Pop & Rock 2011: 30 Best Albums
Published Dec 01, 2011Listen to our Best of 2011: Pop & Rock playlist on Rdio by clicking here.
1. Bon Iver
2. St. Vincent
8. PJ Harvey
9. Timber Timbre
10. Sandro Perri
11. Wild Flag
12. Shotgun Jimmie
13. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart
16. Bill Callahan
18. Rich Aucoin
19. Tom Waits
21. Ty Segall
22. Lykke Li
24. Handsome Furs
27. Dog Day
28. Kurt Vile
30. The Rural Alberta Advantage
1. Bon Iver Bon Iver, Bon Iver (Jagjaguwar)
Back in 2008, Justin Vernon, aka Bon Iver, won over hearts by taking the broken pieces of his and turning them into his bedroom-bruised debut For Emma, Forever Ago. His outstanding follow-up reveals that while time (and success) healed certain wounds ― note that his own moniker takes the title (twice!) this time 'round ― our folk-hero is still a fractured soul searching for his place in the world. But this time he's armed with fabulous '80s flourishes. The hopeful "Calgary" starts tranquil and cold, but warms as the layers of drums, guitar and synthesizers crescendo and retreat. "Holocene" aches with a similar winter-y feel, but the drum rolls and spare arrangement focus all the attention on Vernon's vocals and the lonely refrain "I can see for miles, miles, miles." For all this distress and earnestness though, Vernon's bolstered by some balls, as evidenced by "Beth/Rest," the album's last song. It works both as a brilliant summarizing of affairs ― electronic keyboards, vocal distortion, moody saxophone ― and a warning cry of what's to come. It forces the listener to fully consider the scope of Vernon's bizarre and brave artistry. Thankfully any egregious bravado is tempered by his grounded humbleness, which is a refreshing combination compared to other creative geniuses.
2. St. Vincent Strange Mercy (4AD)
What's left to say about St. Vincent's Strange Mercy, mere months after it was drowned in a froth of critics' saliva? Annie Clark's third album under the divine moniker is everything fans hoped it might be: as devilishly eccentric as her first record, as dramatic as her second, and with the right mix of studio magic and confidence to make starkness a point of praise. Against the minimalism of Strange Mercy, Clark's guitar heroics and knack for subtle arrangements come hurtling into relief, and make her sudden detours into distortion and off-kilter rhythms all the more transfixing. It might have been the title of her second record, but it's here that Clark is truly an actor: on "Chloe in the Afternoon," she's a cold-hearted, lusty vixen; on the album's title track, she's a vengeful partner-in-crime to a wronged compatriot; and on "Champagne Year," she's a penitent cynic. But although she might be able to convincingly sport mask after mask lyrically (the "I" is never Clark, herself) and conceptually (even the cover image is hidden behind a latex sheet!), it's through her music that we feel Clark's own emotions most directly. Strange Mercy is as visceral an album as any punk album you'll hear this year, but rather than screaming in your face, it's content to hiss into your ear through clenched teeth. The effect is at once unsettling and beautifully comforting; that's Strange Mercy.
3. Feist Metals (Arts and Crafts)
Returning to the spotlight after the massive, unpredicted success of 2007's The Reminder, Feist threw everyone with Metals. Noticeably absent is the cheery poptimism, underlying groove, and a clutch of hand percussion (a formalized stipulation, as Feist told a reporter). It's not that it doesn't sound like her, because it does; same honey-thick voice working through an expansive sound, digging through a trove of heart-wrenching lyrics. It's just that the gruff guitar lines, layers of (instrumental) percussion, and narrative lyricism feel somehow less accessible, more distant. Feist utilizes her recording space as a proxy instrument ― for The Reminder it was a French manor, documented in the excellent film Look At What The Light Did Now ― and so a cabin in Big Sur, California imbibes and softens the shuddering edge to the Metals songs. "How Come You Never Go There," the lead single, flickers with the embers of her pop prowess, but, like the rest of the record, it's thick with mood and a touch wild. There is absolutely no twee singing like "1,2,3,4," and as listeners we are better for it because Feist challenges us to see her brilliant complexity. Live, the songs transcend everything she's ever done: the rises are louder and her words, sung in that almost too-perfect voice, take on a strange sadness. In 50 years, these will be among the folk songs of a generation.
