PopMatters Picks: The Best Music of 2011

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