|He's human, I'm human, you human.|
Maybe it's just because I've been sort of doing my own thing for a while at this point, but so far 2011 feels pretty scattered, with lots of music worth checking out but little consensus about what's worth revisiting again and again. Even my mom watches "Idol" now, and so do plenty of great critics I love and respect, but that's not for me-- and it still feels like even the biggest music events occupy a smaller share of cultural space, as the proliferation of media options continues apace. The indie-oriented music events still seem relatively niche-oriented, too, despite their huge internet footprint. I wasn't at SXSW, and I totally want to go someday, but I do know that last year by this time the festival had announced 35,000+ registered attendees (as of this typing, 2011 numbers aren't available yet); a separate report pegs the total number of 2010 participants (paying and non-) at 159,000. And Coachella has already announced attendance of some 90,000 people, including non-paying festival-goers-- 75,000 paid. All of which is amazing, sure. But at the same time, to take just one example I noticed a while back in my RSS reader: When Kenny Chesney, Zac Brown Band, Uncle Kracker, and Billy Currington played a non-festival show recently in St. Petersburg, Fla., they brought out more than 50,000 people. And that audience paid dearly: $41.40 to $278.50 a head. (It's worth following Zac Brown Band member Clay Cook's Tumblr blog, where he is refreshingly frank in answering fans' questions.) In other words, indie's mainstream popularity still looks pretty relative to me, even within the music industry, let alone compared to other distractions proliferating online and off.
So: What exactly does this or that piece of music do that makes it so much more worth spending my time with than all the zillion other alternatives out there, and why? There's usually only time and word count for some vague, brief descriptor, maybe something about hazy jangle or euphoric propulsion, which doesn't really relate to how I like most of the songs I actually like-- there's little room to describe content, as well as form. Let alone to critique it. In this economy, criticism can hardly afford to be critical unless it's an easy and widely agreed-upon target. Any trend toward accentuating the positive probably isn't intentional; my own review ratings this year seem higher, too, and in my case it's definitely because nowadays I'm lucky enough to mostly get assignments I think I'll enjoy. Maybe it's just like how bars now serve a huge variety of beers, where you used to have only a few options; maybe we'll just keep trying a new one each time and not particularly care which is our favorite.
For all that, though, I've definitely come across some releases and live gigs this year that have really meant a lot to me. I was probably unfairly dismissive of the first Fleet Foxes album, to the point that I don't think I even paid particularly close attention when they played at Pitchfork a couple of years ago; I seem to have a tendency to underrate bands like them and Band of Horses, who play rootsy, vaguely rural rock that always makes me think of how much more I love early My Morning Jacket. Fleet Foxes' latest, however, Helplessness Blues, has totally blown me away, starting with a title track that serves as a near-perfect rebuttal to the insular blurriness (what are adobe slats?) and cloistered privilege (what's wrong with working for a living, anyway?) of other indie bands crossing over in recent years: With these harmonies that are just gorgeous at a surface level, and acoustic guitar and melodies recalling, yeah, Simon and Garfunkel, there's Robin Pecknold, plangently coming to terms with the fact that we're not unique and precious snowflakes, that as a result maybe instead of spending so much time and money trying to show off our supposed precious uniqueness through endlessly deferred adulthoods we might be better off doing something, that of course none of us (me included) knows what that something should be-- but if I had an orchard, well... (Plus there's none of that all-the-rage-these-days rebellious posture that long ago got absorbed by whatever it thought it was rebelling against-- as people like David Foster Wallace and Thomas Frank have written about much better than I can. "The new rebels might be the ones willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the 'How banal.' Accusations of sentimentality, melodrama. Credulity. Willingness to be suckered by a world of lurkers and starers who fear gaze and ridicule above imprisonment without law.") Here is a beautifully wrought, almost ridiculously old-fashioned record that adds something meaningful to the cultural conversation, at a moment (of debate over social responsibility vs. rugged individualism) when its idealized agrarian fantasy feels especially resonant. Besides, who's to say what will sound old-fashioned 30 years from now?
A bunch of my other favorite releases of 2011 so far I've written about here and there, so I'll spare you my rambling in this space. And settling on specific tracks has been harder than usual; I'm not sure why. With so much to listen to, maybe it's harder to say one song is more worth your time than another song by the same artist, particularly when an entire album is of consistent quality? All I know is there's not as much overlap as I'd expect between the various channels I follow. Maybe the Year of Too Much Consensus has given way to the year of the all-you-can-eat buffet.