4. M83 Hurry Up, We're Dreaming (Mute)
M83's 2008 release Saturdays=Youth was often portrayed as his John Hughes album, capturing that romantic abandon that comes with being young and on the periphery of society. So, by that account, Hurry Up, We're Dreaming could very well have been Anthony Gonzalez's Tim Burton album, containing nothing more than formulaic and soulless thematic retreads. It's true that M83 is guilty of recycling old ideas on this fifth LP; exploding wordless choruses, tense interludes and (like Helena Bonham Carter in Tim Burton's films) the recasting of the same female character. But somehow, Hurry Up, We're Dreaming comes off as nothing short than brilliant. Top-loading the album with three of his most bombastic and explosive tracks; "Intro (feat. Zola Jesus)," "Midnight City" and "Reunion," Gonzalez shows off his penchant for crafting majestic electronic-based music that never comes off clubby or Euro. At just under 80 minutes, M83 is given the space to allow Hurry Up, We're Dreaming to ebb and flow naturally, as songs like the cocksure "Echoes of Mine" uses the decaffeinated "Klaus I Love You" as a fitting comedown. And then there's the prepubescent-girl-narrated "Raconte-Moi Une Histoire," a song so whack and imprudent that's its pure audacity makes it loveable and inventive. A perfect metaphor for not only Hurry Up, We're Dreaming itself, but Gonzalez's entire approach to making music.
5. Destroyer Kaputt (Merge)
While not directly responsible for turning 2011 into the "Year of Sax," Dan Bejar did help usher it in with Destroyer's Kaputt. Dropping the increasingly standard folk rock forays of previous releases, Bejar and his West coast bandmates reinvented the Destroyer songbook with this sprawling LP, lathering it with splashes of European sophisti-rock, coked-up soft rock, new romanticism, smooth jazz and, yes, saxophone. Sure, it was a change that likely threw some listeners off, but for those who spend way too much time obsessing over later-period Roxy Music and Godley & Creme records, it was a godsend, as well as validation that the discount bins hide just as much treasure as trash. More importantly, it showed Bejar isn't afraid of reinvention ― something that sadly can't be said of most artists past the decade-in-rock mark. But do yourself a favour: pick this one up on vinyl. The exclusive side-long instrumental holds up as one of the year's best kosmische-influenced head trips, hands down.
6. Braids Native Speaker (Flemish Eye)
This art-driven foursome of Calgary to Montreal transplants made major waves with the release of their stunning debut this year. Braids create a sort of dream-like haze that refracts tribal sensibilities through contemporary musical means; meditative repetition based around vocal melodies with tom-heavy syncopated drumming, awash in gently whirring echoes, bouncing loops, soft fuzzy synth pads, twinkling keys and deliberate crystalline guitar picking. It's a fascinating and viscerally gripping sound as aptly described by the hypnagogic pop tag as obvious influences Animal Collective. As comfortable sculpting sound as they are arranging instrumentation ― the warped, ethereal harmonies and rhythmic delay loop tweaking of the title track is an excellent example ― the young Taylor Smith, Katie Lee, Austin Tufts and Raphaelle Standell-Preston come from a generation surrounded by such a rich history of diverse sounds that there are no limits to what can be put into the service of the ever-evolving notion of what pop music can be. Powerful vocal melodies are always in the driver's seat, even when songs like "Lammicken" rely on few other traditional dressings, or "Lemonade" takes extensive instrumental detours. Like all great and vital pop music, Braids perform musical alchemy with Native Speaker, combining influences from a history of sonic amalgamation to create new traditions in popular sound.
Scott A. Gray
7. Austra Feel it Break (Paper Bag)
Katie Stelmanis' captivatingly haunting yet serenely operatic voice ranges from ice cold to hot blooded in the thick of Austra's musical universe. Surrounded by sweeping synth hooks, old school bass boogie, a duo of angelic vocalists and beating drums, the Toronto-based creative trio is a musical force to be reckoned with. Austra made a name for themselves this year with a stellar album consisting of dark haunting melodies illuminated by immediate electro grooves. Songs breathe, and often brood instrumentally before Stelmanis injects her alluring voice. Throughout a wholeheartedly solid album, it is hard to choose favourites. Feel It Break evokes a homogenized mood, which is not a bad thing at all. Austra chooses their musical weapons wisely and stick to their guns. While Feel It Break owes a lot to retro synth pop and '80s new wave, it contains the workings of a band who seek to carve their own sound rather than follow musical trends or rest on their laurels. A stripped-down, piano driven ballad that concludes the release ("The Beast") is a testament to the depth of Austra's creative future. Feel It Break was a breath of cool air in 2011 that heralded Austra many accolades. The group reflected the positive response by constantly touring. Continuing their emphasis of artistry and creativity within creeping cinematic synth-psych will definitely yield the group an exciting future, and fans; the fruits of Austra's labours.
