Very Late and Increasingly Redundant Best of 2011 List, part 1: 25 Best Albums

January 12, 2012

best of 2011

I’d like to pretend this Best of 2011 list is extremely late because I was cleverly trying to avoid the year-end glut of self-indulgent posts by legitimate music reviewers (and not-so-legitimate music bloggers). The annual “look at my impeccable taste” sweepstakes wears pretty thin by January 1st.

But the reality is I just didn’t feel like any ten or so titles stood out enough to write about. Plus I’m lazy and scrolling through all the albums on my iPod to see who didn’t get deleted after a week seemed like it was going to be pretty hard on my thumb. The irony is, as my thumb scrolls down the list right now, I see there aren’t ten clear stand-outs because 2011 was a pretty strong year.

So here goes my list of iPod survivors. Apparently there’s 25 of them.

Anika: s/t  (Dec. 7, 2010)

Okay, this record was released late 2010, but I figure that’s close enough to be considered a 2011 disc. Besides, it’s not one you can ignore. This collaboration between Portishead mastermind Geoff Barrow‘s Beak> and titular German vocalist Anika, is one of the most enchanting kraut-dub albums ever made. Admittedly, that’s a pretty small pool of records. And though it’s a genre I wish more people would work in, I can’t imagine significantly better results. Anika’s vocal delivery is conjures an even more embittered Marlene Dietrich if she’d been a Brooklyn spoken word artist, something that might be insufferable if the backing tracks weren’t matched so perfectly with their frigid-but-soulful production. Dylan’s “Masters of War” has never been such a cutting indictment. This is sort of like Nico performing (not exactly singing) over Neu! tracks remixed by King Tubby. Which makes this pretty much my dream record.

Arborea: Red Planet

There aren’t many people out there able to walk the line between the dark and light of freaky acid-folk and accessible singer-songwriter fare. Buck and Shanti Curran of Arborea are two such people and it baffles me the duo isn’t more widely known. Especially on the strength of Red Planet. Most of which is so brimming with delicate beauty that you’d expect television crime show producers to be licencing tracks like the achingly winsome “Spain” for poignant scenes where the protagonist contemplates a huge mistake they just made. Probably resulting in the death of a child from an ethnic demographic.

Big Troubles: Romantic Comedy

Most of the records I liked this year were put out either by Slumberland or Sacred Bones. This one was put out by Slumberland is so much a classic Slumberland release you might die of sugary, twee, dreampop overload if you risk listening to it. Don’t be dissuaded, it’s well worth the risk. Without jettisoning all of the noise from their lo-fi debut, this set tightens up the arrangements and pulls out the stops in regards to minor key pop hooks. Any oldies (like myself) who are reading this, imagine Velocity Girl covering Bandwagonesque. For any kids out there, this is your parents’ indie-rock. And your parents have impeccable taste.

Bjork-BiophiliaBjörk: Biophilia

Though not Björk‘s best work, Biophilia is really quite a bit better than jaded media reviewers would have you believe. Though it isn’t hands-down amazing, the Icelandic fairy queen still has some magic left to spellbind the listener. Almost a mash-up of her previous three albums, it contains some of the most beautiful and intriguing sounds she’s ever recorded. A lot of the negative reviews the album received upon release rightly stated an album shouldn’t be reliant on techno-gimmickery. But that isn’t strictly the case here. The much-hyped integration of phone apps probably worked against it, building expectations unrealistically high and people simply like to see this kind of multi-media chutzpah fail. Everyone pays lip-service to fetishizing “the new” but there’s always a part of us that fears it and wants to kill it with fire. The album/apps package simply needed to be something truly new and undeniable but it sounds like it ended-up being merely digital-gilding of this standard issue Björk album. I never saw any of the apps myself so I took the album at face (ear?) value. Yes, it’s nothing new for her and there are no singles per se, but it’s also her best work since Vespertine. Beautiful, challenging and, like a plant or a crystal, it grows on you.

Braids: Native Speaker 

Native Speaker is one of those special, weird, magical transportive records that only come along once in a while. It’s fascinatingly abstract and experimental while being grounded and structured enough to be accessible with even an earworm or two thrown in. Raphaelle Standell-Preston might not have the most original voice, she pretty much alternates between Souxsie Sioux and Elizabeth Fraser—sometimes within the same song!—but the results are entrancing. Besides, what two better voices to emulate? It helps that the her afro-beat influenced, stacatto guitar playing doesn’t sound at all like Robin Guthrie‘s, as well the more abstract synth work conjures Björk‘s more challenging work but doesn’t emulate it. Native Speaker is one of those rare cases in a debut where the whole is equal to, or greater than, the sum of the band’s influences.

