The Cheap and Dishonest Redefinition of "Best New Music"
Thurston Moore released a really great solo album, Demolished Thoughts, this year, and Grayson Currin wrote a glowing review of it for Pitchfork. It was given an 8.1, but the Best New Music tag was withheld. The Mountain Goats released the excellent All Eternals Deck this year too, and it fared similarly: the review was a rave, the rating an 8.1, but it wasn't named Best New Music. Marissa Nadler? J. Mascis? Bill Callahan? Same story across the board—the reviews were overwhelmingly positive, but Pitchfork as a whole, which has built its reputation (and its business model) on the act of constantly championing new acts, for some reason won't go to the mat for them in the one way that, sadly, really matters. This wouldn't be such a big deal if so many others didn't shamelessly take their cues directly from the site, ultimately leading us into an unpleasant scenario where we prize the new and theoretically exciting over established artists who are nonetheless still producing great work.
As indie rock further permeates mainstream culture, it's picking up some of the mainstream's nastiest habits, like doing everything in its power to keep career artists from having much of a career.
Post-everything, the Ultimate Importance of Taste
We’re at a point in the discourse now where any notion that certain sounds and genres are “cool,” “uncool,” or have any kind of intrinsic worth at all is hopelessly buried and blurred. Critics who’ve spent two years shitting on the soft-focus chillwave version of the early 80s had to admit that Destroyer managed to polish those tropes back towards perfection. In that context, don’t we also have to give Bon Iver’s Sting-channeling sonic khaki some extra-wide slack? No! It was deadly dull. Sleigh Bells' dance metal sounded fresh in 2010, JUSTICE’s sounded like shit in 2011. It’s time to stop getting caught up in the “haven’t heard this in a while” game that fuels Internet discussion, try to better focus on songwriting, talent, intent, and, above all, taste. Who didn't embarrass themselves? Who made it work? The old rules are dead, so it’s up to all of us to pay sharper attention.
We’d like to say that all this is purely positive, that preconceptions about what is and isn’t hip were just shackles holding everyone back, and there’s never been a better time to blaze your own idiosyncratic path as an artist. But we’re still just going to end up with eye-strains, rolling them so hard at what people try to pass off as cutting edge. So, it's a wash.
Hardcore's best year since the 80s?
With waves of political protest and general unrest cresting on every shore, 2011 was the perfect year for hardcore punk—loud, fast, righteously angry, unfailingly intense—to reenter the zeitgeist in a big way. Black Flag and Circle Jerks lifer Keith Morris toured the country with his new group OFF!, bringing young Sacramento vets Trash Talk (newly visible behind their critically lauded Awake EP) along for the riot. Though cross-pollinated with gother impulses, the blazing drums and bloody foreheads of Denmark’s Iceage were a vivid reminder that Europe isn't exactly a cuddly socialist bed of roses these days, either. But the year truly belonged to the most ambitious of this new breed, Fucked Up, who stretched to find room in hardcore’s growling intensity for expansive, theatrical musical flourishes at which an earlier generation might have spit a cracked tooth in disbelief.
While an explosion of angry energy was perhaps long overdue (remember all those think pieces about the anemic punk response to the Bush administration and the start of the Iraq War?) there are few things as one-note as reverent hardcore. Will thrash still sound apt if things get better? Will it run out of ideas as things get worse? Dunno. At the very least, Fucked Up’s popularity might encourage bands to find new influences and sonic combinations beyond fastest, loudest, maddest, crash!
A Crossover Genre Deeply Resistant to Crossing OverThe Internet’s insatiable hunger for content and unlimited space in which to post it has lead to bureau chiefs planted in every unwelcoming cave of the underground, reporting back to the mothership. No genre this year got more of a bump in ink than black metal, a bombastic ("ecstatic" to devotees) strain of music allergic to outsider influence and deeply suspicious of mainstream affection. Hunter Hunt-Hendrix, lead singer of its closest thing to a true crossover act, Liturgy, took plenty of guff from the bleak back-bleachers, not for sonically bending towards the mainstream as such, but merely for appearing within it, for trying to articulate it for newbies.
While uncommercial outsider genres need love too, we still cling to the old-fashioned notion that there's something vital in providing that morsel of pop approachability that leads to new fans, to broadening what "mainstream" can mean. For black metal, that act has yet to really emerge, and within its community there seems to be deep suspicion about even attempting such a thing. By gaining ground without giving an inch, black metal’s newfound prominence in the conversation feels a bit like editorial colonialism, rather than a reflection of horizons truly expanding.
