In 2011, it was Adele's world and we were just sobbing in it. At least according to that Saturday Night Live sketch in which "Someone Like You" reduces an entire office to tears, which captured just how much the British soul singer has become a part of America's musical and emotional zeitgeist.
Adele's sales so far outstripped any other artist's that you could be forgiven—almost—for assuming that hers was the only album that mattered this year. But there was plenty of terrific stuff bubbling up in her shadow. So let's go rolling in the deep greatness of what 2011 had to offer with this list of the year's 10 most impressive albums:
PISTOL ANNIES: Hell on Heels
There was no twang-talking, hard-drinking, pill-popping, gold-digging, trailer-rocking album this year quite like the Pistol Annies' debut. Miranda Lambert had a great solo record in 2011, but even that effort wasn't as heavenly as Hell on Hells, her collaborative side project with pals Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley. These firecrackers came bearing a triple load of country attitude, but they weren't too sassy to show their softer side in tender songs about pregnant brides, housewife ennui, and sweet Southern boys.
TOM WAITS: Bad as Me
Waits' most accessible album in 25 years mixed comedy with tragedy… weird neo-rockabilly with Tin Pan Alley traditionalism… and Howlin' Wolf's blues with Screamin' Jay Hawkin's howling. Keith Richards showed up to play guitar on several songs and sing a harmony vocal on "Satisfied," a funny, mortality-themed sequel to the Stones' "Satisfaction." Some of his more winsome and haunting ballads, meanwhile, are begging to be covered by gentler-voiced crooners. An album as good as Bad as Me proves Waits is every bit as much a grizzled national treasure as Dylan.
If you're a little older than Adele's titular age, you may be tempted to chuckle when someone that young sings about how her romantic world has ended—but any such temptation falters in the face of that voice, which makes the sorrow and forgiveness in a song like "Someone Like You" feel something like all-important. Fortunately, all that heartache didn't make Adele totally lose touch with her playful side, as heard in the stomper "Rumour Has It." Is it any wonder we can't wait for 23?
Metals was, in fact, precious, but only in the most positive sense. The singer famous for "1234" counted down to heartache this time, and she produced a breakup album as strong as Adele's, even if Feist came at it with a certain Canadian reserve more likely to produce wistfulness than salt water. There's a fatalistic fair-mindedness when she sings about how "a good man and a good woman bring out the worst in each other" when they "had the same feelings at opposite times." Understated brass, strings, and a church-like echo underscore her beautiful melancholia.
DRAKE: Take Care
Early on, you might get the sinking feeling that this is going to be one of those sophomore albums that is about nothing but how rich and famous a player the artist's first album made him. But it's much more intriguingly neurotic a record than that. Drake manages to come off as an everyman, somehow, even while bragging about how he's already blown $6M. "I guess it really is me, myself, and all my millions," he raps at the end of "Headlines," after his workaholism sends his girl packing. When he drunk-dials an ex in "Marvin's Room" to tell her he's slept with four women in the last week, it's deliberately pathetic. Andre 3000 guest-raps about "sitting here sad as hell/Listening to Adele." Maybe Drake's half-cocky, half-self-loathing album really is the ideal flip side to 21.
THE BLACK KEYS: El Camino
Who could have guessed, when these two Akronites started out as a gritty, stripped-down, indie-rock blues duo, that eventually they'd beef up their sound and energy so much they'd be the T. Rex of 2011? With an assist from brilliant returning producer Danger Mouse, the Black Keys unabashedly laid on pop accoutrements like handclaps and cooing female vocals. You can follow their El Camino right back to the glam-rock era for the year's most shamelessly fun, gong-banging rock & roll.
KELLY CLARKSON: Stronger
Kelly's last couple of albums failed to completely satisfy: One was almost defiantly anti-commercial, and the other seemed designed to get her back on the platinum track as impersonally as possible. But Stronger fires on every cylinder, putting an undeniable hook to every I-will-survive sentiment. Is the album hugely angry, or great fun? Those pretty much amount to the same thing when Clarkson's working with ace pop producers and taking other singers to school with her unassailable wail.
WILCO: The Whole Love
Jeff Tweedy revisits all of Wilco's many contrary sides in an album that almost feels like a best-of. The opening seven-minute freak-out makes you think this is going to be as experimental as Hotel Yankee Foxtrot, but that's a terrific fake-out, as the rest of the album delivers short, hooky rock songs and even a brief reprise of their early country-rock Americana. Then they stretch out again on the 12-minute closer, "One Sunday Morning," not to be sonically adventurous but to fully explore the emotional dynamics of an estranged father/son relationship. These guys already made their Kid A; this year, they made their White Album, too.
