Oh, yes. We know you’ve been waiting for this. Best albums. Best songs. Raging against some of the most popular music of our time. It’s 2011 in music, and it starts right after the jump. Will David Simon Cowell lose himself in an obsessive yet incomprehensible quest to identify the hip hop version of Pet Sounds? Will The Dilemma botch his picks because of undue sentimentality? Let’s all find out. Together.
David Simon Cowell: Hey, Dilemma, do you know what time it is? It’s time to count down the year in music while concurrently making fun of the Grammys.
Of course, tying our year-end review to the most inexplicable awards show of all causes annoying problems. Because, instead of just crowning a year’s best, a Grammy period runs from September to September. And since many artists hold releases for the lucrative Christmas window, some of the year’s highest profile music is old news by the time of the show. Instead of being hot new product, like Oscar winners are. There’s a reason the music industry is dead.
But, somehow I think we’ll find a way to muddle through. Let’s kick it off with the award that is inevitably the most nonsensical:
Best New Artist
Part of the problem with this award is that it’s just not true. “New” is defined as “the first recording that establishes the public identity of the artist.” Legal scholars could fill volumes with arguments over some of those words. “Establishes”? “Public Identity”? Basically, it ends up meaning the first time a suburban mom has heard it on NPR or Adult Alternative in her minivan. That leads to nominees like Bon Iver, who released an album that went gold in the UK in 2008, that was widespread enough for Kanye West to fall in love with it. It also leads to a certain sound determining the “Best” part of it: Zac Brown Band, Adele, Amy Winehouse, Carrie Underwood, John Legend (’06-’10… last year, something called Esperanza Spaulding won).
This year, I’d say the Grammys hit two out of five. I, too, would choose J. Cole’s Cole World and Nicki Minaj’s Pink Friday as two of the year’s best debuts (Minaj’s came out in November, 2010). My others:
Wild Flag: This is a bit of cheating, since it’s basically Sleater-Kinney. But Portlandia is a piss-poor substitute for Sleater-Kinney, and I’m glad to have that sound back and re-energized.
The Vaccines – What Did You Expect From The Vaccines?: Awesome. It will come up again.
Tennis – Cape Dory: Kind of like if The White Stripes were designed by NPR programmers. That’s is the definition of a double-edged statement.
Tyler, the Creator is the winner of the “I Learned All The Wrong Lessons From Kanye, And Are Therefore Not Eligible For This Award Because I’m Such A Douche” Award
The Dilemma: First of all, how could you forget the good times I shared with Epicurious Spaulding?
I’m defining new artists as any act that released their first LP in the U.S in 2011, though I am willing to disqualify artists who have been around 3+ years overseas (sorry, Joy Formidable). And I think Grammy went 0 for 5, as usual. Nicki Minaj was great guesting on others’ songs, but her debut album is flat and too focused on her bland pop side instead of her weirdness. As you pointed out, Bon Iver is about as new as the ancient, mythical woods in which he recorded his first album. I find J. Cole mediocre in a poor-man’s-Drake way. The Band Perry has one of the worst names of all time — and their name is the best thing about them. And I refuse to find out what Skrillex is. Just…no.
I’m with you on Wild Flag, Tennis and The Vaccines. I’ll round out my top 5 with:
Cults: A modern version of Mazzy Star with a little extra retro pop and some remix-friendly beats.
Yuck: Their self-titled debut is a referendum on how you feel about quality vs. originality. They’ve got the former in spades, but pretty much none of the latter. We’ll see what the future holds for them.
