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The Music of 2011: Highlights and Disappointments

Jan 11th, 2012 | By | Category: News

2011 was a big year for music. Mainstream rock and Hip-Hop had huge releases, while Indie Rock and Indie Hip-Hop also had some notable releases. Every year there is good music coming out, and 2011 is no exception. I don’t claim to be an expert, but I do claim to have an opinion, so thanks for taking the time to read this post, and I hope you can find some music that you enjoy.

There were some notable Hip Hop 2011 releases. This post won’t focus over-much on Hip Hop or R&B, because they’re not my favorite types of music, so I’ll be brief in reviewing some of the large releases.

HIP HOP

Watch the Throne album coverAny year that features an album by Jay-Z and Kanye is going to be a big year for hip hop, but that scarcely scratches the surface of the hip-hop offerings this year. “Watch the Throne” has received a whole range of review scores. Some reviewers cannot stand the self-aggrandizing, which is evident from just reading the album’s title. Others appreciate the more socially conscious nature of the album, and in a nice change of pace, Kanye isn’t getting raked for mailing it in at his concerts. To me it just sounded like standard issue Kanye interspersed with garden variety Jay-Z.

Drake’s 2011 album “Take Care” took a completely different tact. Drake eschewed the grandiose concept that Kanye and Jay-Z ran with for a pared down album that is more introspective. Drake thinks about the same things a lot of people in their 20s must wrestle with: broken relationships, the passage into adulthood, and the pain of romance. Instead of grabbing all the fame and adulation that he can wrap his hands around, Drake considers what kind of person all this money and power could turn him into. Drake’s triumph is speaking in a voice with which the current generation can relate.

A couple of established Hip-Hop artists came out with acclaimed albums this year. English rap outfit “The Streets” released two albums, with fanfare and success across the Atlantic. “Cyberspace and Reds” was released in January, and “Computers and Blues” was released in February. Mike Skinner, the brains behind this band has said that this will be the end of “The Streets.” Another veteran rap group, “The Roots” released “Undun.” Undun is a quasi-concept album primarily concerned with the difficulty in growing up poor in the inner city. The Roots also made waves this year when they used their position as Jimmy Fallon’s house band to insinuate that Michelle Bachmann is a “lying ass bitch.” I wouldn’t have bought the album prior to that incident, but I’m happy that I did: it’s good, vintage, Roots.

A couple of independent hip hop artists reached fame in 2011. “The Weeknd” released “House of Balloons.” This album simultaneously glorifies the hard living, party lifestyle, while also decrying it’s destructive qualities. This album is dark, make no mistake. The drugs they talk about aren’t for fun, they’re for maintenance. The bravado and the misogyny endemic to hip hop isn’t celebrated, it’s shamefully acknowledged. This album is real, raw, and so jacked up on coke and heroin that it’s friends are starting to get worried. This album was initially released as a free download, and the plan worked, because “The Weeknd” has a lot of buzz now.

Another semi-indie performer to reach prominence in 2011 was Kreayshawn. She’s an odd bird, looking like Ke$ha, promoting herself like Lady Gaga, and rapping a bit like Nicki Minaj. Kreayshawn inhabits a hipster rapper space. Kreayshawn is a source of controversy, as she’s accused of cultural theft, and phoniness. Decide for yourself, but this act isn’t for me.

21 album coverIt’s been a big year for R&B as well. Beyonce’s album, “4” has been getting praise from music critics for her decision to diversify the types of music and sound that she uses as her tableaux. It doesn’t hurt that Beyonce still has some of the best pipes in the world. Lady Gaga’s album, “Born this way” doesn’t seem to be getting the attention and affection that her previous two albums received. While a major hit, “Born this Way,” was criticized as a Madonna sound a like, her album cover (depicting Gaga as some sort of motorcycle minotaur) was mocked for looking like an airbrushed t-shirt. That said, Gaga’s album sold millions of copies, and made some interesting choices by incorporating Brian May (Queen) and Clarence Clemons (The E Street Band). Rihanna came out with an album this year as well. “Talk that Loud” received mixed reviews from critics, and didn’t sell as well as past Rihanna albums, perhaps indicating over-saturation. The biggest R&B artist of 2011 was probably Adele, who’s album “21” had several huge radio hits and did a great job displaying her precocious lyrics, raspy voice, and genuine heartbreak.

