If there's a theme this year, it's exceeded expectations. Records I thought would be good are turned out to be great (like the top three below), while artists I'd never cared for (Tracy Thorn, Beach House, The Thermals) or underestimated (Selina Martin) or almost given up on out of frustration (Broken Social Scene, Joanna Newsom, The Roots, Massive Attack) all came back swinging. Hit those boxing-day sales while you can, folks.
1. Arcade Fire – The Suburbs (Sonovox/Merge). There was once a part of me that felt self-conscious about writing gushing praise for Arcade Fire. I know them all personally; I witnessed many early triumphs; I felt like one of their only champions when they were still third down the bill on shows in their hometown of Montreal. As recently as this article, I felt I had to include some qualifying statements, to play the role of objective critic, to somehow pretend that I don't in fact love almost everything this band does (and how they do it, and with whom they do it). But I do. And The Suburbs is not just my favourite album of the year, but one of my favourite albums ever, by anyone. Maybe it's the white suburban kid in me who grew up with many of the same influences and contradictions. Maybe it's my personal history with this band's trajectory. But to soothe my own vain battles with subjectivity, I'm clearly not the only person in the world who thought The Suburbs is a sprawling, majestic and defining achievement. And to top off an astounding year, the live show finally saw them live up to their full potential—and proved that stadium rock does not have to suck.
2. Caribou – Swim (Merge). This is not just one of the best electronic albums of the year featuring one of the year’s best dance singles ("Odessa"); Swim is a landmark album in Canadian music, with its manipulation of organic sound sources woven into warm, inviting grooves. Pop hooks, electronic experimentation and the dance floor rarely work as well together as they do here.
3. Owen Pallett – Heartland (Domino). After listening to an Owen Pallett album, every schlep who throws syrupy strings on top of their lame pop songs is exposed for the slackers they are. Pallett excels at drawing from classical composition—both modern and, um, classic—embellishing it with electronics and singing soaring pop melodies on top. His ambitions are grand, but he has no trouble reaching them at all. My interview is here, here and here.
4. Joanna Newsom – Have One On Me (Drag City). Following up a bloated, meandering double album (2006’s Ys) with, of course, a triple album, Newsom proves that more is in fact more. The songs are still ridiculously long, and her girlish voice—though tempered here—is still an acquired taste. But the ornamental orchestration is perfectly complementary (certainly much better than Van Dyke Parks’s intrusions on Ys), and her writing here is as strong as Joni Mitchell was in her prime. Her harmonies sound more and more like the McGarrigle sisters, which was lovely to hear in the year we lost Anna. This came out in February and took most of the year to digest properly, but it’s more than worth the investment for performer and listener alike.
5. Pantha du Prince – Black Noise (Rough Trade). This German electronic producer sounds like he’s summoning the elements of the natural world to make his brand of surprisingly funky dance music: glacial ice, rushing water, crackling fires, pebble beaches, rustling branches. It’s a matter of time before Bjork comes calling.
6. Tracey Thorn – Love and its Opposites (Merge). This devastating solo record by Everything But the Girl’s front woman is the most heartbreakingly honest album of the year; she wields her wickedly insightful and penetrating pen to document divorce, aging, motherhood and singledom. So good it hurts. Only recommended for those in a somewhat stable emotional state; others beware.
7. Broken Social Scene – Forgiveness Rock Record (Arts and Crafts). Sure, you're the kings and queens of Toronto — all the more reason to decamp to Chicago and be forced to focus. After endless solo projects, an oral history book, a concert movie, and the threat of saturation, Broken Social Scene rallied the troops, put pop hooks front and centre, and let producer John McEntire craft the background chaos into tasty textural bits, while drummer Justin Peroff evolved into the band's secret star. BSS's blend of boisterous guitar rock, glimmering electronics and bold brass sections has never sounded so powerful and convincing — it's the sound of a band that never wants to be taken for granted again..
8. Beach House – Teen Dream (Sub Pop). Every year needs at least one album that makes you want to fall asleep by the ocean, underneath the stars. This is that album.
9. Selina Martin – Disaster Fantasies (independent). Selina Martin has always oozed charisma, but here the Toronto performer has a set of songs that matches her grand ambitions and her love of glam, prog, punk, folk, balladry—and Rush. Every song sounds like a smash hit, making this without question the most underrated Canadian album of the year (surely not a prize she was shooting for).
