In alphabetical order, because that’s how I roll.
Feel It Break
If 2011 was the year that goth-damaged female artists emerged from the shadows (hello, Chelsea Wolfe and Zola Jesus), then Austra’s Katie Stelmanis is surely their reluctant queen. Her pitch-perfect, operatically trained voice adds serious warmth to Austra’s chilly electro dirges.
The band that launched a thousand beards delivered a superb suite of impeccably crafted folk-rock tunes about growing up and wondering what the hell it all means.
Father, Son, Holy Ghost
Unapologetic hard-drug addict and all-around fuck-up Christopher Owens would probably be lying facedown in a ditch somewhere if he weren’t one of the most gifted songwriters currently working in indie pop. Here’s hoping he lives long enough to make another album as good as this one.
JJ’s Crystal Palace
Vancouver’s own Guitaro continues to fly, undeservedly, under just about everyone’s radar, but this perfect synthesis of shoegazing rock and ambient electronica is every bit as buzz-worthy as anything Anthony Gonzalez released this year.
Elias Bender Rønnenfelt is the worst interview subject ever! Just had to get that off my chest. Fortunately, his band’s raucous, youthful collision of hardcore and postpunk speaks volumes, which almost makes up for the singer’s reticence.
Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming
Once you’ve heard the sublime “Midnight City” you’ll never think of saxophone solos the same way again.
The intertwining guitar jangle of Martin Courtney and Matt Mondanile brings to mind Johnny Marr jamming with Peter Buck circa 1985, and their summer-haze vocal harmonies are likely to cause ecstatic syncope in those susceptible to that sort of thing.
It’s got to be hard to cross bubblegum-pop melodies with tortured guitar violence and not sound like you’re ripping pages from the My Bloody Valentine songbook. Ringo Deathstarr sees your MBV and raises you one JAMC, and it’s a winning hand for everyone.
Within and Without
Oh, Ernest Greene. Your swooning dreamtronic pop made wistful sighing seem like a perfectly good way to pass a rainy afternoon.
I read somewhere that the ’90s are, like, totally hot right now. Yuck apparently got the same memo, affixed to a dust-coated VHS tape with the December 27, 1992, episode of 120 Minutes on it—you know, the one with Thurston Moore as the guest host.
As a rule, with some admitted exceptions, I tend to like chicks better than dudes.
Past Life Martyred Saints
Bailing out of underground cult act Gowns, Erika M. Anderson goes the solo route, refashioning herself as ever-inventive guitar warrior EMA. The meticulously detailed aural sculptures on her debut range from scraped-raw ballads to distortion-flared art-star laments, the results as beautiful as they are painfully unflinching.
Dum Dum Girls
Only in Dreams
Dum Dum Girl Kristin Gundred delivers an echo-drenched triumph that’s part love letter to her husband and part touching ode to her departed mother. Think crystalline pop and doom-generation surf sung by an up-and-comer who sounds thrillingly like the spawn of Chrissie Hynde.
Bad as Me
At a point in his career when he should be shuffling off to the Sunset Lounge Retirement Home in a bourbon-scented haze, Tom Waits recaptures the feel of his ’80s landmarks like Rain Dogs and Franks Wild Years. One of pop music’s true originals, he’s crazier than a shithouse rat, but his genius remains undiminished by time.
Sonic experimentalists Lief Hall and Quinne Rodgers hunkered down in the basement of a haunted-looking East Van house, set the synths for circuit-frying, and then fused ethereal electronica, death-march industrial, and grave-robbing goth to create something truly terrifying. This is what real-life nightmares play out like.
Cage the Elephant
Thank You Happy Birthday
The pride of, um, Bowling Green, Kentucky, puts on a classic ’90s-style clinic in unhinged genre-mashing, hyperactively bouncing from surf’s-up rawk to cracker-slacker hip-hop to cheeba-fried freak pop. As an added bonus, the band traffics in a brand of guitar violence that suggests someone has a thing for the early teachings of Greg Ginn.
Feel It Break
Canada’s electro-gloom breakout act of the year will leave you confused as to whether you’re supposed to be hitting the club floor in a black-hearted trance, or curled up in a dark corner sobbing uncontrollably. The answer is probably both.
