Midyear Report: The Best Music of 2011 So Far

  • Publish Date: July 6, 2011
  • Comments: ↓ 12 user comments

Give it away now

2011 House of Balloons
by The Weeknd 89
2010 My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
by Kanye West 94
High Scoring Albums by Year
2009 Merriweather Post Pavilion
by Animal Collective 89
2008 London Zoo by The Bug 90
2007 From Here We Go Sublime by The Field 90

With half of 2011 in the books, it's time to check on the year's best music so far. And while we weren't surprised to see much blogged-about artists like Bon Iver or veterans such as PJ Harvey near the top of our high score chart, the year's best-reviewed album so far is a bit more under the radar for most music fans.

That #1 album, House of Balloons, is the first release from The Weeknd, the recording name of Toronto-based R&B artist Abel Tesfaye. But you won't find House of Balloons on iTunes or at your local record store; instead, Tesfaye gave the album (billed as a mixtape, but at nine tracks and 50 minutes, we consider it his debut album) away for free on his website. The set immediately earned glowing reviews from bloggers and the music press, and also scored a nomination for the 2011 Polaris Music Prize, Canada's top music honor.

House of Balloons is one of two R&B albums in our top ten so far in 2011, while another two of the top four best reviewed releases so far this year are hip hop albums, coming off a year in which a rap album (Kanye West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy) finished the year at #1. The rest of this year's top ten is rounded out by electronica, hardcore, indie folk, electronica, and other genres, making for an unusually diverse group. And there are several artists appearing on our top 40 list with their debut albums, including 21-year-old techno artist Nicolas Jaar, the new hip hop group Shabazz Palaces, and Danish teens Iceage. The veterans are well represented too, with 70-year-old Paul Simon capping the other end of the age spectrum.

Below, we look at best- and worst-reviewed albums released through the first half of the year.

