The 25 Best Albums of 2011

We listened to everything, argued a lot, and came back with these, the albums we just can't live without.

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RELATED: The 50 Best Albums of 2016

RELATED: The Best Albums of 2017

Related: The Best Albums of 2017


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Wiz Khalifa, Rolling Papers

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#25. Wiz Khalifa, Rolling Papers

Label: Rostrum/Atlantic
Released: March 29

Sorry, haters. Contrary to everything you've heard on the Internet, Rolling Papers was actually a very good album. The rap community's reaction to Wiz Khalifa's pop-slanting, Top 40-ready major label debut was volatile, but did you really expect to hear Kush & Orange Juice all over again? As Jay so eloquently put it: "Want my old shit? Buy my old album." If you wanted a more hardcore Wiz, just peep the Cabin Fever mixtape he released the month prior—nine tracks of street-oriented, Lex Luger'd out, rap madness.

On his official album, Wiz might have been overtly chasing mainstream success but that didn't bother us. Whatever he may lack as a rapper (let's face it—Wiz  will probably never make anybody's greatest MCs list) he more than makes up for as a songwriter and melody maker.

"Hopes and Dreams" is as good of a strip club anthem as anything Waka Flocka's ever done. "Fly Solo" was so daring and well-executed it probably could have gotten play on country stations. And if you're truly too hardcore to swing that way (and we know most of you aren't—despite what you say), then "On My Level," "The Race," and "Rooftops" are for you.

Plus, the production on the album is so cohesive that the whole LP can stay on repeat. Rolling Papers was better than folks gave it credit for. We suggest you revisit it without delay.


Panda Bear, Tomboy

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#24. Panda Bear, Tomboy

Label: Paw Tracks
Released: April 12

There were high expectations for Panda Bear going into this album. Noah's first solo effort, Person Pitch, was met with critical acclaim in 2007, and then Animal Collective went and dropped an instant indie classic with Merriweather Post Pavilion in 2009.

For Tomboy, Panda Bear sticks with the psychedelic layers of echoing vocals and floating melodies, but keeps things more concise and slightly less chaotic than previous efforts. The album is a masterfully organized, immersive ocean of sound that's impossible not to get lost in.

Childish Gambino, Camp

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#23. Childish Gambino, Camp

Label: Glassnote
Released: November 15

Don't hold Donald Glover's day job against him. It's not like you refuse to listen to Drake just because he used to be on Degrassi and you shouldn't avoid Childish Gambino because his alter-ego is a hilarious standup comedian who stars on NBC's Community . When Gambino raps nobody's smiling.

Sure, he's got some hilarious punchlines, but Camp's overarching theme is telling the truth about race in our allegedly "postracial" era. Few if any rap albums take on the very idea of what it means to be black in America as fearlessly as this one. Gambino's approach is best summarized on the autobiographical opening track "Outside" when he spits, "hood shit and Black shit is super different.” Drawing from his real life and childhood, Gambino's rhymes revolve around questions of identity and whether it's okay to be Black and different. When the end result is music like this, the answer is an overwhelming yes.

Shabazz Palaces, Black Up

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#22. Shabazz Palaces, Black Up

Label: Sub Pop
Released: June 28

When you listen to Black Up for the first time, it's not easy to put your finger on exactly what's going on. The Seattle group led by Ishmael Butler (formerly known as "Butterfly" of Digable Planets) is undeniably hip-hop, but they take things in an artistically experimental direction without ever letting things get overwhelmingly weird or grating.

The result is a sometimes jazzy, sometimes electronic-sounding project that tingles with an energy unlike any other hip-hop album of the year. One of the most refreshing projects of the year, this was a welcome break from the club banger formula that dominated the radio.

Bad Meets Evil, Hell: The Sequel

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#21. Bad Meets Evil, Hell: The Sequel

Label: Shady Records/Interscope
Released: June 14

Em and Royce's renewed their friendship and then reconnected for a lethal lyrical assault over some great production from Em, Mr. Porter, Bangladesh, and others. Creatively, BME found Em and Royce sparring and sharpening their skills like dueling swordsmen, pushing each other lyrically.
Their storied history, shared experiences, and technical proficiency kept the project cohesive. And each rapper's understanding of mood and sequencing—as well as their willingness to reveal a more vulbnerable side—saved the album from becoming just a long collection of elite battle raps.


