2011 Music...So Far: Is That It?!Aug 27, 2011 Write an essay on this topic.
The Bottom Line Music from 2011 may be slightly disappointing overall, but don't let that stop you from picking some stuff up.
Believe it or not, 2011 is more than halfway through at this point and believe me, folks, it's only going to go by faster. Musically, however, 2K11 has been oddly slow, as there's been no truly heavy week of releases like there was multiple times in 2010. A fair amount of music has been released, but it's been strung along on a weekly basis, opting to prolong the relatively disappointing quality of each successive release instead of getting it out there in the open. However, while 2011 music may best be described articulately as being quite "blah", there have been several releases that are worth the time.
Last year, I handed out superlatives in my mid-year music report, so to keep things so fresh and so clean, I decided to break up the monotonous music from this year into several lists with a final look-ahead to the remaining months.
7 Albums I Loved
1. Adele 21
Why?: A break-up album is supposed to do either of two things. It's supposed to make you cry everything out or it's supposed to make you move your body and dance your grief away. 21 is a punch in the gut disguised as a break-up album, a sensitive, fully felt tour through the annals of Motown, country, and adult contemporary. Emotionally naked and incredibly raw, it captures the five stages of grief perfectly well, ending on acceptance (the breathtaking Someone Like You) and assurance that time truly heals all wounds.
Essential Tracks: Someone Like You, Rumour Has It, Don't You Remember
2. Jill Scott The Light of the Sun
Why?: 2011 has seen a fair amount of songs attempting to be the next self-esteem anthem, but Jill Scott up and made an album brimming with positivity while retaining nuance and creativity. This is an album made by a grown person for fellow grown people, featuring lessons that Scott has learned from her past professional and personal struggles. Oddly, it feels like the big sister to Adele's 21, as this album has seen it, been through it, and realizes that everything eventually passes. The Light of the Sun is the album of making it through to the other side of pain and recognizing one's own strength in the process.
Essential Tracks: Le BOOM Vent Suite, So Gone (What My Mind Says), When I Wake Up
3. Jamie Woon Mirrorwriting
Why?: Mirrorwriting may sound like the next great indie hope with its icy, minimalist production and stylish arrangements, but this is a singer-songwriter record at its core. Through all the layering, vocal effects, and lush background vocals, you just have a feeling that each of these songs would be more than able to stand up to being stripped down. Woon overcomes the challenges of the genre, sounding like a more soulful James Blake, with some guitar strums and a well-developed sense of who he is as a person; with the post-dubstep movement going on, lyricism sometimes get lost, but Woon is full of heart and has a way with producing captivating imagery.
Essential Tracks: Spirals, Shoulda, Waterfront
4. The Civil Wars Barton Hollow
Why?: Rootsy and simple, Barton Hollow is the type of earthy, earnest folk-pop made for late nights late in the year with someone special. Often draped in only a plaintive acoustic guitar, members Joy Williams and John Paul White produce stunning vocal chemistry; the intimacy of how well their vocals intertwine helps keep the album on a magnificent slow burn. While it doesn't really deliver another song like the title cut, the album itself works well, mostly due to how warm and comfortable a listen it is. Wistful and beautifully hushed, Barton Hollow is a tender, elegant album that tries to appeal to the hopeless romantic in us all. Trust me, it succeeds.
Essential Tracks: 20 Years, Girl With the Red Balloon, Falling
5. Corinne Bailey Rae The Love EP
Why?: Romance is the name of the game on The Love EP and said game involves four covers of well-known love songs (and one of a slightly more obscure number). Rae accomplishes the delicate act of forming the tracks around her lilting, girlish voice while keeping the core of what made them so special in the first place in tact. Housing a little funk, a little rock, and a whole lot of lush sensuality, The Love EP lightens things up from her previous album and seemingly recalibrates Corinne Bailey Rae (the artist) after a terrible personal ordeal. At the end of the day, all you really do need is love.
Essential Tracks: Low Red Balloon, I Wanna Be Your Lover, My Love
6. The Weeknd House of Balloons
Why?: Released in March as a mixtape, House of Balloons gave me fits on initial listens. It shouldn't work; singer Abel Tesfaye isn't a distinctive vocalist (alternating sounding like Usher, Chris Brown, and Trey Songz), the production was fuzzy, and lyrically the album tended to hover in one specific niche. But it's an album that simply works and is much greater than the sum of its parts, a sleazy drug-fueled after-party album that bounces from sensual to world weary to damn near depressed in the span of nine sprawling tracks. House of Balloons is a bleary, mumbly set of music that is spacey r&b at its most delectable.
Essential Tracks: What You Need, House of Balloons/Glass Table Girls, Wicked Games
7. Alison Krauss + Union Station Paper Airplane
Why?: The only thing keeping Paper Airplane from soaring to the upper regions of this list is the fact that there weren't very many chances taken here when everyone is talented enough to pull anything off. This is an AKUS record through and through, so it has an obviously inherent quality about it, from the dexterous musicianship (equal parts blistering and billowy) and Krauss's steady leadership. Lyrically, though, there's a strange pessimism that creeps its way in, making the already haunting vocals resonate that much more, especially on the heart wrenching Bonita and Bill Butler.