Thao & Mirah
Thao & Mirah
Indie underground queens Mirah Yom Tov Zeitlyn and Thao Nguyen join forces and promptly abandon their respective comfort zones. The only rule here is that there are no rules, the songs serving up everything from whisky-scorched alt-country to jungle-sick Motown to space-dream pop, proving two is sometimes better than one.
w h o k i l l
Always wanted to travel, but been too afraid to get on a plane headed anywhere more exotic than Hawaii? Let Merrill Garbus be your tour guide to far-flung lands, as w h o k i l l combines fever-soaked African jazz and tribal world beat with North American grime punk and serrated indie rock. Move over, M.I.A.
Sometimes Manchester Orchestra seems of the opinion that one can never have enough Crazy Horse–calibre grunginess. And sometimes the American-gothic prog-country punks seem like they should be setting up at a southern small-town roadhouse two hours past last call. The only constant is the way the drama-drenched sermons of Andy Hull are never less than captivating.
The Golden Record
Laura Sprengelmeyer’s debut is one of those releases that lives up to its name, the Montreal-based singer mixing and matching styles with stunning self-assurance. Ethereal indie rock, Delta-swirled blues, and elegant chamber pop all come together in a way that makes you think that maybe, just maybe, Montreal isn’t a total cultural wasteland after all.
In an era when nearly everyone has a digital device soldered to their hands, it’s no surprise that electronic music has gone mainstream. It’s the million-monkeys-writing-Shakespeare theory come true; when we’re all bashing away at keyboards, some of us are bound to make a joyful noise. Let’s call 2011 the year rave broke. Again.
Looping State of Mind
More a refinement of Axel Willner’s signature style than a breakthrough, the Swedish technoist’s third full-length is a fascinating achievement, a dissertation on what it’s like to be perpetually on the brink of ecstasy.
There’s a druggy haze permeating many records on this list, nowhere more thickly than on the English export With U, a set of postapocalyptic R & B dirges that sound like transmissions from a dying planet in some distant corner of the Milky Way.
This debut album by the U.K.’s David Corney uses lustrous tones to shadowy ends. In his deft deployment of ’80s-era synthetic flourishes, he evokes an episode of Miami Vice as seen on a black-and-white television.
As the singer Craig David was to two-step garage, so Woon is to the new beat science. Where David embodied his genre’s bottle-popping effervescence, the latter’s hushed croon channels dubstep’s trademark urban desolation, and gloriously so.
House of Balloons
Scarborough’s Abel Tesfaye combines computer-made beats with a psychosexual vocal approach that’s part Prince, part R. Kelly. In the process, he creates something startlingly new, a sound with no trace of nostalgia in its DNA.
No mainstream artist captures today’s mood better than Drake, who marries self-doubting lyrics to bleary electronic tones to suggest the malaise in which we’re stuck. For all his despair, the singer-rapper offers solace in the form of “Take Care”, a glorious dose of piano-led house that reminds the listener that life looks better when it’s reflected in a disco ball.
Jay-Z and Kanye West
Watch the Throne
It could have been a crass industry power move, a craven attempt at crossover dominance. Instead, we get two masters going as hard as they have in years, making what few dare to anymore: a straight-up rap record. If Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye had cut an album together in 1973, this is the spirit they’d have made it in.
An Empty Bliss Beyond This World
A re-edited collection of 78-rpm recordings of spectral waltzes and piano reveries, An Empty Bliss functions as a kind of rickety time machine, transporting the listener back to the parlour rooms of the 1930s, the illusion broken only by the sudden cutting-off of tunes and the ever-present hisses and pops of the source vinyl.
King Creosote & Jon Hopkins
A suite of folksongs written and sung by a Scotsman (King Creosote) and embroidered with electronics and field recordings from an Englishman (Hopkins), Diamond Mine is a marvel of pastoral beauty, modern and timeless all at once.
So Beautiful or So What
For rhythmic intricacy and melodic splendour, the Young Turks can’t match this 70-year-old, who confirms that singer-songwriters needn’t be stodgy folkniks. This album’s exuberance fills a room, commanding even the most inveterate texting addict to put that damn device down, even if only for a moment.
