Year-end lists can be fun, but they’re getting ridiculous. Every publication in the world is showcasing their list on music in 2011, and most of them are the same 10 releases in a different order. Sure, there’s some value in that, but we wanted to do something a little different this year, so each of us focused on a different genre to discuss the highs, the lows and everything in-between. This isn’t a bunch of scientific list making — consider it some brief conversations with friends about what was music in 2011.
While it’s hit-or-miss at best, Can-music blog NXEW got things correct with its mantra, “a geographically impossible blog for a geographically impossible country”: When surveying the landscape of northerly music, it’s only possible to talk about Canadian music in terms of sheer impossibilities.
Indeed, any given year can produce hundreds of narratives: Does Toronto-via-Edmonton blog Weird Canada’s sudden culture-at-large relevance, as indicated by its CBC Searchlight victory, indicate a hard shift towards all things obscure, obsessive-compulsive or flat-out bizarre? Does Drake’s Take Care remind us that Toronto still reigns supreme in the national music conversation? Can Canada produce a legit star 2.0, à la OFWGKTA, in The Weeknd, whose mind-bending, stolen-sound R&B made unlikely headlines mid-year? Does Feist’s ongoing success prove that indie-rock-as-adult-contemporary will still earn the most ears?
The answer, for all questions, is yes — but it depends on your tastes. To the left of the Cancon zeitgeist, Halifax’s Long Long Long, who topped my year-end lists in 2010, resurfaced in Mean Wind and the spindly, crackle-pop of Each Other. Vancouver snotty hardcore act B-Lines had my favourite Calgary performance of 2011 — with Grown-Ups and Nü Sensae at Broken City — and released a self-titled 12-inch that was just as excellent. Edmo’s Gobble Gobble, reinvented as Born Gold, cut Bodysongs, which was an earthmoving LP satiating both dancefloor and cerebellum. Montreal’s Dirty Beaches, or Alex Zhang Huntai, meanwhile, released the moody, atmospheric Badlands, whose ghostly rockabilly rivals the creep factor of Timber Timbre.
Props, too, to the mainstays: Dan Mangan’s Oh Fortune reinvented the Vancouver teddy bear as a pop songwriter comfortable with roots or orchestral arrangements; Ohbijou’s Metal Meets was a glacial addition to the band’s chamber-pop canon; Colin Stetson pushed the boundaries of the saxophone in New History Warfare Vol. 2, which wasn’t always listenable, but was ram-packed with jaw-dropping moments.
But, in this camp, 2011 will be remembered for three standouts. First up is Rich Aucoin’s We’re All Dying to Live, an airtight synth-pop, community-first LP that purportedly involved 500 musicians across Canada. Balancing large-scale, all-in singalongs with a relentlessly inclusive live show — Aucoin levelled SXSW this year by syncing up songs to projections of The Grinch and fitting an entire venue’s crowd under a kindergarten-style parachute — We’re All Dying to Live somehow captures Aucoin’s high-intensity, posi live show onto a single disc. No small feat.
Fucked Up’s David Comes to Life, by contrast, was a known commodity. An intricate narrative about two romantic wartime revolutionaries, with completely sketched out perspectives, voices and timelines? Sure. Wall-of-sound pop melodies colliding with an evident love for classic hardcore? You betcha. Two WTF videos in “Do You Feed” — which follows third guitarist Ben Cook and bassist Sandy Miranda on a romantic tour through Toronto’s Little India — and “Queen of Hearts,” which replaced singer Damian Abraham’s bark with chanting school children? Yep. That Fucked Up makes it work is astounding. And they always do.
Finally, One Hundred Dollars’ Songs of Man — the second release from the Toronto alt-country mainstays — was simply the most memorable album of 2011. While not as musically inventive as Fucked Up or Aucoin, it signalled the arrival of songwriter Simone Fornow as a lyricist: Witness heart-crushing narratives of oil men in Fort McMurray, cancer-stricken factory workers or couples torn apart by Afghanistan duty. Fornow’s ability to transport herself into another’s shoes — with specificity, tact and judge-not compassion — has us believing she’s not only one of Canada’s best country songstresses, she’s cemented a position, with Samson, Bidini et al., in Can-rock’s literati. Songs of Man was the only album in 2011 whose lyric sheet satisfied on its own.
Hip-hop fans speak about the year 1994 with a reverence usually reserved for connoisseurs of fine wine describing a classic vintage. No year before or after has ever elicited such universal acclaim in the hip-hop community. In one 12-month period, no less than 10 bona fide classics were unleashed on the world (Nas’s Illmatic, Wu-Tang’s Enter the 36 Chambers, and Outkast’s Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik among them).
