2011 Shaped The Future of Popular Music

Revisiting 12 seminal albums from 2011 that inspired future generations of creatives and shaped the sound of music in the decade that followed.

P&P Original



Ah, 2011. A full decade ago. Gas was $3.52 on average, a stamp was only 44 cents (according to this promising factsheet, which I wouldn’t dare to question) and those Charlie Sheen autotune remixes that you’ve since pushed to the deepest depths of your brain were all the buzz.

And like pretty much any other year, 2011’s music was absolutely spectacular. Kanye and Jay taught us—scratch that, ingrained in us—what a proper collab album is capable of on both a commercial and critical level. People are still talking about it. Drake being sad let the rest of us be sad, and there’s nothing sad about that. Hell, even a couple of mystery men changed their names, released music the way they saw fit and had us wondering if they were a band or some guy from Toronto, or made our parents question if they were of any relation to Billy Ocean. No dad, please stop asking me.

Even those projects that left critics unimpressed made an impact on the future of music by opening doors for independent artists to consider topping the Billboard 200, or proving you could build a fanbase on the internet. What connects all these records—beside the fact that they were all released in the same year, of course—is the impact they had on the artists that released them and future generations of creators and fans.

In celebration of this music that turns 10 years old this year, we took a trip down memory lane with contributions from some of our favorite artists. These 12 albums are by no means the best that were released in 2011, but together they paint a picture of the decade to come.

Adele - '21'


Release date: January 24 (Europe) / Feburary 22 (USA)

Grammys are one thing and Brit awards are pretty cool, too. But it takes someone with a dangerous hold on the future of music to take home five Guinness World Records for one album.

Adele’s record-breaking, record-inventing, and record-setting 21 was not only the world’s best-selling album of this century, though, it was a testament to what a magnificent ballad—scratch that, several magnificent ballads—could do on the airwaves. I mean, “Rolling in the Deep?” “Someone Like You?” “Set Fire to the Rain?” (all in Soulja Boy’s Drake?? voice). Your mom knew these songs, your best friend knew these songs, your grandpa knew these songs, even the songs grew minds of their own and knew these songs. Grandiose voices and punchy ballads like “Someone Like You” were never absent from the radio, but Adele’s ascent was refreshing, and while the record is titled after a certain point in her personal life, it’s something we’ll carry through the rest of ours. 

“I remember feeling that she did something very bold and timeless,” says Baby Rose. “In the album, she had gospel, country, and blues all intertwined to make something you could really feel. It inspired me to not follow any current waves, but instead trust my own instincts when it comes to looking for what a song that I’m writing for may need.”

Frank Ocean - 'nostalgia,ULTRA'


Release date: February 16

nostalgia,ULTRA was a journey inside the mind of a visionary who—for too long—had only written in silence. But ghostwriting for Justin Bieber and John Legend was never all that Lonny Breaux was going to amount to. He knew it, his collaborators knew it, and by 2011, LegalZoom knew it, too. 

That was the year Frank changed his name, dropped what many believe to be a masterpiece on Tumblr and pissed off Don Henley–who seemingly didn’t understand how mixtapes and covers worked. The arrival of Frank Ocean was like trying to click the reset button on a Nintendo GameCube; it’s a risk, you might accidentally shut the whole thing down if you forget which button is which. But when you do click it, everything changes. And Frank changed everything in 2011.

The Weeknd - 'House Of Balloons'


Release date: March 21

Before allegedly giving Drake half of Take Care, Toronto’s favorite mystery man had the industry abuzz with speculation. I mean, who was he? Was he a band? Was he legitimately Friday through Sunday? What happened to the last “e”?

Well, whoever he was, he came out of nowhere and did his thing. When the Weeknd dropped House of Balloons, it became clear that he had no intention of conforming, only making dark and gritty R&B that was—for a moment in time—completely sourceless. But that was the fun of it. Of course, it wasn’t long before we saw Abel’s face. But because of “Wicked Games,” “The Party & The After Party,” “High For This,” and that kid who wouldn’t stop blasting all three through his awful iPod touch speaker on my school bus, a new generation of artists became less hesitant about letting the art speak for itself, even if you don’t know who the hell is making it.