It wasn’t a great year for humanity, what with Fukushima and all, but at least there was some good music released along with the hot particles.
The Foos went back to the garage on their seventh studio album, and lucky for us they took some killer hooks with them.
Local instro-rock maestro Mike Beddoes leads his crack band in a collection of 12 trebly originals (and a lap-steel-infused cover of “Sleepwalk”) that remind you why you loved the Shadows and the Ventures so much in the first place.
George Thorogood & the Destroyers
2120 South Michigan Ave.
Kick-ass boogie blues is alive and well in the hands of Thorogood, who pays tribute to the home of Chicago’s Chess Records with righteous tunes by Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, and, especially, Willie Dixon.
Fountains of Wayne
Sky Full of Holes
Adam Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood continue to be melodic-pop craftsmen of the highest order on their fifth studio album. Too bad the more fitting title, Pure Pop for Now People, was already taken.
On his 11th studio album the former child protégé of Danny Gatton shows that singing and songwriting—especially on tunes like the stirring “The Last Matador of Bayonne”—are as much a part of his arsenal as white-hot Les Paul licks.
Tom Morello—The Nightwatchman
World Wide Rebel Songs
The fiery guitarist from Rage Against the Machine electrifies his Woody Guthrie–style activist/troubadour persona to create the type of rise-up songs ready-made for the revolution.
Big Head Blues Club
One Hundred Years of Robert Johnson
Big Head Todd & the Monsters singer-guitarist Todd Park Mohr steers a tribute to the Mississippi Delta blues legend that boasts the ace harmonica work of Charlie Musselwhite and sweet guitar by B.B. King and the recently departed Hubert Sumlin.
One Hundred Dollars
Songs of Man
The hauntingly magnetic vocal stylings of Simone Schmidt mesh beautifully with the twangy fretwork of Ian Russell and Paul Mortimer for an alt-country hoedown that’s both invigorating and poignant.
Ian Siegal and the Youngest Sons
British singer, songwriter, and guitarist Siegal crosses the pond to collaborate with the North Mississippi Allstars’ Cody Dickinson and the offspring of R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, and Bobby “Blue” Bland in a topnotch exploration of the North Mississippi hill-country vibe.
The Jeff Healey Band
Live at Grossman’s—1994
These nine previously unheard tracks from a Toronto bar gig are proof that—when he went to town on deathless blues gems by Howlin’ Wolf, Elmore James, and Robert Johnson—Healey was the greatest rock guitarist Canada has ever produced.
If this were about top songs, I’d be the laughingstock of the Straight’s music department. Not only would Britney Spears be getting a shout-out, so would Rihanna and Drake. For the sake of my street cred, thank Christ almighty we’re looking at long-players.
Dum Dum Girls
Only in Dreams
A 20-something girl singing about her dead mother doesn’t exactly scream “record of the year”. But nothing tops Only in Dreams. Pack leader Kristin “Dee Dee” Gundred pushes through the pain with earworming hooks and fierce vocals. There’s no wallowing here, just a badass babe who’s hell-bent on showing off her garage-rock diploma.
The Black Keys
There’s a chance this record sucks. Most of us are so doped up on the duo’s down ’n’ dirty blues-rock that it would take a guest turn by J.D. Fortune to make us cry foul. But I’m hoping it’s more than El Camino euphoria that’s making booty-shakers like “Run Right Back” and “Lonely Boy” sound so good.
It’s no wonder Bradford Cox recently suffered a nervous breakdown. Between his Deerhunter gig and Atlas Sound solo project, there’s hardly time to kick back in the La-Z-Boy. He might have dodged the meltdown had he half-assed Parallax, so let’s applaud Cox for sacrificing his sanity in the name of whipping up more cockeyed pop.
The Whole Love
Jeff Tweedy and I haven’t always seen eye to eye but he certainly got my attention with the manic album opener “Art of Almost”. How can you write off a record when it starts so full-throttle? Somehow, even the outrageously over-the-top “Capitol City”—a heavy-handed ode to the Beatles—will worm its way onto your playlist.