Washed Out, Within and Without

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#20. Washed Out, Within and Without

Label: Sub Pop/Weird World
Released: July 12

The first time you hit play, the unfocused soundscapes of Atlanta's Ernest Greene can sound a little bit like his moniker: Washed Out. There's nothing flashy about his sound—no bells and whistles that immediately jump out—but once you get used to the deliberate way he crafts songs, the layers of bass and percussion start to work their magic. Within and Without is an unhurried, arresting album that quietly earned its place as one of the records we just couldn't take off of repeat this year.

Common, The Dreamer, The Believer

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#19. Common, The Dreamer, The Believer

Label: Warner Bros./Think Common Music Inc.
Released: December 20

Before dropping his latest album Common had been in author and actor mode for so long that we almost forgot what a dope MC he could be. Good thing the Chicago-getter linked up with his old schoolmate No I.D., the man responsible for Jay-Z's "Death of Autotune" as well as the majority of Common's first three albums. Together they created his strongest release since 2005's Be.

With a super-tight guest list (Nas, John Legend, Maya Angelou, and of course, Pops), Common focused on fundamentals—spitting hot bars over hard beats on tracks like "Raw" and "Ghetto Dreams." We're not sure who Com's getting at on "Sweet" but whoever it is, thanks for getting him so worked up. The Dreamer, The Believer made a believer out of us all over again.


Yelawolf, Radioactive

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#18. Yelawolf, Radioactive

Label: Ghet-O-Vision/DGC/Interscope/Shady Records
Released: November 21

The musical roller-coaster that is Radioactive effectively highlights all of Yelawolf's varied influences and finds the Albama native firmly settling into his own unique groove. Wolf mixes southern hip-hop artists (Mystikal, Killer Mike, Lil Jon), rock-infused beats, gritty lyricism and party records all on one album without stretching himself too thin. By turns personally revealing ("The Last Song"), emotionally vulnerable ("Get Away"), and relentlessly aggressive ("Growin' Up In The Gutter") Wolf always feels completely genuine.


Big Sean, Finally Famous

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#17. Big Sean, Finally Famous

Label: G.O.O.D. Music/Def Jam
Released: June 28

After years of grinding locally in Detroit and playing in the shadow of Kanye's mega-stardom, Big Sean's Finally Famous proved he had the requisite skills and commercial appeal to make good on his tantalizing potential. Being fortunate enough to have his album guided by No I.D.—who just so happens to be in one of the greatest creative spaces of any producer in the past decade—was also a huge advantage.
The pairing allowed Sean to attack the project from multiple angles without sacrificing anything in terms of continuity. The addition of great guest appearances by Chris Brown, Rick Ross, and Kanye West—among others—added extra luster to Sean's already impressive debut.


Pusha T, Fear of God II: Let Us Pray

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#16. Pusha T, Fear of God II: Let Us Pray

Label: G.O.O.D. Music/Decon/Re-Up
Released: November 8

In his second project without the comfort of his brother Malice and Neptunes-helmed production, Pusha continued to build on the momentum of his previous release, the Fear Of God mixtape. Although many of the same songs repeat from the previous project, Push replaced some pesky freestyles with excellent original numbers, reinforcing his stature as a tenacious lyricist. But what's most impressive about the record was its versatility. Despite Pusha's pledge to keep up the "drug dealer dichotomy" of the Clipse, since Malice has found religion, the other Thornton brother rocks out with folks like Tyler, The Creator and French Montana, keeping it fresh like only Ziplock P can.


Bon Iver, Bon Iver

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#15. Bon Iver, Bon Iver

Label: Jagjaguwar (US)/4AD (Europe)
Released: June 21

Following up an album as unique as For Emma, Forever Ago seemed almost impossible. It was loved almost as much for the story behind it as for the music it contained.

Since that 2007 release, Bon Iver's Justin Vernon has skyrocketed to new levels of fame. The guy went from recording in a Wisconsin cabin to studio sessions with Kanye West and sold-out shows across the country.

Replicating the original sound would have felt forced and insincere, so the sophomore album expands into new territory. The music is still soft and intimate for the most part, but this album sounds larger than anything from the debut. It's smoother, cleaner, more ambitious, and while it may not be better, it's still one of the best albums of the year.

