Reviews

Best Independent Music of 2011

With the calendar year fast approaching its end, we are happy to share a dozen of our favourite independent albums of the past year.

By Megan Platts and Michael Borrelli
Published December 22, 2011

It might feel like t-shirt weather outside, but we assure you, the calendar year is fast approaching its end. That means music-loving nerds like us are compelled by unknown natural forces to compile, list, and rank our favourites from this most recent swing around the sun, and then to proselytize these choices to our friends and families.

In that spirit, and also as a public service for those poor souls who are still looking for stocking stuffer ideas, we are happy to share with you, dear reader, a dozen of our favourite independent albums of the past year.

Certified CanCon

First stop on our tour of music-land is one very close to home, just up at Catherine North. No, not the street, but the Hamilton studio that recorded and mixed the debut, self-titled EP from local super-duo Whitehorse.

Local belle Melissa McLelland and her guitar virtuoso husband Luke Doucet are the couple behind Whitehorse, and you can hear a few songs off the EP and see some very pretty shots of the city in this promo video:

Next it's off to the West coast, where Dan Bejar puts out songs under the name Destroyer. You might recognize Bejar's voice from his work with the New Pornographers, but his output with Destroyer is unique, and explores the edges of pop.

Kaputt is a dazzling fusion of genres like jazz (?) and soft-rock(??) that might otherwise leave hipsters running for the doors, but in Bejar's capable hands, it leaves you bopping your head and praying for more.

Destroyer's ninth LP was long-listed for this year's Polaris Music Prize and will grow on you with each satisfying listen.

Check out: Savage Night at the Opera

And we would be remiss if we didn't mention two other Canadian albums worth picking up this year: Timber Timbre's Creep On Creepin' On is a dark and bluesy collection of songs warmed by Taylor Kirk's unforgettable voice, and; Vancouver folkie Dan Mangan's Oh Fortune deserves the raves it's been getting on both sides of the pond.

International Potpourri

Speaking of Europe, we can't let civic pride stand in the way of appreciating great music from other locales. This year was a bumper crop, but if we had to narrow it down to our favourite international albums, we couldn't ignore the catchy attempt to re-boot rock'n'roll led by the The Vaccines.

Borrowing some attitude and sneer from The Ramones, these boys from England keep the distortion pedal firmly pressed on their spectacular debut, What Did You Expect from the Vaccines?

Meanwhile, in New Jersey, five-piece pop-rockers Real Estate followed up their excellent 2009 debut with an equally impressive ode to conurbation called Days. Simple and sharp songwriting and tight playing made this our favourite American disc of the year.

Give a listen: Out of Tune

Of course, no 2011 list would be complete without referring to the consensus picks for best album of the year: PJ Harvey foretold the chaos we watched on the streets of Britain this year with her brilliant Mercury Prize-winning album, Let England Shake, and; France's M83 somehow keeps getting better and better with each release, which is why you need to listen to Hurry Up, We're Dreaming.

Leading Ladies

"What? That's it? Where are the ladies," you ask? Well don't fear, because the ladies stole the show this year, and we've saved the very best for last.

It was a revelation to hear Sweden's Lykke Li for the first time back in 2008, and her latest album, Wounded Rhymes, is likely to find a home close to a Canadian's heart.

Since winter in Stockholm sounds awfully familiar, this dark-ish blend of electronic, pop and indie-rock sounds speaks for itself (and is worth watching the inevitable World of Warcraft commercial to sample on YouTube):

Perennial favourite Annie Clark (aka St. Vincent) followed up her wild, weird (and best of the year) 2009 disc with yet another amazing release. Strange Mercy is for those who like their coffee with a shot of something strong in it, and their indie rock to sound like cacophony rearranged and sung by a sweet-voiced angel.

Don't believe us? Listen and you'll understand:

Closer to home, No Joy is a wicked group of shoegazing gals who soak their dream-pop in distortion but know how to rock a good riff and follow a melody down the garden path.

