2. Mark Davis – Eliminate the Toxins (Saved By Radio). This Edmonton songwriter successfully combines the comfort food of Canadiana roots rock with spooky sonic spellcasting in ways that few artists other than Daniel Lanois even attempt. (Plenty of credit should also go to producer/instrumentalist Lorrie Matheson.) Davis manages to pull off pop melodies worthy of Fleetwood Mac, folk songs that could come from Lightfoot, overtones of doom ala Nick Cave, Eno-esque production, and some twang mixed into to the chunky rock songs and pop hooks. Lyrically, Eliminate the Toxins may be full of ghosts, but you’ll want these songs to haunt you for a long, long time. The most underrated Canadian album this year is also the best.
3. Gillian Welch – The Harrow & the Harvest (Acony). “Hard times ain’t gonna rule my mind”—if that’s not an anthemic line for 2011, what is? Like Tom Waits, Welch and her partner David Rawlings took a long break from recording until she felt she had something to say, and it was worth the eight-year wait: 10 songs that are pure, perfect portraits and directly to the point, performed on little more than acoustic guitar and banjo that sounds like the duo is in your living room. It’s haunting, powerful, and impossible not to sing harmonies to. The simplest pleasure was also the strongest.
4. Feist – Metals (Arts and Crafts). Leslie Feist always had too much talent to be reduced to a one-hit wonder, and Metals is the record she’s been building toward for the past decade. This album is note-perfect without being slick; it’s deceptively heavy for such a featherweight sound; and it’s far more musically inventive than Feist gets credit for, being as she is an easily digestible artist commonly associated with coffee shops. The songwriting, arrangements, performance and production are all vivid and top-notch on every track, making Metals one of the most satisfying albums of the year, not merely one of the best.
5. Destroyer – Kaputt (Merge). A lot of people have trouble getting past the unabashedly ’80s lounge-lizard production here—apparently, this kind of homage is the last retro crime worth committing. Thankfully, there are a lot more people who made this Destroyer’s most commercially successful record to date, who cottoned on to the fact that bandleader Dan Bejar was writing his strongest melodies in years, and doesn’t seem like he’s in a hurry to get each verse over with (unusual for him). The lovely, lush arrangements were too intricate and inventive to be some kind of ironic joke—full credit is due to guitarist Nicolas Bragg and trumpeter JP Carter, who weave stunning textures—and it’s also the first Destroyer album one could imagine dancing to.
6. The Weeknd – House of Balloons (independent). 2011 was full of creeps: Tyler the Creator, Kanye West sinking to new lows, and, arguably Drake. But none of them sounded creepy like The Weeknd does, and none of them were able to express the complex combo of self-lacerating doubt mixed with aggression the way that Abel Tesfaye can; a gifted singer, he successfully navigates the ambiguity of drugged-out moral relativism without getting too uncomfortably literal (or, um, stupid: see above examples). Everything that Drake gets credit for, Tesfaye does far, far better. House of Balloons was also a musical game-changer for the way it approached the dark side of R&B. The fact that it’s still only available as a free download, and that Tesfaye spurned all media at every turn, was a zeitgeist story that helped define the year.
7. Wye Oak – Civilian (Merge). The Baltimore duo Wye Oak don’t sound like a rock band. They sound like a force of nature: a rushing river, a towering mountain range, an expansive Montana plain. Not that they sound natural: there’s nothing acoustic about Civilian, their third album, which is full of raging electric guitars and distorted sounds. But the way this duo conjure the elements at their disposal is magical, the way a sonic gust suddenly slaps you like a gale-force wind, the way dub textures stratify the sonic layers, the way Andy Stack’s drums gallop and lurch, following the push and pull of Jenn Wasner’s guitars, the way Wasner’s calm and understated vocals anchor everything like the eye of a hurricane.
8. Lykke Li – Wounded Rhymes (Warner). This is the sound of an awakening, of this Swedish singer getting her heart broken, getting her hands dirty and embracing the big sounds of ’60s Phil Spector pop (quite directly: she sounds like Ronnie Spector on much of this record) with extra amplification given to huge backing vocals and thundering percussion—every other instrument, other than her lead vocal, is secondary. Recorded in California, it’s not a sunny sound—there’s a goth melancholy barely beneath the surface throughout—but it’s joyous, cathartic, and incredibly catchy. It’s also 10 times better than her wisp of a debut record.
9. Nick Lowe – The Old Magic (Yep Roc). This 61-year-old performer reminds you what magical songwriting spells an old coot like him can still cast. Sure, the entire album has a ’50s supper-club vibe that sounds like rock’n’roll never happened, but that's just Lowe acting his age. He often croons with a gentle wink, but there's nothing ironic about anything here. Clever, yes, but Lowe never sounds anything less than completely sincere. This old magician is a guy you can trust to never let you down.
10. Kathryn Calder – Bright and Vivid (File Under: Music). The second solo album by this New Pornographer finds her embracing a wider sonic palette (with help of new husband Colin Stewart, one of the finest sonic architects on the West Coast) and writing more complex prog-pop songs that owe more to the Rheostatics or early Peter Gabriel than they do the bubblegum rush of her regular gig, or the type of safe music that most women with a voice as gorgeous as hers end up making. Calder is in a class of her own.
11. Grace Jones – Hurricane (Pias). This is not technically a 2011 album; it came out in the U.K. in 2008, and was inexplicably unavailable in North America until this past September, where it was packaged with a dub remix record. Jones reunites with the musicians who made her classic early ’80s recordings, filters that sound through late ’90s trip-hop and writes her most personal and powerful songs to date. Jones was always much more than a fashion freak and a b-movie actress, traits that unfortunately comprise her caricature today. This is a potent reminder of a powerful artist.
