Sunday, 5 February 2012

Thoughts on Music in 2011

From last April till late December, I barely listened to music at all. This was not a conscious decision. It just happened. I was bored of older music, and made little effort to check out new stuff. A handful of songs made an impression on me, but in general I was uninspired. Despite albums from artists I was excited about, including James Blake, Radiohead, Verdena, Atlas Sound, Fleet Foxes, and Opeth, all of them ended up falling disappointingly flat. 

The problem was that amid all the huge revelations and upheavals surging through 2011, no music seemed to reflect the feelings myself and many others had. To me, music began to seem like an irrelevancy. Instead of keeping up with it, I focused my time on reading books and articles, which, given the circumstances, felt somehow more worthwhile. Catharsis was delivered with going to the Trade Union march, or the Occupy LSX rallies. For me, music provided no solidarity anymore. 

I realise this is pretty depressing. Intense discussions about politics are fine, but moshing and dancing is equally necessary. It adds a higher level to social bonds and acts as deep catharsis, while also spreading joy and entertainment. As a result, perhaps what was so bleak about 2011 was the paucity of its musical and artistic offerings. There was only pain and anger, with nothing to channel it through. 

Indeed, a lot of commenters noted that protest and politicised music in 2011 had more or less disappeared as a form. There were no Bob Dylans or Fugazis, though there were plenty of imitators – a sure sign that culturally we’re as redundant and zombified as neoliberal economics. At least that’s what it felt like last year. 

But some people rejected the idea that protest music was dead, while others, like Mark Fisher, suggested that lack of politics could be responsible for the dearth of protest music. When politics has failed, a certain apathy sets in, and instead of any sort of musical movement, the London riots were the perfect manifestation of the nihilism of the dispossessed and the disenfranchised. While I don’t believe the riots were a direct political statement, the attitudes of those involved were certainly the result of years of rotten politics based on greed and lies. Nonetheless, the musical response to the riots has been pretty muted. 

Whatever was going on, I couldn’t find much to be excited about in 2011. It was the year that the retro fad dutifully continued, with magazines continually sold off the back of past ‘legends’, and critically lauded bands like the Vaccines and Yuck evoking a dull version of early 90s alt rock. A terrifying number of bedroom producers buried Soundcloud and YouTube in mediocre, derivative tunes and laughably unimaginative remixes, while at the other end of the scale people like Britney Spears, Martin Solveig, and Flo Rida co-opted once-exciting dubstep sounds into their songs and sold them to the mainstream. 

The mainstream itself was dominated by a revolving door of R n’ B and pop artists including Lady Gaga, Rhianna, Bruno Mars, and Katy Perry. In fact, according to Songtrust, the most successful songwriters of 2011 included Max Martin, Dr Luke, Katy Perry herself, Esther Dean, and Bruno Mars who between them wrote a huge percentage of the biggest songs of the year, many of them performed by the aforementioned artists. Music TV channels like MTV and VIVA played those same songs for months on end, culminating in my regrettable knowledge of the lyrics to ‘California Dream Bed’ and ‘Only Girl In The World’ by Rhianna. 

As the number of hugely successful acts got smaller, the number of wannabes only got bigger, strangely reflecting the west’s economic situation. Of those who made it, few were original or exciting, and most were safe investments for record labels to cash-in on previous fads. Older artists seemed to be on auto-pilot, and nothing - not even the best music - could get me as animated as hearing George Osborne being interviewed. 

In 2011 music was stuck elsewhere while the world burned. The indie bands who rallied for Barack Obama mostly disappeared for Occupy Wall Street, and tax avoiding multinationals like Vodafone sponsored summer festivals like Latitude and Reading & Leeds. The Egyptians didn’t need music, nor did the Tunisians. Music can’t bring down dictators or free-market dogmatists, at least not anymore. Perhaps it was apt that artistic revolutionaries like Gil Scott Heron and Václav Havel died last year. Thanks to rolling news the revolution in 2011 was unfailingly televised, but it sure as hell was not amplified.

