The year 2011 will go down in history as the year that a monumental shift began in popular music. Rock, R&B, Hip Hop, and Pop all started to see a move away from the contemporary focus of image over substance. It began early in the year at the 53rd annual Grammy awards, when Academy voters chose to recognize the artistic accomplishments of Esperanza Spalding and Arcade Fire over their more popular competitors. It was a testament to the belief that your voice as an artist is more important than how many twitter followers you have. Yes, pop starlets and faux-rap groups still controlled the radio, but there were a handful of artists that dared to be different and began to push the mainstream a little to the left. Our Top 10 Albums of the Year represent those projects that were not only creative achievements but also challenged the direction of the status quo. Our list includes some veteran rockers & rappers, some breakout neos, and one supernova that just kept getting brighter as the year went on. Here’s DZI: The Voice’s list of 2011’s best albums.

 10)Radiohead, The King of Limbs

Watching Thom Yorke perform his convulsive dance routine in the video for “Lotus Flower” was evidence that Radiohead still wasn’t afraid step outside the “typical rock band” box. The Brits 8th album was further proof as they delved deeper into an electronica sound with chilling results.

 9)Frank Ocean, nostalgia, Ultra.

The Odd Future singer released a R&B mixtape that shook the music industry. After posting the project for free on his tumblr page, Ocean was getting comparisons to legends like Marvin Gaye and Prince and soon found himself in the studio with superstars like Beyoncé and Kanye West.

8)The Roots, Undun

Some fans worried that becoming the house band for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon would water down the Philly natives, but The Roots returned with a creative concept album that became one of the best reviewed projects of the year.

 7)Common, The Dreamer, The Believer

Forget Universal Mind Control, Common’s ninth album once again resurrected Chicago’s finest back into the discussion of hip hop’s GOAT list. What m.c. has more musically comebacks than the C-O-Double M?

 6)Big K.R.I.T., Return of 4Eva

Wonder what you would get if you were able to combine OutKast’s Big Boi and Andre 3000 into one mc? The answer would be Mississippi’s Big K.R.I.T. The rapper-producer’s latest mixtape is an instant classic that combines pimped-out boasts with poetic reflections.

 5)The Weeknd, House of Balloons

Toronto’s Abel Tefaye, better known as The Weeknd, created a R&B album that convincingly tells the story of a lover’s wild, drug-induced excursion through the bedroom. The late-night sexcapades on House of Balloons, reminiscent of R. Kelly ‘s classic 12play, are backed up by dark, foggy production that creates an atmosphere of being in a dreamlike state for the entire 49 minute running time. There have been many comparisons made between the OVO affiliate and his Canadian brethren, Drake. Even though The Weeknd’s open-dairy style delivery is similar to the candor associated with the Young Money rapper, it also appears the influence goes both ways since Drake’s Take Care leans heavily on the lo-fi, ambient aestheticpresented in House of Balloons. With The Weeknd already impacting highly successful mainstream artists it’s only a matter of time before his talents make him a household name as well. Toronto is on track to be the next major music capital, and House of Balloons helps The Weeknd stake his claim to being it’s mayor of mood music.

 4)Jay-Z & Kanye West, Watch The Throne

Many critics biggest complaint about Watch The Throne is that it focused too heavily on promoting an opulent lifestyle in a time when so many Americans are struggling. But this criticism completely ignores the fact that while Jay and Kanyehave their fair share of braggadocious raps, the duo also touches on issues that even the 99% can relate to. From questioning morality (“No Church In The Wild”), fretting over future fatherhood (“New Day”), battling depression (“Welcome To The Jungle”), addressing failed friendships (“Why I Love You”), and redefining black power (“Murder To Excellence”), this is a rap album that doesn’t just rest on a “money, cash, hoes” formula. WTT is also responsible for helping to introduce American rap audiences to the London dubstep sound which is sure to become the new trendy hip hop production style in the coming years. And since 2011 was a year where other hip hop heavyweights released forgettable collaborative projects (see Eminem’s Hell: The Sequel & Rick Ross’s Self Made), pseudo-r&b albums (see Drake’s Take Care), and disappointing long-awaited efforts (see Lupe Fiasco’s LASERS & Lil Wayne’s The Carter IV), Watch The Throne ensures that right now the mainstream hip hop crown rests comfortably on the heads of Kanye West & Jay-Z.

