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Out With the Old

Notes on matters pertaining to the year in music, 2011.

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Our national-music year-end piece a couple of weeks ago didn't have space for a few elements I normally like to include — discussion of touted albums that didn't make my personal list of faves and a second opinion from one or more of our other regular writers.

Given how much music activity slows down after the holidays, this week seemed like a good opportunity to close the books on 2011 with a few notes on some of the albums topping critics' lists — but outside my own top 10 — as well as make room for contributor Stephen Deusner's own top 10. (And, on a related note, I'm currently counting down my top 100 2011 singles on Twitter at twitter.com/chrisherrington.)

21 — Adele: The best-selling album of 2011 was deemed the year's best by Rolling Stone, which also put Adele's volcanic "Rolling in the Deep" atop their singles chart. That Spin's otherwise very different year-end lists concurred with "Rolling in the Deep" at #1 — while leaving 21 off their album list completely — underscores that this was the most universal pop song of the year, on a par with previous recent unstoppables like Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy," Rihanna's "Umbrella," and Kelly Clarkson's "Since U Been Gone."

Adele's big breakthrough has provoked a backlash that is both predictable and understandable. Adele pushes all those tired, old "authenticity" buttons. This is "real music" — classy and retro and all that; music for your mom to cite approvingly amid all that pop and hip-hop trash. In that respect, Adele is the new Norah Jones. But, you know what? Jones' Come Away With Me was a pretty good album and Adele's 21 is better.

I agree with Spin and Pitchfork (which put "Rolling in the Deep" #23 and ballad follow-up "Someone Like You" #60 on their "tracks" list but sidestepped the album) that 21 is a singles-and-filler record. But those singles! And the filler is pretty solid too. 21 just missed my own album list, with both singles registering.

Bon Iver — Bon Iver and Helplessness Blues — Fleet Foxes: I'll pair these together because both are essentially indie-folk albums whose bio back-stories and illustrated cover art tap into the same woodsy romanticism suddenly embraced by a scene more urban and post-collegiate than ever. And also because these acts perplex me even more than most recent indie hype jobs. Animal Collective and Dirty Projectors might as well be the Beatles and Stones by comparison. These are judged the #1 (Bon Iver) and #2 (Foxes) albums of the year by the oh-so-appropriately named Paste.

Bon Iver was also deemed album of the year by the less-isolationist-than-it-used-to-be Pitchfork, which stuck the single "Holocene" at #2 on its "tracks" list. Rolling Stone (#21 album, #22 single) and Spin (#14 album) were slightly less ecstatic in their praise.

The sad-pretty, mush-headed, murmuring music on Bon Iver suggests a lot more than it delivers, which makes it a perfect cause célèbre for an indie scene that has somehow grown more hermetic as it's gotten more pervasive and gets more troublingly resistant to clarity: concrete images, declarative statements, tangible ideas, good jokes.

Despite showcasing a similarly affected falsetto, Fleet Foxes' take on cabin-in-the-woods folk is crystalline where Bon Iver is vocally opaque. They want to communicate more directly, and the title track is a noble-I-guess attempt at something like a generational statement. (It's like the indie-rock equivalent of John Mayer's "Waiting on the World To Change.") But I'll yield to Rolling Stone's Rob Sheffield, who, despite his employer tabbing Helplessness Blues as the year's #4 album (#15 Pitchfork, #33 Spin), snarked, "If you think I'm going to listen to an album with the word 'helplessness' in the title, you have drastically overestimated my craving for more helplessness in my life."

Fleet Foxes draw constant comparisons to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. I get this, but to my ears there's too much "CSN" and not enough "&Y" in their music — and I wonder how many indie-specialist crits appreciate the difference that final appellation makes.

David Comes to Life — Fucked Up: There's no critical consensus on Spin's Album of the Year, which comes in at #33 on Pitchfork and is nowhere to be found on Rolling Stone's list. I appreciate this pick and wish I agreed with it more. An epic, energetic post-hardcore concept album in the vein of the Who's Quadrophenia and Hüsker Dü's Zen Arcade, this is an album I want to like — and I do, one song at a time. But when I try to pay attention I can't quite get ahold of it. It's not the rock-opera aspect. I've never bothered to try to pick up the purported narrative strand in Zen Arcade, one of my all-time faves, or the Roots' Undun, one of my 2011 faves — but more frontman Damian Abraham's monotonous hardcore bellowing, which is too much of an endurance test for an album that's roughly 80 minutes long.