Cat’s Eyes: S/T

Though The Horrors‘ Skyling was released to almost unanimously favourable reviews, I found it a little drab. It was good, but apparently not good enough to keep me from deleting it off the iPod. So far Cat’s Eyes is still making the cut. It’s actually more the kind of band I’d hoped The Horrors’ silly gargage-goth would have evolved into. Comparisons to Nick Cave and Anita Lane  (or Roland S. Howard and Lydia Lunch, take your pick) would be impossible to avoid as Faris Badwan  and Rachel Zeffira mine the same southern gothic Lee-and-Nancy-in-Hell doomed lovers mythology The Birthday Party gang built their careers on. The (dive) bar for this kind of thing might be set pretty high, and few bands can do it well, but Cat’s Eyes manage to meet the challenge in spades. Their secret? They don’t always try to leap over the bar, they know when to limbo under it. It doesn’t hurt that many of the songs are as good as anything Lee Hazelwood ever wrote (something you could argue Nick Cave’s never really achieved).

Cave: Neverendless

Cave have been making some of the best garage-kraut since Tago-Mago, but of course Wooden Shjips get all the press. Wooden Shjips have put out some great records, but Neverendless is also a great record it seems to have gotten swept under the rug. Or, worse, no one’s even noticed it on the floor. If you like your motorik with less smoke and more amphetamine, these are the propulsive amerikraut jams you’ve been looking for. If I was doing an actual 2011 top ten list, this would definitely be in the top five.

Crystal Stilts: In Love With Oblivion

I wrote about this album back in July. My opinion hasn’t really changed and don’t have much to add. I think “In Love With Oblivion is in love with oblivion. From the cosmic swirls on the intro of lead-track ‘Sycamore Tree’ to the pulsing piano shuffle of album closer ‘Prometheus at Large’, the Stilts recreate the sound of a ’60s garage-band playing in an abandoned warehouse while  UFOs hover overhead pretending to be pie-plates suspended by fishing line” still sums it up pretty well.

Disappears: Guider

Though 2011 was a pretty strong year, I can’t seem to get away from the comparison name-drop game. The first name I’m dropping in this review is Mark E. Smith of The Fall since the Disappears singer’s delivery is a little reminiscent of the punk veteran’s. The rest of the band only sounds like The Fall in the way The Fall might sound playing Neu! songs or Neu! playing The Fall songs. Dirty, reverby, ramshackle guitars over motorik beats. 2011 might not have turned out to be the most original year, but the mash-up of influences here were executed really well.

The Drums: Portamento

This album got a lot of bad reviews when it came out. People were hoping for more sunshiney The Smiths-go-surfing pop of their previous releases. I actually prefer the darker, more new wavy approach of Portamento. It’s not that The Drums have matured or gotten “deeper”—not really the case—but I find the album more emotionally direct. Perhaps there’s more minor keys involved.  “Book of Revelation” is probably my favourite song of theirs so far. I hope the negative reviews don’t cause them to alter their course.

Eternal Tapestry/Sun Araw: Night Gallery

There’s something about Sun Araw records that up to this point haven’t sounded quite right, though but very, very close. Perhaps it was not collaborating with Eternal Tapestry. Araw’s  Ancient Romans (released on the same day as this album), is also pretty good but these here are 38 minutes of completely cohesive and vividly wild, psychedelic live in the studio mayhem. This is heavy, ambient, space-drone jam rock from the gods (probably Teutonic gods).

Girls: Father, Son, Holy Ghost

There’s certainly moments on  Father, Son, Holy Ghost where Girls lay it on a little thick. Normally an album so choc-a-bloc with self-indulgent grandeur is a trainwreck, but  Christopher Owens seems to have the chops to pull it off. He might just be as close to a pop visionary like Marc Bolan as anyone we have working in indie-rock these days. That, of course, comes with its own set of caveats. But from the Buddy Holly jangle of “Honey Bunny” to the Deep Purple/Sabbath shuffle of “Die” to the beautiful closer “Jamie Marie”, where Owens’ distinctively nasal croon weeps over a smoky barroom guitar, Girls nails it on almost every track. This is a proper album, not just a set of songs.

