Dear Jody, Jonah, Ann, and Nitsuh,
Season’s greetings. You guys have laid down so many of this tricky year’s trumps already, it’s daunting to play last.
But as the resident Terrance and/or Phillip here, let me hasten to soothe Nitsuh over his list’s “disturbing tilt” to Canadians. It’s not so weird. You’re right that there’s no “sudden explosion of creativity” going on up here. But there has been a decade-long build. Remember that one of 2011’s earliest music-hashtag memes was “Who is Arcade Fire?” Like our economy, Canadian music has been comparatively insulated from broader industry upheaval; digital distribution has helped geographically remote artists reach audiences; and we still have modest levels of government subsidy. Call it the Swedish formula. (Even though politically we’ve had as crappy a year as you.)
The harvest goes beyond Austra (whose pungent sensibility needs more steeping, I think), Feist, Destroyer, and the saxophonist Colin Stetson (who played on the Arcade Fire’s album, as well as others by Bon Iver, Tom Waits, Feist, and many more): Our consensus pick this year, tUnE-yArDs, was living in Montreal when she converted from puppetry to music. Her stylistic cousin Little Scream (also U.S.-born) still lives there. So does Tim Hecker, whose Ravedeath 1972—which uses sounds of an Icelandic pipe organ processed into systemic meltdown—may be Stetson’s strongest challenger for “outer sound” album of the year, and had some of the best album art too.
Then there’s the highly praised Fucked Up’s David Comes to Life, the latest, greatest (and perhaps last?) concept album by the little Toronto hardcore band that’s growled and head-smashed its way to becoming one of the world’s most ambitious prog-punk brigades.
There’s another Canadian music scene Americans have heard less about, in part clustered around a little nothing club called the Tranzac in Toronto, whose no-budget ethos has made space not only for known quantities such as Austra and Owen Pallett but improvisers, noise-meisters, twee-R&B-tistes, and whirled-music polyglottalists.
It’s also nurtured a clutch of performers who are airing out the staid singer-songwriter role, inspired by the likes of the late Arthur Russell (whose influence continues to spread) not only to work between genres but to make individual personality only a small part of the weather system of a song: They minimize their ego footprints. These musicians, including Ryan Driver, Eric Chenaux (who recently left for Paris), Jennifer Castle (who also guests with Fucked Up), and especially Sandro Perri, (whose Impossible Spaces is among my top 5 of the year, have reached new highs on their 2010 and 2011 recordings.
Perri brings the chops he’s cultivated as a techno producer, DJ, guitarist, keyboardist, and vocalist together to construct buoyant, kaleidoscopic cloud-clusters. It’s an amiable folk-rock not so far from the decentered geometry of synth-sample music by the likes of Oneohtrix Point Never or Jonah’s James Ferraro (whose superflat Skymall music so far seems a bit ‘80s Jeff Koons to me).
Still, we’re used to incestuous indie collectivity up here. We’re definitely not yet accustomed to having the most commercially and critically successful hip-hop superstar. And here’s where being Canadian is perhaps a handicap: While he’s leagues better than he used to be, Drake as a rapper still drives me freaking up the wall.
His triumphal miserablism, which many critics find innovative, reads to me as familiar Canadian passive-aggression, at least when Nicki Minaj or Rihanna isn’t around to snap him out of it. Kanye did it first and better. It was such a relief to see the mopey meanness of “Marvin’s Room” get its comeuppance from answer songs like JoJo’s. Still, I do love Take Care’s sonics, courtesy mainly of producer Noah “40” Shebib. They’re not far from the sound another Drake collaborator in Toronto, Abel Tesfaye, brought to the breakthrough House of Balloons mixtape of The Weeknd, though it tended to a similar lyrical laxness, with key exceptions.
My own omega tendencies have always given me misgivings about rap’s macho-posse side, so I do welcome this age of mope-hop and rhythm-&-boo-hoo. But just as specters of national decline can produce a Tea Party or Ron Paul, the whiff of masculine decay summons up the nasty backlash Ann found in shock-rapper Tyler the Creator. He’s the ringleader of the loose California crew Odd Future, which achieved every rebel teenager’s fondest wish by setting off a minor moral panic in early 2011.
So it was a pleasant surprise indeed when that crowd turned out to produce the very biggest talent in the new wave of morose R&B, singer Frank Ocean, who presented himself—with the album Nostalgia, Ultra—as the youngest old man in pop.
