Top 10 lists are hard, especially with something as open to personal preference as music. Should one include their personal favourites, or the albums one sees as innovative and daring, even if they weren’t on the iPod rotation as often? 2011 was a great year for musical experimentation – concept albums abounded and the noble saxophone experienced somewhat of a renaissance. In light of this, I decided to go with route #2. Even though there were other albums that contained one single I had on repeat for a week, these records were the products of the true visionaries of 2011. Their scope, vision, and innovation were unmatched, in my opinion. And that’s all it really is, isn’t it? And I know you have one, too, so read my picks for the top 10 albums of 2011 after the jump and leave your opinions in the comments!
10. Fucked Up – David Comes to Life
Canadian punk rockers Fucked Up could very well be the only band capable of making this record. Having collaborated with the likes of LCD Soundsystem, Ezra Koenig (Vampire Weekend) and many more, they’re a punk band that refuses to toe genre lines. David Comes to Life continues that tradition in a powerful way. An 18 track punk rock meta-opera that seamlessly meshes frontman Damian Abraham’s guttural shouts with clean-cut background vocals, occasional Hold Steady-esque riffs, instrumentation that wouldn’t be out of place on a Weakerthans album and catchy, melodic hooks, David Comes to Life is an experience to savour. The sheer ambitiousness of the record should be reason enough to check it out, even if punk isn’t normally up your alley. Even if you don’t have a lyric sheet to follow the incredibly cerebral storyline, you can always enjoy the hooks, melodies and riffs galore to be found on David Comes to Life.
Fucked Up – The Other Shoe
9. Shabazz Palaces – Black Up
What to call Shabazz Palaces’ music? Dub-Hop? Experimental Rap? Even if their sound is hard to pin down, the tracks really do speak for themselves as they meander and often finish in a completely different sonic landscape than when they started. Cryptic rhymes float over hazy, downtempo beats and sometimes come together out of the aether to join in repeating a phrase. When this happens, the album has its most striking moments. While much of modern hashtag rap depends on a single catchy phrase to move units, Black Up rarely indulges in such lazy songwriting. Because of this, when the lyrics move toward a repeated phrase, the effect is arresting. Being a massive fan of early 70’s electronic music pioneers Suicide, the track “Yeah You” really seals the deal for me. The droning, lo-fi percussion and simple synth riff flawlessly recall early electronic experiments while bringing something absolutely fresh to the table.
Shabazz Palaces – Yeah You
8. Girls – Father, Son, Holy Ghost
By now, we can always expect quality music from California indie rock outfit, Girls. With this album, they’ve released what is probably the best collection of pop music this year. The hooks just don’t stop on this album, but instead of descending into insipid top 40 drivel Father, Son, Holy Ghost reaches new heights of pop perfection. The entire album is permeated with a kind of retro fetishism. It’s most apparent in the songs themselves, as they recall rock and pop music from an era gone by. Less readily apparent, but just as important, is the impeccable production of this record. The care that went into every aspect of the recording and engineering process is displayed in the vintage warmth that envelops the tracks. Whether cranking out surf rock or stoner metal (no, really, check out “Die”), Girls masterfully execute every aspect of this album.
Girls – Honey Bunny
7. Nicolas Jaar – Space Is Only Noise
Space Is Only Noise is the sexiest album of the year. It doesn’t achieve this through obvious sexual lyrics, but through the use of ambient space that invites the listener to read between the lines to find the x-rated core of the album. Fusing elements of downtempo house, lounge music, jazz, frequent audio clips from old French films, and a Ray Charles loop, Nicolas Jaar crafted a record of chill-out music that curls its finger at the listener in a “come hither” motion and asks them to shake their hips. While Nicolas Jaar was displaced on many year-end lists by James Blake in the “sexy post-dubstep downtempo electronic music” genre, Space Is Only Noise is ultimately the stronger album by virtue of its carefully crafted arrangements. Jaar may not be as golden-throated as Blake, but his deep, effect-laden voice is far more striking as it rarely makes an appearance. When it does, though, you have no choice but to sit up and listen.
Nicolas Jaar – Too Many Kids Finding Rain in the Dust
6. tUnE yArDs – w h o k i l l
The second album from Portland-based artist Merrill Garbus, w h o k i l l is a fantastic piece of musical innovation that grooves like no other album in 2011. Blending pop elements with influences of afrobeat, a prominent bass guitar that slinks and grooves, and Garbus’ incredibly powerful voice, w h o k i l l is a musical experience like few others. The arrangements on the album really stand out, as well. Each element works together seamlessly, and Garbus’ pop vocal melodies work to soften the often off-kilter, eccentric rhythms. The lyrics are worth noting as well, as they often touch on hot-button issues of race and sex. This is displayed when Garbus laments in “Killa,” “Would you call me naive and an idealist if I told you that I am disheartened that in this day and age I don’t have more black, male friends?” Fusing world music with pop sensibilities can be a risky move, but Merrill Garbus and tUnE-yArDs have done what few others besides Talking Heads and perhaps Vampire Weekend have to create an album that is both musically interesting and incredibly catchy.
