Last year, in writing my Year in Review feature, I didn’t feel confident enough about any one album to label it as the best release of 2010, and I decided to eschew rankings and instead come up with a list of ten albums in no particular order. As I mentioned then, it often takes months and even years of listening to determine whether an album will withstand the test of time, making it difficult to come up with a clear cut ranking of the top ten albums right after some of them are released. This time around, though, things are slightly different. I still feel that ordering the ten best albums is impossible, and once again I’ve decided again to forgo rankings and merely highlight the ten releases that stood out among the rest. Unlike last year, though, there is one album that in my mind is head and shoulders above the rest, and while I don’t feel comfortable differentiating between the remaining nine, I cannot just lump my definite favorite in with the rest. So, without further ado, I give you my number one album of 2011, followed by nine other albums that should not be overlooked.

#1. Big K.R.I.T. – Return of 4Eva

I can’t remember the last time I was this excited about an up-and-coming hip-hop artist. While I was initially slow to jump on the bandwagon – I largely ignored his 2010 mixtape “K.R.I.T. Wuz Here,” which I now wish I could retroactively include on my top ten list from last year – the minute I gave him a chance and listened to “Return of 4Eva” all the way through, I was blown away. “Return of 4Eva” is like a time capsule of southern hip-hop, as you can hear elements of old UGK, Outkast, and even Three 6 Mafia in his music, and the album’s depth gives it enormous replay value. K.R.I.T.’s ability to transition from introspective and laid-back tracks, such as “Dreamin’,” “Highs & Lows,” and “Rise and Shine” (where he urges listeners to “get up, get out and get somethin'” – sound familiar?), to dirty-south bangers like “Sookie Now” and ‘My Sub” is truly remarkable. “Return of 4Eva” has undoubtedly been my go-to album of 2011, and while I have a tendency to wear out new music that I like too quickly, I never find myself growing tired of Big K.R.I.T. The bottom line is that “Return of 4Eva” is the best hip-hop release to come out of the South in recent memory, and the fact that it’s entirely self-produced makes it even more of an accomplishment. Oh, and did I mention it’s free?

The Best of the Rest

Joell Ortiz – Free Agent

I’ve been following Joell since I first listened to the cut “Hip Hop” off his debut album four years ago, and after hearing him tear up “Slaughterhouse” with fellow group members Joe Budden, Crooked I, and Royce Da 5’9″, I anxiously awaited his follow-up album. “Free Agent” was not free of controversy, as Ortiz left E1 Music in late 2010 after a series of disagreements but allowed the album to still be released on the label, but that didn’t stop it from being one of the top releases of 2011. Highlights include the DJ Premier-produced “Sing Like Bilal,” with its driving bassline and sparse drum beat, and the Just Blaze production “Battle Cry,” both of which are well-suited for his raw and aggressive delivery that makes him one of the best Brooklyn emcees in the game today.

Random Axe – Random Axe

When I first heard that Sean Price, Guilty Simpson, and Black Milk were forming a supergroup, I immediately had visions of the next Slaughterhouse, which turned out one of my favorite albums of 2009. And indeed, the chemistry among the trio of artists is evident from the very beginning of “Random Axe,” as their verses transition seamlessly across Black Milk’s heavy production. There are no bells and whistles here, with Random Axe making no attempt to cater to mainstream hip-hop, and the result is a street rhyme-driven, hard-hitting album that any listener familiar with the artists’ previous work is sure to appreciate. Although it’s a little on the short side and occasionally has more of a mixtape feel, “Random Axe” has a raw and underground vibe that offers a breath of fresh air for hip-hop.

Kendrick Lamar – Section.80

I’ve never had a review that generated more feedback from readers than my review of “Section.80” back in July. At the time, I lauded Kendrick Lamar for his mature and introspective lyricism that made him seem “wise beyond his years,” but I was ultimately turned off by the darker, more depressing feel of a number of tracks and gave the album an 8 out of 10. After the amount of e-mails I received, though, from listeners who couldn’t believe the album wasn’t at least a 9, I decided to give it another shot. In some ways, my initial observations held true, and I still feel that “Section.80” makes for a more somber listen than any of the other albums on this list. Ultimately, though, I simply couldn’t overlook the range of emotions that Kendrick evokes with his music, something that is often missing from hip-hop today. He is one of the best up-and-coming lyricists in hip-hop, and while it’s not my favorite, there is no doubt in my mind that “Section.80” deserves a mention as one of the top releases of the year.

