To look forward we must first look back…
…Back to 2010. Based on the success and failures, the hype and thus inevitable underwhelm, Pitchfork 10.0s and Internet buzz - we can better understand and predict the coming months ahead. The trends and patterns that dominated 2010 will surely continue into 2011, and will shape the year to come for better or for worse.
Rewind: With all things considered 2010 was not a standout year for music. It was a year that saw two extremely anticipated sophomore releases (Contra and Congratulations) crumble in the face of the gargantuan critic that is the blogosphere, and a year that saw the iconic and unprecedented “We Are The World” remade into a bland, characterless and auto-tuned pastiche. It was one of the worst years for album sales in recent history, and the first time ever that overall music sales (digital tracks, CD, LP and cassette) declined.
No, 2010 was not a stellar year for music by anybody’s account, and the omnipresence of blogs has led to a more cynical and bitter population that revels in trivializing any artistic expression using half-understood pop psychology as a tool. But only a contemptuous misanthropist could go through a full 12 months without finding anything of aural merit. And 2010 had some very redeeming qualities.
It was a year that solidified Arcade Fire’s position in the history of music, and a year that saw the Fab Four’s entire discography released digitally for the first time.
2010 was also a year that saw Michael Jackson’s title as the “King of Pop” challenged, and the first time in 8 years that Pitchfork gave out a 10.0 to a new release – it so happens that both of these achievements can be claimed by an individual who does not need an ego boost.
Fast Forward: 2011 is going to be a huge year in music. Huge. With the much anticipated debut from London-wunderkind, James Blake; a collaboration between the kings of hip hop, Kanye West and Jay-Z; expected releases from Coldplay, Dr. Dre and the Foo Fighters; firm rumors from U2, R.E.M., The Beastie Boys and The Cars (what decade is this again?), there truly will be something for audiophiles of every taste. And that’s not to mention the fact that both The Strokes and Radiohead are presumably putting out their 4th and 8th albums (respectively). Yes it’s going to be a huge year.
Can Kanye Do It Again?
Thank god for Kanye West. Sure, he is rude and arrogant, but imagine how dull the music scene would be without him. We need over-the-top and exaggerated caricatures to give us an escape from the dull ennui of pre-packaged, consumerist middle class life. His gestures are so destructive, romantic and grand (like jumping into a swimming pool wearing a tuxedo) that you can’t help but think that self-sabotage is his ultimate pursuit. Regardless of that, Kanye owned 2010 – there is no denying it. The herculean juggernaut that is My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy not only garnered West the utmost respect from critics who had previously written him off as a colorful cliché, but it overshadowed his previous sins (sorry Taylor). And Kanye’s reign is far from over. His upcoming collaboration with Jay-Z, Watch The Throne, is one of the most anticipated releases of the year, and it will surely aid Kanye on his quest of being “the greatest artist of all time.”
Indie Heavyweights Will Dominate
Indie is dead. Finished. Now that major record labels (iTunes included) are marketing artists as “indie,” in an attempt to latch on to the burgeoning movement, the term has become meaningless. With that said, many so-called indie veterans are releasing albums in 2011, and are eager to lose the now-unfortunately-corporate moniker. With a stronger focus on vocals and lyricism, Death Cab For Cutie’s seventh studio album, Codes And Keys, will be a more mature and vulnerable release. Ben Gibbard has called the record “achingly gorgeous,” and as long as it veers away from the dark self-loathing of 2008’s Narrow Stairs, it will be one of the year’s more important releases. The Decemberists’ last record was a clumsy, long and overly ambitious concept album that failed to find a demographic. Learning from their mistakes, the Portland 5-piece promises a hook-heavy, Smiths and R.E.M inspired 6th album. The King Is Dead was recorded entirely in a converted farmhouse, which explains the album’s apparent “rustic” sound. After releasing one of the best albums of 2008, Fleet Foxes essentially dropped off of the musical radar. But expect their return in 2011, where their “less-poppy” yet still much-hyped 2nd album will either fall victim to the ‘sophomore slump’ or overcome, and be among the best of year.
The Holy Trinity of Fem-Pop
Love to hate them, hate to love them, pretend to hate them but actually have a secret drawer dedicated to their memorabilia…No matter what your stance on female pop these days, nobody can deny the musical and social pertinence all three of the following women have on contemporary society. Britney Spears, Beyonce and Lady Gaga all have 2011 release dates, which means fierce competition between these pop divas. Lady Gaga has a slight advantage, with The Fame Monster being the best selling record of 2010 (even though it was actually an EP). And the world will surely go gaga again, for 2011’s Born This Way. Gaga is calling her sophomore release "a marriage of electronic music with major, epic, dare I even say, metal or rock 'n' roll, pop, anthemic style melodies with really sledge-hammering dance beats." Wow. Will Gaga rule the pop charts of 2011? Probably. Will the album be of any substance? Probably not. But that hasn’t stopped the superstar from calling Born This Way “the greatest album of this decade.” Despite a breakdown of Biblical proportions, Britney Spears is back in the studio and working on her seventh album. Having already released the first single to the upcoming album, Spears seems back on form; that’s assuming she can make it through the year without shaving her head. We have been given very few details regarding the release of Beyonce’s fourth album. All we know is that producer Sean Garrett has called it her “biggest album ever.” Expect great things.
