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PopMatters Picks: The Best Music of 2011

Up in clouds and flowing through streams, the music of 2011, in its variety and sheer volume, was hard to get a handle on. Social networking and consumer technology are taking our experience of music for a ride to who knows where, but the possibilities explored this year proved that it’s worth going with the flow even if we’re not sure where we’re headed and when we’ll get there.

End-of-the-year recaps are supposed to provide closure for the prior 12 months, but 2011 isn’t one of those years you can sum up easily. That’s because 2011 feels like a transitional stage to something else: it’s hard to figure out even now whether 2011 went by like a blur or it kept you waiting for something big to happen that never materialized. Part of that uncertain feeling is due to music being all over the map this past year, with all the variety generally being a good thing, but little of it being transcendent or essential listening for audiences across genres. But the bigger factor as to why 2011 was so hard to pin down has to do with how the ways we consume and experience music have been changing before our very eyes and ears. With the introduction of Spotify to the U.S., the unveiling of competing Amazon, iTunes, and Google cloud services, and the increasing influence of social networking, music has become easier to incorporate into our lives—and yet it has also become harder to make sense of the information overload, much less get the most out of it. Of course, music’s digital revolution is not a totally new phenomenon, but the pace and intensity of what’s happening now does seem unprecedented.

So while less is by no means more, it’s not obvious, on the other hand, that more options and more product are intrinsically a better thing when it comes to appreciating music and, relatedly, making it. It felt like the record release schedule turned over faster than ever in 2011, spinning almost out of control with the proliferation of leaks and pre-release exclusives that make new albums seem like they’re past their expiration date when they actually hit the virtual shelves. While new recordings by bands like, say, TV on the Radio and the Strokes were cultural events not so long ago, now they’re just one week’s—then last week’s—sneak peaks on NPR’s “First Listen” series. Whether or not albums don’t stick based on their own merits is one thing, but the nature of promotion and how consumers follow that lead are definitely factors in the ways we now feel about music. Although our relationship with music might be more immersive and fully integrated than before, that connection is also becoming less tangible and more abstract, floating in clouds and flowing through torrents and streams to mobile devices and new technologies that can sometimes require more energy and attention to update than the musical files they contain. Maybe there’s not much actual difference between what’s imprinted on a CD and what’s downloaded from iTunes or streamed to your Android phone, except there just seems to be a big difference when you feel like you have less and less ownership over music these days. This is not to say that one kind of experience is necessarily better or worse, or has more pros or more cons—it’s just that something that’s becoming so different from what we’re used to takes some, well, getting used to.

Even as an entire infrastructure is transforming for labels, artists, audiences, and critics alike, talk of the music industry’s demise with the advent of more outlets to obtain music—legally or otherwise—appears to be greatly exaggerated, with record sales up overall for the year. Then again, who knows what the future holds, since those numbers might be fudged by the industry trying to game the system, as even cult acts have gained Billboard placement thanks to bargain-bin pricing upon release. The most notorious and blatant attempt to gerrymander the charts was, of course, Amazon hawking Lady Gaga’s Born This Way for 99 cents for a few days after it first came out, an attention-grabbing stunt that only led to the much-awaited album pissing off almost everyone in the biz, stagnating in the marketplace, and becoming a musical afterthought as folks just went back to Adele after grabbing Born This Way on the cheap. If Gaga represented music in 2011 in any way, it’s that she stoked anticipation and generated unmatched hype, but had almost no staying power. The whole affair was symptomatic of a side to music culture that’s become excessive and supersized, with seemingly every talked-about new title available in exclusive versions as a special deal on iTunes or Amazon or at Target. Superultimate remastered boxsets of significant reissues are one thing, but re-packaging Yuck’s debut with bonus tracks and Bon Iver’s latest in a limited edition just months after initial release, no matter how well-received they were, is the definition of overkill.