DISSAPOINTMENTS

Wilco – The Whole Love

 

It feels like every time Wilco comes out with an album, it’s the one that promises to a represent a return to “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” for disillusioned former fans. The Whole Love is more of the same, if you’ve been enjoying Wilco for the past 8 years, you’ll like this too; if not, then don’t waste your time.

Gorillaz – The Fall

The Fall album cover

This aptly named album is a strange orgy of self-gratification. It’s as if the band just sort of wrote the music that they felt like playing, not the music they thought would be enjoyable. Gorillaz’ previous album “Plastic Beach” was an excellent blend of electronica with hip-hop. The Fall was produced on an Ipad while the band was on tour for their previous album, and it shows. The album is filled with conceits that only the most die-hard of Gorillaz fans would appreciate. It doesn’t make sense to me for a band which such eclectic potential to produce an album with such technological limitations. While certain bands can get away with writing new music on the road, Gorillaz are better off taking their time, and lining up collaborations.

Bon Iver – Bon Iver

Bon Iver album cover

Back in 2009 Justin Vernon created a mythos around himself. Vernon got mono, his girlfriend (presumably Emma) dumped him, and his band broke up. After all this, Justin Vernon retreated to a cottage in Wisconsin to write the soul-rending “For Emma, Forever Ago.” I adored this album, it expressed heartbreak, bitterness, and hope. Vernon became a bit of a cult figure, and had to work hard to divorce himself from expectations. The end result is an offering that many critics chose for rock album of the year. I just don’t get it, myself. I feel like the first track on the album, “Perth” sets the tone. There’s a lot of noise there, but it doesn’t really go anywhere, and it doesn’t really pack any emotional punch. At all times in this album there is some variety or other of ethereal noise in the background. I guess it’s sort of pretty and everything, but really, this is the kind of music I listen to if I’m having trouble sleeping.

NEW ARTISTS

tUnE-yArDs – w h o k i l l

Who Kill album cover

This isn’t their first album, but the first album went mostly unnoticed. Tune-Yards is the work of Merrill Garbus, an eccentric performer who utilizes loops, a beat machine while on stage, and a political message. The lead singer sounds like she was influenced by African artists, and chanting.

I feel like 2011 was the right year for Tune-Yards to reach widespread appeal. The anti-violence/anti-police sentiments in the tracks “Riotriot,” “Bizness,” and “Doorstep” mesh very well with the Arab Spring (her voice sounds like world music) and the Occupy Movement. Garbus strikes against people’s expectations and assumptions, taking a swipe at American Jingoism (and greed) in the album’s first track “My Country.” There is a sensual feminism interspersed through Who Kill, especially in the track “Powa.”

At heart, Tune-Yards is a political artist, mocking fear of urban violence, yuppies, striking back against a culture in which police brutality, violence, and consumerism too often converge. Tune-Yards skillfully blends Garbus’ unusual voice with a strong message, and catchy beats. Who Kill is quirky, inspired, and deep.

Alabama Shakes – Alabama Shakes

Alabama Shakes EP Cover

This band sounds like Janis Joplin and Amy Winehouse got into a bar brawl, while the Black Keys and a Motown band alternate background music. And it’s awesome, go to their website and pay $4.00 for their four track EP, you won’t be disappointed. There are no 2012 full release albums that I’m looking forward to more than The Alabama Shakes. Just wait a couple of months and you’ll hear this band in a Apple or Super Bowl commercial.

Cults – Cults

Cults album cover

Cults reminds me of early Gorillaz: complicated, layered, sunny music, with a cynical or even mocking edge to the lyrics. The lead singer’s voice has a cooing sound to it, reminiscent of Kim Deal (Pixies and Breeders). Beneath the singer’s kitten-sweet voice is bitterness, boredom, resentment, atheism, and avoidance of personal problems. It’s a juxtaposition of the worst parts of humanity with music that is poppy, and would sound perfectly in harmony with early 60s radio-fodder.

