Trying to determine “the best” album of the year is always going to be an exercise in subjectivity, and well it should be. You can assign points for technical proficiency, and set all kinds of arbitrary criteria as if this was a figure skating competition, but even at the Olympics, they’re looking at artistic impression. In my year-end columns, I always stress that I’m very uncomfortable saying my choices are “the best” records of the year, deferring to the old stand-by “favourite albums” tag to define my choices.
Being a Polaris Music Prize judge, however, means that I’m asked once a year to single out five records I feel are “the best” album of the year based on artistic merit. It’s a daunting task, made all the more difficult by the fact that I can only single out five records. When you get down to that many, the differences and points of comparison are so infinitesimal that it’s near impossible to decide the order in which to rank them. Most years, deciding the #1 spot is a pretty cut-and-dry process (there’s always a stand out), and #2 isn’t too hard either, but the last three spots can go in any number of ways. This year’s looking like it’ll be the same.
I know, I know, it’s Victoria Day and the last thing you want to do is read a lengthy preamble, so I’ll jump right to it: my final ballot is still a few weeks from being due, but here’s an alphabetical look at the 10 records that are currently in the mix for a spot on my list. Some are already locked in, others barely making the cut, but all of them have left an enduring impression on me in the past year.
Bruce Peninsula, Open Flames: Like its titular fire, Open Flames has been a steady slow burner, that has revealed itself to be a beautiful album from start to finish. It’s a shame its release was overshadowed by a certain mono-monikered Juno winner. “From the thunderous call-your-bluff anthem “As Long As I Live”, on to Misha Bower’s impassioned vocal lead on “Warden”, to the atmospheric “Cliffs and Cloves”, Open Flames is the work of a band–of 11 people on this disc, no less!–that are all working with a singular vision and goal in mind. I can’t think of many groups of this size and make-up that manage to define their sound to the fine point Bruce Peninsula do. What a fine point, indeed.” – QBiM 4 October 2011
Cowboy Junkies, the Wilderness: Nomad Series Vol 4: I hesitate to call this a “return to form” because the Junkies have always been on form. The Wilderness was more like a rejuvenation for the band as they capped off their 25th anniversary 4-record in 18 months project with a remarkable record. “As the closing volume in the Nomad series, The Wilderness succinctly brings all the elements of the previous volumes together in one record. In doing so, it stands as one of the best collections of original material in the Cowboy Junkies’ career, and one of the year’s unexpected pleasures.” – QBiM 27 March 2012
Kathleen Edwards, Voyageur: The album I called “the first great Canadian record of 2012” has matured gracefully in the six months since I first encountered it, and continues to be a go-to album for me. “Many will highlight the fact that it was produced by Edwards’ new beau, Justin “Bon Iver” Vernon, putting down the album’s charm and success to his handiwork, but they will be doing Edwards and her songwriting a disservice. Before any knobs could be twiddled, or mic set just so, Edwards has written a cohesive collection of songs that hint at catharsis, contemplation, and closure in equal measure.” – QBiM 17 January 2012
Fucked Up, David Comes To Life: “…approach Fucked Up’s conceptual opus as an experiment in architecture. They’ve taken a globetrotting trip, picked up some unique ideas and accouterments, come home and added these new elements to they’re existing environment. The resulting transformation isn’t so much a reinvention, but a re-imagining of potential. What Fucked Up have ended up with may not be what they envisioned when the whole process started, but the results are pretty impressive nonetheless.” – QBiM 7 June 2011
Handsome Furs, Sound Kapital: Earlier this weekend I was shocked to hear that Dan Boeckner and Alexei Perry had disbanded as Handsome Furs, but if they have to have a swan song record, then they could do no better than Sound Kapital. “Sound Kapital may have Not-Safe-For-Work cover art, but the music inside could easily be classified as NSFS (Not Safe For Sitting). The beats are viral (see “Repatriated”, the best dance-pop-punk hybrid tune of 2011) and the synths seductive (“What About Us”). It’s sleek, modern, and designed to connect physically, intellectually, and emotionally.” – QBiM 29 June 2011
Dan Mangan, Oh Fortune: “Oh Fortune finds Mangan’s heart tucked safely back into his chest and off his sleeve, and that suits his songwriting extremely well. The album’s themes of loss, sadness, aging and hanging on to your youth are emotional enough on there own that Mangan doesn’t have to overplay the sentiment. Lyrically, he’s still writing from a first-person perspective, but there’s often a sense of detachment, as if he’s more narrator. For me, that makes these songs much more interesting, and encourages repeated listens.” – QBiM 26 September 2011
Marine Dreams, Marine Dreams: For his first solo outing, Attack In Black’s Ian Kehoe released a record of “modern pop songs” that instantly charmed and bristled with life and vitality. Once I started listening to it last fall, I found it very hard to put anything else on. Even today, as I go back and give it another spin, it reveals new things to me, like the flute in “Visions” that I hadn’t noticed before. Buoyant, effervescent, fizzy like a cola, warm and fuzzy like a comforter, I stand by what I said back when the album first came out: “Marine Dreams is the shit.” – QBiM 8 November 2011
Moonface, with Siinai: Heartbreaking Bravery: The second release from a former Wolf Parade member on this list is an absolute stunner. Spencer Krug’s partnership with Finnish prog-rockers Siinai has been one of this year’s unexpected jewels. “The music is beyond epic; it’s Herculean at times. It has to be, for to get inside Krug’s head to find the emotional thread of these songs is a daunting and daring task (heartbreaking bravery, indeed) but (Siinai) have managed to perfectly capture in music what Krug is laying bare in words.” – QBiM 17 April 2012
MP3: Moonface “Teary Eyes and Bloody Lips”
PS I Love You, Death Dreams: Though it’s one of the more recent releases on the list, it feels like I’ve known Death Dreams for a long, long time already. If this record makes the long list, they’ll be batting 2 for 2 in the Polaris battle ring. “…you’d have to be a heartless bastard not to fall for Paul Saulnier. He’s passion incarnate, and along with the fierce, fiery drumming of Benjamin Nelson, infuses PS I Love You’s sophomore album, Death Dreams, with more life and vitality than its morbid title alludes to.” – QBiM 8 May 2012
The Weeknd, Thursday: Although I never formally reviewed Thursday, it has become my favourite of The Weeknd’s triptych of free mixtapes. This is the record where I went from being a casual weekend Weeknd listener to a full-on fan. “It sounds fuller and more polished than its predecessor. If the first mix was designed for late night soundtracking, Thursday is it’s opposite; the marching band rhythm of “The Birds Part 1″ will clear the cobwebs from your head and lead you blinking into the morning light; Drake stops by to add some of his, er, Drakeiness to “the Zone”, quickly becoming a highlight of the nine song set.” – QBiM 20 August 2011
Tags: Bruce Peninsula, Cowboy Junkies, Dan Mangan, Fucked Up, Handsome Furs, Kathleen Edwards, Marine Dreams, Moonface, PS I Love You, The Weeknd