12. Geoff Berner – Victory Party (Mint). Berner has long been one of the finest entertainers and songwriters in Canada, but the aptly named Victory Party is a quantum leap forward in his discography. With the help of Montreal producer Socalled, Berner calls in a full band and pumps up the volume on his accordion-driven neo-klezmer arrangements, moving from rousing drinking songs to hipster smackdowns to anti-authoritarian anthems to plaintive political ballads—and then there’s the deranged electro retelling of the Golem legend, which only someone with Berner’s sharp sense of humour (and dread) could pull off.
13. Booker T. Jones – The Road From Memphis (Anti). The 57-year-old keyboardist and soul legend delivered one of his career highs with the help of the Roots’ ?uestlove, Daptones engineer Gabe Roth, Motown guitarist Dennis Coffey and vocalists including Sharon Jones, My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, and The National’s Matt Berninger. The Road From Memphis must lead to New Orleans, because this sounds like a dream collaboration between Booker T.’s MGs and the funkiest band of all time, the Meters.
14. Shabazz Palaces – Black Up (Sub Pop). Anyone who still thinks Kanye West is a hip-hop innovator needs to spend time in Shabazz Palaces. On Black Up, grooves pulse on distorted bass with nary a snare drum in sight, tempos are pushed and pulled apart, old-school soul meets 21st century clicks and cuts, and wiggy synths set everything just off-centre. Main man Ishmael Butler made a splash in the ’90s with Digable Planets, but this trippy project, where anything and everything seems possible, doesn’t seem to belong to any particular trajectory—unless early George Clinton and Black Album-era Prince dropped acid with Trent Reznor and Burial.
15. Seun Kuti – From Africa With Fury: Rise (Knitting Factory). In the year when a Fela Kuti musical was the toast of Broadway, the Nigerian legend’s youngest son released a firecracker of a record with his father’s old band and Brian Eno behind the boards. Modern African dance music rarely sounds this good—it’s usually either stuck in a retro groove or is full of unwelcome cheeseball synths. This sounds entirely modern while capturing the frenetic energy of a seasoned band, and perhaps needless to say, Kuti himself is more than a commanding frontman—one who’s nonetheless happy to take a backseat to the beat.
16. Sloan – The Double Cross (Outside). The best rock albums are always front-loaded with a group’s best songs. But after the strong “Follow the Leader” opens Sloan’s tenth album, they take their own advice and deliver gem after gem, making this milestone of an album sound more like a greatest hits compilation. All four members are writing at the top of their game, and one has to wonder if they have been purposely been saving their best songs for 2011 to celebrate their 20th anniversary.
17. Tom Waits – Bad As Me (Anti). What’s the definition of timeless? A 62-year-old who is weirder and more wonderful than he was when he was 20, writing songs that could be from the 1950s filtered through various distortions of the past five decades and with lyrics that, when they’re not about satisfaction and lives lived and eternal love, could just as easily be about the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street: “It’s hard times for some, but for others it’s sweet / someone makes money when there’s blood in the street.” And while it’s true that Waits’s eccentricities have become encoded and somewhat predictable, he convincingly begs you to “kiss me like a stranger once again.” Yeah, okay, why not? This may be his best album since 1992’s Bone Machine.
18. Rich Aucoin – We’re All Dying To Live (Sonic). Every other album that made this list is fairly consistent and easy to peg. Halifax multimedia adventurer Rich Aucoin, on the other hand, does it all: disco, psychedelia, rock numbers, rousing pop songs, piano concertos and contemplative neo-classical pieces. For such an epic record, Aucoin makes it all flow seamlessly, with interstitial segues that ease the incongruity with the skill of a pro DJ. It’s not slick, however; Aucoin maintains an earthy feel throughout, and engages 500 musicians (not an exaggeration) to help him out. One song is titled “We Must Imagine Sisyphus,” a nod perhaps to the enormity of Aucoin’s ambition, but there’s nothing world-weary about the joyous celebration in these grooves.
19. Colin Stetson – New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges (Constellation). When discussing what is by far the strangest album to get major attention in 2011 (including a Polaris Prize shortlist position), it’s easy to talk only of Stetson’s methodology: solo saxophone performed with circular breathing and incorporating every possible element of the instrument for both melodic and rhythmic ends, all recorded in one take. But Stetson’s mood and melodic sense—along with lovely cameos from Laurie Anderson and Shara Worden—are the main reasons Judges broke through the usual avant-garde circles in which albums like this are usually ghettoized.
20. Beastie Boys – Hot Sauce Committee Part 2 (EMI). Yes, “grandpa’s been rapping since ’83,” as the Beastie Boys admit here, but no one who’s been in hip-hop that long has ever released an album this good this far into their career. The last 10 years have been rather creatively fallow for the Beasties, which is why it’s so rewarding to hear them come back swinging as they do here, to say nothing of Adam Yauch’s recovery from cancer. The videos were hilarious as always, the ska single “Don’t Play No Game” (featuring Santigold) was their finest pop song ever, and the entire record was full of life.
A Hawk and a Hacksaw – Cervantine (LM Dupli-cation)
Dennis Coffey – s/t (Strut)
Couer de Pirate – Blonde (Gross Boite)
Crooked Fingers – Breaks in the Armor (Merge)
The Dirtbombs – Party Store (In the Red)
Tim Hecker – Ravedeath 1972 (Kranky)
Iron and Wine – Kiss Each Other Clean (Warner)
J Rocc – Some Cold Rock Stuff (Stones Throw)
My Morning Jacket – Circuital (ATO)
Rural Alberta Advantage – Departing (Paper Bag)