Yet for every market-driven gimmick, there were intriguing attempts by artists to take advantage of what’s happening to create new business models for themselves. Radiohead, as you’d expect, kept doing things on its own terms, letting less than a week elapse between announcing The King of Limbs and self-releasing it online, though perhaps that’s not as radical a move as the name-your-own price deal with In Rainbows. Kanye and Jay-Z’s Watch the Throne project touted itself as leakproof, with the goal of keeping a vapor-locked lid on the album to allow all fans to have the same communal experience of hearing it for the first time on the day it went on sale—if you could only figure out when that was. And it wasn’t just the biggest acts with the luxury of doing things their own way who were trying to control the means of production and the creative process: One of the year’s most unlikely success stories, the Weeknd became an ubiquitous new media figure almost overnight by offering up mixtapes for free on his website, crashing servers thanks to old-fashioned word-of-mouth amplified by the new-fangled force multiplying effect of Twitter.

As to what all this means about the music itself, one way to look at things is that art and our reactions to it reflected our unsetting, befuddling—but also invigorating—times. It’s telling, for instance, that many of the entries on our most disappointing album list are works by some of the most acclaimed artists of the past couple of decades that happen to also appear on our best-of-2011 lists. If 2011 offers few easy answers, it does raise the big question as to whether our new modes of acquiring, listening to, and appreciating music are bringing audiences together or polarizing them. The power of social networking and the growing clout of music blogs suggest we could go either way: on the one hand, these forces have initiated engaged discussion and greater interaction with music, while, on the other, they’ve enflamed knee-jerk disses that calcified conventional wisdom before some artists and albums ever got a fair shake.

With PopMatters’ coverage of the best—and worst—of 2011, we’ve tried, of course, to aspire to the former rather than the latter, taking stock of as much of the ever-expanding, Internet-enabled musical universe as we can in thoughtful and thorough ways. Besides comprehensive lists of the top albums, singles, reissues, and artists of the year, our writing staff has given exposure to as many genres as possible, from the staples of hip hop, indie, and jazz to specializations like electronica and metal to oft overlooked categories such as world music and Americana. One undeniably positive aspect of the music world’s new normal is that even the most obscure niches have become more sustainable than before and not so beholden to the almighty marketplace because they’ve proven to be viable communities on their own. Take a look at the top of our genre lists and what you’ll notice more often than not are lesser known acts and emerging bands rather than the usual suspects, confirming the sense that 2011 was a year when artists were able to do what they did best and had the means, more than ever, to let folks know about it.

So while there’s not really a consensus set of top picks for 2011 like most years, what ultimately distinguishes this 12-month period is the excitement and sense of discovery you get from approaching uncertainty and change with a glass half-full mentality. On that score, chalk up a win for a year that went against the grain of orthodoxies that the artists with the best track records automatically made the most memorable records and commonplaces that there should be a best album whose place at the top of the charts can’t be disputed. Whether that means all the clouds, streams, and who knows what on the horizon are leading us to some musical experience that’s more inclusive and all-encompassing than we can now imagine or that they’re signaling that the listening public is fragmenting into post-Babel tribes is anyone’s guess. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t go along for the ride, even if we’re not sure exactly where it’s heading.

Arnold Pan

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Thursday, December 29 2011

The Best New and Emerging Artists of 2011

The year's best new and emerging artists range across the musical spectrum from forward thinking R&B to classic soul, from a bevy of exciting new hip-hop talent to great new hopes for indie rock and Americana. 2011 shows that music is always pushing forward even as it dips into the past.

Wednesday, December 28 2011

The 2011 Artists of the Year

This year's top artists are a diverse lot represented by two of the world's biggest pop divas, a plethora of critically adored indie faves, some new talents emerging from the hip-hop underground, a couple of veteran Americana acts, and a few alt-rock legends among many more.

Tuesday, December 27 2011

The 75 Best Songs of 2011

The year's best songs are headlined by an instant synth pop classic, the massive hitmaking of the planet's hottest new diva, the pristine harmonies of a young band headed for greatness, the return of the poster boys for indie rock, and an instant Americana classic.

Monday, December 26 2011

The 75 Best Albums of 2011

The year's best albums feature sophomore sets from two of indie's finest artists, a hardcore punk opera masterpiece, career highlights from four amazing women in the top 10 alone, new forward-thinking R&B and hip-hop, an electronic Big Album that shoots for the moon, and so much more.

Sunday, December 25 2011

The Best Metal of 2011

PopMatters’ staff of metal experts present their top picks from a year that offered a standout work of Christian “progressive death metalcore”, a philosophical treatise on “Transcendent Black Metal”, and one amazing debut.