8. PJ Harvey Let England Shake (Island)
In cock-rockier hands, using the Great War to consider its contemporary counterparts and examine a bemused homeland could result in a ham-fisted concept album (see: the 1970s). Instead, PJ Harvey's Mercury Prize-winning Let England Shake fuses heady themes and dynamic compositions to create an elegant, erudite, and wholly thrilling artistic achievement. With economical, evocative lyrics, Harvey miraculously manages subtlety on an album populated with dying boys calling for their mothers ("The Colour of the Earth"), "gunners waiting in corpses," ("All and Everyone"), and soldiers falling "like lumps of meat" ("The Words that Maketh Murder"). Taking more inspiration from TS Eliot than Robert Graves ― though indebted to both ― her poetic scope continues to broaden. Correspondingly, this is as musically opaque as the songwriter has ever been. Recorded in a church, the sound is airy when it needs to be and, at turns, grating and appropriately lofty. Throughout, the pristine production judiciously anchors experimentation and brings together flights of fancy. Wisely using distorted guitars ("In the Dark Places"), unsettling orchestration ("England"), and a dash of reggae ("Written on the Forehead"), Harvey ingeniously augments and elevates thematic concerns. Conversely, "The Glorious Land" ― with its can't-resist bugle ― and the blood-soaked, piano-driven "Hanging in the Wire" are more obvious but no less effective. Filtering an examination of her home through World War I battlefields, Let England Shake may not be as overtly personal as some of Harvey's past work, but it's no less intimate (see "England). Bonus: it's way catchier than All Quiet on the Western Front.
9. Timber Timbre Creep On Creepin' On (Arts & Crafts)
In a music industry dominated by computer programs and plug-ins plucked from George Orwell's nightmares, designed to erase the mistakes of history and replace them with images of contemporary ideological perfection, Timber Timbre had the audacity to release an album that revelled in the uncomfortable beauty of the human spirit. Legend has it that the master tapes were dubbed from charred records formed in the remains of a mansion burned down by occult forces in the name of Screamin' Jay Hawkins, but prevailing sensibilities believe Creep on Creepin' On is nothing more than a brilliant work of R&B/folk fusion Canadiana channelled by psychic travellers of the astral plane. Creep on Creepin' On is a timeless wonder that captures the Ontario campfire collective's spooky songwriting and aesthetic sensibilities with the most serene fidelity, endorsing a richly layered sound that never feels rushed. For all the haunting strings, organ, and occasional dissonance, the album has a thoroughly chill vibe, care of ambient production and the dulcet croon and warm, lumbering bass of Taylor Kirk. Creep on Creepin' On is a good book with flowery prose and subtle breezes of subtext, worthy of close attention and casual experience, as opposed to the typical charting album of over-compressed hyperactivity squirting 4/4 beats with rhyming couplets devoid of deliberation and dynamics (not that there isn't a place for that sort of thing). This work of art is the stuff that lasts.
10. Sandro Perri Impossible Spaces (Constellation)
Tropicalia and bossa nova fuse with jazz, electronic squelches and mournful backward guitars, driven by twitchy drumming and infectiously soulful melodies. Plaintive beats contort and twist alongside folk guitars, heavy bass reeds and noise squalls. In lesser hands than Sandro Perri's Impossible Spaces could have been an impenetrable mess. Yet Perri and his cohorts utilise the lightest of touches, never letting their improvisations and evolutions get too dense or obscure the albums melodic core. With a pervading sense of warmth and playfulness combined with a singular clarity of purpose and attention to detail Perri succeeds in crafting an instantly rewarding listen. The constantly shifting "Wolfman" serves as a microcosm of the album as a whole, beginning with Perri's soft and comforting tenor accompanied by flutes and brushed drums, bass burbling away in the background before a mammoth ascending and descending scale run drives the song into another passage. Lyrically Perri drops references to the likes of Neil Young and Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, while the music slowly builds, evolves and threatens to disintegrate. Yet the discord is always finely controlled, reigned in by Perri with the assistance of crisp snare hits and Jeremy Strachan's saxophone blasts. In turn these are replaced by swirling electric pulses and woozy strings, each spacey pop-soul hook catchier than the last. Impossible Spaces is a bold statement: a dizzying and euphoric delight of a record that will continue to sound fresh and vibrant for years to come.
11. Wild Flag (Merge)
The statement Wild Flag wanted to make with their self-titled debut is laid out straight in opening song "Romance": "We love the sound/the sound is what found us/sound is the blood... between me and you." It's somewhat of a rally cry; a plea to ditch easy nostalgia and instead find the meaning of the music and its power to be a sustained part of personal culture first, pop second. To remember why they, or we, or anyone, ever cared so much in the first place. United under this mission, and as four fantastic musicians and personalities, Wild Flag musically sounds a lot like what the four of them ― vocalist/guitarist Carrie Brownstein, drummer/vocalist Janet Weiss, vocalist/guitarist Mary Timony, and keyboardist/vocalist Rebecca Cole ― were not only influenced by (garage rock, proto- and post-punk, college indie), but spent their young adult lives making in respective bands Sleater-Kinney, Quasi, Helium and the Minders. Their collective resume alone gives Wild Flag instant clout, though it's not like they rely on that. And they don't need to, not when the chemistry is this loud and palpable ― "Short Version" is a good example of the album's noodly, dominant guitars and its unrelenting drums, while "Boom" and "Future Crimes" are hellbent on making you feel their simple, fun, and visceral intent. The sound is the love, indeed.
