2011 was an odd year for me and music. Looking around year-end lists by other publications made me worry about how out of step I’ve become. Yes, some of the albums you’ll see on this list have popped up on other lists, but not as often as in year’s past. I’d like to say it’s because I’ve become more original and iconoclast, but honestly, it seems like the way to make this list was to be an artist I already liked releasing an album of similar quality to that which I’ve liked in the past (although it could just be that what was buzz-worthy this year was genres I don’t really care for). While I stand by my choices here, it’s possible that in the future, I may end up thinking of 2011 as the year my tastes calcified and I just gave up. But until then, at least I’ll have these albums to sustain me.
Honourable Mentions: Dum Dum Girls – Only in Dreams, Feist – Metals, Destroyer – Kaputt, Radiohead – The King of Limbs, The Kills – Blood Pressures
10. Mother Mother – Eureka: Taking the traditional space on my list of the artist(s) who gets a bump because I saw them live is Vancouver’s Mother Mother. Generally, seeing an album performed perform live makes you appreciate it more. Plus, I like to show favouritism to those who actually deign to perform in my city of a million-plus people. I’ve been seeing Mother Mother live for years now, watching them grow from being one of three opening acts at a festival show in a church to playing to a thousand people at the university. Not a meteoric rise, but a steady one. Eureka reflects this growth as the band’s most mature and slickly produced album yet, taming some of the rougher edges of their previous band geek trappings without sacrificing the playfulness that made them stand out at that festival all those years ago.
Sample Track: “My Baby Don’t Dance”
9. Cults – Cults: For the past couple of years, I’ve been attracted to indie bands that resurrect and update the sounds of girl pop of the past, be it Camera Obscura in 2009 or Dum Dum Girls last year (also this year). Manhattan duo Cults is that band for me this year, with an infectious debut that applies modern sensibilities and production techniques to harken back to sunny 60s girl groups (despite the fact that only one of them is actually a girl).
Sample Track: “Abducted”
8. Jay-Z and Kanye West – Watch The Throne: Hip-hop full length collaborations often sound like a better idea than the end up being in reality. What can sound like fire on a mixtape or single can come across as unfocused and unbalanced when applied to a dozen or so tracks of trying to create a cohesive whole from two distinct personalities. Jay-Z and Kanye were able to overcome this pitfall rather easily, as Ye has served as Jay-Z’s primary producer since the first Blueprint while Jigga has been Ye’s inspiration since before he took the mic. They’ve always covered similar territory in both their lyrics and lifestyle, so coming together for an album that celebrates their massive success and top dog status wasn’t much of a stretch. Thankfully, Watch the Throne serves as more than a simple victory lap for the game’s two biggest names, allowing them to explore some of the more human aspects of their personas in between verses detailing their incredible wealth and the many goods and services purchased with said wealth. Perhaps most compelling is the track below, seeing the duo reflect on the world they’ve created, released before we knew there was to be a little branding opportunity coming Jay and Beyonce’s way, offering poignancy without devolving into the new brand of rap-emo exemplified by the likes of Drake and Childish Gambino. Of course, it’s followed by a track titled “That’s My Bitch”, because hip-hop, that’s why.
Sample Track: “New Day”
7. St. Vincent – Strange Mercy: Due to her delicate voice, Annie Clark’s music will always be described as ethereal, which is an accurate, albeit limiting way to describe St. Vincent. With 2009′s Actor, she began to move away from the Beth Orton comparisons of her debut, and with Strange Mercy she completed the move with an album that highlights her virtuosity while being unafraid to get a little raw. This gives Strange Mercy an immediateness and attitude not seen in much of her earlier work, seemingly determined to show that having a voice of an angel doesn’t mean that she is one, resulting in her best, most interesting, album to date.
Sample Track: “Cheerleader”
6. Okkervil River – I Am So Far: While it shouldn’t matter, I’ll admit the complete absence of this album from every year end list I’ve seen surprised me. I don’t necessarily read these lists for a validation of my tastes, but the collective shrug meeting the newest release of a band that was on the rise three years ago had me, for a moment, questioning my own reaction. Was I Am So Far a worthy successor to their previous two-album exploration of rock fables, or was I just a fan unable to be critical of one his favourite bands? Ultimately, by its placement here, you can see I got over it and decided that I’m right where everyone else is wrong. It could be something as simple as at six albums in, the buzz has worn off this band, as they never quite ascended to the next level that contemporaries Arcade Fire and The Decemberists did, making them easy to overlook at year’s end (it was well reviewed upon release). As for the album itself, it’s not as unified as their earlier themed approaches, but still an excellent vehicle for Will Sheff’s immense talent as both a lyricist and producer. Its lack of form lets the band explore different sounds and areas without being forced to fit into a concept, leading to a chaotic album that is at time more sinister than past efforts while other times being just as grandiose as you’ve come to expect.
