The 50 best albums of 2011

1. James Blake - James Blake

Ranging from simple piano and vocals through to heavily treated keyboards, glitchy electronics & vocoders, this might be a step away from Blake's dubstep roots, but it's definitely a step in the right direction. A record that I haven't tired off since it was released back in February, at times it's bewitchingly simple - the sparseness & gaps (at times reminiscent of latter Talk Talk) are as important as the music that's actually played. Blake has created a proper 21st century soul record, one that redefines the genre in a fascinating & revolutionary way.

2. Big Deal - Lights Out

From the best of this year's new crop of duos comes an album that instantly drags you into their fragile world, where guitars and vocals are the only things that matter - there's no room for anything percussive on the records, which adds to the stoned beauty of the thing. Equally there's no lead vocalist as singing duties are shared throughout. Great lyrics, an intense atmosphere, and a thoroughly brilliant debut album.

3. Metronomy - The English Riviera

It's quite achievement to make an album about, and inspired by, a childhood in Totnes (the English Riviera) sound like a record that belongs in the sunny & stylish French Riviera, but this is what Joe Mount and his band have accomplished. The sound of seagulls mixes with end of the pier organ in record with a real personality and a sense of fun. It sounds a bit 70s, a bit 80s, and also current, in a way that isn't likely to go out of fashion any time soon.

4. Bill Wells & Aidan Moffat - Everything's Getting Older

Bill & Aidan have spent the last 8 years on and off working on this album, and it was well worth the effort. The music is exquisite, beautifully played and produced, while the vocals range from softly sung words to spoken diatribes. Never less than honest, at times brutally so, and liberally sprinkled with swear words, Moffat's lyrics wear their heart on their tattered sleeve for all to see.Possibly the best album about birth, life, love and death that you'll ever hear.

5. Dominik Eulberg - Diorama

An album inspired by the natural wonders of the world, with influences ranging from 'Belfast'-era Orbital to last year's Pantha du Prince album. Hedonistic, ravey tracks mix with more downtempo numbers, all with lush melodies and hooks that stick in your brain. The album overall is as much a homage to the early days of rave as it is to the glory of natures - both were full of wonders, although some were more chemically induced than others!

6. Gang Gang Dance - Eye Contact

The album starts with a snatch of dialogue - 'I can hear everything, it's everything time' - and then pretty much lives up to that statement, there really is everything in here. Just take the opening track - at 11 minutes long, it's somehow reminiscent of Pink Floyd, Jean-Michel Jarre, the Art of Noise & The Orb all at the same time. Immerse yourself in it's widescreen, technicolor sound and it will reward you with its inticacies.

7. The Antlers - Burst Apart

A magnificent follow-up to 'Hospice' - a fuller sound, (slightly) happier songs, and the sound of a band letting themselves loosen up a bit and experiment with what they're doing. From the opener 'I Don't Want Love', to the closing track (and my favourite) 'Putting The Dog To Sleep' this is a mature, sophisticated and satisfying record, full of emotion, that may well make your heart burst apart.

8. Bon Iver - Bon Iver

Another album that's a step forward from its predecessor, the self-titled 'Bon Iver' is melancholic but warm, introspective but not self-obsessed, and with a broader sound than the folkier first album. 'Perth' is the jewel in the crown, but every track here rewards repeated listening. It's a bit of a 'love it or hate it' album, especially the Bruce Horsnsby-like closer, but I still like it more every time I hear it.

9. King Creosote & Jon Hopkins - Diamond Mine

A 2 year gestation period gave birth to this beautifully haunting album. Carefully layered, it combines acoustic folk songs with electronics, ambient sounds and effects, resulting in something that transcends both genres. Fragile Scottish vocals are mixed with crystal clear music & sounds, creating a record that works perfectly at any time of night or day, and in any location. As the title suggests they've dug deep & discovered a gem.

10. Lanterns On The Lake - Gracious Tide, Take Me Home

I was blown away by Lanterns when I discovered them playing in a church at SXSW while I was waiting to see John Grant. The album lives up to the live show, displaying influences from Sigur Ros to Mazzy Star, but none of these get in the way of the spirit of the music. Atmospheric and moving, with swooping guitars and violins, it's beautifully crafted and easily the best album Bella Union have pit out this year.

11. Connan Mockasin - Forever Dolphin Love

A fantastically non-commercial, creative and original album that will completely suck you in & reward you more & more each time you listen to it. It's childishly imaginative, dreamlike, trippy, jazzy & at times unbelievably beautiful. Sounding like it's been beamed in from another world, it's become a word of mouth sleeper hit as more people become aware of it. Mockasin even gives you live versions of the tracks as part of the package just to confound your expectations even more.