12. Shotgun Jimmie Transistor Sister (You've Changed)
The most appealing characteristic about Shotgun Jimmie is his everyman persona. He reminds us of the guy in high school who wore plaid and a toque all year while clumsily working his way though Sloan covers at the talent show. While I don't know what Shotgum Jimmie (known as Jim Kilpatrick on his birth certificate) was like in high school, the New Brunswick-based musician has been a player in Canada's independent music scene for nearly ten years. In this time he's written a few albums' worth of guitar-based alternative rock with mid-paced tempos and hooks aplenty. His third full-length, Transistor Sister, marks a new peak in production for Jimmie; it's his first album to be recorded in an honest-to-goodness studio. In addition to a more polished sound, Transistor Sister also features slightly faster, shorter and catchier songs. His songs aren't complicated, and his lyrics are equally simple. Jimmie sings about beer, women and living a quiet life. But when backed with some of the catchiest indie pop the end result is hopelessly addictive quirky music coming through in short two-to-three minute bursts. You won't be blown away when listening to Shotgun Jimmie, but you're definitely going to smile.
13. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart Belong (Slumberland)
The number of bands that create a memorable debut album but stumble thereafter are more numerous than stars in the sky. New York indie pop band Pains of Being Pure At Heart's introductory full-length in 2009 was nothing short of pure bliss. And this year they sidestepped fading into the unknown mist ― their follow-up album Belong slaughtered the sophomore slump with a loving middle finger. Produced and mixed by the same fine folks who have worked with the likes of the Smashing Pumpkins and Depeche Mode, Pains capture the uplifting pop sensibilities of those bands without becoming a nostalgic clone. The fuzzed-out guitars, inviting synth melodies and Kip Berman's soft vocals combine to create this warm feeling that can cure a broken heart, or lift a euphoric feeling even higher. From the title track that begins the album with this "us against the world" feeling that makes you believe anything is truly possible, to the closing track "Strange" that cements that same sentiment under the light of a couple in love, Belong takes the listener on a heart-wrenching ride toward hope.
14. Beirut The Rip Tide (Pompeii)
Building previous records around Left Bank leanings, Balkan folk, and a mélange of Euro-centric sounds, Beirut mastermind Zach Condon typically finds inspiration an ocean away and a century back. With excellent third album, The Rip Tide, he marches out of the Parisian café, looking inward and embracing Western pop without losing his affinity for multi-tiered composition. As the title suggests, inertia (in general) and movement (specifically) dominate both the thematic and musical landscapes. Overtly, "Vagabond" is about wandering and its jaunty keys and harpsichord augment that. On the other hand, "Santa Fe" ― Condon's birthplace ― contemplates home, tellingly using driving synths and horns. Similarly, marching drums on "A Candle's Fire" and the lyrical repetition of "Payne's Bay" keep the affair peripatetic. On "East Harlem," Condon coos, "Sound is the colour I know," and that notion permeates the entire LP. Every track slyly plays with form and function, carefully blending each constituent part. Highlights, "The Rip Tide" and "Goshen," are ostensibly simple, but their complexity comes through on each subsequent listen. The former, full of sparse brass, is lonely yet dense. Conversely, the latter seems like a straightforward piano ballad, though its sweeping horn and choral harmonies would disagree. A deeply considerate composer, Condon's unique balance of influences has always dominated the Beirut ethos. However, on The Rip Tide he re-focuses his curiosity, taking time for reflection and creating an entirely beautiful and insightful record in the process.
15. Girls Father, Son, Holy Ghost (True Panther Sounds)
Although frontman Christopher Owens has one of the most fascinating back-stories in the biz, Girls have risen up through the ranks of indie rock as far more than the band with the eccentric singer who belonged to the Children of God cult. After impressing us with 2009's debut Album and its follow-up, 2010's Broken Dreams Club, this year Owens, bassist/producer J.R. White and their three new bandmates turned in yet another example of how Girls have become a band to rely on for consistent results. Obsessively retro to its core, Father, Son, Holy Ghost, is unapologetically speckled in what should be far too wide a range of influences: "Just A Song" opens with a classical guitar intro and evolves in Tropicalia, "Honey Bunny" rides a wave of blithe surf pop, "My Ma" is a tear-stained country ballad, "Live Like A River" throws back to some down-home rhythm and blues, and most peculiar is "Die," a staggering outburst of unlikely stoner metal. But the band pull it off earnestly, thanks to Owens' barefaced, almost uncomfortable honesty as a lyricist (two songs are admittedly about exes, one of which is titled "Vomit"), some imaginative arrangements and a team of skilled players. Father, Son, Holy Ghost is indisputably their finest work yet, but you get the sense that it's just the beginning. Owens is said to be working on a reggae album, and as outlandish as it sounds, the way he's spread his wings so far, it could make for a compelling fourth record.
