As we reach the inevitable list-making portion of the year, all of the usual concerns arise: how to order? What was the one album of the year that stands head and shoulders above the rest? Will LMFAO come back next year, and if so, is there any way to stop that from happening? But me, I’ve got a special reason to celebrate: this year, my good buddy The Blerd roped me back into doing some more of that writing stuff that I used to be into, and as a result, I find myself happier, more well-informed, and sharper than ever. Big ups to Blerd, and props to the cream of 2011’s crop for turning in some truly stellar work this year.

11. 4, Beyonce
It’s interesting that the best mainstream pop record of the year kind of came suddenly; single “Girls (Run the World)” hit, to a big ole collective “meh”, and an album dropped sometime thereafter, but it lacked the large-scale publicity of Gaga’s (still pretty good) Born This Way and Adele’s titanic 21. But Beyonce, with 4, has proven something substantial: with gorgeously heartfelt, deeply catchy, and musically exciting tracks like “Best Thing I Never Had”, “Countdown”, and “Love on Top”, all other pop princesses are officially just biding time between Beyonce albums. Rihanna, I dig you. Katy Perry, I’m warming up to you. Ke$ha, you’re not half bad suck it. At the end of the day, you’re just princesses under the rule of a true queen. (full review)

10. Helplessness Blues, Fleet Foxes
If every stinky hippie commune was as sweetly harmonic, melodically textured, and aurally inventive as Fleet Foxes’ second album – which somehow manages to eclipse their lovely Ragged Wood, even without a true “White Winter Hymnal” on its side – well, I’d grow my beard down to my sternum and stock up on semi-ironic flannel. As it stands, Helplessness Blues is a record for all seasons, a classy display of interlocking vocals and arrangements that simply won’t quit.

9. What Were You Hoping For?, Van Hunt
Is it possible for an album to be, simultaneously, one of the best r&b, punk-rock, AND indie records of its year? If so, direct me towards as many examples as possible; until then, I’m quite satiated with Van Hunt’s third (released) album, What Were You Hoping For?. After the genre melange that was Van’s stellar 2006 release On the Jungle Floor, it seemed nigh impossible that his thrillingly restless muse could handle any more outward expansion; Hoping For, naturally, goes ahead and fuses Hunt’s smooth r&b tenor with Ramones-y garage-punk, and that’s only on the second track. It’s the captivating sound of an artist operating without genre, on his own terms, and proving adept on all fronts. (full review)

8. Father, Son, Holy Ghost, Girls
If it seems, to the casual indie listener, that their beloved under-the-radar sensibility has been hijacked by shoegaze and dubstep, fret not; Girls operates under that dreaded “indie” moniker, sure, but what these guys have up their collective sleeve is the commodity known as melody, and their style is loads more Costello than Sufjan. Sun-kissed opener “Honey Bunny” sets the stage for the most lovely, lively set of lilting melodies we’re liable to see all year; if your heart hasn’t been broken, patched-up, and just a wee bit titillated by the time “Just a Song” rolls around,  you’re doing it wrong. (full review)

7. Ceremonials, Florence + the Machine
Florence Welch and her forceful, cavern-scaling pipes are front and center in Ceremonials; but then again, that’s kind of the point of Florence + the Machine, so what makes Ceremonials any more essential than Lungs? Short answer: everything else. A triumph of mood, defiance, and utter wonder, Ceremonials leaves the listener breathless. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to continue waiting for “All This and Heaven Too” to become the new “Dog Days Are Over”. (full review)

6. Charity Starts At Home, Phonte
It’s hard to explain how an album virtually devoid of gimmicks is one of the best hip-hop releases of the year, but then, in the Little Brother emcee’s best moments, Phonte is a prolific practitioner of meat-and-potatoes rappin’. The beats are warm, soulful; Phonte lands a quotable every bar or so; and, as great as Tiggalo is on The Foreign Exchange’s records, it’s nice to hear him rhyme. Really nice. (full review)

