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.