The Freshman 15: 2011's Best Debut Albums

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  • Publish Date: December 6, 2011

Ranking the year's best-reviewed debuts

While you can expect our full list of the best-reviewed albums of 2011 later this month, we're starting the list-making a bit early with a look at the year's 15 top debut albums. Below, we've ranked the highest-scoring debut albums of 2011; albums needed to have at least 7 reviews (and be a full album, rather than an EP) to be eligible for inclusion.

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1. The Greatest Story Never Told 89 (Suburban Noize)
by Saigon

Saigon's first official LP was almost the greatest debut album never released; the Brooklyn rapper (and occasional Entourage star) feuded with his original label Atlantic for years before finally getting out of his contract and taking the album with him. Greatest Story includes appearances by Jay-Z, Bun B, and Faith Evans, and production from Just Blaze and Kanye West.

"Saigon is an artist that needs to be on every hip-hop head's radar if he isn't already."

Absolute Punk More reviews...

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2. House of Balloons 88 (self-released)
by The Weeknd

Recording under the name The Weeknd, Toronto-based R&B artist Abel Tesfaye released two mixtapes (so far) this year, but it was the first one—his debut longplayer—that received the bulk of the critical attention. The nine-track, 50-minute House of Balloons was nominated for the 2011 Polaris Music Prize (Canada's top music honor), and is showing up on multiple year-end top 10 lists. Oh, and did we mention it's available for free?

"House of Balloons is a gorgeous album that pairs moody beats and samples with morbid lines about drugs and late-night encounters, all of it caulked with sex."

The Boston Phoenix More reviews...

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3. Space Is Only Noise 86 (Circus Company)
by Nicolas Jaar

The 21-year-old producer—and current Brown University student—made his debut with this ambitious album of experimental electronica, which drew comparisons to James Blake upon its release in early 2011.

"Space Is Only Noise might be one of the most ear-opening techno records in recent memory."

XLR8R More reviews...

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4. New Brigade 85 (What's Your Rupture?)
by Iceage

And the list keeps getting younger: A group of four Danish teenagers, Iceage made their debut in June with this set of a dozen very brief tunes, clocking in at just under 25 minutes. You'll hear bits of no wave, goth, punk, and post-punk on the intense New Brigade, with echoes of Joy Division, among other influences.

"A record that's easily as good as any punk release you'll hear in 2011."

BBC Music More reviews...

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5. Sepalcure 85 (Hotflush)
by Sepalcure

It's only available digitally (so far, at least; a CD release should happen in January) from the dubstep label Hotflush, but this self-titled debut album by New York duo Sepalcure has collected a handful of enthusiastic reviews, earning praise for expanding beyond the dubstep genre and rewarding repeat listens.

"The whole album is deep and atmospheric, with the right amount of up-tempo treats."

Urb More reviews...

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6. Hell on Heels 84 (Columbia Nashville)
by Pistol Annies

The only country album to make our Freshman 15, Hell on Heels is the debut by the new country trio led by Miranda Lambert (who, as a solo artist, had another critical hit in 2011 with Four the Record). Rounding out the Pistol Annies are Ashley Monroe and newcomer Angaleena Presley.

"The sense of fun and sisterly affection that pervades the album makes it a winning opening salvo from an intriguing new group."

A.V. Club More reviews...

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7. Wondervisions 84 (Luaka Bop)
by Delicate Steve

David Byrne's Luaka Bop label released Steve Marion's debut album as Delicate Steve, which features a mix of indie pop and African-influenced sounds. (Think of the music as falling somewhere in between Animal Collective and Vampire Weekend.)

"As a debut, Wondervisions makes for a great mission statement from Delicate Steve, showcasing the songwriters' ability to craft engaging and exploratory instrumentals while still being accessible and fun."

All Music Guide More reviews...

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8. A Winged Victory for the Sullen 83 (Kranky)
by A Winged Victory for the Sullen

It might not be the catchiest name for a band or an album, but that didn't stop critics from praising this self-titled debut. On A Winged Victory for the Sullen, the duo of composer Dustin O'Halloran and Adam Wiltzie (also of Stars of the Lid) together create classically-influenced ambient music described by several reviewers as "cinematic."

"Composed by two musicians at the height of their craft, the album reveals itself, thus far, as the apex of a limited genre still forming and as one of our finest contemporary acts of remembrance and ascension."

Tiny Mix Tapes More reviews...

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9. Wild Flag 83 (Merge)
by Wild Flag

Wild Flag's four members—Carrie Brownstein (Sleater-Kinney, Portlandia), Janet Weiss (Quasi, Sleater-Kinney), Mary Timony (Helium), and Rebecca Cole (The Minders)—have played key roles in the indie rock scene over the past few decades. Despite the heightened expectations created by their collective resumes, the supergroup's self-titled debut, a blend of new wave, punk, and indie rock that was recorded live (except for vocals), was far from a disappointment, serving as an excellent showcase for musicians at the height of their abilities. It's also one of the most enjoyable albums of 2011.

"That sense of teetering on the ledge of chaos, of mayhem fighting melody for control, makes Wild Flag a debut for the ages."

Chicago Tribune More reviews...

