Home Music Music Lists

50 Best Albums of 2011

The best albums of the year included Adele turning personal turmoil into a blockbuster for the ages on 21, Jay-Z and Kanye reveling in luxury rap on Watch the Throne and Lady Gaga channeling Springsteen on Born This Way.

Contributors: Stacey Anderson, Jon Dolan, David Fricke, Will Hermes, Monica Herrera, Jody Rosen, Rob Sheffield, Simon Vozick-Levinson

40

Gary Clark Jr., ‘The Bright Lights EP’

This taster for the 27-year-old bluesman's major-label LP, due in 2012, is richer than most full-length records, showing off Clark's gifts for smoldering electric R&B, boogie locomotion and acoustic-Hendrix drama. Eric Clapton and Questlove have become huge fans. Here's why.

Related
Will Hermes' Original Review: Gary Clark Jr's 'The Bright Lights EP'
Video: Gary Clark Jr. Plays New Songs at Rolling Stone Studio

33

Josh T. Pearson, ‘Last of the Country Gentlemen’

Faith, love and loss are as tangled as the singer's country-preacher beard on this stark, confessional masterpiece. Pearson, who once led the Texas trio Lift to Experience, strips his obsessions to their harrowing marrow in the blues and rapture of his magnetic howl and hypnotic picking.

Related
David Fricke's Original Review: Josh T. Pearson's 'Last of the Country Gentlemen'
Listen: Josh T. Pearson's 'Woman, When I've Raised Hell'

32

Big K.R.I.T., ‘Return of 4eva’

This Mississippi producer-MC's songs are tinged with tenderness and humanity – "World's fucked up and they claiming I'm to blame," he rhymes on this mixtape. His soul-steeped beats and warm-molasses flow could turn closing time at the strip club into a hugfest. "I don't rap, I spit hymns," he boasts – and backs it up.

Related
Big K.R.I.T. Continues to the Dirty South Legacy

31

Miranda Lambert, ‘Four the Record’

"It takes all kinds of kinds," Lambert sings – and proves it. Four gives us all kinds of Mirandas: from honky-tonk traditionalist ("Same Old You") to sonic experimenter (the hazy, half-drunk daydream "Fine Tune") to loving wife ("Better in the Long Run," with Blake Shelton). Even so, it's her most easeful and assured effort yet.

Related
Listen: Miranda Lambert's 'Baggage Claim'

30

Tom Morello, The Nightwatchman: ‘World Wide Rebel Songs’

Morello balances Woody Guthrie folk-warrior screeds with Rage Against the Machine guitar heroics – praising unions, firing off face-melting solos and duetting soulfully with Ben Harper. It's working-class storytelling and roots-minded songcraft hot-wired by a master mechanic.

Related
Jon Dolan's Original Review: Tom Morello, The Night Watchman's,'World Wide Rebel Songs'
Video Playlist: Tom Morello Rocks Out as The Nightwatchman

27

Florence and the Machine, ‘Ceremonials’

Flo's second LP rivals Adele's 21 for British white girl soulmama massiveness. From "Shake It Out" to the arena-scale Motown of "Lover to Lover," Big Red brings it again and again, choirs and string players backing a voice that soars so high, it makes them seem like ants on the ground below.

Related
Jody Rosen's Original Review: Florence and the Machine's 'Ceremonials'
Video: Florence Welch on Getting Sweaty and Forgetting Her Lyrics

26

St. Vincent, ‘Strange Mercy’

On her third disc as St. Vincent, singer-guitarist Annie Clark keeps the thrilling art punk flowing. Whether she's telling some lucky guy to "come cut me open" over analog-synth seizures or singing a guitar-grinding single mom's lullaby, she turns sexy unburdening and weird-science sonics into something irresistible.

Related
Will Hermes' Original Reviews: St. Vincent's 'Strange Mercy'
St. Vincent Cuts Loose in New York

24

Frank Ocean, ‘Nostalgia, Ultra’

Released via his Tumblr, the debut mixtape from the 24-year-old singer (and Odd Future member) is an avant-R&B killer. Ocean croons over Coldplay's "Strawberry Swing" and the Eagles' "Hotel California," and rolls out dark-textured, smooth-as-hell 3 a.m. jams that are indebted to Radiohead as well as Drake.