10. Doug Paisley – Constant Companion (No Quarter). Paisley sounds like the kind of constant companion that’s been with you your entire life as a music fan: the Sunday morning acoustic singer/songwriter who is neither maudlin nor morose, who is slightly melancholy but not a sad sack, whose every guitar or vocal phrase is instantly warm and welcoming. Word of mouth is spreading fast: expect to hear a lot more about Doug Paisley in 2011 and beyond.
11. The Sadies – Darker Circles (Outside). One of the best live acts in the world deliver their darkest, spookiest and most powerful album to date, one that stands beside the best work of any of their high-profile friends, none of whom need to show up here. This is the first truly great album in the Sadies’ discography, but it surely will not be their last.
12. Mike Patton – Mondo Cane (Ipecac). Italians are known for opera, not pop music. So of course vintage Italian pop music from the ’60s is full of operatic bravado, which makes it perfect for Mike Patton to interpret, whether it’s delicate cinematic balladry or metallic garage rock that segues into a go-go chorus. That he pulls it all off is to be expected; that it is so wonderfully orchestrated and sounds so fresh is just a bonus.
13. Brian Eno – Small Craft on a Milk Sea (Warp). One of the most renowned producers in experimental pop history—who also has an influential but spotty solo career—delivers one of his most fascinating and definitive collections, drawing from his ambient explorations, his instrumental songcraft and hypnotizing rhythms.
14. Gord Downie and the Country of Miracles – The Grand Bounce (Universal). With The Tragically Hip officially on hiatus, Downie delivers a knockout album that’s the most consistent and concise of his solo career. The Country of Miracles has finally solidified into a confident, cohesive band, and producer Chris Walla brings everything into clear focus.
15. The Dead Weather – Sea of Cowards (Warner). The tension between snarling singer Alison Mosshart and drummer/producer Jack White creates spacious, sexy, sweaty psychedelic blues rock that blows away every other so-called rock’n’roll act of 2010.
16. New Pornographers – Together (Last Gang). Few bands can boast full-on six-part harmonies, and the New Pornographers know enough to play to their strengths. This year Kathryn Calder became the latest band member to put out a fine solo album, but there’s no disunity to be heard on this aptly titled fifth album.
17. Massive Attack – Heligoland (EMI). The trip-hop pioneers who helped define the ’90s managed to waste most of the last decade, but here they bounce back with dark dance grooves, squiggly bass and the usual parade of guest singers. It may not be new, but it’s certainly improved; this may well be the finest work this band has ever done.
18. The Thermals – Personal Life (Kill Rock Stars). Too often, power pop wastes its energy on superficial or sugary sweet lyrics. The Thermals, however, sing songs of inspiration and betrayal and perform them like it’s a matter of life or death. An album for those who think punk rock sold its soul long ago—and anyone who misses the Pixies dearly.
19. Schomberg Fair – Gospel (Hi-Hat). Whiskey-soaked, shitkicking bluegrass songs on punk rock guitars delivered with considerable fire and brimstone, this Toronto band gives Canadiana roots rock a kick in the ass.
20. The Roots – How I Got Over (Universal). Becoming a talk show house band turned out to be the best thing for this venerable hip-hop band at this stage in their career. They haven’t been this focused or fun in ages, and the list of collaborators is truly inspired.
The rest, in alphabetical order:
Laurie Anderson – Homeland (Nonesuch). "Was the constitution written in invisible ink? Has everyone here forgotten how to think? Is this great big boat starting to sink?" Fair questions. And few are better positioned to play the role of inquisitor than Laurie Anderson, whose wit, perception and poetry have never sounded so engaged with her selected topic — in this case, the end of an empire — than they do here. Musically, she combines the best of her sci-fi sounds of the '80s with earthier and exotic instrumentation and manages to make it all breathe beautifully.
Bei Bei and Shawn Lee – Into the Wind (Ubiquity). It’s safe to say that the Chinese zither has never sounded funkier than it does on this collaboration, which works far better than most cross-cultural clashes do. Soundtrack supervisors for martial arts films should be paying close attention.
Big Boi – Sir Luscious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty (Def Jam). A hip-hop icon came back from the wilderness and made a dense, delicious, diverse and occasionally dangerous album that pushed the limits of the genre and deserved a place on every year-end list. That artist is Outkast’s Big Boi—nattering narcissists from Chicago need not apply.
Jim Bryson and the Weakerthans – The Falcon Lake Incident (Maple). The Weakerthans rarely release new music, but considering how well they fare here backing up Ottawa songwriter Jim Bryson, they might not have to wait for their notoriously meticulous bandleader, John K. Samson, to amass a new set of material. Plus, Bryson writes songs with similar wit, economy and melodic heft, and this is easily his finest work to date.