It would be sacrilegious to say the output of the rap community in 2011 was on par with that year’s once-in-a-lifetime selection. But the best year since? Possibly. And one way or another, 2011 went a long way towards proving Nas was dead wrong when he proclaimed hip-hop dead five years ago.
In 1994, hip-hop was still emerging commercially and most radio stations hadn’t yet figured out what style would attract listeners. They were willing to give anything a shot, and the voices that emerged told stories of an underprivileged, often violent world that had previously been woefully under-represented in American pop culture.
For 17 years, those narratives have dominated the hip-hop landscape. Jay-Z broke the mould with his CEO bravado, and both Kanye and Lil Wayne injected their own stylistic flourishes, but overall the streets still reigned.
Recently, hip-hop has all but disappeared from commercial radio. Particularly in Canada, FM radio restricts itself mostly to formulaic dance-pop and arena rock. In the same way that the most influential tastemakers of indie rock gravitated to the Internet, underground hip-hop found its own place in the blogosphere. In the past year, artists who had found early success by posting their mixtapes online were rhyming to increasingly massive audiences — audiences that were eager to hear about something other than the thug life.
Much of this can probably be attributed to Kanye. The overwhelming critical and commercial response to his deeply personal My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy proved the world was ready to move beyond the streets.
And it opened floodgates for this year’s group of self-aware lyricists. Artists like J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar came from relatively impoverished areas, but their various 2011 releases each shed light on young men struggling with their own identity. Conversely, Childish Gambino’s uneven album was at its most interesting when Donald Glover was examining his own African-American identity. Get beyond the violent homophobia and misogyny of Odd Future’s recordings, and the same themes are present. And while each release was flawed, they hinted at the new generation’s potential to explore fertile new narrative ground.
But 2011 ended with the release of Drake’s Take Care, an album that grows stronger with every listen and suggests Drizzy wasn’t simply content to watch the throne, he was focused on claiming it for himself. The main criticism of Drake has always been that he was soft, and no one is going to call him a gangster, but he just happens to be the most interesting hip-hop artist working today.
On “Headlines,” the album’s lead single, Drake rhymes “I might be too strung out on compliments, overdosed on confidence.” And if Take Care has a theme, that’s it. He’s not concerned about people thinking he’s soft — on “Lord Knows” he says plainly “I know that showing emotion doesn’t make me a pussy.” He’s concerned about how he feels about himself, never mind the rest of them. Freed from the restraints of having to prove how hard he is, Drake unleashed a sonically and lyrically complex album that is likely to go down as an all-time classic.
Led by Drake and Kanye, this year’s crop of artists represent an exciting shift on the hip-hop landscape. But fortunately, the street narrative didn’t simply die. Between high-elevation medical emergencies, Rick Ross continued his ascent to the upper-echelons of the hip-hop world while his Maybach Music Group now has a roster of talent that includes a resurgent Wale and Meek Mill. Freddie Gibbs kept gangster rap relevant, while Big K.R.I.T. breathed new air into the southern scene (and his collaboration with T.I. was the Atlanta icon’s most exciting venture in years).
The year 2011 may not be remembered with the same reverence as 1994, but it may have been just as influential. The game changed in 1994 and it did again in 2011.
Most years I don’t have much difficulty picking my favourite record of the year, but such was not the case for 2011 — I heard over 150 records, but only a handful of them stepped up to being “best of year” worthy (i.e., better than “oh, this is decent”). In list terms, once I got past the top six or seven records, numbering became even more arbitrary than usual. Regardless, my number one has been in flux between EMA’s Past Life Martyred Saints and The Psychic Paramount’s II. The former is the debut solo LP from Erika M. Anderson, formerly of Gowns — I was a huge Gowns fan, so I was excited to see that people finally picked up on Anderson’s talents this year. Past Life Martyred Saints is a remarkably assured debut album, dynamic, varied and remarkably expressive — it edges out numerous ’90s revival bands at their own game with sheer emotional personality alone.
As for The Psychic Paramount, I was pleasantly surprised when they announced a new record, as their previous LP came out in 2006. II is an instrumental noise-rock marathon, breathless in energetic bravado. The trio’s ability to sustain focused, non-brutish aggression (with a dynamic ebb and flow that recalls This Heat) for 40 minutes is staggering; rock albums rarely hit with such distinct focus and aplomb.
