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|Written by Mike Cullen|
|Thursday, 12 January 2012 18:24|
2011 was a surprisingly strong year for music. Of all the material that was released, I think I didn't like one album, and was lukewarm on perhaps one or two others. For the artists I love, they knocked it out of the park with high quality material. Even Beyoncé, in an album that is essentially just a collection of ballads (and I hate ballads), surprised me with a very tight, cohesive album. To be flippant, the economy might be bad, the political climate may be less than rosy in some parts of the world, but at least in bad times we still have arts and culture (specifically music) to remind us that better days are right around the corner.
This was the year that saw some great debut albums from the likes of Foster the People, and local Ottawa talent, No Fly List. This was also the year for artists that did not succumb to the dreaded sophomore slump. Florence + the Machine, Lykke Li, Lady Gaga and Oh Land all did well with their second albums. Returning to the scene was Blink-182 after a long eight-year absence, and we got new material by stalwarts such as Darren Hayes and Jack's Mannequin. Really, the only artists I thought would've released material and didn't were No Doubt (hurry up Gwen, we're waiting), and Madonna (this is seriously your last chance to impress me).
We also took moments to look back at some great albums that were celebrating big anniversaries this year. U2 brought out its biggest reissue yet with the twentieth anniversary edition of their 1991 album, Achtung Baby, while the music press largely ignored the fact that their sophomore album, October turned thirty this year. We celebrated the twentieth anniversaries of Nirvana's Nevermind and The Smashing Pumpkins' debut album, Gish (Siamese Dream, their sophomore album also got reissued this year to great fanfare). This year proved that Generation X still has a very powerful voice in music, but now onto what this humble music reviewer favored in 2011.
Song of the Year
This was a difficult year to pick song of the year. This was the year that saw nearly every single major player in the business from Jay-Z and Kanye West to Adele, Beyonce and Lady Gaga releasing songs. Good songs. If there was a theme to this year's batch of really great songs, it would be independence. Whether you were asserting it for the first time, reaffirming it, or just giving yourself or someone around you that little reminder, there was likely a song to match it. And those songs were mega hits. That makes picking the song of the year really difficult, but I finally settled on Adele's "Rolling in the Deep".
In my original review of the song way back in March, I wrote that it was a companion piece to Adele's other real big hit, "Chasing Pavements", from her debut album, but that this time perhaps the protagonist has finally seen the light over a bad relationship. That was my initial interpretation of the song, but it wasn't until several months later after a terrible break-up that the true meaning of the song came to the forefront.
This song isn't about finding yourself again, this is a song about someone who goes for that one last shot at the former partner as they're on their way out the door. Yes, there's that reminiscing factor, but it's nothing compared to the razor's edge of the promise that "you're gonna wish you never had met me". Don't be surprised if this song takes home a Grammy and a Brit Award in February.
Album of Year
Album of the Year was a bit easier to decide (and it's honestly quite obvious), but it's going to Lady Gaga for Born This Way. Don't get me wrong, 2011 was an incredible year for albums; with the release of excellent sophomore albums by the likes Florence + the Machine and Oh Land, Rihanna's latest disc, and a number of other great albums, it was some stiff competition. So why did I go with Lady Gaga?
It was simply the album that I came back to the most. It's had a good part of the year to grow on me, and while certain songs (particularly the singles) are immediate moments that fade fast, I found myself coming back for the album cuts. As good as "Born This Way" is, "Scheiße" is even better with its aggressive feminist slant. "Yoü and I" is your typical love ballad, but it's "Fashion of His Love" with its comparison of being someone's partner as a great article of couture that keeps me coming back. Rounding out the disc with "Government Hooker", "Heavy Metal Lover" and "Bad Kids" along with the singles means there really isn't much room for filler on this album.
It's also Lady Gaga's ability to get into the subconscious of the music listener that makes this album so great. She is able to gather a fan-base from several generations through manipulation of sound and style. I have an aunt in her seventies who is not necessarily a fan of the music, but raves about her ability to draw all the right kinds of attention. My mother surprised me when she revealed that "Scheiße" of all songs was one of her favorites on the album, and a colleague at work consistently says how songs remind her of old school Madonna (the obvious link to "Born This Way" sounding like Madonna's "Express Yourself" aside), but it's the nostalgia that brings her back. There you have it, four generations that appreciate the music and the craft; that's a difficult feat to pull off, yet it's one that Gaga, and this album manage to do so effortlessly.
Concert of the Year
This was a good year for live shows, and I managed to get out and see quite a few of them, after a single concert outing in 2010. This year's concert experiences were split into two categories: big pop shows (Lady Gaga, Kylie Minogue, Katy Perry and Rihanna), and the shows by people I had never been exposed to before, and found myself extremely surprised by (Pearl Jam and Rufus Wainwright). My favorite show of the year was Rufus Wainwright.
Rufus Wainwright impressed me on numerous levels. First, there's his extreme talent as a singer/song-writer. I've said it before, but his ability to layer the melancholy of his voice onto a song is nothing short of gorgeous. Secondly, his show at the National Arts Centre back in November was just him-no back-up singers, no other band members. It was just the artist playing either the piano or his guitar. Lastly, and possibly most importantly, I walked out of Wainwright's show a fan. I've been slowly buying up his back catalogue and have been really enjoying the material. So while the year of bigger productions may have dominated my wallet, it was a smaller more intimate show that really stole my heart.
Video of the Year
My favorite video of the year was a fairly straight-forward interpretation of Rihanna's recent hit featuring Scottish DJ Calvin Harris. "We Found Love" has a beautiful lyric that's repeated in the chorus that goes 'we found love in a hopeless place', a springboard for what the music video ended up depicting: Rihanna's character in a seemingly desperate situation where she has fallen in love with the wrong man, with a "drugs are bad" metaphor and a colourful interpretation of the text. Of course, others instead jump to the conclusion that the video and the song is about Chris Brown. I choose not to believe that, instead taking a more literal critique of the video's depictions.
The video for "We Found Love" does look hopeless, and while it seems at times that Rihanna's character in the video may be having the time of her life, there is also the very real notion that she is perhaps still trapped in that original place; that love perhaps hasn't given her the opportunity to break free, but instead has driven her even deeper, giving us a fantastic video as a result (if a bit too dark at times). Powerful stuff.
An Ottawa native, Mike is a public servant by day, and a self-professed music and comic book junkie the rest of the time. He also contributes to the Local Tourist Ottawa blog (http://ltottawa.wordpress.com) and his random music, comic book and culture musings can be read on /scribbles (http://rockingthemike.tumblr.com)
Tags: 2011, adele, anger, anniversary, arts, best of 2011, born this way, breakup songs, brits, florence the machine, lady gaga, lady power, music, ottawa, rhianna, rufus wainwright, u2