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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

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.

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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.

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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.

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Will Hermes' Original Review: Paul Simon's 'So Beautiful or So What'
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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."

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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.

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