Critics’ choices: The best albums of 2011

21; Bon Iver; Watch the Throne; The Whole Love; Let England Shake

1. Adele: 21

“With a touch of sass and lots of grandeur,” Adele’s magical second album “insists on its importance,” said Sean Fennessey in The Village Voice. The young British chanteuse co-wrote 10 of the album’s 11 tracks when she was 21 and nursing wounds from a nasty breakup. What emerged is a “raw, flatly stated document” of heartbreak that deftly toes the line “between melodrama and pathos.” Winning the Grammy for Best New Artist for her 2008 debut afforded Adele the opportunity to fill 21 with “a slick retinue of current Top 40 producers,” but “the vibe is unabashedly analog,” said Leah Greenblatt in Entertainment Weekly. “Strings swell, pianos shiver, and Adele unleashes 21’s most powerful instrument: That Voice.” Her singing nimbly modulates from “a blues-soaked howl” (as on the thundering hit single “Rolling in the Deep”) to a “languid bossa nova lilt” on a cover of the Cure’s “Lovesong.” All the while, Adele’s voice evokes “the full-throated ardor of Etta or Ella” more than it does “any pitch-corrected contemporary.” In this album’s best moments, the music is “that rarest pop commodity: timeless.”

2. Bon Iver: Bon Iver

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This sophomore album from singer-songwriter Bon Iver (aka Justin Vernon) is “intoxicating” in its ambition, said James Reed in The Boston Globe. Whereas 2007’s For Emma, Forever Ago was remarkable for its austerity, this follow-up greatly expands Vernon’s sound. His “signature falsetto croon is intact, but he couches it in a nest of disorienting sounds.” Colors are added by celestial choirs and snippets of marching band drums, while “synthesized piano and silky saxophone” perk up the track “Beth/Rest.” At first, the lyrics can seem “stridently obtuse.” But “their beauty lies in the rhythm of the language,” and in the way the music’s intentions reside “just beyond your grasp.”

3. Jay-Z and Kanye West: Watch the Throne

Most of the songs on this superstar collaboration “deal with wealth, status, and religion,” said Claire Suddath in Time. But the project wasn’t “just an exercise in luxury rap.” Both rappers “explore some pretty dark topics” here—from “the history of urban violence” to the socioeconomic implications of their commercial achievements. Some of hip-hop’s most esteemed producers (RZA and Swizz Beatz, among others) give “the album its booming, complex beats,” and the vocals are bolstered by samples from some of music’s greatest singers, including Otis Redding and Nina Simone. The whole package is a “beautifully decadent” meditation on “what it means to be successful and black in America.”

4. Wilco: The Whole Love

“It’s been a while since the words ‘daring’ and ‘bold’ could describe a Wilco album,” said the A.V. Club, but The Whole Love is just that. Not since its 2002 breakthrough, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, has the band employed such “an expansive exploration of unconventional arrangements, quirky instrumentation, and abrupt rhythmic detours.” But The Whole Love isn’t a “mere play at recapturing past glory.” This is a song cycle that stands on its own, with its own sound and narrative. Navigating through “bleakly afflicted ballads and beautiful, rich atmospherics,” this Chicago group pulls together many competing styles and moods, and does it all “with casual aplomb.”

5. PJ Harvey: Let England Shake

Polly Jean Harvey’s eighth studio album “transforms her and her music in a groundbreaking way,” said Ann Powers in LATimes​.com. Across 20 years, the English songwriter has followed her muse through an array of styles—“blues, post-punk, Gothic rock, Victorian piano ballads.” Here she’s created “serious parodies of anthems and marching songs, rendered in a postmodern style that references old battles like Gallipoli alongside new ones in the Middle East.” She scales back her “usual furious force of sound,” often using just a distorted guitar and an autoharp to explore themes like “love of country” and the price nations pay when they “baptize themselves in blood.”

Sources: American Songwriter,, A.V. Club, Billboard, Chicago Tribune,,, Phoenix New Times, New York,, Paste,, Rolling Stone, Spin, Time, The Washington Post

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