Das Racist, Relax

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#14. Das Racist, Relax

Label: Greedhead
Released: September 13

Initially written off as "joke rap" hipsters by paranoid hip-hop gatekeepers, Das Racist transcended all pejorative pigeonholes with their official debut Relax. It's hard not to embrace an album that's so assured in its dizzying mix of high- and lowbrow fuckery—where else can you hear references to Lockheed Martin alongside giddy "Booty In the Air" anthems? This is underground hip-hop for 2011, free of the pretentions that made so-called "backpack rap" so obtuse and inaccessible.

Heems and Kool A.D. know how to have fun like few others in the game today, nonchalantly spitballing an endless supply of inventive non sequiturs—and sparing nobody, including themselves. But cut through all the insanity, and at their core you'll find some serious lyricists who revere forefathers like Kool G Rap and El-P. It's amazing what you can get away with when you're fucking great at rappingggggggg.

Maybach Music Group, Self Made Vol. 1

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#13. Maybach Music Group, Self Made Vol. 1

Label: Maybach Music Group/Warner Bros.
Released: May 23

Posse albums are some of the most challenging records to get right in hip-hop because it's so tough to spread the love. But Self Made Vol. 1 was a perfect example of disparate styles coming together to create a recognizable MMG sound. The record effectively showcased the individual strengths of Pill, Wale, and Meek Mill while proving that not only is Rick Ross one of the best rappers in the game, but maybe one of the best A&R's as well.


The Roots, Undun

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#12. The Roots, Undun

Label: Def Jam
Released: December 6

Undun is both The Roots' grimiest and most artistically ambitious album ever, combining symphonic sweep and streetside bluntness in equal measure. Black Thought's mighty MC skills are supplemented by first-rate bars from Big K.R.I.T., P.O.R.N., Dice Raw, Truck North, and Phonte—all musing on the unfortunate life and untimely death of a semi-fictional young man named Redford Stephens.

Whether or not listeners take the time to piece together the reverse narrative arc decipher all the inter-relationships among these tracks, songs like "Lighthouse," "Sleep," and "Make My" stand on their own as compelling meditations on one of hip-hop's eternal themes—the existential dilemmas confronting young men growing up in any hood near you.

Moreover, Questlove & co. have never sounded more in control, never letting the album's big aspirations overwhelm the boom bap. The inclusion of no fewer than four wistful codas for string and piano may be a tad bit indulgent, but that's how geniuses gets down.

Wu Lyf, Go Tell Fire to the Mountain

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#11. Wu Lyf, Go Tell Fire to the Mountain

Label: LYF
Released: June 13

Like a well-timed sucker punch, Go Tell Fire To The Mountain hit hard and caught us totally by surprise. WU LYF's debut is a visceral symphony of lo-fi guitars and brazen, infectious hooks. The whole thing was messy, disorienting, and raucous, but above all it was fun.

During a time when so much rock is watered down with over-production and digital tweaking, this was an album that had fans yelling along and busting out the old air guitar that had been gathering dust in the corner for way too long. The English band describes their music as "heavy pop," but at its core, this was truly a rock album, and an excellent one at that.

J. Cole, Cole World: The Sideline Story

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#10. J. Cole, Cole World: The Sideline Story

Label: Roc Nation/Columbia
Released: September 27

With a co-sign from Jay-Z on one hand and a loyal fanbase on the other, J. Cole was under tremendous pressure to deliver a strong debut album that would please everybody. We all knew Jermaine was a nimble storyteller, capable of weaving complicated rhyme-patterns and unafraid of being both vulnerable and metaphorical. Still we couldn't help but wonder if he could keep it all up throughout a full-length album without dumbing shit down. But that was before we heard Cole World for ourselves. Every broad-based record like "Workout" was balanced by a "Sideline Story," a "Lost Ones," or a "Breakdown."

The album included records that his fans had heard years ago ("Lights Please") as well as sequels to mixtape cuts ("Dollar and A Dream Pt. III") that highlighted his evolution as a lyricist. Through it all Cole pulled off the neat trick of satisfying his core fans while also silencing the critics who questioned his commercial appeal.