Kids on a Crime Spree: We Love You So Bad

This is might be just another Shangri-las by way of Jesus and Mary Chain influenced noise pop record but it’s also one of the best of last few years. The only thing holding it back is Mario Hernandez‘s voice isn’t the most distinctive and the songs, though perfect pop gems one and all, aren’t the most original. It’s a little bit Big Star or GBV plays Buzzcocks and Ramones ditties. Ultimately these are small criticisms as the record just works on a perfect pop level. Hooks, dirt, romance, feedback, brevity, melody and charm. It’s a winner—even if, to be honest, only a bronze medal winner.

Loom: Epyllion

If I had to pick one album of the year to write about, it would have been this one.  If only because I feel Brooke Manning‘s project Loom hasn’t gotten nearly the press coverage they deserve, even at home here in Toronto. Manning has an intoxicating voice. It took me a while to decide it’s actually pretty close to a brittle, Scandinavian version of Edie Brickell‘s. Once you’re able to get past the beguiling voice, you discover her quietly profound, deceptively simple lyrics. Epyllion weaves an incredibly rich tapestry of a nearly spectral world where a pixie-like young woman discovers love and death. Magical.

The Luyas: Too Beautiful To Work

Another band featuring the beguiling voice of a female singer is Montreal’s The Luyas. The beguiling magic in Jessie Stein‘s voice takes the form of an enchanting, childlike fragility. For most of the record this voice is highlighted front and centre by the perfectly sparse arrangements (apparently provided by Owen Pallet). Blending dream-pop, space-age bachelor pad music, indie-folk and a little trip-hop, Too Beautiful To Work is a full of subtle, jazzy art-rock. Not entirely unlike a Tricky remix of Björk covering Stereolab songs—but more uniquely original than that comparison makes it sound.

The Men: Leave Home

In the documentary Upside Down, The Creation Records Story, someone, Bobby Gillespie I think, says My Bloody Valentine‘s Loveless was the last innovative rock record; the last time things were moving forward and now things are moving backwards. It’s hard not to hear that as a condemnation (and agree with it in principal) except for every by-the-numbers revival band, there’s also a band like The Men out there. They don’t hide their influences at all—even the album title is borrowed from The Ramones (though not a detectable influence)—but they also do them justice. They spill rusty tin cans out of The Birthday Party‘s trashcan, scrape off some goo from Sonic Youth‘s sister, meditate on Guru Guru‘s most ramshackle space-jams, borrow PIL‘s public image, send out the odd bloody valentine card and harness the raw power of  The Stooges. It’s a glorious mess in the way only rock’n’roll can be a glorious, bloody, rotten mess. Like most music in 2011, it might not be terribly original but it’s pure art, not imitation.

Naked On The Vague: Twelve Dark Noons

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, Naked On The Vague sounds like a bunch of broken post-punk records that have been glued back together. Another mash-up melange of influences and archetypes. And, again, it’s really good. Unlike a lot of the post-punk revival records from ten years ago, it sounds authentic and timeless instead of reverent and contrived. They retain the harsh monochrome darkness of bands like Bauhaus, The Banshees or PIL at their most abrasive while trying to create a volcano full of psychedelic rainbows. They have the feel of a band that will have diminishing returns as they refine their musical skills, but for now they’re young, raw, dark and sexy.

odonis-odonis-hollandazeOdonis Odonis: Hollandaze

Since I included the Anika record, I felt like I should include No Joy‘s Ghost Blonde as it was released on the same day (Dec. 7, 2010). But then I put on Hollandaze to refresh my memory and I realized the No Joy record, though very good, definitely worthy of the best of 2010 list I never wrote,  is fairly standard shoegaze redux. Odonis Odonis, a band so nice they named it twice, on the other hand are noise rock gods. They take surf, garage punk, shoegaze, and a gallon of high-octane gasoline to create a bonfire of red-lined reverb to rival Vulcan’s furnace. I hope I didn’t miss my chance to see these guys in a small venue when I ignored their hometown shows last year because I thought their name was stupid.