Locally, I was happy to hear some great debuts from Crow Eater and Sissys; I gave Yankee Yankee’s Ecstatic Dreamer and Extra Happy Ghost’s Modern Horses a number of spins, and the always-dependable Stalwart Sons put out a pair of great split singles. However, I’m still sick of Alberta being celebrated as a hotbed of completely inconsequential garage rock — every year when I inevitably see “THIS IS A GARAGE ROCK TOWN” plastered all over some hackneyed attempt at essentializing a year’s worth of Calgary’s music scene into an article, I grow even more embittered at the lackadaisical, blatantly uncritical acceptance of this city’s purveyed static quo. Knock it off — demand better!
Trendwise, ’90s revivalism has stuck with me more than anything else this year, both in terms of new bands and reissues. I’ve been happy to see reissues of Yo La Tengo’s Painful, Archers of Loaf’s Icky Mettle, Superchunk’s Foolish and Sebadoh’s Bakesale, to name a few. With new bands, it’s a bit hit or miss — I was recommended Yuck by several people, but I just can’t take nauseatingly fey garbage like “Suicide Policeman” seriously. Ditto to followups from Cymbals Eat Guitars and Pains of Being Pure at Heart. But hey, at least the contemporary bands of ’90s revivalism have nailed the “have an awful band name” bit.
I’m already more excited for 2012, as my two most anticipated records are coming out in February. Thrill Jockey will be releasing ex-Ponytail guitarist Dustin Wong’s Dreams Say, View, Create, Shadow Leads, his second LP of exuberant guitar-loop instrumentals, and Oneida-offshoot People of the North will be releasing Steep Formations, a spacious double-LP, on Brah/Jagjaguwar.
When I was asked to write a short column for Fast Forward Weekly’s 2011 year-end review, my immediate thoughts were of how unbelievably omnipresent black metal seemed to be this past year, even within more mainstream music media circles. If you spent any time reading about music in print or on the Internet in 2011, you undoubtedly came across some reference to the disparate genre and, chances are, you were made aware of the dynamic shifts that were occurring within it that became the source of some controversy.
This controversy, for the most part, revolved around a number of emerging black metal acts who were experimenting with long-established genre conventions. In 2011, bands like Blut Aus Nord, Locrian, Circle of Ouroborus and Thrones released albums that expanded the black metal vocabulary by bringing new elements to the table, and garnered a fairly significant amount of attention in doing so. This experimentation and outside interest was, clearly, perceived as threatening by genre purists, who took to the web, denouncing so-called “hipster metal” artists who were, apparently, blaspheming the sacred genre’s conventions. Many of these same purists, unsurprisingly, celebrated the release of genre legend Leviathan’s True Traitor True Whore, a boring and unimaginative record helmed by an incredibly sexist man who has, as recently as this year, been accused of sexual assault and domestic violence.
The band that received the most attention — and the most overwhelming criticism — was Brooklyn’s Liturgy. Earlier this year, Liturgy released their second full-length album, Aesthethica, as well as a manifesto that called for a new form of “hyperbolean” black metal. The verbose manifesto, “Transcendental Black Metal,” penned by band leader Hunter Hunt-Hendrix, was praised by The New Yorker, declared “not fit to print” by Vice Magazine and debated endlessly on Internet message boards. Hunt-Hendrix became, simultaneously, the most lauded and hated individual in black metal, and the most divisive personality in music since Lil B. Liturgy’s Aesthethica was, however, a revelation. It was, in my opinion, far and beyond the most exciting and progressive album of any kind released in 2011. Admittedly, the record was not especially heavy or dark, but its 12 songs were so mystifying, complex and awe-inspiring that it barely left my turntable all year. Released on Thrill Jockey, a predominantly indie rock label, the album borrowed heavily from noise rock, drone music and even hints of classical composition, pushing the envelope in myriad directions without sacrificing the genre’s intensity. Aesthethica was the kind of rare cultural and aesthetic achievement that stimulates conversations and provokes thought. Most of all, it was an unbelievably cool sounding album full of great songs and interesting ideas. As a side note, Liturgy was easily the most impressive live band I saw in 2011.
I would, at this point, like to call bullshit on another celebrated black metal act, Washington’s Wolves in the Throne Room. Their 2011 release, Celestial Lineage, was almost universally accepted and praised as a black metal classic, and was consistently rated higher than Aesthethica by the music media. To me, Celestial Lineage felt like such a safe move for the once-great band. It was nowhere near as mesmerizing as 2007’s Two Hunters, nor was it nearly as heavy as 2009’s Black Cascade. In reviews, it was applauded for being inventive and momentous, but I felt like it was pretty stale. I am, however, excited for their next release, as it will purportedly feature a folk-influenced sound in the vein of drone metal giants Earth. It will be especially interesting to see how black metal purists react to the change.