Related
Odd Future's Frank Ocean Readies Solo Takeover

22

Drake, ‘Take Care’

"We live in a generation of not being in love," sings Drake. The hip-hop satyr is out to change that, one wrecked hotel-room bed at a time. But Take Care soars because his appetite for pop emotion is even bigger than his booty-craving. Who else could get the xx, Rihanna and a Gil Scott-Heron sample into one massive make-out jam?

Related
Jon Dolan's Original Review: Drake's 'Take Care'
Weed, Top Chefs and Rick Ross: Drake Ranges Wide on New Album

20

Foo Fighters, ‘Wasting Light’

The Foos dive into their punkrock past, recording with Nevermind producer Butch Vig and getting cameos from Krist Novoselic and Hüsker Dü's Bob Mould. The result is their most inspired LP in a decade, mixing scorching riffs with the hard-won wisdom of songs like the Kurt Cobain remembrance "I Should Have Known."

Related
David Fricke's Original Review: Foo Fighters' 'Wasting Light'
Video: Foo Fighters Hang with Rolling Stone at SXSW 2011

18

Feist, ‘Metals’

"Get it right, get it right, get it right," sings Leslie Feist on her fourth album. Romantic strife is the theme, running through the shivery folk rock of "Comfort Me" and a series of tough-minded ballads. Hooks surface in unexpected places, and Feist's supple voice pushes toward gospel – the promise that, someday, she'll get it right.

Related
Jon Dolan's Original Review: Feist's 'Metals'
Four Years After '1234,' Feist Returns with Raw Follow-Up

17

TV on the Radio, ‘Nine Types of Light’

The album Prince might make if he were a Brooklyn resident battling a broken heart. The most approachable set yet by these art-funkers finds sweetness amid emotional wreckage, with Dave Sitek's spangled production wrapping around the soulful vocal team of Kyp Malone and Tunde Adebimpe like Christmas garland.

Related
Jon Dolan's Original Review: TV on the Radio's 'Nine Types of Light'
Video: TV on the Radio Talk About Their Eighties Influences

15

Cage the Elephant, ‘Thank You Happy Birthday’

Cage the Elephant rock out like they're the national champs of college radio circa 1992 and their big mainstream breakthrough is just a nanosecond away – it's retro but undeniably fun, and one of the year's coolest throwback looks. The Kentuckians blast out sugar-punk noise riffs à la the Pixies and Nirvana, and cover them in bright, bracing Sixties garage- rock melodies as they complain about hipsters, school and TV. And they give their Nineties sound a modern digital polish. Singer Matthew Shultz's fake British accent only adds to the transporting sense of rock & roll fantasy.

Related
Jody Rosen's Original Review: Cage the Elephant's 'Thank You Happy Birthday'
Video: Cage the Elephant's Rolling Stone Live Video Playlist

14

Beastie Boys, ‘Hot Sauce Committee Pt. Two’

"We gonna party for the motherfuckin' right to fight," the Beasties declare in "Make Some Noise," throwing old-school boasts over garage-fidelity drums and rude-snort synthesizer. On the eighth studio album of their nearly three-decade-long career – their first with vocals since 2004 – Mike D, Ad Rock and MCA are proudly out of step with today's hip-hop, turning the dial back to the pre-gangsta era. (There's even a track named for Eighties street diva Lisa Lisa.) You hear the years in the raspy lower-register exclamations. But the unison chorales and highspeed exchanges fly by with vintage vigor.

Related
Rob Sheffield's Original Review: The Beastie Boys' 'Hot Sauce Committee Pt. Two'
The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: The Beastie Boys

W H O K I L L Tune-Yards | CD

13

Tune-Yards, ‘Whokill’

The second album from Merrill Garbus is this year's most thrillingly weird record – a joyous, idea-stuffed album built on a stream of horns, loops, ukulele riffs and skeletal dance grooves, and powered by Garbus' bucking bronco of a voice, which can bounce from Odetta-style blues howl to Björk-ian flights of fancy. From the sweetly cooed refrain and waterfall vocalese of "Doorstep" to the churning Afropop groove on the riotous "Bizness," Whokill sharpens the hooks and deepens the soul of Tune-Yards' excellent 2009 debut, making Garbus' strange brew increasingly user-friendly.

