The whole discussion on this stuff was spawned in the text of Pitchfork-sponsored blog depository Altered Zones, which unexpectedly closed its doors late in the year. If anything, the death of Altered Zones places a kind a bookend on this era, the Altered Zones era, even if its founders promise a return next year. Ironically, he site’s signature chillwave/hypnagogic pop/leftfield basement demo style was initially spawned by a kind of out-of-time/ahistorical mentality. That it achieved a historical relevance out of posing this predicament gives credence to its potency as a 21st century art project.
Any retrospective of the year would be incomplete without a mention of Simon Reynolds’s Retromania, which posits that our current era is suffering from both a dearth and an abundance of history (the concept of musical evolution as a history of subcultures “getting it wrong” is Reynolds’s too, as is the term “Maximalism”). This was exactly what the Altered Zones sonic sounded like—an unprecedented music constructed out of a series of incongruent precedents.
The Altered Zones spillover resulted in all manner of eccentric electronic pop with unusual contours and emphases by not only Drake and The Weeknd, but also artists who stood out on their own like Zomby, Grimes, Ford & Lopatin, James Blake, Autre Ne Veut, D’Eon, or the unexpectedly slick Destroyer, each of whom produced records with no real parallels in 2011 or any other year. This is not to discredit good old synthpop, of which Junior Boys, Cut Copy, and Metronomy produced excelsior renditions in 2011. Then, there’s the case of M83, deciding once and for all that being ELO is not the worst thing in the world, then aiming ridiculously high with a double album supposed to represent all teenage lovelorn drama everywhere or something, and amazingly enough hitting the mark on a couple of tunes.
Looking backwards, there was plenty to celebrate on the reissue front. We got a good history lessons in the pioneering work by the progenitors of bleep (Sweet Exorcist’s Retroactivity), 2nd Wave Detroit (Drexciya’s Journey of the Deep Sea Dweller), IDM (the Autechre EPs), house (Virgo Four’s previously unreleased trove Resurrection), and minimalism (Plastikman’s entire Arkives). Excursions even further back turned up perhaps even more interesting results. Side projects that may have fell to the margins were given new vitality by the reissue treatment like the Editions Mego albums of Wire’s Bruce Gilbert, Heaven 17 member Martyn Ware’s brazen and experimental takes as British Electric Foundation (B.E.F.), and sometime Ash Ra Tempel member Harold Grosskopf’s lost gem Synthesist, which came packaged with a batch of remixes nearly as juicy as the album itself.
Meanwhile, Industrial continued to win back a tarnished reputation. Cabaret Voltaire rereleased the lost soundtrack to the forgotten film Johnny Yesno and the four major albums of the Throbbing Gristle oeuvre (plus Greatest Hits) were rereleased in a stunning remaster that added not only previously unheard depths but loads of quality bonus material from the death factory vaults. At the same time, Richard H Kirk and Chris Carter, each from the respective aforementioned bands, accepted invitations to remix new material by postpunk and industrial tinged acts like Perc, Tropic of Cancer, and Black Dog, proving that neither of them find it sufficient to live off their legacies alone.
The grim hues of the Cabs and TG had long served as dressing for the Downwards Records set, who have since diluted into the more austere and techno-minded Sandwell District crew. To these ears, there was something uniquely prescient about this codified ghost labor, particularly when it struck out in nasty snarls as on Perc’s Wicker and Steel. The gloom of Blackest Ever Black, the cold world atmospherics of CLR, and the functionalist crunch of Stroboscopic Artefacts acted out the noises of a world on the brink, crushed by the weight of capitalism’s inequities and ready to use the tools of postmodernism to deconstruct its many deconstructions.
Of course, this vantage wasn’t only cause for despair. Despite the unhealthy prognosis of a world plagued by the phone hacking scandal, London riots, the shootings in Norway, near-nuclear meltdown in Japan, every form of despair in Africa, bankrupt First World governments, austerity, and child rape cover-ups in prominent college sports franchises, there was still cause for hope in 2011. The world is now absent Muammar Gadaffi, Osama Bin Laden, and Kim Jong Il, and people’s movements sprouted in the form of the Arab Spring, the British student movement, and the US Occupy protests. Though riddled with uncertainty, the sheer lack of determinism gave the road ahead a glimmer of hope.
Just as well, music’s complete dissipation carries with it the same degree of precarity, but those forging new paths offer suggestions on how to make it through this dark time. Once again, electronic and plugged-in music is at the vanguard, offering a separate course for those not content to bask in static plaudits and stale sycophancy. In music and in culture-at-large, we might “get it wrong” in our path to absolution, but might that be just what we need?