My favorite music (in any genre) from 2011
As I write this, I’m listening – perhaps for the five hundredth time – to Paul Simon’s Songwriter collection. When disc one ends, I’ll get up, walk over there, and press play again. Much to the chagrin of my girlfriend, I’ve been repeating this same vicious cycle for more than a month. I think she was actually quite pleased when I finally agreed it was time to pull out the Christmas music. Now, our days are dotted by John Denver & the Muppets, and Paul Simon.
I lead with this because it pretty much sums up my experience of music this year. There are a zillion new albums to look at, delve into, analyse, and appreciate. There are new directions in which the modes I most applaud – folk, bluegrass, trad country – are headed, and exciting examples of each. (There are also plenty of buzzed-about examples which leave me perplexed and wanting.)
Some of my favorite artists (Gillian Welch) have returned to the record-releasing world at the same time as innovative newcomers (Lost in the Trees) have strongly shoved their feet in the door. And yet, as the year draws to a close, the musical statement to which I feel most tethered is a collection of songs from decades past, by a songwriter who’s now 70. I have to wonder, were Rhythm of the Saints released in 2011, how would it fare? What of Graceland?
As I’ve scanned other people’s lists, I’ve begun to feel more and more critically isolated. The albums listed so often strike me as containers of songs – many good songs, mind you – but there’s a difference between a box full of songs and a cohesive artistic statement which marries melody, rhythm, and language; which steps back from the immediate and urgent, and casts color on a big picture; which, as the old adage might assert, can see the forest for the trees.
What’s compelling to me about music is its ability to transcend the immediate. If a song says everything it needs to say the first time, it may as well be a sentence coming out of someone’s mouth in conversation. Why record something that gives everything away the first time? If an album doesn’t slowly unfold over many listens, I tend to wonder why it needs to be owned, much less championed and preserved.
Granted, as a songwriter, I understand the urgent songs. The ones you have to get off your chest; that you need someone to hear immediately. Things like Spotify and Rhapsody, last.fm, Pandora and the like are really good for those urgent songs. It’s easy via those engines to hear a song once or twice, be affected maybe even on a profound level by it, and then never hear it again. After all, there’s so much music available.
That said, the immediate way we process music makes some sense in the context of our broader culture. There are a lot of immediate, urgent problems which require addressing. There’s much to do, much to consider. But, the way our music and art culture is fueling our attachment to the immediate worries me. Yes, many of our problems are dire, but the only way to fix them is to take a long-term, steady-handed, patient and thoughtful approach. That’s what Occupy is trying to do, even as analysis of the movement is negatively critiquing it for its attempt to eschew the immediate in favor of long-term solution (namely, a cultural shift of priorities).
Of course, Occupy has breathed new life into topical and traditional music, as its activists have rediscovered the import of our American folk songs. I’ve heard reports of people forming human chains – arm in arm – singing at the cops who are arresting them for their civil disobedience: “We shall not be moved / Just like a tree that’s planted by the water.” This renewed allegiance to the music that reminds us of our potential and universal truth…well, whether it sticks or not, remains to be seen. But I’m hopeful. It has, countless times before, affixed our national eyes to the bigger picture; and the more time passes, the more dire it becomes for us to slow down and consider the whole thing rather than its pullquotes and soundbytes.
As Paul Simon wrote about this moment 25 years ago:
These are the days of lasers in the jungle
Lasers in the jungle somewhere
Staccato signals of constant information
A loose affiliation of millionaires
These are the days of miracle and wonder…
…Anyway, I see an unbreakable link between these cultural developments and the way we express our culture – in music, literature, art, dance, etc. It’s the processing of the urgent and immediate which strikes me as contrary to the whole point of making art. Maybe that makes me a snob, but there’s enough in the world to process immediately – as quickly as possible, as a matter of fact – that I find myself seeking out art which yanks me off the conveyor belt, so to speak. I’ve found myself seeking artists who aren’t giving in to this quest for immediate gratification, and are doing their duty as artists to operate outside the workaday world and create something which might pull us away from the chaos long enough to see more clearly. In other words, I don’t personally want music in the background of my white noise life. I want music which will kill the white noise, slow me down, remind me what matters, introduce meaning – or underline the meaning that’s already there. It’s with that consideration that I approach my “best of 2011” list.
I made one list over at About.com, because that’s part of my job there. It looks only at what could loosely be considered folk music, and Abigail Washburn topped that list too. Her City of Refuge has knocked me for a loop almost every time I’ve put it on – different songs resonate all the time, different lines, different instrumental turns. It’s a complete, thoroughly considered piece, and it strikes me as much more than a collection of the best songs she wrote the year she recorded it.
Paul Simon’s So Beautiful or So What is on there, as is Gillian, Sarah Jarosz, Milk Carton Kids, and more.
