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Embracing the message over the medium – My best tunes of 2011

January 13, 2012

While we’ve had several features about 2011’s musical output, I feel that I should throw one more salvo of praise at what turned out to be a fine year for tunes.

At the close of 2010, I all but pronounced the album as a dead entity, at least within my own world. I also devoted far too much energy describing the disappointments – while entertaining, that box of I’m Against This has a rapidly-approaching expiration date. Besides, there was far too much to love in 2011 to throw any pixels at anything else.

So in my final column for a few months (I’m now involved in an effort that drastically reduced my ability to consume culture), here’s a laudatory etude to the musicians that made 2011 great – definitely the best since two years ago.

Unlike 2010, where most of my favorite moments were isolated to a single track by a litany of artists, I returned to high-school style back-catalogue archaeology. Here are five artists that made such efforts such a rewarding experience:

5. The Weeknd. There are two essential eras of R&B in my existence. 1986-1988 was all about uptempo speaker-shakers (like this freaking classic from Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam (with Full Force) that crammed Latin Freestyle, rap and proto-New Jack Swing into audio caffeine. In contrast, the 1580-AM beginnings of Lexington’s “The Beat” in 1996 brought tunes so slow that a healthy heartbeat at 60 bpm sounded like an Electric Daisy Carnival battle between Venetian Snares and Aphex Twin. In 2011, Abel Tesfaye and a couple of his Canuck co-horts went all Robert Pollard on us, dropping three full-length records. Of the troika, House of Balloons was the slow-jammiest, and thus, perfect for a year loaded with great chillier music like Neon Indian, Toro Y Moi and Bon Iver. “What You Need” and “Coming Down” (those freaking opening chords…damn!) would have fit perfectly between Aaliyah’s “One In A Million”, 112’s “Cupid” and Rome’s “I Belong to You” on The Beat’s playlist (before their unfortunate acquisition by an aspiring monopolist radio conglomerate). “House of Balloons/Glass Tables” (edited, of course) was one of Radio K’s happiest moments of randomness, as the second chorus stutters do-o-oown to a request to “bring the ‘707’ out”, which I’ll just assume is not a reference to defunct product by the Roland electronics corporation. While a web-wide world of music critics cited “Vomit” by Girls – a fine song from a stellar record (“Magic” especially) – as the closest our annum got to Dark Side of The Moon-style psychedelia, The Weeknd’s “The Morning” gave us David Gilmour-style guitar theatrics, sharp synths from the Richard Wright school of ambient leads, production reminiscent of Bob Ezrin, all summed up with a chorus about – what else – Money. I think we have our “best Pink Floyd song in 2011” award. Don’t tell me there’s no hope at all!

4. tUnE-yArDs. w h o k i l l  is that cold, refreshing glass of water the morning after too many Pilsners (the IPA – soo 2010). With “My Country“, Merrill Garbus wrote the perfect anthem for Occupy Wall Street (other efforts are appreciated, but we have a winner). “Powa” ends with a chorus of euphoria not heard since the ending for “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”, and “Gangsta” challenges our sense of continuity within the 4-minute song like nothing outside of “You Made Me Realize”. And that siren-song introduction! If that doesn’t bring a smile to your visage, we’re no longer friends.

In a live show at the quite-intimate Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis, the full ensemble – including rowdy performances by the saxophonist and bass player – gave enough plate-tectonic force to “Bizness” to reunite Pangaea. I’m not sure how she tops this, but I can’t wait to see her try.

3. Little Dragon. My discovery of this ensemble of Swedes was reminiscent of a 1980s-vintage Todd, in that I read an article about them in Rolling Stone where they were mentioned in the same breath as James Blake and The Weeknd. Naturally, I had to see what was the story. In an era of Pitchforks and Stereogums, and random British mp3 blogs written by ASBO chavs and Grebos alike, it is quite a surprise to miss something until it reaches the lengthy lead-time of print media, but comforting to know that such distribution models for information are not as antiquated as I once thought. Ritual Union tantalized with Donald Fagen-meets-PBS swagger of “Shuffle a Dream“, but it was their contribution to David Sitek’s Maximum Balloon project that made me wonder if the totality of our life experiences prepare us to fall in love with one musical act specifically. “If You Return” was the sound of my youth, a simulacrum of Southern Cali summer nights, which oddly prepared me for my Minnesota winter political volunteer opportunities. Then I heard 2009’s Machine Dreams, which is start-to-finish awesome. “Runabout” is a blistering dance-pop Voltron of Pretty Poison, Nu Shooz, Whodini, the Jets, and “I Wanna Dance With Somebody”-style Whitney Houston (sorry, Yeasayer, but Little Dragon got there first) ; “Looking Glass” is futuristic and Balearic enough to top Mediterranean charts in 2013; and the wintry, shoegazers-meet-1996 R&B groove of “Feather” – at least during this very moment – would have easily been my favorite song of 2009, had I knew it existed.

