1. 21, Adele: A predictable choice, to be sure. But when an artist has delivered an album that is as close to perfection as 21, where else would it fall? Inspired by heartbreak, Adele’s sophomore album stirs more than just melancholy: Songs such as “Someone Like You” and “Don’t You Remember” will make you want to weep at their beauty. On 21, Adele comes of age as an artist, a songwriter and one of music’s great voices.

2. Barton Hollow, The Civil Wars: Joy Williams and Paul John White aren’t a couple, but they radiate passion and chemistry on their debut album – all through a batch of understated, mellow tunes that blend country with folk, acoustic pop and whatever else that gives them their intangible appeal. Their songs about aching love and broken dreams catch your ear, but it’s their irresistible harmonies that will make your heart leap.

3. 4, Beyoncé: On paper, some may look at “4’’ as a disappointment; it had no big smash singles compared with Beyoncé’s past albums, and underperformed commercially. Artistically, though, it was a triumph. While she still had pulsating beats on songs like “Countdown” and “End of Time,” Beyoncé dialed down her typical bombast for ballads, and midtempo grooves still smoldered as she relied more on passion than girl power.

4. Watch the Throne, Jay-Z and Kanye West: While the first single, “Otis,” suggested an album full of “how rich am I” rhymes from rap’s most outsized figures, the album provided a much deeper narrative, as Kanye and Jay-Z mused on racism, black-on-black crime, fatherhood and other issues for an excellent album that was so much more than another vanity collaboration.

5. Nostalgia, Ultra, Frank Ocean: Although Frank Ocean may be one of the most buzzed about new artists of 2011, you won’t find his debut album in the stores, on iTunes or Amazon.com. He released it on the Internet out of frustration that it wasn’t getting any traction at his label, Def Jam. We’re hoping the label dragged its feet on this brilliant debut because of valid issues (maybe they were waiting on that “Hotel California” sample clearance). But it’s a sad commentary on the failing label system that the young Ocean crafted a sonically rich album that shows him as hilarious, heartfelt, cocky, insecure and most important, thoughtful – and it apparently fell on deaf ears.

6. The Movie, Betty Wright and The Roots: This soul veteran showed how real R&B should be done with her first album in 10 years. The Movie plays more like a lesson in music-making, celebrating classic soul with songs that are unapologetically “grown-folks music.” Yet, she smartly utilizes The Roots, Snoop Dogg, Lil Wayne and other young stars (and even raps a little herself), hopefully showing that generation that great music doesn’t have to be disposable – and can be timeless.

7. Hell on Heels, Pistol Annies: Country music hasn’t had a trio of chicks this raucous since, well, the Dixie Chicks – and the Pistol Annies delivered a well-needed dose of bad attitude. The trio of Miranda Lambert and friends Angaleena Presley and Ashley Monroe were the anti-Taylor Swift, with songs about pill-popping, man-stealing, family feuds and other sordid tales, told with a sharp tongue and witty tone. We hope Lambert’s side project grows into something more regular.

8. Undun, The Roots: The hip-hop band has always had more goals than just making good music, and fresh off last year’s activist album “Wake Up!” with John Legend, they bring us Undun, the story of a drug dealer whose fate is already sealed: The album just gives us a three-dimensional portrait of him and why he ended up where he did. The grooves veer from frenetic to poignant, and the album is another example of why The Roots remain among music’s most innovative storytellers.

9. Own the Night, Lady Antebellum: They may not have come up with another song that resonated quite like 2010’s “Need You Now,” but Lady Antebellum still has plenty of musical magic left. Their harmonies are as smooth as ever, and the tales behind the tunes are just as captivating.

10. Hot Sauce Committee Part Two, Beastie Boys: The future Rock and Roll Hall of Famers are still serving up funky hip-hop grooves with the right blend of wackiness, and Hot Sauce Committee, Part II is the best example of that in years, with songs like “Funky Donkey” and “Lee Majors Come Again.”

Honorable mentions: Metals, Feist; El Camino, The Black Keys; Paper Airplane, Alison Krauss and Union Station; Got to Get Back! The Bo-Keys; Break of Dawn, Goapele.