The 40 Best-Reviewed Albums of 2011 So Far (Through June 30)
  Album Label Metascore Users
1House of Balloons
by The Weeknd
The Weeknd898.1
It's not often that you can legally download the year's best-reviewed album for free, but House of Balloons can be grabbed from the artist's website.
2The Greatest Story Never Told
by Saigon
Suburban Noize898.5
This long-delayed debut LP from Brooklyn rapper Saigon includes appearances by Jay-Z, Bun B, and Faith Evans, and production from Just Blaze and Kanye West.
3No Devolucion
by Thursday
Dave Fridmann produced this sixth album for the New Jersey post-hardcore band, resulting in an album more atmospheric and diverse than their usual output.
4Black Up
by Shabazz Palaces
Sub Pop879.2
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.
5Let England Shake
by PJ Harvey
The English rocker's best album in a decade—with a loose concept about England at war—is a much more musically varied affair than the piano-driven White Chalk.
6Who Kill
by tUnE-yArDs
New England's Merrill Garbus returns with an eclectic second album that is more polished and accessible than her debut, but no less playful, original, or exciting.
7Space Is Only Noise
by Nicolas Jaar
Circus Company868.1
The 21-year-old producer made his debut with this album of experimental electronica, which drew comparisons to James Blake.
8Stone Rollin'
by Raphael Saadiq
The veteran R&B artist continues his obsession with vintage 1960s and 70s soul on a fifth solo album that features members of Earth, Wind, and Fire and Little Dragon.
9Bon Iver
by Bon Iver
Justin Vernon's sophomore set includes 10 songs each named after—and inspired by—a specific place, backed by a fuller sound with more varied instrumentation.
10Ravedeath, 1972
by Tim Hecker
The Canadian's sixth set of abstract, dark, ambient electronica consists of three multi-part compositions supplemented by several stand-alone tracks.
11David Comes To Life
by Fucked Up
The third LP from the Toronto hardcore punk band is a concept album that unfolds its dense narrative across 18 tracks arranged in four acts.
12Bird Songs
by Joe Lovano / Us Five
Blue Note86n/a
Grammy-winning jazz saxophonist Joe Lovano and his band Us Five tackle the Charlie Parker songbook on this 11-track tribute album.
13When the Heart Emerges Glistening
by Ambrose Akinmusire
Blue Note85n/a
28-year-old jazz trumpeter Akinmusire makes his Blue Note debut with a set of 10 originals and two covers performed by his quintet and co-produced by Jason Moran.
14So Beautiful or So What
by Paul Simon
Hear Music857.9
The 70-year-old Simon's first album in five years, which he produced with Phil Ramone, exhibits a bluegrass influence.
by Wild Beasts
An unusually restrained outing for the eccentric and distinctive English indie rock band, the mature and subtle Smother opts mainly for synths instead of guitars.
16Helplessness Blues
by Fleet Foxes
Sub Pop858.5
Two years in the making, the Seattle-based harmonic folk group's second LP offers a greater diversity of instrumentation and a slightly less polished sound.
17Marissa Nadler
by Marissa Nadler
Box of Cedar85n/a
The self-released fifth album for the East Coast folk singer-songwriter was recorded with fan-supplied funds raised through Kickstarter.
18New Brigade
by Iceage
What's Your Rupture?85n/a
A group of four Danish teenagers, Iceage make their debut with this set of a dozen very brief no wave-influenced post-punk tunes, clocking in at just under 25 minutes.
19 As High as the Highest Heavens and from the Center to the Circumference of the Earth
by True Widow
Catchy title aside, the Dallas trio's second album blends stoner rock, grunge, and slowcore into a powerful whole.
20Hot Sauce Committee, Pt. 2
by Beastie Boys
There's no Part 1, but Part 2 is the group's first non-instrumental set in seven years and probably their best album since 1998's Hello Nasty.
by Destroyer
Daniel Bejar's ninth Destroyer album is a jazzy, soft-rock affair that wouldn't sound out of place coming out of an AM radio in the early 1980s.
by Delicate Steve
Luaka Bop84n/a
Steve Marion's debut album as Delicate Steve features a mix of indie pop and African-influenced sounds.
23Wounded Rhymes
by Lykke Li
The 25-year-old Swedish pop star recorded this fuller-sounding sophomore set with producer Björn Yttling of Peter Bjorn and John.
24Build a Rocket Boys!
by Elbow
The Mercury Prize-winning Manchester band's fifth album is a set of songs based on frontman Guy Garvey's childhood.
25Eye Contact
by Gang Gang Dance
After a drummer switch, the decade-old experimental music outfit from New York return with their most accessible release to date (and their first LP for 4AD).
26 Scandalous
by Black Joe Lewis
Lost Highway 83 n/a
The Austin-based blues and soul band returns with a second album, produced by Spoon's Jim Eno.
27 Nine Types of Light
by TV on the Radio
Interscope 82 8.2
After a three-year break, TVOTR reunited to record their fourth album; the result, unexpectedly, is an album full of accessible— if still a bit arty— love songs.
28 The Harrow and the Harvest
by Gillian Welch
Acony Records 82 n/a
The bluegrass singer-songwriter's first album in eight years finds her teamed once again with longtime collaborator David Rawlings.
29 Canary
by Southeast Engine
Misra 82 n/a
The Ohio-based indie rockers return with a concept album about the Great Depression.
30 We're New Here
by Gil Scott-Heron and Jamie xx
XL Recordings 82 7.6
Jamie Smith of The xx drastically reconfigured the late Gil Scott-Heron's 2010 minimalist comeback album I'm New Here, resulting in a completely new record.
31 Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light, Vol. 1
by Earth
Southern Lord Records 82 n/a
The Seattle drone-rock band returns with its sixth album of lengthy, heavy, slow-paced instrumental tracks; Volume 2 arrives next year.
32 This Is Country Music
by Brad Paisley
RCA 82 7.4
Country superstar Paisley is joined by guests ranging from Don Henley to Carrie Underwood to Alabama on his ninth studio album.
33 The Dreaming Fields
by Matraca Berg
Dualtone Music 82 n/a
A country singer-songwriter best known best known for penning tracks for many country stars, Berg returns with her first solo album in more than a decade.
34 Channel Pressure
by Ford & Lopatin
Software 82 n/a
The electronica duo Games change their name for this first full-length set, which mixes instrumentals with vocal-driven tracks reminiscent of 1980s alt-pop.
35 The Magic Place
by Julianna Barwick
Asthmatic Kitty 82 5.3
The first true LP for the Brooklyn-based performer is a hazy, minimalist, reverb- and drone-heavy affair, with vocals that are drawing comparisons to Enya.
36 Everything's Getting Older
by Bill Wells & Aidan Moffat
Chemikal Underground 82 n/a
Scottish composer Wells teams with former Arab Strap frontman Moffat for a gloomy and unsettling album that has been under development for the past eight years.
37 City of Refuge
by Abigail Washburn
Rounder 82 n/a
Washburn's Rounder debut is folk and bluegrass with an indie-rock edge, with members of The Decemberists and My Morning Jacket guesting.
38 Smoke Ring for My Halo
by Kurt Vile
Matador 82 7.6
Incorporating folk and American roots rock, this second Matador release for the Philadelphia artist was produced by John Agnello (The Hold Steady).
39 Past Life Martyred Saints
by EMA
Souterrain Transmissions 82 n/a
This short set of art rock marks the solo debut for Erika M. Anderson, formerly of the band Gowns.
by Vijay Iyer with Prasanna and Nitin Mitta
Act Music + Vision81 n/a
Grammy nominated jazz pianist Iyer debuts his new band, which combines jazz with Indian music.
The Lowest-Scoring Albums of 2011 So Far (Through June 30)
Album Label Metascore Users
434Up Guards and at 'Em by The Pigeon DetectivesDance to the Radio53 n/a
435F.A.M.E. by Chris BrownJive525.3
436See My Friends by Ray DaviesDecca51 n/a
437Who You Are by Jessie JUniversal Republic514.2
438Light After Dark by Clare MaguirePolydor50 n/a
439All Things Bright and Beautiful by Owl CityRepublic495.0
440Screaming Bloody Murder by Sum 41Island476.4
441Love? by Jennifer LopezIsland465.8
442Some Kind of Trouble by James BluntAtlantic45 n/a
443United Nations of Sound by Richard AshcroftRazor & Tie385.6