The next time you get into an argument about whose turn it is to take out the trash, turn this on, real loud—do it mid-spat if you have to. There’s no greater “fuck you” than the drugged-out drone rock this San Fran quartet churned out for West.
House of Balloons
I swore I’d never warm up to the Weeknd. And I made it a habit to sneer at those losing their shit over the “mysterious” mix tape Drake was suddenly pimping harder than Sprite. But… I was wrong. Truce, Drizzy?
Tinar-who? The African collective may not be a household name, but that’s no reason to tune it out. Upon hearing this album, NPR Music crowned the group the “best guitar-based rock band of the 21st century”. It’s an unfathomably bold statement—until you hear the traditional Tuareg melodies.
Feel It Break
The album rides on the coattails of its sensational lead single, “Beat and the Pulse”, but it’s still deserving of its Top 10 standing. Listen to any track, and when the moody electro meets powerhouse Katie Stelmanis’s operatic voice, you’ll see what all the fuss is about.
Before this mix tape ever went viral, 24-year-old A$AP Rocky already had a $3-million record deal. The Harlem MC is cruising for Tyler, the Creator’s crown, and he makes a pretty compelling case here.
Rock Creek Park
Another MC-producer who came out of left field—well, left-field Maryland, that is. Oddisee cooked up this largely instrumental hip-hop project in a mere two weeks, a dizzying pace for creating the soundtrack to a sprawling city park. Thanks to his innovative and thoughtful sampling, Rock Creek Park is a rare treat.
This year, I tried to take a more scientific approach to the Top 10 list, making a pile of my favourite recordings from 2011, grading them according to their relative ambition, and then listing the winners in alphabetical order. Take note, however: a couple of items here made the cut simply because they sound really, really good.
Night of Hunters
Even by Tori Amos’s standards, this is a grandiose project: a 14-song cycle, inspired by classical composers ranging from Johann Sebastian Bach to Erik Satie, that spans continents and millennia alike. Remarkably, it works.
Vancouver accordion prophet Geoff Berner ups his game by hiring Montreal’s Josh “Socalled” Dolgin to produce, but not before polishing his songcraft to a steely shine. Has anyone said more about Israel’s unsteady course than Berner does on the parablelike “Oh My Golem”?
The Icelandic pixie’s 21st-century course is less singular than it might seem, at least to those of us who’ve been exposed to the contemporary choral music of Scandinavia—but knowing this doesn’t make Biophilia any less otherworldly.
Dixie’s Death Pool
The Man With Flowering Hands
Lee Hutzulak’s painstakingly assembled collages suggest that he’s the Phil Spectre of the local scene, and the misspelling is entirely intentional. Ghostly, moody, and at times shockingly visceral, his music—which draws on jazz, folk, and abstract noise—exists in a gorgeous and singular interzone.
Huun Huur Tu
I’m cheating a bit: Ancestors Call is a 2010 release, but it landed on my desk a week after I’d filed last year’s Top 10. If I’d heard it earlier, it would have bumped Brian Eno down to number 11—not a bad testimony to the strange beauty of this Tuvan band’s charged, shamanic overtone singing.
Ballake Sissoko/Vincent Segal
The relaxed and conversational interplay between Ballaké Sissoko’s harplike kora and Vincent Segal’s cello suggests that France and its former colony Mali have found a way to embrace the best of both worlds.
New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges
Somebody had to do it: make cutting-edge experimental music that has the propulsive immediacy of a truly great rock band. Montreal-based saxophonist Colin Stetson’s elaborate multi-microphone setup lets us hear the avant-garde as it’s never been heard before.
Despite the presence of guest stars Tunde Adebimpi, Kyp Malone, and Nels Cline, Tassili takes a step back from the intense emotions (and blazing guitars) of 2009’s Imidiwan. It has charms of its own, however, perhaps because it was recorded outdoors in an Algerian park.
The Constant Pageant
English free-jazz drummer Alex Neilson sets his mind to songwriting, and arrives at a gutsy, psychedelic folk-rock sound that weds off-kilter Nordic rhythms to the sturdy melodies of Scotland and Yorkshire. In other words, it’s the music of my people!
