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Kurt Vile‘s music treads familiar ground. One can hear the strains of ‘70s classic rock radio seeping through the songs in oddly distorted ways. A careful listener can note echoes of Bruce Springsteen one minute, followed by a Neil Young riff, then a Tom Petty melody the next, while still realizing something new and exciting is being produced. That’s mostly because of electric guitarist Vile’s emphasis on energy laden hooks created on the strings to anchor his material, and also due to the soulful nature of the Philadelphia singer’s voice. Like those classic rockers, Vile pens self-deprecating lyrics that temper the woes and joys of the sounds of rawk gee-tar with an awareness that any one person’s emotions don’t amount to a hill of beans in this world. But they do matter to that person. He’s no angel. His halo is made of smoke. He’s a regular dude like the rest of us, and when he sings of himself, he is singing for all of us. Steve Horowitz
Regarding Wild Flag‘s unholy 2010 formation, Carrie Brownstein said this: “I have no desire to play music unless I need music.” (Enter Portlandia, various acting gigs, a brief stint with Oregon ad agency Wieden+Kennedy, a 2009 book deal—a smattering of the projects that have taken up Brownstein’s time since Sleater-Kinney’s 2006 disbanding.) She also said this: “I started to need music again, and so I called on my friends and we joined as a band.” It sounds simple enough, and really, it is: if you call on your friends to form a band, and your friends happen to be some of the most prominent female rockers of the ‘90s (S-K drummer Janet Weiss, Helium’s Mary Timony, the Minders’ Rebecca Cole), triumphant post-Riot Grrrl rock is what you will get. The group’s electric self-titled debut bashes with S-K style abandon (“Future Crimes”, “Boom”), explores sleeker garage-pop harmonies (“Something Came Over Me”, “Black Tiles”), and delves face-first into seething, longer blues workouts (“Racehorse”)—all with undeniable chemistry and unpretentious precision. Welcome home, Carrie. Zach Schonfeld
2011 will go down as the year when R.E.M.‘s Wikipedia page went from “R.E.M. is an American rock band…” to “R.E.M. was an American rock band….” Some will argue that R.E.M. truly broke up 15 years ago when Bill Berry left the band; some will argue (perhaps rightly) that their post-Berry output was so drastically inferior that it significantly diminishes their legacy; and some will just put their whole oeuvre on shuffle and realize that most of it sounds pretty damn good. R.E.M. closing up shop provides a nice opportunity to take stock of just what they accomplished during their existence, from the jangle pop of “Radio Free Europe” to, well, the jangle pop of thoroughly satisfying final single “We All Go Back to Where We Belong”. In addition to the greatest-hits collected on Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage, R.E.M.‘s final year also saw the release of the late-career highlight Collapse Into Now, arguably as good as any post-Berry album. Farewell, R.E.M.; I’ll resist the urge to make a joke about the end of the world as we know it. Matt Paproth
As Destroyer, Dan Bejar has been a Dylan-esque figure building his own mythology in song, and building an ever-growing cult following at the same time. Taken together, his songs form their own universe, one that references itself incessantly, and references the world around us, presenting galore, musical and conceptual. On his last few albums he’s seemed interested in changing up the sound of Destroyer. In 2011 he took that furthest on Kaputt, lending a reconfigured soft-pop sheen that melded with his investigative songwriting more than anyone would have imagined, making it slipperier and more fun than ever before. It was one of 2011’s biggest musical stories, one that early in the year received the attention it deserved, seemingly opening up Destroyer’s niche music to new audiences. Dave Heaton
Has any sweet Catholic girl not named Ciccone ever taken to pop super-dominance as assuredly and presumptuously as Lady Gaga? Not merely content to echo dance-pop fantasias half-remembered from Madonna music videos circa the Blonde Ambition tour, she’s spent the last year going for full-on goddess-next-door preeminence, hosting Thanksgiving specials and birthday bashes like a dear old friend, all the while playing the eminence platinum-grise role far earlier and far more earnestly than any rational person would desire. She’s now become the ideal toastmaster general for the no-babe-it’s-not-me-it’s-you generation, and better her and her more-or-less good intentions than any other likely contender.
Her latest album and accompanying media blitz brought with them amble evidence of a liberal social conscience that may have been assumed in a diva of her pretensions, but which she pushes with a seemingly pie-eyed sincerity whose overt formal silliness proves disarming. What do you do with statements like “The only thing better than a unicorn is a gay unicorn” (as she told a properly stupefied audience during an HBO concert special) but nod pleasantly in suspicious agreement, as the goodwill and the second-hand pleas for tolerance mingle euphorically with music whose utopian quality is irresistible to the already-converted and mysterious to the faint-hearted? Every beneficence and bizarre publicity stunt has indicated a canny calculation that can’t help but be reassuring given the context.
After a decade of deer-in-the-headlights pop idols who seemed to offer themselves as barely-sentient sacrificial lambs to the ensuing media blitz, Lady Gaga’s knowing, exuberant embrace of celeb mechanics and all its cynical reductions proves there is some kind of pop life worth savoring even after the long, slow fade of capital ‘S’ significance from living imagination. Paul Anthony Johnson