1. The Weeknd: House of Balloons
Who is The Weeknd? From what we know, he’s a sultry 21-year-old R&B crooner named Abel Tesfaye from Toronto with a piercing falsetto who released three acclaimed mixtapes for free via his website this year. Rumor has it he also turned down a $7 million recording contract. Despite being unsigned, he’s partnered up with rap superstar Drake, had his music featured on Entourage, and been recruited to remix tracks by music luminaries like Lady Gaga and Florence and the Machine. The first of The Weeknd’s three mixtapes, House of Balloons, is a hedonistic, melancholic rumination on shameful late nights replete with hard drugs and empty sex. “Bring the drugs baby, I can bring my pain,” The Weeknd sings in his beauteous, soaring voice, backed by off-key sonic beats. This album possesses a mastery of mood, transporting you to a cramped, caliginous nightclub full of lost souls, and signaling the arrival of the most exciting R&B voice in ages.
Download the album here: The Weeknd: House of Balloons
2. Drake: Take Care
Whereas fellow Toronto native The Weeknd’s downbeat R&B saga is all open arteries, Drake’s follow-up to his acclaimed debut, Thank Me Later, sees the artist tackle the typical hot-button issues of women, partying, and fame with a clearer conscience and a more mature understanding. Granted, Drake is still prone to dick measuring, as in the bipolar track “Marvin’s Room” (“I’ve had sex four times this week I’ll explain”), but, despite many contradictions, the rapper seems to have settled into a comfort zone. Like Kanye West, Drake confronts his neuroses head-on. Unlike Kanye, he manages to dissect them and, in the process, give his audience a greater sense of who he is and what makes him tick. “I think initially I was turned off by [fame] and reluctant, but now I’m just embracing it,” Drake told The Daily Beast in a profile feature. “I feel like I’ve learned to ignore the negative stuff around me, and I feel like I can truly find myself in this life.”
Purchase the album here: Drake: Take Care
3. Smith Westerns: Dye It Blonde
Whereas the self-titled debut of this Chicago indie-rock band was distorted and raw, for their sophomore effort they decided to enlist indie superproducer Chris Coady (Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Beach House), and the difference is huge. The band sounds more mature, like a fuzzier T. Rex, and the instrumentation here is awe-inspiring. Guitar hooks screech Thin Lizzy–style (“End of the Night”) before soaring into the stratosphere like Lynyrd Skynyrd (“Still New”), and the album is filled with hook-filled single after single of melodious dream pop. Forget Katy Perry—this is the real “teenage dream,” and it’s one that you’ll be bobbing your head along to for quite some time.
Purchase the album here: Smith Westerns: Dye It Blonde
4. WU LYF: Go Tell Fire to the Mountain
Hailing from Manchester, England, the band’s name stands for “World Unite Lucifer Youth Foundation,” and, like The Weeknd, these lads are shrouded in secrecy. They don’t give interviews, have deleted their Wikipedia page several times, and used to perform with bandanas over their mouths. Ellery Roberts’ raw, yell-sing vocals are cast over ADD instrumentals that thrash around like a caged animal, before crescendoing into the heavens. It’s Explosions in the Sky on meth, and one of the most thrillingly alive debut albums released this year.
Purchase the album here: WU LYF: Go Tell Fire to the Mountain
5. PJ Harvey: Let England Shake
Over a decade after her landmark album Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea, 42-year-old singer-songwriter PJ Harvey has crafted another standout record with Let England Shake—a politically themed lyrical poem about the cost of war, and what it means to be human. It’s a disturbing meditation on mankind’s self-destructive ways, made palatable by Harvey’s scathing wit, delicate voice, and the usual litany of instruments backing it, including a lightly strummed acoustic guitar, sax, and autoharp. Harvey’s fiery farewell to arms has won numerous accolades, including the highly coveted 2011 Mercury Prize, honoring the best album of the year produced in the U.K. and Ireland.
Purchase the album here: PJ Harvey: Let England Shake
6. Jay-Z and Kanye West: Watch the Throne
Watch the Throne, the first album from the dynamic duo formed by rap titans Jay-Z and Kanye West, doesn’t eclipse West’s previous effort, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, which was one of last year’s best albums, but nonetheless contains the most swag of any record released this year. By joining forces, the two seem to push each other’s buttons in just the right way. Jay-Z is reinvigorated, witty, and good-humored, while West has reeled in some of his id-gone-haywire shtick. It’s not only the biggest stadium-size spectacle of the year, but also the most downright hilarious one. It comes as no surprise when the catchy stomper “N-ggas in Paris” opens to a line from the Will Ferrell comedy Blades of Glory, and then sees Kanye spew lyrics like, “That shit cray, ain’t it Jay? / What she order, fish filet.” After all, this is the Caddyshack of rap albums.
