Wednesday, January 4, 2012

2011 End-of-Year Celebrations: 2011 In Memorandum

Yes, it's the new year and yes, AMR has yet to unveil the annual Top 20 Albums of the year, but just to tease out the anticipation just that little bit longer, it's best to provide some context. Though all those terrific artists did a perfectly good job, think of this as a more personalised preamble that paints a broader picture before we hone in on the finer details. 

That, and it's worth reflecting on just what a strange, extreme year for music it was. Maybe it’s the seachange that is the ceaseless turning of time through yet another decade, maybe it’s the further fragmentation and cross-pollination of popular music through media and live mediums, more likely it was a combination of all of the above, but there’s no denying it – 2011 was a funny year. 

As much defined by its bizarre headlines and musical extremes as it was by the solidity of its sounds: from the woefully impossibleto ignore rise of Rebecca Black to the controversial cross-over success of Odd Future and Lana Del Rey. There was the resolutely WTF collabs (take a bow, SuperHeavy and Loutallica) that pockmarked throughout, then news that we’d lost some of the greats – either through eventual exhaustion (R.E.M., LCD Soundsystem, The White Stripes) or from literally shuffling off this mortal coil (R.I.P. Gil Scott-Heron, Amy Winehouse, saxophonist Clarence Clemons, TVOTR bassist Gerard Smith et al.).

It seems that through all the extremities, the music that mattered most was the sensuous. Those that really meant something for me personally were those that stuck close to the principles of powerful music: good songwriting, honest expression and a creative means by which to convey them. From the new blood who dazzled (James Blake,The Weeknd, Unknown Mortal Orchestra), to the old pros (Wilco, Radiohead, Kate Bush, Beastie Boys) to the slew of artists who made myths out of the ‘sophomore slump’ (Bon Iver, Fleet Foxes, Arms, Gotyé, tUnE-yArDs) – there was always the sticking power of a great record behind their success.

That’s before mentioning the groundswell of national talent that Australia is currently enjoying. Capitalising on the momentum of twentyten, many Aussie artists found their footing both creatively and commercially, there’s something vindicating in seeing long-time AMR faves Big Scary and Kimbra suddenly hogging a lot of the limelight. In addition to triple j establishing their Unearthed digital radio station allowing for a wealth of new content, with even more amazingly promising acts working their way through the buzz feed – Ghoul, Alpine, Brous, San Cisco, Oliver Tank, New Navy, Strange Talk, Fire! Santa Rosa, Fire!, Eagle and the Worm, Ball Park Music, Spender, The Trouble With Templeton, Snakadaktal etc. etc. *phew* plenty of bands to looking forward to watching grow, and plenty more just beneath the soil waiting to push through. 

So what else did this year do or not do? Well, It has to be said, that personally, I thought it was a rubbish year for hip-hop, where nothing seemed to stick. Despite a late appearance from The Roots (with the excellent Undun), it was a year instead characterised by up-and-comers or purists who made few concessions to crossover appeal or too many. Of course, the elephant in the room is Kanye and Jay-Z’s much-touted collab Watch The Throne; but It simply didn’t scale the heights it should of, containing all of the braggadocio of Mr. West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (still agreat record) but none of its intriguing anxieties. Meanwhile the main alternative was the bleak, sinister Goblin from OFWGKTA’s ringleader Tyler The Creator. An album whose soundworld intrigues me, but whosemisogynistic game of is it?/isn’t it? fantasy repels me; moreso than any compulsion to draw me in. Proving equally masculine/teenage-angst friendly was Donald Glover aka Childish Gambino. His style and flow is positively indebted to Kanye West, blurring the lines between talented mimicry and unashamed rip-off. His blockbuster-reaching sound drawing the focus away from Glover’s smarts and more towards boyish couplets about sleeping around, his insecurities – or worst of all – his penis. Quite.

It’s worth mentioning the huge resurgence of R&B recently too, finding more of its genealogy in soul than in plastic pop production. Beginning early with the dubstep/soulful machinations of James Blake and trickling down to Jamie Woon’s fixation with the period of the nineties where Babyface reigned supreme; then there was the claustrophobic clarity of blogosphere darling The Weeknd, the soulful rhymes of his pal Drake, and yet another free mixtape sensation Frank Ocean. Releasing Nostalgia Ultra for free to avoid the red tape wrangling of his label, singing soulful grooves over big-name samples like The Eagles and Radiohead to critical acclaim.

Another genre with a rather inflexible if pervasive label, was that of ‘dream pop’ or ‘chillwave,’ certainly bloomed across 2011’s twelve months. The romantic notion of the bedroom producer transcending his habitual confines by crafting spacious jams that floated across, as much as occupied, space. Washed Out lived up to his band moniker with waves of twinkling keys and warm beats while Active Child employed harp and choral vocals to develop a sort of slow-mo choirboy hip-hop. Memory Tapes’ brand of pop was marked with tangible nostalgia while Youth Lagoon called it The Year ofHibernation. It’s kind of indistinct music, but for a soundtrack to simply bliss out to – it was a welcome staple of 2011.

On an even more ambient tangent, this past year contained some wonderfully evocative releases. Julianna Barwick occupied The Magic Place of shimmering vocal textures, Grouper returned with not one, but two, albums of feedback-drenched folk abstractions and Tim Hecker’s slow burning Ravedeath, 1972 defied momentum even as it suggested destruction in a series of provocative titles such as Studio Suicide, Hatred of Music and most bluntly No Drums. The imaginary soundtrack of A Winged Victory For The Sullen provided the heartache, while Leyland Kirby released several records under his own name and as his alias The Caretaker. Meanwhile, Flumina marked a mercurial meeting of minds between prolific composer Ryuichi Sakamoto and electronic texturalist Fennesz.

At the other end of the spectrum were the beat-makers, providing turntable thrills, sampling revelry and dancefloor designs. Glaswegian DJ Hudson Mohawke released another EP of warped Americanisms, while his protégé Rustie nearly outclassed him in the mutated references stakes with his big-beat debut Glass Swords. Across the pond, Com Truise delivered a near-perfect eighties synth LP while Kuedo blended his experience as a dubstep producer with a love for VangelisBlade Runner soundtrack on Severant. TOKiMONSTA offered another side to her nocturnal persona with some lighter, vocally-guesting beats, then the likes of Bibio and Oneothrix Point Never did their best to unmake their genre roles with eclectic influences of the surreal in the former and old TV commercials in the latter.

Needless to say, there’s a whole wealth of acts, songs, events and albums that shaped the last twelve months, but simply isn’t the room to mention them all. Like always, there were some disappointing records (chiefly Coldplay, Death Cab For Cutie, Incubus and, surprisingly, Björk), then there’s so much more space that could be dedicated to the healthy blasts of rock (Arctic Monkeys, Foo Fighters, …Trail of Dead), the rogues of Americana (Okkervil River, The Decemberists, Akron/Family, Bright Eyes, Destroyer), those ever-talented mistresses (Laura Marling, Feist, Camille) and many more great albums besides (Elbow, M83, Grouplove, Girls, Gang Gang Dance to name a few.

It seems that through all the extremities, the music that mattered most was the sensuous. Those that really meant something for me personally were those that stuck close to the principles of powerful music: good songwriting, honest expression and a creative means by which to convey them. 

What were those items of musical excellence precisely? Well that, my dears, will be revealed very, very shortly.

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