12. Balam Acab - Wander / Wonder

From the opening sound of an ultrasound scan and a baby's heartbeat, to the closing sound of water and a fragile vocal line at the end, this is a beautifully crafted album. Defying labels like 'witch house' and 'chillwave' it includes r'n'b influences, ambient loops, and an eerie, haunting loveliness. An outstandingly good album that belies the age of its creator, 21 year old Pennsylvanian Alec Koone.

13. Ghostpoet - Peanut Butter Blues & Melancholy Jam

A worthy nominee for this year's Mercury Prize, this almost perfect debut album updates UK hip hop in the same way that 'Original Pirate Material' and 'Maxinquaye' did before it. Mixing bites of British culture with stream of consciousness lyrics this is a hugely confident, stylish and successful record that deserves the wider audience that a Mercury win would've got it.

14. Mondkopf - Rising Doom

Recorded in various locations in Toulouse and Paris, this is a record that comes soaked in dark Gallic vibes, full of fear and anger, but also with moments of light and hope. From the glam-rock swagger of 'Deadwood' and the monstrous , insistent bass of 'Day of Anger' through to the slower, more introspective 'Sweet Memories', Rising Doom is an awesomely powerful record that manages to convey the anger, angst & spiritual poverty of our time.

15. Foo Fighters - Wasting Light

In which Dave Grohl takes the best bits from all of the previous Foos albums, distils them in his garage under the watchful eye of producer Butch Vig, and comes up with the most potent batch of homebrew the world of rock has heard for many a year. It's a record that's not ashamed to take the best parts of its heritage and celebrate them in a life-affirming way.

16. Benjamin Shaw - There's Always Hope, There's Always Cabernet

The best release from the Audio Antihero label this year is deep, moving and highly enjoyable. A record full of sad tales of love and loss, of tedium and despair, which also contains possibly my favourite lyric of the year - "You shouldn't blame it on the Tories even if they're vile, and you shouldn't fill their lungs with water just to make me smile".

17. DJ Shadow - The Less You Know, The Better

A much more cohesive release than his previous release 'The Outsider', in this album Shadow has tried to reflect his true spirit an all he likes about music right now. He's not afraid to take risks and experiment with musical styles - old school hip-hip sits back to back with rock guitars - but everything here is working towards the same goal. It's an enjoyable listen and an album which should add to his legacy as one of hip-hop's great innovators and creators.

18. Rob St. John - Weald

The first album from Rob St. John is named after an old English word from which the concept of a 'wild', 'wooded' and 'dark, dangerous' place emerges. It's a fitting name that takes a tradition of balladry and story telling in song, and ties it to a modern, atmospheric soundtrack. There's real emotion and feeling in these songs, that conjure up images of of haunting landscapes and bleak lives.

19. Ryan Adams - Ashes & Fire

I'm probably almost as surprised as you are to find this album in here, but this is a genius collection of songs that is not only comparable with the best of his previous work, but also with the brilliant Gram Parsons. Undoubtedly his best work for years, this is the sound of Adams rediscovering his mojo, apparently inspired by listening to Laura Marlin. It's a work of great maturity that rewards more and more with each listen.

20. The Horrors - Skying

Produced by the band themselves, the songs are much more open and accessible than on previous records. With songs sounding sometimes like they're from northern England in the 90s, these are big, expansive tunes, with the best vocals Farris has committed to tape. Their most mature and mellow album to date, this is the sound of a band becoming comfortable with what they can achieve which, on this evidence, is pretty much anything they want to.

21. Oddisee - Rock Creek Park

A (mostly) instrumental hip-hop album, which is essentially a groove-based journey through the titular park. Part acid jazz, part soul, part funk, but always with a hip-hop mentality, this soundtracked many a lazy summer evening for me.

22. Other Lives - Tamer Animals

The world of Other Lives is slightly mysterious, slightly ethereal but one that's as warm and inviting as a womb. There are swirling strings, spaghetti western guitars, saloon-bar pianos and harmonized vocals at various points throughout the record, which combine to provide a unique sound and a unique feel.

23. Robert Lippok - Redsuperstructure

A stunning solo album form the frontman of To Rococo Rot, which at times can be sonically challenging and quite brutal, but also atmospheric and moving. From the pounding, morse code rhythms of 'sugarcubes' to the almost deep house-like 'nycycle' the album manages to move your head and your feet at the same time.

24. Saigon - The Greatest Story Never Told

An album that took years to be recorded and longer to get released, this has almost as much ambition as Kanye West's 'My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy'. The tracks flow together so well it's like listening to a mixtape, the music is inspiring and the lyrics are (mostly) intelligent and inspiring. Hands down the best rap album of the year.

