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year in review

It's almost 2012 – so naturally, it's time for a roundup of the best music that 2011 had to offer. Here are the Top 10 albums of the year (and the best in the classical category) according to The Globe's music critics. Tell us what you think of these picks - and add your own - in the comments section.


1. Metals, Feist, Arts & Crafts

Success hasn't insulated Feist from the sharp edges of life. This lean and lonesome record stokes a slow-burning fire through 12 tough-minded songs about the people we lose, and the things that rot away as we cling to them.

2. Strange Mercy, St. Vincent

Annie Clark's third album turns her light voice, wicked guitar skills and flair for stylistic mash-ups toward the scarred battlefield of the heart. Her truths, hidden behind sleek Hollywood facades or in snarling synthesizer breaks, are puzzles that won't accept simple solutions.

3. Castlemusic, Jennifer Castle

The visionary yet sharply realistic world of this superb collection of songs has many more dimensions than three. When Jennifer Castle tells a story in song, she makes you feel the place of its happening, as a smell in the air, a silent warmth, a desperate chill in the heart.

4. Rome, Danger Mouse & Daniele Luppe

Musicians are usually fans of other musicians. Danger Mouse (Brian Burton) and Daniele Luppe express their love for old spaghetti-western soundtracks by making a fresh soundtrack for a film that doesn't exist. Great tuneful stuff, heavy in atmosphere, with fab cameos by Jack White and Norah Jones.

5. Let England Shake, PJ Harvey

PJ Harvey's songs of war explore the subject via first-person accounts of First World War troops at Gallipoli. Harvey's delicate tunes and quiet home-front arrangements – she mostly trades her guitar for jangling autoharp – confront the horror with devastating understatement.

6. Smoke Ring For My Halo, Kurt Vile

Vile's latest solo album makes everything spare and simple while blowing it up in your face. His ragged, strong tunes circle through your mind like recurring dreams, juiced with 1,000 volts, and sparked with lines such as "If it ain't workin, take a whiz on the world / an entire nation drinking from a dirty cup."

7. Native Speaker, Braids

This breakout release by the Montreal-based quartet builds delirious layers of patterned sound under its blunt and often randy lyrics, sung in a child's field-holler style by Raphaelle Standell-Preston. A great melodic bouquet with plenty of thorns included.

8. Explicit Pictures, We Are Enfant Terrible

I don't smoke, but I want to light a Gauloise as I listen to Clo Floret sing over bratty propulsive beats ripped from the eight-bit voice boxes of old game machines. English lyrics can't mask the passionate Gallic coolness of habit-forming songs that sooth the soul as they poke you in the eye.

9. Femmes de Chez Nous, Christine Fellows

Fellows holed up at Winnipeg's Musée de St. Boniface, and the ghosts of that former convent, hospital and orphanage come alive in her bilingual album of hand-stitched songs about loneliness, silence and endurance. Bonus: a DVD of Fellows performing live with multimedia artist Shary Boyle.

10. Undun, The Roots

The Philadelphia hip-hop crew traces the life history of a fictional 25-year-old whose time on Earth ends just before the music starts. This is the first novel presented in rap and song, and it's a beautifully realized, groundbreaking exercise.


1. Metals, Feist

If we didn't know it already, the artful singer-songwriter Leslie Feist can do so much more than count to four. Her singing is a given, but now the song-craft and moody, lush production – and occasional punchy moments – match a one-in-a-million voice.

2. Undun, The Roots

A Shuggie Otis-y soul symphony and hip-hop statement on the black American experience. No less than a masterpiece.

3. David Comes to Life, F***ed Up

Uncommonly conceptual and uncommonly hard hard-rock, with a central refrain ("dying on the inside, dying on the inside") that is brilliantly downbeat and uplifting at once.

4. The King of Limbs, Radiohead

Yeah, okay, it's no In Rainbows. Get over it. The twitchy electro beats intrigue, and Thom Yorke is as underrated a soul singer as breathes.

5. So Beautiful or So What, Paul Simon

The former, without a doubt. Genius songwriting and subtly eclectic arrangements win, almost always.

6. James Blake, James Blake

The British boy wonder of post-dubstep invents himself with an intriguing and heartfelt new music. Incomparable.

7. Helplessness Blues, Fleet Foxes

Thoughtful, scenic and harmonic – bearded indie-folk has a new standard.

8. Wild Flag, Wild Flag

Courtney Love goes Go-Gos, and, with one song ( Endless Talk), the Cars reunion is made superfluous.

