Out on the edge : Music of 20XI
In a year where everyone was trying to go bigger, better, newer and even catchier than before, 2011 was left without a single uniting musical trend.
Instead, the majors seemed to be on an ever more blatant pursuit of the next hit, leaving many often reliable names with massively miscalculated flops as indie darlings continued to bubble along the peripheries.
There was of course one exception to this trend when one of 20X’s best singles suddenly propeled a big voiced and big bodied across the pond singer to universal acclaim among hipsters, R&B junkies, and desperate housewives alike.
Some called Adele’s 21 the break-up album of the year, others, a snooze, but at over 3 million in sales and 2 long-running number one singles,the one thing you should call 20XI’s most inescapable album is successful.
Adele’s success is all the more unexpected when we remember that this marked the year Lady Gaga released her much-hyped second official full-length LP and that Beyoncé and Lil Wayne returned from two of the longest hiatuses in their respective careers.
Gaga hoped to catwalk her meat dresses, armadillo shoes, 99 cent albums, and hover craft hats back to the top of the charts, but none of her gimmicks so far have been able to rescue Born This Way from its respectable but lower than predicted chart life following the inexplicable success of its title track and first single.
In 2011 the public saw past Gaga’s gimmicks and never really fell in line behind would-be dance floor ruler Beyoncé’s attempt at a more mature girl power anthem.
Instead, craving something simpler but infinitely more relatable than running the world or making out with a Biblical antihero, they gravitated towards a woman who doesn’t dance, wears simple black dresses in almost every appearance, and has no connection to RedOne or Max Martin.
Adele may be the year’s undisputed break out star, but she doesn’t have the zeitgeist defining single of 20XI.
That honour belongs to the aforementioned artist whose entire career is in diametric opposition to the British chanteuse’s – Lady Gaga.
Globally, 2011 was a year waiting for an event – a constant promise of things to come.
For two months, the people of Tunisia and Egypt waited for the fall of two debilitating decades-long regimes.
In Syria and Bahrain, as thousands die and claims of human rights abuses mount, the people are still waiting for change.
In business, the ever-present but rarely spoken questions about the future of a Jobs-less Apple went into warp speed when the prodigious CEO finally lost his battle to cancer.
In American politics, the public sits – whether in front of a TV or outside Zuccotti Park – and waits to see if Barack Obama can finally deliver on his much-hyped but rarely felt “Hope” and “Change” rhetoric.
Two years after the death of the King of Pop, the world is on the brink. From life in a country after the fall of a dictator, to the continual fight to bring forth the downfall of other despots, and even a once pre-dominant nation possibly on its last legs, the world lies in wait.
In 2011 the world was left on the edge. Of glory, that is.
Call your girlfriend, Robyn
What separates a good pop song from a great one is emotion. Whereas Katy Perry had a number one single with the emotional fortitude of that very “plastic bag” and the lyrical aptitude of a six-year-old playing dress up, Robyn always manages to bring real feeling and depth to the dance floor.
Even as one half of a cheating couple, she brings insight into the consequences of her own actions. “And it won‘t make sense right now, but you‘re still her friend” she sings. She may be instructing the man two-timing his lover with her, but the sweetness and care with which she guides the impending conversation shows maturity that in another life could have warmed even the jilted ex’s soon to be broken heart.
How to Love, Lil Wayne
From the sleazy - Lollipop - to the suggestive - Comfortable - the Weezy of Tha Carter III had spoken of women in the most sexualised ways. Three years later, backed by a sparse beat of finger snaps and an acoustic guitar, Wayne, sans R&B crooners or fellow emcees, re-emerges with what can only be described as a sympathetic street sonnet for a “precious” girl who “had a lot of moments that didn‘t last forever” at the hands of “crooks” incapable of treating her with the kind of care only Wayne can truly appreciate.