Let’s move on to Best Rap Song, which the Grammys inexplicably divide into three categories: Best Rap Song, Best Rap Performance (which seems to mean Best Rap Song), and Best Rap/Sung Collaboration (which also seems to mean Best Rap Song). Leaving aside the stupidity of the songs and artists they actually nominate, the Grammy categories are an amazing labyrinth of ill-defined divisions, poor syntax and arbitrary genre groupings. The 15 songs nominated across these three categories range from great (“All of the Lights”) to vile (“Black and Yellow,” “I Need a Doctor”). My alternate, condensed nominees (keeping in mind that I’m discounting My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and anything else from 2010):
Beastie Boys/Make Some Noise: Hot Sauce Committee Part 2 was one of the year’s most pleasant surprises, and the lead single can stand with the Beasties’ greatest hits.
Childish Gambino/Freaks and Geeks: Mostly, I’m just including this to try to bait you into attacking the Community fan base again.
Jay-Z and Kanye West/No Church in the Wild: Watch the Throne needed a representative here, and this song comes the closest to staking some new ground. “Otis” and “Niggas in Paris” might be catchier, but they also clearly ape older songs and sounds.
Pusha T/Raid: Since leaving Clipse, Pusha’s work has been wildly inconsistent, even though he’s worked extensively with Kanye. “Raid” shows what he’s capable of.
Tyler the Creator/Yonkers: I agree whole-heartedly with you that Tyler is a douchebag, but there’s no denying this song.
David Simon Cowell: I guess this is the point where I’m supposed to point out that the Grammys have 78 categories, mostly because of doing things like splitting rap song up into three categories, and rail against their stupidness again. But I’m not going to do that. I say, the more the merrier. As long as 1) they televise them all consecutively in a thirteen-hour ceremony, and 2) it’s run like a suicide pool. Once an artist has gotten a Grammy, they’re done. Think of how much more interesting the end-of-evening big awards would get at that point.
And I’m not going to blow up at your putting Childish Gambino on any year-end list not titled Most Annoying. I just feel badly that there are no more album covers, so whoever directs their version of Reality Bites in 30 years can’t put the Childish Gambino album in the Janeane Garafalo-based character’s room where Fonzie Sings or Songs By Shatner would have been.
And I’m not going to point out that anybody who makes a 2011 rap song list and doesn’t include Lupe Fiasco’s “The Show Goes On” is borderline retarded, even if ABC’s NBA coverage will inevitably kill it for me by March.
As for Best Rap Album, since 2000 it’s been dominated by Eminem (5 wins!), Kanye (3 wins), and Outkast (2 wins). Although not eligible for our 2011 lists, Kanye should win again for what is looking more and more like rap’s Pet Sounds. The other four nominees are all perfectly acceptable (although I have a hard time believing a panel of music experts couldn’t find a better album than Watch The Throne, my winner for Most Disappointing Album of 2011, followed by Florence and the Machines and We Were Promised Jetpacks… obviously, though, this award has a lot to do with my expectations going in, since all three of these albums are a tick or two above mediocre).
Top Five Rap Albums of 2011 (the white guy version):
Lupe Fiasco – Lasers
Drake – Take Care
Lil’ Wayne – Tha Carter IV
The Beastie Boys – Hot Sauce Committee Part 2
Jay-Z and Kanye West – Watch The Throne
I, apparently, need to listen to more rap, since I’ll only really stand behind the first two.
The Dilemma: Quid pro quo: To honor your admirable restraint in not attacking my Childish Gambino selection, I won’t mention that Lupe Fiasco went completely off the rails this year, that Tha Carter IV is the most turgid, inessential hip hop album in years, or that Drake puts me to sleep by the end of verse one of any given song. Teamwork!
Leaving rap aside for the time being, let’s do the Grammys another favor and combine some more nebulous, poorly defined categories into one. We’ll combine Best Pop Solo Performance, Best Pop Duo/Group Performance, Best Dance Recording and a whole bunch of other crap into Best Pop Song (seriously: why differentiate between a solo artist and a group? And why don’t more people try to game the system: couldn’t Daryl Hall have released a solo album in the same year as a Hall & Oates album and just fucking cleaned up?).