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10. Black Up 82 (Sub Pop)
by Shabazz Palaces

The first hip hop group signed to indie rock label Sub Pop, Seattle's Shabazz Palaces are fronted by Ishmael Butler, formerly of Digable Planets (where he went by the name Butterfly, though he now calls himself Palaceer Lazaro). Coming after a pair of EPs and a "Genius Award" from local weekly The Stranger, SP's debut Black Up has emerged as one of the best-reviewed hip hop LPs of 2011.

"In the category of great rap reinventions, file it next to Daniel Dumile's post-KMD rebirth as MF Doom and Ultramagnetic's MC Kool Keith re-training as Dr. Octagon."

Mojo More reviews...

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11. Severant 82 (Planet Mu)
by Kuedo

Kuedo is the new solo endeavor for Jamie Teasdale of the dubstep outfit Vex'd, but his all-instrumental debut Severant is definitely no dubstep album. Instead, the analog synth-driven stylings here are more reminiscent of Vangelis film scores (with a slightly glitchy, IDM twist to prevent things from getting too dated or sleepy), while one track even samples Carly Simon.

"It's an album made up of familiar elements, but what makes it so engrossing is how it twists them into something alien and unique."

Resident Advisor More reviews...

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12. The Magic Place 82 (Asthmatic Kitty)
by Julianna Barwick

The first true LP for the Louisiana-born, Brooklyn-based performer is a hazy, reverb-heavy, minimalist affair, with as much emphasis on Barwick's ethereal vocals (think Enya or David Lynch muse Julee Cruise) as on the drone-like instrumentation.

"Try as you might to explain Julianna Barwick's incomparable, indescribable music, maybe it's best to let The Magic Place do all the talking, because the results speak for themselves."

PopMatters More reviews...

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13. Glass Swords 82 (Warp)
by Rustie

Glass Swords is the debut LP from Scottish electronic music producer Russell Whyte, who records under the name Rustie. And this fun, high energy album has made quite an impression on critics so far.

"Glass Swords is a testament to the importance of cutting right the chase, boiling house music down to climaxes the way Lightening Bolt compresses wild metal soloing into hard, gnarly blasts of attitude."

Magnet More reviews...

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14. Past Life Martyred Saints 81 (Souterrain Trans.)
by EMA

Erika M. Anderson, formerly of the band Gowns, made her solo debut with the much blogged about Past Life Martyred Saints, a compact (37-minute) collection of varied art-rock. The album earned EMA comparisons to PJ Harvey, as well as Cat Power, Kristin Hersh, Sonic Youth, and Patti Smith.

"A fiercely individual record, made by a musician with a fearless and courageous approach to her art."

Pitchfork More reviews...

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15. Last Summer 81 (Merge)
by Eleanor Friedberger

After releasing one album per year as The Fiery Furnaces over much of the past decade, the brother-sister duo of Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger have gone their separate ways in 2011, with each embarking on a solo career. Last Summer marked Eleanor's debut as a solo artist, though it retained much of the avant-garde experimental approach of her work in the duo.

"It straddles that difficult line between accessible and adventurous, making for a fine stopgap between Fiery Furnaces records and an excellent summer album regardless of the year."

Sputnikmusic More reviews...

What do you think?

Are you fans of any of the albums listed above? What were your favorite debuts of 2011? Let us know in the comments section below.

Comments (4)

  • Lodz  

    Not mentioning James Blake on this list makes it useless.

  • ecalcott  

    i was prepared to fire off a negative comment if nicolas jaar's amazing debut wasn't listed, so...great list. i agree with all, including The Weeknd. the fact that it's considered an RnB album will undoubtedly anger and frustrate RnB purists. I don't really like RnB, but think the experimental and electronic garage sounds of it makes it a fantastic album. but back to nicolas jaar: get it, put on some some good headphones, lie down, and be prepared for an amazing journey.

  • THawkes  

    Solid list. I have a few of these and they were all great: Saigon (finally...), Ice Age, Sepalcure, Shabazz... and Eleanor Friedberger is hopefully gonna be sticking around for a while. She's fantastic. But I'm tired of The Weeknd. Whenever I've referred to them or talked about them, I've ultimately gone to the negative, not because I'm hating, but more towards the fact that, if you'd like to garner the emotion you get from them, there are SO MANY better options out there...primarily Drake, who The Weeknd have traced to an almost embarrassing degree. No wonder they're touring together.

    The emo-hip-hop has a nice vibe to it, and House of Balloons has some cool tracks (The Morning, and both The Party And The After-Party and Loft Music, both of which apparently sample Beach House) but if I can get the same feeling from someone that's better, that sonically brings more to the table, that has more to say for a myriad of reasons, I'll go that way with it. Not to say they don't have talent, because clearly, these days, nobody jets to popularity as quickly as The Weeknd did without bringing legitimate noise, but it's been done before. . . really recently, too. I've never heard Delicate Steve. Looking forward to checkin' that guy out.

    One guy I'd like to see get a shot is Wallpaper. Dude's got killer beats for parties you don't remember until the pictures are posted. I Got Soul, I'm So Wasted was such a hilariously awesome track this year.

  • mindyfully  

    the weeknd baby. This guy knows how to promote his **** Im suspicious though that this whole mysterious character thing was all planed out from the start. This product is insanely well crafted. The morning is my favorite track of 2011.

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