Cults first reached national attention when their song “Go Outside” started getting play on college radio. In 2011, “Abducted” was a hit for the band. These are my favorite songs of the album. This is an album that I wish I had in high school. The peppy sound of it would have kept my parents from listening too closely, while I would have enjoyed the sense of being lost and disconcertedness that is the true theme.

MAINSTREAM

The Strokes – Angles

Angles album cover

Listening to The Strokes 2011 offering, “Angles” the first thing that comes to mind is that there are a lot of influences here. Almost this whole album is derivative. The first track pops out sounding like David Bowie’s composer was involved. “Gratisfaction” calls to mind Thin Lizzy (especially “The Boys are back in Town”) and other 70s acts. “Games” and “Two Kinds of Happiness” sound like New Wave. “Life is Simple in the Moonlight” mimics Ray Davies of The Kinks. “You’re So Right” continues the Strokes tradition of having one song an album that sounds like Radiohead. “Metabolism” sounds like Muse. The lead singer of the Strokes, Julian Casablancas, has always sounded like Lou Reed, I think it’s their shared NYC roots. This is especially prevalent on the track “Call me Back,” which incorporates the dissonant mumbling prevalent in the Velvet Underground song “Murder Mystery.”

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not bemoaning the Strokes for reaching out of their comfort space. By the time The Strokes released their 2006 album “First Impressions of Earth” they had painted themselves into a corner, and all of the tracks were just sounding regurgitated. They needed a shot in the arm to regain fan interest, and at least for me, it worked. Some of the tracks really scratch that Strokes itch, especially “Taken for a Fool,” and “Under Cover of Darkness.”

This is unmistakably a Strokes album, complete with looping, and sometimes competing guitars, trite lyrics, and early New York hipster sensibilities. The main difference is that other styles are represented in a way that it’s easy to identify the inspiration, but that in and of itself shouldn’t be a knock against the band.

Red Hot Chili Peppers – I’m with you

Im With You album cover

The Red Hot Chili Peppers have managed to maintain a distinctive sound over the last 27 years, while also remaining dynamic. RHCP’s career can be broken down into three eras. Their first era reflected an obsession with a gutter-punk-funk kind of sensibility. RHCP achieved success with this format, but didn’t hit the big time until their second era, when the Peppers took on more of an alternative edge. In 1991 Rick Rubin signed on to produce Blood Sugar Sex Magik. Rubin has been influential in the fusion of rap and rock, and his presence substantially changed their sound. Under the Bridge thrust RHCP into the national spotlight, elevating them to superstar status. The third era of the Chili Peppers started in 2002. The Chili Peppers became more insightful, less manic, and their music followed more of a conventional rock and roll sound. Anthony Keidis took center stage at this point, as opposed to Flea, David Navarro, or the other dozen band members that died or were given the boot.

“I’m with you” attempts to recapture some of the rap/funk/crazy energy from their previous albums. The album begins with some 90s era distortion. “Brendan’s Death Song” calls to mind “Under the Bridge.” For the record, “Brendan’s Death Song” is my favorite on the album. “Ethiopia” and “Look Around” revive some of the bands past rap/funk chops. Similarly, “Goodbye Hooray” sounds a bit like “Fight like a Brave” at points. At the same time, this album clearly belongs in the late Chili Peppers catalog. “Annie wants a Baby” sounds like it belongs on “By the Way.” Same thing goes for “Rain Dance Maggie” (which sounds like “Hey Oh”).

