The best songwriting of 2011 came from a group of artists whose work could be broadly defined as “alternative”. Some are burgeoning indie upstarts, while others are career musicians whose work is as eccentric as it is distinctive. Whether it is due to their use of innovative musical technologies or their uniquely developed approach to their craft, few of these artists fit the mold of the traditional singer-songwriter and some are creating music the blurs the lines defining genres.
In this age of digital music creation and consumption, the laptop computer has effectively supplanted the guitar and piano as the songwriter’s primary medium of choice. Whether used as an instrument in and of itself, or as a powerful vehicle for composition and production, affording possibilities that were once the sole domain of the professional recording studio, the laptop has emerged an iconic symbol of a new era of songwriting. In 2011, more than ever before, songwriters are limited only by the scope of their own imaginations and the result has been a rising tide of fresh and innovative works that refuse categorization according to previously held notions of style or genre.
In the midst of all of this revolutionary potential, it seems fitting that this year also saw the release of a handful of masterworks by esteemed songwriting veterans. These releases serve as reminders that even through shifting boundaries and technological innovations characterize the contemporary moment in music, the essential values of song craft remain vital and enduring. The greatest songwriters are those who possess a singular and enduring vision for their work, through which all of the various elements at play cohere into a seamless, and powerful whole. For these artists, lyrics, instruments, arrangements and recording techniques are all components of this gestalt. Stylistically, their works may vary from stark minimalism to expansive worlds of sound, however these musical auteurs are united by possessing their own distinctive voices that draw the listener inside a world that is entirely their own. Robert Alford
Kurt Vile‘s epic folk music explores the uncharted territory between the straight talking Americana of Dylan and Springsteen and the sprawling guitar rock of indie icons like Thurston Moore and J. Mascis. The songs on his 2011 release Smoke Ring for My Halo are built upon familiar foundations of simply strummed chord progressions, but they are painted with the vivid hues of Vile’s intricate and understated guitar work. Vile’s conversational vocal delivery is reminiscent at times of ‘70s era Lou Reed, dropping lines like, “I bet by now you probably think that I’m a puppet to the man / I tell you right now you best believe that I am,” with a sneering, street wise swagger. But it is the musicianship here that really sets this album apart. Whereas many of the artists on this list are multi-instrumentalists or electronic programmers, Vile pours the entirety of his creative energy directly into his six string and the result is a uniquely focused and confident sound.
Justin Vernon (Bon Iver)
Over the past several years, Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon has gone from relative indie rock unknown to DIY folk savior to A-list hip-hop collaborator to his current incarnation which could be characterized as progressive soft rocker. His mercurial and meteoric rise has seen a few forced and awkward moments, such as Vernon’s guest spot on Kanye West’s otherwise impeccable “Monster”, but through it all, Vernon’s work as Bon Iver has only grown richer and more fully realized. There is a lonesome weariness to the softly unfurling tunes that comprise his latest record Bon Iver. These are songs that speak to visions beheld in the early hours of morning, coming down. But there is also a transcendent clarity here in Vernon’s perfectly raspy falsetto. The instrumentation on the album washes over you in lush and swirling waves of sound. Each part seeming to merge into the next, an essential element of the deceptively complex architecture that Vernon and his bandmates carefully assemble with every passing song.
Kate Bush is one of the more enigmatic figures in the last few decades of popular music. Since the early ‘80s, her work has been variably classified as new wave, prog or art rock, with the occasional foray into Top-40-style dance and pop. 50 Words for Snow is Bush’s tenth studio album, and it is the most hushed and intimate record of her career. These seven long, meandering, jazz-tinged songs are composed primarily of piano, voice, and the perfectly measured stick work of drummer Steve Gadd. The entire album is a meditation upon the dark, cold months of winter, filtered through a series of narrative vignettes that explore among other things a sexual encounter with a snowman who melts away the morning after and a hunt for the mythical and reclusive yeti. The interplay between Bush’s literary lyrical approach and elegant musicianship endows her work with a refined aesthetic quality that is missing from much of today’s popular music. While many musicians’ approach to their craft is more akin to that of a poet or perhaps a short story writer, Bush brings to her work the ambition, scope, and complexity of a novelist.
James Blake‘s early EPs firmly established the 23-year-old producer as a rising prospect in the British electronic music scene. On his debut full length, James Blake, he takes the skills that he honed in that vernacular of loops, beats, and synthesized textures, and applies them to the realm of popular song. While the most salient crossover components here are the bass heavy drones and chopped up beats of dubstep, it is the structural elements of electronic music that Blake has absorbed which infuse his music with its truly innovative properties. These songs are built in layers and loops, a compositional technique that adds to the somber and meditative quality of the arrangements. On songs like “The Wilhelm Scream” and “I Never Learned to Share”, Blake’s heavily processed, soul-inflected vocals function as just another element of the whole rather than the songs’ focal points. Phrases repeat over and over as rhythms and tones rise and fall beneath them, carrying the songs to often strange and fascinating places.
John Darnielle (The Mountain Goats)
John Darnielle’s impassioned yet sardonic vocal delivery, his seemingly endless capacity for producing memorable and engaging folk-pop numbers, and perhaps most of all, his tremendous gift for developing character and story through song have won the Mountains Goats a loyal following of fanatically adoring fans. His concerts often evolve into full-on sing-a-longs with the audience drowning out Darnielle’s voice as they belt out the lyrics. For these are words that work their way inside your head, creating visions of life’s many crises and conflicts, forever unresolved but raised to a place of tragic beauty in the stories that Darnielle tells. From his early days as a lo-fi boom-box troubadour recounting tales of doomed alcoholic lovers, meth heads, and suburban existential dread to his recent more polished and personal work, Darnielle has never lapsed in his ability to deliver one excellent album after the next. His most recent sees him returning to the energy and pathos of his works such as Tallahassee and We Shall All Be Healed. Songs like “Damn These Vampires” and “Estate Sale Sign” burn with an urgent, almost desperate intensity that the Mountain Goats have perfected over the course of their long and distinguished career.