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Almost Mainstream: My Top 11 Albums of 2011

Posted on 6 January 2012

For the second year in a row, a best-of music list, complete with radio show to accompany it. However, I completely ditched the format of last year. If you want a musical accompaniment while you read, there’s a few, starting with the radio-show version of this list as broadcast on CFUR. Click the big green play button and read on.

Almost Mainstream Episode 34 – Top 11 Albums of 2011 – January 6 2012

(download)

2011: Back to Albums

Last year I formatted my list as my favourite songs of 2010. The reason I did this as songs last year was because that was basically what I listened to– songs, and very few actual albums. As I wrote at the time:

“If there’s one thing I can peg 2010 too, it’s the year I officially transitioned out of listening to albums. There were very clearly great albums this year… But the fact is that everything I listened to this year was in the form of singles. If I did listen to the full album, it was after noticing that I had liked three or more songs off of the album already …

I chalk this transition up to a number of factors. First, have you heard of the internet? It’s pretty cool. Sites like the Hype Machine, Soundcloud, CBC Radio 3, Stereogum, and Ex.fm combined with Tumblr all give me daily doses of new/interesting music. That’s not to mention all the other blogs out there. This year I just got really good at using them.”

But then a funny thing happened. Shortly after writing this, I started using a service Rdio. It, too, is an internet streaming service, but its emphasis on streaming full albums, rather than songs. It also has offline mode for listening on your phone, something I’ve taken advantage of on the majority of my commutes to work.

And a funny thing happened– as it became easier for me to listen to new albums, that’s exactly what I did. And so here we are, at the end of 2011, and I’m back to making a list of my favourite albums, rather than songs.

Less Professional Listening

The emphasis on albums over singles means I probably sampled less of what was on offer this year than last. The amount of sampling I did was also hurt by the fact that while last year I spent a lot of time listening to music for CFUR and CBC, this year I moved towards more of a management role at CFUR and more of a writing-actual-stories-vs-the-music-segments role at CBC. And I just found myself missing the old-fashioned getting-to-know-an-album thing.

Criteria

So, how did I choose the list. Here’s the criteria, rough as it is.

First, the album had to be released in 2011.

Second, this is MY list based on what I listened to. It’s not supposed to be a definitive list, because I didn’t listen to half of what came out. I probably didn’t even listen to half of what’s on a bunch of other best-of lists out there. I listened to what I listened to, which was a lot, but was by no means close to comprehensive.

And third, this is about the albums, but the songs have to work, too. There’s stuff out there that’s really interesting from start to finish as an album, but if there’s not at least one tune that gets stuck in my head, it’s not going to work for me. But as a caveat to that, there’s nothing on here that’s just based on a couple of good songs while the rest of the music falls flat. If I were to make my favourite songs list, it would probably look different, but those songs don’t come from strong albums. Conversely, what we have here  are all good listens from start to finish, with at least two or three stand-out tracks.

And finally, I’m doing this alphabetically by artist. Eleven albums are eleven albums and I don’t see a need to can’t rank them. Each of these is good music.

So, on to the music.

Adele – 21

Easily the most mainstream album on my list (given that it was the biggest album of the year– everywhere from commercials to Canucks games). But I’ve never liked or disliked music based on mass appeal. Good is good, and this is good. (adele.tv)

Beastie Boys – Hot Sauce Committee Part Two

The thing is, I’m not even a huge fan of the Beastie Boys. Yes, I enjoy their classic work, but I’m nowhere near liking them as much as many of my friends. And while this album doesn’t go anywhere dramatically different from where they’ve gone before, they go to their good stuff in an incredibly consistent and fresh-sounding way throughout. A worthy entrant into their canon, and onto this list. (beastieboys.com)

Dan Mangan – Oh Fortune

The first time I listened to this album as a whole was while I was mowing my lawn and doing yardwork towards the end of summer, when it felt more like fall. Leaves were turning, plants were dying, frost was coming. It was so perfect for that moment that I played it back-to-back three times. That’s good enough for me. (danmanganmusic.com)