Wednesday, December 21 2011

The Best Electronic Music of 2011

Our electronic music enthusiasts pick highlights from a year when the genre ranged widely and wildly from ADD dance music to the last great pure dubstep record to an industrial cacophony that's a proper soundtrack to a world in turmoil.

Tuesday, December 20 2011

The Best Indie Rock of 2011

A “Best of Indie Rock” list, by definition, will be an eclectic bunch. And the process of culling through what the genre had to offer is a task this year -- the indie world has had a banner 2011.

Monday, December 19 2011

The Best Americana of 2011

If you ask a critic or music fan to define Americana, be prepared for an avalanche of diverse responses of opinion. Still, there remain some constant benchmarks, such as pedal steel, fiddle, acoustic guitars -- and good songwriting.

Thursday, December 15 2011

The Best Women in Rock of 2011

In 2011, Tori Amos, Björk, and PJ Harvey turned the clock back to their mid-'90s heyday.

Wednesday, December 14 2011

The Best Alternative Songwriters of 2011

Some of 2011's best songwriting came from artists whose work could be broadly defined as "alternative". Few of these artists fit the mold of the traditional singer-songwriter, creating music the blurs the lines defining genres.

The Best Pop-Punk of 2011

It’s true, pop-punk is not dead. Far from it. And now is the perfect time to celebrate some of the best albums from a year that helped put the genre back on the map.

Tuesday, December 13 2011

The 20 Worst Albums of 2011

These artists didn't just disappoint, they offered up the listening public albums of utter awfulness across the board. Some of the acts just need to hang it up already, while others have made some sorry mis-steps here along the path of otherwise decent careers.

The Most Disappointing Albums of 2011

The selections on this list aren't necessarily bad albums -- some actually happen to be among the most critically acclaimed of this year. In some cases, it's just that the albums weren't what fans were expecting, and in others, they were exactly what they were expecting.

Monday, December 12 2011

The Best Hip-Hop of 2011

Newcomers, giants, throwbacks, and collaborators -- 2011 was the year of diversity, in which rap fans were faced with enough variety to find whatever flavor of hip-hop they wanted.

The Book of Mormon: Contemporary Christian Album of 2011

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Thursday, December 8 2011

The Best Rhythm and Blues of 2011

It's an interesting time to be a fan of R&B. These are commendable examples of artists continuing to push R&B into the 21st century, while also respecting and exploring its roots.

Wednesday, December 7 2011

The Best Jazz of 2011

Jazz is ready to go just about anywhere these days, and our list this year travels a good distance from free playing to fusion, controlled singing to daring solo piano.

The Best Producers of 2011

Noah "40" Shebib, Doc McKinney, and Illangelo provide a welcome reminder that a talented rapper or a gifted singer isn’t all it takes to create memorable, moving hip-hop or R&B.

Tuesday, December 6 2011

The Best Country Music of 2011

At first it seemed like an especially quiet year in country music, and in some ways it might have been. At the same time, country is country: it rolls on.

The Best Bluegrass of 2011

While last year was distinguished by a heavy dose of newgrass, jamgrass, and progressive bluegrass, 2011 was defined by a return to traditionalism.

Monday, December 5 2011

The Best Indie-Pop of 2011

Perhaps some of the bands on this list aren’t indie-pop in a literal way, but they most definitely are in heredity, influence, or spirit. They prove that our most interesting musicians can express themselves within the essential form of a pop song, while also changing how we think about songs and what they do to us.

The Best Canadian Albums of 2011

Canadians seeking to understand the identity crisis which plagues the Great White North need look no further than the musical class of 2011.

Thursday, December 1 2011

The Best World Music of 2011

The best of this year's world music proves there's energy surging everywhere around music, this human-made fight to find an approximation of the inexpressible.

Wednesday, November 30 2011

The Best Progressive Rock of 2011

In 2011, there were only a few high-quality progressive rock releases, but those that managed to stand out are some of the best the genre has seen in awhile.

The 25 Best Re-Issues of 2011

The year's best reissues are highlighted by a massive re-issue campaign for the kings of English prog rock, a soul giant, and the masterwork of one of America's finest ever pop bands.

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