Sample Track: “The Valley”
5. Wye Oak – Civilian: It’s hard to pin down what exactly Wye Oak did differently with Civilian than their first two albums, they may simply have done it better (either that, or I finally fell victim to the AV Club’s constant cheerleading for the Baltimore duo. And for that, I thank them). Civilian was 2011′s most beautifully heartbreaking album, taking the best elements of the singer-songwriter and shoegazing genres while eschewing their excesses. Wye Oak succeeds in mining the well-trod areas of emotional despair without coming off as cliché or weepy largely due to the voice of Jenn Wasner, which pulls off the impressive trick of being both vulnerable and mature, giving the album a depth that belies their young age.
Sample Track: “Civilian”
4. The Decemberists – The King is Dead: After spending their past few albums exploring bigger, bolder, more ambitious sounds – culminating in 2009′s rock opera The Hazards of Love – The Decemberists decided to go more minimalist in 2011 with a more organic, alt-country offering. Of course, true minimalism isn’t really in The Decemberists playbook, so they play with the stripped down nature of the genre while still packing songs with as many flourishes as the format will allow, resulting in an album is both as personal as any the band has released since their debut and an excellent example of their fantastical story-based approach to music. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Sample Track: “Don’t Carry It All”
3. Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues: The Seattle indie folk quintet followed up their 2008 debut with an album that covers a lot of the same territory: pastoral anachronisms that recall campfire melodies by way of Beach Boy harmonies. There’s a bit more world-weariness to this album, as Robin Pecknold and company struggle with their newfound fame (perhaps one of the reasons the band is already splintering, with drummer J. Tillman leaving the band early this year). The album is more of a continuum from their earlier work than an exploration of something new, but when a band is capable of music this beautiful, I don’t care if they release a dozen albums that sound largely the same. I was in love with this album by the time Pecknold finished the first verse of the first track (“Montezuma”), and that love has only grown since.
Sample Track: “Montezuma”
2. Bon Iver – Bon Iver: Justin Vernon’s sophomore effort doesn’t have the romantic back story that made For Emma, Forever Ago the stuff of legend, but it turns out that it doesn’t need it. With this album, he didn’t have to lock himself away in a cabin, and instead showed what he could do with more ambitious production and the heightened expectations that followed his stunning debut. The result is probably the most acclaimed indie rock album of 2011, and for good reason. I’ll admit, I didn’t immediately take to the album (despite the fact that its lead-off single is named after my hometown), but I’m going to attribute that more to its release date than anything else. While Bon Iver isn’t as wintery a record as For Emma, the summer is no time to listen to this album. But sure enough, once the mercury levels in the thermometers started dropping, so too did this album find itself in constant rotation. Where I’m sure it will remain at least it’s shorts weather again.
Sample Track: “Calgary”
1. The Rural Alberta Advantage – Departing: I’ve been aware of The RAA’s existence for a few years now, but for whatever reason, didn’t start paying attention until this year. Maybe it’s because I’ve been to rural Alberta, and refused to accept that any art that came out of it would be worth my time. Of course, the name is largely ironic, as there’s nothing rural to their sound and the band isn’t even from there (although lead singer Nils Edenloff did grow up in Fort McMurray before moving to Toronto). Their music is skillfully arranged indie pop more reminiscent of Stars or The Walkmen than the honky-tonk their name implies. But they still pay homage to the province that gives them their name within the content, resulting in a bittersweet tour of the frozen region, with a heavy sprinkling of raw ache and regret echoed in Edenloff’s troubadour vocals, contrasted by Paul Banwatt’s spirited percussion.
I discovered both Departing and The RAA’s debut Hometowns this year, so it’s possible I’m giving them extra credit for an album they recorded three years ago. But as the months passed after my discovery, neither album went very long between plays. It didn’t immediately feel like an Album of the Year contender, but it was an album I loved instantly. But as the year progressed and no other contender fully emerged, I decided, why not go with the album I clearly enjoy listening to the most as my number one? Why not use whatever meager influence I may have with this tiny soapbox to champion a band that I myself ignored for far too long? So if you’ve overlooked this band due to name, or haven’t heard of them at all, you should probably do something about that.
Sample Track: “Two Lovers”