Transplanted to Montreal, their 2011 release Ghost Blonde pricked a lot of ears, and hypnotized a lot of listeners with its fuzzy guitars and hair-raising harmonies.

Check out: Maggie Says I Love You

And finally, arguably our favourite album of the year is from another lady nominally from Montreal, but who grew up south of the border. Little Scream (aka Laurel Sprengelmeyer) released The Golden Record this year with the help of Montreal's version of Broken Social Scene (including members of Arcade Fire and Stars, among others).

The Golden Record is a bombastic yet vulnerable piece of pop that stands out listen after listen. And even though its most energetic numbers have garnered the greatest attention, this beautiful little piece called "The Heron and the Fox", recorded in a station wagon in the cold, is jaw-dropping:

See also: 20 Solid Albums from 2010.

Megan and Mike host myboytheriotgirl, a weekly indie/alternative radio show on McMaster University radio station 93.3 CFMU. Megan began hosting myboytheriotgirl as a student in 2003, and in 2004 Mike came to McMaster and joined her on-air. They have been (happily) collaborating ever since.

You can email them at: megan@myboytheriotgirl.com or michael@myboytheriotgirl.com.

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By RightSaidFred (registered) | Posted December 22, 2011 at 09:45:33

Thanks for this. I am planning my usual Christimas trip to Cheapies tomorrow and I will check some of these recommendations out. Sadly, my usual end to this trek was stopping at Reardon's deli for a sandwich to go, with their closing a long tradition for me comes to an end. Merry Christmas everyone.

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By DavidColacci (registered) | Posted December 23, 2011 at 14:49:33 in reply to Comment 72481

Try out Waxy's and let us know how it is!

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By RB (registered) | Posted December 22, 2011 at 14:08:20

Thanks for the suggestions, Meg/Mike; I listen to your podcasts often at work when I'm in the mood for a little indie/twee/poppy-ness.

Keep up the good work, guys!

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By Anon (anonymous) | Posted December 27, 2011 at 20:45:57

Thanks for the suggestion. Must see Dinner Belles soon, have heard they are excellent and based on what I've seen on the webster, no question.

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By DowntownInHamilton (registered) | Posted December 31, 2011 at 10:42:46

I enjoyed seeing Harlan Pepper this year. We went and saw them at the Sound of Music festival in Burlington. We tried to see them at their release party at the Corktown but were unable to get tickets.

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By MikeyJ (registered) | Posted January 03, 2012 at 12:54:35

Definitely agree with what I've heard from the list: Lykke Li, M83, Real Estate, St. Vincent, & Destroyer - which didn't grow on me until way late in the year.

I'd have to add:

Bon Iver's "Bon Iver" who I just saw at Massey Hall and was blown away, pulled off expanding musically without isolating fans (except for the last track).

The Cults' "The Cults", whose "Go Outside" single got me hooked in 2010 and in 2011 the full album managed to exceed expectations.

Slow Club's "Paradise" - "Two Cousins" is my favourite video of the year and is up there for my favourite song.

Wilco's "The Whole Love" has them back in "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" form, Beirut's "The Rip Tide" may be their most consistent album - although without the grandeur of their best songs, Das Racist's "Relax" for the handful of deadpan hip hop standouts, The Weeknd's "House of Balloons" is creeping up my list despite it's post-r&b-raunchiness and James Blake's "James Blake" is proving to be my favourite reading album of 2011.

Comment edited by MikeyJ on 2012-01-03 13:06:26

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By Borrelli (registered) | Posted January 03, 2012 at 13:08:58

Gotta agree with your picks, MikeyJ, esp. the Bon Iver. For readers interested in hearing some of those bands, many of them show up on our Best of the Year shows, currently on the website, specifically episodes #253, #254 and #256.

Comment edited by Borrelli on 2012-01-03 13:10:37

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted January 03, 2012 at 14:00:32

In 2011, I didn't hear a lot of music that really broke any spectacularly new ground, but there were some solid contenders that worked well within their respective genres.