These categories are where the Grammys try to show that they’re hip and current, so the nominees include ubiquitous Top 40 presences like Adele, Lady Gaga, Bruno Mars, Rihanna, Katy Perry, and Coldplay. Also included are the most overrated song of the year (“Pumped Up Kicks”) and possibly the worst song of the year (“Moves Like Jagger.”) Inexplicably, the Black Keys also earned a nod in one of these categories for a Buddy Holly cover. The Grammys: forever cutting edge. The one nominee I can truly get behind is Robyn for “Call Your Girlfriend,” a legitimately great song, but I can’t include it in my own nominations because it came out in 2010. My alternate nominees, defining “pop” as…uh…uh…shit you might hear on the radio but that isn’t rap, I guess? Or songs that are so classic pop in terms of construction and atmosphere that they demand inclusion:
Cut Copy/Need You Now
Dum Dum Girls/Bedroom Eyes
Ida Maria/Cherry Red
Lana Del Rey/Video Games
David Simon Cowell: I’ll assume those are all songs, because I’ve never heard of any of them. Most of them are from bands I wouldn’t dream of listening to on purpose, and the others… well, I’m not sure if it’s age or a switch to Internet technology (probably both), but I literally know no song names anymore.
But since I’m an out-of-step album guy, I’ll address the Best Alternative Album vs. Best Rock Album category. Now we all know that Alternative is a term that was meant to co-opt indie rock, but what does it mean as a Grammys marketing tool? Let’s take a look at the nominees and their highest U.S. chart position:
Alternative: Bon Iver – 2; Death Cab – 3; Foster The People – 8; My Morning Jacket – 5; Radiohead – 3
Rock: Jeff Beck – None; Foo Fighters – 1; Kings Of Leon – 2; R.H.C.P. – 2; Wilco – 5
Basically, Alternative is for mainstream rock bands still somewhat in their youth, while Rock is for bands who have “reached a certain age” (obviously, Kings of Leon and Radiohead need to be switched). Besides the general age trends, I have no idea what the difference is between these categories, except for giving the Grammys another chance to prove their irrelevance by nominating Jeff Beck for something.
Of course, not one of these ten albums would make my Top Five Rock Album list… the closest would be My Morning Jacket. All the albums are either far from the bands best work, or from bands that have yet to show me their best work is all that great.
The Vaccines – What Did You Expect From The Vaccines? (Still not the last time it’ll come up)
Lou Reed & Metallica – Lulu (I know… I stand alone)
Deer Tick – Divine Providence (it was a good year for noisy bar rock)
The Decemberists – The King Is Dead (another one you’ll see again)
The Kills – Blood Pressures (because I need five)
With rare exception, most of the rock bands I liked before 2011 put out subpar efforts… in addition to the ones listed above, Bright Eyes, Okkervill River, Arctic Monkeys, Gorillaz, R.E.M. the Strokes, TV on the Radio and Ryan Adams (among others) all came out with, at best, passable but unmemorable efforts. Related, that The King Is Dead got no album nods of any kind, while every one of those ten bands did is particularly ridiculous…
The Dilemma: It does seem like The Decemberists should be catnip for Grammy voters. I don’t mean to impugn The King is Dead by that — I like the album a lot; it’s one their best. But The Decemberists seems like they should be one of the few places where our tastes and the Grammys’ tastes intersect. I mean: gentle country rock, hyper-literate lyrics, nothing remotely threatening. That fucking screams Grammy.
Enough futzing around. Let’s talk about Song of the Year. We’ll fold Record of the Year into Song of the Year, because the former is a stupid fucking award, and nobody gives a fuck about producers (except in the rarest of cases). In the last 25 years, exactly three Song of the Year winners haven’t been crap: Beyonce’s “Single Ladies,” U2’s “Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own,” and Springsteen’s “Streets of Philadelphia.” That’s not to say any of those three were worthy winners; just that they’re not awful songs along the lines of John Mayer’s “Daughters” or We Are the Fucking World.
