The Music Club

Best Music 2011: The year’s best and weirdest protest songs.

The year’s best and weirdest protest songs.

Kanye West and Jay-Z
Kanye West and Jay-Z

Photograph by Getty Images.

Jody, Ann, Nitsuh, and Carl:

If you’re searching for the sound of the 99 percent, search no further than Miley Cyrus’ “Liberty Walk (Rock Mafia Remix)”—the song has its origins pre-OWS, but in November Cyrus uploaded a video full of protest imagery in solidarity with the protesters. Neither song nor video gets my palms raised and my fingers wiggling, exactly, but I certainly don’t share the mockery and disdain that attended Cyrus’ gesture. Ditto when Kanye showed up at Zuccotti Park—more of this, please!


It’s difficult to hear an era of turmoil through its music. More precisely, to do so superficially and tautologically is perilously easy, whether the era is the post-9/11, GWOT, or the Year of the Protester: A) The world is dark, B) thus music, digesting said darkness, takes a downbeat, troubled turn, C) except in the case where, reflecting an escapist impulse, it is actually totally bright and upbeat! The Mancunian rock band Wu Lyf made several songs and videos that were explicitly, passionately, howlingly engaged with the politics of oppression and bottom-up resistance—their lyrics, hoarse and muffled, can be hard to decipher, but the colossal, call-to-arm drums that open their song “Dirt” are anything but. The song’s opening lines, which flash onscreen helpfully during the video, are “The fire starts/ Can you hear the sound?/ Of the kids all calling/ ‘I won’t hold this crown.’” The video, like Miley’s, is full of protest footage. Also affecting, in a more complicated way, is Wu Lyf’s video for “Split it Concrete Like the Colden Sun God,” in which the generic “tribal” inhabitants of some coastal jungle are viciously bludgeoned by invading white men wearing what look like Union Army uniforms. At video’s end, the natives rise, bloodied, and stare silently at their conquerors, specters of guilt. That denouement reminds me of the countrywide cries of “Shame! Shame!” in the face of this fall’s police violence or the deafeningly silent assembly of UC Davis students who looked on reprovingly as Chancellor Linda Katehi (who, despite the casual pepper-spraying on campus, still has her job) walked from a press conference to her SUV.


My favorite album of the year grapples with issues germane to OWS outrage, albeit more obliquely. I wrote a bit about Detroit rapper Danny Brown’s remarkable XXX here at Slate in a column about how excellent 2011 was for “underground rap.” His song “Scrap or Die” puns on Young Jeezy’s coke-rap hit “Trap or Die,” telling a crushing, engrossingly detailed tale of a Detroit family who, between drug-snorting and ominous trips to “the clinic,” breaks into abandoned houses to steal and sell left-behind metal. Critics complain, not altogether unjustifiably, that much drug rap glamorizes drug-dealing—there is zero glamour in Brown’s world. He is an avowed former drug dealer himself, but was clearly never a kingpin: His onetime clients, according to lyrics and interviews, included a pregnant addict and “fiends on they menstrual/ ain’t even have pads, stuffed they panties with tissue.” His songs about taking drugs, as opposed to selling them, are fatalist to the extreme. With the exception of the ribald “I Will,” which gives Lil Wayne a run for his goofy-cunnilingus money, the sex is hostile. His ferocious, hyper-referential single “Monopoly” is apocalyptic battle-rap, and he nestles that lyric about menstruating fiends amid wild disses and boasts that illustrate his unlikely sense of humor, which helps leaven the album’s generally bleak mood: “Type of nigga rocking Crocs at the fucking Wal-Mart,” he barks at one point, and I’m unsure if he’s describing a rival or himself.


Of course, Detroit’s woes are hardly new this year—but, in Brown’s masterly hands, that city seems, to this native New Yorker, less like a distant ruined planet and more (as with, say, David Simon’s Baltimore) like a canary in the American coal mine.

Besides “Rolling in the Deep,” which I like, Adele bored me, too, Jody. You know what else did, though? Watch the Throne. Musically, the smoldering, snaking “No Church in the Wild” is the only song on that album I’ve wanted to go back to. I can’t deny the bravado and blunt thump of “Niggas in Paris,” and I had a blast watching Jay and Kanye play it three times in a row when I saw them at Madison Square Garden (apparently they did the song eight times straight in Chicago!) but I find its central riff tinny and irritatingly pat. Lyrically, I don’t think there’s much of anything on that album that these two masters haven’t said more interestingly elsewhere, Jody’s astute read notwithstanding. I don’t hear Jay grappling in any satisfyingly sustained way with the issues of black mobility Jody identifies. And Kanye, who has long thrived on contradictory impulses, seems to have (for the moment anyway) resolved his good guy vs. douchebag quandary by playing the latter, outright, in a self-satisfied way that does little for me. I’ll take XXX over Watch the Throne any day.


