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2011: A vintage year (for music)

As always (at least as I can remember), Sunday begins a new week and, what? A new year? Not 2011 (which I just got around to writing on my checks a few weeks back) but, following that wacky convention of ordinal numbering, 2012 you say?


And no do-overs, yet again?

Considering that do-overs are out of the question, there’s really no choice (really, there’s not) but to indulge in a sort-of Best of 2011 list, the best way I know how to brush away a bit of this end-of-year hiemal discontent and sum up the music that kept me inspired during the past year.

Considering it was a year when Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” dominated the radio, 2011 could hardly be considered a bad year (at least concerning the music that came out). From early spring and well into the summer, it seemed I heard Adele’s voice wherever I went — and I did not mind it one bit. Normally, every year has that song that is ubiquitous as it is annoying, following me out of the mall and then rolling around in my head like a redolent old dog meandering through the kitchen, begging for a hefty dose of Pentobarbital, sticking in my head so tenaciously that only a bullet will dislodge it.

With “Rolling in the Deep” I was not bothered at all that the song rode my head with all the comfort and sunny familiarity of an old ball cap. Building from its quiet simmer at the beginning, Adele’s giant voice boils over with a blues belt in the mouth, rather exploding into the “We could have had it all” refrain that, for this or any generation, provided the mother of all breakup songs. It is a song that my grandchildren will crank up the volume for, just as my children insisted, “Turn it up, all the way up!” every time it came up on my shuffle (then insisted I play it again). Unlike other songs that come to define a point in time, I never tired of it — I’m still not tired of it — and I’ll gladly carry it with me well into 2012.

It was not just Adele’s hit that led her to revive the record industry (literally), however. Channeling her British soulstress godmother Dusty Springfield, Adele put together an almost perfect album of blues and R&B gems that would have been in the top ten of any “Best of” list from the past 50 years. 2011 was no exception and, as much as I prefer to swim against the tide, I’d be acting the contrarian not to put “21” at the top of my list for this year” — and I won’t be that manqué. Adele clearly led the pack and I’m proud to put her there in her rightful place.

Adele rode a wave of a blues/soul/R&B revival that has crept into pop music over the past few years. I credit Amy Winehouse (a big loss to music this year), among others, with Florence and the Machine’s “Ceremonials” making a late appearance this year — maybe too late to make it into my top ten. I haven’t had enough time to let the album sink in sufficiently to push me toward including it in my list, but it warrants mention here. It’s expansive and exciting enough to make me wonder if I’ll rue its exclusion sometime next month.

After Amy Winehouse, Raphael Saadiq has led the way in looking back while, at the same time, reviving old forms into something fresh and new. Although his 2011 release “Stone Rollin’” didn’t make it onto a lot of top ten lists this year, Saadiq’s ability to breathe new life into a cherished old form found him getting consistent and constant play on my pod. Although Saadiq sounds like someone who was unfortunately lost in a stack of great Motown hits from the ’60s and ’70s, he is no purist, taking sounds from a previous generation and updating them in a way that is original and groovy (to appropriate a term from long ago).

Indeed, for several of my favorites this year, it seems like bands were looking back and mining roots to brew into a concoction of sounds that promises to make the second decade of the 21st century an exciting time in music. Among my favorite albums this year, Deer Tick’s “Divine Providence” exquisitely draws on the muse of the past, while blowing a blast of the modern up the ghost’s skirts. When I listen to any given song and can’t decide whether I’m hearing influences from Pavement or Small Faces, it’s a thrilling experience indeed.

More straight ahead in the insistence to straddle the past, My Morning Jacket’s “Circuital” continues to show the band stretching out, evolving, taking chances and yet, sampling the best music of the past to exquisitely piece a patchwork quilt together that embraces the future. On their last release, “Evil Urges” (in my top ten list of 2008), MMJ perfectly evoked sounds of early-70s AM radio without sounding cloying or derivative. On “Circuital,” the band moved from AM to FM, dropping the hit-oriented sound of singles to the spacier and longer jams of Album-Oriented Rock. However, there is no prog-rock pretention here and, just like “Evil Urges,” the sound is less homage (or imitation) as much as it is picking up a vintage instrument to create something new.

Rounding out the echoes of yesteryear, “Helplessness Blues” by Fleet Foxes had me digging out old Poco and CSNY albums whilst humming Beach Boys songs in my head. However, just as Panda Bear can bring to mind Brian Wilson from another planet, “Helplessness Blues” is not just a rehash of ’70s soft/country rock but a remix of the best of classic rock, remade for this century. Light some incense, put out a few candles, turn off the Xbox and enjoy some of the lushest music of 2011.

