I’m going to start this review of the past year and my vision for the coming year in pop music by acknowledging that it’s flawed and biased in the same exact way all these reviews and look backs being posted on every site on the interwebs is flawed and biased. That is to say it likely won’t reflect the year as a whole as the developments in recent months, weeks, days will inevitably exude a stronger influence over my views than those of the beginning of the year. Hell, I forgot Odd Future (featured above) was even a part of this year. They were a HUGE part.
But I’m not the only one there. I haven’t read a yearlong retrospective that has them in it yet. We’re all susceptible to the same prejudices. Whatever I heard last is the most important and reflects the year as whole seems to hold a lot of sway over a lot of writers. That being said, let’s get on with it:
I suppose people have been complaining about the lack of quality in pop music for as long as there has been pop music. I suppose further that music nerds have been the largest constituency of complainers since rockers were all pissed about disco and punks reveled in dismissing everything. That chorus of naysayers seems to have gotten even more vocal sometime around 1996. But all that aside I have to say that in 2011, I truly believe that pop music has finally hit its nadir.
This is good news for 2012, though! Because now that it has hit rock bottom, I think 2012 is the year pop music finally rises from the ashes and truly offers something wonderful.
That’s not to say there weren’t plenty of interesting things happening in music in 2011. I will recount some of the better things in a moment. It’s just that they didn’t occur in the ever shrinking world of pop music.
As record companies, especially major labels, disintegrate and artists are capable of making a living on their own thanks to the internet fewer and fewer artists are getting their chance to be center stage. Record Companies are also taking fewer risks, trying to limit their promotional pushes for sure things (or, you know, just hiring their grandsons).
Why then, was 2011 the worst year for pop music maybe ever? Well, writing device, I’ll explain. In truth things have been pretty terrible since about 2008, right about when the entire music industry became drenched in auto-tune and body glitter. Things were bad before that too, yes, but there were always enough redeemable acts or hits that even the most crabby nerd could enjoy portions of pop music and try to ignore the poison. Even as the Lady Gagas and Keshas began replacing the Santogolds and Lupe Fiascos, I was able to shut out anything that made me want to wretch and focus on the works coming out with real merit.
What makes 2011 the worst is how overwhelming the crap was. It was everywhere. And continues to be. I can’t watch a basketball game without LMFAO coming on my TV to shill Budweiser. 2011 didn’t produce the worst song or the worst new artist or worst album. It just lacked anything of any real quality. There was no escape and no refuge from the barrage of bland, worthless, uninspired audio excrement. The music of 2011 didn’t suck more than any other year, it was just more boring. A constant, droning bore that refused to quit.
Maybe it’s because every song was written by Bruno Mars and Dr. Luke that they all sounded the same. Ironically, Bruno Mars is responsible for the one stand out pop song of the year. Although, I give most of the credit to the powerful voice and all around coolness of its singer: Cee-Lo Green.
Yes, Fuck You was a light in the darkness that was 2011. It was the one thing that sounded different than everything else that came out. The easiest way to get me on board with a pop song is to give it some funkiness, some soul. Even if I can’t unknow that the arch supervillain of our times, Bruno Mars, produced the song, it’s a genuinely fun and funny foray into neo-soul that had some grit under its fingernails. Compared to the rest of 2011′s empty electronic fuzz, Fuck You was electrifying. It was the only living creature in the land of the dead.
But the most important trend in music in 2011, is the one that will continue into 2012 and will help resurrect pop music. A shift from 80s nostalgia to 90s nostalgia. This was seen everywhere, just beneath the surface of pop music. It’s not in any of the biggest hits, but it’s there.
For example there were successful (well, some were more successful than others) releases from plenty of 90s favorites, including the glory of the Beastie Boys finally returning to us, funkier than ever!
I know, the Beastie Boys first arrives on the scene in ’86, but that’s the year I was born, so my experience with them was mostly in the 90s. Furthermore, if the new album recalls any of their previous work, it’s the Grand Royal era where they funked out and played all the instruments.
Other bands with releases in 2011: REM, Radiohead, Cake, The Meatpuppets, Pearl Jam, etc.
Even the two best acts from the remixes, mashups, and covers category involved some of the 90s best acts. If you haven’t heard of Wugazi yet, acquaint yourself now. It is brilliant. Brilliant in a way mashups haven’t been since the first large burst onto the scene. I think it says something that perhaps the most inspired album of 2011 was a mashup of two already established artists.
