Photograph by Anna M. Campbell

As Ca Va Cool concludes its fifth year and the arbitrary music-ranking period of 2011 comes to a close, the gang assembled (virtually) once again to bring you our twenty favourite albums of the year. The bottom half of our list features riot grrrls old and new, an R&B resurrection, and, interestingly, most of the Philadelphia rock scene. Stay tuned for the conclusion of our list with the ten best albums of 2011, when we get around to it.

20. The Rural Alberta Advantage Departing

Arriving in the dead of winter early this year, Departing lived up to high expectations by not really departing at all from the rock ‘n’ nostalgia formula that powered the Rural Alberta Advantage’s 2009 debut Hometowns. A new batch of crafty songs from Nils Edenloff continues to blur the line between homesickness and heartbreak; Paul Banwatt’s manic beats continue to provide the gasoline. Feeling more and more comfortable in their shoes as a dedicated three-piece ensemble, Edenloff, Banwatt, and keyboardist Amy Cole focus on what they’re best at: compelling, unpretentious indie-folk drawn through the emotional mesh of all that we must leave behind. Plus some kickass drums. — Josh Penslar

19. AustraFeel It Break

After several years of building hype in Canada and honing her unique sound, Katie Stelmanis has finally arrived in a big way, in the form of Austra. The band’s debut album, Feel It Break, is an icy hot blast of synth-pop, capable of shattering and melting at equal intervals. Throughout this dark and dramatic album, Stelmanis manages to seamlessly blend a modern, danceable pulse into the band’s operatic orchestrations. Like a pint-sized Pompidou, she’s even turned showing off her pipes into a part of the dance itself. Her ethereal, soaring vocals are the standout feature of this album, and should leave you looking forward to what else Stelmanis has in store. — Will Morrison

18. M83Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming

M83’s music is regularly described as “epic”, which is unfortunate, but accurate. So when Anthony Gonzalez announced that his first double album would be “very, very, very epic”, I had to wonder how much further he could really take it. As Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming revealed, not only had M83 not completed their electronic fairytale – futurist in style, wistful in sentiment – they had only just begun. Guest Zola Jesus sets the tone for the proceedings on ‘Intro’ as she remembers “We didn’t need a story, we didn’t need a real world…and we became the stories, we became the places.” What follows is M83’s crowning achievement and probably track of the year, ‘Midnight City’, which successfully bottles every facet of M83’s youthful exuberance into four minutes. Those are just the first two tracks, but there are four sides to this classic, and none of it was rushed. — Daniel Hernandez

17. I Break HorsesHearts

I Break Horses are yet another talented band from Sweden. The duo of Maria Linden and Fredrik Balck perfectly meld together 1990s shoegaze with the now fashionable 1980s electronic revivalist sound to create a stunningly current effect. The album is incredibly deep with sound, layering texture upon texture with Linden’s soft and beautiful vocals providing structure and balance, as much of an instrument as anything else. Songs build, swell and fade as true to the genres form. Although this formula has been around for decades, I find myself drawn to their ability to make it emotional and raw, yet distant at the same time. This is an extremely mature debut and if the two are able to continue on in this path, I Break Horses will definitely be a band to watch. — Christian Kraeker

16. Kurt VileSmoke Ring for My Halo

Kurt Vile is able to express everything from the thoughts and worries of the common working man, much like Bruce Springsteen, to the frustrations of the creative minds that are often hard to understand, reminiscent of Bob Dylan. Though it’s not the easiest record to slip into, it’s its weirdness that keeps you coming back, trying to discover the heart of each song. Opening track ‘Baby’s Arms’ could have been a standard acoustic opener, but the thick texture gives it that extra something always constant in Kurt Vile’s quiet songs — quiet songs that are never too quiet. Smoke Ring also finds Vile rocking out as on ‘Puppet to the Man’, which hints at the the psychedelic nature of his live shows with his backing band the Violators. There are bigger and better things to come from Kurt Vile, but Smoke Ring for My Halo has solidified his name among the best of them writing music today. — Kyle Sikorski