Related
Jody Rosen's Original Review: Tune-Yards' 'WhoKill'

12

The Black Keys, ‘El Camino’

Shifting their blues-powered crossover into overdrive, the Keys regrouped with Danger Mouse, who co-wrote and co-produced, to pick up where the three left off on last year's monster "Tighten Up." It's the same tight focus, raw textures and relentless hooks that made Brothers great, but polished brighter and pimped-out finer. "Lonely Boy" rides a T. Rex shuffle, then cues the girl-group backup singers. "Dead and Gone" mates a ginormous Motown beat with silvery percussion and hand claps. It's what you'd expect from a couple of dudes weaned on Southern soul and modern hip-hop beats.

 

Related
Will Hermes' Original Review: The Black Keys' 'El Camino'

11

My Morning Jacket, ‘Circuital’

My Morning Jacket are America's great Southern-visionary rock band. Led by golden-voiced everydude Jim James, they reinvent themselves every time they make a record, and always make it seem like exactly the right move. Circuital is their proggiest set yet, and also their most soulful: There's a riff-spewing psychedelic ode to the pleasures of satanic rock ("Holdin on to Black Metal"); a sweet and tender ballad, possibly about the afterlife ("Wonderful [the Way I Feel]"); and a mess of big-screen jams. Part Isaac Hayes orchestral soul, part Pete Townshend highconcept rock, it's all MMJ.

Related
Jon Dolan's Original Review: My Morning Jacket's 'Circuital'
My Morning Jacket Find Killer New Groove on 'Circuital'

10

Robbie Robertson, ‘How to Become Clairvoyant’

Robertson's fifth solo disc is a seamless marriage of innovation and tradition. There's the Melville-referencing dance rock of "He Don't Live Here No More," the guitar-gods tribute "Axman," featuring Tom Morello, and guests from Eric Clapton to Trent Reznor. Most striking, though, is hearing the gruffvoiced veteran evoke his days in the Band on "When the Night Was Young," over a melody that recalls "The Weight": "Get your heart beating in the right direction," he advises. Clairvoyant insists that you can't know where you're heading until you discover where you've been.

Related
David Fricke's Original Review: Robbie Robertson's 'How to Become Clairvoyant'
Video: Robbie Robertson Talks About the Evolution of His Guitar Style

9

Wild Flag, ‘Wild Flag’

The indie-rock guitar record of the year is by Nineties survivors who were bulldozing basement shows back when today's new bands were still in their Thomas the Tank Engine phase. Wild Flag's debut is a beautifully bare-knuckled set of 21st-century post-punk by Sleater-Kinney's Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss, Helium singer-guitarist Mary Timony and the Minders' Rebecca Cole. The guitars spark, snarl and tangle, while the girl-group la-la-la's cushion tougher sentiments. "Listen to the music, before it passes you by," instructs Timony. No chance of that happening to these guys – they're just revving up.

Related
Rob Sheffield's Original Review: Wild Flag's 'Wild Flag'
Video: Wild Flag on How Rihanna Influenced Their Punk

8

Wilco, ‘The Whole Love’

Wilco's first album on their own label opens with a riot – the krautrock-Stooges bedlam of "Art of Almost" – and ends with the long acoustic hush of "One Sunday Morning." Between those extremes, though, The Whole Love is the band at its original endearing best, effectively combining singer-songwriter Jeff Tweedy's early alternative-country impulses and lust for crunch in 10 pop-single-length tracks. Leading his most stable lineup, Tweedy finally delivered the glow and drive of his polar triumphs – 1996's Being There and 2002's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot – on the same record.

Related
Jon Dolan's Original Review: Wilco's 'The Whole Love'
Wilco's Jeff Tweedy Defends Dad Rock

7

The Decemberists, ‘The King Is Dead’

The Decemberists' first Number One album was their easiest to love at first spin, a smart step back from the ornate-epic reach of 2009's The Hazards of Love. Singer-songwriter Colin Meloy packs his storytelling eccentricities into popsong packages of verse, hook and country-Smiths jangle, arranged with the introspective simplicity of Neil Young's Harvest. It is hard to believe that Meloy was already planning a long sabbatical before this album was made. The earthy texture and economic buoyancy of "Calamity Song" and "Down by the Water" ensure that he – and his band – will be missed.

Related
Will Hermes' Original Review: The Decemberists' 'The King Is Dead'
Photos: The Decemberists Perform in New York City

6

Lady Gaga, ‘Born This Way’

Nobody thought she'd make a nice, quiet little record. But none of Gaga's previous exercises in musical plussizing prepared us for this kind of anything-goes extravagance. Born This Way saw the dance-pop queen embrace homegrown Eighties schlock pop and Springsteenian romanticism. But its spirit is pure Gaga. From the stirring power ballad "Yoü and I" to the freak-flag-waving title track, it is a record with a message ("Rejoice and love yourself today") and a sound commodious enough to take in just about everyone: "gay, straight or bi," "black, white, beige, chola descent," "capital H-I-M" – and Yoü, and I.

