Category: Music

Best music of 2011: Final notes

This ends my series of posts about my favourite releases of last year. Yes, I’ve skipped over some great releases. Yes, I’ve mainly mentioned American bands and artists – even though I spent a large part of the year listening to music from other parts of the globe. Uncharacteristically, I’ve picked a lot of soul and R&B flavoured music – quite a contrast to the post-rock (hello Jonsi), garage (I’m talking to you Yeah Yeah Yeahs and the Dead Weather) and more political offerings (and there you are K’naan and MIA) that I have tended towards in recent years.

But in 2011 I was feeling different. My subconscious knew my heart needed music that would make it feel good – but in a really solid, long-lasting way that would stay with me, not like the quick burst of energy you get from a punk song or most pop music. So the 5 bands and artists I’ve mentioned over the series of posts were the best artists and bands for me in 2011.

And I think they’re all pretty damn brilliant.

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Best music of 2011: Adele

Adele is an incredibly rare commodity – a best-selling artist with jaw-dropping talent, a unique sound and unconventional style. Her voice could move mountains and I am convinced she could turn even the Australian tax legislation into a stirring chart-topper. She’s inspired by the great women of jazz – the kind of women who were singing in bars that they often, due to racial and sex discrimination, weren’t allowed to drink in – and exudes this kind of chutzpah herself – having the confidence to squarely reject the unwritten law that all women be size 6, regardless of their other life priorities, famously saying “I don’t want to be on the cover of Playboy or Vogue. I want to be on the cover of Rolling Stone or Q. I’d rather weigh a ton and make an amazing album than look like Nicole Richie and do a shit album.”

In writing this, I have to pay tribute to the late, and incredibly great, Amy Winehouse, whose equally unique talent, sound and style created a business case for record companies to take on singers like Adele. Together, these singers have introduced a new generation to a jazz-soul sound that is a million miles away from the same-same albums they tend to share the charts with.

Everyone has heard the singles from her powerful January release, 21, by now. So my pick is a gorgeous southern-American b-side that, counter-intuitive as it is, leaves you longing to feel desperately and hopelessly in love in a Louisiana dust bowl.

Best music of 2011: Bon Iver

I love Bon Iver. I listened to their last album and EP several times a week for about a year and would have kept going had my colleagues not staged an intervention. In the opening scene of High Fidelity, John Cusack’s character asks us:

“What came first, the music or the misery? People worry about kids playing with guns, or watching violent videos, that some sort of culture of violence will take them over. Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands, literally thousands of songs about heartbreak, rejection, pain, misery and loss. Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?”

I concluded that, in my case, perhaps it was the latter and prescribed myself a healthy dose of MIA and Kitty, Daisy and Lewis to pick myself back up.

But times have changed. No longer is Justin Vernon, the singer from Bon Iver, writing music about the love who broke his heart from his self-prescribed solitary confinement in a log cabin in Wisconsin (indeed given how romantic those songs and the story of the album was, I wouldn’t expect that the singer will ever find himself unloved again).

The song I have picked from the new album makes your heart swell, unlocking that sense of anticipation you had in your youth about the future and about who you would become, and making you soar with inspiration to fulfil your younger self’s dreams – or to at least keep dreaming. As Justin Vernon’s angelic voice sings “I can see for miles miles miles”, you feel your eyes opening – seeing beauty in your world that you normally ignore as you go about your busy life, seeing the small but precious acts of love that people around you show you everyday but which normally go unacknowledged and seeing the person you could be if you believed in yourself a bit more, went a little further out of your comfort zone, allowed yourself to fail on the way to achieving your goals.

Don’t miss the video clip to this song. It is set in the incredibly diverse and awe-inspiring country of Iceland and showcases the country so well that it makes you feel that you are there with the angelic-looking adventurous child, the dramatic landscape and the isolation that has created one of the most independent-people groups on the planet. In fact, it’s the most well made marketing clip a country could hope for – I hope Brand USA is taking notes!

