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If an artist’s import can be measured by influence and output, then James Blake was certainly among 2011’s standout acts. Sure, there’s been a backlash that’s cast him as the Bieber of dubstep, but few this year have brought widespread attention to underground innovations as the 22-year-old wunderkind has. Whatever you think of his electro-R&B compositions, Blake was generally successful in crossing over and reaching a bigger audience while keeping the principles of his creative vision intact, something that didn’t happen so much in 2011. That’s not to mention that Blake was fairly prolific releasing new material, beginning the year with an eponymous debut LP that lived up to the hype and ending 2011 with a couple of EPs, including a collaboration with Bon Iver.
But beyond tapping into and driving the trends of the day, his cold, sparse aesthetic conveys a feeling of alienation that reflects his times, as Blake’s soulful crooning is processed to come off lonely and small, while still hanging on to something human. In the bigger picture, Blake is blurring the distinctions between knob-fiddling producer and introspective singer-songwriter, pushing an ambitious agenda forward that’s making an impact now and in the foreseeable future. Arnold Pan
The Weeknd accomplished a real coup in our era of early album leaks and blog hype: the release of his first free mixtape, House of Balloons, actually caught the music world by surprise. Toronto’s Abel Tesfaye, just 21, has a voice to make a major label A&R rep melt—a liquid falsetto, the sort that pours itself into your ears and wraps around the pleasure centers in your brain like an ambrosia glaze. But Tesfaye isn’t interested in using his talents toward the standard, lifeless R&B fare of Clear Channel radio. Rather, Tesfaye twists the conventions of R&B storytelling—getting some drinks, getting the girl, getting some drinks for the girl—into something far more sinister and, it turns out, interesting. To help, his production team, Doc McKinney and Illangelo, know how to cloak Tesfaye’s hangover-chic moans in just the right amount of smudged beats and hazy synths. Yes, the Weeknd makes dark and unsparing music, but try tearing yourself away. Free album downloads are over at the-weeknd.com. Corey Beasley
Over the past few years, Annie Clark, the artist known as St. Vincent, has achieved the level of universal professional success that indie musicians aspire to: critical accolades, an adoring fan base, and high-profile festival appearances, combined with the professional respect of her peers fueled by continuous collaboration. Annie is a success story of our times: a product of an indie culture, getting her initial start as a touring member of the Polyphonic Spree and Sufjan Stevens’ band, she has collaborated with musicians ranging from Bon Iver to Beck to Kid Cudi to the Liars. Her work has always had a kid in the candy store quality, a seemingly endless range of influences revealing something new on subsequent listens.
2011 saw her winning just accolades for her third album, Strange Mercy. While comfortable with her growing acclaim, Annie seems likely to continue to challenge herself and her fans by continuing to push musical boundaries. She taps into an extensive and broadening set of skills: an exquisite singer/songwriter and lyricist, a skilled arranger and collaborator exhibiting command of a broad range of instruments, and a virtuoustic guitar player known for stealing the show with expansive live solos. Strange Mercy deploys rich arrangements that incorporate strings and woodwinds with guitar riffs to create an album replete with sonic contrasts. Take “Cruel” which meshes in lush soundscapes at home in an Hollywood classic with soaring vocals, and catchy fuzz guitar-driven main theme. The album contains tracks such as “Cheerleader”, “Surgeon”, and “Champagne Year”, which are among her most personal to date. As a live performer, she keeps listeners on edge, with performances that are both exhilarating and unsettling, the sweetness and light of her vocals contrasting with dark moody arrangements and sudden shifts which replicate the ever shifting moods at play in her work, the dichotomy between reason and emotion, the tension between clarity and madness.
Clark as artist of the year for her substantial artistic achievements as well as for what she represents, an indie musician who in the wake of broadening acclaim, continues to forge ahead with innovative work that continues to infuse an avant garde spirit into an increasingly staid indie rock genre. Dennis Shin
There are two types of musicians: those that play what people want to hear, and those that play what they hear themselves. 2011 proved Justin Vernon to be the ringleader of that second group. It would have been safe, easy and popular to replicate the magic of For Emma, Forever Ago. Instead, Vernon created an album bolder, more ambitious and true to his artistic vision. Calling Bon Iver, Bon Iver a good album is like calling The Godfather a good film, or Sidney Crosby a good hockey player. It’s understatement squared. It’s subtlety teetering on insult. Those things don’t simply exist in their respective environments, they go above and beyond to shape and form that environment’s potential. Arguing Bon Iver as the artist of the year is inextricably linked with arguing Bon Iver the album of the year. The man and the music are one and the same. There isn’t a notebook of safe plays that advocates harnessing your inner Bruce Hornsby, but Vernon still wrote “Beth/Rest” Korg keyboard and all. There’s no “Skinny Love” or “Blood Bank”, but there is a “Holocene” and “Perth” and by the inevitable 100th listen, that’s obviously a good thing. The album once again calls into question the idea of replicating sound to satisfy the bottom-line. In an era where commercial success depends on successfully mimicking old sounds, Justin Vernon and Bon Iver remain a bastion of artistic individualism. Jeb Inge
It’s really easy to forget that Adele‘s landmark 2011 is really because of two songs: “Rolling in the Deep” and “Someone Like You”. The former proved to be one of those ubiquitous “Since U Been Gone”-styled numbers that, with its primitive drumming and light acoustic riffs, transcended genre boundaries (hell, it began creeping up the Latin charts for no discernable reason) and managed to sound fresh, effortless, and classic all at once. Then, in the midst of the overblown Technicolor spectacle of this year’s MTV Video Music Awards, she went on stage with only a piano to back her and belted out the closing track to her new disc 21: the solemn, haunting “Someone Like You”. Without any gimmick to aide her, her raw talent was the highlight of the night. Both songs topped the charts. 21 sold 4 million albums in the course of this year, more than doubling that of the year’s second best-selling album, Lady Gaga’s Born This Way. Nothing—not her stage fright, her vocal surgery, or her cancelled tour dates—could keep her down. Who knew that all we needed this year was a young UK songbird whose plainspoken tales of heartbreak resonated with everyone the world over? Evan Sawdey