It has been every year since '55. Towards the end of the arbitrary period, a year, just 365 days, I try to buy the year end issue of Billboard and whatever other periodical has a good year in review issue. In some years, it was also Cashbox, Record World, and Radio and Records, and the Village Voice's "Pazz and Jop" issue, and some British music publication--Uncut, Q, or Mojo. Lately, for the last few years at least, it has been harder and harder to find Billboard, while many of the other American competitors have dropped away altogether.
The adventure of finding Billboard, has been almost as exciting as reading the year end issue; when it is ultimately found, it is almost anti-climatic. This year the adventure included a number of calls to the reduced number of book stores, and newsstands, a few false leads and wasted trips, which were not entirely wasted because of the nice helpful people I met along the way. And ultimately there was success, at an out-of-the-way newsstand that is barely surviving sitting almost undercover in a well-traveled part of town.
And there it was--a big glossy oversized reality in a declining world of print media, when we have many other less physical outlets for satisfying our year end fix. It has become glossier in design and taste and more pop-oriented in an effort to attract more of a crowd in this dying ember of printed time. And so on the tale goes, the adventure of fighting the growing receding distance of the printed page in the physical world as parts of the real world fade away teetering on the virtual brink of extinction with nary a crutch holding it up and alive for another year. On the other hand, some things have gotten better in this era of virtual reality. I used to have to stay up on new year's eve or new year's day to hear the top 40 or top 100 on the radio--now the top songs of the year seem always available as they stream endlessly on Internet.
So, into the abyss of another year past we go, and with it we take the sounds and themes to mark it and commemorate it that may reappear in later years to rediscover. Every year and it's music has its own adventure and character. And this year is no different, even though the music industry has also been falling away and in decline, and the streaming world is bulking up in new sounds, new mashing, new mixes, new genres, and rediscovering some of the old and weathered sounds too. So this year was a mixture of the past, present, and a mashing view of the future, in this remarkable, swirling cauldron of sights and sounds. The NY Times called it a year "when rock just spun its wheels," but it continued to dazzle and reinvent itself in new and interesting ways, even while the business model of music kept out of sight.
Timeless and floating to the top was the delightfully voiced, Adele, with her prime "21" cuts of a fine British voice reinterpreting American blue-eyed, and soft and velvety sounding soul. Her confections like the never-tiring "Rolling In The Deep" are a very pleasant almagm of new and old sounds that always sound fresh out of the box, standing alone ahead of her imitators. And then there is Birdie, a possible British imitator who covers sounds of newies and oldies, such as the luscious "Skinny Love" in another soft-soaked approach that also engages you in the fresh and deep. Florence and The Machine had a successful follow-up album "Ceremonials," which was a timeless wonder that should expand her audiences.
Almost as long as I have been searching for Billboard, there has been the lost tapes of the Beach Boys, which finally came together in the release of the legendary "Smile," which is dated in the late 60s but sounds fresh and traditional with the still-experimental mixing of voices and sounds. The past also came up in Paul Simon's "So Beautiful or What" which consisted of finely-crafted, tuneful songs that fell pleasantly on the ears in a worldly wise way. For more timeless classics, we got a new/old entry from Tom Waits, "Bad As Me," celebrating the seamy underside of life in decline, and Steve Cropper, celebrating the music of the 50s Five Royales in "Dedicated." There were also the perennial pop country sounds of Miranda Lambert, and Pistol Annies, her harmonious side project, and Lady Antebellum, which contributed "Need You Now" as one of this year's anthems for capturing the loneliness or desperation of life extremely well as rock once did.
Leaving shades of the past behind, we are well tuned to the year 2011 with the adventurous sound of TUnE-yArDs or Merrill Garbus with "w h o k i l l." Her war painted-faced music has its unexpected starts and rough spots of sound collages that flow or are shaped in a fluid junkyard-like manner, unleashed in a world of sound of afrobeats and percussion of all kinds, and varied voices, which alternately croon, chirp, and yelp in raw emotion to pointed and often sophisticated lyrics. It's both a strange and warm, alien and native sound. There was also an auspicious debut from budding starlet Lana Del Ray, who had the jewel of sexiness, "Video Games." Another interesting new styled entry is from Mexican singer, Ximena Sariñana, whose first English-language eponymous effort comes less than three years after her Spanish-language debut, and unlike many crossover attempts, little is lost in the translation, and she contributes a quirky and bouncy talent, mixing pop and indie forms seamlessly. There were also impressive outings from PJ Harvey, with "Let England Shake," M83 with the value-packed "Hurry Up we're Dreaming," Coldplay's "Mylo Xyloto," James Blake's eponymous album, Foster the People "Pumped Up Kicks," and Girls's ambitious "Listen to Father, Son, Holy Ghost."
The sounds of 2011 further soften with Bon Iver whose also eponymous album sounded a lushly sweet note for the year. A group of folk-oriented groups also really impressed this year--led by the breakthrough effort by Laura Marling - "A Creature I Don't Know," the follow up by Fleet Foxes -"Helplessness Blues," The Decemberists – "The King Is Dead," The War on Drugs- "Slave Ambient," Smoke Fairies- "Through Low Light and Trees," Wailin' Jennies- "Bright Morning Stars," and Gillian Welch's- "From the Harrow and the Harvest."
Also deserving of honorable mention are the following: Feist- “Metals,” Shabazz Palaces- “Black Up,” Eleanor Friedberger- “Last Summer,” Real Estate- “Days,” and St. Vincent- "Strange Mercy."
And so another year end in review closes out as we lurch forward into the world of musical discovery already in progress. I continue to look for artistic genre bending and found some in the music of Gabriel Prokofiev, and in the delicious mixture of world and classical sounds in "Chamber Music," from Malian kora player Ballake Sissoko and French cellist Vincent Segal. I also found the mixing in a top 100 list from jazz writer, Ted Gioia, which bends and brakes and crosses the genres. It is at: http://tedgioia.com/100best2011.html He sums up the year as "[e]ven as music becomes more omnipresent and accessible, new barriers prevent listeners from hearing the most talented and creative artists." It is a good place to stop and put a bookmark in the year for future ease of finding.