Saigon – The Greatest Story Never Told

In an ideal world, “The Greatest Story Never Told” would have made have made the top ten list back in 2006, when it was originally scheduled to be released. But, as many hip-hop fans are already well familiar with, the album was delayed numerous times, largely due to disputes between Saigon and his Atlantic Records label, and many thought it would never see the light of day. Luckily, though, Saigon got his break in 2011, and the hip-hop world could finally appreciate the effort that both he and Just Blaze poured into the album. Featuring an impressive list of guest appearances that includes Jay-Z, Black Thought, Q-Tip, Bun B, and Devin the Dude, there’s something for everyone on “The Greatest Story Never Told.” What really makes the album, though, are Saigon’s powerful delivery and intelligent lyricism that showcase all that the ex-con has had to overcome in life and in the hip-hop game. With Just Blaze producing nearly every song, it’s hard to go wrong with Saigon’s long awaited debut.

CunninLynguists – Oneirology

The fifth album from CunninLynguists truly lives up to its name – oneirology refers to the study of dreams – with the dreamy feel of group member Kno’s production. Complete with shimmering guitar chords and spacy synths and piano keys, Kno’s beats lay the perfect foundation for Natti and Deacon the Villan’s laid back rhymes, and Kno even gets on a few tracks himself. With a slightly different feel that some of their earlier work, “Oneirology” features a fair amount of singing from guest artists intermixed with rapping, but this is by no means a bad thing. On “Stars Shine Brightest (In the Darkest of Night),” for example, Rick Warren’s crooning vocals offer a smooth transition between Natti and Deacon’s verses, which fit right in with the contemplative mood of the track. Freddie Gibbs and Big K.R.I.T. also deliver quality appearances on “Hard As They Come (Act One)” and “Murder (Act Two),” respectively, rounding out the album and ensuring its place in the top ten.

Torae – For the Record

When I first saw the production credits for “For the Record,” I was taken aback, as DJ Premier, Large Professor, Pete Rock, Diamond D, and 9th Wonder, just to name a few, all contribute to the project. Having never heard of Torae before I stumbled across his sophomore album, I soon found myself bobbing along to his straightforward, confident delivery, as he holds his own alongside the impressive list of producers. The stand-out track is undoubtedly the DJ Premier-produced “For the Record,” which, with its sweeping strings, has the same uplifting feel as one of my favorite Premier tracks of all time, AZ’s “The Come Up.” Torae brings an old-school mentality to the mic that is hard to ignore, and “For the Record” tops my list of the most slept on albums of 2011.

Raekwon – Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang

Coming a year and a half after the release of “Only Built For Cuban Linx…Pt. II,” “Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang” is more of what Raekwon fans have come to expect. Although RZA’s production is absent from the album, many of the tracks still have the same sinister feel, complete with kung-fu samples, that characterize Raekwon’s previous work. And as usual, the Chef collaborates with a number of his fellow Wu-Tang members, as Method Man, Ghostface Killah, GZA, and Inspectah Deck all contribute to the project. The rest of the guest appearances are somewhat of a mixed bag, as legends such as Black Thought and Nas hold their own while head scratchers such as Jim Jones don’t exactly mesh with Raekwon’s style. Some of the best tracks, though, are the ones that feature only Raekwon, proving that, even a decade and a half after the original “Cuban Linx,” he still has the gritty rhymes and captivating stories to command the listener’s attention.

J. Cole – Cole World: The Sideline Story

After seeing J. Cole in concert twice – once two years ago opening for Wale on New Year’s Day and once in March of 2011, six months before the release of “Cole World” – I’d become a big fan of his mixtapes and had high hopes for his debut. I’ll admit, after a first listen through, I couldn’t help but be slightly disappointed by “Cole World,” as it seemed a little too mainstream oriented and materialistic for my liking. After shelving the album for a few weeks, though, I returned to it again, this time minus my unreasonable expectations, and found it to be an enjoyable listen from start to finish, save for a few tracks such as “Mr. Nice Watch.” J. Cole is one of the most gifted lyricists among the new generation of rappers, and his ability to create an album that appealed to both his longtime fans and his newer fan base brought on by his recent mainstream success is commendable. “Cole World” doesn’t have the energy to jump out and grab the listener from the very beginning, but top to bottom, J. Cole proves why his debut was one of the most anticipated releases of the year.

Neek the Exotic & Large Professor – Still On the Hustle

Two decades ago, Large Professor and Neek the Exotic collaborated on the soundtrack for “White Men Can’t Jump” with the track “Fakin’ the Funk.” Although Neek’s career was derailed for some time due to legal trouble while Large Professor went on to become one of the most celebrated producers in all of hip-hop, their paths have crossed again in 2011 with the collaboration album “Still On the Hustle.” The ominous piano keys and smooth vocal sample on the opening title track set the stage for the rest of the album, and while Neek’s rhymes aren’t always on point, Large Professor’s beats more than make up for this. Large Professor even spits a verse on a handful of tracks, and his steady delivery complements Neek’s street rhymes, making for one of the more overlooked albums of 2011.