This ended up being way harder than I thought it would be. At the end of November, I wasn’t happy with my preliminary list, but knew two potentials were being released shortly and that it would change the line up. Then when I locked it down, the list just felt wrong. So I did something I never do:
I delayed publication and listened to every 2011 I own. Repeatedly.
Instead of my usual yuletide, Pogues induced December music coma, I listened to thirty particular albums over and over and over. Then I opened the list back up and made some changes. Hence the late publication date.
But under the cut are the twenty albums I like best. Some people will be disappointed by the exclusion of one particular album. Some will be surprised by the inclusion of others. But I will say this. 2011 wasn’t a grand year for music, but man, some of it was freakin’ fantastic.
Thanks to all the people who threw suggestions out at me over the year. I appreciate it, and you all pointed me to bands I would have never given a chance otherwise. Merci, gracias, danke, tak, go raibh mile maith agat.
20. Adele 21
The British lass with the huge voice had the best-selling album of 2011, so it’s easy to forget that the album itself is pretty good. Yes, it’s full of mid tempo songs and soppy ballads, but they are great mid tempo songs and soppy ballads. And singles like “Rolling in the Deep” and “Someone Like You” are instantly recognizable. And man, I can’t believe how much one person can get from an asshole ex.
And can I just say Adele’s voice is just so amazing? I love it so much.
Key tracks: the ubiquitous “Rolling in the Deep” and “Someone Like You”; the seventies inspired soul of “I’ll Be Waiting”; the simple and elegant cover of the Cure’s “Lovesong”; the quiet fury of “Set Fire To the Rain”.
19. Bon Iver Bon Iver
In the “completely out of left field” department, Bon Iver decided to leave the low-fi acoustics of his 2008 gem For Emma, Forever Ago behind and went for being in Chicago. This move irritated some. Others, like me, were forced to admit they like the 80s influenced sounds of this album, and more importantly, that they do, in fact, own Chicago’s music. But while the sounds are similar, there is still some sort of weird indie vibe under the guitars and keyboards. Maybe the new indie is MOR. Justin Vernon may just be showing us the future.
But this alarming thought doesn’t mean that “Holocene” and “Calgary” aren’t beautiful songs, or that the piano on “Wash.” isn’t some of the loveliest piano work of the year. And Vernon’s falsetto is one of the best voices in indie music.
Maybe next time, he’ll be inspired by the Turtles. Just imagine.
Key tracks: the finger picking of the Grammy-nominated “Holocene”; the icy organ sounds of “Calgary”; the nostalgic piano/guitars of “Beth/Rest”; the chiming intro and horn section of “Minnesota, WI”.
18. Kate Bush 50 Words For Snow
I am a stubborn creature. I have spent the better part of my life trying not to listen to a Kate Bush album. It’s all because I despise “Wuthering Heights”. It’s not wholly her fault, I tend to hate everything Bronte based not involving a very hot Laurence Olivier. But the screeching vocals of the song was enough to make me think “This woman is insane”.
But I listen to so many female artists that are clearly influenced by the legend of Kate. Tori Amos is one of my favourite female singer songwriter of all time. If I can listen to every single Tori album multiple times, surely I can listen to a mature Kate Bush sing about winter, right?
You know, I hate it when every single person I know is right, thereby proving me wrong?
The album is beautiful to listen to, Kate’s voice sounds rich and her piano work is exquisite. While the songs are all over six minutes in length, they go by rather quickly. And in the end, it’s an ethereal, inspired album that I am glad to have spent time listening to.
And then I listened to it again. And again.
Let me make this clear. I still think “Wuthering Heights” is a terrible song. But I might, might, just give Kate’s albums a chance now. I mean, if the woman can do something this beautiful and relevant now, she must have done something amazing in 1985, right?
Key tracks: the gorgeous choir voices of “Lake Tahoe”; the wind blasted “Wild Man”; the Stephen Fry cameo on “50 Words For Snow”, because Stephen Fry makes everything good; the lovely “Among Angels”.