25. Son Lux - We Are Rising

Recorded from scratch during February this year following a challenge from NPR Music, this brilliant album is full of complexities and intrigue, twisting its way from your head to your heart and back again. Proving almost impossible to categorize, the tracks range from darkly threatening to simple and melodic, while Ryan Lott's distinctive voice provides the one permanent feature as it floats above the music.

26. Peaking Lights - 936

A blend of lo-fi, dub reggae psychedelia from this Californian duo, which first emerged at the start of the year on Not Not Fun, before being recently re-issued by Domino offshoot Weird World. The album effortlessly takes you to a timeless place and deposits you in a hazy vista where the sun is permanently rising after a blissed-out all night session. Imagine a mixture of dubplates, 1960s hypercool film soundtracks and slowly getting stoned with your best mates - that;s what this album sounds like.

27. Gil Scott-Heron & Jamie xx - We're New Here

Take one elder statesman of music, who practically invented rap, add one super-hot musician and remixer, fresh from Mercury success and young enough to be his grandson, and you end up with this - a great re-working of Gil's 2010 which turns out to be even better then the original. As you'll know, this sadly turned out to be Gil's last album, but stands as a tribute to a man who was innovative until the end.

28. Moon Duo - Mazes

The second album from this San Franciscan duo is lo-fi surf-psyche-rock of the highest order. It's a deceptively simple but deep album full of brilliant guitar work. The songs are constructed over what sounds like  knackered old drum machine and some repetitive but catchy keyboard lines. The downbeat vocals leave plenty of space for the guitars to swoop and soar over the top.

29. Holy Ghost! - Holy Ghost!

The most unashamedly 'pop' album that DFA Records have ever released, this debut from Holy Ghost! soubd like Hot Chip if they'd been invented in 1980s America. While it's fair to say that there's no great depth to the lyrics, the style and quality of the songs shines through. Funky keyboard basslines and snappy riffs drive the songs on, and it's hard to resist the big guns at the end as the legendary Michael McDonald makes an appearance on the closing track.

30. Mogwai - Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will

The most inventive and diverse Mogwai album for years. It's still undeniably a distinctive Mogwai sound, but there are distinct electronic flourishes and a more expansive, roomy sound. The bonus track 'Music For A Forgotten Future' is 23 minutes of cinematic greatness, plus the album has some of the best song titles of the year, including 'George Square Thatcher Death Party' and 'You're Lionel Ritchie'.

31. Nicolas Jaar - Space Is Only Noise

A stunningly good debut album from the 20-year old Chilean expat now living in New York. Jaar inhabits his own world of snatched dialogue, atmospheric pianos and ambient noises mixed with electronic music that swings from deep house to techno. An album to immerse yourself in - once you've lived in his world for a while you won't want to leave.
32. Modeselektor - Monkeytown

Even without a certain high-profile guest this is a great album, mixing electronica and dance to brilliant effect, with the track featuring PVT a particular highlight. Of course, some will only have been drawn to the record to hear the two Thom Yorke tracks - of these 'Shipwreck' is the best, blurring the lines between Yorke's solo material and the recent batch of Radiohead remixes.

33. Unknown Mortal Orchestra - Unknown Mortal Orchestra

Described by me earlier in the year as 'early Pink Floyd visits The Beatles on a journey with Sly Stone' , this is an album that draws its influences from each of the last 5 decades, and wraps them up in something that's both comfortably familiar and enjoyably unusual.

34. Deaf Center - Owl Splinters

The second full length release from the Norwegian duo, this could easily function as the soundtrack to Scandinavian TV drama 'The Killing' - it's equally dark and atmospheric, and evokes a big and brooding atmosphere. So cinematic it make you want to make a feature film to go with it.

35. White Hills - H-P1

A freaked-out behemoth of a record that defies genre categorisation - if there was such a thing as space-garage-psycho-prog-rebel-rock this would perfectly into its pigeonhole. According to the implausibly-named Ego Sensation, the band's bass player, the record is 'symbolic of the simplification of complex ideas to keep the masses from questioning the system'  - we're certainly not in candy-floss pop land here!

36. British Sea Power - Valhalla Dancehall

Sounding like a brilliant mix of all the best bits from their previous albums, this was BSP at their most polished, and also their most psychic. How else could you explain their foresight in releasing an album at the start of the year containing a song (Who's In Control) with the lyrics 'Everything around you's being sold, do you not care?', 'I'm a big fan of the local library', 'Sometimes I wish protesting was sexy on a Saturday night' and  'Would you ever go down to stand, to point and stand and fight'?

