2011, on the other hand, is just another year in transition for music. There were some high points, some low points, but meanwhile record sales keep right on declining in the face of a global recession and online music.
So when you look at the two years side-by-side, you start asking what has become of modern music. Where's the innovation? Where's the new and different? It's still there. It's just waiting to bubble up into the mainstream, just as we all waiting for the moment college/indie rock would finally break through and be seen as legitimate, and then came these kids from the Northwest with the album with the baby in the pool on the cover.
Here's my best of list for 2011.
- Let England Shake, PJ Harvey. I get the sense I'm going to be one of the few who rates Let England Shake as highly as I do (much less even put it on their top 10 list), and yes, it is a very British record from a mercurial woman who would make an entire album played on spoons and a washboard if she could. But like a good, old single malt, you have to know what you're drinking to appreciate, and if you know what you're drinking, you're going to know what's great and what's brown liquor. And you have to tolerate a certain amount of peat and smoke to understand what's great. Polly Jean Harvey makes albums about being British. And being British means confronting their recent wars, the grief over what was lost in the Great War and what has been lost in Iraq and Afghanistan, and really, what does being British mean? Her words are at times grotesque (Soliders falling like lumps of meat, e.g.), but every word is sincere. Much as how The Suburbs was less about "here's what's wrong with the suburbs" and more about "these are stories from the suburbs," this is an album about being British, not about how horrible the British are. And in the hands of one of the greatest women rockers in history, it's a beautiful declaration of ugly, lovely love for England.
- Strange Mercy, St. Vincent. Strange Mercy marks the moment when Annie Clark transitioned from being an ingenue singer/songwriter/guitarist into the best singer/songwriter/guitarist in indie rock, period. The songs are confessional, the guitar playing aggressive and soulful, and the singing, well, she still has one of the prettiest voices in hipsterdom. I was transfixed by this record from the first play.
- Bon Iver, Bon Iver. One of the interesting notes about Bon Iver is that while it got the most votes of all the reviewers, it failed to garner a single first place vote. It didn't finish first on my ballot (settling for third) because I felt the two albums ahead of it were better technically and more daring. That said... this is miles ahead of For Emma. I've gone back to Bon Iver over and over again all year long and found something new every time amid the melancholy. It's about the only album that makes me stop what I'm doing just to listen to it. Yes, "Beth/Rest" is the Howard Jones/Kenny G collaboration that thankfully never really happened, but the rest of the album is quiet genius.
- Helplessness Blues, Fleet Foxes. Right after Fleet Foxes' eponymous album came out, I was at a Seattle bloggers event and talking music to, among many, folk music writer Kim Ruehl. "I think Fleet Foxes sounds like the second coming of Fairport Convention," I said. Kim gave me this look like I'd just suggested that George W. Bush was the second coming of Abraham Lincoln. But Helplessness Blues, I think, reinforces that idea -- it really does sound like a throwback to those heady, glorious days of British folk in the early 70s, but with their own American twists. They're better than Mumford and Sons. I just wish the rest of the world would finally acknowledge it.
- The King Is Dead, Decemberists. R.E.M. (on their way to breaking up) made their best album in years. The Decemberists, though, made the best R.E.M. album in years.
- Civilian, Wye Oak. Jenn Wasner is a great songwriter, a great singer, and a great guitarist. The result is almost magical. I cannot say enough about how talented Jenn Wasner is and how much "Holy Holy" makes me stop and listen every time it comes on.
- House of Balloons, The Weeknd. This was a rap mixtape that floated around earlier this year from an Ethiopian-Canadian singer named Abel Tesfaye, and I think it's the best piece of hip-hop I've heard all year. It's downtempo stuff, strangely weary for a kid who's barely 21, but it's poignant and quiet -- things you don't often hear about modern R&B.
- WHOKILL, tUnE-yArDs. Honestly, this is the funnest music I've heard all year. Merrill Garbus creates a great mashup of musical styles -- Afrobeat, R&B, indie rock -- that transcends the usual "white kid thinks he's Paul Simon with Warby Parker glasses" sound to something, well, fun. Intensely soulful. Yes, there's a message, but unlike some heavy folk singer hammering the point home, she mixes it into the music.
- Go Tell Fire To The Mountain, Wu Lyf. Who are these guys? Where did they come from? Are they a bunch of guys from Manchester who recorded this album in a church, or are they space aliens who heard Dave Mathews and thought, "Oh, we can do better than THAT" and broadcast it back to us? Regardless, this album is equally parts strange and beautiful. "We Bros" sounds like a frat anthem... if the frat you were in was Sigma Alpha Fleet Foxes.
- Cults, Cults. I can't get enough of Madeline Follin's voice, personally.
The Go! Team – Buy Nothing Day
The Decemberists – Calamity Song
St. Vincent – Cruel
The National – Exile Vilify (From the Game Portal 2)
WILD FLAG – Future Crimes
The Kills – Future Starts Slow
Tune-Yards – Gangsta
Yuck – Georgia
Fleet Foxes – Grown Ocean
Foster The People – Helena Beat
Bon Iver – Holocene
Wye Oak – Holy Holy
Girls – Honey Bunny
Real Estate – It's Real
Fleet Foxes – Lorelai
M83 – Midnight City
PJ Harvey – On Battleship Hill
Jessica Lea Mayfield – Our Hearts Are Wrong
Little Dragon – Ritual Union
Adele – Rolling In The Deep
Beirut – Santa Fe
Florence + The Machine – Shake It Out
James Blake – The Wilhelm Scream
One More Thing: I've become a junkie for the AV Undercover series, where the AV Club asks bands to cover songs from a reader-selected list. (Admittedly, I'm just a junkie for covers.) It can be a big crap shoot -- just stay away from the Hold Steady's abysmal cover of "The Power Of Love" -- but when the stars align, it's glorious stuff. For example, Scandinavian hipster rockers Peter, Bjorn, and John just tearing up the Otis Redding classic "Try A Little Tenderness."
Peter Bjorn And John cover "Try A Little Tenderness" by Otis Redding