JAY-Z AND KANYE WEST: Watch the Throne
Some fans were a little disappointed by this collaboration because it didn't give us the sheer blunt force of either rapper's personality. But for those of us who sometimes have a hard time taking that much narcissism from any one artist for the length of an entire album, this was a strength. They make a great, solipsistic tag team, so that as soon as you tire of Jay-Z's unrelentingly confident strutting, you get to take a break with a minute or two of Kanye's more conflicted style of navel-gazing. Neither guy was bringing half his game here—and West's typically wiggy production involved also bringing Kid Cudi, Seal, an opera singer, Phil Manzanera samples, and the kitchen sink.
MIRANDA LAMBERT: Four the Record
Is it cheating to have Lambert in the top 10 twice (see the Pistol Annies, above)? Isn't there an Academy Awards rule that you can't be nominated twice in the same category? But we can't help it if country music's new queen had a more productive fall than anyone except maybe the Roots (see below). This is a louder, less twangy Record than Hell on Wheels. With the distorted "Fine Tune," for starters, she managed to come up with the year's sexiest rock & roll song. But she didn't only play to her incendiary image: A ballad of marital regret like "Dear Diamond"—a risky thing to write, for a celebrity newlywed—shows just how sensitive a six-shooter she can be.
But wait! Ten is no more enough than eight. So here are yet another 10 keepers from 2011 for your shopping and/or self-realization needs:
THE CIVIL WARS: Barton Hollow
How did the best new artist category at the Grammys overlook the finest example of male/female harmony since early Adam and Eve?
THE ROOTS: Undun
It's one bummer of a concept album, starting with the death of a petty drug dealer and ending with a mournful instrumental version of the Sufjan Stephens song that inspired the character's name. Not for everyone, but it's pretty brave for the Roots to come out with something this defiantly downbeat right when they're becoming America's sweethearts via the Jimmy Fallon Show.
BETTY WRIGHT AND THE ROOTS: Betty Wright: The Movie
If you want the celebrative side of the Roots, go with their stint as a backup band for Wright, a great soul singer who commercially peaked in the early '70s but may really be coming into her own just now, with producer Questlove's help.
GILLIAN WELCH: The Harrow & the Harvest
After an unforgivable eight-year absence from studio recordings, Welch and partner Dave Rawlings returned with one of their best efforts—another lovely, no-frills affair tailor-made for anyone predisposed to acoustic timelessness and a "Dark Turn of Mind."
PAUL SIMON: So Beautiful or So What
Simon has certainly never failed lyrically, but he's sometimes struggled to find his post-Graceland 21st century sound. He found it with this heralded return, which weighs the title alternatives and knows which side to come down on.
FRANK OCEAN: Nostalgia, Ultra
The voice behind everything from Odd Future to much of Watch the Throne emerged with his own heady, idiosyncratic, and gratis "mixtape." If this was Ocean giving his goods away for free, wait till he decides he's made a solo album worth selling.
BRAD PAISLEY: This is Country Music
And country music it certainly was—just about the whole dad-gum gamut of the genre, from rural novelty songs ("Camouflage") to universal novelty songs ("Working on a Tan") to loving, lamenting, lusting, lauding Alabama, and, of course, the obligatory instrumental that includes a Clint Eastwood whistling solo.
VARIOUS ARTISTS: The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams
This was country music, too, in a big way, with artists from Norah Jones to Alan Jackson to executive producer Bob Dylan all finishing scraps of songs left behind by the genre's truest star. The all-star labor of love was particularly appreciated in a year when it became more important than ever to say "Hank Senior."
J.D. SOUTHER: Natural History
The behind-the-scenes SoCal songwriting legend of the '70s—and, occasionally, recording artist in his own right—shored up his legacy this year by re-recording some of the songs that became hits for other acts. His version of "The Best of My Love" beats the Eagles', hands down; even a remake of his own hit "You're Only Lonely" far outstrips the original, since these sentiments bear more weight now than at the tender age when they written.
FOO FIGHTERS: Wasting Light
Do Dave Grohl and company ever get tired of being the only token rock band trotted out on awards shows? (Or of taking crap from Courtney Love?) If so, they're not showing the weariness on an album where they're brash enough to save the best, "Walk," for last.