Record of the Year has fared about as well, saved only by Paul Simon’s “Graceland” in 1988 and Coldplay’s “Clocks” in 2004. Of course, we’ve paid the price with “Use Somebody” by Kings of Leon and “Another Day in Paradise,” aka the time Phil Collins solved the homeless crisis.
This year, six songs total are nominated in the two categories: Mumford & Son’s harmless Dad-rock “The Cave,” Katy Perry’s worthless “Firework,” Adele’s overrated and overplayed “Rolling the Deep,” Bon Iver’s mediocre “Holocene,” Bruno Mars’ offensive “Grenade,” and the great but year-old “All in the Lights” by Kanye. I look forward to Adele winning both awards, upon which Kanye will leap on stage and call her a fat bitch and accuse the Grammys of institutional racism. And he’ll be kind of right.
My nominees for Song of the Year:
Lana Del Rey/Video Game
R.E.M./Oh My Heart (Yes, it’s a wildly biased, sentimental pick. Fuck off.)
All in all, a stronger year for albums than for individual songs.
David Simon Cowell: Of all the Grammy overlap, I find Song/Record of the Year the most charming, as it’s a reminder that it wasn’t too long ago that the record industry made its money on sheet music, not recordings, because people made their own fun (they didn’t really have a choice, but still). At the same time, it’s obviously unnecessary today.
Here’s my choice for Best Song of the Year (although it isn’t necessarily Grammy-related, since those categories should obviously have a “hit” component, and I’m not even sure which songs are “singles” anymore)
Hailie Salaisse – Bright Eyes (the only truly great song on their last album)
The Show Goes On – Lupe Fiasco (you couldn’t be more wrong about this song)
Let’s All Go To The Bar – Deer Tick (guessing the Grammys didn’t seriously consider this one)
Don’t Carry It All – The Decemberists (clearly, your thoughts on this are right… with a number one album this year, the Decemberists should be all over the Grammys)
Rolling In The Deep – Adele (the Grammys got one right, even if your heart is too cold to feel it)
Before we get to the Best Albums of 2011, let’s point out the dumbest Grammy lapse of the year. Kanye West got the most nominations, but he lost out a Best Album nomination to Adele, Foo Fighters, Lady Gaga, Bruno Mars (!) and Rihanna… what? This may be another blog post, but Twisted Fantasy may be the most important rap album of all-time (it’s too soon to say, but Drake’s album, for one, shows that it may have that Pet Sounds quality I spoke of earlier). Bruno Mars will be an important part of I Love The Teens on VH1. Kanye also wasn’t nominated for Producer of the Year, one of which’s nominees was Butch Vig, who only did the Foo Fighters album. I haven’t studied Wasting Light yet, but I’m guessing that it wasn’t a sonic wonder. Leave it to the Grammys to give the most nominations to the most important artist of the year, but not realize what it was he did well.
Now, it was only last year that the Grammys had a good Album of the Year (The Arcade Fire… I think it was the lowest-selling winner ever … maybe that’s why they shied away from The Decemberists this year). While Album of the Year has always been seriously middle of the road (’70s: 3 wins for Stevie Wonder, 2 for Paul Simon, Concert for Bangledesh, Saturday Night Fever soundtrack), it has sometimes managed to find the gold nuggets in the mainstream. The past 25 have seen 8 good albums win: Graceland, The Joshua Tree, Faith, Time Out Of Mind, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. O Brother Where Art Thou?, Speakerboxx/The Love Below, The Suburbs. Sadly, 32% is massive success for the Grammys. The rest have either been good artists way past their primes (U2’s How to Dismantle, Eric Clapton and Tony Bennett both winning with Unplugged in a three-year span), or unmitigated mediocrity (Norah Jones, Herbie Hancock (!), Celine Dion, Natalie Cole). This year is a mixture of both… guess the most interesting would be Lady Gaga, who’s only interesting if you didn’t live through Madonna humping her dress.
