Critics' Picks: 10 Best Albums of 2011

Chart Article


From weirdo R&B to epic hardcore to a certain heartbroken British singer-songwriter, 2011 offered a diverse array of quality full-lengths that we kept replaying in our offices. The whole team weighed in and the votes have been tallied, so now it's time to check out the Billboard staff's picks for the top 10 albums of 2011, and tell us your personal favorites of the year in the comments section below.

The Best of 2011: Billboard's Year-End Charts & More | Critics' Picks: 20 Best Singles of 2011


'The Big Roar'

The Joy Formidable may have released rollicking tracks like "Austere," "Whirring" and "Cradle" over the past few years, but in 2011, the songs found a proper home on the Welsh indie rockers' aptly-titled debut, "The Big Roar." Dave Grohl, who would later take the band on tour, called "Whirring" the song of the year-- but "The Big Roar" stands on its own, thanks to frontwoman Ritzy Bryan's breathy vocals and the juxtaposition of shoegaze-style guitars with pop harmonies.
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'James Blake'

After generating some buzz through a series of experimental EPs in 2010, British producer James Blake issued a full-length gem that explored the boundaries between dissonant dubstep music and hushed, intensely personal songwriting. Tracks like "The Wilhelm Scream" and "Limit To Your Love" offer woozy electronica, while Blake's soulful vocals add a human touch.
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In 2010, Florence + the Machine's "Dog Days Are Over" lit a spark that quickly spread to wildfire -- momentum that the British chamber-pop group followed up with this fall's "Ceremonials." Frontwoman Florence Welch honed her vision for the sophomore set, walking the fine line between Christian spirituality and otherworldly voodoo. Yet at its core, "Ceremonials" is a relatable album about love, brought to life through tribal drums, harps, piano, choral singsongs, and of course, Ms. Welch's bewitching pipes. Singles "Shake It Out" and "What the Water Gave Me" possess an anthemic quality, but they're far from the only epic moments on the rock-tinged record, which finds Welch channeling avant-pop luminaries like Annie Lennox and Kate Bush.
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'House of Balloons'

The Weeknd, the mysterious alter ego of Abel Tesfaye, came out of nowhere in March with a hypnotic, fully formed sound that surrounds traditional R&B in a drug-fueled haze. His "House of Balloons" mixtape focuses on reckless nights and hedonistic fantasies, but Tesfaye's sterling vocals and pin-point production work were strong enough to net a Drake co-sign and a fitting synch in the final season of "Entourage." But who, exactly, is Tesfaye, who seldom conducts interviews or makes public appearances? Maybe we'll find out in 2012.
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'David Comes To Life'

2008's "The Chemistry of Common Life" established this hardcore punk sextet as critical darlings, but Fucked Up's third full-length -- and it sure is a full length, at 18 songs and 77 minutes -- channeled their fiery guitar blasts and Damian Abraham's tireless snarling into a cohesive story about a factory worker and the death of the woman he loves. "David" is an impressive, carefully constructed journey, and for those who find its length too impenetrable, check out immediately hummable tracks like "Queen of Hearts" and "Turn the Season."
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'Take Care'

If Drake's 2010 debut "Thank Me Later" was the sound of a man decisively snatching fame and whole lot of money from a mountain of hype, his luxurious sophomore album, "Take Care," finds Drake holding his new fortune in his hand, unsure of what to do with it and where to go from here ("She says they miss the old Drake/Girl, don't tempt me," he croons on the first single, "Headlines"). "Take Care" is a long, contemplative album, but its combination of heady street-rap, dimly lit pop and pristine R&B makes the trip into the Toronto rapper's fragile psyche worth every penny.
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'Nostalgia, Ultra.'

A mixtape that plays out like an actual mix tape (the interludes feature the start-stop sounds of now-ancient cassettes), "Nostalgia, Ultra" is a reinterpretation of recognizable hits by Coldplay, MGMT and the Eagles, with a slightly crazy, crazily talented emerging R&B star as our tour host. Ocean's off-kilter self-portraits are sometimes funny ("Songs For Women"), sometimes sad ("There Will Be Tears"), and always masterfully executed, making his self-released first effort the year's most pleasant surprise.
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'Watch The Throne'

The pairing of the biggest rapper alive with the most creative rapper alive could have been a train wreck, but this full-length collaboration between Jay-Z and Kanye West -- in which the pair showcased their insurmountable wealth while at times lamenting the trappings of superstardom -- soared above expectations. "N***as in Paris" was 2011's unstoppable banger, "Otis" returned Mr. Redding to the Hot 100, and "New Day" let our heroes wax poetic about their unborn sons (we and the RZA connect, too).
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Just as summer 2011 was heating up, Wisconsin folk outfit Bon Iver returned with a sophomore album perfect for those chillier autumnal nights. Fans connected with Justin Vernon -- the man, the myth, the legend behind Bon Iver -- in a way even unmatched by "For Emma, Forever Ago," Bon Iver's buzz-fueled debut. On the Grammy-nominated "Bon Iver," Vernon takes us on a slow-and-steady road trip through the heartland, punctuated by bold saxophone, woozy synths and stunning string crescendos. Vernon's falsetto is undoubtedly his greatest gift, but the tale weaved by the non-lyrical parts of "Bon Iver" alone make it one of the year's best.
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Adele killed it in 2011 -- or so think the 13 million people worldwide who bought her sophomore set, "21." With its universal theme of all-consuming heartbreak (and the emotional wound-licking that inevitably must follow said heartbreak), the polished album transcended the pop world and touched just about everyone who gave it a shot. Led by singles "Rolling in the Deep" and "Someone Like You," "21" showcased not only the emotional songwriting of Adele Atkins but also the British songstress' incredible vocal range. Released in February stateside (i.e., the music industry dead zone known as the first quarter), "21" did not fade by mid-year; nay, the album -- and Adele -- only continued to increase in as 2011 moved forward, despite releases from Lady Gaga, Rihanna and other pop divas. Adele remained on top -- both on our charts and well, in our hearts. "21" became one of those very rare moments in the music world where an album is as commercially successful as it is critically praised, not to mention beloved by fans across all demographics. It's no wonder "21" was voted as the best album of 2011 by Billboard editors, and won by a landslide.
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text by Jason Lipshutz and Jillian Mapes

The Best of 2011: Billboard's Year-End Charts & More | Critics' Picks: 20 Best Singles of 2011