Lullatone - Experiments Around the House
Fleet Foxes: Helplessness Blues
tUnE-yArDs: w h o k i l l
Deerhunter: iTunes Live From Soho
Toro Y Moi: Underneath the Pine
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart: Belong
The Poison Control Center: Stranger Ballet
Mr. Dream: Trash HitApologies to: No Joy: Ghost Blonde, Yuck: Yuck, Tennis: Cape Dory, Lykke Li: Wounded Rhymes, Nicolas Jaar: Space Is Only Noise, Radiohead: The King of Limbs, Jonathan Richman: O Moon, Queen Of Night On Earth, Gruff Rhys: Hotel Shampoo, The Mountain Goats: All Eternals Deck, Adele: 21, Various Artists: Benefit for the Recovery in Japan, G-Side: The One... COHESIVE, Charles Bradley: No Time for Dreaming, Jessica Lea Mayfield: Tell Me, Sonny & the Sunsets: Hit After Hit, Times New Viking: Dancer Equired, Peter Bjorn & John: Gimme Some, Davila 666: Tan Bajo, Fergus & Geronimo: Unlearn, Minks: By the Hedge, Britney Spears: Femme Fatale, The Raveonettes: Raven in the Grave, Art Brut: Brilliant! Tragic!, Julian Lynch: Terra, The Coathangers: Larceny & Old Lace, The Go! Team: Rolling Blackouts, Hunx and His Punx: Too Young to Be in Love, Rangers: Suburban Tours , BOAT: Dress Like Your Idols, Wye Oak: Civilian, Julianna Barwick: The Magic Place, Bill Callahan: Apocalypse, Iron & Wine: Kiss Each Other Clean, The Braids: Native Speaker, Kurt Vile: Smoke Ring for My Halo, Tim Hecker: Ravedeath, 1972, Kleenex Girl Wonder: Secret Thinking, Bearsuit: The Phantom Forest, James Blake: James Blake, Lullatone: Elevator Music, Jenny Hval: Viscera, V/A: Bangs and Works: Vol. 1 [A Chicago Footwork Compilation], Cold Cave: Cherish the Light Years, Starfucker: Reptilians, Gil Scott Heron and Jamie xx: We're New Here, The Beets: Stay Home, J. Mascis: Several Shades of Why, The Decemberists: The King Is Dead, Weekend: Sports, Dirty Beaches: Badlands, Beans: End It All, the Jacka: Flight Risk, Peaking Lights: 936, Yellow Ostrich: The Mistress, Telekinesis: 12 Desperate Straight Lines, James Pants: James Pants, Bibio: Mind Bokeh, the Strokes: Angles, Lenka: Two, Belong: Common Era)
Smith Westerns: Dye It Blonde
Smith Westerns: Dye It Blonde
Patrick Stump: Truant Wave EP
Childish Gambino: EP [download]
P.S. Eliot: Living in Squalor EP [2010; download]
Blaqstarr: The Divine EP
Dum Dum Girls: He Gets Me High EP
(apologies to: Chad Valley: Chad Valley EP , Foxes in Fiction: Alberto EP [2010; download], WÆE: resa till mark, Games: That We Can Play EP , Best Coast/Wavves/No Joy: Summer Is Forever EP)
MIXTAPES I'VE ENJOYED AND WOULD RECOMMEND TO OTHERS
The Weeknd: House of Ballons [download]
M.I.A.: Vicki Leekx [download]
B. Michael Payne's Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All Mix [download]
Soulja Boi: 1up [download]
Big Krit: Return of 4Eva [download]
jj: Kills [download]
Gunplay: Inglorious Bastard [download]
Squadda B: I Smoke Because I Don't Care About Death [stream]
Fiend: Tennis Shoes & Tuxedos [download]
Frank Ocean: Nostalgia/Ultra [download]
(Apologies to: The Hood Internet: The Mixtape Volume Five [download], Lil B: Angels Exodus [download], Drumma Boy: 2011 All-Star Playlist [download], Frenchie: New Atlanta [download])
LOCAL 2011 RELEASES OF NOTE
The Poison Control Center: Stranger Ballet (June 7, Afternoon)
Christopher the Conquered: title unknown to me, upcoming
Wolves in the Attic: I heard there's a cassette floating around? Looks like their show Monday night was canceled
The Envy Corps: last I saw was this summer, I think [artist profile]
The River Monks: Jovials (Sleep on the Floor)
Andrew Weathers Ensemble: We're Not Cautious (Sleep on the Floor)
Blutiger Fluss: Rings of Saturn (Sleep on the Floor)
Golden Veins singles club
Parlours: Parlours (Aqui Estamos)
La Strange: The Relief EP (Aqui Estamos)
Pennyhawk: CD release show May 14 at the Ames Progressive (in other news, new Ames vinyl label: Maximum Ames)
Superchief: Corporate Dynamite
probably many others I'm forgetting-- please let me know in the comments!
