The best of 2011

30 Dec

Pinning down the best album of any year is difficult for several reasons. Firstly, I don’t know what year it is, nor how old I am, nor how old any piece of music I listen to is. Second, when finding music for radio play doesn’t dictate my  listening habits, I tend to listen to old Smiley Lewis tracks on a loop rather than spending any length of time with the newest album from such and such a band out of New York. Thirdly, I have a hard time ranking things.

Despite my many faults, however, I’ve decided to treat you all to a breakdown of my favourite albums of 2011. By no means a complete list, nor an in depth one, but one that reflects my listening experience over the last calendar year.

The Alabama ShakesSelf titled EP 
For a 4 song EP, this record packs a punch. In a little under 20 minutes The Shakes deliver a more complete listening experience than most groups can muster from a full length studio album. The best part? It only costs four bucks at their bandcamp page.

The only reason they didn’t place higher is that it is only an EP, and it’s my opinion that a band cannot be truly judged on the merits of anything but a full-length, no matter if they’ve created a four song masterpiece or not.

The Alabama Shakes – I Found You [mp3]


Dan ManganOh Fortune [itunes]
Oh Fortune made the list by the skin of its teeth. It’s nothing against Dan Mangan, who is undoubtedly one of Canada’s best new songwriters. His previous album, Nice, Nice, Very Nice is still on heavy rotation in my library, and he’s responsible for one of the best covers of a Smiths song that has ever been produced [hypem].

The problem is that this album wasn’t on my radar until very recently. Having spent the summer in a wasteland of technology, where the closest thing to internet is an old Packard Bell at the library with a dial-up line, I missed a great deal of this summer’s releases.

Despite my late arrival to the Oh Fortune game, however, the record is a fine example of Mangan’s style. The instrumentation is spot on, the lyrics are charming and clever and I can only imagine how mesmerizing it is to watch him perform them live.

Dan Mangan – Rows of Houses [mp3]


Das RacistRelax  [itunes]
It absolutely breaks my heart to place Das Racist outside the top 5. They are a group of racially diverse and politically informed performers from Queens who have a sense of humour and a style to match. Rather than get on a pulpit about race relations, or the music industry, Das Racist treats every topic with irreverence, and doesn’t allow the listener to get wrapped up in trivialities.

They are hands down my favourite group working today.

That said, at first listen Relax is a step down from the group’s 2010 mix tapes releases Shut Up Dude and Sit Down, Man. The beats can be annoying when they’re not outright hostile. The lyrics are at times unintelligible. The subject matter is, as always, completely irrelevant. This is all from first impressions mind you.

What I discovered after picking the album back up — after an appropriate period of mourning had passed for what I thought was the death of my favourite band — was that it was actually the same old tricks, just done without outside help. The album features original beats, original lyrics and is an entirely different experience from their previous albums simply because it’s all them. They’re flying by the strength of their own wings and once the jitters of that first encounter are over and done with, it’s a great album.

They’ve come a long way since Taco Bell.

Das Racist – Brand New Dance [mp3]


CultsCults 7″  [itunes]
What can be said of Cults? As a group, they seem to be as well matched as musically possible. Madeline Follin’s vocals mesh seamlessly with the instrumentation. They’ve captured perfectly that vibe of haunting lullaby dance pop that is so popular among artists like themselves and Canada’s own Austra.

Since it’s boring to just talk about how their music has no faults and is really enjoyable to listen to, I’ll just point you to the interview that the band did with Fucked Up frontman Damian on is Much Music show the Wedge. This is the piece that made me love them, where before I was only marginally aware of their existence.

Check it out.

Cults – Go Outside [mp3]


Jamie XX and Gil Scott-HeronWe’re New Here [itunes]
I don’t know who Gil Scott-Heron is, or at least I don’t know any better than the rest of the world. As I understand it, he was an influential figure in the poetry world, often creditted as one of the fathers of both slam poetry and rap music. Beyond that, he seems a soulful old black man who died recently and left behind a lifetime of high quality work.

That would  be enough right there, were it not for the work of former XX member (and name thief) Jamie XX. Jamie XX took the collected works of Scott-Heron and laid them over his own beats, creating one of the most mesmerizing spoken word albums I’ve ever heard.

The real merit of this album is the way that Jamie XX allows the vocals to stand on their own. His beats don’t overpower, but rather ride alongside the vocals create an experience for the listener that is difficult to describe.