The biggest issue with punk and hardcore that resurfaces every year is “what is punk and hardcore?” Of course, this couldn’t be more true in 2011, as Fucked Up raised the question with their mega-epic rock opera David Comes to Life.
Like a real-life interpretation of their song “Baiting the Public,” David Comes to Life is the ultimate punk-kid trolling, all-choral vocals, squeaky-clean production and twee-as-fuck lyrics befitting a Belle and Sebastian album. It’s no wonder Maximum Rocknroll called them “Coldplay with John Brannon vocals,” but for all the Mylo Xyloto on this record, there’s just as much triumph of life. Hate it all you will, for now this belongs in the punk section and it rules.
As far as undisputed punk bands go, there were plenty of top-shelf Canadian releases without U2 guitar solos. Deranged Records kept up its near perfect track record with killer records. Outside of international ragers from Cülo and Hoax, among others, Western Canada repped hard with turntable favourites from Vacant State, B-Lines, Unlearn and No Problem.
Then there was the work of labels Sorry State and Katorga Works, both of which are proving to be among the best talent-pickers out there. Between them, there were crucial releases from Citizens Patrol, UX Vileheads, the Shitty Limits, Brain F≠, Rational Animals, Wiccans, Avon Ladies and many others. Total Abuse’s Prison Sweat, released on Post Present Medium, was perhaps their most ruthless offering yet.
Locally, there could be a lot more happening in the world of straightforward punk and hardcore. Thankfully, there’s some. Sabertooth perfected their crusty pop-punk worship with Making Light of a Shitty Situation, an album that commanded endless Bandcamp streams and finally showed up on vinyl two weeks ago. Flaccid showed some major potential with their seedy demo, though the live show I saw was derailed in part by actual rails of blow on a guitar amp. There’s still a ton of garage-punk happening in the city, but you all knew that already.
Still, the year’s greatest punk album came from Brooklyn with The Men’s Leave Home. If Fucked Up went the cornball route to fuck up punk, The Men just got super bizarre. Weird but not weird-punk, Leave Home is packed with genre-bending and experimentation without sacrificing any of the raw rage.
The shining star in the centre of this year’s global trend-spotting map is undoubtedly the dusty dais of Sub-Saharan Africa. From the orange-hued horizons of the Sahel to the labyrinthine alleyways of Agadez, Niger, the rhythms and melodies of the nomadic Tuareg community has given birth to an era-blending genre with a rebellious cry at its core. Over the past year, Calgary audiences have been regaled with the authentic dune-grooves of Malian guitar maestro Afel Bocoum of Timbuktu and enjoyed the desert-fusions dreamed up by Indo-Canadian singer-composer Kiran Ahluwalia thanks to the Epcor Centre’s BD&P World Music Series.
Pushing open the petals of the rose, Kiran teamed up with Tinariwen to craft her imaginative cross-over release Aam Zameen (Common Ground). Tinariwen’s official 2011 release Tassili (Sony) was an overwhelming critical success, confirming the ensembles’ relevance and readiness to enter into the modern enterprise of making music for an international audience. Political exile and documentary star Omar Moctar, a.k.a. Bombino, represented the region with his Cumbancha debut, Agadez. Displaying a predilection for soaring, Hendrix-inspired guitar solos, Bombino is another prime example of an emerging generation of African artists who choose to parlay their rocky, often war-torn, upbringings into unfettered rock ’n’ roll magic.
Speaking of rock, there are few things more solid than an official Red Hot compilation and Red Hot + Rio 2 (eOne Music) doesn’t disappoint. A remarkable 17th release in a series of original albums designed specifically to raise money and awareness to fight AIDS, this two-disc smorgasbord explodes with the current sounds of Brazil; roping in the Promethean talents of David Byrne, Angelique Kidjo, Prefuse 73, Devendra Banhart and even Beck in the process. Another example of collaborative creativity is the self-titled, groundbreaking trip-hop album by jazz-singer Nancy Kaye, hot-sauce multi-instrumentalist Ireesh Lal and Coldplay remixer Carmen Rizzo, who go by the name Lal Meri, after the ancient Sufi folk song. Another breath of fresh air from the vetted world music label Six Degrees, the newest album from vintage vox lover Stephen Coates and his platform, The Real Tuesday Weld, takes the listener on a proper turn-of-the-century romp through the very English radio-play The Last Werewolf. A nostalgic narrative with a great sense of whimsy and a certain taste for human blood, this supernatural snapshot of an album was conceived as a madcap soundtrack to Glen Duncan’s synonymous novel.