Heavy Metal Lover, Lady Gaga
Despite a title that is a complete misnomer, the booming and whirling electro beat, robotized vocals stacked on top of each other, and an “I want your whiskey mouth all over my blonde south,” opener all create a futuristic, almost gothic dance track that goes vigorously hard. Taken as a whole, each constantly moving part of this rare Born This Way standout sounds like the soundtrack to a grimy, drug-fueled party in an abandoned Munich garage full of the kinds of satanic automatons Gaga becomes on the album cover.
A Long Time (Chromeo Remix), Mayer Hawthorne
Madonna. Eminem. Stevie Wonder. Detroit is not a city in need of iconic musical talent, but it took a little-known smooth voiced R&B singer with no formal vocal training to create a spirited musical walk through the city’s history – including Berry Gordy and Henry Ford – and future “and we‘ll return it to its former glory, but it just takes so long” worthy of the home of the very Motown sounds critics and fans alike say Mayer Hawthorne manages to re-create so well.
Chamak Challo, Akon
Want to get parties in Bangalore and Brussels started? Play this.
End of Time, Beyoncé
Relying heavily on Major Lazer’s Pon De Floor, first single Run the World (Girls) should have been a bonafide dance floor banger, but even Beyoncé’s vocal prowess over an otherwise reliable club burning beat couldn’t detract from a blaze chorus, un-interesting lyrics and the overall repetitiveness of a track that adds up to little more than a screeching declaration of surface-level girl power. A single that should have gotten everyone on their feet with fists pumping and Louboutins pounding ultimately just left us all scratching our collective heads. Luckily for us, Diplo and Switch, with The-Dream along for the ride, redeemed themselves with a stomping marching band supporting Ms. Knowles’ simple yet compelling Afrobeat declaration of an undying love. The force displayed in Beyoncé’s fervent performance adds to the effect that this one-time independent woman has only four minutes to not only prove, but possibly save her love through dance.
What every James Bond theme should sound like.
Shake It Out, Florence + The Machine
The rare single that mixes the joy of the hopeful with the despair of the inevitable, the beauty of the sacred and the horrors of the profane with the kind of vocal delivery that could literally shake the ground beneath your feet and shatter stained glass depictions of Madonna and Child the world over.
Live Those Days Tonight, Friendly Fires
Nostalgia in the most spirited and danceable sense possible.
An effortless fusion of the staples of traditional Afghan music and of the moment Western Hip-Pop production earned Valy the title of the Afghan Justin Timberlake. Yar-e-Man finds the Afg JT returning to top form with the kind of Qataghani swag other contemporary Afghan singers could only dream of ever possessing.
Swim Good, Frank Ocean
Almost ten years ago, Eminem made murder-suicide sound psychotic, unstable, and oddly compelling through a delivery that was somewhere between the humorous and the deranged. With Swim Good, Odd Future‘s Frank Ocean makes death, whether inflicted or (somewhat) voluntary, sound beautiful, atmospheric, and melodic.
Tehran Mal-e Mast (DJ AFX Remix), TM Bax
Leave it to four boys from Tehran to create the perfect fusion of House, Hip Hop and Pop music that every artist in a post Guetta world of cheap, disposable dance beats has desperately been chasing after. Oh, and it’s all in Farsi.
Get Some, Lykke Li
An intense powerplay wherein Lykke uses a disarmingly seductive fantasy as the greatest weapon.
Pumped Up Kicks, Foster the People
A hummable, and even whistleable, melody, an infectious chorus, and imperceptible lyrics add up to one of the catchiest mind-fucks in pop this year. Anyone who can have crowds singing ”You better run, better run, faster than my bullet,” like it was “I-I-I wanna g-o-o-o-o all the way,” deserves recognition in a year where chants of “T.G.I.F.” shot to the top of the charts.
Night Time, Tracey Thorn
It’s only fitting that Ben Watt and Tracey Thorn team up one last time for an XX cover that is rife with atmosphere and emotion but ultimately lacking a single declarative stance.
Lonnie proved you can create one of the year’s most joyous party tracks without having to ramp up the BPMs – how’d he do it, you ask, one word – relatability. “Everybody home, ain’t nobody gone, And I got all my niggas around, It feel good, don’t it? When the ‘everybody’ in question includes a re-united Common and No I.D. the answer is a resounding yes.
