The 2011 Artists of the Year

Artist: M83

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M83

From the pulsating synth stabs of album opener “Intro” to the fading ambient tones and wandering piano lines of the closing “Outro”, M83’s Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming is an album tinged throughout with urgency and grandeur. It is Anthony Gonzalez’s magnum opus, an expansive double album in the age of digital downloads, and every single moment of its 74-minute running length feels absolutely vital. Even the one where the little girl tells a blissed out story about turning into a magic frog. There are many highlights here: the impassioned vocal interplay with guest Nika Danilova of Zola Jesus on “Intro”, the incessantly catchy refrain of the single “Midnight City” and the rising, swelling build of “Steve McQueen”, to name a few. But what sets Gonzalez apart from many of his contemporaries is his unwavering commitment to the aesthetic relevance of the album as art, and on Hurry Up We’re Dreaming, he solidifies his position as one of the contemporary masters of the form. Robert Alford

 

Artist: Gillian Welch

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Gillian Welch

In Richard Elliot’s review of Gillian Welch’s 2011 release The Harrow & The Harvest for PopMatters, he notes that the Americana that Welch does so well “embraces darkness alongside light, pain alongside joy, the briar as one with the rose, clear-eyed truth and hazy obfuscation”. All of these are true of Welch and her music, but perhaps one word distills all of those into an even truer fact of Welch: she is authentic. Welch inhabits her music with an authenticity that at once pays tribute to the artists who helped shape Americana into the music as it is now and distinguishes herself as a wholly outstanding songwriter.

Eight long years had passed since Welch (along with her longtime collaborator David Rawlings) had released a studio recording; yet, with The Harrow & The Harvest, it’s almost as if she never left. The album resonates in such a fashion that the feelings of longing seem as if they were never there. Welch’s presence is entrancing to the point that one just gets engrossed in the music and forgets everything else. In a time where culture always seems to be looking for the next best thing or the next biggest craze, it’s deeply refreshing to know that there are artists out there like Welch and Rawlings, who in their music don’t cling on to the past out of fear for the future, but instead remind us all that the past never leaves us. The past is present in every note played of every instrument, for music does not exist in a vacuum. The rich musical heritage and unique contemporary artistry found on The Harrow & The Harvest is a thing that few can do well, but Welch and Rawlings seem to do it near effortlessly. Brice Ezell

 

Artist: Fleet Foxes

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Fleet Foxes

The sophomore album, Helplessness Blues, from this Seattle group is already the subject of a great deal of mythology-making. It took a few years to record, with ideas being scrapped left, right and centre, cost the band $60,000 of their own money due to their insistence on perfectionism, got delayed numerous times as a result of that quest for perfectionism, and even caused a great deal of strain on frontman Robin Pecknold’s personal relationships, including one with his girlfriend. However, the end result is one of 2011 most breathtaking and arresting records, one that holds its own with the more upbeat 2008 eponymous album.

Quite simply put, Fleet Foxes have yet to release a bad song, let alone a terrible album (which is easy to say, granted, when you only have two records and an EP), and that categorically puts them on an indie rock pedestal as one of the most admired bands to make it out of 2011 in one piece, despite the tumultuous recording process. Helplessness Blues is simply a genius work of art from a band that is consistently evolving and honing its craft, and that alone makes Fleet Foxes worth celebrating — if not for the lesser to-be-lauded fact that they are, despite enduring the growing pains of recording a successful follow-up to a successful debut, still among us. With the unveiling of Helplessness Blues, Fleet Foxes, simply, deserve all the credit they can get. And that is credit much deserved. Zachary Houle

 

Artist: EMA

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EMA

I think by now we might have hit post-post-post-postmodernism, so how on earth do we have the breathtaking chutzpah to call anyone the “artist” of the “year”, am I right? As we can now register via the endless backtalk of the internet, anyone we pick would be viewed as both too safe and too out there, too reactionary and too radical, summing up a dozen scenes, themes, and trends that have run roughshod over the year and ignoring dozens more. In short, we’re very much damned if we do and damned if we don’t. But that means, of course, that anyone we pick for Artist of the Year in 2011 had better damn well be a passionate, confident choice. And quite frankly, whatever album winds up being my “favourite album of 2011” (an even more fraught, impossible category), I just can’t escape the feeling that Erika M. Anderson put her stamp on the year in the way the other artists and bands I loved didn’t, not quite. Past Life Martyred Saints and her other output sears and comforts in equal measures. As I said back in May, she’s made the kind of record that 2011 needed and deserved. Whether or not we appreciate it is our problem. Ian Mathers

 

Artist: Big K.R.I.T.

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Big K.R.I.T.

Big K.R.I.T. is something of an anomaly in hip-hop, a true renaissance man arriving at just the right time. His own music recalls the work of two legendary Southern duos, OutKast and UGK, which is made all the more impressive by the fact he writes the raps and makes the beats for nearly all of it while channeling the spirits of four distinct pioneers. But he’s also capable of branching out into nearly any other field, having spent 2011 not only creating PopMatter’s Hip-Hop Album of the Year but producing smoker’s anthems for Curren$y and Ludacris and Alley Boy’s “Rob Me a Nigga”, impersonating a president on CunninLynguist’s Oneirology and providing features to everyone from up and comers like the west coast’s Berner and Yelawolf’s cohort Rittz to veterans like Phonte and Pimp C. There were a few harder working artists in 2011, but none made their efforts count more than Big K.R.I.T. David Amidon

15 – 11

Artist: Kurt Vile

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Kurt Vile

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

 

Artist: Wild Flag

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Wild Flag

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

 

Artist: R.E.M.

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R.E.M.

