Best albums of the year, in no order: In terms of music consumed, the Billboard year-end charts tell us a couple of things about 2011: One, adult contemporary hasn't died, conventional wisdom be damned. Susan Boyle and Taylor Swift had two of the top 10 highest-selling albums of the year, and Adele outsold them both. Dance and electronic music is stubbornly ascendant. And some marquee names -- Jay-Z and Kanye, Lil Wayne and Gaga -- still delivered. But, looking at the year's collective body of work, 2011 will be remembered mostly for its dissonance, for its lack of a unifying theme. It's an appropriate end for a year that saw the traditional music-buying public further splinter into increasingly disparate, sometimes warring factions, each with their own music streaming sites, and idols to worship, from Katy Perry to Bon Iver. The one thing we all have in common, it seems, is that everyone loves the Weeknd. --Erik Maza and Wesley Case In April, Celebration staged the release party of its new album at a church, a 110-year-old relic on St. Paul Street that now also doubles as a performance space. The show could only have one theme. With an album named "Hello Paradise," and a church at their disposal, it was set in the heavens. The band decked out the church in fluffy clouds, and videos of birds mid-flight were projected on the sky-high ceilings. When Future Islands' Sam Herring opened, he played the part of histrionic preacher, dressed all in white, like a Flannery O'Connor character. Then Katrina Ford burst on stage, dragging more clouds -- scores of weightless, white balloons. I wrote about the show then, and it's stayed with me. It was a trademark Celebration performance: transcendent and playful. The same could be said of their excellent album, the first in what's supposed to be a trilogy. Packed with quirks -- Ford's witchy vocals, Hindu music motifs, trippy transitions -- it found them finally in control of their output after years with 4AD. For me, the album also set the tone for what was a great year for female vocalists. --E.M.
Josh Sisk, Baltimore Sun