15. FeistMetals

Perhaps the most enigmatic album on this list, Metals doesn’t reveal itself easily. Borne on a cliff side studio in Big Sur, the record is lush with Thoreau-inspired allusions to nature. While Metals is an introspective evocation of sounds that find themselves at home amongst mountains and birds, it has the capacity to explode in a human way, too. Metals eschews the pop-dynamics of The Reminder opting to invest in simplicity and subtlety. The record has no distinct beginning, middle, and end, just a patchwork of stories simultaneously undulating between start and finish. Feist’s languid vocals fall in and out of focus as they string together themes of nature, love, and life. The wistful melodies of ‘Anti-Pioneer’ creep along the heavy bass line and uncover themselves to those patient. Given room to grow, the beauty and diversity of Metals envelops you in much the same way. — Jan Kucic-Riker

14. Wild Flag

It’s been a good year for Carrie Brownstein. Following the creation of the brilliant Portlandia with Saturday Night Live’s Fred Armisen, Brownstein returned to the music scene with Wild Flag, her first band since Sleater-Kinney’s break-up. Also featuring ex-Sleater-Kinney drummer Janet Weiss, as well as former members of Helium and The Minders, Wild Flag’s self-titled debut is ten tracks of catchy, punky, rock ‘n’ roll. The whole album is a treat, but the highlight here is the opening track, ‘Romance’. More than simply Sleater-Kinney with keyboards, Wild Flag is one of the best debuts of the year, even if most of the faces are familiar. Riot grrrl lives! — Kevin Kania

13. The WeekndHouse of Balloons

“Getting everyone nervous, ‘cus them hipsters gon have to get along with them hood niggas,” Drake prophesized on an early and forgotten mixtape-cut ‘Ignant Shit’ in 2009. Fast-forward two and half years and the line rings truer than ever when thinking about his spawn, The Weeknd’s, place in music. It’s hard to think of a more successful crossover act in 2011, fusing a minimal ’90s R&B aesthetic with Beach House and Cocteau Twins samples. Alongside seedy and bleak sex and drug-laden lyrics, this musical fusion accounts for how House of Balloons single-handedly resurrected the comatose genre of R&B this year, sparked an interest in contemporaries like Frank Ocean, and birthed a sure to be future star in lead, Abel Tesfaye. Drake was right – seems them hipsters are gettin along with them hood niggas on this one. — Sal Patel

12. tUnE-yArDsw h o k i l l

In naming tUnE-yArD’s sophomore album, Merrill Garbus gave a nod to Ann Jones’ influential book on women and violence, Women Who Kill. By dropping ‘women’ from the title, Garbus didn’t diminish the prominent role of feminist themes in the album, but extended her artistic endeavour beyond the gender arena. Through the narration of various characters, Garbus delves into an exploration of power struggles in different spheres: eating disorders, abusive relationships, city violence and poverty. Despite the dense themes, irregular typography and designation as an experimental pop album, w h o k i l l is neither inaccessible nor does it take itself too seriously. Some of the lyrically heavier tracks are cloaked in a deceptive ’60s girl group vibe, others are frenetically danceable, and yearnings of gang affiliation are rendered earnestly goofy. With her powerfully idiosyncratic voice and an intricacy of loop pedal work that never ceases to amaze in live performances, Merrill is definitely a new kind of woman. — Sabrina Diemert

11. The War on DrugsSlave Ambient

My original opening line for this blurb went like this, “Combine equal parts Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen with a dash of Kurt Vile for edginess and you have the War on Drugs.” Bad cooking metaphors aside, I later understood why this line sucked. First, it read like a poorly plagiarized version of the band’s Wikipedia entry. Second, I realized that Kurt Vile was a former member of the band, so the reference made both perfect sense and no sense at all. I learned a couple things from this experience. First, I can play spot-the-references just as well as any Wikipedia contributor. Second, I don’t know why I like this band so much or why Slave Ambient made it onto this list. It may be both so simple and obvious, the specifics elude me. The War on Drugs are a talented, straight-forward rock band and Slave Ambient is a well-produced, straight-forward rock record. — Justin Everett

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— , December 19, 2011    1 Comment

Just as a small point to a small comment: while members were involved in the movement in the past, Wild Flag isn’t actually riot grrrl.

Required reading:


— Sabrina Diemert, December 22, 2011