A$AP Rocky, Live.Love.A$AP

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#9. A$AP Rocky, Live.Love.A$AP

Label: Sony/RCA/Polo Grounds
Released: October 31

Too much of the discussion around A$AP Rocky revolves around his much ballyhooed $3 million record deal (most people fail to mention he actually got two deals, $1.7 million for himself and another $1.3 million for his crew) when the discussion should really be about his music. From the moment A$AP Rocky's "Purple Swag" video dropped, we just had to know more about him. What that song, along with his even more excellent "Pe$o," suggested was that the Harlem rookie jumped into the game as a fully formed artist with a defined sound and unique aesthetic. When his mixtape finally dropped this Halloween, our greatest hopes were proved right.

Rocky may draw inspiration from Houston and borrow flows from Bone Thugs and UGK but that doesn't make him any less of his own artist. Most of the acts he samples are more or less irrelevant in the scene today, and few active rappers actually sound like him. Despite his laid-back persona, he's electric and precise on the microphone. And the beats on the mixtape, mostly courtesy of Clams Casino and ASAP Ty Beats, bang so hard they bring Houston to Harlem. As Rocky says on "Purple Swag," "I'm Texas trill, Texas trill, but in NY we spit it slow."


Cults, Cults

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#8. Cults, Cults

Label: In The Name Of/Columbia
Released: June 7

2011 brought in swarms of indie acts taking us back with retro rock sounds, but Cults' self-titled debut album topped them all. When the New York duo popped up with “Go Outside,” it seemed entirely possible that they'd end up as just another buzz act that comes along, drops one insanely catchy song, and fades away into obscurity. But now it's clear: that's not going to happen. With only 11 songs, their first proper album is a minimal masterpiece, but there's not a track on here that isn't a gem.

Kendrick Lamar, Section.80

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#7. Kendrick Lamar, Section.80

Label: Top Dawg Entertainment
Released: July 2

"People say I speak for generation Y," explains 24-year-old Kendrick Lamar on his crucial album Section.80. "Why lie? I do." That might sound like a bold claim but after listening to the Compton rapper's latest independent release, we've got to agree. Touching on everything from "A.D.H.D.," drug addiction and sexual abuse to fake industry types and crabby-ass haters, the artist formerly known as K. Dot doesn't just rhyme from the perspective of today's youth, he speaks their truth.

Not only is Kendrick a first-class rapper, his microphone proficiency is powered by excellent in-house production courtesy of Top Dawg Entertainment brethren Sounwave and THC. This album provides a perfect alternative for rap fans seeking that chilled-out Drake vibe without all the crooning.


Danny Brown, XXX

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#6. Danny Brown, XXX

Label: Fool's Gold
Released: August 15

This veteran of Detroit's rap underground first caught our attention last year with his gritty, super-lyrical debut The Hybrid, but we had no idea how hard he would be coming this year. His Fool's Gold mixtape XXX is the best thing since actual pornography, bursting with raw, drug-fueled intensity and a fully-formed sense of self that can only come from a 30-year-old rapper who's found his voice after years of struggle.

For some reason DB has gotten more attention for his off-kilter fashion sense—skinny jeans and lopsided perm—than for his hardcore quotables. ("Still fucking with them freak hoes/Stank pussy smelling like Cooler Ranch Doritos.") But any '90s hip-hop fan who rocked with icons like Kool Keith or Son Doobie has to give it up to Danny for bringing their long-dormant style of perverted poetry to a new generation. At least he's not wearing an Elvis wig and a pink speedo.

Toro Y Moi, Underneath The Pine

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#5. Toro Y Moi, Underneath The Pine

Label: Carpark Records
Released: February 22

With Underneath The Pine, South Carolina producer Chaz Bundick managed to defy the stigma of being a bedroom pop producer, and elude the limitations of the annoying genre label du jour, "chillwave." One listen to the album's lo-fi charms makes it clear why: The project relies less on technical trickery than on live instrumentation, funk and soul.

This all-important distinction gives the music muscle, making these songs feel more complete than anything the eclectic Toro y Moi has ever done before. This album remains one of our favorites for any occasion, from late-night partying to Sunday morning breakfast.