2. Cut Copy. These Aussies closed out 2010 by offering “Take Me Over” before releasing Zonoscope. After the icy pop of “Hanging on to Every Heartbeat” (which is the simulacrum in pop form – I swear I grew up with this song, even though that isn’t possible), and the party-starting anthemic chorus of “Need You Now“, I was ready to explore the rest of their catalog. Luckily, I already owned In Ghost Colours, but had yet to check it out. Wow – “Out there on the Ice” and “Lights and Music” were perfect manifestations of Deep House in pop form (electronic Techno geeks –feel free to correct me here); “Far Away” is what David Byrne would sound like it he drifted towards IDM, and “Hearts on Fire” – one of the tracks selected for the Pitchfork 500 – is maybe the 7th-most significant reason to own this record. Retreat a few years back to Bright Like Neon Love, and appropriately 2011-titled “Twilight”, for a wildly-out of nowhere slow-burn rock track that would have fit the soundtrack for The Social Network.  It all culminated amidst the lights and music of their live performance at First Avenue in early Spring. Definitely get to a live show of Cut Copy if you get the chance.

1. James Blake. When asked what I loved in 2011, people still think I’m referring to the tennis phenom when I throw around this Brit’s name. “CMYK” grabbed me quickly, but the comedown of the rest of that EP really makes that song shine. I can’t pour an icy beverage without the ice-vs-glass rattle not reminding me of the transition from “Footnotes” to “I’ll Stay”. The debut LP grew on me – eventually I heard the greatness in “Unluck”, “Limit to Your Love”, and “Wilhelm’s Scream”. However, it wasn’t until I heard the other EP-based tracks did I really appreciate what this dude can create. “Air and Lack Thereof” falls into that 2011 s l o w, but with enough subtle sound-effects to grab the attention of Trevor Horn, without going Full 90125 (my 5-year old nephew loves it). The latest EPs, Enough Thunder and Love What Happened Here, both feature beautiful pieces of music that defy categorization, although I’d definitely place both “Once We All Agree” and “Love What Happened Here” in the genre of Songs That Sound Better Without BBC Radio 6 DJs Chatting Over Them (you should find that section in record stores between the Gospel and the Comedy).  Although technically, “Love What Happened Here” should be on a 2012 list, I’ll fast-forward for the sake of inclusion.

Fall Creek Boys Choir” deserves a deeper examination. If it wasn’t for Bon Iver, I would not have been open to hearing James Blake. “Wolves I and II” from For Emma, Wherever Ago was the first venture into the realm of vocal manipulation that I now find awesome (think Roger and Zapp as the other extreme, and Kanye West/Justin Vernon “Lost in the World” as the perfect middle), it was the best TV on the Radio song they never wrote, and it only made perfect sense that he and Blake would collaborate.  Despite the Hipster Runoff-curated lambasting, I knew I wasn’t alone in my fandom of this tune. A discussion with fellow Tweedster Lloyd let me know, like Ed Norton in Fight Club, I was not alone (take it away, Lloyd):

 

Fall Creek Boys Choir” might well be the highest pop music achievement of 2011. First, it was polarizing as hell, which meant that it gave thousands of Internet comment-section enthusiasts the chance to dig a deep opinion trench (“It’s genius!!” “It’s crap!!”) and lob ALL-CAPS grenades at the other “side.” Second, the song is pure gibberish, both lyrically and, in some ways, musically. In a year when the real meaning of so much language-based communication was revealed only by grasping power dynamics and ideological agendas–when George Orwell’s 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language” attained a still-higher level of oracular wisdom–comprehensible language was most often something to distrust. Blake and Vernon took a neat sidestep by garbling both their words and sounds, allowing trustworthy, honest, emotionally direct communication with the listener. Finally, the song is purely impure pastiche and a nice nod to the “collage culture” that was discussed here at TBTS a few days ago. If there is nothing new under the sun, why not jumble 70s soul, cheesy 80s Phil Collins drums, and Blake’s and Vernon’s individual dubstep and indie-folk sensibilities into a rather ridiculous 4-minute mess? Combined in new ways in “Fall Creek Boys Choir,” 2011’s finest act of creative pop destruction, that slew of completely borrowed approaches and moments ends up sounding like nothing that has come before.  

While Bon Iver’s record was essential, as were about 20 others, this was an Artist Catalogue year, and 2011 belonged to James Blake.

I’ll be back sometime in April, hopefully not in a snow-covered climate (see Prince’s Parade album for details). In the words of noted music-critic/ author Ronald Thomas Clontle, “Keep rocking!”

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