16. Bill Callahan Apocalypse (Drag City)
"The real people went away" is Bill Callahan's opening salvo on his third studio album under his birth name, Apocalypse, an album of disconcerting beauty that searches for truth and meaning in a world of simulacrum. Apocalypse is his strongest work in over a decade, but that isn't to say that the former Mr. Smog has been slumming it. On the contrary, Callahan's work has been remarkably consistent, with each album building on the mythology of its predecessor, creating a unique and evocative body of work wrapped in his gauzily mellow, yet acutely foreboding baritone. Evoking the circuitous poetry of William Faulkner in his expressionistic tales of Americana, Callahan has weaved together seven multi-layered mini-stories into a wholly captivating narrative that asserts its place as an expression of the wild, wild country that gave it life. A quiet yet assertive record, Apocalypse's centrepiece is the extraordinary "America!," perhaps the most overtly political track Callahan has attempted to date. Alluding to Kris Kristofferson, Mickey Newbury, George Jones, and Johnny Cash, Callahan envisions a revisionist history where these three rough-hewn poets lead an armada that allows the world to forget the sins of "the past they don't care to mention." Unlike many of his contemporaries who came of age in the great "sad bastard" wave of the late '90s, nearly all of whom have dried up, sold out, or disappeared, Callahan has stayed relevant without trend-hopping. Apocalypse is one of the finest achievements of this singular songwriter.
17. Yuck (Fat Possum)
Yuck is more than just a nostalgia trip. Sure the '90s are present in their woozy guitars, shoegaze vibe and drowning vocals, but Daniel Blumberg, the UK band's frontman, wasn't even born until the decade was underway. As a result, he's filtered the grunge-era greats through his own lens ― one with a fresh perspective that's also influenced by everything that's come since. The band's self-titled debut, released in February, is packed with gorgeous boy-girl harmonies, jangly hooks, and emotionally dense lyrics that teeter between overwrought and innocent. And in 2011, it earned major buzz. The band seemed to have materialized from nowhere then, suddenly, they were everywhere, nestled into festival rosters, selling out their tour gigs, mugging for the camera in the music press. Admittedly, part of the appeal is the novelty of a throwback act, but that quickly melts away with the infectious pop chorus of "Georgia," the earnest sentiment of "Suicide Policeman," and chunky riffs in "Get Away." Proving they've got more up their sleeve, the band put out a deluxe edition of the disc with six bonus cuts, just eight months after the initial release. It included the meandering pop gem "Milkshake" and "Soothe Me," a sleepy hit with lazy noodling and a hypnotic refrain. Both held their own with the original track list. Collectively, they all live up to songs from the decade that inspired them.
18. Rich Aucoin We're All Dying To Live (Sonic)
With the release of his debut full-length, Haligonian Rich Aucoin proved that he's more than a karaoke party starter. We're All Dying to Live built on the promise of his previous EPs and the ever-evolving live show that wins him new fans wherever he goes. The second in a planned trilogy on love, life and loss, the album challenges listeners to not only dream, but to act on those dreams. Far from maudlin advice, Aucoin crams all the intricacies of life into the album's dance-floor shaking baroque pop; the short walk from "Brian Wilson is A.L.I.V.E.," which finds the album's complacent protagonist deciding to make a stand, to "PUSH," which sees him following through on that decision, covers a lot of emotional ground. More than 500 Canadian musicians bought into Aucoin's message and he thanked them by populating the record with their contributions, expanding the original seven songs to a staggering 22 tracks to accommodate everyone, without losing his own voice in the process. Beautifully packaged with a fold out Brady Bunch-esque photo display of all the contributors and a cover incorporating lyrical elements from throughout the record, We're All Dying to Live is a triumph for Aucoin, whose ambition seemingly knows no bounds, and for listeners who can't help but be swept into his world.
19. Tom Waits Bad As Me (Anti-)
When Tom Waits was in his 20s, he was straining to be the artist he is now in his 60s. Although it's been seven years between albums of original material, the glorious gumbo of blues and balladry that is Bad As Me sounds as effortless as anything Waits has ever done. While some may not describe it as the most challenging work in his catalogue, Waits certainly has nothing left to prove after redefining himself so convincingly so many times over the past 40 years. Yet Bad As Me is far from derivative. It's only the legions of Waits imitators who have never been able to replicate the graveyard rockabilly of tracks like "Raised Right Men," and "Get Lost" that he's been perfecting since the early '80s. The amount of notable guests on the album is in some ways a tribute to Waits' persistence with that approach, and it's especially significant that Keith Richards contributes more than he has on any previous Waits album on which he's appeared. They sound like soul mates on both the rockers ("Chicago") and the album's designated weeper ("Last Leaf") to the point where it seems as though Keef wouldn't hesitate to become Waits' full-time henchman if only he could somehow divorce himself from Sir Mick. What he must surely recognize is that Waits at this moment is the embodiment of American music's renegade spirit, and Bad As Me puts all of those elements on full display.