Tyler, The Creator - 'Goblin'


Release date: May 10

To the kids tuned in to Odd Future, who were buying Supreme box logo hoodies and demanding that Earl be freed, Tyler, the Creator was anything but a goblin in 2011. He wasn’t all that menacing, although his lyrics hit that stride at time, and honestly the scariest thing about him was how excellent his artistic output already was at just 20 years old. 

Goblin, like most on this list, was an introduction. While it wasn’t Tyler’s first project, it was the first one that was easily accessible to most on the internet thanks to a music video that even Kanye couldn’t fathom. If it wasn’t for Tyler declaring himself a fucking walking paradox (no he’s not), maybe we wouldn’t have Call Me If You Get Lost, maybe we wouldn’t have seen Odd Future spawn some of the game’s best, and maybe a decade of outsiders wouldn’t have their ringleader.

“I first discovered Goblin in the 8th grade,” Jody Fontaine of AG Club remembers. “I think what stood out to me the most upon first listen was how incredibly graphic it was. I was only 13 years old so it was one of the wildest things I’d ever listened to, but I think that’s part of why I loved it so much. Goblin inspired me to let go of fear. The way Tyler talks about believing in yourself and doing your own shit and thinking you’re cool before anyone else does, that really resonated. I think that was the biggest takeaway for me, from the solo Tyler stuff to the Odd Future stuff. People aren’t supposed to understand you all the time.”

Bon Iver - 'Bon Iver'


Release date: June 17

Bon Iver was a map. Not only literally, as each track represented a certain location, but it mapped out where its lead man Justin Vernon could venture musically—everywhere and anywhere.

Kanye likely saw this unpredictability in Vernon when he tapped him for My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy just a year before, and with the added eyes on him, he defied expectations and began a departure from folk into more maximal, accessible landscapes. Thanks to his self-titled record, Bon Iver was catapulted to a wider fanbase, one that craved more of the psychedelics of “Perth,” and one that led him to where he is today as an indie icon. And, even apart from Vernon, it set the tone for a wacky decade, hammering in on the fact that experimentation—even three albums deep—whether it leads to a dramatic failure or a critically well-received offering (in this case the latter), is the most important trait in music.

“This record came out when I was 10 but I must have discovered it when I was 15,” Arlo Parks tells us. “The first song I heard was ‘Holocene’ and I remember feeling transported to a nostalgic, innocent space—the glistening guitar and ethereal vocals made me feel like I was a child lying in the grass. Bon Iver has this wonderful ability to make you feel both 2,000 years old and 2 years old. There’s a wide-eyed, vast quality to the music. It has inspired me to leave space and embrace emotion completely. It’s also taught me to experiment, shift, and never stay still as an artist—to follow my instincts, urges and creative curiosity.”

Kendrick Lamar - 'Section.80'


Release date: July 2

Greatness isn’t always obvious right away. Sometimes it takes people a while to catch on to it, even blatantly ignoring what’s right in front of them. Among the great debuts of 2011, a year which so obviously birthed some of today’s most important tastemakers, Kendrick Lamar’s Section.80 might just be the most important. 

When Tupac Shakur tells you to release an album in a dream, you do it. And that’s what K.Dot did. 2Pac couldn’t have predicted sales though, as the record fell flat at 5,000 in its first week. But what Lamar did with “A.D.H.D.” and the rest of this dense, daring concept album, is create a space for himself to grow and hone what made him unique. Lamar’s first studio album further proved that if you’re making music that matters to you, and sharing stories that feel essential, the rest will come in time. 