He About to Lose Me, Britney Spears
Second single Till The World Ends may have been the massive chart hit, How I Roll may have been chosen as Rolling Stone’s top single of the year, but when Kylie Minogue can’t get your song out of her head you’ve done something massively right as a pop star.
Take Care, Drake (feat. Rihanna)
Minimal, mournful, mellow – all words rarely, if ever, used to describe any single with Rihanna’s name attached to it – but Drake, Jamie XX (of the XX) and Gil Scott-Heron have crafted an unexpectedly sparse and moving ode to forgiveness for the most evocative vocal performance of the Bajan beauty’s career.
Wetsuit, The Vaccines
The crowd-sourced Instagram created music video may have gotten all the attention, but at its core, Wetsuit is a nostalgic reverb-filled, echoing ballad about a love that will never move on from their mistakes.
Set Fire to the Rain, Adele
As ballads go, there is little that is innovative about Set Fire to the Rain. It’s a straight forward promise of fury to come with a piano accompaniment and lyrics that do little to re-invent the canon of break-up singles. Like much of the rest of 21, the strength of Set Fire to the Rain is the powerful and emotionally raw vocal delivery at its heart. Adele leaves behind any sense of subdued nuance on second single Someone Like You, instead, Set Fire to the Rain finds the year’s best-selling artist in full-on bitch mode with the kinds of wails and screams that you could tune the fires of hell to.
Shake, Little Boots
If Giorgio Moroder was still making music, this is what it would sound like – addictive, propulsive, and downright seductive.
All Black Everything, Lupe Fiasco
A song about everything that could have been in a racism-free America should make you angry and frustrated, but there’s something downright joyful in the wit and intelligence Lupe delivers this inverted history lesson that posits a world where “FOX News reports live that Ahmadinejad wins the Mandela Peace Prize” with.
Cruel, St. Vincent
Annie Clark and co. are so successful in their attempt to overpower the abuse in the lyrical content of Cruel with fuzzy production, an almost cheery vocal performance and grimy guitar riffs that it may in fact be more scary than the violence itself.
Released on the day ringing in 2011, GEN-N-E-Y finds Maya returning to the highly danceable swag-fueled productions that propelled her first two albums to the playlists of the kinds of globally minded hipsters who would sooner be chanting death to the dictator than occupying any city, port, or university.
Stone Rollin‘, Raphael Saadiq
With a sound and soul that feel right out of a basement recording studio in 1950s Baltimore, it would be unfair to call Stone Rollin‘ retro. Saadiq isn’t trying to recreate anything, he has instead transcended time and space to craft an authentic embodiment of a period and a sound many try to imitate but few can capture in a way as genuine as Raphael Saadiq.
You, TV On the Radio
A refrain ‘You‘re the only one I ever loved,’ that despite its simplicity packs real emotional heft, heavily electronic production, and a smooth vocal that glides over the increasingly apocalyptic production come together to create a beautiful ode to a love that is both pervasive and mysterious.
Punjabi Song (feat. Bikram Singh), Das Racist
On their debut album, Das Racist and their Hipster-hop perfectly merge Slim Shady’s pop culture references and the Neptunes’ space-aged dance floor productions with the disarming randomness of current blog darlings Odd Future. In Punjabi Song they add an always welcome Desi flair to the kinds of music that in anyone else’s hands could be a muddled mess of insanity and inanity.
The Edge of Glory , Lady Gaga
While Pitbull was asking for everything and Flo Rida was spittin’ verse after verse about “a brand new spirit,” Gaga bucked the trend of instant gratification and instead makes the listener work to discover the deeply rooted energy that drives a track that is as much about death as the definitive, heart-pumping and fist-pounding moments that truly remind one what it means to be alive. The opening with the sound of a beating heart that segues into an organ sounding like the bated breath of someone on the brink, sets the mood for a performance that sounds driven by a sheer, unadulterated force of life that Gaga, like protesters the world over, has recently tapped into.