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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