37. Radiohead - The King of Limbs

Nowhere near as critically or commercially successful as some of their previous releases, and criticised by many for not sounding enough like Radiohead and/or sounding too much like other people (e.g. Flying Lotus, or even Thom Yorke's solo stuff). But hey, even an average 'Head album is better than pretty much anything else around, and when we get to see it live next year I imagine there might be some people eating their words.

38. Cat's Eyes - Cat's Eyes

A duo (duos seem to be the big thing this year) formed by Farris from The Horrors and Rachel Zeffira, who bonded over a mutual love of vintage girl groups and 60s Italian pop. Curiously uplifting for an album featuring twice as many break-up songs as getting-together ones, this is an accomplished piece of work which deserves to be acclaimed as far more than just a side project.

39. Wild Beasts - Smother

Recorded in isolation in Wales, this album can have a similar effect on the listener, immersing you in its effortless beauty and dragging you away from the real world. At time sit seems almost too effortless - while tracks like 'Albatross' have a subtle power, others don't quite live up to expectations. For me, not as good as its predecessor Two Dancers, although I know many would disagree with me.

40. Crewdson - Gravity

A mixture of choppy beats, occasional slices of funk, and some unexpected jazz stylings, this is an organic mix of home-made sounds (no samples here) that come together in a hot soup of cool music. If Caribou bumped into Mount Kimbie, they went out for the evening and ended up in a jazz club, the result would probably sound like this.

41. Elbow - Build A Rocket Boys!

Not as commercial as the massively successful Seldom Seen Kid, but the quality of songwriting shines through. There may be one or two moments when they are guilty of playing to the crowd ('Open Arms', for example), but for every one of those there are still moments when Guy Garvey's lyrics can move you with their perfect pictures - 'Lippy Kids' is up there with his best.

42. Jay-Z & Kanye West - Watch The Throne

OK, so maybe it wasn't quite as good as you might expect from the sum of its parts, but it was still a pretty historic moment in rap history. You can't go wrong when you rope in your wife (well, you can't if your wife's Beyonce), and the best songs on here could easily sit on Yeezy's brilliant album from last year, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. And Frank Ocean, featured here on 2 tracks, is gonna be a major star in 2012.

43. Chapel Club - Palace

A really promising debut from this London band. Yes, it covers most of the indie bases from the 80s to now, but it does so with style and depth. The vocals from Lewis Bowman are strong, and put across his strong lyrics really well, while the music soars in places and quietly swoons in others. Definitely designed for bigger and better things in 2012.

44. Dels - Gob

A great slice of British hip-hop (from Ipswich of all places), the boy Kieren Dickins mixes deep, dark subjects with more upbeat moments, over a musical hybrid of indie and electronica. The lyrics are shot through with a sense of realism and perspective, with no need for cocksure bravado, and you get a sense that this is the birth of a genuine talent who could take on the might of US hip-hop.

45. Ringo Deathstarr - Colour Trip

Inevitably I was enticed by the band's love-it-or-hate-it name, but the music is well worth hearing. A fascinating mix of The Jesus and Mary Chain, The Cocteau Twins, My Bloody Valentine and Beach House, this is perfect power pop. Catch them live - but beware, they're bloody loud!

46. Rival Consoles - Kid Velo

Like Daft Punk soundtracking an Atari game from the 80s, this slice of electronica is fun, frisky and full of beans. There are hints of Kraftwerk, and more French influences from Justice, Mr. Oizo and even Jean-Michel Jarre - not bad for young Ryan West from Leicester! There are some huge tunes on here, real arms-in-the-air classics - it's an eccentric electronic energiser.

47. DRC Music - Kinshasa One Two

The latest African project from Damon Albarn, mixing 11 western producers with current Congolese musicians. The result is an intriguing mix of more traditional music with up to date electronic sounds. Apart from on the first track 'Hallo' Albarn stays in the background and lets everyone else take turns being centre stage, and you can feel good in the knowledge that while you're enjoying the music, the proceeds are helping Oxfam's work in the Congo.

48. Justice - Audio, Video, Disco

A step forwards for Justice, which in some places was a step back to the seventies. Featuring a much broader palette of music than their debut, the album manages to mix futuristic electro sounds with 70s guitars and in the process creates the most 'rock' dance album of the year.

49. Wu Lyf - Go Tell Fire To The Mountain

A unique band with a unique sound. They started off behind a wall of hype, but emerged with a great album. Live they go from strength to strength, and if they keep developing at the rate they have in 2011 they could be massive by the end of next year.

50. This Frontier Needs Heroes - The Future

Warm and touching, with just the right amount of pathos, this brother/sister duo create an intimacy and empathy in their music and lyrics that draws the listener in. Plus the physical album comes with a free pair of 3D glasses - that really is the future!