I like the shaggy-dog “Novacane,” most critics’ choice. But I’m mesmerized by the contrasts between the lilting melody, the propulsive rhythm, and the suicidal tendencies of “Swim Good,” with its Virginia Woolf-in-Malibu scenario. No wonder Ocean got tapped for Watch the Throne—Ye and Jay understand, as he does, that the real insight comes in dialectic, which is what made their back-and-forth far from dull for me.
Now, let me make what may seem an antithetical comparison, which is (back to Canada) my very favorite record of the year, Destroyer’s Kaputt. I’m a longtime partisan of Vancouver’s Dan Bejar (don’t tell Homeland Security), but Kaputt is unlike anything he’s done before. And not just for its much-discussed wash of keyboards, horns, and drum machines out of 1980s synth-pop, yacht rock, and Quiet Storm R&B. No, it’s the narrative voice, which, as in the new fragile-male hip-hop and R&B, has become less ticklishly taunting and more elegiac.
Ann once told me what she found frustrating in Bejar’s writing was its disavowal of sexual agency: Women seemed to turn up in the lyrics only as circumstances, visitations of fate. Kaputt, in its elusive way, finally owns up to a seducer’s complicity, from the viewpoint of a libertine in retreat. Thematically it’s just as much about the toll of decadent-male-artist life (“chasing cocaine through the backrooms of the world, all right”) as Drake’s or the others’. The “ambient disco” sound is part of that context, letting in layers of reality that Destroyer’s previous anti-pop gestures prohibited. The verbal style likewise is newly free-associative—created by leafing through notebooks in the studio, not unlike many rappers.
That’s a release of control for a rock generation’s most self-consciously writerly artist. In the highlight of the set ,“Suicide Demo for Kara Walker,” the lyrics are (as Ann’s noted) not Bejar’s at all, but words sent him by African-American visual artist Walker. He ends up singing lines that don’t seem to belong in his mouth, such as, “Harmless little Negress, you've gotta say yes to another excess,” and “Wise, old, black and dead in the snow, my Southern sister.” Does it amount to appropriation or self-abnegation?
That moment seems signal in a year that confronted dichotomies—of race, of class (the 1 and the 99), of gender (broken men, and the assertive women I hope we’ll talk more about, plus arguable rule-proving exceptions like Adele or Lana Del Rey), of style (the rapping/singing divide in particular), and especially of power, whether political, social, economic, or global (or Canadian).
Like the Occupiers, artists realized that merely laying bare such contradictions can be more meaningful than trying to squeeze out some “clear demands” (though the manifesto also made a minor comeback). Of course Jonah’s right that it’s too easy to project too much: For each pattern we could as easily trace an opposite. But the exercise is its own reward; it helps us plot our locations.
Then again, to name-check an overlooked, elegantly minor-league 2011 album, Everything’s Getting Older, or at least I am—whether or not, as some would have it, everything new is old already (more on that later). As a symptom of advancing decrepitude, I get caught off-guard when year’s end rushes in. Your lists and the hundreds of others already out there are alerting me to much I missed.
That’s just an amplified version of the daily focus-scattering powers of social media, our devices and, increasingly, services like Spotify, Pandora, last.fm, or Rdio. We’ve discussed this critical ADHD before. But I agree with Jody that more artists in 2011 seemed to mount a quiet counter-resistance with sustained, slower-burning collections. In that spirit, I won’t hustle in an album list quite yet. But here’s a batch of songs to feed the maw of our own Spotify playlist. I’ll try not to repeat songs already listed there; these are mainly but not all singles, in alphabetical order by artist. It could easily be a different 25.
Azealia Banks, "212"
Rebecca Black, “Friday”
Buika, “Se me hizo facil” (from The Skin I Live In soundtrack)
Hayes Carll Ft. Cary Ann Hearst, “Another Like You”
Death Grips, “Beware”
Feist, “The Bad in Each Other”
Foster the People, “Pumped Up Kicks”
Grouper, “Alien Observer”
JoJo, “Marvin’s Room”
Ke$ha feat. Andre 3000, “Sleazy (remix)”
The Luyas, “Too Beautiful to Work”
M83, “Midnight City”
Stephen Malkmus, “Senator”
Massive Attack vs. Burial, “Paradise Circus”
Mountain Goats, “Estate Sale Sign”
Frank Ocean, “Swim Good”
One Hundred Dollars, “Waiting on Another” (live—the LP version is much more polished)
Sandro Perri, "Changes"
Lana Del Rey, “Video Games”
Robyn, “Call Your Girlfriend” (2010 album, 2011 single)
SBTRKT feat. Little Dragon, “Wildfire”
TV on the Radio, "Will Do"
Gillian Welch, “The Way It Goes”