tUnE-yArDs – Gangsta
5. Colin Stetson – A New History of Warfare, Vol. 2: Judges
Stetson has become a familiar face in the Canadian and worldwide indie music scene over the last year, dragging his trusty baritone saxophone into collaborations with LCD Soundsystem, Feist, Bon Iver, and Arcade Fire. While 2011 was the saxiest year for music in recent memory, many bands played it for kitsch; an ironic nod to 80s musical tropes. Colin Stetson, on the other hand, has created a truly progressive record that uses the saxophone in ways never heard before. It shrieks, flutters, and thumps as occasional subtle electronic beats and fuzzy synths swirl around it. The whole album is imbued with a feeling of raw kinetic energy – at points, Stetson’s percussive breaths and the clack of saxophone keys provide the only rhythm. If it sounds a little inaccessible, it’s because it is. A 14-track concept album centering around the baritone sax doesn’t exactly invite easy listening, but even if it’s demanding at times, it always pays off. With this album, Stetson has cemented himself as a true visionary who is doing things with his instrument that were never thought to be possible. If you don’t believe me, watch him break down “Judges.”
Colin Stetson – Red Horse (Judges II)
4. Destroyer – Kaputt
Dan Bejar is no newcomer to the Canadian indie scene, but he’s often recognized more for his contributions to The New Pornographers than his band Destroyer, which has been putting out music since 1995. With Kaputt, however, Bejar crafted a sound that has caused even Pitchfork to take notice and rank Kaputt as the second-best album of the year. Tight percussion, chorus-y guitars, dreamy synths and Bejar’s mumble of a voice come together to create a shimmery 80s aesthetic. Oh, and did I mention the saxophone? Oh yes, the noble saxophone has indeed enjoyed a banner year, and Destroyer was one of the bands that best utilized it. Instead of taking away from the arrangements as obvious kitsch, the smooth Kenny G sax playing only adds to the aesthetic Bejar works to create on Kaputt. For all the obvious 80s pop nods, the record maintains a mysterious air thanks to Bejar’s oblique, bordering-on-indecipherable lyrics. When Bejar mumbles through a line like “Quatrain etched on a turnstile / Just set the loop and then go wild” on “Savage Night at the Opera,” a track dominated by a fuzzy synth and chorus-laden guitar, you can’t help but be intrigued.
Destroyer – Savage Night at the Opera
3. BRAIDS – Native Speaker
Borrowing heavily from post-rock, Native Speaker is an album whose seven tracks are imbued with a sense of improvisation and discovery. Melodies flutter in and out of the compositions, and textures slowly envelop each other and swirl around in a technicolor dream sequence. The opening track, “Lemonade,” serves in many ways as the album’s most concise statement of purpose. Its roomy, ambient composition gives way to a galloping refrain of “All we wanna do is love.” The care that went into the layering of the various elements (guitars, synths, drums, bells, etc.) is impressive as well. Nothing ever seems out of place or overbearing, even when the arrangements become increasingly complex. Frontwoman Raphaelle Standell-Preston’s vocals are another highlight of the record as her voice shifts between being small and playful and big and powerful effortlessly.
BRAIDS – Lemonade
2. St. Vincent – Strange Mercy
After three fantastic albums, there is no longer any question that Annie Clark (AKA St. Vincent) is a musical prodigy and a real guitar whiz. Everything from the album art to the lyrics and the arrangements themselves reflect St. Vincent’s unsettling aesthetic. On the surface, everything looks normal – even placid. Clark’s striking looks, sultry voice and pop song structures all give off a very sanitary feel. It all begins to fall apart, however. On “Cheerleader,” Clark plays the chronically manipulative seductress; she’ll break your heart and “[tell] lies with a half-smile.” On “Cruel,” the album’s pop-iest moment, a strangled, fuzzed-out guitar solo rips through the sugary-sweet arrangement and disco beat. Apart from high-brow concepts, the music itself is really fantastic. The aforementioned “Cruel” made it on to my “Monday Morning Booty-Shakin’ Jams” playlist, and the album is filled with moments of brilliance as Clark experiments with ambient textures and expertly applies her familiar guitar heroics.
St. Vincent – Cheerleader
1. Sandro Perri – Impossible Spaces
Sandro Perri is a man obsessed with eclecticism. The Canadian producer and musician has made electronic music, folk music, and has now moved on to Impossible Spaces – a brilliant amalgamation of samba, folk, African jazz, electronic elements, pop hooks, and impeccable songwriting and arrangements. The album has a “classic” feel to it; well-worn song titles like “Changes” and “Wolfman” echo their rich histories in spirit as they hearken back to a time when musicians made music, not radio hits. With three tracks clocking in at over seven minutes, and the monstrous “Wolfman” running over ten, Perri is clearly interested in exploring sonic landscapes without the hindrance of tailoring a song for radio play. Impossible Spaces is a master class in texture and layering. Every element is placed within the arrangements with uncommon care so that with each listen I discover new nuances. This is an album to be listened and re-listened to, it’s as much a project of discovery as it is simple enjoyment. The album truly offers both, as Perri’s masterful skill as a pop songwriter is always front and centre in this masterpiece. The hooks will be stuck in your head for days.
Sandro Perri – Changes
Panda Bear – Tomboy
Atlas Sound – Parallax
Timber Timbre – Creep On Creepin’ On
Kate Bush – 50 Words for Snow
The Luyas – Too Beautiful to Work