17. The Black Keys El Camino
Everyone’s favourite Ohio-based two-man blues rock outfit returned in 2011 to capitalise on the phenomenal success of 2010’s Brothers and equal the effort. El Camino is among the most fun I have had all year listening to an album. Instead of being entrenched in their blusier side, they went for pure rock and roll, and songs like “Lonely Boy”, “Dead And Gone”, and “Run Right Back” rock old school. You never know how much you miss rock and roll until someone decides to do it right.
They did it right.
Key tracks: the surf rock influence on the guitars of “Lonely Boy”; the seventies throwback of “Mind Eraser”; the punkish thrash of “Money Maker”; the soulful “Dead and Gone”.
16. tUnE-yArDs w h o k i l l
Merrill Garbus is an amazing talent. She can subvert “My County Tis of Thee” to tell of social injustice instead of using it for jingoism, and it sounds awesome. She can tell tales of being surrounded by gangsters, of witnessing police brutality. She uses drum machines, her primary instrument is a ukulele. Her voice creates interesting texture, it jumps and hiccups and soars and grounds itself. Rarely has an artist just make me glad I live in the hear and now like this. Awe-inspiring.
Key tracks: the critical “My Country”: the sonic loveliness of “Bizness”; the raging “Gangsta” and “Riotriot”.
15. Danger Mouse and Daniele Luppi Rome
I am pretty much in the Danger Mouse is a genius and can do no wrong camp of the music world. And when you spend five years of your life with an Italian composer friend, Norah Jones, and Jack White recreating the sounds of the spaghetti western using period instruments and recording techniques, and what one can kindly say are period musicians as well, you deserve praise. Fortunately, the album that came out of this passion for a specific genre of music was both good and real. A brilliant recreation that brought a dated but iconic style up to date. Astonishing.
Key tracks: the inspired Jack White vocal of “The Rose With the Broken Neck”; the coolness of “The Gambling Priest”; “Black”, which is the best thing Norah Jones has ever done; the modern update of an entire genre that is “Theme of ‘Rome'”.
14. Anna Calvi Anna Calvi
She has Brian Eno as a champion, so it’s no surprise that Anna Calvi is one very interesting woman. Her astonishing, Mercury-nominated 2011 début album is a gem. At turns sonically brave (it opens with the instrumental “Rider to the Sea”, with some brilliant guitar work by Calvi) and rich in tone, the album is rooted in free-form experiments, but with the confidence of someone classically trained and just as inspired by Morricone as they are Patti Smith. All I know is, when she unleashes her voice, against that guitar of hers, the world is no longer safe from the British female singer-songwriter with a broken heart. Intense, but well worth it.
Key tracks: the virtuosity of “Rider to the Sea”; the chaotic spirit of “The Devil”; the oddness of “Love Won’t Be Leaving”; the great single “Desire”.
13. The Horrors Skying
I don’t know why it has taken so long for a band to mash-up Echo and the Bunnymen and My Bloody Valentine, but these boys did it. With the complexity of Kevin Shields’ legendary shoegazing outfit mixed with the broody post-punk Echo vocal stylization, you get something that sounds almost new but not quite new enough. It’s comforting to someone who has worn out many an Echo and MBV record in her day. To top it off, they are a really good band. Fantastic album.
Key tracks: the bass heavy, synth driven “Still Life”; the 80s drenched atmosphere of “Changing the Rain”; the hypnotic “Oceans Burning”; the bright “I Can see Through You”.
12. The Weeknd House of Balloons
The mystifying Canadian hip hop indie kid managed to score a Polaris nomination for a mix tape. But God, what a mix tape. He doesn’t reinvent the wheel so much as masters the construction of it. Yeah, he relies a bit on the clichés of hiphop lyrics, but he sounds sad instead of egomaniacal, and he layer beautiful sounds over each other. Samples from Siouxsie Sioux and Cocteau Twins tells you that he may be a hip hop star, but his heart lies in the indie rock milieu, and if he continues on that way, we will witness a new hero join the masters like Kanye and Lil’ Wayne. The Weeknd expands what to expect from a misunderstood and stale genre.