 3)Bon Iver, Bon Iver

Justin Vernon’s second album is a grand departure from his debut, For Emma, Forever Ago. His initial lp, written during a sabbatical in a Wisconsin cabin, bleed the feel of an expansive, outdoor space. His band’s self-titled sophomore project is more dynamic than its predecessor, but instead of sending the audience to a remote landscape, it draws the listener inward. Bon Iver invites you on a virtual “staycation” to the real and fictional towns that the album’s tracks are named after. Vernon’s production is an audio fantasy that links to 80’s soft rock as well as 90’s alternative while still managing to be fresh and interesting. His hard to decipher lyrics aren’t used as conversation, but work as another instrument to accompany the strings, horns, and banjo to create a layered musical ambience. But it’s Vernon’s eerie, captivating falsetto that is the true star of the album. Vernon’s ability to use his voice to emote the vague and stressing thoughts trapped in his mind is on par with some of the great folk and blues singers of yesteryear. This album suggests that Vernon’s vision for his band’s musical direction isn’t going to be confined to just being an unsung folktale. Bon Iver is the rare indie-folk album that escapes beyond the backwoods and happily demands a spot at the mainstream table.

 2)Kendrick Lamar, Section 80

Being crowned the new Prince of West Coast Rap by Los Angeles legends Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, and Game is enough to put Compton’s Kendrick Lamar on the short list of contenders for rookie of the year. The fact that he also released hip hop’s best debut album since Lupe Fiasco’s Food and Liquor may be the reason music fans look back at 2011 as the year a new hip hop star was born. Combining the emotional connection of 2pac, the lyricism of Nas, and the confidence of Jay-Z, Kendrick’s musical identity seems to have been transported directly from the Golden Era of the 1990’s. Competing in an time where a rapper’s lyrical ability has been placed on the back burner to his “swag” has lead other hip hop freshman to focus less on creating high quality content and more on selling a youth-friendly persona. But Section 80 makes it clear that Kendrick went into the booth with the sole purpose of producing an amazing piece of art. Mission Accomplished.

 1)Adele, 21

It’s almost unbelievable to think that a retro soul, break-up album by a British singer would be able to breakthrough the image driven, dance-pop scene that has dominated mainstream American music the last several years. But somehow Adele’s second album became a runaway favorite of both critics and fans. By far the best selling album of 2011 (presently 5x platinum), 21 probably connected with so many people because for the first time in a long time, a female pop singer’s breathtaking voice and painfully honest song writing were the center of attention, and not her outrageous outfits, sexy videos, or public embarrassments. Picking up the euro-soul mantle left by the passing of Amy Winehouse, Adele created a masterwork that effortlessly harks back to the sounds of Motown R&B with a taste of country, hip hop, and blues mixed in. The scorned-lover anthem, “Rolling In The Deep”, the album’s lead single, dominated the charts as well, spending 7 weeks at number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. The song was nominated for record of the year and song of the year Grammy awards, contributing to the 6 overall nominations 21 earned Adele this year, including best pop vocal album and album of the year. No matter how you add up the numbers, when it comes to 2011 it only equals 21.

Honorable Mentions:

Beyoncé, 4

Even though 4 didn’t have any chart-topping pop hits like “Crazy In Love”, “Irreplaceable” or “Single Ladies,” it was by far Beyoncé’s most emotional album to date, and arguably her best.

My Morning Jacket, Circuital

The Louisville-based band’s 6th studio album found the balance between being far-out and down to earth. The southern rockers created a work that’s both psychedlic and soulful.

Saigon, The Greatest Story Never Told

After a 4 year set-back, Saigon was finally able to release his Just Blaze produced magnum opus. TGSNT shines because of it’s blunt social commentary blended with a positive, uplifting message.

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