Ellen Cushing's Top Ten Albums of the Year 

From P.J. Harvey to Das Racist to Frank Ocean, our critics recommend the best music of 2011.

tUnE-yArDs
W H O K I L L
If 2009's BiRd-BrAiNs sounded, at the time, like nothing we'd ever heard, in light of this year's W H O K I L L, it may have been more like a warning shot. While that album was undeniably ambitious, melding together elements of jazz, afro-pop, hip-hop, and folk, its follow-up built on that foundation to create a true masterpiece of postmodernist American pop music, an album so richly layered that it feels less like a mix of borrowed styles than like a new genre unto itself. The best record of the year, local or otherwise. (4AD)

P.J. Harvey
Let England Shake
A lot can go wrong on a political record: For every What's Goin' On or War, there seems to be an equal or greater number of overwrought, self-righteous — or worse, boring — concept records from people who usually don't know much about what they're discussing. Such apprehension is way, way unwarranted on PJ Harvey's ninth studio album. With her girly vocals, ear-wormy melodies, and lines like I've seen soldiers fall like lumps of meat, Harvey proves that a record can be staggeringly beautiful and shatteringly bold at the same time; that power and poetry work better together; and that sometimes the best way to prove your point is by speaking in an indoor voice. (Vagrant)

Real Estate
Days
Real Estate isn't the first band to plumb the bounty of Beach Boys-style surf-pop and Feelies-variety alt-rock for fully modern-sounding effect, but they may be the best. There's an easy simplicity to Days, with its foamy melodies, deceptively un-ambitious lyrics, and sweet, nonaggressive vocals, but that languidness belies a serious commitment to craftsmanship. Loose, yes; lazy, absolutely not. (Domino)

Das Racist
Relax
At some point on "Middle of the Cake," the brilliant fourth track on Relax, Kool A.D. — aka Victor Vasquez — spits what must be the single greatest lyric of all of 2011: RapGenius.com is white devil sophistry. And in those five words, you get pretty much everything you need to know about these guys: They're absurd and funny and absurdly funny, rooted enough in liberal-arts intellectualism to use a term like "sophistry" in a rap song, but at the same time familiar enough with street-level hip-hop motifs to be able to name-drop RapGenius. Relax is astonishingly well-produced, quietly subversive, and catchy as hell, easily the band's best release thus far. Who knew the "Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell" dudes would end up becoming one of the most formidable acts in hip-hop? (Greedhead)

Lady Gaga
Born This Way
As if this was even up for debate. Sure, she's overexposed; sure, she's derivative of Madonna and so many others before her; sure, she's been known to pander; sure, she's quite possibly clinically insane — but anyone who says the former Stefanie Germanotta can't craft and deliver a near-perfect pop song is either lying or deaf. "Edge of Glory" is a giddy electro-rock bedroom belter; "Judas" may be the most finely crafted pop song in history named for a Bible villian; and "Government Hooker" is a thumping, bumping dance track that puts "Poker Face" to shame. Taken all together, it's a triumph. (Interscope)

Hunx and His Punx
Too Young to Be in Love
Of all the girl-group-inflected punk acts to come out of the Bay Area of late, Hunx and his Punx are by far the most promising. Too Young to Be in Love, the Oakland band's second record, is a significant step forward, offering all the sappy charm of doo-wop and all the velocity of Ramones-style punk, plus a palpable giddiness and a much-needed sense of irony. It's also addictive as hell. (Hardly Art)

Kanye West and Jay-Z
Watch the Throne
When one of the world's greatest producers gets together with one of the world's greatest emcees for a star-studded, insanely expensive-sounding lifetime-achievement-victory-lap of a record, its inclusion on annual best-of lists is almost a foregone conclusion. And indeed, Watch the Throne really is one of the best records of the year, pedigree aside: From the growly bass line, cinematic lyrics, and visceral drumbeat of opening track "No Church in the Wild" through to the bone-chilling screech of album closer "Why I Love You," it's a 46-minute object lesson in how, exactly, these guys got to where they are. (Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam)

Frank Ocean
Nostalgia, Ultra
It's hard to believe that out of the fetishistically violent, gleefully impulse-driven, relentlessly profanity-happy hip-hop collective Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All was born an artist as sweetly sincere as Frank Ocean. And yet, on this self-released mixtape, the New Orleans-born Ocean, who has also penned tracks for Beyoncé, Brandy, and John Legend, has a smooth, efficient R&B sound that, while still dark, is almost completely divorced from the unencumbered nihilism of his day job. Hard to believe, or maybe just unbelievable. (self-released)

Girls
Father, Son, Holy Spirit
Earnestness has never been a bad thing for San Francisco's Girls, and Father, Son, Holy Spirit takes the band's nostalgia-fueled, reverb-heavy pop to heretofore unscaled heights, largely by making smart use of big guitar fills, organs, gospel vocals, and various woodwinds to impart a deep, dense, spiritual sound. Add to that frontman Chris Owens' voice — pleading and dehiscent, utterly unforgettable in its expressiveness — and a knack for classic, simple melodies, and Girls have created a record that's affecting, addictively listenable, and widely appealing: the holy trinity, you might say. (True Panther Sounds)

Los Campesinos!
Hello Sadness
Arriving in mid-November and mere days before press time, this Welsh seven-piece's fourth album came not a moment too soon for inclusion in this list. As its title would suggests, Hello Sadness is a little less giddy than some of the band's earlier releases. But make no mistake: This is still the Los Campesinos! we know and love, and exuberance is woven into their DNA. This time around, it's just tempered a little bit, with wonderfully dark and weird lyrical imagery and slightly less rapid-fire song structures than usual. This is a band that appears to be constitutionally incapable of making a crappy album, and with a track record like that, any kind of departure, even a small one, is a risk. In this case, it pays off beautifully. (Arts + Crafts)

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