All in all, it’s not a bad album, and if it was the first ever RHCP album, it would probably be on everyone’s lists for best albums of 2011. But it’s not their first album, it’s their 10th studio album, and all of these songs sound a little too familiar. That being said, I have to wonder if in retrospect, this will be considered the album that signaled the end for the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Radiohead – King of Limbs

King of Limbs album cover

King of Limbs lingers somewhere between Amnesiac and In Rainbows, in terms of sound. Namely, the first four tracks sound like they could have been rejected from Amnesiac for being too inaccessible (“Bloom”), and the last four tracks sound like they could have been on In Rainbows (“Lotus Flower” and “Separator”) and Ok Computer (“Give up the Ghost”). So if you are having trouble enjoying this record, then just start with track 5. If you have an appetite for more Radiohead at that point, THEN go back to “Bloom.”

King of Limbs is a difficult album. I must have listened to it hundreds of times this year, without getting the same sense of purpose from it that beams out of other Radiohead albums. The album may be more of a rehash than most of their work, but Radiohead’s albums are notoriously difficult to pin down without the benefit of time and hindsight. Remember, this is the band that (some believe) predicted 9/11, and also the band that put a ten year gap between Kid A and In Rainbows, two albums that were meant to be mashed up with one another (no seriously look it up, and then try it, it’s amazing). So don’t count yourself as a hater of this album after just one or two listens, “King of Limbs” may age better than anyone expects. Nobody seems to be talking too much about King of Limbs, which is a shame, because after the inaccessible first half, King of Limbs has excellent material.

INDIE

Florence and the Machine – Ceremonials

Ceremonials album cover

In 2009, “Lungs” by Florence and the Machine was a guilty pleasure for me. They took chances, focused on gritty subjects, and were generally unafraid. The string that ran through the album was that each track featured a build-up, and then let vocalist Florence Welch explode, her huge voice defining the song. Ceremonials still contains all of those elements, but it’s not the same. Where Lungs relied on Welch’s vocals to fill space, Ceremonials backs her with strings, a gospel choir, and at times sounds like something from Bjork. It’s almost as if her first album was a confession, whispered and then screamed, a catharsis, whereas Ceremonials is a whole church of Florence blasting the sound to the listener.

Ceremonials continues some of the same themes as Lungs, such as the intersection of sex and anger (“Lover to Lover”), stabbing at the difficulties of mental illness (“Seven Devils,” “Shake it off”), and optimism (“All this and Heaven Too,” “Leave My Body”). This album sounds more radio-ready, sometimes sounding like Madonna and sometimes sounding like Adele. If you liked the first album by Florence and the Machine, you’ll probably like this one as well. Ceremonials is still unafraid to introspectively consider humanity’s darker aspects, but does so in a more mainstream way that may be more palatable for some.

Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues

Helplessness Blues album cover

I don’t know how to say this politely, so I’ll just say it: The Fleet Foxes sound like Paul Simon. They don’t have the storytelling chops, or the kind-hearted goodness of Simon, but the light voice is similar and the Americana feel to the music is unmistakable. At the same time, the calm melodies and pleasing harmonies are reminiscent of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. Meanwhile, the confusing (especially on “Montezuma”) and sometimes misleading poetry in the music is Dylan-esque.

At times the lyrics can be too precious. In particular, the namesake track of the album features ruminations on the uniqueness of snow flakes, and the lead singer’s desire to work on an orchard. Am I the only one to think it’s sappy? Then again, earnestness is a big part of what makes this band endearing. “Lorelai” is my favorite track on the album, sounding like an American, Indie rock version of “Norwegian Wood” by the Beatles, and simultaneously touching on the major themes of the album. Helplessness Blues is a quality album, in which The Fleet Foxes display continued artistic growth.

Girls – Father, Son, and Holy Ghost

Father, Son and Holy Ghost album cover

The lead singer of Girls was raised in the “Children of God” cult, and I was curious how this may affect the band’s sound. Lyrically, it figures into a couple of tracks (“My Ma” and “Jamie Marie”). When I listened to this album for the first time, I realized another way that the band was influenced by Owens’ cult upbringing. It’s as if he was never able to listen to music as a child, so Owens is just now catching up on all the classic rock that a lot of other people listened to in their teenage years. The first song (“Honey Bunny”) pops out like a Beach Boys song, cheerily extolling the virtue of girls (the gender, not the band) while frolicking along with no cares in the world. In other songs, one can hear snippets that remind them of the Beatles (“Alex,” “Forgiveness”), Led Zeppelin, and/or Black Sabbath (“Die”).