20. Battles Gloss Drop (Warp)
Tasked with creating their "difficult second album" and having to live up to a debut like 2007's acclaimed Mirrored is not a task to be taken lightly for any band. On top of which Battles had to contend with vocalist Tyondai Braxton quitting the band midway through the recording. The remaining members decided to forge on ahead as a three-piece and record what was to become Gloss Drop, released earlier this year on Warp. The biggest surprise on the album were the four vocal tracks with guest spots from unexpected corners, including '80s synth-pop icon Gary Numan and techno/pop artist Matias Aguayo, but otherwise it was a faithful progression from what Battles achieved on Mirrored and on their early EPs. With John Stanier's heavy, super-tight percussion still to the fore and melodies that sound as if they are spilling out of a demented ice cream truck, some of the strongest tracks here are the instrumentals, although the vocal tracks break up the album nicely. Ever-innovative in creating solutions to their own problems, Battles then went on tour taking two life-size screens in tow on which to project the virtual guest vocalists. With Gloss Drop, Battles delivered the goods and created an album that can't fail to make you break out into a grin, unless of course you don't like drums... or fun.
21. Ty Segall Goodbye Bread (Drag City)
Goodbye Bread is a Ty Segall album, so naturally it is fantastic. This particular album also happens to have the benefit of being his most solid release to date. It has been called "serious" or "mature" in relation to his previous output, but that is not entirely true. The album may be slightly slower and feature some mellower drum parts than his last effort, but this is no cause for concern. This change should be reason to celebrate, as album closer "Fine" may be one the best songs Ty Segall has ever written; coincidentally it is most likely the slowest song he has released. Like any good Ty album, Goodbye Bread is filled with youthful and reckless sentiments ("You Make the Sun Fry" is a perfect example) as well as the obligatory songs about love and lust that could easily shake off labels such as mature. "The Floor" may be the best way to explain this album as it features a perfectly crafted melody caked with fuzz and the right amount of sloppiness. It is thrilling and meditated, delicate when necessary and it gets heavy to prove a point. With Goodbye Bread, Ty Segall has taken many steps forward, an album so satisfying that it leaves its listeners wondering what is up next for this young and already prolific musician.
22. Lykke Li Wounded Rhymes (LL)
Swedish indie pop singer Lykke Li charmed the world with 2008 debut Youth Novels, a collection of songs that were sweet, demure, but by no means naïve. Three years later, Li has really found herself with Wounded Rhymes. A diary of jaded youth, female sexual empowerment and the harsh realities of young love and heartbreak, the songs pulsate with passionate tribal beats and ominous synthetic sounds. In sexually-charged single "Get Some" she sings, "I'm your prostitute, you gonna get some," but the song is by no means an ode to man-pleasing: it's all about harnessing and embracing the power of her feminine sexuality. The album's points of confidence and strength are counterweighted by pure articulations of vulnerability; from the cataclysmic crescendos of tortured love letter "Jerome" to the anguished crooning and throbbing war horns of "Silent My Song," Li achieves a perfect manifestation of devastating heartbreak. Beyond the album's dark instrumentation and emotional careening, Wounded Rhymes also proves a stylistic evolution for Li in the brazen display of her vocal capabilities, which, it is now clear, were well-restrained for her debut. The melodrama of these songs demand powerful vocal execution, and she does not fall short in this respect. And melodramatic this album most certainly is, but all in good faith: not once does Li take her impassioned expression further than is warranted by insatiable desire and ravaging heartbreak.
23. Adele 21 (Columbia)
In late August of this year, A Tribe Called Red brought their bass heavy electric pow-wow to Montreal as part of local hero Poirier's groundbreaking Karnival series. Halfway through ATCR's heavy set, they dropped a remix of Adele's "Rolling in the Deep". Jumping up and down, singing every word, ATCR conducted the crowd in a mass sing along. The New Yorker's Sasha Frere Jones might think that the folks that buy into Adele are the those who buy Putamayo comps from Starbucks, but listening to a room of people belting her tune out with pure abandon, there might be something else going on. Adele's record is the biggest seller of the year, but her down-to-earth image and equally down-home voice sets her apart from the rest of the platinum pack. It also might be easy to lump her in with the recent spate of top-selling sultry, soulful British female singers, but add in just enough of American country and blues, and 21 presents itself as a intensely memorable album. The quirky cover of the Cure's "Lovesong" works, as does the old fashioned R&B of "Rumour Has It." And the finale, torch song "Someone Like You," is more gospel than girly. Sure, it might lack the tragic grit of Winehouse, but it also is safely far away from the squeaky clean of Duffy. The girl can sing in a manner that totally fits her age, reflecting the angst of her peers, and reminding older listeners exactly how it felt to be so young, but so adult.
