A couple of weeks ago I asked a friend what she thought would end up being the consensus album of the year. A potent combination of aging, new fatherhood, acute self-absorption, and YouTube-fueled distraction kept me from really having a bead on the general musical zeitgeist in 2011. Has this year seen an Arcade Fire or Animal Collective to lay claim to the defining, landmark release? I randomly guessed that either Adele or P.J. Harvey might take the mantle, despite having yet to listen to either’s new album in their entirety. I guess much of the music stuff that really caught my attention this year was either only partially musical in nature (Bandcamp and SoundCloud becoming dominant services) or maudlin (Absolutely Kosher packing it in, Destroyer losing the way with Kaputt). That being said, there was plenty of music I liked in 2011.
New Is New
My favorite new release from 2011 was either The Shivers’ More or Withered Hand’s Good News (the UK release was in 2010, but I’m very US-centric in my world view). Neither release was lauded nearly enough; they’re not even options in KEXP’s annual poll. I guess what resonates with me about both releases are the singular, ambitious voices of the Shivers’ Keith Zarriello and Withered Hand’s Dan Wilson. Stylistically, both releases are stark, straightforward and could sonically belong as much to 1971 as 2011. At the same time, neither release wears its style like a costume, transcending a lot of the revival baggage that weighs down lesser artists. More’s gritty analog soul adds coherence to Zarriello’s ferocious poetics rather than serve as a straight nostalgia trip or “look-how-well-curated-my-record-collection-is” blue ribbon.
Along those same lines, the Foghorns’ To the Stars on the Wings of a Pig used Americana as the medium rather than the message, making it one of my favorites of the year.
New music I really enjoyed that sounds unmistakably new include Blackout Beach’s beautiful, rambling synth screed, Fuck Death, and the War on Drugs’ swirly guitar workout Slave Ambient (despite a heckler at the Croc nailing them with a sorta precise “it’s shoegaze Bob Dylan!” barb between songs). My own scrappy little label released fantastic new music from Austin’s Lovely Sparrows and San Francisco’s Tied to the Branches, though I’ll refrain from further praise for decorum’s sake.
Old Is New
I suppose there’s a fine line between having a sound that evokes a past era and having a sound so drenched in nostalgia that it comes off as a reenactment gimmick. That line’s probably pretty subjective and I’d imagine one’s personal experience and age have a lot to do with the drawing of that line. I’m firmly rooted in ’90s American indie rock (Pavement were my Beatles), so this new crop of young bands heavily steeped in that stuff poses a bit of a challenge for me. Take Yuck, for example. Magnet Magazine (speaking of indie rock chestnuts) named Yuck’s debut the album of the year, and it really is excellent fuzzy guitar rock, even though they seem more musically suited for touring with Silkworm in 1995 than burning up the post-modern blogosphere. I’ve also enjoyed what I’ve heard from bands like the Pains of Being Pure at Heart, Girls and Twin Sister. They’re good bands with good songs but part of me can’t help mumbling “you think that’s good, you should have heard it the first time, before cell phones and Tumblr” like the aging dickbag I am. If I were in the Ropers I’m not sure if I’d be honored or pissed:
Lulu Is the Future
Lou Reed and Metallica got together and put out an album this year called Lulu. Inspired by the plays of German expressionist writer Frank Wedekind, Lulu is an odd, rambling mesh of Lou Reed’s free verse lyrics atop Metallica’s hyper-compressed riff machine. It hasn’t been generally well received, either by critics or fans (particularly Metallica fans, whose YouTube comments are not for the timid). The Onion’s AVClub called Lulu “barely listenable“, Pitchfork gave it a 1.0 and Consequence of Sound called it “a complete failure on every tangible and intangible level of its existence.” The songs are long – three of the ten tracks on Lulu surpass the ten minute mark. They’re kind of confusing, in that they don’t rock out in the traditional Metallica headbanger way nor do they really relate to anything in Reed’s vast discography (maybe parts of The Blue Mask or “The Bells”). But I think it’s the most surprising and unexpected music I’ve heard in a long time. I honestly don’t know what to do with it, and I’m a massive Lou Reed fan who loves me some ’80s-era Metallica. I’m not sure if I can recommend it to anyone because I’m pretty sure it’s not “enjoyable” in any conventional way. But I keep coming back to it because it’s formidable. It’s music made by artists who, whether one prefers their music or not, have mastery over their craft and vision (ok, maybe that’s overkill for Metallica but Master of Puppets is unimpeachable) and seemingly decided to follow their own crazy muse. I think Lulu falls somewhere in the ballpark of Eyes Wide Shut and Finnegans Wake. It has nothing to do with nostalgia, self-reference, meeting expectations, protecting legacies or getting placed in a cute, sardonic indie film. It’s a cranky, terrifying monolith of crazy, possibly delusional, ambition. I hope it’s the future.