Perhaps the most present influences on this album are Pink Floyd and Elliot Smith. Several songs transition into long, expertly crafted, solos that could have come right off of “Wish you were Here.” Some excellent examples of this are the songs “My Ma,” and “Vomit” Also, in some of the album’s darkest moments, Owens allows his voice to slip off into a more nasal, whispered sound, like Elliot Smith, especially present on the track “Saying I Love You,” and “Just a Song.”

The trick of this album is that it pulls you in close and warm with a kind hearted hug for a couple of tracks at a time, reassuring the listener that everything is going to be okay, prior to tearing down the wall of warm fuzzies in a way that can only be described as cynical and sarcastic. Take the song “Alex” which has a peaceful bearing, making the listener feel comfortable. The band talks about the woman’s beauty, and the love they could share. “Alex” quietly ends on a note of heartbreak and despair before exploding into “Die,” a song throbbing with anger and frustration, serving to disconcert the listener, and shake them out of the pleasant stupor they had found themselves in. “Just a Song” does the same thing, lulling the audience into a daze with a classical guitar arrangement, before taking the song into an utterly depressing direction. I believe this was intentional, a means of simulating the feeling a person has when the carpet is pulled out from under their feet.

“Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost” is a passionately produced album with a clean sound, where nothing seems out of place. This is one of those albums that begins strong, but runs out of steam. However, the final track is a good way to cap it off, in which the lead singer (finally) takes some blame for his loneliness, but decides that expanding his mind was more important than the comfort inherent in the isolation of a cult.

Real Estate – Days

Days album cover

Days” is a laid back affair, nostalgic, and kind-hearted to the core. While many people in this day and age disparage growing up in the suburbs, this album celebrates it with profundity. This relaxed effect is reflected in the track titled “Wonder Years,” which sounds like a nod to both the old television show as well as Bruce Springsteen’s “Glory Days.” This album starts things off with “Easy,” a track that sets the tone for the soft-rock indie album. Real Estate succeeds in making complicated, well-produced music that is accessible and enjoyable, if not very emotional. The lead singer sounds a lot like Ray Davies of the Kinks, and the music is complex, but completely accessible. The music is breezy, and like much indie rock liberally borrows from classic rock artists.

“Days” is a celebration of that endless summer you had as a teenager, that time when your personality was blossoming, as you grew into an adult. The songs are about the heat of summer, the joys and anxieties of suburban living, and looking back on those easier days of your life with fond warmth. It’s a gentle album, encouraging the listener to remember those Days of your life when driving around in circles with friends was enough to fill a day. “Days” has become my background music of 2011.

The Decemberists – The King is Dead

The King is Dead album cover

The King is Dead is a breath of fresh air. The Decemberists last album alienated a lot of potential fans and their listener base, with a bizarre story set in SAT words posing as lyrics. Shunning most of their European focus, The Decemberists realigned themselves with more of an American indie folk feel. To do so they made a couple of great decisions. They include Peter Buck (from R.E.M.), a guitarist that knows about making American Indie rock. It worked well. The song “Down by the Water” blends the American folk sound with the early 90s sound that R.E.M. mastered. Another great decision was to have Gillian Welch contribute vocals on most of the tracks. Also, the use of fiddle in the record sometimes calls the listener back to a Celtic sound.

“Don’t Carry it All” seems intended to clear the palate of past Decemberist albums. The second track “Calamity Blues” sounds like Pavement’s song “Box Elder,” but with a folksy feel. “Rox in the Box” is one of those songs that makes great use of the fiddle. My favorite track on the album is “Down by the Water,” which combines Buck’s guitar work, Welch’s signature vocals (giving the music a rural, American feel), while also indulging the lead singer’s fascination with “smart rock.” Many of the songs on “The King is Dead” have themes of change, acceptance, and reinvention, which is exactly what this band has done since their last album. The music is no longer so difficult to engage with that one feels stupid listening to it.

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