Culture, sort of by definition, is always there. It’s like the sun, and one’s awareness of it is like a window. Your window can be bigger or smaller, but there’s always this great big burning ball of culture shining through. With that in mind, I can’t say that 2011 was a bigger or better year in music, objectively. It was a much bigger and better year in music for me, though. For scale: my iTunes has about 4.9 gigabytes of music (two days’ worth) tagged for 2005; there is more than 22.6 gigs of music (nine days’ worth) tagged for 2011. I was bathed and immersed in just about everything. My window was huge.
It should be noted here, though, that my window didn’t let in much Top 40, country, or music made outside of America. Even with 22.6 gigs, there’s only so much you can listen to. That said, I’d like to share my view.
2011 had some prominent themes. There were many victorious returns: The Strokes, The Rapture and Ryan Adams all broke years-long silences with surprisingly capable albums. There were larger historic markers, too.Nevermind took a never-ending victory lap through the critical establishment; Brian Wilson’s SMiLE sessions were finally released, to the delight of crypto-musicologists everywhere; Jeff Mangum finally opened up his tour schedule, even stopping by Occupy Wall Street.
2011 also looked like the year of the woman: PJ Harvey, Tori Amos, Björk, Kate Bush and Wild Flag (composed of Mary Timony, Carrie Brownstein, and Janet Weiss) released amazing records this year. And those are just a few women from the establishment. There was even more, and perhaps better, music released by indie musicians like Eleanor Friedberger, Feist, St. Vincent, Juliana Barwick, Merrill Garbus and many others.
"Chillwave" may have been last year’s punchline that was still a little bit funny, but it — and a prevailing electronic aesthetic — really matured this year. Toro Y Moi updates his sound with more live instrumentation; Neon Indian continued to develop their 80s-on-aid sound; and Washed Out failed to grab me (how could he, with such a feather-soft touch?), but Within Without still received much love. The great year for "electronic" music (widely defined) continued with the steep ascendance of M83’s booming synths giving voice to child-like wonder; Daniel Lopatin’s various sound collage, loop, and even dance-inspired projects; and countless other dubstep-esque crossovers like James Blake and Zomby. If you were only interested in bass, dance, dubstep and chillwave, 2011 would have been a superlative year.
In virtually every corner I looked, there was excellent music being made. This year, though, marked the first time, perhaps, when mixtape rappers really mattered — both to me personally and to the industry. Mixtapes have played a big part in the rap economy for the better part of a decade, but 2011 brought a particularly bright shine to the fruit. The particularly of-the-moment feeling of intense internet attention, major label money, and the resultant hype-backlash cycle seemed to snare more acts than ever: Odd Future were perhaps the poster children for the phenomenon, but there was a decided halo effect from Tyler and Co’s success: Kreayshawn, ASAP Rocky, Yelawolf, Gucci Mane, J Cole, Das Racist and countless others either scored major label money or network airtime. And the underground mixtape economy composed of acts like Danny Brown, Freddie Gibbs, Cities Aviv, Action Bronson, G-Side and Lil B seems primed to bubble up to the mainstream next year.
Common threads throughout much of 2011’s mixtape culture were a few super producers: DJ Burn One, Zaytoven, Block Beattaz, and several I’m probably forgetting, all helped shape the most memorable sounds the internet freaked out over this year. But the dominant voice in lo-fi indie rap super production belongs to the unlikely Clams Casino, a soft-spoken student living at his mom’s New Jersey home. His beats are frequently dark and twisted, but they’re always beautiful. The spaced out sound of a Clams beat never exactly fits into a template — for every recognizable vocal sample, there’s an obvious one that’s been so shifted and screwed so as to be inscrutable. One you really dig into his catalog, past the remarkable Rainforest EP and his instrumentals tape, you can hear the diversity of his style. "Haters Opinion", for Squadda B, is a monster of a beat. It sounds like how playing Gradius orR-Type when you were a kid felt. "Bass" is a song that could make anyone’s career, which might be necessary for such a personality-neutral rapper like ASAP Rocky. I still think Clams Casino is the only reason regular readers of Pitchfork would bother listening to someone like Lil B. All in all, more than any other artist, Clams Casino dominated 2011.
As should be clear from the above, though, he didn’t exactly have a calling card of an album. (I know that’s a sort of rockist prejudice, to judge music on an album-basis rather than a singles-basis, or a YouTube-basis, or what have you. But that’s how I am, and I own up to that.) As far as albums go, there were, of course, several that stood out for me.
I wrote something like a 6,000 exegesis of Jay-Z and Kanye West’s Watch The Throne, and it’s still one of my favorite albums of the year. Das Racist’sRelax is another of my favorites, though my affection probably owes more to the band itself than the strength of the record alone. Shabazz Palace’s Black Up is the best rap album of the year, practically hands down. It’s an unbelievable mix of the dystopian and the personal, with a sonic palette that recalls space-age bass music haunted by a lingering past. It’s a record that’s sparse yet overflowing, a totally singular musical experience. Another singular experience this year was, in general, Lady Gaga. It’s amazing to think about — or perhaps not, if you think long enough — but her sophomore album Born This Way seems somehow underrated and underreported on. It’s decidedly her best work to date, with club bangers, nü-hair-metal, and heart-tugging ballads. It was also sort of overshadowed by the usual Gaga media blitz of weird outfits, leftist politics, and bewildering online videos. In an off year, when she’s released no music, this sort of act is great for keeping her in the public eye. But after crafting a considerably polished pop album likeBorn This Way, Gaga may be better off letting the music speak for itself.
In a year dominated by women, lo-fi bedroom rap producers, and outsized albums, it makes sense for my favorite album to have aspects of it all. It does. EMA’s Past Life Martyred Saints. The album is only nine songs, and less than 38 minutes, but it feels like gut-wrenching exodus through an arid, wracked life. EMA’s album is technically a debut, though there’s some songwriting overlap with her previous band, Gowns. It is, though, a striking album from a decidedly fresh talent.
Part of the album’s glorious expansiveness is due its first song, "", which sets your expectations for the album in the neighborhood of Cat Power-esque. As the bottom hits you around the 2:50 mark, though, you realize the past is preamble to a dark (and inviting) future. " " is my favorite song of the year. Along with its memorable opening line (which was printed onto tour shirts, rightly so), the song is just snatches of sentiment that somehow evoke time and space better than most 90 minute feature films I’ve seen lately. And that’s really what EMA and Past Life Martyred Saintsdoes best. Whether she sounds like Nirvana, Sonic Youth, or any number of high-octane '90s art rockers, she always sounds like herself. Which is to say, an economical story teller working in a thrilling and visceral medium. Past Life Martyred Saints is beautiful, powerful, and sonically challenging. Above all, it makes me optimistic; it works from no obvious template and draws from no well other than EMA herself.
2011 was an amazing year for me. I wrote here about virtually anything that crossed my mind, from Gwyneth Paltrow and Donald Glover to my beloved lo-fi bedroom rap and the demise of The White Stripes. The diversity of topics probably reflects the diversity of the media around transmitting culture. No longer beholden to esoteric recommendations and PR emails, a critic’s cultural consumption is limited only by his imagination. Here’s to hoping 2012 brings twice as much music because it will make the view that much more vast and interesting.
Fuse December 20, 2011