But, I wanted to write a second list for No Depression, since this site allows me to look at a wider spectrum of musical styles. (Full disclosure: I was paid to write promotional materials for Zoe Muth’s 2011 release, but it turned out to be one of the few new releases – of new material – to still be on my speakers months later.)
So, at long last – following a rather long introduction – here are My 10 Favorite Albums of 2011:
1. Abigail Washburn – City of Refuge
As I mentioned above, this record stayed with me for months. There is so much happening on it, without it being a disc full of cacophony and chaos. Its music is well-considered and there seems to be a theme to the whole thing – a reason these songs all wound up in the same place, which is greater than just that they all came out at the same time.
2. Zoe Muth & the Lost High Rollers – Starlight Hotel
I spent a while trying to figure out if Zoe Muth’s country turns of phrase felt familiar because she was nailing some kind of something nostalgic, or if she’s just channeling something few contemporary songwriters are tapping these days. Maybe it’s a little bit of both…but lines like “If I can’t trust you with a quarter, how can I trust you with my heart?” were made to shoot straight into the arena of “classic.”
3. Tori Amos – Night of Hunters
I had almost forgotten there was a Tori Amos when she dropped this beautiful album seemingly out of nowhere this year. It’s an ambitious effort, though its subject is pretty timeless: heartbreak. She employs her daughter (whose voice is pure and haunting) and her own dreamy, prodigious arrangements. I’ll be listening to this one for some time before I discover all its secrets. It’s made to be digested.
4. PJ Harvey – Let England Shake
PJ Harvey is one of those artists whose every effort rocks me on some level, so it wasn’t surprising to me that Let England Shake has had some staying power. There’s some funky atmospherics going on, there’s a little sonic homage being paid to classic British pop, but with an acoustic guitar-driven punk sort of aesthetic. I don’t really know what to make of it, honestly, I just want to keep listening to it.
5. Adele – 21
I brought this record up recently in a “best of 2011” conversation and the person I was talking with kind of laughed, like it was a too-obvious choice. For some reason we indie-minded people feel inclined to disregard what’s popular. But every blue moon, someone’s popular because they’re exceptional gift is undeniable. I chose a video from her NPR Tiny Desk Concert just to underscore my point. Strip away all the production and “pop” definitions and Adele has a remarkable gift. Her songs are beautiful and emotional on the rawest level. It’s so raw, as a matter of fact, that you can’t fight it. I tried for most of year to fight it, but it was futile. Just hit play and watch her go. Maybe she’s recording pop music now, but I look forward to the other avenues she explores.
6. Various – Note of Hope: A Celebration of Woody Guthrie*
Woody Guthrie wrote so many songs and poems and stories which were never recorded by the man himself… after all, his Huntington’s disease took over while he was still pretty young. But the art kept coming, and his daughter Nora has passed it out to some of the most gifted contemporary artists to do what they will with it. Note of Hopewas a tribute album featuring some of those performances and readings. Pete Seeger, Jackson Browne, Ani DiFranco, Chris Whitley, and a slew of others tackle Woody’s words with artful aplomb. The first of what is sure to be an onslaught of tributes heading into Woody’s 100th year. Seeger’s story, especially, stirred me. Listening to it now, in the midst of the Occupy movement, it feels timely and urgent, though it was likely written long ago.
7. Paul Simon – So Beautiful or So What
I thought this was one of the best albums of the year before I became inflicted with the Songwriter collection, for the record. Not sure it requires explanation. Paul Simon can still get paid to make music at 70 for a reason. He’s got a grip on his gift, and this album is a solid next step from the albums which came before. There’s that old “world music” rhythm thing going on throughout, but it’s also heavily balanced on his guitar and lyrics. In short, it’s an album about meaning, whatever that is – from Simon’s dissection of meaning, it’s both the most important thing in the world, and the most meaningless.
8. Sarah Jarosz – Follow Me Down
Sarah, it seems, is working on finding her voice. She’s toying with marrying styles – pulling together her Texas roots and the bluegrass thing she does so well with that moody Boston conservatory melding of classical, pop, indie rock, atmospheric string music, etc. And, if this is what she sounds like while she’s finding her voice, I’m a little scared of what will happen when she finds it.
9. Gillian Welch – The Harrow & the Harvest
You know it had to be on here. The first one in eight years, and it was well worth the wait. It took me about seven spins to get sucked in, but once I was in, I was in. Gillian and David are freakishly talented, and they know how to reveal their work. This album is beautiful. Period.
10. Milk Carton Kids – Prologue
Gosh, these guys make wonderful music. They were easily my favorite new group of the year. Mostly for songs like this, which take you to very unexpected places:
* In case you’re wondering, I decided to disqualify the Paul Simon collection because if I allowed myself to include greatest hits collections, there might have been less new music on this list. The Woody Guthrie tribute got on there because it presents songs and stories which had not been previously recorded and released.
(If only there were room for 11, I’d include Steve Earle’s I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive.)