Some good music
  
I didn't do an end-of-year list for 2011 because I hadn't done enough research during the year to do it justice, and by December, couldn't bring myself to listen to everything I had noted down. Nonetheless, there were some good tunes released, and what follows is a selection of those that defied the general zeitgeist of mundanity.

Björk - Crystalline
Beginning with a gorgeous, shimmering bell-like melody, Björk's vocals meander prettily, while beats punch slowly beneath. Then, a minute from the end, something happens. I won't spoil the surprise though. Just listen. It is fantastic.

Ghostpoet - Survive It
It seemed that 2011 was a big year for rap, but it was never a genre I could really get into. I like a few very select artists, but can't dig much else. 'Survive It' is cool though, because it has a rare lyrical eloquence and such a unique feel - plaintive, reflective, and chilled, complete with an understated but catchy chorus hook.

Gillian Welch - The Way it Goes
One of the more upbeat songs on 'The Harrow and the Harvest', this song is inflected with country harmonies, great guitar playing, and bitter lyrics. It's the real deal.

Jacaszek - Windhover
Sublime ambient sketches blurred together from classical instruments, and sprawled out into a pastoral hush.

James Blake - The Wilhelm Scream
Aside from its brilliant title, this is a highly original take on electronic music, with soulful vocals intensely building up over sparse jazzy piano/organ. Blake inevitably became a hipster darling, but don't let his reputation detract from the quality of his music.

Liturgy - Veins of God
Despite being ritually criticised by the black metal establishment, Liturgy's achingly intellectual take on the genre actually produced some monstrously heavy material. 'Veins of God' is instrumental, and barely 'black metal', but the interplay of riffs and rhythms is just awesome. 

There is something bizarre about 'Youth Knows No Pain'. It feels classic, but then feels all wrong. The instruments are mismatched, the sound is sardonic and hazy...but the melody is great, and the tribal drums underpinning a carnival-esque boogie riff somehow breath life into the whole song. A refreshingly original example of what female singer-songwriters can do when they're not obsessed with Joni Mitchell.

Opeth - The Devil's Orchard
Opeth are one of the most inventive metal bands ever, and though their new album 'Heritage' was a little disappointing, the evilly slippery fusion riffs of 'The Devil's Orchard' were a real success.

The Pains of Being Pure at Heart - Belong
This is a song The Smashing Pumpkins should have written. It's completely unoriginal, but works because it is so emotional, uplifting, and ultimately rocking.


Radiohead - Morning Mr Magpie
As a whole, I wasn't amazed by 'The King of Limbs', but it was still better than most other bands' albums in 2011, and it had a few undeniably great songs. It's hard to choose a stand-out, but 'Morning Mr Magpie' had a lot of cool ideas and sounds.

Rustie - After Light
It's no surprise that I wasn't impressed by the direction electronic music took last year, and even Rustie's album, after making so many end-of-year best-ofs, wasn't really that exciting to me. This particular song, however, is a brilliant extension of where I hoped electronic was heading at the end of 2010. Full of bouncing rhythms, blaring synths, and awesome cut-up vocal hooks, 'After Light' is already a classic.

Thurston Moore - Benediction
Let's face it, anything Thurston Moore does is at the very least an interesting listen. 'Benediction' is less experimental than usual, but all the more beautiful for it, with simple acoustic guitar playing and some lovely cello lines.

Verdena - Loniterp
My favourite unknown Italian band released a double album early last year, and while it was very hit and miss, there were a few brilliant songs. I love the bizarre mixture of grunge, barbershop, and Rolling Stones-style classic rock 'Loniterp' offers. Verdena are a brilliant band, but can be very whimsical - this song shows the best of both these sides very well.

Wolfgang Voigt - Rueckverzauberung 2
This man is unfailingly wonderful. A striking, deep piece of electronic experimentation which brings dark and romantic visions to life.

Wolves in the Throne Room - Thuja Magus Imperium
Wolves... probably released the most cogent and exciting album of 2011 with 'Celestial Lineage'. They took black metal to realms it has always promised, but never delivered - foggy ambience, ecstatic heights, magesterial build ups, and emotive dynamics. Truly awesome.

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