Jeg Vil Hjem Til Menneskene
Susanna Wallumrød is known for her Ice Queen poise with Susanna and the Magical Orchestra, but this is something else again. Backed by an impeccable band, singing in Norsk rather than English, and working with the words of the late Norwegian poet Gunvor Hofmo, she reveals unanticipated emotional depths.
These are in order up until number two and then it’s a free-for-all, you crazy bastards!
Let England Shake
An everlasting gob-stopper of a record, this crone’s-eye view of conflict, clashing empires, and England’s blood-soaked earth—recorded in an 18th-century church, appropriately—is the album that elevates Harvey to godlike-genius status.
KMAG YOYO (& Other American Stories)
From gonzo rock ’n’ roll to boot-in-the-gut balladry, Carll is taking country out of the hands of the Nashville-stamped CGI death merchants and back to the existential hippie-cowboy bar in Texas where it belongs.
The Black Keys
“Lonely Boy” set the scene in October and it only gets better on El Camino, which sounds like a trash eater’s idea of a soul revival. This is a mind-shittingly good follow-up to Brothers.
Building Walls and Burning Bridges
White Rock? Pop music? 604 Records? Wait, come back! I know if the tables were turned and it was me reading about a scarily accomplished debut that sounds like the Jackson Five collaborating with ELO, I’d be pretty fucking intrigued.
We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves
We suffered through a vile and ugly decade of rinky-dink synth pop so that high-functioning superweirdo John Maus could turn it into demented and slightly terrifying art 30 years later. It all makes beautiful sense now.
Fuck me, a record that makes me think of German communal anarchists from the ’70s working for Factory Records in the ’80s. Plus, it’s local, and organic.
Back From the Brink
The eggheads say there are rich and complex Persian folk influences in Yaghmaei’s music. I just found this collection of polyester-clad casbah rock from prerevolution Iran to be one of the most transportingly strange and beautiful things I heard all year.
Alex Zhang Hungtai’s exotic deconstruction of rock ’n’ roll beggars description, but I picture a chronic masturbator in a motel room in Reno erotically fixated on Kenneth Anger’s “Scorpio Rising”. The celestially grimy “True Blue” is the part where he paints the ceiling.
The Smith Westerns
Dye It Blonde
A bunch of guys still counting their first pubes breathe life into the old glam-fizz-pop template while slathering on the murk to remind us that this isn’t the U.K. in 1973 (much as I wish it were).
You have to eat a lot of dog shit sprinkled with icing sugar when you’re a power-pop loyalist. Then something like Monster Suit comes along and all’s well in the sunshine-and-rainbow factory again, albeit in this case with Marc Bolan and a bit of Zep echoing off the walls.
There are strict regulations for these best-ofs that prevent me from detailing anything beyond the 10 finest slabs that rocked my 2011. That said, 2011 was pretty killer.
Alex Zhang Hungtai’s ominous opus on loneliness and the open road alternates between broken-hearted balladeering (the Françoise Hardy–sampling “Lord Knows Best”), eerie greaser rock (“Speedway King”), and decrepit ambient clanks (“Hotel”). Haunted and harrowing, the whole thing’s incredible.
No Time for Dreaming
From the detailed account of his brother’s death on “Heartaches and Pain” to the deep and darling “Lovin’ You, Baby”, sexagenarian soul singer Charles Bradley’s debut disc surges with so much raw emotion that it’s a damn shame it took the former James Brown impersonator several decades to find his own voice.
Made up of members of Sleater-Kinney and Helium, Wild Flag managed to pull off what supergroups like Zwan and Chickenfoot couldn’t: a well-rounded, stellar debut. Top highlights include Carrie Brownstein’s manic swagger on “Romance” and the angular sap pop of the Mary Timony–sung “Something Came Over Me”.
Let England Shake
Though built around melodies appropriated from “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” and Indian radio, the First World War–themed Let England Shake is yet another astoundingly original outing from PJ Harvey. The brass-and-autoharp battle on the bustling “The Words That Maketh Murder” alone is worth the price of admission.
Whether he’s backed by the booming timpani and strings of the redemptive “Go to Hell” or the fuzzed-out guitar runs and psychedelic synth swells of the devastating “Just Don’t”, Stone Rollin’ finds golden-throated throwback soulsmith Raphael Saadiq delivering some of the smoothest and most sensuous songs of his career.
