honor of being the first hip hop album to be released on the Sub Pop label, and you'll know why once you hear it. Black Up embraces the minimal production that is prevalent today, but the record plays like a science fiction soundtrack -- broken, fuzzy and cold. But Butler's word play keeps the whole thing moving forward and engages the listener without relying on old tricks.

#4.W H O K I L L by tUnE-yArDs

Released: April 19, 2011
Label: 4AD
Metacritic Score: 86
Album Charts: #148 The Billboard 200, #26 Top Independent Albums, #19 Top Modern Rock/Alternative Albums, #36 Top Rock Albums

If I had to pick one album from 2011 that throws out all conventions to create something brand new, and succeed, it would be W H O K I L L by tUnE-yArDs. The unbelievable thing about this record is that if you listen to individual parts they can sound completely insane on their own. An out of tune guitar, dissonant/spiraling horns, two empty halves of coconuts banging together, who the hell knows how this album was created. But the drums, bass and vocals have so much gravity, that no matter what weirdness is thrown into the mix, it works. A highly creative and fun endeavor.

#5. The Harrow & The Harvest by Gillian Welch

Released: June 28, 2011
Label: Acony Records
Metacritic Score: 85
Album Charts: #20 The Billboard 200, #16 Top Digital Albums, #3 Top Independent Albums, #4 Top Rock Albums

I had the pleasure of seeing Gillian Welch and David Rawlings live in concert this year. I was able to get a copy of The Harrow & The Harvest a couple days before the show. What struck me when hearing them perform these songs was how similar it was to the CD. But this isn't because they've learned to reproduce what they did in the studio, but because this is what Gillian and David do. The make gorgeous music together -- every time. You can almost taste wood particles from the acoustic guitar as Gillian's gentle breath blows them your way after David left them swirling in the air with that last mind-blowing run. No two people alive today can create so much beauty with just two guitars and two voices... and maybe a little banjo and knee slapping.

#6. The Whole Love by Wilco

Released: September 27, 2011
Label: dBpm
Metacritic Score: 83
Album Charts: #4 Top R&B albums, #17 The Billboard 200

It's harder for great bands to stay on top today than it ever has been. The Internet has blown the doors wide open, and we all have access to everything, all the time. No longer are the albums we hear controlled by corporations and the airwaves. On one hand, this makes it easier for great musicians to have a "hit" album from out of nowhere, but on the other hand, it's hard to stay in the game once you're in. Wilco is one of the few bands who continue to stay relevant and their new album, The Whole Love, continues to awe old fans while finding new ones.

#7. Burst Apart by The Antlers

Released: July 6, 2010
Label: Def Jam
Metacritic Score: 81
Album Charts: #5 The Billboard 200, #11 Top Canadian Albums, #3 Top Digital Albums, #1 Top Independent Albums, #2 Top Modern Rock/Alternative Albums, #2 Top Rock Albums

I don't buy too many physical CDs anymore. Between the promos I receive and the ability to stream almost any new music released I just don't have the need. But every year there are certain albums that I have to buy on a CD, in a record store. Burst Apart by The Antlers was one of those albums for me this year. In 2009, I placed the band's stunningly emotional record Hospice at #2 in my top 100 list. They didn't make it quite that high this year, but not because Burst Apart is not great, there was too much serious competition.

#8. 21 by Adele

Released: January 24, 2011
Label: XL Recordings
Metacritic Score: 76
Album Charts: #1 The Billboard 200, #1 Top Canadian Albums, #1 Top Digital Albums

I'm not against mainstream artists who sell bazillions of records. I enjoy much of the über-pop that appeals to the mindless masses (Lady Gaga comes to mind), but you won't find many albums with blockbuster sales on my top 100 list. Not because I'm a hater, but because what really appeals to me, and holds the most artistic staying power, never seems to make it in the mainstream. However, Adele's 21 is proof that artists of the moment can make it "big" while keeping their artistic integrity in tact. 21 is a soulful beast of a record that no critic worth his salt can ignore. The best mainstream album of the year.

#9. The English Riviera by Metronomy

Released: April 11, 2011
Label: Because
Metacritic Score: 78
Album Charts: N/A

Every year I hope that I can discover and fall in love with some new artist, or at least an artist new to me. A band with a new album that grabs my attention and makes it into my year end top 10. This year, Metronomy is that band. The English Riviera is a combustible combination of murky electronica and clean, jangly pop. The combination works amazingly well, and I found myself returning back to this unusual record again, and again, and again. And the reason is very simple. It makes me smile.

#10. Bad As Me by Tom Waits

Released: October 25, 2011
Label: Anti
Metacritic Score: 88
Album Charts: #6 The Billboard 200, #6 Top Canadian Albums, #5 Top Digital Albums, #1 Top Independent Albums, #2 Top Rock Albums

Once in a while I meet someone who says they "can't stand Tom Waits". I never respond in defense, or in anger. Instead, the hole in my heart, which aches for those incapable of connecting with great music, grows a little bit larger. I become depressed and dizzy. One day that hole may break through the skin of my chest, and blood may spill out all over the feet of ignorants. That will be my revenge. In the meantime I am putting Bad As Me on repeat. An album that is pure Tom Waits brilliance. And that's good for a top 10 entry in any year.

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More Best Albums of 2011:

#1-#10, #11-#20, #21-#30, #31-#40, #41-#50, #51-#60, #61-#70, #71-#80, #81-#90, #90-#100