With the new year here, I guess if I want to post a list of my favorite albums from 2011, I had better get to it! It was a strong year for music, from my point of view. I got to listen to a lot of really good albums; some were releases I'd been anticipating and many others were artists I discovered. There were also some great concerts. Godspeed You! Black Emperor in Chicago and The Decemberists at Nautica stand out as two of the most memorable shows I've ever attended. The former was simply one of the most epic experiences of my life, two-and-a-half mind blowing and eardrum rattling hours of post-rock mastery. The latter was an all around great set punctuated by the single most memorable song performance I've witnessed, as a huge cargo ship passed behind the riverside stage in perfect timing with "The Mariner's Revenge Song."
In this post, I decided to list my ten favorite albums of the year. I make no claim that these are the ten best albums of the year; these are strictly my opinions. I listened to about three dozen new albums this year (and at least as many albums from previous years that were new to me). There's undoubtedly lots of great stuff out there that I haven't heard, but this was a good number for me. I like being able to devote extra attention to the stuff I really like, rather than trying to listen to as many different albums as possible.
I'd like to mention When You Left the Fire by The Wilderness of Manitoba, which I reviewed here. It was released in 2011 in the U.S., and would rank pretty highly on my list, but was actually released in 2010 in Canada.
And now, to the countdown.
10. Beirut - The Rip Tide
"Postcards From Italy" off of Beirut's first album, Gulag Orkestar, is one of my favorite songs ever. The words and music together create an amazing mood of nostalgia and of being transported to another time and place. And oh, those horns! Although The Flying Club Cup was pretty good, nothing off of Beirut's sophomore LP really came close, and I found it somewhat disappointing. The Rip Tide, in contrast, has several tracks that evoke similar feelings to "Postcards From Italy," and coming from me, that's saying a lot. Key tracks: "A Candle's Fire," "Santa Fe," "The Rip Tide."
9. My Morning Jacket - Circuital
Here's another band whose previous LP disappointed me, and in this case, a lot of other people as well. Circuital is a nice return to form, just some great roots rock that adds nicely to what the band did on albums like It Still Moves and Z. Key tracks: "Victory Dance," "Circuital," "Holdin on to Black Metal."
8. The Rural Alberta Advantage -Departing
I reviewed this album from the Canadian indie rock trio after it was released. It picks up right where their first album, Hometowns, left off - "Departing is ten more tracks of the RAA's signature sound - Nils Edenloff's Jeff Mangum-esque vocals over purposefully strummed acoustic guitar and propulsive keyboard and percussion." Although I'd like to see them change up their sound a little more in the future, they certainly haven't worn out their welcome yet; there's some great stuff here. Of special note, Paul Banwatt's drumming is killer, not something you often hear in modern indie rock. Key tracks: "Stamp," "Tornado '87," "Good Night."
7. Odessa Chen - Archives of the Natural World
Odessa Chen is a little known, San Francisco-based artist who I discovered several years ago and whose gorgeously moody music characterized by stirring cello, arpeggiated electric guitar lines, and Chen's strong voice I fell in love with. This is her third album; it was funded by a Kickstarter project which I gladly donated to because I enjoyed her previous albums so much. The title of the album refers to Chen's desire to record the stories of the numerous forms of wildlife that are being driven to extinction by human activity. This serves as an overarching theme for the album, which, musically, is fairly similar to her previous work, with a bit more of a rock side. The appropriately nautical-sounding "Oh, Atlantis!" is a real standout. Key tracks: "Deer Perspectives," "Oh, Atlantis!", "The Mercy of Sound," "Cinders."
6. Bon Iver - Bon Iver, Bon Iver
This album ranked highly on a lot of people's year-end lists, and I can see why. I was really surprised by the dramatic evolution in sound here, and I personally like this album quite a bit more than the also quite good For Emma, Forever Ago. Key tracks: "Perth," "Holocene," "Calgary."
5. Motopony -Motopony
This is another album that I already reviewed. I guess it's appropriate that it ends up adjacent to Bon Iver on my list, because I wrote, "In a certain sense, I'd compare this album to Bon Iver's latest. I wouldn't say that Motopony sounds just like Bon Iver (maybe a little) but there is a similarity in that, at its heart, this is a guy with a guitar playing folk music, but then it pulls in all sorts of eclectic instrumentation and stylistic influences and becomes a wonderfully diverse (yet cohesive) collection of songs." There are several songs on this album that are just beautiful. Key tracks: "God Damn Girl," "Wait For Me," "Wake Up."
4. Various Artists - National Parks Project
Here's an album that seems to have flown under just about everyone's radar, and that's a shame. To celebrate the 100th anniversary of Canada's national parks, the National Parks Project was created, a film and accompanying soundtrack album with contributions from a whopping 39 musicians. As a big fan of Canada's indie music scene, it's not surprising that I've found much to enjoy in this album, with contributing artists including some of my favorites (Mark Hamilton of Woodpigeon and Casey Mecija of Ohbijou) and a whole host of others, such as Kathleen Edwards and Besnard Lakes' Jace Lasek and Olga Goreas. What did surprise me was how well it actually works as an album. There's a tremendous variety of sounds, but it all flows together pretty well, and I can imagine the songs here would go well with the scenes one might encounter in national parks - much of the music tends toward the pastoral or the atmospheric in sound. With twenty tracks, It's a pretty long album, but it's well worth listening to the whole thing. Key tracks: "Welcome to the Dark," "Sunblood," "Mystic Morning," "Wapusk," "Kathleen Lake."
3. Moving Mountains - Waves
After two albums of epic post-rock music with emo vocals, Moving Mountains decided to change things up, leaning more toward the post-hardcore side of their sound with an album of songs that are generally heavier and more to the point. Although I do miss their more drawn out post-rock numbers, this album still has the essence of what makes Moving Mountains' music great, with soaring melodies, heavy riffs, and plenty of emotional intensity. If you are into the sort of music that comprises the rest of my list, there's a chance this won't be your cup of tea, but sometimes it's nice to just rock out. Actually, this is the one album on my list that I'd describe as great workout music. Key tracks: "Where Two Bodies Lie," "Furnace Woods," "Full Circle."
1. Okkervil River - I Am Very Far and Ohbijou - Metal Meets (tie)
Two albums stood well ahead of the pack for me, and when it came down to it, I couldn't decide which one was my favorite. (I previously reviewed both.) Okkervil River is my favorite band, so I was expecting to love I Am Very Far, and it didn't disappoint. The band definitely pushed their sound to new places, with a variety of instrumentation making this their biggest sounding album. At times raucous, at times gorgeous, and with more of Will Sheff's reliably brilliant lyrics, it's another outstanding addition to the Okkervil catalog. That another band released an album I ended up loving just as much is a testament to how much Ohbijou has grown as a band. They, too, really explored new places with their sound, adding synths and heavier guitars to help create lush dreamscapes, with the string section and Casey Mecija's angelic vocals reminding the listener that this is still the Ohbijou we know and love from their previous releases. Yet this is definitely their most confident-sounding, and in my mind best, album so far. Key tracks: "We Need a Myth," "Show Yourself," "Wake and Be Fine," "The Rise" (I Am Very Far), "Niagara," "Balikbayan," "Anser," "Scalpel Blade" (Metal Meets).