Related
Rob Sheffield's Original Review: Lady Gaga's 'Born This Way'
The Ultimate Ranking of Lady Gaga's Catalog

5

Radiohead, ‘The King of Limbs’

The eighth studio album from rock's most ambitious and confounding band has a misleading restraint: lush electronics, thickets of digitally tweaked percussion and cryptic lyrics, sung in a prayerlike daze. At 38 minutes, it sounds unfinished and quietly perverse, even more anti-rock than Kid A – at first. Repeated immersion, though, reveals a seductive concision and insistent undertow: the space-alien-Beach Boys effect of "Bloom," the dark, muted-treble blues of the guitars in "Little by Little," the nimble charge of "Separator." This was a record that grew all year – in your room, and onstage.

Related
Jon Dolan's Original Review: Radiohead's 'The King of Limbs'
Two Decades of Radiohead: Photos of the Band from 'Pablo Honey' to 'The King of Limbs'

4

Fleet Foxes, ‘Helplessness Blues’

A monument to folkrock beauty, courtesy of six Seattle guys who sound like they grew up on a steady diet of CSNY and the Beach Boys. An intricate quilt of guitars, harmoniums, bells, woodwinds and Tibetan singing bowls that expanded on their debut, Helplessness Blues is capped with signature vocal arrangements that you might call angelic – if they didn't sound so piercingly, poignantly human. At heart, this is a soulful coming-of-age record: Check out the title track, where Robin Pecknold laments growing up while a skyward rush of harmonies makes it clear his sense of wonder is still intact.

Related
David Fricke's Original Review: Fleet Foxes' 'Helplessness Blues'
Fleet Foxes Get Existential on Second Album, 'Helplessness Blues'

3

Paul Simon, ‘So Beautiful or So What’

On his best album in more than 20 years, Simon fuses the worldhugging bounce of Graceland with the conversational elegance and attention to detail that's served him for 50 years. He's the only guy who can sing a line like "The CAT scan's eye sees what the heart's concealing," over Indian percussion, and have it roll out as smooth as doo-wop. Cracking jokes while seeking truth, Simon keeps a light touch as he wrestles with heavy subjects: See "The Afterlife," where a dude encounters bureaucracy at the Pearly Gates and unsuccessfully hits on a fellow dead person.

Related
Will Hermes' Original Review: Paul Simon's 'So Beautiful or So What'
Paul Simon Gets Personal in New Rolling Stone Feature

2

Jay-Z and Kanye West, ‘Watch the Throne’

The most anticipated event-album of 2011 was a sound-the-trumpets supergroup record of a magnitude scarcely seen. What could have been a crash-and-burn anticlimax turned out to be as fun as any record in a dog's age. From the cinematic "No Church in the Wild" to the Stax-soul update "Otis," Throne testifies to Kanye West's genius for beats both iconoclastic and pop-savvy. Amid all the litanies of private jets and gold watches, politics creep in: The pair frame their rise as an African-American Horatio Alger story on the impossibly fierce "Ni**as in Paris."

Related
Jody Rosen's Original Review: Jay-Z & Kanye West's 'Watch the Throne'
Kanye West and Jay-Z's 'Watch the Throne': A Track-by-Track Breakdown

1

Adele, ’21’

"Turn my sorrow into treasured gold," cried Adele Adkins on "Rolling in the Deep." It was a confession and a prophecy. 21 was this year's most stunning pop success, transmuting the young Brit's personal sorrow – the collapse of an 18-month relationship – into a 13-million-selling smash that leapt across borders and oceans and united everyone from teeny-boppers to baby boomers to hip-hop-heads. The sound is state-of-theart retro soul, with touches of Motown, bossa nova and 1970s piano pop. But at its heart was that voice: giant, classic-sounding, promising emotional depth way beyond its years. More than any other album this year, 21 made you feel its pain – from the triple-hankie tear-jerker "Someone Like You" to ripsnorting revenge songs like "Rumour Has It," where Adele rides a roiling groove and flattens everything in her path.

Related
Will Hermes' Original Review: Adele's '21'
Video: Adele on '21': 'The Songs on Here Are the Most Articulate I've Ever Written'

Show Comments