My top albums of 2011

Yeah, yeah, I know…I crazy procrastinated on this one.

I have my reasons: after a crazy busy fall—amped up day job, occasional freelance work, and a course where I wrote a 6,600-word paper on Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone”—the last thing I felt like doing over the holidays was writing. Plus, I was struggling with exactly what to say here: I’d already shared my Top 11 (out of order) with The Coast, I’d already written in detail about my number one album back in June and, most importantly, I felt like I’d said much of what I wanted to say about the year in my singles list – I felt like the driving trends of 2011 were better spoken to in songs than albums.

Still, though, I wanted to at least make sure this was documented. I have more ambitious plans for 2011 and blogging – in fact, I hope to complete at least a short essay every week, published on Mondays. I’m pleased with the quality of what I wrote last year, with several pieces that rank among my all-time favourites, but I feel both a desire and a need to write more this year.

But enough on 2012 next week. For now: here’s 2011, the year in albums.

Honourable mentions (in alphabetical order):

Dog Day – Deformer
Drake – Take Care
Feist – Metals
Handsome Furs – Sound Kapital
M83 – Hurry Up We’re Dreaming
One Hundred Dollars – Songs of Man
Real Estate – Days
Shotgun Jimmie – Transistor Sister
Kanye West and Jay-Z – Watch the Throne
Wilco – The Whole Love

20. R.E.M. – Collapse Into Now

Though less immediate and exciting than the band’s 2008 return-to-form-ish Accelerate, Collapse Into Now may be the superior record: an R.E.M. greatest hits without a hit. Did its survey of the band’s varied sounds gain extra heft when it was revealed as its swan song? Sure. But it was already a fitting tribute to one of America’s great bands (perhaps the greatest?).

19. Imaginary Cities – Temporary Resident

Sometimes a mixed bag debut sounds more ‘hit’ than ‘miss’ when the hits stick with you. I can’t endorse every track on the first record from Winnipeg’s Imaginary Cities, but the standounds like “Hummingbird,” “Say You” and the exceptional, stirring “That’s Where It’s At Sam” elevate the surrounding material. A band to watch in the years ahead.

18. The Horrible Crowes – Elsie 

Here’s the thing about mood records: sometimes it takes a while for the mood to hit you.  There are few songs on Elsie that stand tall against songwriter Brian Fallon’s best Gaslight Anthem material, and as such I initially was lukewarm on the side project. Given time, though, I was won over by its sad pangs and broken longings, and the way Fallon adds a sexual heft that his vision of romance had never emphasized before.

17. Sloan – The Double Cross

The fact that this album ranks in the bottom half of the Sloan discography says far more about the Sloan discography than it does about The Double Cross itself. Only Andrew seems a bit off his game here; everyone else brings A-rate material, and the album’s opening trio—“Follow the Leader,” “The Answer was You” and “Unkind”—ranks among the band’s best ever song segments.

16. Miracle Fortress – Was I the Wave?

Graham Van Pelt was one of those Canadian artists I more admired than enjoyed, until a set during Canadian Music Week previewing Was I The Wave? material floored me. Trading his Beach Boys side for keyboards and drum machines, Wave stays supremely confident in the composition department, but with a far more expansive, enticing sound.

15. Cold Cave – The Great Pan is Dead 

In contrast to Miracle Fortress, Cold Cave went the opposite direction: more guitars. What started as an electronica project on the excellent Love Comes Close kept some of that ethos, but became a big heart-on-sleeve gothic Cure tribute with the sound cranked. Excessive, sure, but compellingly so.

14. Radiohead – The King of Limbs

Like Amnesiac compared to Kid A, The King of Limbs is an album burdened by the accomplishments of its predecessor (In Rainbows). The three-year wait between releases added weight that the experimental, groove-oriented Limbs couldn’t carry. Its first half has grown on me a great deal, though, and the second half would have been an acclaimed EP on its own.

13. The Decemberists – The King is Dead

The problem with gimmicks is that they become easy fodder for devotees and detractors alike. The Decemberists were always a better band than their gimmick—sea shanties! colonial tales!—and by stripping all that away to an R.E.M.-meets-Gram-Persons core, The King of Dead sounds like sweet validation for those of us who’ve believed in their talents all along.

12. Girls – Father, Son, Holy Ghost

While you can still hear some of the Elvis Costello-vibe that defined 2009’s Album, what impressed me so much about Father, Son, Holy Ghost is how each new track sounded like you were turning the corner of a house of music: one minute it sounds like Sabbath, the next like a 1950s girl group, the next like Sonic Youth backed by a choir. Somehow, it all works.

11. Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues

As much as I enjoyed Fleet Foxes self-titled debut, I never quite understood how such a mild-mannered, pleasant album warranted such praise. Still pleasant but ridiculously more accomplished—in sound, in song, in sensibility—Helplessness Blues feels like Fleet Foxes finally earning the praise they didn’t quite deserve before.

10. Kathryn Calder – Bright and Vivid

“The other girl in the New Pornographers.” That’s a tough label to shake, especially when you ostensibly joined the band because Neko Case couldn’t tour with them all the time. But after stealing a number of great moments over the band’s last two albums, here Calder makes her own grand statement: an incredibly colorful, rhythm-driven, playful pop album that’s a huge leap ahead of her debut.

9. Austra – Feel It Break

Sometimes, all it takes is a single song. I vividly remember my first listen to this one, when the Fever Ray-ish vibes of “Darken Her Horse” got me grooving around my living room. It was a vibe the album didn’t shake, and nor could I, as its mix of cold grooves and bold, brash vocals kept driving under my skin for weeks and weeks.

8. Kurt Vile – Smoke Ring for My Halo

It’s a funny coincidence that, the same year R.E.M. broke up, so many records sounded like R.E.M., from The Decemberists, to Real Estate to…um…R.E.M. But the most compelling tribute came from Vile’s Smoke Ring, which fuses folk jangle with broken-voiced Lou Reed vocals. Few records this year were as clever and restrained in their use of noise as a counterbalance to some remarkable melodic work.

7. Bon Iver – Bon Iver

We’re into backlash mode on this one—Grammy nominations and year-end lists tend to bring out detractors—and, admittedly, the dissenters make some valid points: Justin Vernon is a questionable lyricist, the record is a bit sexless, and its soft-rock influences aren’t going to jive with everyone. But its ability to build moments of sonic transcendence out of those elements hasn’t worn on me one bit.

6. EMA – Past Life Martyred Saints

Like Patti Smith, a clear influence here, EMA manages to strike truths that lie in the nebulous netherspace between beauty and ugliness. Her barely-tuneful voice—itself between speech and song—collides with distorted, woozy guitars in a way that’s intensely, almost uncomfortably physical, best embodied by the discomforting “Marked,” a haunting ode to the thin line between love and assault.

5. Colin Stetson – New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges

As I grow older, I find myself more and more a sucker for pop’s pleasures, which might explain, to a degree, my affection for Stetson’s second album: it’s like a throwback to the days when I fell for music that made me feel unsettled, disquieted and—at times—even scared. Stetson’s a virtuoso performer, but Judges would be remarkable even if he used overdubs and loops to create its fevered landscapes of dread and destruction.

4. Rich Aucoin – We’re All Dying to Live

I feel like I’ve already said everything I could about this record’s charms, so allow me a quick word on its relationship with Aucoin’s acclaimed live show: I’m actually hoping he’ll ditch the dance party, at some point, and allow the more restrained, contemplated side of his work to shine through. His HPX full-album performance, which allowed songs like “All You Cannot Live Without” and “We’re All Dying to Live” to shine, further emphasized that there’s a lot more soul to this rave than you might think at first light.

3. Destroyer – Kaputt

For my money, Dan Bejar released the most successful and compelling retranslation of 1980s soft rock this year: a woozy, dreamlike pastiche that, finally, sounded like he’d found a perfect companion for his evocative, almost stream-of-consciousness-sounding lyrical sentiments. I expect he’ll go off in a different direction next time, which means this might be the first and last Destroyer album that clicks with me – I’m just glad it happened at least once.

2. PJ Harvey – Let England Shake

Every decade or so, Harvey puts aside her more abrasive instincts and ends up with a pop masterwork. Like Stories From the City, Stories from the Sea, the sound of Let England Shake is easy on the ears, which makes its haunting accounts of World War I England even more evocative in comparison. Even moreso than its catchy, efficient song(wo)manship, it’s the existential angst that sticks with you.

1. Fucked Up – David Comes to Life

Overstuffed, bloated and patently ridiculous, David Comes to Life is the year’s best album because, holy shit, it’s powerful: every time that first growl of “Queen of Hearts” or the three-guitar blast of “One More Night” kicks in, it sounds like rock—by all accounts, a dead, declining genre—is suddenly the most vital sound in the universe. The pop charts may be dominated by Pavlovian dance music, but no record this year made me move like this one: it demands that your head bash, your fist pump and your heart skip a beat or two.

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3 responses to “My top albums of 2011

  1. I was very, very excited to see Kathryn Calder on the list. Her album is some of the lushest, most joyous pop I’ve heard in a long time.

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