In fact, if there’s a uniting theme among my top albums and songs, it’s “in with the new.” If my quick, potentially shoddy math is correct, only one of the acts who made my 10 favorite albums list was active earlier than 2006. On my top-20 singles list, newcomers handily outnumber “legacy” acts. (Music-time moves so fast these days: Should I be counting Lil Wayne as a legacy act or not?) One point I will put out there: Beyoncé’s “Countdown” is marvelous, but I but I came very close to choosing the bell-and-whistle-free  “1+1” over it—it is not as immediately, cacophonously brilliant, but wow, that’s how you knock a ballad out of the park. Also: Kelly Rowland’s sultry, robotic “Motivation” trumps both Beyoncé songs in my book. While Queen Bey’s “(Girls) Who Run the World” was doing a whole lot of nothing this summer, Kelly’s song was owning the season.


Did any of you get into James Ferraro this year? He’s a fascinating and prolific young artist whose 2011 album Far Side Virtual is antagonizingly, alienatingly, wondrously bland—it’s an album about musical and sonic detritus that nods, variously, to infomercial musical beds, Casio-demo presets, video-game-title-menu music, computer-startup sounds, ringtones, samples of computerized salespeople trying to sell you the New Yorker iPad app and “virtual sushi” (apparently this is a thing on Second Life?) and so on. Ferraro has been lumped in with the “hypnagogic pop” scene, in which the out-of-vogue music of bygone decades, most commonly the ‘80s, is resuscitated and enveloped in a thick sonic fog that connotes longing, loss, and forgetting. But while Ferraro is interested in issues of distance and impermanence, there is no lo-fi fuzz or warm nostalgic haze to temper how flat and ugly the music he’s referencing on Far Side Virtual is. Check out his single, “Adventures in Green Foot Printing,” for a taste of what I’m talking about. I’m still processing the album, along with Ferraro’s phenomenal, easier-to-love BEBETUNE$: INHALE C-4 $$$$$ mixtape, which he just released, and which takes the sounds and rhythms of contemporary hip-hop as its central muse.


There’s so much more to talk about—one subject I want to think through is hip-hop’s abiding misogynist streak, which persists among young rappers like Brown, A$AP Rocky, Young L, Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire, and Spaceghostpurrp even as they and their cohort trash so many other genre orthodoxies. But enough from me for now. My lists are below.


(These are ranked roughly by order of preference, and as a rule I avoid redundancy between lists: If a favorite song of mine appeared on a top-10 album, I leave it off the singles list.)

1. Danny Brown, XXX
2. Clams Casino, Instrumental Mixtape
3. Spaceghostpurrp, Blvcklvnd Rvdix 66.6 (1991)
4. Drake, Take Care
5. A$AP Rocky, LiveLoveA$AP
6. James Blake, James Blake
7. BEBETUNE$, INHALE C-4 $$$$$
8. Gang Gang Dance, Eye Contact
9. Kuedo, Severant
10. tUnE-yArDs, w h o k i l l 


1. Kurt Vile, “Baby’s Arms
2. Kelly Rowland feat. Lil Wayne, “Motivation
3. DJ Khaled feat. Rick Ross, Lil Wayne and Drake, “I’m On One
4. Chris Brown feat. Lil Wayne and Busta Rhymes, “Look at Me Now
5. Real Estate, “It’s Real
6. Lil Wayne, “6 Foot 7 Foot
7. Das Racist, “Michael Jackson
8. Araabmuzik, “Underground Stream
9. Beyoncé, “Countdown
10. Bon Iver, “Holocene
11. Lil B, “Motivation
12. Kendrick Lamar, “ADHD
13. Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire, “Huzzah
14. No Age, “Fever Dreaming
15. LMFAO, “Sexy and I Know It
15. Radiohead, “Lotus Flower
16. Panda Bear, “Slow Motion
17. The Weeknd, “The Morning
18. Feist, “How Come You Never Go There
19. Juicy J, “Who da Neighbors
20. PJ Harvey, “Let England Shake