If a good pop album is like a sonic bubble bath — a little act of mental hygiene that lets us get away from it all — then a great pop album is like a visit to one of those isolation tanks that cost $75 an hour at the day spa. And who had that kind of money this year?
In 2011, pop artists helped us make sense of our world by pulling us deep into theirs. R&B crooners took us on hallucination tours. Rock bands offered tutorials in lucid dreaming. And instead of inviting us into her double-wide for a beer, the most magnetic singer in Nashville tried to get us to sign the lease.
Each of the year’s best recordings demanded our time, our patience and the entirety of our imagination. Here they are, ranked one through 10, but almost all equally deep.
Close your eyes, pinch your nose and submerge.
1. The Weeknd,“House of Balloons”
The last time R&B felt this darkly erotic, it was being made by a tiny purple sphinx from Minneapolis. Abel Tesfaye, the 21-year-old Toronto singer who records as the Weeknd, already seems every bit as enigmatic as Prince — and his dreamy-druggy-sexy-scary-superlative debut was nearly as seductive.
2. Jay-Z and Kanye West, “Watch the Throne”
Instead of blushing over their embarrassment of riches, pop’s most intriguing partnership delivered a self-congratulatory opus that was adventurous enough to remind us that they’re rap visionaries first, 1 percent bazillionaires second.
3. Pistol Annies, “Hell on Heels”
On their debut album, Miranda Lambert and her songwriting buddies go hunting for the contact point between humor and heartbreak. They find it with “Trailer for Rent,” a song about an unhappy home available on the first of the month. If it doesn’t put tears in your dimples, nothing will.
4. Katy B, “On a Mission”
So you think you can dance (and would prefer to do it while listening to a British singer narrate youth in 21st-century clubland with an honesty that you wish American pop stars would emulate)? This one’s for you.
5. Drake, “Take Care”
He’s not really a rapper. Or a singer. Drake simply spills his guts at the blurry intersection where words meet melody. On his stunningly self-aware sophomore effort, he speak-sing-raps, “I think I like who I’m becoming.” Everyone should.
6. Bluebrain, “The National Mall”
The Washington duo’s first “location aware album” was the year’s most innovative pop release — a smartphone app that used Global Positioning System technology to trigger changes in the band’s music depending on where you were strolled on the Mall. It was like using GPS to navigate a dream.
7. Bon Iver, “Bon Iver”
There’s hard rock, there’s soft rock, and now there’s this. Listen closely to Wisconsinite Justin Vernon’s vaporous ballads and you’ll hear rock-and-roll sublimating like a block of dry ice.
8. Real Estate, “Days”
These Jersey boys pen casually gorgeous rock tunes about suburbia that actually resemble suburbia — they’re very clean, sorta sad and way too easy to get lost in.
9. James Blake, “James Blake”
Inventive and emotive, this young Londoner’s avant love songs sound like they were pressed from an undiscovered corner of the human heart.
10. Fauna, “Manshines”
As electronic dance music hyperventilated its way across the United States, this Argentinian duo kept things slow and low, continuing their reinvention of cumbia by adding a splash of psychotropic futurism.