Papercuts: Fading Parade

Papercuts are, by far, my favourite discovery of 2011. Jason Quever writes very understated, subtle, cynically maudlin indie-rock songs and has the vulnerable voice to pull them off. You just want to wrap him in a blanket and keep him safe. Though that would probably be a bad idea since, judging by the tone of his songs, he’s probably the kind of moody artist who’d end up repaying you by making your life a miserable drama. Or not. He might also be a very gentle, very pleasant fellow. That’s how complex the undertones of his music are. On Fading Parade he really perfects the recipe he’s been working with on three previous albums: winsome melodies, soft reverb, insightful lyrics and low-key—but not overly languid or boring—arrangements.

religious-knives-smokescreen-lpReligious Knives: Smokescreen

With guitars a sharp as knives and the smokey atmosphere of an opium den, both the band and album are perfectly named. Here’s another band that’s taken the dark, psychedelic post-punk of The Banshees and run it through some kind of meat grinder. It’s also not entirely unlike the early instrumental work of Pink Floyd but stripped of every last vestige of sanity and infused with Sabbath‘s ritualistic darkness. I’m not sure what kind of deal with the devil the folks at Sacred Bones made this year, but they seemed to have secured the lion’s share of interesting, visceral bands.

slug gutsSlug Guts: Howlin’ Gang

As I was saying interesting, visceral bands. Slug Guts are a little more obviously devoted to The Birthday Party than other Sacred Bones artists, but since there’s very few bands in the entire history of rock who can lay claim to picking up that torch, we can overlook the lack of originality. You aren’t going to find rock’n’roll this grimy and dangerous outside of  Scratch Acid and early Blues Explosion records. You’d better make sure your tetanus shots are up to date before listening to it because you can practically taste the rust on its serrated edges in your mouth.

colin stetsonColin Stetson: New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges

This one has actually never been on my iPod, but any reviewer would be remiss not to include it in their best of 2011 list. It’s simply a spectacular artistic triumph. Any record where spoken word segments by Laurie Anderson actually heightens the experience instead of diminishing it, pretty much guarantees the composer has a place reserved for them in heaven. Colin Stetson can expect to find himself situated somewhere between John Coltrane and Steve Reich (after Stetson and Reich die, of course). That might sound like I’m laying it on a little thick, but Judges is the sort of transcendentally mesmerizing spiritual experience that only comes along once in a while. It engages you, it transports you, it changes how you think about the world—at least for its 44 minute and 34 second duration. You can’t ask for more from post-rock or free-jazz or new music or whatever this is than Stetson’s provided here. Brilliant.

woods-sun-shadeWoods: Sun and Shade

I found Woods previous album, Echo Lake, to be a slight disappointment but the creepy folksters are back in fine form. Their bizarro falsetto harmonies emphasize their CSNY-esque hooks while the slightly lo-fi production values (though not nearly as lo-fi as some of their past releases) keep it real. There’s only a few current freak-folkers who can do the jingle-jangle of  ’60s folk-rock justice without quickly becoming an unintentional parody or insufferably self-aware homage. Woods craft the kind of bouncy pop gems every forgotten band from the ’60s with dreams of being the next Byrds traded in yet they somehow do it a little bit more authentically—and a little better.

XRayEyeballs-NotNothingXray Eyeballs: Not Nothing

An odd blend of creepy, reverb-laden garage rock and drum-machine backed post-punk. Not that odd, really, taken in the context of Jesus and Mary Chain‘s long shadow seemingly falling across almost everything these days. Basically you have distorted, nasal vocals singing classic rock’n’roll melodies over squelchy, cheap-sounding guitar and primal drums. Though not a band who’d actually get mistaken for JAMC, Not Nothing sounds a bit more like the proper follow-up to Psychocandy than pretty much anything recorded since 1985.

young prismsYoung Prisms: Friends for Now

Young Prisms seem to be trying to distill the entire history of shoegaze and dreampop into one album. A laudable goal and somebody’s gotta do it (for my sake if no one else’s). Luckily they attempt this melange on every song instead of doing their Seefeel track here and their Ride track there and the inevitable Spacemen 3 homage somewhere in the middle. Breathy vocals, crashing drums, shrill feedback, prettily chiming guitars, throbbing drones and loops all wash through the album in an immaculately balanced tidal wave of sparkling noise and crushing beauty.



  1. The amazing, sad and awesome thing about your blog here is I only played Papercuts on the PCRP last year. It’s just impossible to know/hear it all.

    • That makes sense. Papercuts is where your specific tastes and my specific tastes meet, I’d say.

  2. I have noticed that lists are getting increasingly redundant. But rest assured I haven’t seen the majority of these albums on the “best of” lists I have read. So good on ya for introducing some new music. My best songs of 2011 list is a bit redundant, but hopefully you’ll find something new – http://imveryape.com/

    • The best things about redundancy is it’s never redundant.

  3. […] Rolling Reviews CDs Selected For Review Using Roleplaying Dice « Very Late and Increasingly Redundant Best of 2011 List, part 1: 25 Best Albums Very Late and Increasingly Redundant 2011 List, part 2: 33 Disappointments and Sleepers […]

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