“I remember my homie giving me a burnt CD of Section.80 back in high school and I sat in my room and played it from top to bottom on an old karaoke machine,” Atlanta rapper Kenny Mason recalls. “I’d never heard anything like it. I was in 11th grade and it completely changed how I approached music. It made me realize what kind of artist I wanted to be. ‘HiiiPower’ felt like a concept I could form my life around. ‘Keisha’s Song’ opened my eyes to how much someone’s story could change lives. ‘Rigamortis’….bruh. The production and Kendrick’s vocal performance changed everything. I wouldn’t be the artist I am today without this album.”

Kanye West & Jay-Z - 'Watch The Throne'


Release date: August 8

In 2011, Kanye West knew something special was happening in hip-hop and he knew Drake would eventually become the unstoppable force that he is today. “Me and Hov would have never made Watch The Throne if [Drake] wasn’t putting pressure on us like that,” Kanye said on-stage in Toronto in 2013.

But while teaming up with his big brother on an album that reminded Drake and his contemporaries who was still on top sounds like an older-guy-wagging-finger-at-cool-young-person move, there’s only one thing that separates it from older-guy-wagging-finger-at-cool-young-person team-ups before it: It was excellent. From the incredible music videos, to the top tier production, to the legendary tour, which included playing “N****s in Paris” 11 times in Paris, Jay and Kanye executed on all fronts. They were still on top, and WTT debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200.

“This album is so wild. Jay was really skating so crazy on this whole album,” Felix of LA rap duo Paris Texas remembers. “On ‘The Joy,’ Jay Z was in a crazy pocket. And Kanye was just being funny. ‘Otis’ is so fire. In this moment we got the best from both of them and it blended so well on that song. There was also that documentary that’s nowhere to be found anymore, but I remember Kanye bringing Russell Crowe in the studio to hear the line where he’s mentioned. Then Kanye brought up Naomi Russell like wtf? At that time it was so random to bring her up, there were better stars doing work for sure.”

Danny Brown - 'XXX'


Release date: August 15

Danny Brown seemed to fall out of the atmosphere sounding like a cartoon supervillain in 2010, and in 2011, he came prepared to tell his story—remaining gleefully honest in everything he had to share. 

XXX was by no means a debut, but for most it was an introduction to Danny Brown; a long-as-hell multi-dimensional project that is likely still on rotation for musical weirdos far and wide. It took us into what his life was like in Detroit. The drugs, the pain, and the hilarious bars about having blue balls like James Cameron’s newest creation at the time. Brown let himself find humor in the reality of his life, and thanks to him, tough days are a little brighter.

“When I was younger I saw Danny Brown perform before I ever made a dime from music,” JPEGMAFIA tells us. “XXX hasn’t aged as of yet. I can still throw it on causally and bump all the way through. It’s a classic from a time when that word maybe held more weight. I don’t know who wasn’t influenced by this album and it’s a strong case for Danny Brown being one of the greatest of all time. He is the father of so many rapper’s entire style.”

A$AP Rocky - 'Live.Love.A$AP'


Release date: October 31

Live.Love.A$AP marked the birth of the A$AP Mob’s commercial success, the mainstreaming of Clams Casino’s expansive beats, and the promise that a fresh-faced rapper and his friends from New York could infiltrate our listening habits in a post-Dipset world. 

The record got Rocky signed and, among other things, left some critics thinking he said nothing substantial throughout. But they still listened, and that’s what’s made his cadence and charisma so pivotal in hip-hop for the last decade. People tuned in, whether they liked it or not, jammed his alphabet-soup bars on “Peso,” whether they admit to it or not, and helped make Rocky the superstar he is today. From Harlem to the world, Rocky’s reach into music and fashion might have been unimaginable to most, 

Mac Miller - 'Blue Slide Park'


Release date: November 8

If there’s one thing to take away from Mac Miller’s legacy as an MC, it’s that he didn’t always need the critical praise he earned later in his career to make an impact. It was all about creating music that was fun, represented him and his city to the fullest, and proved what he could do without any major-label backing.