Essential Tracks: Lie Awake, My Opening Farewell, Bonita and Bill Butler
Other Albums I Enjoyed in 2011: Stateless Matilda, Amos Lee Mission Bell, Pistol Annies Hell on Heels, Christina Perri lovestrong., Sunny Sweeney Concrete, Mamas Gun The Life and Soul
5 Great Songs (Likely) Missing From Your iPod
1. Melanie Fiona 4 AM
After having trouble getting her second album off the ground, Melanie Fiona took the gloves off and released the penetrating 4 AM wherein she rips open her chest and spills her heart for all to see. A tale of finally being fed up with a man who mistreats you, the song may be a little too produced for purists, as it's in the Weeknd/Frank Ocean/Dream brand of cloudy r&b, but Fiona's magnetic vocals are still given plenty of shine. Alternating between paranoia brought on by past indiscretions and depression from the realization that it really is over, 4 AM is all red eyes, late night phone calls, and musical magic.
2. JoJo Marvin's Room (Can't Do Better)
Once Drake dropped Marvin's Room, named after the studio he recovered the laidback cut at, it was a race to see who could outdo him. We got versions/reworkings from Teyana Taylor and Chris Brown, but it was former tween queen JoJo who demolished the competition with Can't Do Better. Hazy and rambling, it's a confident assertion of her self-worth washed in sadness, a post-break-up voicemail brimming with emotion. With only some softly tapping bass and icy keyboards, JoJo officially does away with her past good girl image. Crazy, huh?
3. Jill Scott Le BOOM Vent Suite
There are very few artists that could make me listen to a nine minute opus of a track with regularity and Jill Scott is near the top of that list. Fusing a strutting, free form first five minutes with a jazzy last four, Suite is what happens when two (seemingly) disparate halves join together for harmonious living. Scott has been a musical chameleon for the first decade of her career and her honeyed vocals poured over these two sections just hints at what she can do later.
4. Sade Love is Found
Found on the band's ultimate collection, which was released this past February, Love is Found has a pretty intriguing structure to it, juxtaposing a Fantasia-esque orchestral opening (those horns!) with a unorthodox Middle Eastern-ish center. Throw in some rock flourishes, a booming clap section, and Sade's typically seductive vocals and you have yourself proof that last year's Soldier of Love was no fluke. As musically adventurous as ever without losing their identity, Love is Found is solid.
5. Marsha Ambrosius Sour Times
When I heard that the singer from Floetry was covering Portishead, I was slightly confused, especially since she signed to a major label. Would they really allow that? But I'll be darned if Marsha Ambrosius's Sour Times isn't a powerhouse of a track. Almost cinematic in its fullness, it features one of Ambrosius's most heart wrenching vocals, a lonely wail that interprets the poetic lyrics with a distinct sadness. Genius.
2 Random Observations
1. The divas have disappointed me
This "report" has been all well and good so far, eh? As much as I'd like this year to be glowing with new music, there's been a pretty fair share of releases best characterized as "blah". While other types of artists have had a misstep, it's the divas that have been letting me down in 2011. Releases from Jennifer Hudson, Britney Spears, Jennifer Lopez, Joss Stone, Natalia Kills, and Colbie Caillat all had moments that I liked, but each new set of material was not up to part in the end. You had Hudson who apparently wants to release the most mediocre material in the world, Spears whose robo-centric collection of generic dubstep served Rosie the Robot realness, Auntie J.Lo who tried to take us to the club (but broke a hip on the way there), Stone who is the epitome of musical schizophrenia, Kills who is bootleg Gaga to the fullest, and Caillat who is slowly morphing into Taylor Swift. It's all just depressing and disappointing because I've liked material from each woman in the past, but 2011 brought this weird cross-section of artistic breakdowns from talented women.
Get it together, ladies.
2. The year has been less loaded/more spread out
In past years, there have been years where I had as many as five or six releases in a week that I'd be curious to hear. In 2011, I'm lucky to have two and most weeks tend to have only one release that I'm interested enough to even try. Even then, it's not necessarily a marquee listen that I had been counting down for months; it's usually an artist that I'm vaguely familiar with and feel the need to give them another try. I'm glad not to be overwhelmed with volume, as the lightness of 2011 has allowed me to explore new artists and delve into some catalogs, but in that volume often were multiple great albums and several that went into pretty heavy rotation. With the reduced number of releases, there's not as many opportunities for greatness to break through.
But How Does the Rest of 2011 Look?
At this point, I can say that I'm cautiously optimistic about 2011, though my positivity has wavered the higher the temperatures have gone. I actually have a few albums that I'm genuinely excited for (Kelly Clarkon, Miranda Lambert), even if the lead singles aren't all that and a barrel of crackers, and that type of excitement is something that's been missing from the rest of the year. Other than Kelly and Miranda, there's a fair amount of releases that I'm interested in hearing, but those are either coming off really disappointing singles (Mary J Blige), good-but-not-great albums (Monica), or countless delays that can't help but dampen enthusiasm for a project (Nikki & Rich, Goapele, Van Hunt, Melanie Fiona). 2011 has been a year with few bright spots, but I'm holding out hope that the final third of the year will bring the type of releases that were few and far between in the preceding months.
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