There’s no way around it: 2011 was an astoundingly good year in pop music.

Not since the 2007 reign of Kylie‘s X, Britney‘s Blackout, Rihanna‘s Good Girl Gone Bad and Girl’s Aloud‘s Tangled Up has there been such a strong showing in pop: We found love in the most hopeless of places, hung onto a moment and danced to the beat of our drums ’til the world ended (well, until next year anyway.)

As per usual, I’ve hemmed and hawed over a final ranking for my favorite records released over the past year. Although I wasn’t initially going to rank them numerically (YAY–everybody wins!), I ultimately realized that was just a cop-out.

Nonetheless, every album featured on this list deserves to be on included on everyone’s iPods and Spotify/iTunes libraries (or, dare I say it, in your CD players), because they’re all beautiful in their way.

Now, I present my Top 25 Albums of 2011. And if you’re not satisfied with the ranking? Please…don’t hold it against me.

25. Kelly Rowland – Here I Am
24. Simon Curtis – R∆ (MuuMuse Review)
23. David Guetta – Nothing But The Beat
22. Dev – The Night The Sun Came Up
21. Darren Hayes – Secret Codes and Battleships

20. Rebecca & Fiona – I Love You Man
19. Sneaky Sound System – From Here To Anywhere
18. Cher Lloyd – Sticks + Stones (MuuMuse Review)
17. The Saturdays – On Your Radar
16. The Wanted – Battleground

15. Katy B – On A Mission
14. Sophie Ellis-Bextor – Make A Scene
13. Lights – Siberia
12. Wynter Gordon – With The Music I Die (MuuMuse Review)
11. Florence + The Machine – Ceremonials

10. Clare Maguire – Light After Dark
(iTunes) (Spotify)

MuuMuse Review

As one of the 15 acts touted on the BBC’s much-buzzed about Sound of 2011 list, the pressure was on from the very beginning for UK chanteuse Clare Maguire to deliver a solid record.

While reviewers were largely (and unfairly) critical of Maguire’s debut–slighting everything from the complexity of the lyrics to the authenticity of Maguire’s artistry–Light After Dark remains one of the year’s stand-out efforts. Between blissfully whimsical, disco-tinged tracks like “You’re Electric” and “I Surrender,” as well as majorly sweeping anthems like “Sword And The Shield” and “Happiest Pretenders,” the singer evokes shades of Cher, Annie Lennox and Stevie Nicks on the largely cinematic production, which was crafted entirely by Fraser T Smith (Adele, Britney Spears).

Though largely overlooked (and harshly received) by the British press, Maguire’s record is truly solid from start to finish–an amazingly promising start for an artist still on the rise.

9. Beyonce – 4
(iTunes) (Spotify)

MuuMuse Review

4 was by no means a very well-received record.

It didn’t help that the mega-wattage superstar kicked off the campaign with the album’s non-sequitur–the extremely noisy, extremely divisive Major Lazer-sampling “Run The World (Girls).” Nor was it particularly well-favored when the ex-Destiny’s Child diva began submitting new songs to radio every other week, along with accompanying videos for nearly the entire album week after week. To most, it looked downright desperate.

But promotional tactics aside, 4 remains an incredibly strong package: With an emphasis on live vocals and instrumentation, the album’s many soul-bearing ballads (“I Miss You,” “I Was Here”), throwback feel-good jams (“Love On Top,” “Party”), along with clear odes to musical legends like Prince (“1+1″) and Fela Kuti (“End Of Time”) burst with a vintage crispness that plays as if unearthed from a lost 1970′s vinyl.

It was a major risk to take on Beyonce’s part, who opted to mostly forgo her signature urban/club sound (apart from fan favorite “Countdown”) in favor of pursuing more artistic ambitions. If left to hands that didn’t seem so hungry for a hit, 4 might have been more universally hailed as one of the year’s best releases.

8. The Sound of Arrows – Voyage
(iTunes) (Spotify)

Voyage is a perfectly apt title for Swedish duo The Sound Of Arrows‘ debut album–after all, it took over four years for the record to actually lift off the ground.

Luckily, the wait proved worthwhile: After slowly building buzz with their lush 2009 debut single “Into The Clouds,” the electro-pop outfit rapidly grew to prominence with their sensational remixes (Lady Gaga‘s “Alejandro,” Nicole Scherzinger‘s “Right There” for starters) and subsequent singles released earlier this year, “Nova” and “Magic.”

