The Year in Music: Observations and Value Judgments 

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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.

Judgment: Positive
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.

Judgment: Negative
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.

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