Best Music of 2011

2010 went down in my record books as the year with a ridiculous amount of new music. A lot of my favourite bands released new records that year (more than a dozen, if I remember correctly), and so I assumed that 2011 would be fairly quiet on the new music front. I was, quite happily, proven wrong. I ended up having a lot of great tunes to listen to all year long. Looking ahead to 2012, there’s new material on the horizon from M. Ward, Metric, Mumford & Sons, Bruce Springsteen, and Dave Matthews Band; Leonard Cohen just released an album last week.

So, now that I’ve had a chance to read some of the music industry’s end-of-the-year lists, I’ve compiled my own. The following are my top four albums of 2011. Originally, I had intended to pick five albums, but I found that after four there was an ever-so-slight drop, with about half a dozen good, consistent albums that liked about the same amount.

This list is, of course, almost hopelessly limited given that I can’t follow all that goes on in the corners of the music industry that I try to inhabit. It’s also quite biased due to the fact that I tend to stick within certain genres. Finally, I am biased toward albums that are thematically or musically cohesive. Anyway, without further apologies, here are my top four albums of the year, beginning with number one.

1. Matthew Good – Lights of Endangered Species

In my mind, there is one main reason why this album deserves the top spot: it’s so freaking bold. I mean, just listen to “Zero Orchestra.” Then try to find a spot in the track listing of any of Matthew Good’s solo albums where it would fit. There isn’t one, because this album has a different engine.

Let’s be honest: nobody expected anything like this from Matthew Good, especially 9 albums and 18 years into his career. Most of those who have been listening to him have been doing so for years, and I think most of us thought that his very best work (namely, 2003’s Avalanche) was behind him, even if they also knew he’d never release a bad album.

But, on May 31st, Matthew Good dropped this album. From the very first listen, it was evident to me that this album was different. The music is patient and controlled, yet also adventurous and unashamed: the limp-step drums on “Extraordinary Fades.” The haunting, slow-burning horns that build “Set Me On Fire.” The guitar tones on “Non Populus” that sound as if they were, as one listener put it, “crying into the Grand Canyon.” The feeling of redemption that surrounds the closing title track. And the absolute freight train that is “Zero Orchestra.” All framed by the infamous Matt Good sneer and some really beautiful lyrics that feel purposely cloaked, yet nevertheless searching, personal, and poignant.

It’s all so refreshing because it’s so unapologetic. 

This, ladies and gentlemen, is Matthew Good making the record he wanted to make. This is Matthew Good at his purest, unencumbered by record label disputes over commercial viability and unstable circumstances in his personal life. It was also the album that cemented for the wider public what some of his most loyal fans already knew: nobody is more underrated than Matthew Good.

2. Florence + the Machine – Ceremonials

This album took six weeks to really hit me, and due to a few inconsistencies, it may never hit some listeners. Florence Welch is certainly an acquired taste. But when she really soars, she’s better than just about anything else.

I remember making a detour on the way home from our honeymoon to pick up a copy of Ceremonials. While I loved it song-by-song for the first six or so tracks, it felt too overwhelming as a whole, like the volume was “stuck on 11” all the time. The latter half of the album just seemed to blend together into one long crescendo. Florence has confessed what she calls her “incorrigible maximalism,” but after numerous re-listens I’ve come to see that this is more of a strength than it is a weakness — if you’re willing to be patient. Don’t expect the playful eclecticism of LungsCeremonials is focused and expansive. Florence is that rare indie artist who dares to be sweeping. Lots of bands put out great little albums, but few put out great big albums. Some artists write precious songs that you want to hold; Florence’s songs have wings and you listen to them to set them free.

Florence never lets Ceremonials’ focus become a creative straight jacket. She is ethereal, triumphant, beaming, infections, and haunting, and sometimes all in the same song. She balances delicate one-line harmonies with huge backing choirs. There are lots of pounding toms and bass, but also some really nice a cappella moments. Water imagery features heavily throughout the album, and it’s apt; the songs often feel like a plunge.

This album’s greatness started to dawn on me when I began watching YouTube videos of Florence performing it live on the late night TV circuit. She is not just an incredible voice with mediocre songwriting or a sub-par backing band. These songs really are solid, and she sings them straight from the heart. Her voice is uplifting and it’s so infectious. I know this because I don’t normally dance around the kitchen when music is playing.

