To supplement this year’s Pazz & Jop launch, Sound of the City asked a few critics to expand on the reasonings behind their voting. Here, the British critic Alex Macpherson finds protest music and love songs that were worth holding on to past the end of the calendar year.
Every year, I cavil about the limitations of the Pazz & Jop ballot: the run-up to submitting mine traditionally comprises weeks of attempting to cram a week’s worth of music into a ten-piece summation of my year that, like a suitcase on the eve of a holiday, resolutely refuses to expand to fit everything I need. On the other hand, having a mere 10 places at your disposal makes the process wonderfully Darwinian: the weakest contenders are weeded out ruthlessly. No room for those esoteric semi-favourites, it’s about the music that formed an integral part of my life in 2011: Miguel’s “Sure Thing”, sneaking into my heart through sheer loving understatement; Nicki Minaj’s “Super Bass”, memorized entirely by July thanks to months of hearing it as a go-to house party anthem and trading lines with friends while on public transportation; Todd Terje’s “Snooze 4 Love”, for all those times on the dancefloor that the first hint of those arpeggios sent the crowd into raptures.
Too much solipsism makes for a pointless list: there were albums that seemed to capture something important about 2011 as a whole. The windswept incantations, elegiac tributes and weary trudges of PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake dominated my winter—but her journalistic documentation of the suffering inflicted on ordinary people at the hands of governments also resonated strongly in a year when not just England but the world shook with protest. It seemed ironic that it should cement Harvey’s position as part of the British rock establishment—the woman who had been an outsider heroine of my teenage years—but it was also appropriate that she wound up performing to two British prime ministers this year.
Pistol Annies, “Hell On Heels”
Indeed, the widespread hand-wringing over the apparent disinterest of our current musicians in protest music seemed more illustrative of people failing to look in the right places for it. As Harvey proved, keenly observed, compassionately narrated portraits of people’s lives can often be a more effective statement than reductive sloganeering, an approach also taken on the year’s greatest recession album, Pistol Annies’ Hell On Heels. Its songcraft would be breathtaking in any year, but the way in which Miranda Lambert’s country trio captured the full spectrum of responses to ordinary poverty—brittle optimism, defiant self-affirmation, bleakly resigned hopelessness—meant that as a whole, it came across like a much-needed, acerbic statement on behalf of the 99%.
Like many other critics last year, large swathes of my ballots consisted of hot new R&B acts. Unlike them, I found neither the one-dimensional callowness of The Weeknd nor Frank Ocean’s basic songwriting and mediocre singing particularly involving. The inevitable monopoly of indie-R&B, TumblR&B or PBR&B on the general conversation—men being miserable and “sensitive” is still, it appears, a banker with critics—served only to obscure more deserving talents. South Carolinan Nikkiya first came to my attention as a guest on a Yelawolf mixtape; with her Eartha Kitt purr and her penchant for unexpected tangents, her debut mixtape SpeakHer positioned her in the lineage of maverick bohemian R&B singers from Georgia Anne Muldrow to Lina. Solely produced by Will Power, it was also remarkable in the way it covered a vast stylistic range—gaseous soul; Crystal Waters samples; colossal, jagged synths that Nikkiya bestrode like a Bond villainess—while remaining a coherent statement of artistic intent.
Strictly speaking, Dawn Richard wasn’t a new artist: she was the Danity Kane singer who gave the group its oddly outré name (after a fictional anime character she’d invented), and she was one-third of Diddy’s Dirty Money trio—a project that, since the release of their still-astounding Last Train To Paris, has continued to give and give. The decision to remix the entire album as lush R&B slow jams on LoveLove vs. HateLove was a stroke of genius: perhaps my No 1 musical moment of 2011 was hearing that mixtape’s highlight, “Sade,” mixed into a bounce remix of “Cherish The Day” when LA duo Nguzunguzu played London’s Night Slugs club night. From the intro, synths twinkling like diamonds, to the laconic luxury of the groove, “Sade” is sonic opulence as a pathway to emotional revelation.
Diddy’s insistence that singer-songwriters Richard and Kalenna Harper deserved as much attention as him was roundly ignored by most media outlets—but their integral performances on the trio’s material, and now their own solo material, demonstrate that he was correct all along. (Never doubt Diddy.) Richard’s mixtape, A Tell Tale Heart, ranged from swaggering club bangers (“That’s my hair, no horses up there,” Richard sneered on “Runway”) to pure feeling conveyed via the medium of voluptuous clouds (“Vibrate”) or grinding, inevitable tectonic plates (“Bulletproof”).
Two artists helped me realize that my dislike of Drake and the nothingy synthscapes masquerading as innovative beauty behind him was entirely due to him: while his “Marvin’s Room” was an intolerably unsympathetic whingefest, JoJo’s riposte was spellbinding. Like K Michelle’s response to B.o.B’s “Nothin’ On You” last year, it was an answer record that used the original’s weapons against it, coolly taking Drake’s self-absorption apart by telling the other side of the story in the voice of a far more fully realised character: a crazy ex-girlfriend with the dignity to let her contempt cut through the self-medicated fug. Similarly, the ridiculously talented Californian teenager Angel Haze recast Jamie Foxx and Drake’s “Fall For Your Type” by wearing her heart on her sleeve and spitting a love rap of immense tenderness and bravery. Was there a line more breathtaking last year than Haze’s declaration that “If I could, I’d take your eyes and make them blend in with the stars/ So whenever we ain’t together I’ll still see them from afar”?