Truthfully, I still haven’t invested in Real Estate’s earlier efforts, but the bittersweet and breezy “Easy” and the brisk snare-brushing and “whoa-oh-oh”s that drive “It’s Real” have me struggling to figure out why.
Featuring ’80s- porno synths, sexy sax lines, and vocals that bring to mind the Pet Shop Boys’ Neil Tennant more than they do the eccentric caterwaul we’re used to hearing out of Dan Bejar, Kaputt is hands down the perviest Destroyer disc to date. And it just might be the best.
Keep Away the Dead
While Siskiyou is a folk band at heart, its sophomore set gleefully buckles under the weight of outside influences. The rootsy cover of Neil Young’s “Revolution Blues” is a keeper, for sure, but gems like the title track and “Twigs and Stone”, both imbued with chaotic drum bursts more befitting a Lightning Bolt LP, reach well beyond the back porch.
House of Balloons
Abel Tesfaye (aka The Weeknd) is constantly dishing on sex and drugs, but the dude is definitely not glamorizing his game. Morning-after meals of Alizé and corn flakes and sad-sack sex scenes with pill poppers are just some of the scenarios recounted on the R&B singer’s first effort, which is driven by left-field samples from Beach House and Siouxsie and the Banshees.
Fill the Void
Nihilist stomps like “Nothing New” and “Dying World” ensure that Vacant State’s raging debut LP is exactly what hardcore should be: ugly, violent, and mean.
This was the year I finally decided that CDs were obsolete and resolved to sell my entire collection. On that note, does anyone want to buy an assortment of brightly coloured, perfectly functional drink coasters?
Only local troubadour Dan Bejar could successfully turn hokey elevator music and Kenny G–grade sax into a career-defining masterpiece that puts even his iconic work with the New Pornographers to shame.
If there’s one disc from 2011 that’s coming with me to that hypothetical desert island, it’s this collection of sizzling electro bangers from Wolf Parade howler Dan Boeckner, which brims with clubby beats and fist-in-the-air leftist anthems.
Not Vibraphone Like I’d Hoped Speaking of Wolf Parade members, Spencer Krug’s hypnotic new LP contains exactly what it says on the box: five swirling organ drones, each of them well over six minutes in length, and nary a vibraphone to be heard.
The tempos are blazing and the melodies will be stuck in your head long after this 28-minute pop-punk scorcher is over. Think Blink-182 without the dick jokes or Wavves without the weed-obsessed baggage.
If Stephen Malkmus from Pavement and Bilinda Butcher from My Bloody Valentine had hooked up back in the early ’90s, their noise-loving spawn would probably have written an album that sounds exactly like English Girlfriend.
Believe the hype. Golden-voiced songwriter Justin Vernon blends folk balladry with orchestral grandeur and new-age schmaltz for a majestic album that indie kids and Grammy nominators can agree on. If you thought you hated Enya, the pillowy keyboard tones of “Beth/Rest” might make you reconsider.
Pacey From Mighty Ducks
Has there ever been a more loving ode to our city’s cheap district than the giddy, Ramones-esque “East Van Cross”? Or a rumination on loneliness as roaringly funny as the Weezer-pilfering “Single Dad”? Either way, I’m pretty certain that there’s never been a better punk album with a title that alludes to Dawson’s Creek actor Joshua Jackson than this.
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart
Even the arena-worthy production of alt-rock studio geniuses Alan Moulder and Flood can’t rob these fuzz-pop charmers of their adorable fragility.
The debut LP from these Long Islanders might just be the funkiest album ever to be labelled “dream pop”. Even more strangely, standout track “Gene Ciampi” successfully mixes goofy disco glamour with spaghetti-western twang. It’s fucking ridiculous and totally amazing.
Extra Happy Ghost!!!
Far better than Chad VanGaalen’s own album in 2011 was this one he produced for sad-sack Calgary songwriter Matthew Swann, who probed the darkest recesses of his psyche and turned up this morbid collection of spare pop-rock. Sure, he could have beefed up the arrangements, but what’s the point when we’re all going to die anyway?