Fat Possums Have Never Looked Better
Oh the struggles of being an independent record label in this day and age. With the power and omnipresence of iTunes monopolizing the record industry, it’s damn hard for the little guy to keep up. The Mississippi based, Fat Possum Records, are among many independent labels helping to localize and personalize the contemporary music scene. All the more power to them. 2010 was a big year for Fat Possum, with excellent releases from The Walkmen, Wavves and The Black Keys. But they also suffered the death of garage rock icon Jay Reatard, and were victim to the aforesaid slump in album sales. But things are looking up. 2011 will see this large rodent revel in success – both critical and commercial. Two January releases will help Fat Possum start the year in top shape. Tennis, following in the tradition of Mates of State and Arcade Fire, is composed of newly weds who’s eight month nautical sojourn, has resulted in an album of charming, tropic and effervescent beach-pop. Evoking the warped nostalgia of long summer days, Cape Dory is the year’s most anticipated debut. Smith Westerns burst onto the music scene with the subtlety of a foghorn, and their 2009 eponymous debut displayed lo-fi rock at its finest. For their sophomore release, Dye It Blonde, the Chicago quartet are stepping out of the garage and into the studio. With a self-described “poppy and catchy” sound, the album could expand the band’s listenership and solidify their position as first-rate purveyors of noise.
The Rise of the Machines
As technology advances, so do the possibilities of musical opportunism. Success is no longer dependent on your guitar or vocal ability. Now, all you need is a laptop and a reclusive lifestyle. By relying so heavily on machines to produce artistic expression, we are inadvertently accelerating the rate of obsolescence. Human obsolescence. James Blake, a London-based producer, perfectly captures the digitalized zeitgeist. Last year, he released three EPs, each of which mutates and transforms conventional electronic music in a different way. Originally a dubstep producer, Blake incorporates aspects of dub into his music in an unprecedented manner. The mystique surrounding this young prodigy almost surpasses the hype for his debut LP. An early album of the year contender? Why not. Anthony Gonzalez, the French mastermind behind the shoegaze outfit M83, announced that his 6th album is going to be “very, very, very epic.” He had me at the second ‘very.’ Gonzalez creates electronic and ambient sounds that inhabit a strange cosmic sector of the musical stratosphere, and this “darker” release will see him explore new ground. Games, a collaboration between Daniel Lopatin (Oneohtrix Point Never) and Joel Ford (Tigercity), employs antiquated production techniques to create a surprisingly relevant albeit nostalgic sound. Their foray into the electronica world of pinball machines, TV soundtracks, Atari and disco is authentic to say the least. Using an extensive arsenal of analog synthesizers, Games are committed to recreating the gaudy yet evocative sounds of the ‘80s. And their yet-to-be-titled debut could be one of the year’s biggest surprises.
And Chillwave Hasn’t Gloriously Imploded Yet
Remember chillwave? Maybe not. The warped and nostalgic bedroom movement that started as a taxonomist’s tool to describe cassette-recorded sounds of the past, quickly established itself as a legitimate genre (you can find chillwave on iTunes), and then disappeared as quietly as it came. The buzz surrounding the genre has died down significantly, but the remnants of chillwave will surely influence multi-instrumentalists for years to come. If there’s one artist that’s likely to withstand the fallout and backlash of the misguided chillwave movement, it’s Toro Y Moi – the stage name of Chazwick Bundick. Chaz helped found the genre with his arrestingly evocative debut, Causers of This. Opting for a studio setting instead of a laptop, Bundick’s sophomore record, Underneath the Pine, is reportedly “less chill and more funk,” and will determine whether Toro Y Moi can transcend its chillwave roots. 2010 was also known as the post-Merriweather Post Pavilion year. Animal Collective, who completely dominated 2009, has kept out of the limelight since then. One-third of the group, Noah Lennox (better known by his stage name Panda Bear), has helped ease our AnCo withdrawals, with reports of a follow-up to the phenomenal Person Pitch. Panda Bear’s fourth album now has a release date and a name: Tomboy. With a heavier focus on instrumentation rather than loops, and influence from Nirvana, the record could easily end up being Lennox’s Nevermind - In other words, career defining.
The Year of the Rabbit The Strokes
What can I say about The Strokes that hasn’t already been said before? I could call them "the forefathers of a bold new era in rock," or "the second coming of The Velvet Underground," or even pull out superlatives and go as far as "the greatest rock band since the Rolling Stones" - but all that has already been said. The New Yorkers’ debut was awarded the “album of the decade” title by NME, and they have been called the “most important act of our generation.” It’s funny to think it has been 10 years since Is This It, and five years since the band’s last release; yet The Strokes seem as relevant as ever. Hype really does lend itself to longevity. For the last few years, rumors of The Stroke’s fourth album have floated around in the backwaters of the Internet, but now Julian Casablancas confirmed (via Twitter) that the album is finished and will be released this year. The fact is The Strokes were the most important artist of the past decade. They didn’t just capture a current zeitgeist – they defined a generation. But the questions remains: is there any room for unabashed rock in the music landscape of today? We now have machines instead of instruments; producers in lieu of performers, and the blogosphere taking the place of old fashioned print magazines. So do we have room for The Strokes? I certainly hope so. Long live the kings of modern rock ‘n’ roll. Long live The Strokes.
So there it is, 2011. Let’s hope it’s a good one, because if the Mayans were right, it could be the last year of music; let alone the human race.
NOTE: I do not take any responsibility for the quality of any of these upcoming releases. These albums are anticipated, not recommended, and if they fail to live up to expectations please don’t blame me.