The final product is a record filled with dazzling space-age electronica and delightfully earnest, almost childlike lyricism–songs about journeys, dreams and hope for the future. It’s as though French electronica outfit M83 was given a smooth Norwegian makeover a la Röyksopp and outfitted with a sharp Pet Shop Boys-like lyrical sensibility.

In the end, Voyage isn’t just a terrific debut: It’s the stuff of dreams.

7. Lady Gaga- Born This Way
(iTunes) (Spotify)

MuuMuse Review

Lady Gaga‘s omnipresence in pop culture was unavoidable in 2011: Kicking off with debut her second LP’s lead single “Born This Way”–a throbbing, dizzying version of Madonna‘s “Express Yourself” on LSD (which did her no favors in furthering herself from constant allegations of swiping of the Queen of Pop’s schtick), the starlet utterly exploded–from the relentless performances to the images pressed against posters, billboards, entire buildings and trains.

But despite the relentless (and genius) marketing, “the album of our generation” it is not (Sorry, Elton!). Still, it’s quite good: With its sledgehammering beats and love-it-or-hate-it lyricism (“Wear an ear condom next time!”), there are plenty of surprises packed into Gaga’s punchy, eclectic release–from the Whitney Houston-esque jubilee of opener “Marry The Night,” to the wild howls of “Government Hooker,” to the ’90′s House of “Scheiße” to “Heavy Metal Lover,” which throbs with all the gritty sexual appeal of Britney Spears writhing on top of a motorcycle.

And while her pop counterparts beat her to the chase before Born This Way ever hit shelves (P!nk‘s “Raise Your Glass,” Ke$ha‘s “We R Who We R” and even Selena Gomez‘s “Who Says”), Born This Way will ultimately go down in the books as the defining soundtrack of “It Gets Better”-dom in pop music–from the lead single, to self-affirming anthems like “Hair” and “Bad Kids,” Gaga’s laudable mission to boost self-confidence and promote tolerance around the world is this record’s latest impression–and the most important.

6. Nicola Roberts- Cinderella’s Eyes
(iTunes UK) (Spotify)

MuuMuse Review

Baby in the corner learning quick, indeed: After hitting the studio with such left-of-center acts as Metronomy, Dragonette and Dimitri Tikovoi, the coolest of cool members of the almighty UK girl group Girls Aloud finally found her footing in 2011 as a quirky-pop songstress with a big, brassy voice.

After exploding onto the solo scene with her rapid-fire Diplo-produced bleep-bloop fest “Beat of My Drum,” Roberts released a record filled with crunchy, experimental electronica (“Fish Out Of Water”) and lush disco tunes (“Yo-Yo”) that found the ginger pop princess tackling her insecurities, embracing flaws and evoking all sorts of unexpected influences in between, including The Andrews Sisters (“Lucky Day”), Kate Bush (“i”) and Lily Allen (“Say It Out Loud”).

Weird, warbling (and occasionally even grating), Roberts’ record is one of the year’s most intriguing and daring debut efforts by a long shot, earning the quietest member of the Almighty Aloud legions of new fans proudly proclaiming themselves forever Team Ginge.

5. Will Young – Echoes
(iTunes UK) (Spotify)

Produced by Richard X (responsible for another one of the year’s best releases, The Sound of Arrows’ Voyage)–along with some help by Richard “Biff” Stannard (Spice Girls, Kylie Minogue), Kish Mauve‘s Jim Eliot and frequent Richard X collaborator Pete Hofmann, original Pop Idol winner Will Young‘s sixth studio effort, Echoes, is nothing short of an absolute pop triumph.

From the surging heartbreak of lead single “Jealousy,” to the warm, ’70′s-encrusted disco stomp of “I Just Want A Lover,” to the icy electronica chill of “Losing Myself,” Young’s velvety coos and Richard X’s lush, dreamy electronic production come together effortlessly to form something truly magical.

The result is Echoes: Easily the year’s finest work by a male pop artist, and one of the best releases of the year, period.

4. Rihanna – Talk That Talk
(iTunes) (Spotify)

MuuMuse Review

From the Ibiza-friendly euphoria of lead single “We Found Love,” you’d have thought Rihanna‘s sixth studio album Talk That Talk was going to be a foray into clubland revelry: Well, not so much.

Instead, the disc saw RiRi and her faithful “Rude Boy” accomplice Ester Dean teaming up with tried-and-true Top 40 pop maestros like StarGate, Dr. Luke and Calvin Harris to get positively freaky. The result? Her rudest outing yet, which found the Bajan beauty demanding listeners to suck her cockiness and lick her persuasion (“Cockiness (Love It)”) on the floor, on the bed, on the couch (“Watch ‘N’ Learn”) and everywhere in between.