Frank Ocean, nostalgia/ULTRA

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#4. Frank Ocean, nostalgia/ULTRA

Label: N/A
Released: February 18

When the relatively unknown New Orleans-born singer Frank Ocean dropped nostalgia, ULTRA he wowed us with his voice, his creativity, and his songwriting ability. Emotionally and sonically fearless, the album dives headfirst into the highs and lows faced by a young man confronting heartbreak ("Lovecrimes"), sadness ("There Will Be Tears"), and even thoughts of suicide ("Swim Good").

It's easy to imagine Frank Ocean dressed like he's ready for a funeral, rolling around in his Lincoln Town Car, bumping some good beats on his 808s CD like he says on "Swim Good." Maybe because the Odd Future–affiliated crooner allows the listener to see the world through his eyes no circumstance feels too extreme, and we can connect to universality of his extreme emotions.


Drake, Take Care

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#3. Drake, Take Care

Label: Young Money/Cash Money
Released: November 15

It feels like everything that can be said about Take Care has been said already—and that fact alone should let you know that Drake made one of the most important albums of 2011. Even before the night it leaked it was impossible to ignore the impact of Drizzy's sophomore release, and we've been immersed in the moment ever since. From social networks to passing automobiles, the album's 18 songs have been quite literally inescapable. Not that the most popular music is always the best music, but in this case, those millions of Drake fans can't be wrong.

Shifting between styles with total confidence, Drake puts on a clinic fueled by beats courtesy of producer / engineer Noah "40" Shebib. "Under Ground Kings," "The Ride," and "HYFR" find rappity-rap Drake at his finest, and even his softer tracks are difficult to dismiss when they sound like "Cameras" and "The Real Her." 50-plus-bar blackouts like "Lord Knows" are great, but so are R&B moments like "Crew Love," grounded as they are in a thoroughly modern hip-hop sensibility. And then there's "Marvins Room," a psychological mood piece that rewrites much of the rap rulebook.

Beyond form and function, Drake captures the zeitgeist of the times with songs about the pitfalls of drunk texting that strike chords in the same way Q-Tip's Skytel pager narratives did for an earlier generation. Relevant, honest, and painstakingly crafted, TC cannot be dismissed except on the grounds of deeply rooted personal preferences. To call it anything less than a triumph is straight hatin'.


Jay-Z & Kanye West, Watch The Throne

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#2. Jay-Z & Kanye West, Watch The Throne

Label: Roc-A-Fella/Roc Nation/Def Jam
Released: August 8

Talk about great expectations. When two titans of the rap game team up, the result could have easily become one of most overhyped releases in history. Instead Yeezy and Hov rose to the occasion with a record that was not just grandiose but also stacked up well with their best work ever track for track.

On "Otis," they brought that classic Ye and Jay, rocking out out over a soul sample. On "Murder To Excellence" they made one of the most accomplished black power anthems in years. And "Niggas In Paris" was quite simply the most undeniable album of the year (even if they did insist on performing it 9 or 10 times a night!)

Musically and sonically, Kanye ran point, putting his touch every little thing after picking up some dope beats from legends like Pete Rock and RZA as well as newcomers like Lex Luger and Hit-Boy. Meanwhile, a reinvigorated Jigga spit some of his most potent bars in years on cuts like "No Church In The Wild," "Welcome To The Jungle," and "Why I Love You." The resulting album was not just an exercise in opulence and decadence—it was also a celebration of black excellence.


The Weeknd, House of Balloons

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#1. The Weeknd, House of Balloons

Label: XO
Released: March 21

Back in late June, when we counted down our 25 Best Albums of 2011 (So Far), The Weeknd's House of Balloons topped the list. That's an accomplishment to be sure, but we all know how the strongest releases are usually slated for later in the year. And let's be honest, by the time December rolls around it can be easy to forget how good something sounded eight months ago. Take both of those facts into consideration as you try to grasp just how good HOB must be to top our year-end list.

Much as Frank Ocean did with nostalgia/ULTRA, The Weeknd came out of nowhere with a free mixtape that changed the face of R&B. A good portion The Weeknd's success is due to Doc McKinney and Illangelo's gritty production (the guidance of Noah "40" Shebib and Drake likely played a part too). But the lion's share of credit belongs to 21-year-old Abel Tesfaye himself, who sings so hauntingly about sex and lust and the "Wicked Games" that boys and girls play that we can't get over the feeling. Play this during your next coke binge, play it for your girl, but whatever you do, just make sure to play this at night.


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