Ann, Jonah, Carl, and Nitsuh,
Top of the morning. I’m so pleased to be starting my day like this, chewing over an exceptionally tasty musical year with four of the smartest critics I know. As the poet said: Gotta have my bowl, gotta have cereal.
I was surprised by how much terrific music I heard in 2011 and doubly surprised by how much of it came in long-player form, on albums (and mix tapes) that demanded extensive close listening. Great records came from all corners of the pop universe. There was action wherever you looked: up on the throne, down in the underground, along the dirt road, and out on the wintry moor, where Kate Bush rematerialized, wrapped in a Gore-Tex parka with wizard’s staff in hand.
Here are my lists of favorite albums and songs. All the usual disclaimers apply: These lists are provisional and will likely change–maybe as soon as I decant a little caffeine into my brain. In any case:
tUnE-yArDs, w h o k i l l
Jay-Z/Kanye West, Watch the Throne
Miguel, All I Want Is You
Pistol Annies, Hell on Heels
Paul Simon, So Beautiful or So What
Patrick Stump, Soul Punk
Danny Brown, XXX
Eric Church, Chief
Frank Ocean, Nostalgia, Ultra
Britney Spears, Femme Fatale
Brad Paisley ft. Carrie Underwood, “Remind Me”
Miguel, “Sure Thing”
A$AP Rocky, “Peso”
Frank Ocean, “Novacane”
Jawan Harris ft. Tyga, “Keisha”
Jay-Z/Kanye West, “Niggas in Paris”
Lykke Li, “I Follow Rivers”
Eric Church, “Homeboy”
Fountains of Wayne, “Richie and Ruben”
Katy Perry, “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)”
Ashton Shepherd, “Where Country Grows”
T-Pain ft. Lily Allen and Wiz Khalifa, “5 O’Clock”
Kenny Chesney ft. Grace Potter, “You and Tequila”
Hot Chelle Rae, “Tonight Tonight”
Florence + The Machine, “Shake It Out”
Rick Ross, “I Love My Bitches”
Maroon 5 ft. Christina Aguilera, “Moves Like Jagger”
The Pierces, “You’ll Be Mine”
Not many eyebrow-raisers here, except maybe for Soul Punk, the extremely catchy and assured solo debut by ex-Fall Out Boy frontman Patrick Stump, who did more with a flaming Michael Jackson- and Prince-wannabe complex than anyone I’ve heard in a while. Another dark horse is Miguel’s All I Want Is You, which, if you want to get technical, dropped in November 2010. But Miguel was in heavy rotation on my iTunes in ’11, and his airy, insinuating, super-smooooove music—smooth like a polished marble floor is smooth, so smooth it’s slippery—was my favorite R&B in a year when R&B got really strange and exciting.
The top spots on my lists went to records that rocked me back with surprise. W h o k i l l, by tUnE-yArDs (aka Merrill Garbus), was the year’s great mind- and genre-bender, an indie rock album by a young woman from Connecticut that sounds like “world music” in the best sense—full of grooves and tunes that seem to take in, and take apart, half the music on earth. Then there’s Beyoncé’s “Countdown,” a song about how great it is to be married to Jay-Z whose jolting mash-up of hip-hop, old soul, dancehall, Afrobeat, and Vegas pizzazz was as weird and imaginative as anything on w h o k i l l. (Also, in a year full of ‘90s revivals, “Countdown” had the best one: that Boyz II Men sample!)
You’ll notice that Adele isn’t on my list. She bores me stiff. I hope someone here will explain to me why I should like her. In the meantime, a word about the sound of the year—and I don’t mean The Sax Solo or The Whistle. I’m talking about the callithumpian ruckus that rumbled out of Zuccotti Park. (Sorry, Rebecca Black: The star musical amateurs of 2011 were the hippies behind the human microphone and the drum circle.)
The discontent of the 99 percent was all over popular music in 2011, bubbling to the surface in some unexpected places. Am I wrong to detect traces of Great Recession malaise in the new R&B Casanovas—in the bleak atmospherics, brooding minor keys, and pained morning-after reckoning of Frank Ocean, the Weeknd, and that sad-sack superstar, Drake? Maybe that’s a stretch, but I know that the desperation I hear in big party-hearty dance-pop hits—“Keep on dancing till the world ends,” “Give me everything tonight/For all we know we might not get tomorrow,” “I’m on the edge of something final/We call life tonight,” “We found love in a hopeless place,” etc.—bears an uncanny resemblance to the dancing-at-the-edge-of-doom anthems that packed the Hit Parade in the 1930s.
Some songwriters minced no words. Here’s Merrill Garbus: “My country, ‘tis of thee/ Sweet land of liberty/ How come I cannot see my future within your arms? …/ At the Salvation army making us all stand in a line/ While mommy and daddy make up and try to make up their minds …/ When they have nothing, why do you have something?” And Tom Waits: “How is it that the only ones responsible for making this mess/ Got their sorry asses stapled to a goddamned desk?” Country singers—attuned as always to middle-class lives and kitchen-table economics—brought the gory details into focus. I’ve never heard so many songs about struggling to make mortgage and car payments.
And then there’s the unlikeliest populist protest record of 2011. When Watch the Throne arrived in August, it was clear it represented a new, er, gold standard in blinged-out excess. It looked the part—the deluxe-edition CD came wrapped in embossed gold Mylar, like the wallpaper in Donald Trump’s water closet—and it sounded it, too, with rhymes that blared ultra-high-end brand names: Audemars Piguets, Gulfstreams, other, other Benzes.
But listen closer—in particular to Jay-Z, who dominates this album—and you hear more. Hova returns as always to his Horatio Alger saga—his bootstrapping climb from street corner drug dealer to “a business, man”—but the boasts are mixed with laments, with an awareness that he’s the exception that proves a harsh rule, and that the game is rigged against the poor, the black poor especially. “We ain’t even s’pose to be here,” he sneers in “Niggas in Paris.” In “Murder to Excellence,” he looks at his fellow 1 percenters and sees a sea of white faces: “Only spot a few blacks the higher I go/ What’s up to Will/ Shoutout to O/ That ain’t enough/ We gon’ need a million more/ Kick in the door.” And in a vivid 16 bars in “Made in America,” he rewrites “The Star-Spangled Banner” as a “scrambler”’ crack anthem. It’s a victory song for Jay, but the plaintive lurch in Frank Ocean’s chorus tells the real story: There are millions of scramblers out there and only one Jay-Z. In the real world—in the other, other America—there’s not nearly enough crack to rebalance the lopsided scales.
I have lots more I want to discuss: about a great year in hip-hop; about the artsy-fartsifying of the R&B slow jam; about indie rock-as-adult contemporary (hello, Nitsuh and Carl); about the greatness of Paul Simon; about the menace of Bon Iver; about Bachata stars and Norwegian pop wizards; about Gaga, Glee, Ricky Martin, and “gay music”; about why so many people hate Katy Perry. And, yes, about “Friday.”
But what kind of year did you guys hear? Take it away, Jonah.