Along the way, Ri taunts with cutesy flirtations (“You Da One”), bossy brag tracks (“Talk That Talk”) and almighty club anthems that put “Don’t Stop The Music” to shame (“Where Have You Been?”). There’s depth and emotion, too–found on cuts like the (ironically) sobering “Drunk On Love” and deluxe track “Fool In Love”–but for the most part, she’s just having herself some fun.

At least one thing’s for sure: You’ll never look at a birthday cake the same way again.

3. Kelly Clarkson – Stronger
(iTunes) (Spotify)

MuuMuse Review

No one puts Kelly in a corner: On Stronger, the original American Idol‘s fifth studio outing, Clarkson’s got her fist raised in defiance–and the result is something truly worth crying out loud about.

Equipped with a set of masterful pipes as powerful and poignant as ever, Clarkson tackles the naysayers, good-for-nothing men and even her own inner demons with resilient anthems like “What Doesn’t Kill You (Stronger)” and “Let Me Down,” agonizing pleas (“Honestly,” “Dark Side”), and sharp, cutting sass (“You Love Me,” which the talented singer declared to be the greatest song she’s written to date.)

With Stronger, Clarkson once again found her stride–perfectly marrying the radio-ready Top 40 pop of 2009′s All I Ever Wanted with the raw anguish of her bleak third studio album, 2007′s My December resulting in what sounds a whole lot like the older, wiser sibling to her 2004 masterpiece, Breakaway. In other words: It’s her strongest album yet.

2. Adele – 21
(iTunes) (Spotify)

MuuMuse Review

Sometimes hype is purely hype, but sometimes–as with Adele‘s sophomore effort, 21–it’s fully justified.

Following its release back in February in the US, Adele’s 21 spent an astonishing 39 weeks in the Top 5 of the Billboard 200 (along with several dozen more impressive figures, as tallied by Billboard), was nominated for myriad awards (including 6 Grammy Awards), and topped countless “Best of 2011″ round-up lists.

With her unpretentious emotional honesty, husky throwback vocals well beyond her years, and a magnificent knack for songcraft, Adele dominated radio for months on end with her now iconic releases–from the howling cry of “Rolling In The Deep” to the unbelievably raw, teary-eyed devastation of album closer, “Someone Like You.” Deeper into the record, the young powerhouse vocalist only burns brighter on instant classics including the Fraser T. Smith-produced “Set Fire To The Rain” and the sauntering, bluesy “Rumour Has It.”

With 21, the incredibly talented, incredibly young English chanteuse didn’t just put out a stellar sophomore record that trumped its predecessor while providing an alternative to the dance-pop drenched landscape of Top 40 radio–she set the entire world ablaze.

And, in at #1…

1. Britney Spears – Femme Fatale
(iTunes) (Spotify)

MuuMuse Review

Despite everything that’s ever been called into question–her dancing, her lip-syncing, her ability to read off of a cue card–only one thing has always remained (and until I’m proven wrong, will always remain) true about Britney Spears

The music has never stopped being incredible.

From the rallying chants of the Ke$ha-penned “Till The World Ends” to the final heartfelt cries of “Criminal,” Spears’ seventh studio album, Femme Fatale, is a ceaselessly catchy record filled with explosive, surging uptempo cuts (“I Wanna Go”), quirky mid-tempos (“How I Roll”) and racy odes to ex-sexin’ (“Inside Out”) that remain fresh and innovative to this day.

By employing both longtime collaborators (Max Martin, Dr. Luke, Bloodshy & Avant), as well as some relative newcomers to the Spears circle (Fraser T. Smith, Will.I.Am), the reigning pop princess dove deep into modern club beats, weird Swede-pop textures, and gritty dubstep influences to craft a cutting-edge collection of future-pop tunes–all while maintaining that unmistakably “Britney” sound.

The dubstep breakdown of “Hold It Against Me” alone–the album’s lead single which immediately rocketed to #1 upon release in January (and remains as fresh to the ears as the day it debuted)–has since led to an entire wave of dubstep-infused Top 40 pop, now heard on songs like Flo Rida‘s “Good Feeling” and Rihanna‘s “You Da One.”

Femme Fatale celebrates the very essence of pop music, affirming for the seventh time why Britney Spears is the ultimate pop star of our generation. But she’s Britney (bitch), and none of this should come as much of a surprise. After all, there’s a certain catchphrase I coined from back in the very beginning of the year that will forever ring true…

2011: YEAR OF THE SPEARS.


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