Key tracks: the frustration and remorse of “The Morning”; the sonic pornography of “Loft Music”; the Michael Jackson vocals of “House of Balloons-Glass Table Girls”; the impossibly lovely “The Knowing”.
11. Elbow Build A Rocket, Boys!
I love Elbow. I do. I loved their grand ambition on The Seldom Seen Kid, and I can listen to “On A Day Like This” all day and just feel amazing. The trick is what happens when success makes you less mopey. If you’re Guy Garvey of elbow, you write completely different lyrics. Whether it’s the sweet nostalgia of “Jesus is a Rochdale Girl”, the lament of “Lippy Kids”, or the Abbaesque opening piano chords of “Open Arms” (cribbing “Mamma Mia” is always a good idea, even for ten seconds), the band evolves just enough to become better and more interesting, but not chucking the piano atmospheric orchestral pop thing out the window.
Also, if you are a Coldplay fan, and are not listening to Elbow as well, there is something wrong with you. After all, after 2011, Elbow is a better Coldplay than Coldplay.
Elbow, though, probably was always better than Coldplay.
Key tracks: the beautiful “Jesus Is a Rochdale Girl”; the harder sounds of “Neat Little Rows”; the epic loopiness of “The Birds”; the lovely “Dear Friends”
10. Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks Mirror Traffic
The frustrating thing about being a Pavement fan is seeing the spotty post-Pavement career of that band’s heart and soul, Stephen Malkmus. I have never like a single Malkmus solo album all the way through.
But the minute I heard Mirror Traffic, I sighed with relief. Focused, streamlined, in good lyrical form, Malkmus shines like he is still in 1992 and it’s his heyday. From the stuttering frustration of “Senator” through to the indie beauty of “Gorgeous Georgie” ( bonus points for throwing in “dames” and not sounding like a Dead End Kid), producer Beck and the band keep it simple stupid and create the best album of 1994 a bit late.
Key tracks: the political diatribe of “Senator”; my iPod’s personal favourite “Jumblegloss”; chipper sounding album opener “Tigers”; the racing guitars of “Tune Grief”.
9. Austra Feel It Break
Some albums define cool in two ways. There is the “I’m cool, don’t care if no one likes my music because I am awesome” type of cool. Then there is the “icy synths and sparse recordings” type of cool. Austra is both versions of cool. Again, 80s inspired synths and drums meet Kate Bush via nordic winters inspired vocals, creating an emotionally detached but complete sound. This band’s Polaris nominated début album is a spaced out, trippy, cool winner.
Key tracks: the Human League-esque “The Future”; the appropriately pulsating “Beat and the Pulse”; the mind-blowing “Darken Her Horse”; the jumpy “Shoot The Water”.
8. PJ Harvey Let England Shake
She’s Polly Jean, the woman who gave me so many songs to rage with in the early 1990s, and helped me mature in the early 2000s. Needless to say, I find no fault with her quirky, back to the earth, I’m playing autoharp gem of an album. Told via narrator, it’s her most adventurous, ambitious album to date. This is what rebellion and peaceniks sound like in the new millennium, people. They go back to the roots of all music and write strangely beautiful songs.
Key tracks: the bouncy opening of the title track; the striking “The Words That Maketh Murder”; the heavy piano of “Hanging In the Wire”; the musical cacophony that is “This Glorious Land”.
7. Wild Flag Wild Flag
What makes up a supergroup? I mean, Cream was one. But is Wild Flag? It’s not about ego. Lord knows if you were with Helium and Sleater-Kinney, you have no ego, nor a large international fan base that will proclaim you God in graffiti on some French wall somewhere. But members of lost 90s acts coming together and putting out one of the best albums I have heard all year? That makes me obscenely happy. I missed Carrie Brownstein’s guitar. The definition of girls running the world, everyone.
Key tracks: the post punk indie genius and strong vocal melody of “Romance”; the seventies inspired “Glass Tambourine”; the sharp and cutting “Future Crimes”; the fun “Boom”.