His debut album, Blue Slide Park, released via independent label Rostrum Records, was a pretty delightful “fuck you” to the music industry. Critics hated it. Pitchfork gave it a damn 1. But none of that mattered, because its success has since helped teach a generation of newcomers that despite any backhanded comments, labels of “frat rap” or poor reception, anyone can top the charts if they do something new. Mac’s first album managed to become the first independent debut to top the Billboard 200 since 1995, creating a space for those without major-label backing to see a path to the top. And because of that, we can look to the young ones, and greats, who have since done the same, as those who’ve benefited from this trailblazer.

“For me, the project really took hold when I had my brain surgery a few years after its release. The carefree nature of Blue Slide Park was so warm and welcoming, and that’s exactly what I needed when dealing with my reality at the time,” Donna Claire Chesman, author of the forthcoming The Book of Mac: Remembering Mac Miller, tells us. “I know it got critically panned, but it really does follow the Mac Miller ethos of being there for you like the rest of his discography… Blue Slide Park is about not taking life for granted. I listen to the album with regularity, and each time I spin it, I’m in awe of how much life Malcolm was able to pack into the record. I have a lot of very vivid memories associated with Blue Slide Park, but aside from those, there’s just something very sweet about listening back to this one in my current reality and appreciating how far we’ve all come.”

Drake - 'Take Care'


Release date: November 15

After dropping a mixtape that sounded like an album and dropping an album that sounded like a mixtape (or maybe just not as good as we wanted it to), Drake finally blessed us in 2011 with an album that sounded like a modern rap classic. Despite following Kanye’s prophecy to a T and becoming the most successful artist on the planet as time went on, Take Care still holds a place in his discography, for many, as his most cohesive work and stays in rotation for those trusty sad-boi hours a decade later. 

It would be an understatement to say Take Care made emotional raps cool. It would also be an understatement to say I never want to see a “Kanye attitude with Drake feelings” t-shirt ever again. But for those who missed House of Balloons earlier in the year, “Crew Love” was the introduction to The Weeknd. For those who liked shuffling through drunk voicemails and crying on a Friday night, “Marvin’s Room” was on repeat. And for those who lived a single day in 2011 and 2012, “The Motto” was largely inescapable and so were plenty of other terrible screen-printed t-shirts of Drizzy riding on a horse like the Ralph Lauren logo with “YOLO” written in bold font on top of it. For the record, I threw mine out.

With Take Care, Drake embedded himself in pop culture for eternity. That’s why he’s Drake.

Childish Gambino - 'Camp'


Release date: November 15

There’s a lot to still be grateful for in Childish Gambino’s wacky debut album, Camp. The goofy flows, the distinctly 2011 beats (if that’s something you dig), and of course, the line “I seen it all like John Mayer’s penis hole.” There’s only one Pulitzer winner on this list, but this one was robbed if you ask me.

This record is the first time the world heard the duality of Donald Glover. While he himself asks on “Bonfire” why “every Black actor” has to have a rap song, he promises he’s the best. He was funny on stage and he was funny in music, unafraid to be over-the-top in both fields. There were those before him who transitioned into hip-hop without much luck, and while we still can’t get over Big Willie Style, Glover wasn’t afraid to not be clean cut like the Fresh Prince.

In an industry where TikTokers are going full-blown pop star and pop stars want be actors, Gambino was fearless in his versatility a decade ago—even if this album was some shitshow from a critic’s perspective. We didn’t know the full scope at the time, but Camp was setting the stage for one of the most unique and impressive careers in entertainment.

“It’s crazy going back and listening to Camp after years of not listening,” Jelani Aryeh tells us. “I can’t believe how clear you can hear his influences. I didn’t understand how much Kanye inspired ‘Bino at the time. It’s like there are glimpses of each Kanye album in every song on Camp. There’s an innocence and wonder he carries throughout this whole project that I love and appreciate. It seems like in the moment of making this album he was just soaking everything in. All the spotlight, all the love. It’s so different to the nihilism and jadedness of because the internet where ‘Bino is kind of over the material success of his career and searching for the deeper meaning to life.”