Take Care — Drake: The only mainstream rap record other than Watch the Throne to be routinely cited on non-rap-specialist year-end lists — the relative absence of Undun on these lists is odd, a product of late release and early deadlines, perhaps. Take Care placed #22 on both Rolling Stone and Spin (which has recently embraced indie/internet rap), #8 on Pitchfork, and, at #48, was one of only two rap records (the other from TV star Childish Gambino) to be acknowledged by Paste.

Oh, Kanye, what hath ye wrought? The over-sexed, over-privileged, crying-in-the-club persona Drake assumes on this dour blockbuster is a direct descendant of West's lovelorn 808s & Heartbreak and self-lacerating My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. And, to my ears and brain, the Memphis-connected Drake (he references family in Memphis on the album) lacks the musicality, combativeness, and sociological bent that keeps me interested in hearing West work through his similar issues. R&B upstart Frank Ocean does everything Take Care wants to do — with more insight — on his 2011 single "Novocaine."

Let England Shake — PJ Harvey: A near-miss on my own top 10, but I didn't have space to write about the honorable mentions. So I'm including it here. The Brit-crit consensus Album of the Year is #2 in Spin and #4 on Pitchfork but an oddly low #47 on a Rolling Stone list that otherwise embraces lots of '90s-era alt-rock vets (Steve Malkmus, Wild Flag, Foo Fighters). To me, this is Harvey's (presumably unintentional) answer to Bob Dylan's Modern Times. His sources were Civil War poetry and American folk/blues. Hers are Great War poetry and English folk. Both are, in the context of their respective catalogs, distinctive, compelling second-tier works from first-tier artists.

El Camino — The Black Keys: This did okay on the year-end lists — #12 Rolling Stone, #22 Paste, #36 Spin. But I bet it would have done a lot better if it had come out a little earlier. As it is, I didn't hear this December 6th release until after I'd put my own lists to bed. Not sure if it would have cracked my top 30, but it would have been a contender.

This now-Nashville-based blues-rock duo has become something like the hipper, rock version of Adele — "Real music, man!" But in this case, I'm with the masses in that I think they've become a better, more interesting band as they've evolved their hill-country-blues-rock base into a broader, more pop-friendly style of neo-classic rock. There's still not enough vocal or lyrical personality to fully engage this Drive-By Truckers devotee, but I've tended to prefer them to most competing crossed-over roots-rockers (Kings of Leon, Wilco, My Morning Jacket, etc.) and now more than ever.

A Second Opinion

Stephen Deusner's Top 10 albums of 2011:

1. Kaputt — Destroyer (Merge): Dan Bejar reinvents his long-running band yet again, dipping into early-'80s soft-pop — not nostalgically and certainly not ironically, but as the building blocks for a sound that subtly critiques indie rock and reveals an artist aging with wit and authority.

2. w h o k i l l — tUnE-yArDs (4AD): While well-meaning musicians were trying to resurrect Woody Guthrie for the Occupy Wall Street era, Merrill Garbus understood that OWS needs new means of dissent, and her intricate drum loops and surprisingly caustic songwriting fed some of the most potent and innervating protest music for the 99 percent.

3. Wounded Rhymes — Lykke Li (Atlantic/LL): Few artists probed the contradictions between power and vulnerability, sexual confidence and emotional uncertainty, pounding jams and monumental ballads. Even fewer could sell the line "Sadness is my boyfriend."

4. Western Teleport — Emperor X (Bar/None): C.R. Matheny has a lot on his mind: religious fundamentalists, the Haitian earthquake, air conditioning, and Battlestar Galactica. That he can combine so many subjects without losing the gravity of some and the whimsy of others speaks volumes about this oddball collection of entropic folk-rock songs.

5. Hell on Heels — Pistol Annies (Sony Nashville): Miranda Lambert's 2011 solo album, 4 the Record, may have been bigger, but this collaboration with Angeleena Presley and Ashley Monroe was better, looser, funnier. This trio revel in their reality-TV-style vices like the Real Housewives of Some Trailer Park (drinking, drugging, fighting, cheating ... usually in the same song), but their gorgeous harmonies and smart(-ass) lyrics let them retain their dignity when no one from Jersey Shore can scrub the spray tan off their souls.

Honorable mentions:

Digital Lows — Cities Aviv (Fat Sandwich); Strange Mercy — St. Vincent (4AD); Apocalypse — Bill Callahan (Drag City); Mikal Cronin — Mikal Cronin (Trouble in Mind); KMAG YOYO — Hayes Carll (Lost Highway)

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