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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


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.

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'


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.

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


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.

Listen: Miranda Lambert's 'Baggage Claim'


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.

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


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.

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