9. Weather, Meshell Ndegeocello

The singer-bassist broods sublimely and languidly, her chocolate voice dripping and whispering into your ears. Dark R&B elegance that soothes.

10. Slave Ambient, The War on Drugs

From Philadelphia's Adam Granduciel, a narcotic and freewheeling style of indie-rock that glides its way to places Dylan and Tom Petty sometimes go. A new road-trip necessity.


1. Skying, The Horrors

Brit four-piece the Horrors have discovered the ingredient that eludes other quasi-psychedelic outfits: tunes. Their third album is drenched in effects and keyboards, but singer Faris Badwan channels elegantly wasted eighties crooners and holds it all together with bubblegum melodies worthy of the Brill Building.

2. Bangs and Works, Volume 2, various artists

The only aspect of footwork that's more frenetic than the Chicago subculture's adrenalin-addled Southern rap-like beats is the dancing. That's not a slight toward cuts such as DJ T-Why's Finished or DJ Solo's aching What Have You Done, which aren't merely fast but urgent.

3. Goblin, Tyler the Creator

If Tyler were a real person, I would hate him as much as his detractors. His vitriolic rhymes and broken-down beats, however, seem less like autobiography than the exaggerated inner monologue of a wildly intelligent, socially inept, frustrated young person. It's ugly; so is growing up.

4. Fever, 2562

Dave Huismans's nom de musique is harder to Google than the Dutch producer's real name. Fittingly, Fever comprises eight bass-heavy dance tracks that also seem inside out and backward. The clanging melodies become brain-rattling noise, while the drum patterns stick in your head as though they were tunes.

5. Rare Forms, Woodsman

With all the pseuds in Brooklyn, Woodsman ought to have been worshipped as soon as they moved there from Denver. It might take a while, but the psych-rock quartet are on the right track with such hypnotically lush tribal jams as Beat The Heat.

6. Strange Mercy, St. Vincent

Fans dig Annie Clark for obvious reasons: her pristine voice, spooky lyrics ("Save me from what I want"), guitar heroics and China-doll looks. Clark's third album balances her and her band's musical muscles with intimate atmospherics even better than before – which is to say, perfectly.

7. FabricLive 57, Jackmaster

From the first minutes of Scottish iconoclast Jackmaster's mix, you'd think he was just another Detroit techno purist. By the end, you'll have given up trying to pigeonhole him, since he blends so many diverse genres (booty bass, grime and others) that your head will have exploded long ago.

8. Pinch & Shackleton, Pinch and Shackleton

Every sound on this collaboration between two dubstep auteurs is smudged, shaded, or obscured. It feels like you're at a rave blindfolded and tied to a chair – you can hear rattles and hums, you can feel the bass, but some vital part of the experience is tantalizingly held back.

9. FabricLive 59, Four Tet

Kieran Hebden's Fabric mix is a love letter to the U.K. dance scene that he's just left for New York. It's a soulful set (check the Marvin Gaye sample in Crazy Bald Heads' First Born) with hints of British garage, house and techno. All killer, no filler.

10. Fear Of God II: Let Us Pray, Pusha T

Rapping about cocaine is old hat for the superior half of Virgina duo Clipse – no moulds were broken in the making of this album. But Pusha's a craftsman, and his rhymes increasingly resemble the intricacy and reliability of a Swiss watch ("Bentley with the ragtop yarmulke / it says kilometres all on my speedometer.").


1. Live at Birdland, Lee Konitz, Brad Mehldau, Charlie Haden, Paul Motian

The method was simple: Somebody (usually Konitz) started a tune, and the others followed. The set list was prosaic: a half-dozen standards, all decades older than Mehldau. And the results were spectacular – improvisations that revealed unimagined depths in tunes many thought long since played into exhaustion. Bop lives, reinvented as modernism.

2. King of Limbs, Radiohead

Static though it seems on the surface, with its looped beats and buzzing electronics, close listening reveals sly melodic twists, unexpected harmonies and a wealth of rhythmic invention. Subtleties of meaning lurk in every phrase, with depths so profound that even after months of listening, new treasures may be found. An album to get lost in.

3. James Farm, James Farm

In a much-debated blog post, trumpeter Nicholas Payton declared that jazz, as a word, was dead. On this debut, the members of James Farm argue that jazz, as a methodology, is dead, and replace it with a sound drawn from folk and pop, but blessed with the improvisational rigour that has always defined great jazz.

