Further Thoughts on My Year in Music

12/21/2011 9:43 AM |

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The most glaring omission from our list (and I concede that there are a few) is, of course, Bon Iver. It’s strange how that came to be, but maybe not really: It’s a you-either-get-it-or-you-don’t kind of album, I think, and most of us here at The L just don’t, even those of us (hello) you might assume would be all over it. But in fact, it’s worth noting that after reading Amanda Petrusich’s blurb about it for Pitchfork’s Top 50 Albums feature, which you probably already know it topped, I decided I owed it another close listen. So this past weekend, on a weirdly sleepy early Saturday afternoon, I played the record really loudly on my main stereo system while lying on my couch listening as intently as I could. And, hey! It’s really pretty! And there are lots of really unexpected turns that almost always take the song to an entirely different and better place. But each song also takes an eternity to unfold, which of course isn’t a bad thing, but one of the reasons I continue to be surprised it’s been quite so successful. It’s been called “easy listening” by some, because yes, it features a handful of those signifiers. But the album’s reluctance to reveal itself makes it something of a challenge, which, you know, I’m surprised people like Jessica Simpson are up to. It’s weird, too, that even though I’ve come around to it in some ways, I still can’t quite figure out when I’ll want to listen to it again, which I mean not as a dig but a simple fact that will most definitely influence my relationship with it.

Moving on: My personal year-end list bears less of a resemblance to the magazine-wide list than it has in previous years, because I used an actual point system to come up with the results this time around, factoring in everyone else’s lists exactly as much as my own and not taking any liberties in terms of pushing albums through that I felt strongly about. More so than if I’d done it this way in any other year, I think it made things particularly weird for me in 2011. In compiling my own top albums list, I realized that there was probably less separating my number one from, say, my number 30 than any other year I can remember, and so there were a lot of records I feel could have easily gotten the nod.

Marissa Nadler‘s self-titled album was a total surprise that hit me as hard as almost any other this year. It’s an incredibly elegant collection of songs that are adventurous, melodically rich and not at all middling, which is what I think some people probably assumed. Several Shades of Why by J. Mascis was another surprise—a mostly acoustic album built on the always enjoyable juxtaposition of J.’s virtuosic playing and his reluctant (but actually quite affecting) vocals. And the Bill Callahan record, Apocalypse, was another one that just killed me to have left off—it’s not terribly unlike any of his previous work, but something about it just clicked this time. He’s a singular voice in indie rock, at a time when it’s easy to forget there’s ever been such a thing. That he’s been at it for a minute now makes it not less but more noteworthy.

Also in that department: I really like the new Wilco record! It can seem somewhat slight at first, but man, there are melodies for miles, Tweedy’s sounding more engaged than he did on Wilco (The Album), and the playing is predictably top-notch. (It sounds really great too, and the vinyl pressing is just totally fucking crazy.) Speaking of somewhat famous, formerly alt-country dudes, Ryan Adams came back in fine form this year too, with the gorgeous and understated Ashes & Fire. Being married and sober suits him quite well, it turns out, and working with Glyn Johns didn’t hurt either. The Decemberists also made one of their best records ever this year, with The King is Dead, but everyone just decided it was an R.E.M. ripoff even though that is totally stupid and not true. Whatever—you probably decided how you feel about the Decemberists almost a decade ago and aren’t planning on budging any time soon. (I’d like to make special note of the song “Rise to Me,” though, which is a tear-jerking letter from Meloy to his son Henry, who has autism. For a lyricist who’s so commonly mocked for his impersonal and unnecessarily flowery language, this one is direct and especially hard-hitting.) Malkmus released another good record this year too, and it’s a little less impenetrably Malmkmus-ish than his recent output has been, so that was nice.

I paid even less attention to mainstream pop music than usual this year, I guess, but I did try. The Rihanna record sounds to me like it was written by a bunch of comedy writers tasked with coming up with 40 minutes of Rihanna parodies. Beyoncé released some really good singles that had nothing in common with anything else being played on the radio. Lady Gaga‘s music continues to be the least interesting thing about Lady Gaga, although, let’s be honest, really none of it’s all that interesting anymore. Kelly Clarkson still has one of the strongest voices in pop, but also an unparalleled knack for choosing songs with terrible lyrics. There was a Britney Spears record I definitely didn’t hear, there was something called LMFAO that I definitely didn’t hear, and I think there was a Jennifer Lopez record that was brought to us entirely by Fiat. Oh, and Adele! Everyone loves Adele because she is young and British and writes her own songs and can sing like a mother fucker, all of which are perfectly reasonable things to admire.

Jay-Z and Kanye did their Watch the Throne thing, which is hilariously deplorable in its over the top materialism and general insensitivity to the current economic climate, not to mention Kanye’s persistent misogyny on display throughout. But oh god, fine, I still probably listen to “Otis” at least once every day, and “Niggas in Paris” probably every other day. I never did manage to get through The Carter IV in its entirety, but I haven’t heard anyone tell me I’m missing anything. I also didn’t come around to the Shabazz Palaces record the way I’d hoped, but I’ve told myself if I’ll try again. (It’s still ok to listen to these records in 2012, right?)

I’m probably supposed to say something about Lana Del Rey here, but I don’t really want to. I find her boring and the conversations about her to be even more so, frankly, although I do kind of enjoy that one stripped down live version of “Video Games” from that one television show. Anyway, I’m sure I’ll have to do this with her in greater detail a year from now, so let’s move on to The Weeknd, aka Toronto-based producer and songwriter Abel Tesfaye. His House of Balloons mixtape caused a stir, as everyone got all giddy that R&B had been combined with things like shoegaze and Siouxsie. And the production, all dark and minimal, really is pretty remarkable, as is Tesfaye’s way with melody. My problem with it is just how plainly stupid the lyrics are—or, to be more specific, how such plainly stupid lyrics are delivered in such a dopey, self-serious way. He’s like his good buddy Drake in that way, only without the punchlines.

Shall we talk local music for a minute? The new O’Death record (released, I should mention, on a good friend’s record label) is the most straightforward, pop-oriented they’ve ever released, and it’s all the better for it. North Highlands self-released their debut full-length, Wild One, and it’s even better—more diverse and energetic—than I’d expected. Mr. Dream did 90s noise as well as anyone this year, on Trash Hit, which I’m still waiting for someone to press on vinyl. Widowspeak made a pretty good splash with their self-titled debut as well, all woozy and gently yearning. And let’s not forget Parts and Labor, who dropped what is likely their final album, the upbeat and admirably no-nonsense Constant Future. Thurston Moore is local too, right? Demolished Thoughts can be a bit of a bummer, but it’s often a beautiful one.

There’s still a ton of records I’d like to talk more about: Wanda Jackson, The Dum Dum Girls, Tom Waits, The Feelies, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Memory Tapes, The Dodos, Kurt Vile and so on, but it’s late at night, and I’ve already said too much. And anyway, I just started my “To Buy, 2012″ document, which I really need to get to work on.

Click here for a Spotify playlist of many of my favorite tracks of 2011.