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Best of '11: The first half's Top 20 albums

Adele performs onstage during 2009 VH1 Divas at

Adele performs onstage during 2009 VH1 Divas at Brooklyn Academy of Music. (Sept. 17, 2009) Photo Credit: Getty Images

Sure, the first half of 2011 was dominated by Adele's British soul and Lady Gaga's wild “Born This Way” hype, but the past six months was a pretty good time for new music. Here's a look at the 20 best albums of the year so far (in alphabetical order):

Adele, “21”: “The one-two punch that opens Adele's "21" (XL/Columbia) is so brilliant and powerful that it leaves you dazed and blissful and rushing to hear it again.” (2.22.11)

 

Joseph Arthur, “The Graduation Ceremony”: "Joseph Arthur doesn't just create memorable melodies on his new solo album "The Graduation Ceremony" (Lonely Astronaut). He nurtures them with unusual arrangements and sounds. He decorates them with well-crafted lyrics and ideas in a style similar to his mixed-media artwork." (5.24.11)

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Beastie Boys, “Hot Sauce Committee, Part 2”: "Hot Sauce Committee Part Two" (Capitol) is all about the party, a kindred spirit to 1998's "Hello Nasty." Its familiar grooves, expected goofs and sharp rhymes show the Beasties can still compete with anyone on hip-hop's stage." (5.3.11)

 

The Belle Brigade, “The Belle Brigade”: "Brother-sister duo Ethan and Barbara Gruska, children of songwriter Jay Gruska and grandchildren of composer John Williams, fill their eponymous debut, "The Belle Brigade" (Reprise), with so many sweet moments, all accented with their tight harmonies." (4.19.11)

 

Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears, “Scandalous”: "Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears offer a clinic on creating a successful party soundtrack with its sophomore album, "Scandalous" (Lost Highway). Take a whole lot of James Brown funk, filter it through an indie-rock sensibility for some extra-sharp rhythms and add a dash of Texas blues and -- bam! -- you get a surefire good time." (3.15.11)

 

James Blake, “James Blake”: "The amount of passion James Blake squeezes into his sleek electronic wonder "James Blake" (A&M) is stunning, as is the craftsmanship of the singles "Limit to Your Love" and "The Wilhelm Scream."" (2.8.11)

 

Bon Iver, “Bon Iver”: "His sophomore album, "Bon Iver" (Jagjaguwar), says plenty with its eclectic arrangements and dreamy, poignant storytelling. Even when it's hard to make out what he's singing, it's not hard to make out what he's feeling." (6.21.11)

 

Class Actress, “Journal of Ardency”: "Class Actress' debut "Journal of Ardency" (Terrible) is deceptively simple, with pretty little melodies crafted to suit Elizabeth Harper's elegant voice."(1.4.11)

 

Foo Fighters, “Wasting Light”: "There's a moment of pure alt-rock bliss about halfway through the Foo Fighters' "White Limo" when Dave Grohl lets loose a true, throat-ripping shriek, "Yeahhhho! Limmmmmohhhhh!" over a thunderous, incessant metal-guitar assault. That's when you know "Wasting Light" (Roswell/RCA), the Foo Fighters' seventh studio album, is for real." (4.12.11)

 

Emmylou Harris, “Hard Bargain”: "It's interesting that Emmylou Harris decided to name her new album "Hard Bargain" (Nonesuch) -- after the Ron Sexsmith song, one of only two here that she didn't write -- since she makes everything look so easy. This collection is filled with effortless, timeless, beautiful songs, at the intersection of folk, rock and country that Harris has built into a magnificent career." (4.26.11)

 

Lady Gaga, “Born This Way”: ""Born This Way" (Interscope) gets way stranger, as her musical statements are just as envelope-pushing as her fashion declarations with meat-dresses and plastic outfits inspired by condoms. It's a testament to how well-crafted the 25-year-old former Stefani Germanotta's wild moves actually are that this bizarre monster album all hangs together." (5.23.11)

 

Lykke Li, “Wounded Rhymes”: "On "Wounded Rhymes" (LL/Atlantic), Li grows into her dark side, unleashing the empty country-tinged echo of "Unrequited Love" and the defiant "Silent My Song." "Sadness Is a Blessing" revives '60s girl groups, while "Rich Kids Blues" could be her Swedish interpretation of Arcade Fire." (3.1.11)

 

Bobby Long, “A Winter Tale”: "It starts with the voice. Bobby Long has a great one, naturally emotive and effortlessly warm, in harmony with its spare, mostly acoustic surroundings on his debut, "A Winter Tale" (ATO)." (2.1.11)

 

Owl City, “All Things Bright and Beautiful”: ""All Things Bright and Beautiful" (Universal Republic) finds Owl City basically in the same happy-go-lucky place, but Young's gotten sharper lyrically and brought some new influences into his musical world." (6.14.11)

 

Radiohead, “King of Limbs”: "For the band's eighth studio album, "The King of Limbs" (TBD), Thom Yorke and friends simply roll out eight excellent new songs that continue along the electronic-experimentation-meets-guitar-rock road they started down with "OK Computer." They have veered off occasionally with varying results, but no surprises here." (3.29.11)

 

R.E.M., “Collapse into Now”: "On "Collapse Into Now" (Warner Bros.), they sound almost giddy, showing a playful side we haven't seen since 2001's "Reveal. "I feel like an alligator, coming up the escalator," Stipe fizzily declares in the dizzying "Alligator Aviator Autopilot Antimatter," which features Peaches sounding like a long lost B-52. " (3.8.11)

 

Taking Back Sunday, “Taking Back Sunday”: ""Taking Back Sunday" (Warner Bros.) is filled with all sorts of styles -- the hard-rocking "El Paso," the pop-tastic "Faith (When I Let You Down)," the nod to their emo past "Best Places to Be a Mom," a look at a potential R.E.M.-like future in "Sad Savior" and the touching ballad "Call Me in the Morning" -- all handled well." (6.28.11)

 

Tinie Tempah, “Disc-Overy”: "What truly sets Tinie apart from the American hip-hop pack, however, are the more "grime"-oriented tracks. "Pass Out" is brash and fresh, especially once the dancehall and the breakbeat bits kick in. The barrage of acronyms in "Miami 2 Ibiza" over the neo-house groove of Swedish House Mafia is so smart it's dizzying." (5.17.11)

 

Twilight Singers, “Dynamite Steps”: "For the ever-changing Twilight Singers' fifth album, "Dynamite Steps" (Sub Pop), Dulli's tools are all in order - the soulful growl and croon, the late-night imagery and macho come-ons, and the growing arsenal of musical styles, from electronica and grunge to R&B and rock - all designed to get listeners to come along for the ride." (2.15.11)

 

Lucinda Williams, “Blessed”: "On "Blessed" (Lost Highway), Williams disproves the myth that angst and upset are necessary for great art. Her first album since marrying her manager and producer Tom Overby is as potent and poetic as anything else in her impressive catalog." (3.1.11)

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