Best music of 2011: Raphael Saadiq

If you choose one unfamilar artist to get to know from last year, make it Raphael Saadiq. His album, Stone Rollin’, is the perfect party starter. It’s an incredibly tight set of Motown and soul flavoured tracks that just beg you to jump up off the couch. I actually think Raphael is more consistent than any of the 70s R&B artists other than perhaps the Jackson 5 – who will always fill the dance floor while I’m around.

Raphael’s a guy who has experienced some of the greatest pain life can present – losing several siblings at a young age in heart wrenching circumstances. The kind of tragedies that it’s impossible to make sense of. Rather than take us into his painful past, Raphael invites us on a journey of joy. He insists that we dance through the bad times as well as the good. Then finally, when we’re exhausted from the beat, there comes a rare moment when he opens up and shares a little of his story. He tells us that he survived his childhood because good people were looking out for him – teachers, preachers, warm-hearted folk – and he implores us to be one of those people – someone who would look out for a young Raphael, someone who may have a hand in helping a kid from the troubled side of town find their dream. “Stop saying the game is sold and not to be told. Try to help the child that’s only 4 years old. Why, why would you sit back and relax And watch the kids fall off the tracks?” It’s a question that we generally try to avoid, but Raphael asks it so tenderly and genuinely that it doesn’t feel confronting or uncomfortable – simply stirring.

Buy it, play it, dance. Let the infectious rhythm into your body and let Raphael’s closing challenge eat at your soul.

Caution – don’t watch this clip at work unless you’re prepared to see your colleagues bust some moves…

Best music of 2011: Lady Gaga

So I have to confess that I haven’t actually heard all of Lady Gaga’s album, Born This Way.  I tried to absorb the unreleased tracks on one or two of the 45 flights I took in 2011 but was inevitably seduced by Glee (where there’s singing AND dancing).

Regardless, for my money, the title track from this album is the best single of 2011.  It’s certainly not Gaga’s most original musical offering.  But that’s by-the-by really because what makes this song so seminal is that it is an anthem of acceptance.  No wait, THE anthem of acceptance.

Born this Way is a beacon of freak-flag-flying-light in the normally amoral pop culture world.  It’s a song for the kids who are different – certainly the LGBT youth (who, due to lack of acceptance and support, comprise an estimated 25% of the homeless youth population in NSW and are 3.5 to 14 times more likely to have attempted suicide than their hetero peers), but also everyone who doesn’t fit neatly into the box that their school, workplace, family sees as ideal and normal.  Against this backdrop, Born this Way takes us as we are and tells us we’re worthy, that we’re capable of handling every curve-ball that this life can throw at us.  And that’s what makes Lady Gaga a star whose legacy may well surpass all of the big names of the last generations.  Yeah, Madonna, MJ and Nirvana all created amazing music and influenced us significantly in different ways.  But no other act of that grandeur has, to my knowledge, consistently exuded, through music and marketing, a world-improving message as much as Lady Gaga.

Or arrived at the Grammys in a womb…

Best music of 2011: Alabama Shakes

My pick for the best new talent emerging from 2011 was the Alabama Shakes. The Shakes do this kind of southern almost gospel style jamming which you just can’t help but love.  The music soars because of the incredible vocals of lead singer, Brittany Howard, whose voice has hints of greats like Ella Fitzgerald, Bessie Smith, even Tina Turner.

But even more powerful than Howard’s voice is the passion which the whole band dedicates to the music. They are incredibly excited about playing together, so much so that, even though Howard works every Saturday morning at the US postal service (well until recently anyway – I think they’re busy nominated for awards and receiving tweets from Jamie Oliver nowadays), the Shakes manage to play weekend gigs right across Alabama and even in other states. This energy and joy is captured in the music in a way which, to me, really conveys those quintessential American traits – genuine self-belief, optimism and dedication to achieving dreams. It’s a feeling that I get in the US which disarms my natural cynicism and fills me with enthusiasm and motivation. And it’s how the Alabama Shakes’ debut EP makes me feel.

Expect to hear a lot about the band this year as they release their debut long-player in April.