The Dilemma: Yep, anyone who thought the Grammys were making progress last year with Arcade Fire looks foolish now. The Grammys would have to put in some serious effort to be less relevant. The way their minds work: they’re just finally starting to appreciate Nirvana/Nevermind 20 years later, so Foo Fighters get a Best Album nomination in 2011.
My nominees for album of the year are as follows, presented as a top ten list because that’s what I’ve been doing since the Earth was created in a cloud of dust and fire. The top five would obviously be my Grammy nominees. This year offered an impressive number of good albums, but few if any great ones. There were a lot of albums I considered for my top ten. Bands like The War on Drugs, Le Butcherettes, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, We Were Promised Jetpacks, Black Joe Lewis, Mates of State, Real Estate and lots more released albums that ranged somewhere from solid to quite good. But 2011 was a year where almost new music utterly blew me away. A good year, with lots to like but little to love. A second-marriage kind of year.
10. Tennis/Cape Dory: Early in the year, I didn’t think this album was good enough for the top ten. And for most of the year, I would have ranked Cults above it. But it sticks with you.
9. Wild Flag/Wild Flag: Mary Timony is an underrated part of this band.
8. Dum Dum Girls/Only in Dreams: Of the wealth of girl groups playing lo-fi garage pop over the past few years, Dum Dum Girls are the ones who have most separated themselves from the pack.
7. The Antlers/Burst Apart: The best Radiohead album of the year.
6. Okkervil River/I Am Very Far: Not as immediate nor as accessible as their previous few albums, but a cohesive, thematic statement. The strongest album of the year lyrically.
5. The Joy Formidable/The Big Roar: Bombast upon bombast.
4. St. Vincent/Strange Mercy: I’ve never been a big St. Vincent fan before, but this album is just so polished in the best sense of the word.
3. Girls/Father, Son, Holy Ghost: With two really strong albums and an EP already to their credit, Girls are off to a great start. Any album that includes both the catchy retro pop of “Honey Bunny” with the epic dread of “Die” deserves a spot near the top of the list.
2. The Vaccines/What Did You Expect From…: We’re obviously in agreement on this one. A great piece of pop candy, yes, but not without some depth of feeling.
1. Fucked Up/David Comes to Life: The only 2011 album that could make a case for greatness, and easily the best album of the year. If you can’t get past the vocals, I can’t blame you. It took me a few listens. But if you can…this album offers pleasures untold, with lead guitar that sounds like a cross between Tad Kubler and Pete Townsend. An impressive balance of ambition (it’s a concept album!) and execution.
David Simon Cowell: Let’s not ask too much of the Grammys. It was seven years between Outkast and Arcade Fire, so as long as they get another one right in the next five years, they’re making progress.
I would agree that this was a good, not great, year for music. More accurately, maybe, it was wide, but not deep. There were a lot of good bands that I heard for the first time, and a few good efforts from bands I like. But looking at our lists from last year, there was no Twisted Fantasy (I can’t believe that didn’t make your Top Ten last year btw), no American Slang (ditto for me), no The Monitor, etc.
Anyway, here’s my Grammy nominees, followed by the next best five:
The Decemberists – The King Is Dead (best album of the year)
The Vaccines – What Did You Expect From The Vaccines? (best debut of the year)
Drake – Take Care (rap album of the year… I obviously buy into the hype more than you do)
Deer Tick – Divine Providence (best live band… in my mind)
M83 – Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming (what can say… sometimes I need to get my dance on)
Girls – Father, Son, Holy Ghost
The Kills – Blood Pressures
Wild Flag – Wild Flag
Tennis – Cape Dory
My Morning Jacket – Circuital (kind of surprised to find this one here myself)
I’m guessing that Fucked Up will be my Gaslight Anthem of this year… an album that for some reason I ignored until the New Year.