One band that did colour outside the lines for me was Pepper Rabbit, who released the excellent Red Velvet Snowball. I'm sorry I never had the chance to review this album, because I listened the hell out of it. Here's the magnificent "The Annexation of Puerto Rico", one of many standout tracks.

I also loved Oh, Hell, the blistering sophomore album by Toronto's Little Foot Long Foot (reviewed here). I can't find a video for my favourite track, but you can listen to it: "Kickface".

Another bombastic (and Canadian) artist I discovered in 2011 was Carmen Townsend, who released Waitin' and Seein' early in the year (reviewed here). Here's a live performance of album opener "River Rat".

I just loved Metronomy's album The English Riviera, which came out early in the year. It's much crisper and more essentially pop than their ebullient, noisy earlier work. Here's "The Look".

In November, Los Campesinos released the charming Hello Sadness. Here's "Songs About Your Girlfriend".

I was also impressed by High Flying Birds, the debut solo album by the less annoying Gallagher brother. Here's "The Death of You And Me".

I'm a sucker for melodic west coast girl bands, and the Dum Dum Girls stole the show by treading that fine musical line between indie pop and noise. Here's "Bedroom Eyes" from their 2011 album Only In Dreams, coming only months after their EP He Gets Me High. That rates a second link.

A few months ago, cute retro band Donora released Boyfriends, Girlfriends featuring the catchy "Mancini's Dance Hall".

Cut Off Your Hands released the derivative but delightful Hollow (read my review). Here they are sounding like The Smiths on "You Should Do Better".

I was also pleased to discover Fixers, who sound like Passion Pit but with the irritating falsetto dialed right down. Here's "Crystals".

Of course, 2011 was the Year of The Sheepdogs, and we would be remiss not to acknowledge how damned catchy and uplifting their '70s-inspired arena rockers are. Here's "I Don't Know".

Comment edited by administrator Ryan on 2012-01-03 14:06:41

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By Borrelli (registered) | Posted January 03, 2012 at 14:58:34

Woo! Linkfest! Thanks Ryan, there are some neat finds on that list that I'd never encountered--gonna have to give that Pepper Rabbit album a full listen.

Los Campesinos! have definitely grown up and matured, but it tears at me a bit because my friends and I have spent way too much time commiserating around their near-perfect We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed. Maybe we spent all our angst before the band got to the point of being overtly angst-y (but not in a bad way), or maybe we just got off on the irony that all the youthful, angst-y lyrics were laid upon cheerful melodies and energetic hooks.

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By lawrence (registered) - website | Posted January 11, 2012 at 08:54:04

Megan/Michael/Ryan,

I had to look back at this post Walk Off The Earth, craze, to see if these guys had been mentioned within Indi in 2011.

Now I don't personally recognize a lot of the bands mentioned above outside of The Sheepdogs who well broke out this year North America-wide highlighted by a timely article, and of course local all know Harlan, but having also read Ryans reviews, what in the opinions of the three of you's, had them on the edge but perhaps not as widely known at least in our circles, as bands mentioned within this article/comment thread?

I look back at their previous stuff and its great and their videos are great and their voices are great and they have this well developed YouTube channel and even their own funny puppets. As I said, it seemed they were just on the brink but seemingly good enough to be better knwon locally. Maybe they were? Just because I had never heard of them doesn't mean a darn thing.

Obviously the latest video is different in many making of a viral video ways from an already powerful and well-known original with 35M+ hits of its own and the guys and Sarah already had quite the following. Its evident that 3 of them have strong voices and the 5 together have great harmony. Then you have individually, this head-turning female voice and a tone not unlike Gabriel with a tremendous reach and even the guy far right has captured many comments of his own. He reminds me in his monotone stance (he must be the bassist),of the singer from the Crash Test Dummies' voice.

So its obvious in so many more ways than one why they will likely top 2012 lists, but it seemed they were already up there in the background for at least some of us.

Thoughts?

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