50 TRACKS ALPHABETICALLY BY ARTIST (limit one per artist, including guest appearances)
Adele: "Turning Tables"
Big K.R.I.T.: "Dreamin'"
Cass McCombs: "County Line"
Charles Bradley: "Why Is It So Hard"
Childish Gambino: "Freaks and Geeks"
Dirty Beaches: "Lord Knows Best"
Dum Dum Girls: "There Is a Light and It Never Goes Out" (Smiths cover)
Fergus & Geronimo: "Powerful Lovin'" (album version)
Fleet Foxes: "Helplessness Blues"
Frank Ocean: "Songs for Women"
Gang Gang Dance: "MindKilla"
Gil Scott-Heron and Jamie xx: "My Cloud"
Gruff Rhys: "Space Dust #2"
Ill Blu: "Freaky"
Iron & Wine: "Walking Far From Home"
Jessica Lea Mayfield: "Our Hearts Are Wrong"
Jonathan Richman: "My Affected Accent"
Kanye West: "Monster (Kingdom's Nicki-centric Edit)"
Ke$ha [ft. Andre 3000]: "Sleazy (Remix)"
Kurt Vile: "Baby's Arms"
Laura Marling: "Blues Run the Game" (Jackson C. Frank cover)
Lenka: "You Will Be Mine"
Lil Wayne [ft. Rick Ross]: "If I Die Today"
Lykke Li: "I Follow Rivers"
Matthewdavid: "Like You Mean It"
M.I.A.: "Bad Girls"
MGMT: "Brian Eno (Cornelius Remix)"
Mr. Dream: "Trash Hit"
The Mountain Goats: "Birth of Serpents"
Pink: "Raise Your Glass"
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart: "Even in Dreams"
The Poison Control Center: "Torpedoes on Tuesday"
Radiohead: "Give Up the Ghost"
The Raveonettes: "Forget That You're Young"
Sleigh Bells: "Tell Em (Diplo Remix)"
Smith Westerns: "Still New"
Soulja Boi: "Weed Shoes"
The Streets: "Puzzled by People (Zoo Kid Remix)"
Times New Viking: "No Room to Live"
Toro Y Moi: "Elise"
The Weeknd: "What You Need"
Wye Oak: "Civilian"
Yuck: "The Wall"
- ASKLANDAGANZA 4
- Das Racist, Yacht Club (Iowa City)
- Gross Domestic Product local-music festival, Hotel Fort Des Moines
- The Poison Control Center with Brass Bed, Mumford's, Utopia Park and Coyote Slingshot, Drake University
- The Poison Control Center with Christopher the Conquered and Derek Lambert & the Prairie Fires, Club 504
- Menomena with Maps & Atlases, M Shop (Ames)
- Fergus & Geronimo with Nuclear Rodeo, Vaudeville Mews
- BOAT, opening for Mark Mallman with Cameron McGill & What Army, Vaudeville Mews
- Queens of the Stone Age, Val Air Ballroom
- Wolves in the Attic with Volcano Boys, Love Songs for Lonely Monsters and If Ever Was a Fire, Vaudeville Mews
- Anni Rossi with Secret Cities, Vaudeville Mews
- Santah with the Seed of Something, the Chatty Cathys and Pocket Aristotle, Vaudeville Mews
- Dead Ghosts, Vaudeville Mews
- Birds & Batteries with Dustin Smith and Dresden Style, Vaudeville Mews
- Ryan Bingham, People's Court
(Also heard great things about: Hayes Carll with Shovels & Rope, Orgone)
A Sunny Day in Glasgow: "Drink Drank Drunk" (overlooked from 2010; this, too)