There really is something spiritual about this music, too. And whatever it is, it’s more substantial than the usual vague lyrical forays into spirituality that are found in a lot of music today. I have a strong emotional connection to this spiritual element in her music. There is something transcendent in it. Her voice is like a cathedral. To me, the anthemic ebbs and flows of the songs are not miles away from church music. But if contemporary church songs have never done it for me, why is this album such a spiritual portal? I don’t have an answer for that.

Florence is a master of build and resolution, yet somehow it never sounds or feels contrived. However, I think she has always (intentionally?) flirted with cheesiness. Or maybe it’s just that it’s hard to be epic these days without people suspecting something. In any case, it’s because she sometimes comes so close to cheesiness that her avoidance (read: surpassing) of it is so wonderful and cathartic to experience. 

In sum, this is music that demanded something of me. I had to allow myself get caught up in this album before I really got it. And that’s still a very fair thing for an artist to demand. I just have to get better at allowing myself to let an album take me where it wants to go.

There’s a lot to be said for an album that teaches you something about yourself.

3. Feist – Metals

Like most people, I first encountered Feist a couple of years back in the wake of “1234” blowing up due to its inclusion in an iPod commercial. That song, and most of The Reminder, wasn’t really my cup of tea. It was a little too. . .Starbucks. And really easy-listening music — that is, music you succumb to rather than actively enjoy —  doesn’t appeal to me.

Then, sometime this past summer, I stumbled across some short trailers that Feist was releasing in the weeks prior to the September release of Metals. They floored me, and so did the album a few weeks later.

Metals was recorded in a large cabin in the wilderness of Big Sur, California. It’s a place that, as another reviewer so aptly put it, conjures “majestic expanse, outdoorsiness, and Kerouac-sized spiritual interrogation” in those who spend time there. This album breathes. It’s small at times, but never enclosed.

Feist has described the sound of many of the tracks as capturing “the movement of a lot of humans.” You hear floorboard stomps and shuffles, female gang vocals, reverberating horns, and the panoramic quality of everything. This really is an outdoorsy album. Feist lays her soft yet strong voice over these tracks, and her lyrical content and musical backdrop contrast with it beautifully. There are songs on here — like “A Commotion” and “Undiscovered First” — that are delightfully jarring when played in a coffee shop. The quieter numbers are just as strong, and it’s obvious that Feist obsessed over the arrangements of each song. There are slight string flourishes here, a tinkling piano there. It all adds up to one excellent album that has the roughness and lightness of a piece of driftwood.

4. Wilco – The Whole Love

I can’t seem to stray too far from my Wilco albums these days. There’s something about the way the band continually reinvents itself, yet is also willing to stand within clear musical traditions, that’s endlessly enjoyable to listen to. I liked how one reviewer put it: “Rethinking what it means to be Wilco has always been a big part of being Wilco.” There’s a certain innocent restlessness, partnered with an admiration of the past, to be found that the core of this band.

If this were a list of the most beautifully produced albums of 2011, The Whole Love would grab the top spot. This is a headphones album, and even though there was probably a lot of digital recording equipment and post-production used, it retains that nice warm analog sound that I like so much.

And if this were a list of the best rhythm section performance of 2011, this album would also win. I just love the uplifting base and dense drum patterns that underpin “Born Alone” and “Art of Almost.”

No review of this album is complete without heaping superlatives upon the opening track, “Art of Almost.” It really is one of the most arresting opening tracks I’ve ever heard. Wilco’s plan was to kick open the doors, as Jeff Tweedy put it, so that everything and anything could follow, and this track easily accomplishes that task. From there listeners are taken through a lot of varied terrain, ending with the beautiful “One Sunday Morning,” which has become, after numerous listens, my favourite track.

But perhaps the band’s greatest feat is how they made a very diverse album (from a musical or genre perspective) sound quite unified (from a thematic or aesthetic perspective). This is very hard to pull off successfully. If I had to pick out one influence, it would be the Beatles. 

I think there is probably a little something for everyone on this album, and some listeners (me included) will find the whole album great. The Whole Love is singable, subtle, inviting, creative, sometimes challenging, consistently pleasing, and never boring.

Honorable mentions (in alphabetical order):

  • The Antlers, Burst Apart
  • The Black Keys, El Camino
  • Explosions in the Sky, Take Care, Take Care, Take Care
  • Radiohead, The King of Limbs
  • TV On the Radio, Nine Types of Light

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