24. Handsome Furs Sound Kapital (Sub Pop)
"When I get back home/I won't be the same no more," sings Dan Boeckner on Sound Kapital's opening track, "When I Get Back." He's not kidding. Much of the material on Handsome Furs' third LP was inspired by the duo's travels in Eastern Europe and Asia, and these experiences clearly had a life-changing affect on Boeckner and wife Alexei Perry. The electro-punk rager "Cheap Music" includes shout-outs to Bucharest, Belgrade and Bangkok, while the politically-charged "Serve the People" paints an apocalyptic portrait of citizens rebelling against oppressive governments around the world. Adding to the foreign flair is the fact the album is named after a book about Beijing's underground music scene. But Sound Kapital is much more than an impassioned and deeply personal travelogue, since it also includes no shortage of pulse-racing electro bangers and synth-heavy rock anthems. Upbeat standouts "Bury Me Standing" and "Repatriated" employ repetitive, gradually-building structures that culminate in shouted crescendos and sound a bit like Bruce Springsteen might after a bender in an all-night dance club. If you were worried about the rumoured dissolution of Wolf Parade, don't be ― with Sound Kapital, Boeckner has proved that synthesizers work just as well as guitars and drums when it comes to crafting a kick-ass rock record.
25. Cults (Columbia)
Unlike so many internet-fuelled buzz bands, Cults managed to really deliver on their self-titled debut and then some. It's everything that Best Coast could have been, but wasn't. The key to the album's success is its precision and succinctness. The songs aim straight for the jugular with their take on '60s girl groups, which puts melody above everything else and never once overstay their welcome. The knowing nods to Phil Spector and the Supremes indicate that the duo really know what they are doing, but this isn't merely a calculated ruse for street cred. This is beautifully constructed homage. Of course, the saccharine-fuelled tunes could be a little too much if it wasn't for the underlying sinister lyrics and samples of dialogue from infamous cult leaders, but that's exactly why it stands up to repeated listening. Even after six months, it is still fresh and exciting ― "Go Outside" is still more than capable of inducing goosebumps and that isn't going to stop anytime soon. Quite simply, Cults is completely and utterly irresistible, and definitely the best pure pop record of 2011.
26. EMA Past Life Martyred Saints (Souterrain Transmissions)
Back in January few people had ever heard of drone-y doom-folk crew Gowns, but by years' end the defunct Los Angeles duo had gained some serious posthumous notoriety as the creative birthplace of Erika M. Anderson. Past Life Martyred Saints, the South Dakota transplant's debut as EMA, proved to be one of the year's greatest surprises. The record's strength comes from its intimacy, but intimacy doesn't always equal weakness. Opener "The Grey Ship" begins with a sparse acoustic guitar and hushed vocals, pulling listeners in before swaths of overdriven guitars pummelling them into submission. From there, we're putty in Anderson's hands. Past Life finds its legs in "California" where Anderson adopts a Kim Gordon-esque speak-sing that opens with the line," Fuck California, you made me boring," delivering a visceral vocal over top guitar drones and drums the size of the Grand Canyon. Critics have had a hard time pinning Anderson down, given that each song on the record seems to reveal a new influence. "Milkman" offers the closest thing to dance floor groove while "Coda" is a 60-second ode to Appalachian folk. Then there's "Breakfast," whose slow burn reveals a fair bit of time spent listening to classic rock power ballads. Anderson is the through line, singing with a confidence that provides a guiding light through the album's beautiful noise.
27. Dog Day Deformer (Fun Dog)
The physical devolution from a four-piece to a guitar-drums duo mark an exciting evolution for Dog Day. Married bandmates Seth Smith and Nancy Urich had already spurned city living and moved themselves and their dog, Woofy, into the desolate woods of Long Cove, NS. The pair seems happy to remain in the habit of rejecting norms by adopting a bare-bones, DIY approach for both the recording and release of their latest record Deformer. What's crafted from this minimal modus operandi suits their new configuration well. The lo-fi result is raw and often rough-and-tumble with fuzzy, gritty guitar goaded by detonating drums. It's simpler, but that's not to say key elements of Dog Day's original sound are gone. The songs are still poppy and hook-laden, still glazed in gloom. Smith's trademark drony drawl isn't amiss and Urich's drifting, childlike voice remains its perfect match. Though the vocal textures are familiar, Deformer's subject matter diverges from Dog Day's previous material; rather than reference felines or the apocalypse, metaphorical or otherwise, the lyrical content is overtly introspective about their current situation. Dreams and optimism intertwine with dissatisfaction and a tinge of misanthropy. And maybe that's where Deformer is most impressive. Most bands opt for increasingly produced and polished albums as their discography grows, while struggling to stay rooted. Without sacrificing quality for integrity, Dog Day's unveiled what's perhaps their most honest sound to date. Sometimes the truth hurts. This time it brought about an album that shines.
