To say it’s been a good year for music would be an understatement. 2010 yielded some great things, but it wasn’t exactly overwhelming. There were some definite surprises this year (The Beastie Boys and The Roots are still putting out quality music! It’s already time for 90s nostalgia! Lady Gaga exists!), and some disappointments (No new Missy Elliott record. What was Lupe Fiasco thinking? Rihanna exists.). And if the hook from “Moves Like Jagger” gets stuck in my head one more time, I’m reaching for the sleeping pills.
Narrowing down my Top 10 for 2011 was a bit of a chore, even more so because I bought a ton of music in the past few weeks, and I’ve been trying to listen to it as much as possible to see if it compares to the stuff I bought earlier, which was already impressive. I wish I had a better system, possibly something more quantitative, like points for catchiness or number of total listens or something; but no, I just kinda look back at all the music I bought this year and pick out my favourites. Anyway, in no particular order, here goes:
• PJ Harvey – “Let England Shake”
Polly Jean has crafted an album about war and politics, but it’s also a dark love letter to her homeland.
• Real Estate – “Days”
This is what lazy Sunday afternoons sound like.
• Washed Out – “Within and Without”
• Wye Oak – “Civilian”
• St. Vincent – “Strange Mercy”
Expert guitarist, emotional singer, gifted songwriter, and not too bad to look at, Annie Clark never fails to bewilder me. This set of songs straddles the line between weird and weirder, but they’re so catchy, it’s almost like a pop album.
• Radiohead – “The King of Limbs”
• James Blake – “James Blake”
• tUnE-yArDs – “w h o k i l l”
Merrill Garbus’s violent, chilling lyrics are hidden by wacky, exhilarating music. Thinly produced but somehow richly textured, it’s more fun than it has any right to be.
• Fucked Up – “David Comes to Life”
The best punk album I’ve heard in a long time. Back in 2008, they released “The Chemistry of Common Life,” and even though I heard such great things about it, I resisted. For some reason, I picked up DCtL, and I can’t get enough. Yes, it’s somewhat of a rock opera concept album, but get past all the pretentiousness that entails and you’ll find a record full of love and regret that breaks all the rules and doesn’t look back. I’ve since bought TCoCL, and now I understand what all the fuss was about.
• Wild Flag – “Wild Flag”
A little piece of me died the day Sleater-Kinney decided to go on indefinite hiatus back in 2006. Corin Tucker’s 2010 solo album was good stuff, but nothing has been able to fill the SK-sized hole in my heart until Wild Flag. Made up of Carrie Brownstein, Janet Weiss (the other 2/3 of S-K), Mary Timony (of Helium), and Rebecca Cole (of Elephant Six and the Minders), WF takes punk, indie rock, 60s girl-group, and psychedelic influences and blends it all to create their own sound. It’s a tense record, with Carrie and Mary trading off vocals to keep you guessing. Yet it’s still amazing fun, the kind of music you can hear in a dive bar or at a beach party, making you want to raise your hands and sing along. If I had a dollar for every time I almost ran off the road dance-driving to “Romance,” I’d take that money and buy this album again.
So, that’s my top ten, but I’d feel bad if I didn’t give honourable mention to The Weeknd. (Sounds like “the weakened.”) The Weeknd is the musical project of Abel Tesfaye, who released a suite of free (!) mixtapes this year via his website. It’s ambient alt-R&B that I can only listen to at night, preferably while drinking wine, and even more preferably when I have someone to make out with. Not only is the music phenomenal, but I appreciate how he’s taking advantage of the internet, not fighting the inevitability of free music. Radiohead proved that an established act would have no problem operating like this, but The Weeknd is proof that one doesn’t need a big, faceless record company to distribute his art to the masses. The fact that it’s such a quality product is an added bonus.
As a post script, I’d also like to talk about Sufjan Stevens. Like Fucked Up, Sufjan is someone I’ve heard about for years, mostly because of “Illinois,” his 2005 album that put him on the indie map. I’m one of those people who can’t be told about new music; I have to discover it on my own. (I guess it’s a pride issue.) But something came over me late last year when I was browsing in an independent record store in Baltimore with my friend Dan. I saw “The Age of Adz,” and I just had to pick it up. I knew it was sonically different from his earlier records, and even though I wasn’t hooked right away, something about it kept me queuing it up on my iPod every few days. Since then, I’ve purchased the greater part of his back catalogue, and I now understand the draw of “Illinois.” Few singers can make me tear up with sadness with songs like “John Wayne Gacy Jr.,” and then shed tears of joy three songs later on “Chicago.” Equally impressive is how he handles everything so delicately, creating songs with gorgeous melodies and story-telling lyrics, the depth of which is rare in any genre. I still feel like I’m catching up to those who have known about Mr. Stevens from the get-go, but I’m loving the experience.