5. Undun, The Roots
Is Undun lesser Roots, at least in the pantheon of The Roots’ storied discography? Maybe. It’s gonna have to sit for a little while longer. But if I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times – cliched though it may be, a Roots album that’s only pretty-good by their impeccable standards stands head and shoulders above all other comers. It doesn’t hurt that The Roots’ tenure as late-night superstars seems to be keeping them remarkably sharp as musicians, that Black Thought somehow only gets better with age, and that the entire thing sounds like a haunting, existential street musical. (full review)

4. Bad As Me, Tom Waits
Perhaps the best single-sentence summation of Tom Waits came from a review that I can’t seem to find; I’m paraphrasing here, but it was something along the lines of “slowly, Tom Waits is morphing back into himself.” Seems a little silly to say about an artist who’s gone through so many career reinventions, but Bad As Me finds Tom Waits back in full-on crazy-grandfather/drunken-carny mode, rampaging through some of his most streamlined, vibrant-sounding arrangements in years. It’s a tight, economical album that sounds like the best parts of Small Change and Swordfishtrombones scuffling under the boardwalk; and lest you think Tom’s out of ideas, witness something like “Hell Broke Luce”, a tough-as-nails, seething antiwar number that ranks among the most vital tracks of the year. (full review)

3. Bleuphoria, Rahsaan Patterson
Just in case you were getting any ideas about lamenting the state of the business circa 2011, consider for a moment, r&b fans, that we got new and vital projects from Van Hunt, Me’shell Ndegeocello (who missed this list by a nose), AND Rahsaan Patterson. And Mr. Patterson, he’s only getting better; Bleuphoria is a sublime opus from one of our most talented singers and visionary arrangers, a spacey record full of wonder and (bl)euphoric bliss. Rahsaan’s most accomplished work to date. (full review)

2. Condensate, The Original 7ven
The Original 7ven’s backstory threatened to overshadow the music for a moment there – basically, it’s Morris Day & The Time, but they couldn’t use their more recognizable name because Prince can be a douche; see also fDeluxe – but the first spin of Condensate leaves no room for doubt. Simply put, it’s the most fun record of the year, a joyous stew of lecherous come-ons, Prince-ly rock-soul hybrids, and sweaty funk that sounds like the coolest house party of the year. Morris hasn’t lost an ounce of strut in the last couple of decades, and an album this swaggering, cocksure, and inherently groovy isn’t to be ignored. An instant classic. (full review)

1. Bon Iver, Bon Iver
When it comes down to it, us listmakers have to be pretty forward-thinking; when it comes to list-toppers, what’s going to be in your collection forever? More importantly, what album did you hear, and immediately feel like you’ve known it forever? For me, the answer is clear: Bon Iver’s self-titled sophomore album opens with the guitar peals of “Perth”, and on first listen, I felt like that melodic lead had been in my musical consciousness since birth. The rest of the record follows suit, layering vocal lines and orchestral instrumentation – miles beyond Bon Iver figurehead Justin Vernon’s sparse debut, For Emma, Forever Ago – into something musically compelling, sonically textured, and wholly heartfelt. Even when Bon Iver’s lyrics don’t make a ton of sense – and, let’s face it, that’s reasonably often – Vernon’s sweet falsetto and incredible ear for arrangement makes you get the sentiment anyway. It’s a record for which the only appropriate response is to feel, and it’s the best album of 2011. (full review)

But all told, it was a pretty excellent year for music, and there’s plenty that I wish I could have included. Among these: jazz trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire’s When the Heart Emerges Glistening (a jazz record that harkens, thrillingly, back to Miles Davis’ most wildly creative periods), folksy trio Dawes’ sophomore set Nothing Is Wrong (an album teeming with immediate melodies and insanely tight, Eagles-worthy harmonies), Real Estate’s Days (stately, contemplative guitar-pop of the highest order), The Lonely Island’s Turtleneck & Chain (an album that rivals Condensate for sheer entertainment value, and every bit as accomplished as the pop music it lampoons), and rap super-group Random Axe’s self-titled record. Keep an eye out for more individual lists, and finally, Popblerd’s official Best of 2011 wrap-up!

Be Sociable, Share!