Albums released between January 1, 2011 and June 30, 2011 with 7 or more reviews in Metacritic's database were eligible for inclusion on the above lists. Reissues, EPs, live albums, holiday albums, greatest hits albums, multi-artist soundtracks, and other compilations are excluded. The Metascore is a weighted average of scores from top professional critics, on a scale from 0 (bad) to 100 (good). User scores represent an average of scores assigned by Metacritic.com site visitors, from 0 (bad) to 10 (good). Albums are ranked by Metascore prior to rounding. All scores are from the morning of July 1, 2011.

What are your favorites?

What are your picks for the best albums of 2011 so far? Let us know in the discussion section below.

Comments (12)

  • MUF  

    Very nice list - I realize it's only a mid-year list, but here's our year-end list:


  • markirby  

    Nice list, I've made a spotify playlist of this lot at http://open.spotify.com/user/markirby/playlist/3UQJhoPkQ8VLfej1MhQtFx if anyone is interested.

  • Duke_Challenger  

    Young Galaxy - Shapeshifting is my personal favorite for the year. Unfortunately, metacritic didn't even tally the reviews for the album which were all 4/5 or better from all the reviews I've read around the internet.

  • angeldep  

    Joe Budden's "Mood Muzik 4" should've received some recognition on this list.

  • kman123  

    Actually, number one should be Leveler. Just saying.

  • az_hifi  

    i'm glad a lot of your support my argument. but i think my next point might turn a few of you against me haha.

    i know kanye bashing is a favourite pastime of many music fans but what he achieved with Dark Fantasy is simply incredible. to maintain a score of 94 after 43 review is amazing. especially considering the reputation he has and how "cool" it is to hate him. what is even more impressive is when you compare it to some of the best received albums on this site. MPP is a classic example, but kanye's album beat that by 4 points (which is A LOT when you're in the 90s) with more reviews. i raise this point because Let England Shake which we can all agree is the most acclaimed album of the year so far is a whole 8 points behind Dark Fantasy, and those of you who use this site regularly would know what a massive difference that is. will we ever see an album beat Dark Fantasy? i don't see it happening. i can foresee Watch the Throne flopping badly.

  • Casper  

    I do know that a lot of sources like Pitchfork are considered really credible and I've seen indie albums with like five reviews have a Metascore higher than all five of those reviews which clearly means that Metacritic realizes they have harsher (or more valuable) opinions. So the comment about those albums being reviewed by only a few sources is true in that regard. But if we're just looking at scores, the mainstream pop/country records really get away with murder since they avoid all of the press that would likely give them an F every time they release an album.

    What's always bugged me most is that albums in the 60's range get a green score. I mean, c'mon. If you went by the reviews on Metacritic, there's hardly any awful (red) albums that ever even come out. I think anything below 50 should be considered awful right away (that's an F in school) and anything between 51-69 should have a yellow warning sign. Then there'd be far more accuracy overall. Otherwise, if you look at Metacritic, there's rarely such a thing as bad music.

  • Casper  

    I understand the points being made, but it's interesting to note that historically, it's actually MAINSTREAM releases that get the biggest leg up on everyone else on this site. Why is that? Because a lot of the indie-focused publications such as Pitchfork or Drowned In Sound or whatever aren't going to bother reviewing the latest effort from Miley Cyrus or J. Lo. In return, those major label artists benefit greatly because the indie critics would have likely given them reviews even further below their metascore.

  • XTrapnel  

    I actually have no beef with the quality of the records selected, but (yet again) I have to agree with the points being made about the dubious voting system. It's hard to know how to fix it. Nobody wants to leave out less publicised releases. But specialist sources will favour records that match their particular interests. I love Riverdeath andSpace is Only Noise, but they do seem to have got a bit of a leg up here.

  • icebox712  

    It's unfair for albums like Bon Iver's, PJ Harvey's, and Tune-yards', who get reviewed by the entire spectrum of critics, to have to compete against stuff like Thursday, Saigon, or even the Weeknd in this ranking. If you only took the best 12 or 13 reviews from the former group, what would their scores look like then? There needs to be a higher cutoff point for number of reviews to be considered for this list, or a new formula needs to be worked out that doesn't hurt albums that get a lot of reviews.

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