6. Iceage New Brigade
The Danish punk rock band is made up by mere babies. But man, as they go forward, they’re gonna be fucking spectacular. Taking the best that Gang of Four has to offer, buried the English vocals in the mix, and created their own no-wave slice of musical heaven. Even the siren like guitar of “Collapse” sounds completely fresh. Maybe this is the band that’ll make us forgive my ancestral home for Aqua.
Key tracks: the shriek of “Collapse”; the haunting “White Rune”; the Sabbath cribbing “Never Return”; the furious drums of “Rotting Heights”; the speedy title track.
5. Little Dragon Ritual Union
Clearly I fell out with electronica somewhere, as this Swedish band escaped my notice until they appeared on the Gorillaz 2010 masterpiece Plastic Beach. Their third album is a lovely slice of dance, trance and Yukimi Nagano’s lovely little expressive voice. The spaced out soul and icy keyboards form a strong if spare base for her lyrical wanderings, and when all is said and done, you appreciate subtlety like never before.
Key tracks: the bouncy “Shuffle A Dream”; the eerie “When I Go Out”; the calming “Crystalfilm”; the creative mash that is “Summertearz”.
4. Hey Rosetta! Seeds
Canadian pride shows up as Newfoundland and Labrador’s best band released their best album in 2011. The band has grown by leaps and bounds over the years, growing in ability and in confidence, and all that patience with them has paid off with a rich, textured album full of fantastically arranged indie pop and soaring choruses. Tim Baker’s voice sounds fantastic, and let’s face it, in a Canadian music landscape filled with hypermelodic orchestral pop, it’s nice to have a simpler sound every once in a while. A sweet, magical album.
Key tracks: the moody “Yer Spring”; the elegant organ and guitars opening “New Sums (Nous Sommes)” that go kinda ska based after the intro; the simple beauty of “Bandages”; the arpeggios of “Brick”.
3. The Roots Undun
The album that I was eagerly anticipating at the end of November doesn’t disappoint. The best band in hip hop created their masterpiece (tall order, considering they are the Roots). As the always fantastic musicianship just continues to be better (playing live as Jimmy Fallon’s band every night on TV has done wonders for them), Black Thought tells the unbearably sad and complicated tale of Redford Stevens. As far as concept albums go, it’s a winner. As far as a take on the difficulty on modern life, it’s probably one of the best socially aware albums ever. Worth the wait. Worth the extra time. Definitely worth revising a list for.
Key tracks: the rich old school soul of “Kool On”; the stuttering opening of “Make My” that sinks into finger snaps and magical Questlove percussive masterwork; the classic hiphop beats and delicate piano of “The Otherside”; the spooky “Sleep”.
2. Fucked Up David Comes To Life
Hardcore gets all concept on us here, as the Toronto-based heroes of the genre tell the story of David. And then it gets weird.
Strong melodies, strangely compelling and interesting narrative, complete with shifting POV and a battle over one’s own life tale is what Fucked Up attempts here, and they pull it off beautifully. From the spiralling up of noise of the instrumental opening track through fantastic songs like “Queen of Hearts” and “The Other Shoe”, Fucked Up reminds us that just because you love dissonance banging and feedback drenched songs, doesn’t mean you can’t create something beautiful.
Key tracks: the astonishing point/counterpoint of Damian’s scream and Jennifer Castle’s sweet tone on “The Other Shoe”; the punked up “Queen of Hearts”; the rage of “A Little Death”; the brilliant album closer “Lights Go Up”.
1. Wilco The Whole Love
And despite it all, I still come back to the comforting arms of Wilco.
After years of frustration as Jeff Tweedy decided to do- well, whatever the hell he did for a few albums, the band returns to form with a striking set of songs that are bookended by two very different but interesting experiments. Whether you like the jagged notes that propel “Art of Almost” forward, or prefer the precious and gentle loop of “One Sunday Morning ( Song For Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend)”, or the more conventional songs in between, you cannot go wrong with this album. On constant play since it came out, I am proud to once again call myself a Wilco fan, and do it without quantifying it with YHF or Summerteeth.
They’re back, and they are magnificent.
Key tracks: the aggressive “Art of Almost”; the almost hymn-like “One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend)”; the guitars of “Born Again”; the twisted but amusing “I Might”.