No, I don’t like lists. I don’t like making them (it’s a lot more work than it looks) and I don’t usually like reading them. Nevertheless, I find that a yearly music list is useful for remembering the year in culture given how much music actually gets released these days. It also gives you something to read during the Christmas break.
It’s not a best-music-of-2011 list and more of a favourite-music-of-2011 list. The idea, of course is that they should overlap in the right areas.
In an attempt to avoid some of my disagreements with the idea of lists, I’ve put my favourite albums on mine in no particular order except the alphabetical one. However, I’ve used a three-tiered system with a crappy academic metaphor in order to give a broad differentiation with regards to the music that I liked (Second-Upper!), the music that I loved (First-Class Honours!), and the music that was significant/important (in my view, of course) while being both of these things (Dean’s List!).
Right, let’s not waste time and get right into it.
Father, Son, Holy Ghost, Girls
[“Vomit” via YouTube]
Eschewing the emotional complexity of Broken Dreams Club for something more direct and intuitive while also preserving the richness and thoughtfulness of the EP, Girls return with an album that furthers their enterprise in exploring the limits of the pop vernacular. Father, Son, Holy Ghost is both a statement that the band understand their own magic and one of the year’s highest musical achievements.
The King of Limbs, Radiohead
[“Bloom” via YouTube]
From the swirling and gigantic opener “Bloom” to the shimmering “Separator”, The King of Limbs unfolds within a carefully-devised two-part structure. The first is eerie, skittering, surreal, and ramps up the tension before the ethereal “Lotus Flower”. The second is restrained, rich, and melodic, unwinding the work of the first half into its resplendent conclusion. A divisive album among critics, but definitely one of the year’s great albums in my view.
Let England Shake, PJ Harvey
[“The Words That Maketh Murder” via YouTube]
Our history of violence isn’t a new topic, butit isn’t every day that it is handled with such maturity and grace. The pop music vernacular is perhaps supposed to be limited in scope and impoverished in expression, but as Polly Jean Harvey has (and in a different way, Girls have) shown, it’s capable of saying much more than it has a right to.
Strange Mercy, St. Vincent
[“Cruel” via YouTube]
Fresh, assured, catchy, and sometimes deeply unnerving, Strange Mercy negotiates a difficult tension between the more straightforward aesthetic pleasures of popular music and a highly complex emotional terrain with incredible dexterity. (And just listen to that guitar on “Cruel”.) I can’t wait to see what she thinks of next.
w h o k i l l, tUnE-yArDs
[“Doorstep” via YouTube]
When I first heard “Bizness”, it was something of a revelation. w h o k i l l is a brilliant conjunction of atonal melodies, complex percussion, and an inventive use of loop effects with a magnificent voice to top it off. But the album is far more than the sum of its parts, an endlessly thrilling creative journey that tackles themes of nation, society, violence, and ugliness.
50 Words For Snow, Kate Bush
[“Wild Man” via YouTube]
Like some of the other musicians on this list (Cass McCombs and the Weeknd), Kate Bush released two separate records this year. This second album of new material is striking, and sees the musician fully at ease with her own craft. Restrained, carefully balanced, and ultimately haunting, 50 Words For Snow shouldn’t be missed.
Anna Calvi, Anna Calvi
[“Suzanne and I” via YouTube]
In my own fiction, I had dreamed up a singer with a larger-than-life image, an immense stage presence, a darkly operatic take on rock music, and a hint of androgyny. Early this year, I discovered someone quite like her in Anna Calvi, and I’ve been in love ever since.
[“Crystalline” via YouTube]
Also a divisive record for the critics, Biophilia was touted as a multimedia art project during its release. Specific to the album, however, I am of the opinion that this is among some of the most beautiful music that Björk has produced. (This album was really close to making the Dean’s List, but I had to be picky, so it missed out very narrowly. Not that it’s any less of a brilliant album, though.)
Helplessness Blues, Fleet Foxes
[“A Shrine/An Argument” via YouTube]
It was difficult to imagine how anyone would construct a follow-up to the rather excellent and ambitious Fleet Foxes back when that first album surfaced. Not a problem. In Helplessness Blues, the band manages to sound new and exciting without dismantling the sound they had established in their debut. The result is memorable and grand, and a fine musical adventure.
Nuestra, La Vida Bohème
[“Radio Capital” via YouTube]
While technically released in 2010, this album gained traction on the international music scene only after its North American release in 2011. (A couple of award nominations certainly helped.) A delightful blend of the Ramones, the Clash, U2, and a whole host of other influences, their music is thrilling, danceable, and thoroughly entertaining.
Finally, a look at some of the other music that I enjoyed this year, but couldn’t quite find the space for above. Unfortunately, I can’t afford as much (ahem) real estate to these entries, but note that they’re all wonderful albums and you certainly stand a good chance of finding something to love in here. One man’s meat is another man’s wagyu beef.
- Bad as Me, Tom Waits [“Satisfied” via YouTube]
- Bon Iver, Bon Iver [“Calgary” via YouTube]
- Cults, Cults [“Abducted” via YouTube]
- Days, Real Estate [“It’s Real” via YouTube] (This music sounds a lot easier than it is to make it, I swear.)
- Dye it Blonde, Smith Westerns [“Weekend” via YouTube] (Like early Beatles updated for modern sensibilities.)
- House of Balloons, The Weeknd [“The Knowing” via YouTube] (The third mixtape has just been released.)
- Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, M83 [“Midnight City” via YouTube] (This is rather epic.)
- James Blake, James Blake. [“The Wilhelm Scream” via YouTube]
- Looping State of Mind, The Field [“Sweet Slow Baby” via YouTube]
- Replica, Oneohtrix Point Never [“Replica” via YouTube]
- Wit’s End, Cass McCombs [“County Line” via YouTube] (I haven’t managed to listen to Humor Risk yet. I am a little short on funds.)
- Wounded Rhymes, Lykke Li [“I Follow Rivers” via YouTube]