Budos Band – III (Daptone). Funk does not get any heavier than Budos Band, who filter all sorts of African influences and ’70s American funk into a percussive stew driven by baritone saxophone. Guaranteed to put swagger in your step.
David Byrne and Fatboy Slim – Here Lies Love (Nonesuch/Warner). A musical about the life of Imelda Marcos? Byrne pulls it off with an all-star cast of female singers, strong melodies and some disco demolition from Fatboy Slim. It’s worth shelling out for the deluxe edition with extensive liner notes by Byrne.
Kathryn Calder – Are You My Mother? (File Under: Music). Calder is one of four lead singers in the New Pornographers, but her deeply personal debut solo album—performed with some of the top talent on the West Coast—shows that she’s also one of the most promising songwriters in the country.
Cowboy Junkies – Renmin Park (Latent). Michael Timmins’ sojourn in China gave his songwriting the shot in the arm it needed badly, and sonically the band incorporates traditional and modern Chinese music while never straying far from their original template. This is a welcome left turn and surprisingly rewarding.
Diamond Rings – Special Affections (Secret City). This former Guelph art student took the world by storm—along with fans like Robyn, Peaches and Kathleen Hanna—with his bedroom take on electro glam pop. The makeup and videos may have turned heads, but John O’Regan has the songs to back up all the hype.
Flying Lotus – Cosmogramma (Warp). Alice Coltrane’s nephew brings his own unique sense of jazz-inspired adventurism to dense compositions that mash up every avant-garde development in electronic dance music of the last 20 years, with the lush orchestration his aunt was known for. Confounding, colourful and compelling.
Frog Eyes – Paul’s Tomb: A Triumph (Dead Oceans). In a year that ended with the death of Captain Beefheart, Victoria, B.C.’s Frog Eyes paid their own personal homage by channelling singer Carey Mercer’s visceral howl into anthemic avant-garde guitar rock that crackled with a nervous, dangerous energy that has never sounded as heavy—nor as successfully focused—as it does here.
Cee-Lo Green – The Lady Killer (Warner). Sure, “Fuck You” was a visceral viral video hit in the summer, but the rest of the album is just as sassy and soulful, even without the profanity. Green clearly doesn’t need Danger Mouse or the Gnarls Barkley pseudonym to make powerful pop music.
It Kills – s/t (independent). This haunting Halifax trio set themselves apart from other mostly instrumental, morose chamber-rock bands by letting the sunlight in occasionally, and using vocals for atmospheric effect, not a capitulation to traditional songwriting.
Seu Jorge and Almaz – s/t (Now Again). The Brazilian baritone crooner corrals a new band well versed in bossa nova, dub reggae and psychedelic rock, and leads them in a collection of covers by Kraftwerk, Jorge Ben, Roy Ayers, and Michael Jackson. What could go wrong? Nothing at all, it turns out.
Janelle Monae – The Archandroid (Bad Boy/Warner). She dances like Wilson Pickett, she sings like Lyn Collins, she hangs out with Outkast and Of Montreal, she loves psychedelic pop and classical music, and she imagines herself as a science-fiction superhero. Even better, the music is as awesome as she is.
Robert Plant – Band of Joy (Rounder). Plant may have been playing nice on his album with Alison Krauss, but here he throws himself into songs by Los Lobos, Low, Townes Van Zandt and other dark corners of Americana.
Justin Rutledge – The Early Widows (Six Shooter). This sensitive singer/songwriter opens the album with the song “Be A Man”; producer Hawksley Workman helps him do just that over the course of 10 tracks, with a dual-drummer rhythm section, gospel choirs, and rousing electric guitars giving Rutledge’s songs some welcome heft.
South Rakkas Crew – The Stimulus Package (Mad Decent). This Brampton-born group plays polyglot pop and deconstructionist dancehall that is wicked, wacky and wild party from beginning to end, full of booty bass that’s both abrasive and persuasive, and even the occasional auto-tuned vocal merely adds to the overall madness rather than a nauseating distraction.
Wovenhand – The Threshingfloor (Sounds Familyre). With an ominous baritone that promises a healthy dose of hellfire, David Eugene Edwards expands his deeply spiritual Americana songcraft to include Irish, Turkish and Native American influences, creating a class all his own. If this doesn't put the fear of God into you, nothing will.
Zeus – Say Us (Arts and Crafts). Not only does this album sound like 1975, it sounds like this group has been around since 1975—with decades of experience of songwriting, arranging and performing behind them. Instead, this is a debut album by a Toronto band with a long, bright future ahead of them.