Bad Albums With Good SongsCut Copy’s 2011 album Zonoscope peaks high with the universally praised New Order-surge of “Need You Now.” Unfortunately, it’s the record’s first track. The Strokes managed to squeeze a few good songs into their latest release. Panda Bear’s highly anticipated Tomboy hangs its hat on just a handful of synth-pop meanderings that won’t coerce you into sleep. And while there will be plenty of people denying it, summer anthem “Pumped Up Kicks” is not a bad song—it’s maybe even really good—sitting at the front of an album otherwise full of wannabe club hits. While we take solace in the fact that we were able to highlight 25 records on the previous pages where front-to-back listening is the preferred method, 2011 seemed to be a year that singles shone.
Granted, people grumbling about the deteriorating quality of albums as singular pieces of art is nothing new, but as the industry takes what may be its final swings at saving itself, creating records that are holistically good means more now than ever before.
Indie Rock Goes to Extremes
As the months ticked by, it became apparent that the bands at the center of so many conversations belonged to one of two very distinct categories. The fierce, white-knuckled Fucked Up, Iceage, Trash Talk and Liturgy violently thrashing on one end; the painstakingly pretty, fragile-voiced Bon Iver, James Blake, Kate Bush, Youth Lagoon types tiptoeing at the other. Migrating to such polarizing extremes seemed like an attempt to reclaim this thing we call “indie rock” away from the masses—no Grammy for Arcade Fire this year!—and return it to the fringes.
On one hand, seeing so many artists fully commit to a sound, whether it be quiet or loud, seems like a winning situation. But on the other, it was hearing how Father, Son, Holy Ghost and Strange Mercy masterfully straddles the light and the dark—how at the blink of an eye their pleasing charm effortlessly deviates into ugliness—that made us name them the top two albums for the year.
The Reemergence of Mystery as Marketing
The introduction of MTV in 1981 changed the game, allowing viewers to finally put a face to their favorite bands. Fast-forward 30 years later and Twitter has afforded us the ability to find out what they ate for lunch. What seems like a middle finger to the Internet Age of knowing everything about everyone, 2011 saw a crop of artists turning against traditional, image-heavy publicity campaigns in favor of sly marketing tactics to pique interest. Whether that meant artists withholding their actual names, cities of origin, or shrouding their faces in handkerchiefs, we found ourselves Googling, “Who is WU LYF?” “Where is The Weeknd from?” “What’s Balam Acab’s real name?” “Is Moby moonlighting under the guise of Summer Camp?” and “Seriously, is oOoOO a joke?”
Judgment: Positive, for now at least
It felt good having to work to find out, say, The Weeknd’s real name, bringing back a treasure hunt aspect to cultivating taste, but we need to be careful of secrecy becoming a go-to branding gimmick: Then we’re just trading in one marketing scheme for another. (Here’s a thought, though: if underhanded marketing was applied across the board this year, photos of Lana Del Rey would cease to exist, which would’ve taken care of that problem.)
Moody R&B to (Hate-) Fuck To
In 2011, it only made sense that one of the best R&B releases of the year would have a soap opera reference in it. Less bombastic production meant more introspection with hip-hop this past year; Drake, Childish Gambino, the Weeknd, How to Dress Well, and Frank Ocean, to name but a few, all released haunting, dark, atmospheric, minimalist, guilt-ridden, and depressing albums to great acclaim. “Novocane,”the best song on Odd Future member Frank Ocean’s first full-length mix-tape, has a chorus of, “Love me none, love me none, numb, numb, numb, numb.” Abel Tesfaye, of the spaced-out Weeknd, sounds like the guy who’s still at the party hours after everyone’s left, calling his girl to “bring the drugs, baby,” so “I can bring my pain.” And Drake’s tender, lavish Take Care, with a record cover showing the former-Wheelchair Jimmy looking forlorn while surrounded by gold, is an 80-minute long therapy session, with the world as his psychiatrist. The young and the restless, indeed.
At the very least, it's more interesting than the standard faux-romantic sexy-times stuff R&B has been built on. Every now and then, a genre needs a whole new set of clichés to overcome.
Vocal Production as Pop Music
With laptops taking over from eight-tracks as recording instrument of cheapest convenience, layering and layering and layering vocals out to infinity no longer eats up all a musician’s usable space. The rise of live-looping, i.e., playing to, against, or in unison with bits of sound created in real time, has made reproducing it live totally doable, as well. It was inevitable that artists would begin to vie for the most evocative solo-chorale. James Blake, whose breakthrough album’s beats were well secondary to his warped self-harmonizing, was never more compelling than on “Measurements,” an expression of agnostic dread delivered in the form of a solemn devotional. Julianna Barwick, a church choir kid herself, created a spiritual kind of a capella ambient out of the hums and lulls of her own looped voice. They both used instrumental flourishes for practically subliminal support, taking a maximal approach on just one of pop music’s traditional building blocks to end up with a quiet, minimalist whole.
The approach is still novel, but it cuts off a wide river of dynamic potential and could lead to some real indulgent messes. There’s already too much “layer till it turns into something” going on these days.