By Jena Ardell
By Brian McManus
By Chaz Kangas
By Sound of the City
By Peter Gerstenzang
By Katherine Turman
By Chris Kornelis
By Brian McManus
Ian Svenonius of Chain and the Gang titled his band's new album in 2011 Music's Not for Everyone, and perhaps he's onto something. Or if it's for someone, who is it for: aging boomers propping up the endless reunion tours of music from their youth, or Gen Xers propping up the endless reunion tours of music from their youth? Or the youth of today, who view digital music files increasingly as disposable content that isn't paid for, isn't owned, isn't worth keeping, made by artists that are no more noteworthy than the team that built a phone app or produced a reality TV episode?
All my hipster friends like to point out that their kids have no interest in Justin Bieber or Katy Perry. Their kids listen to Fugazi or Ween. And that nine-month-old picked out that Motorhead T-shirt all by himself. Personally, I'd rather get the whole "I like stuff because you don't like it" phase out of the way early enough for them to develop actual taste afterward.
The critical establishment's dogmatic popism eliminates any consideration of the philosophy surrounding the creative and commercial genesis of music and elevates the aesthetic, so whatever sounds best must be best, and now somehow independent music has wound up in a place where Beyoncé is on the same purely aesthetic playing field that Sharon Van Etten is, because it makes you powerfully, stinkingly uncool to point out that Beyoncé is a meticulously calculated, choreographed, and focus group-approved product of the same system that Sharon Van Etten's forebears in independent music rose up as a direct response to. Suddenly Sharon Van Etten sounds a little thin without the help of a billion-dollar machine. Like Mitt Romney said: "Corporations are people, too, my friend."
Brooklyn, New York
I used to be able to remember all the song titles from every album I bought. Now, something will be on the radio for six months, but one day I'll finally hear the song ID and say to myself, "Oh, this one is by Britney Spears"? This happens far more often than I'd like to admit. Maybe technology has made certain types of memory redundant (e.g. who remembers phone numbers anymore?) or maybe too many brain cells have decayed over the years. The second possibility is a scary thought. It means that one day I'll end up bedridden and won't remember anything about my past life other than the chorus to "Love Will Tear Us Apart."
Much of pop music—with a few exceptions, and God bless Lady Gaga—had a bread and circuses flavor this year, especially as experienced online. As long as we're arguing amongst ourselves about Lana Del Rey or Tyler, the Creator, we're not discussing unemployment, #OWS, or the simple fact that the majority of GOP presidential candidates are certifiably batshit crazy.
Lady Gaga: I believe she was non-Romney #19 for a few days in November. "She's a completely loathsome human being," explained an Iowa caucus-goer, "but she's very sparkly, and she's got way too much money to ever want to take us down the path to socialism." Her moment was brief, though, and she quickly found herself pushed aside by an even sparklier inanimate kitchen utensil.
After compiling my 10 favorite songs, I looked up the labels and was surprised to find that only one was on a major. That was unintentional, as was the fact that seven of my 10 artists have yet to release more than one album or EP. All of which, I think, speaks well for today's music, although perhaps not for the industry itself.
Colorado Springs, Colorado
Britney in 2007 was splashing the waves merrily and thrashing around desperately, to do one being to do both. In 2011, the sea iss a lot quieter, but Britney's still in there with her childlike or infantile "Oops!" voice, never quite socialized. Pursuit of pleasure sounds like pursuit of sorrow and vice versa. Workaday dance pop, all good. "Hold It Against Me," that baby voice. . . . Does she imagine this is seductive? Funny? (My mom, b. 1923, insists the joke—in the Bellamy version: "If I said you had a beautiful body would you hold it against me?"—was old when she was a little girl. Probably pre-dates WWI, possibly the War Of Jenkin's Ear.)
This year, for the first time ever, I had many, many moments where I said: "Huh. I've never heard of that band. Who?" Finally, I was either too busy (or didn't read the right websites), and so that meant I was behind the curve on what everybody was talking about. That bothered me a little bit, sometimes--but other times, I didn't mind at all.
So many people were prepared to declare Lulu an utter disaster on the basis of a 30-second clip of The View it never had a chance. Remember the scandal after Maxim gave a less than enthusiastic review to The Black Crowes' Warpaint on the basis of a few samples posted online? Guess we all got over that.
A decade after Spin named "Your hard drive" as the best music of its year, we're finally seeing the influence of file-sharing. We already know about Destroyer's eighties necromancy, but look: a Jamie xx-Gil Scott-Heron collaboration sampled on a Drake album! An MGMT sample on Frank Ocean's!
In 2011, it felt as if the hip-hop market was just overwhelmed with content. One of the biggest stories this year for the genre is that much of the country is coming online for the first time, outside the traditional channels of New York media and Atlanta's strip clubs. Beatmakers (like Chicago's DGainz) and rappers (like New Orleans resident and Timbaland collaborator Na'Tee) shoot and edit their own videos; in the era of the demo tape, an artist could only communicate through the music, but now an international audience has access to the artist's entire presentation without intermediary media, and the tools to make that presence felt are inexpensive. Artists can do an end-run around the entire music industry; publicity machines, PR people, and managers get on at a later stage than ever before. A side effect of this sudden shift is that the media, at a loss to manage the bottleneck at the top, seems to jump on young and underdeveloped artists because they fit into an expected template. Amateurism isn't an anathema to good music; L'Trimm weren't lyrical miracles but they still made one of the best rap songs of the '80s. But it would be nice if writers started listening to what rappers actually saying, which is where much of the change within hip-hop actually occurs, rather than focusing so heavily on the media-friendly 'movement'—whether sound, fashion or locale—that an artist is supposed to be a representative of.
I didn't obsess over it too much, and I'm not completely paranoid, but I do honestly believe that we are a little bit doomed. The national obsession with zombies, hoarding, scavenging, canning, pickling, brewing, fermenting, trapping, smoking, and self-sustaining local yokelism is half the story. Devastating storms—a foot of snow in our yard in October and a near-miss tornado that wrecked a good portion of Springfield and massive hurricane flooding all around us this summer—and general atmospheric unease abounded. I'm pretty sure I suffered from some sort of outdoor allergy all 12 months of the year this year. And, I also feel like people—not just me and mine—get sicker for longer periods of time now. Am I crazy? For years—OK, maybe I obsess a little bit—I've envisioned a world where people have low levels of environmental sickness 24/7. Kinda like in my fave movie Safe, only for real. The subtle—but real—change in the earth's temperature has to be doing SOMETHING to us, no? Throw in the economy and national and world unrest and people occupying stuff and the surreal public/political atmosphere of avoidance and denial and . . . well, you know. Kaboom. The icing on the cake – even though it was of minor significance – was a lifestyle-y article I saw in the New Yorker this year on the fad of "foraging." Foraging! Something the people on this planet have done FOR LITERALLY EVER. Since the beginning of time, to this very day, for survival!
Brooklyn, New York
I'm now really kind of embarrassed over the just-how-fucked-up-is-Amy-Winehouse? joke I made in the 2009 Pazz & Jop; that sort of thing really stopped being remotely funny after Winehouse proved incapable of showing up in the studio to record the opening credit music for Quantum of Solace. I mean, this was a woman who for all intents had been genetically bred to sing the theme to a James Bond movie, and when she blew the opportunity, we shouldn't have been laughing.