Gil Scott-Heron & Jamie XX – Home [mp3]


Dum Dum GirlsOnly In Dreams  [itunes]
I”ve got a weakness for girl groups. My long-standing loyalty to the Coathangers has seen me through two admittedly sub-par records and I’m still waiting for every member of The Organ to get over their mutual hatred of each other and release a new album. With that in mind, it’s easy to see what I like about the Dum Dum Girls. They make eminently listenable lo-fi music — a genre which is populated by well-intentioned missteps — and they have an amazing range for a group in that category.

They can produce poppy hits like Jail La La from their 2008 self titled EP. But they’re also just as at home making rock anthems, or ballads like the haunting track Coming Home from their most recent album Only in Dreams.

The album is a fine example of what can go right with girl rock, and it’s a credit to the group that I can say with 100% certainty that my opinion has nothing to do with my preference for a girl behind a drum kit.

Dum Dum Girls – Coming Down [mp3]


ShadeOne Last Show of Hearts [itunes]
Am I being contrarian or needlessly obscure by giving such a lofty rank to a little known group from Ottawa? PErhaps, but more likely than that is the possibility that Shade’s One Last Show of Hearts is a fine album crafted by very talented musicians.

The album is, simply put, fantastic. Jane Gowan’s lyrics and vocals are at times haunting and at others light-hearted and charming. The music — reminiscent of some bygone era of small town rock songs — fits perfectly into the pattern that Gowan sets for it.

In short, the group has made an album that feels like a trip. It takes you through it and by the time you realize what’s happening you’re setting the player back to track #1. An astonishingly high quality album from a group that has stayed so well hidden.

Shade – Tried Too Hard [mp3]


The Black KeysEl Camino [itunes]
Surprise surprise. Even though El Camino only came out three weeks ago, it was destined to be on any list. If it had come out in January, I guarantee it still would have appeared on  best of 2011 lists.

What can be said? Fans of the duo will already know that their music of a singular quality, even their worst tracks miles ahead of any group working in the same genre.

The most I can say for this album is that it continues the evolution that the group started with their previous album Brothers. Producer Danger Mouse continues to influence and shape their music, bringing their classic blues rock sound more into the pop category. The tracks on El Camino have a depth that you didn’t get from Attack & Release or Rubber Factory.

Their sound is still there, it just keeps getting better with each new album. They’re the 24-year-old scotch of music.

The Black Keys – Run Right Back [mp3]


Coeur de PirateBlonde  [itunes]
It’s been a big month for myself and Montreal’s Coeur de Pirate. First I had a rapturous acquaintance with her new album Blonde, and then I found out (quite after the fact) that she was naked on the internet. Busy month.

I don’t speak French. Other than my ability to ask where the bathroom is in four languages (and the library in five) I speak nothing of the finer tongues of the world. It’s often hard to tell whether this is a deficiency in your listening experience, but with Coeur de Pirate, it doesn’t seem to matter so much. She has a way of putting all the information into her music and her voice, taking the burden off of language and allowing my piecemeal French lexicon to fill in the blanks.

From its high pace and even frantic moments on songs like Danse et Danse, to the lullaby feeling of songs like Cap Diamant the album delivers a tasters choice of Beatrice Martin’s varied talents.

Coeur de Pirate – Ava [mp3]


Jessica Lea MayfieldTell Me [itunes]
And so we’ve arrived at the finest of this year’s crop. The absolute cream of the musical world in 2011 comes from a young woman from Kent, Ohio. Jessica Lea Mayfield has been playing music and touring since she was 8 years old. After her first album fell into the hands of The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach he started producing her albums.

Mayfield’s work has changed greatly over the years, and the progression matches that of the Black Keys in many ways. On her former albums there was a common mix of guitar, light drum and Mayfield’s beautiful vocals. Tell Me incorporates a wider range of instruments, which complement Mayfield’s maturing voice very well.

More than how they sound, the content of the songs is what makes Tell Me such a fantastic collection of music. For a twenty-two year old from a relatively small community in Ohio, Mayfield’s lyrics are astoundingly mature. Her signature seems to be love gone wrong, or a love that refuses to be right. While her songs are heartbreaking and beautiful, they never enter the melodramatic, which she could easily do with titles like I’ll Be the One You Want Someday or Our Hearts Are Wrong. Jessica Lea Mayfield is continuing the long tradition of talented female song writers in the style of Patsy Cline and Bonnie Raitt.

Her previous albums, while of a very high quality, simply cannot be compared to Tell Me. It is a masterpiece from an artist that will hopefully have a long career ahead of her, for the best of herself and the listening public.

Jessica Lea Mayfield – Our Hearts Are Wrong [mp3]

2000 words… jesus… Did anyone read this?


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