Once the mellow groove urge has worn off and the need for loud and fun has returned, put on Wild Flag’s eponymous release. Formed by refugees of the Sleater-Kinney band and The Minders, Wild Flag takes post-punk sensibility to a new level while tempering the rougher edges with a shot of girl-group silk. If the need for noise persists, I recommend Cage the Elephants’ “Thank You Happy Birthday,” a pitch-perfect nod to 90s punk and garage band bravado polished with a digital sheen.

However, not every release this year was all retro-minded, and it is those releases I save for last, not because I think they are the least of this list but because they will endure as testaments to what truly new music in 2011 sounded like. “In the Pit of the Stomach” by We Were Promised Jet Packs was my “Surfer Rosa” of this year — entirely fresh, absolutely revelatory. During a year when I wondered whether my hipster clothes were growing threadbare, fearing that College radio was growing stale with discount knockoffs, We Were Promised Jetpacks renewed my faith in Indie music, reminding me that yes, we were promised jet packs, and I’m still holding out for mine.

My M.I.A. of this year (meaning, the most original, audaciously fun, envelope-pushing and down-right interesting artist this year) came from Tune-Yards on “Who Kill,” proving them to be a band that did not allow a single excellent idea to go unused. Seamlessly integrating afro-pop, reggae, hip-hop, electronica, soul, rock and flat-out weirdness, “Who Kill” was by far the most fun I had listening all year, keeping me guessing – and grooving – the entire time

Two ’90s bands that were instrumental in determining the direction of today’s Indie music returned this year with releases that proved them to be just as vital now as they were then. Wilco’s “The Whole Love” shows Jeff Tweedy at his best, reviving his alt-country impulses from earlier work (especially with Uncle Tupelo) while updating the experimentalism of “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” and “A Ghost is Born” that made those albums so essential. Meanwhile, Radiohead’s “The King of Limbs” again proves that the band continues to challenge without trying to be difficult. I’ve not been a fan of Thom Yorke’s solo efforts (they seem to be far too navel-gazing for me) but Radiohead has not failed to disappoint since 1998s “OK Computer.” “The King of Limbs” is yet more evidence that Radiohead has not run out of steam or ideas.

At no moment this year was I tempted to fast forward through a cut on either “The Whole Love” or “The King of Limbs” — they were both that good, they were both that original.

Which brings me to the album I was tempted to hate with a passion: “Watch the Throne” by Kanye West and Jay-Z. Last January I wrote a column about my highly anticipated releases of the upcoming year — Adele, Wilco and Radiohead were in that list (as well as quite a few that fell terribly flat, i.e., The Flaming Lips) — and the Kanye/Jigga joint was at the top of that list. Furthermore, I (and most of the rest of the rap community) was holding my breath for the release since we’d been told it was coming out just after the first of the year (a hint dropped by Kanye at a New Year’s Eve show).

In typical fashion (given the continent-sized hubris of Jay-Z and Kanye), “Watch the Throne” finally arrived in August. In gold foil (like Charlie’s winning ticket). It seemed all too much.

Fortunately, it was indeed all too much — there wasn’t a track of filler on the album. More importantly, the expected train wreck of two oversized egos colliding didn’t occur: Jay-Z and Kanye rhymed like, um, angels, while never tripping over the other. And the defining quality of both – exquisite beats, intelligent samples, powerfully rocking tunes – was doubled in size–and scope. Although “Niggas in Paris” and “Otis” grabbed so much radio play (and rightfully so), every cut on the album deserves to be heard.

Despite my tripping over myself to heap praise on Adele, I have to say that I found “Watch the Throne” to be the superior album, at least as far as my tastes are concerned. While Adele was a sweet and tangy BBQ sauce, Kanye and Jay-Z were the slow-roasted brisket.

In a year when Lady Gaga and Britney Spears dominated the radio (not a bad thing as far as I’m concerned), 2011 proved to be an incredible year for music, much better than 2010. It was a year that finally found the “official” release of “SMiLE” (this time, credited with The Beach Boys and not just Brian Wilson) as well as ending the decade’s long wait for the release of Captain Beefheart’s Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller), making it all the more excellent, as far as music is concerned. The bar was set very high in 2011; put the 2012 baby on notice that it has its work cut out for it.

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