Underwhelmed And Overstimulated, Part I: Was 2011 The Worst Year For Music Ever?


Welcome to the 2011 edition of the Sound of the City Year-End Critic Roundtable, an epistolary back-and-forth about the year in music between five observers of the medium: Tom Ewing; Eric Harvey; Nick Murray; Katherine St. Asaph, also of Popdust; and me. We’ll be discussing the year in pop over the course of the next few days, in hopes that a few healthy arguments (nothing too knock-down, drag-out) ensue, and that even if we don’t figure out any answers, we’ll pose a couple of new questions as the calendar flips to 2012. As was the case last year, when music editor emeritus Rob Harvilla launched this initiative, we are totally ripping off Slate’s Music Club, which is currently ensuing with five different music smarties. (Read ’em all!)

To start things off, I’ll pose the question in the title, which spins off the query Rob posed at the close of 2010. That is to say: Was 2011 the worst year for music ever?

Ha, of course it wasn’t. But I got you to keep reading, didn’t I? And that impulse—the superlative-statement-followed-by-fakeout in order to maximize eyeballs—sure made music, and culture as a whole, a lot more wearying to deal with in 2011—the clutter and the speed and the hot-pink-neon hoopla accompanying so many artists who ultimately had less enjoyable material than a trending hashtag on Twitter taken over by spammers wore me out, even with mathematical funtimes that resulted. And let’s not even get into how things like frictionless sharing tend to reaffirm dominant paradigms in, say, sticky areas like race and gender—that the Internet seemed so ascendant in a year that seemed to be if not the Year Of The Man at least the Year Of The Bro, what with women being shunted off to their “lifestyle sites” where every writer played a predetermined role and people giving the old “I’m not saying, but I’m just saying” excuse when confronted with their casual -isming didn’t really seem all that coincidental. (In my day, we had misogyny, but at least the men knew that women could be fun.)

Adding to the overall gloom was the death—two deaths, actually, feel free to send cards—of the hard drive that held the bulk of my music collection for the past few years. So I hit the cloud (Spotify, to be exact). And while I had fun adding recent songs to my 2011 awesomeness playlist whenever one caught my ear, and I think that I found most of the things I wanted, I felt frustrated, knowing that there were certain lost-to-time artifacts out of my reach thanks to copyright tussles or digital-distributor mixups or me not remembering the pleasure I derived from them until my eye fell on them by chance. There’s always a feeling that something’s lost in the cloud, and thinking about it too deeply makes me melancholy. (Although I’m calling it now: In four or five—or maybe three?—years, someone will go all Hyped2Death on the 7-inch output of the mid-to-late ’90s, much of which is currently molding away in 99-cent-single bins. Maybe the releases will be digital-distro-only. Maybe I should start a Kickstarter?)

Which isn’t to say that 2011 was all bummer all the time. There were some transcendent moments that I replayed multiple times—the stunningly sour “Stay Away,” from the British mood-musician Charli XCX, is definitely my single of the year if I go by digital-device play counts alone, and probably my single of the year if I chart both the aesthetic preferences and the moods that led to me hitting “play”; it has a pinch of T’Pau’s “Heart And Soul” and a dash of Superstition-era Siouxsie grandiosity to go along with its bad-romance lyrics, which Charli delivers with just enough sullenness to let the genuine pain underneath shine through. It paired quite nicely with Lykke Li’s Wounded Rhymes, a bruised and hung over look at the little cruelties people inflict on each other almost reflexively.

Oh right, I was supposed to get away from the sad-sack stuff. Sorry. What about Miranda Lambert’s output this year, first with the quietly revolutionary Pistol Annies, and then on her own—particularly her reworking of Weezer’s “El Scorcho” into the lusty “Fine Tune,” which is even more blown-out and scorched-through than Pinkerton‘s first single? Or Katy B’s chronicling of a night out’s inner monologues, miniatures of feeling blown up to dance-floor size? Or Miguel, who took the Weeknd’s wooziness, ditched the nihilism and added hooks and actual pop song structure? Or Patrick Stump’s incredibly nervy solo output, first on the map-shredding Truant Wave EP and then on the self-assured, Jam and Lewis-embracing Soul Punk, which became my favorite album of 2011 about three tracks into my first listen? (A critic pal IMed me shortly after getting his advance and said, “Did he make this especially with you in mind?” Heh heh.) Or Beyoncé’s endorphin-powered “Countdown,” which is a whirlwind of emotion and glee crammed into about three and a half minutes? My favorite parts of that song are the choirs of rapturous moans, which are buried deep enough in the mix that you have to give the song multiple listens in order to excavate them. (It’s nice to know that B is enjoying making the three from that two.)

I’m going to turn things over to our UK representative Tom Ewing now, but before I do, a few questions for him (and any members of the group who want to chime in). Do the relatively soft sales of Beyoncé’s and Lady Gaga’s albums mean that they’re the first two post-megasales pop megastars? Where does Rihanna, who seems to be the first pop artist to successfully keep up with the blog pace (aesthetically, anyway—I find the still-Hot-100-reigning “We Found Love” to be a shapeless chore), fit into all this? And, finally, do I really have to muster up the ability to “appreciate” the shapeless, soporific album by Bon Iver, which seems to be emerging as the critics’-poll pick as the end-of-’11 dust clears? Help me, Tom. You—and, OK, Michael Bolton in pirate drag—are my only hope.