28. Kurt Vile Smoke Ring For My Halo (Matador)
Philly singer-songwriter Kurt Vile is blessed with an odd insight into the darker corners of the mind. Vile's deadpan drawl owes a significant debt to Lou Reed but Kurt is warmer and often funnier. Kurt drifts through the tambourine and acoustic buzz of "Ghost Town" with a mix of melancholy and bemusement. His delicate plucking on songs like the gorgeous "Baby's Arms" makes the record a stellar showcase for his guitar skills. He recorded Smoke Ring For My Halo, his fourth album with his band the Violators for a fuller, more rocking sound. The Violators lend a satisfying FM radio crunch to the sardonic "Puppet To The Man" and Springsteen-style keyboards to "Society Is My Friend." "Baby's Arms" is also the only song that sounds entirely sincere, a warm ode to his significant other who makes him comfortable enough to feel small "like Tom Thumb." "On Tour" sees Vile compare life as a touring musician to Lord of The Flies, where you can get pumped full of lead or stabbed just for fun. Vile is a detached, bemused philosopher touring Middle America with a broken guitar case; we're just privileged to come along for the ride.
29. Wilco The Whole Love (dbpm)
Even as The Whole Love lands as another stunning example of Wilco's significance in contemporary pop music, it also serves as the culmination of a ten-year arc that has invariably been coupled with the notion of "challenging" one thing or another. The band's 21st century was marred/heightened early on by a David-vs-Goliath battle with Warner about Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, which the label saw no commercial potential for, even as the record grew into one of the most accomplished, inventive, and emulated albums in rock. Wilco won that public battle even as some in their fan base grumbled about their newest songs, which tended more towards lyrical abstraction, squalls of noise, and virtuoso, prog-y musicianship, as opposed to the "alt-country" scene Jeff Tweedy was spawned from. So, in summary everyone, at some point, seems to believe that Wilco is working against them, even though the band itself is rather populist and giving in nature. Their primary shield against haters has been an unwavering belief in itself and that it's okay to evolve with every passing year ― something that Tweedy in particular has a deep investment in. "I've never been that big of a Paul Simon fan, but there are things about his new record that I've found really inspiring and really hopeful for somebody that's not particularly young anymore, like myself, and somebody still working hard at challenging himself and still giving a shit," Tweedy told Exclaim! in September. "I just wanna see people that still give a shit. To be honest, I wanna see young bands that give a shit! That's the part that's really more disturbing than an older guy not giving a shit any more, but I see a lot of bands and I'm like, 'Really? How am I supposed to care if you don't care,' y'know? I don't get it." Challenge! The words come from a reformed punk rock enthusiast who figured out that you actually should learn how to play your instrument and hone your craft. For his part, Tweedy has many gifts as a songwriter, chief among them is a knack for infectious hooks, verses, choruses, and an ability to infuse sweet sounds with a gritty edge. As such, The Whole Love is the most nuanced Wilco album yet, subtly adopting punk free-form with new wave vigour and the sensitivity of seasoned folk, blending together and coming the closest in line to the daring of the Beatles without shamelessly mimicking them or anyone else.
30. The Rural Alberta Advantage Departing (Paper Bag)
Rural Alberta Advantage's Nils Edenloff has a strange nasal, raspy voice often sounds like it's just barely holding itself together, as though it could fall apart at any moment should guitar or drums stop propping it up. But then again, most of the music on the band's sophomore album, Departing, sounds rusty and unsure of itself. That it all comes together beautifully is what makes the album so outstanding. The album isn't a huge departure from 2008's Hometowns, except that it pays a little more attention to the folk-rock side of the equation while Hometowns spent more time flirting with keyboards. With winter quickly approaching, there's no better time to revisit Departing. The album paints a portrait of love lost and the rural Canadian landscape and serves as a perfect companion-piece to Arcade Fire's The Suburbs, both musically and thematically. Edenloff's vocals are heart-breakingly haunting and always captivating. Meanwhile bandmates Amy Cole and Paul Banwatt merge indie rock, electronic elements and and folk in ways only been hinted at by bands such as Neutral Milk Hotel, Shins and the aforementioned Arcade Fire. The album's only fault is that at only 33 minutes, it's about half as long as it could have been.