Writing my year-end lists has alerted me to the fact that, once again, I missed out on a ton of good music. I still haven’t heard the records released this year by Wye Oak, Holy Ghost!, St. Vincent, Austra, Bjork, TV on the Radio, or Wild Flag (and plenty of others). Most of the jazz and electronic music I picked up was to fill in gaps in my collection. But here anyway are my more-or-less favourite ten records of the year, plus a few honourable mentions that I couldn’t totally leave off the list.
Also, I’m admittedly not good at writing album reviews, so all of this is probably going to sound like “I like this because it’s fun” written ten different ways. You’ve been warned!
My favourite albums of the year:
10. Sam Amidon – I See the Sign
Some of this album sounds almost otherworldly–these gorgeous textures of banjo and mallets and guitar quietly overlapping each other. I most often listen to it when I’m alone in the house. Traditional folk without being, well, very traditional at all.
9. Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues
Another album I didn’t expect to like, but ended up listening to surprisingly often–and another alone-in-the-house kind of record. The vocal harmonies on this are wonderfully dense and the whole thing wraps you up like a blanket.
8. The Decemberists – The King is Dead
I unapologetically love the Decemberists already, but the addition of Gillian Welch all over this record just takes the cake. “Don’t Carry It All” sounds like the sunny opening credits to a film. It’s a little less self-serving than The Hazards of Love (which I liked anyway), and a lot more Americana- and pop-influenced — in other words, pretty fun.
7. Destroyer – Kaputt
Smooth. This album is smooth. I consequently thought I would hate it because I have a bit of a crusade against “things that make people hate saxophones”, but in reality it makes a pretty solid case for Dan Bejar being one of the most interesting songwriters we’ve got these days.
6. Elliott Brood – Days Into Years
There are some real gems on here (“If I Get Old” and “Their Will” particularly), but the best part about it is the same kind of cohesion they achieved with Mountain Meadows. Everything fits together so well it feels like a crime not to hear it as an album. Dark, rough, and still sing-along-able.
5. Colin Stetson – New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges
Weird insane saxophone. Laurie Anderson. Shara Worden. Friggin’ live single takes. This album is totally crazy, ear-bendingly fascinating, and unlike pretty much everything else that is happening right now. Music like this is usually relegated to the dusty “weird stuff” corner of the store, but this found itself on the Polaris shortlist instead — and it’s nice to see a sax player front and centre in the non-jazz world for once.
4. Feist – Metals
I was never totally convinced by Feist’s other records; I’ve had songs I really liked but never enjoyed entire albums. Metals is a welcome departure from that. The arrangements are surprisingly stark at times but always held together by the thread of strong vocal lines, and the absence of cute pop stuff like “1-2-3-4″ is really welcome. If this is Feist’s new direction, count me in.
3. tUnE-yArDs – w h o k i l l
Unlike anything else I’ve heard — there is so much rhythmic brilliance in this record, such a fierce energy. Merrill Garbus has this earthy voice that can croon or wail or squeal or yelp on command, and she does all of those things with acrobatic agility. w h o k i l l is not smooth; rather it explodes joyfully out of your speakers in a sort of crazy musical collage.
2. Bon Iver – Bon Iver
Lush, dense, and beautiful. The instrumentation on Bon Iver’s sophomore record has filled out considerably (including aforementioned bass sax virtuoso Colin Stetson) and that makes all the difference here — everything is layered so thickly it’s like you’re buoyed up on sound. Bon Iver meanders off in different musical directions but never strays too far from the thoughtful, melancholy feel that anchors everything together. And there are still a few huge, gleeful, full-orchestra moments (in “Perth” especially) that I love.
1. The Mountain Goats – All Eternals Deck
John Darnielle is one of my favourite songwriters of all time, and this is one of his best albums–I certainly would place it among the ranks of The Sunset Tree and We Shall All Be Healed. I can’t even begin to think about how many times I’ve listened to this since it came out (but tMG did move up on my last.fm charts this year from roughly 40th to a whopping 2nd). He touches on the birth of mankind, Judy Garland, vampires, Liza Minnelli — and all, as usual, with such lyrical perfection. It’s usually tricky for me to pick one album from the whole year to crown as number one, but this one took virtually no effort at all; I can’t think of a group more deserving than the Mountain Goats.
Radiohead – The King of Limbs: I honestly just forgot that this album came out in 2011 until I had finished my list (and didn’t even acquire until most of the year had gone by). Nevertheless, I really really like it, and am basically stupid for having forgotten about it all year.
Paul Simon – So Beautiful or So What: There’s some filler on this record, to be sure, but when Paul Simon writes filler it’s usually better than a lot of artists’ good material. He still has the voice of an angel, though, and the production is wonderful.
Holiday Rambler – There Is No End to the World, And Nothing Can Shatter the Earth: An album I wish I had written. Full of Southern folk influence, great songwriting, and D. Alex Meeks’ rich voice.
The Weather Station – All of It Was Mine: If we’re counting records I wish I’d made, add this to the list. I’ve seen many of these songs performed many times, but the arrangements — especially the sudden vocal harmonies on “Everything I Saw” — bring them to life. “Came So Easy” is still among my favourite songs of the year.
More 2011 in review: Shows of the year