The other is Elzhi’s Elmatic. It’s incredibly ambitious to attempt to take on a truly classic album like Illmatic. It’s another to make it your own and make it just as interesting and feel as fresh as the original. This is an absurd musical accomplishment, but unless you’re a music nerd you didn’t hear it. It’s mindboggling that this isn’t near the top of everyone’s top 10 lists this year.
Ok, over 1000 words in and I’m finally getting to the best music of 2011, from artist that will continue to grow and help shape music throughout 2012 and beyond. So this isn’t just a retrospective, but I predict each one of these artists will effect pop music in the coming year(s) either through their own popularity or by influencing those who make popular music.
First up, is the obvious choice, and the group I led this article with. Odd Future. They dismantled and destroyed everything this year. As a hiphop group, they brought back punk in a way no punk band has been able to in at least 10 years. They took iconoclasm to the extreme blasting the grey matter of everyone paying attention out of the back of their skulls. They were Gallagher, our heads the watermelons.
I first became aware of Odd Future when they appeared on Jimmy Fallon and everyone started sending me this video:
I didn’t know what I had just watched, but I was out of my chair, running around and yelling “WOLF GANG!” I was psyched, I was pumped … wait, was that Felicia Day? Even better! What just happened?
I had never seen a live hiphop act bring so much energy to a performance. I had never seen anyone on a late night show bring so much energy to a performance. That alone was enough to hook me. I’m a sucker for a live performance with force.
For the next week I would yell Wolf Gang at strangers. It stayed with me. I watched that clip 500 times and even on the 500th viewing, it pumped me up almost as much as the first time.
Then I saw the Yonkers video.
Yonkers is a song that can be easy to take for granted. It’s not catchy so it won’t be reverberating around your head all day, it’s largely subdued (for the most part) so it won’t pump you up. But the first time you hear it, you know you’ve just experienced something. The video, even more so. It’s disturbing, it’s dirty, and it’s damn good. It’s intense and silly.
Here’s how you know it’s good. I won’t listen to it for a while. Then when I listen to it again I’ll get the same chill got the first time I heard it and the only word I can say is “damn.” I’ll almost always follow that by texting my friend, who does the same thing, in all caps with some version of “DAMN, YONKERS IS A DAMN GOOD SONG.”
The Wu-Tang Clan comparisons were inevitable. A collection of talented artists who will likely each release their own solo albums to great critical receptions, as Frank Ocean already has. Wu-Tang’s artists are still releasing fantastic albums. I think it’s safe to predict that Odd Future’s crew will continue to be relevant in 2012.
Fucked Up is a band that was never exactly radio friendly. Their chances of having a hit or being a critical darling always seemed to be at precisely zero. So, I was mighty surprised when I saw their latest album streaming for free on NPR’s website before it came out.
David Comes To Life is an artistic achievement, if for no other reason than that Fucked Up embraced new ground sonically while never seeming to leave what made them great in the first place behind. It’s rare for a band to create a sound that allows new fans and a wider audience to reach it, while maintaining a sound that the hardcore fans who are already there will continue to love.
Essentially to get bigger without selling out.
It’s also just a damn good album. One that is weird and different, yet extremely accessible. I have yet to find someone who doesn’t like it. I think they have staying power. At the very least among music nerds, but this album shows the ability to reach out further. Wouldn’t it be crazy to have a massive hit by a band called Fucked Up? It’s not out of the question.
The song I probably listened to most this year was Takyon by Death Grips.
Once again, it comes back to the first time I heard Death Grips. Hearing Death Grips for the first time, in the current musical landscape, is like hearing something from another planet. It’s like the first time you ever heard ODB spit rhymes.
No one else is doing anything like this. I don’t even know how to describe it all these listens later. In a musical landscape dominated by two or three people doing the same thing, Death Grips goes above and beyond doing something different. They don’t exist in a genre, they just are, and they are giving everything they have. Music in 2011 was synthetic, Death Grips was raw.
Also made their presence felt in 2011? Danny Brown, Tune Yards (I refuse to use their wacky capitalization), My Morning Jacket, Big K.R.I.T., The Streets, The Go! Team, and araabMUZIK all made some of the best music of the year and deserved to be recognized for it.
So that’s 2011, the year pop music hit rock bottom and the indie scene ran out of ideas. Welcome 2012, the year where music will rise again like, to be completely cliche, a phoenix.