Purchase the album here: Jay-Z and Kanye West: Watch the Throne
7. Wild Flag: Wild Flag
Consisting of ex-band members from the groups Sleater-Kinney, Helium, and The Minders, this four-piece, all-girl alt-rock outfit sounds like a cross between The Breeders and a punk rock Patti Smith. The album is filled with airtight garage-rock numbers brimming with chaotic, adolescent energy, belying their age. It’s as if the four women in this indie patchwork—Mary Timony, Rebecca Cole, Carrie Brownstein, and Janet Weiss—have crafted a glorious love letter to their record collections during their rebellious teen years. Whether it’s guitar-heavy “Future Crimes” or the "fuck you" punk of “Endless Talk,” it’s clear that these gals are onto something special—that is, the first all-female rock supergroup in history.
Purchase the album here: Wild Flag: Wild Flag
8. The Roots: Undun
The 13th album from the hardest working band in showbiz—which also doubles as the house band on NBC’s Late Night With Jimmy Fallon—is a brilliant concept album that follows the saga of fictional character Redford Stephens, inspired by the kingpin Avon Barksdale from HBO’s The Wire. A young man filled with promise, Stephens is forced to choose between playing it straight or being seduced by the drug game. He eventually falls for the latter. This is The Roots’s best album since 2002’s Phrenology—an ambitious, masterfully executed record that sees the hip-hop/R&B band at the top of its game. “The last time I was really this excited about our career was the Things Fall Apart and Phrenology days—with the critical acclaim and the reaction to the album,” said drummer Questlove in a lengthy profile with The Daily Beast.
Purchase the album here: The Roots: Undun
9. M83: Hurry Up, We're Dreaming
This 22-track, two-disc behemoth from French musician Anthony Gonzalez is a shoegaze epic, and the best electronic album of the year. The band is named after a spiral galaxy, Messier 83, so in fitting fashion, this hefty album weaves a mythical tale of aliens and spirits, all the while draping itself in a sheet of melancholy and youthful nostalgia. It’s celestial, sublime, and the best album of M83’s acclaimed canon. Plus, the single “Midnight City” [below], which was featured in a series of Victoria’s Secret commercials, is one of the most utterly transfixing tunes of the year.
Purchase the album here: M83: Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming
10. Adele: 21
Adele Laurie Blue Adkins—Adele to you—has, on her sophomore album, 21, blossomed into the top female singer on the planet. Coproduced by the legendary Rick Rubin, 21 is inspired by the end of her first serious relationship, which sent the songstress spiraling downward into alcoholism and depression. And it shows. Deftly navigating through various genres, like Motown, country, and R&B, Adele—and her raspy, booming voice—has created both a poignant pop marvel and one of the most sorrowful musical requiems of recent memory. “Rolling in the Deep” will make you feel like you’re in a pew at a Baptist church clapping hysterically, while heartbreaking album closer “Someone Like You” will send you straight to the fridge for a gallon of ice cream. The album is the biggest seller of the year in the U.S., moving a whopping 5.1 million copies—the most in a calendar year since Usher’s 2004 LP Confessions shifted 8 million copies.
Purchase the album here: Adele: 21
11. Britney Spears: Femme Fatale
Now a 30-year-old mother of two, the top-selling female artist of the 2000s has returned with her best—and, yes, sexiest—album since 2001’s Britney. While the years have not been kind to Spears’s vocals, the pop star’s pipes were never really the focal point. This return to form featured some of the most dazzling production of the year, courtesy of a bevy of household names like Dr. Luke, Max Martin, will.i.am, and Fraser T. Smith, and sees the pop superstar not only exhibiting her usual brand of seductive, disco-dance pop, but also dabbling in dubstep, like on the single “Hold It Against Me.” The album is loaded with club-ready singles, and the revved-up “Till the World Ends” is Britney’s most danceable song since “I’m a Slave 4 U.”
Purchase the album here: Britney Spears: Femme Fatale
Bon Iver: Bon Iver
Another standout album from the indie crooner, this time backed by a gang of instrumentals that helps Justin Vernon’s tender ballads soar to even greater heights.
Foster the People: Torches
The album is a mixed bag, but several of the catchy numbers from this Los Angeles–based indie dance outfit will burrow deep into your cranium and squat there for weeks, including “Pumped Up Kicks,” which iTunes named Song of the Year.
Wilco: The Whole Love
The best album from the acclaimed Chicago alt-country band, led by the inimitable Jeff Tweedy, since 2004’s A Ghost Is Born. With their eighth studio album, the fellas show no signs of slowing down, and seem more game than ever.
Grunge rock—by way of London—filled with fuzzy, distorted vocals and rowdy guitar anthems that will transport you back to the halcyon '90s, when flannel was cool, Clinton was in office, and you didn’t have student loans to pay.
James Blake: James Blake
Not to be confused with the American tennis player, this remarkably self-assured debut album from the London crooner deftly combines delicate vocals with pulsing electronic beats. Feist cover “Limit to Your Love” [below] manages to improve on the original, and is one of the best songs of the year.