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

 

Artist: Destroyer

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Destroyer

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

 

Artist: Lady Gaga

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Lady Gaga

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

10 – 6

Artist: The Del McCoury Band

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The Del McCoury Band

This year was a banner one for bluegrass’ finest band. Del McCoury and the boys, which include his son Ronnie (arguably the best mandolinist in American roots music right now) and his son Robbie (a gifted banjo player), kicked off the year in fine style with American Legacies, a rousing collaboration album with New Orleans’ famed Preservation Hall Jazz Band. That would have been enough of an achievement to be sure, as American Legacies blends traditional jazz with classic bluegrass to create a compelling new sound and is the finest Americana album of the year. Then the band went out on a lengthy tour both with Pres Hall and on their own, making appearances at Bonnaroo and the Austin City Limits Music Festival, as well as hosting their own annual DelFest festival.

Top cap things off, the Del McCoury Band recorded the best tribute album to bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe ever set to tape, Old Memories: The Songs of Bill Monroe. Monroe would have been 100 this year and McCoury earned his early stripes singing in Monroe’s band for a year in the ’60s before heading out on his own. The experience stamped that classic high tenor singing style on McCoury and informed his guitar playing. But what makes this band ultimately great is that they are no museum act, just trotting out old Monroe tunes playing them exactly like Bill. The band is rooted in that tradition, but they shake things up with clever collaborations, intriguing song selection, and a mastery of sound dynamics playing live that remind one of some of the world’s greatest classical string ensembles.

Sarah Zupko

 

Artist: PJ Harvey

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PJ Harvey

It’s been a hugely successful year for PJ Harvey, who in September became the first artist to win the Mercury Prize for the second time. While her album Let England Shake was unquestionably worthy of the award, it’s not just her newfound double Mercury winning status that makes her one of 2011’s standout artists. Let England Shake captures the year’s social and political climate better than any other recent album. And don’t let the title deceive you: Harvey’s commentary is globally relevant. On one level it’s an album of musical war poems, in which Harvey unflinchingly details horrors that remind us of the conflicts taking place right now. But it’s also a striking comment on the state of the world in a more general sense. The opening line of the title track — “The West’s Asleep” — pretty much sums up both PJ Harvey’s state of mind throughout this album, and the state of affairs today. Alan Ashton-Smith

 

Artist: tUnE-yArDs

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tUnE-yArDs

On the track “Killa” from 2011’s w h o k i l l, tUnE-yArDs‘ Merrill Garbus chants “I’m a new kind of woman / I’m a new kind of woman / I’m a don’t take shit from you kind of woman,” to the backdrop of a head nodding, Afro-beat inflected groove and it’s a statement that bears itself out through the course of this rollicking, confrontational and genre smashing album. And she’s a new kind of artist as well, looping and layering her own drum beats, ukulele lines and the powerful, dynamic force of her voice over the ever present funky and tight as hell bass lines of collaborator Nate Brenner to create songs that challenge listeners’ assumptions while remaining highly infectious and even danceable. With w h o k i l l, tUnE-yArDs has established a place for itself alongside other technically adept pop experimenters such as the Dirty Projectors and Battles, and Garbus has opened doors of creative potential by combining the possibilities of digital innovation with a musicianship and song craft that is often lacking in the contemporary era of processed and sequenced music. Rob Alford

 

Artist: Fucked Up

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Fucked Up

Toronto’s Fucked Up has always been a punk rock band through and through, but unlike pretty much every punk rock band ever, over the past four years they’ve displayed a predilection for tossing a little progressive/art rock bombast into their music, flying straight in the face of what’s perceived to be punk rock’s modus operandi. Which, when you think about it, is pretty damn punk rock of them. On the heels of a pair of sprawling albums in 2006’s Hidden World and 2009’s The Chemistry of Common Life, the band took their love of dinosaur rock even further, putting together a massive, four-part, honest-to-goodness rock opera in the tradition of Quadrophenia and The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. With a plotline that combined boy-meets-girl melodrama, politics, and an inspired second half turn towards the post-modern, David Comes to Life was a rare feat, an ambitious album that embraced classic rock ideas that didn’t come to the expense of the band’s punk integrity. Compared to the watered-down arena rock of corporate rock sellouts Green Day, Fucked Up combined two disparate genres gracefully and brilliantly, another career high point by the most exciting band in Canada. Adrien Begrand

 

Artist: Radiohead

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Radiohead

It goes without saying that it’s a really freaking big deal when Radiohead releases a new record. The anticipation leading up to each Radiohead album has been felt throughout the globe, with Internet leaks and pay-what-you-will price structures dominating the blogosphere. With the release of the band’s eighth LP The King of Limbs, though, the band managed to foil some of this expectation by announcing the record’s release only a few days in advance and then making it available on their website earlier than anticipated. When the album finally dropped, fans found that it lacked the innovation of Kid A, the political prescience of Hail to the Thief, or the clarity of In Rainbows. Instead, it was a relatively quiet, unassuming statement by one of today’s most important and consistently interesting musical acts. Radiohead’s incredible resilience is proven by the fact that they have been one of the most discussed bands of 2011, almost 20 years after the release of their debut LP. Even a humble, eight-track LP pushes the band back into the spotlight. Thom Yorke’s freak-out “Lotus Flower” dance video probably didn’t hurt the band’s hype factor either. Jason Adams

5 – 1

Artist: James Blake

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James Blake

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

 

Artist: The Weeknd

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The Weeknd

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

 

Artist: St. Vincent

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St. Vincent

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

 

Artist: Bon Iver

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Bon Iver

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

 

Artist: Adele

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Adele

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

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