4. The Path of Totality, Korn

Front man Jonathan Davis has long been obsessed with the inverse relationship between control and victimization, a dynamic that played out dramatically against the band's detuned guitar crunch. This album, which refits that sound with snarling dubstep synths, adds new teeth to Korn's sound, and fresh pathos to Davis's vocals.

5. Back to Love, Anthony Hamilton

There are plenty of retro touches here, from the horn-spiked Memphis groove beneath Writing on the Wall to the Chicago soul feel given the sweet falsetto of I'll Wait (To Fall in Love). But when Hamilton follows the smouldering lust of Woo with the desperate regret of Pray for Me, it's obvious how modern his soul is.

6. Quintet Live in Europe 1967, Miles Davis

Three concerts, plus two TV appearances (included on DVD), all recorded over the course of 10 days. Described like that, this set seems little more than a travelogue, but on the stereo, the authority with which Davis and crew continuously reinvent their repertoire illustrates how far jazz has to go to catch up.

7. One of Many, Kenny Wheeler

Given the depth and originality of his conception, "One of a Kind" would seem a more appropriate tag for Wheeler. Working with pianist John Taylor (a frequent collaborator) and electric bassist Steve Swallow, the playing conjures a sort of chamber music dynamic that's at once incisively composed and brilliantly improvised.

8. Take Care, Drake

Self-aware, self-mocking and self-mythologizing, Drake embraces his contradictions and leavens his triumphs with self-doubt, moves that seem closer to the abnegation of an alt-rock aesthetic than the usual braggadocio of hip-hop stars. The music trends modern as well, flavouring cool synths and flat beats over funk and sampled soul. The real heir to the throne?

9. Heaven and Earth, John Martyn

A one-time folkie whose singing leaned toward jazz as easily as his guitar snarled blues, the gruff-voiced Martyn (who died in 2009) was adored by everyone from Phil Collins to the Cure's Robert Smith. This album, completed posthumously, captures both the depth of his genius and the breadth of his soul.

10. Cuban Rhapsody, Jane Bunnett & Hilario Duran

Rhythm runs so deeply through the music of Cuba that even with just piano and flute (or soprano saxophone), Bunnett and Duran animate this music with the spirit of dance. Drawing from a broad range of Cuban classics, the performances carry the authority of experts, but also the enthusiasm of fans.


1. Ann Southam: Returnings

Eve Egoyan, piano

So different from the joyful minimalism of her earlier music, the late Ann Southam's final works for piano, written for Eve Egoyan, are spare and haunting, inhabiting a circumscribed world where the expressive resonance of even the simplest musical element is questioned, and where resolution is always possible but rarely permanent.

2. Hector Berlioz: Nuits d'été;Handel: Arias

Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, mezzo-soprano; Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, Nicholas McGegan, conductor

The now-legendary Lorraine Hunt Lieberson sang Berlioz's Nuits d'été in public only once, in 1995, but fortunately the microphones were there to capture that luminous performance, and it has finally been released. The orchestra may not be as suave as we'd like, but the singing is in a class all its own.

3. Martin Arnold: Aberrare

Quatuor Bozzini

When is a string quartet not a string quartet? When it's a string quartet by Martin Arnold, which is as likely to conjure a primitive consort of stone flutes or the musical ruminations of a medieval monk. Live inside this music for a while and consciousness alters.

4. Poesie: Orchestral Songs by Richard Strauss

Diana Damrau, soprano; Munich Philharmonic, Christian Thielemann, conductor

Silvery sound, beautiful diction and an extraordinary range of expressive nuance give soprano Diana Damrau's captivating performances of Richard Strauss's orchestral songs – many of them written for his wife, with piano accompaniment only – the kind of intimacy we rarely get outside of chamber music.

5. Max Reger: Piano Concerto in F Minor; Richard Strauss: Burleske in D Minor

Marc-André Hamelin, piano; Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin, Ilan Volkov, conductor

How often do we listen to a late romantic concerto we haven't heard a hundred times? Gone are the memory cues; gone the baggage of the canon. And who better than Marc-André Hamelin to make a formidable case for Max Reger's virtuosic, semi-modernist tribute to Brahms and let listeners decide for themselves where it fits?

6. Béla Bartôk, Richard Strauss, Edvard Grieg: Violin Sonatas

Vilde Frang, violin; Michail Lifits, piano

Vilde Frang plays Bartok with astounding precision, but her performance is as potent as it is clear. Her instincts are also astute in late romantic repertoire, evident in her supple phrasing and tonal nuance. No wonder the music industry has its eyes on this young Norwegian violinist.

Don't forget to tell us what you think of these picks - and add your own - in the comments section.

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