Destroyer – Kaputt

I listened to this when it first came out in January, and knew then that it would place high in my year-end list. Even ignoring the masterpiece that is “Bay of Pigs” (previously released as a single and then tacked onto the end of this album), this is an amazing piece of work that manages to make some of the worst production aesthetics of the seventies/eighties sound beautiful. (destroyersongs.com)

Fucked Up – David Comes To Life

I didn’t really like these guys before. I could hear what was going on and what was exciting about it, but man, was it harsh. The addition of female vocalists to the screaming and instrumental assault is a stroke of genius, tempering things just enough without losing any of the power. I don’t know if this musical thing is happening or not, but it sure helped make a cohesive album. (lookingforgold.blogspot.com)

Handsome Furs – Sound Kapital

Seriously, as long as they don’t deliberately make a terrible album I think anything by this husband-wife duo will make my year-end list. Perfect blend of garage rock and electronic. (handsomefurs.com)

Mother Mother – Eureka

I am a big fan of Mother Mother, both as a live act and as a recording group, and I was really looking forward to this one. I’ll admit I was a little disappointed when it came out, but a few more listens and, well, here it is. (mothermothersite.com)

Rural Alberta Advantage – Departing

Another slow grower on me, but there’s just something so compelling about these songs– the urgency, despite the stripped-down nature. It’s lovely just getting lost in the instrumentation and the voices on this one. (theraa.com)

Smith Westerns – Dye It Blonde

From the first notes of “Weekend,” you know you’re in for a great time. I’m not sure why these guys are being ignored by the rock world, as they seem to be doing a blend of the Beatles and the Black Keys in a way that comes off as not being indebted to either. And hey, it’s fun. (smithwesternsmusic.com)

Timber Timbre – Creep On Creepin’ On

What can I say? This fantastic blend of haunting swamp-rock with doo-wop style melodies just keeps me coming back for more. (timbertimbre.com)

The Weeknd – House of Balloons/Thursday/Echoes of Silence Trilogy

OK, I know I said I wasn’t going to rank these, but I think there’s a very strong case to be made for “House of Balloons” and its two sisters albums, “Thursday” and “Echoes of Silence” joining forces to be album of the year.

Like pretty much anything good in music these days, nothing is conventional about these. First, it wasn’t really an album or set of albums, it was mixtapes, released for free, on the internet, at first without anyone knowing who was behind it. Sonically, it’s unlike anything else– kind of R&B, kind of electronic, kind of indie. There’s getting to be more and more music that just defies classification as everything melds together in one big genre of “good”, and the Weeknd is part of that. And finally, it’s huge in the way things get huge in this day of the divided internet– it’s on all sorts of best-of lists, it was covered by all the music blogs and magazines– but I’ll bet most people have never heard of it, let alone heard it.

But, none of this would matter if the songs didn’t work. And they do– the whole mood of this album just floats into your head and stays there, in a way that hasn’t happened with music and me in a long time.

Earlier, I wrote about the concept of 2011 having “No Important Albums”, citing a lack of anything groundbreaking– sonically or otherwise. At the time I wrote that I had, for some reason, forgotten about the Weeknd. Then he released his third free mixtape in a year, completing a trilogy of spaced-out jams that sound unlike anything else going on, and everything clicked into place.

Like Kanye did last year, M.I.A. did from 2007-2009, and the White Stripes did from 2001-2003, the Weeknd has shifted the musical landscape completely in his direction. And like them, I predict there will be many imitations, but absolutely no one who comes close to what he does. A throwback to the past, a glimpse into the future, and something completely of and yet outside of the present– that’s what makes an Important Album, and that’s what the Weeknd has delivered. (the-weeknd.com)

For the record, I had a much longer set of albums on my longlist before winnowing things down. Here’s a picture of the notecard I wrote them all on– see if you can make out the names of any bands you love!

And as always, feel free to comment here or on on Twitter.

Filed under: Best Of, music

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whyuploaduploadThis is a weird give-awayChaos.Last day in New Zealand- found Ugly Bagels, giant lily pads and explored Maori and music history. So long NZ, see you soon PG.The aquarium in Auckland is awesome, especially on a rainy day. Also there is some good street art.