The year of no Important Albums (and many Good Records)
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For those of us who enjoy year-end pop-culture lists and believe they provide something valuable—a safe haven for fun and ultimately harmless debates outside the more troublesome penumbra of politics and religion—the pleasure won’t end once 2012 begins in a few weeks. In mid-January, the Village Voice will publish the final and definitive word on the best music of 2011 with its annual Pazz & Jop list, which polls more than 1,500 critics in order to tabulate the most-loved albums and songs of the previous 12 months. Pazz & Jop is the closest thing to a consensus-measure that exists in pop music criticism—which should be doubly interesting this year, since there doesn’t seem to be much consensus.
Going into December, I was betting on Bon Iver’s Bon Iver to be the most popular No. 1 choice among major American music publications, similar to how Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy dominated best-of lists in 2010, and Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavilion curried critical favor in 2009. Bon Iver received rapturous reviews when it came out in June, and the band’s frontman Justin Vernon was a constant presence on magazine covers and late-night talk shows. Bon Iver’s recent gaggle of Grammy nominations seemed to cinch 2011 as the band’s breakout year. And, more than anything else, it was a really good record that a lot of people seemed to like.
Bon Iver appeared on numerous lists, but only topped two by prominent outlets, Pitchfork and Paste. Rolling Stone and Spin didn’t even put Bon Iver in their Top 10s; for their No. 1 choices, they opted for Adele’s 21 and Fucked Up’s David Comes To Life, respectively. The Bon Iver record came in at No. 3 on the A.V. Club’s list, but our music writers voted Wye Oak’s Civilian—which didn’t even rank for Rolling Stone, Spin, and Pitchfork—as the year’s best. But while Wye Oak won our top spot handily, beating out Fucked Up at No. 2 by a wide 14-point margin, Civilian appeared on fewer than half of our voters’ ballots. In all, 16 A.V. Club writers picked 16 different records as their top favorite.
Which isn’t all that unusual, really, for us or other publications. In a normal year, institutional lists tend to look pretty similar to each other, which irritates some music fans but is really just an unfortunate byproduct of the democratic process. Writers with singular tastes compile institutional lists, but in the end, only the albums with broad fan bases rise to the top, pushing everything else to the fringes.
This year, the gap between the albums with wide bases of support and the stuff on the fringes contracted a bit. Surveying 2011 best-of lists, there are lots of different artists milling around near the top. In addition to the people already mentioned, there’s PJ Harvey, Girls, Destroyer, Tune-Yards, St. Vincent, M83, Jay-Z and Kanye West, Kurt Vile, Fleet Foxes, EMA, Drake, The Weeknd, James Blake, Das Racist, The Decemberists, and Wild Flag, among others. There seems to be a fair amount of agreement on what the 25 or 50 best records of the year are, but none about the absolute best of the best.
I’d argue that’s a good thing. And it seems appropriate considering one of the year’s biggest music stories is the proliferation of “cloud”-based streaming services like Spotify and Rdio that allow listeners to hear practically every new album for a nominal subscription fee. Now, more than ever, everybody is a critic—or has the capacity to listen to music like a critic. If finding new releases is easier than ever, which presumably means people are listening to a wider range of new music, then why shouldn’t year-end lists be a little more diluted? Except I’m not sure that the same thing will happen next year. I think there’s another reason for the lack of consensus in 2011, and it goes beyond changes in technology.
There weren’t any Important Albums.
What’s an Important Album? It’s an album that is perceived to be a momentous work of ambition, invention, and high artistic credibility before it is released, and then proves to actually be so, planting itself in a highly visible place in the culture and acting as a signifier for the year in retrospect. It's the one album you can't avoid hearing about at the end of the year to an almost annoying degree; "Important" in this context can be taken to mean "legitimately great" or "incredibly gas-baggy." But either way, an Important Album stands apart from the pack as a year-defining work.
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Merriweather Post Pavilion were Important Albums. I liked a lot of albums this year—I made a Top 50 list with a dozen or so favorites to spare—but I can’t think of one that was an Important Album.
Not that there weren’t candidates along the way. Anything Radiohead puts out gets default Important Album status, but the aggressively low-key The King Of Limbs seemed to consciously shy away from those kinds of expectations. Lady Gaga spent nearly a year promoting Born This Way, promising an ’80s-style mega-selling blockbuster that crossed Like A Prayer with Hysteria. The media aided and abetted the PR bonanza with wall-to-wall pre-release coverage, but nearly a fifth of the album’s sales came from a 99-cent fire sale on Amazon that wouldn’t count under Billboard’s new accounting rules (which were changed because of Born This Way). Jay-Z and Kanye West garnered similar hype this summer with Watch The Throne, but the reviews were mixed and even toxic in some places, and it probably won’t be placed among the best things either of its creators have ever done. (Though I personally like it quite a bit.)
Considering the press it received, Bon Iver might appear to fit the Important Album bill. But a lot of the attention foisted on Vernon is still rooted in the romantic backstory of the first Bon Iver record, 2008’s For Emma, Forever Ago, which major media outlets finally had the chance to catch up on with the release of the second album. (For Emma is still superior in my mind.) PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake has its supporters, particularly in the U.K., but it seems destined to be more admired than liked. (At least that’s my view. I love PJ Harvey, but listening to Let England Shake felt like homework.)
Then there’s Adele, whose 21 was far and away the year’s most commercially successful album. 21 might be 2011’s most transcendent release, but in some ways it’s the antithesis of an Important Album. Its appeal for many listeners lies in its disconnection from current trends in pop music; it’s a conscious retreat from the here and now. If you can forget that “Rolling In The Deep” and “Someone Like You” stalked listeners from their car radios to shopping malls to sports arenas to Saturday Night Live, 21 is the kind of album fans can almost imagine belonging only to them, out of time and outside the noise of contemporary pop culture.
My No. 1 album of 2011, Real Estate’s Days, has a similar quality. Days is my favorite record of the year because I never tired of playing it. I can’t say it’s a game-changing album; it just didn’t leave my turntable for months. It’s what I’d call a Good Record—highly listenable and entertaining, but not terribly consequential in the greater cultural world. It didn’t seem like an all-time classic the minute I heard it, and I don’t think it will change the course of music or anything. But like many of my other 2011 favorites—like Bill Callahan’s Apocalypse or War On Drugs’ Slave Ambient or Mastodon’s The Hunter—it will probably get pulled off the shelf every couple of months for many years to come.
Music needs Important Albums, but in some ways I prefer Good Records. They’re a little more approachable, a lot less cumbersome, and there’s a certain comfiness to them. Good Records come in handy when you have an afternoon to kill, or a long drive to make. They’re familiar and yet eternally fresh in way that thoroughly hashed-out Important Albums sometimes aren’t. The one drawback of Good Records is they don’t mark time very well. When there are no Important Albums, how do you remember that year? Do you at all?