2011 Year's Best Pop Styles

2011 best pop music of the year …


1. Tindersticks, Claire Denis Film Scores: The craft and art of film scoring has been devalued ever since Prince was given the opportunity to revive his career by attaching a slapdash album of dumb songs to Tim Burton’s first “Batman” franchise and calling it a soundtrack. This began the current era of soundtracks as something akin to product tie-ins at fast food restaurants. It doesn’t have to be like that.

A good soundtrack supports the story, the drama, and good soundtrack composers are able to write requests, essentially, fitting their music to each individual story and, for the best ones like Bernard Herrmann and Jerry Goldsmith, maintaining their own consistent voice. Those values are shared by this substantial, completely wonderful collection of music that the band Tindersticks has made for over a decade for director Claire Denis.

As a whole, this collection succeeds in many ways; each disc comes off as a complete, discrete and finely made record, each has a flavor that is distinctive while consistentlhy carrying the bands lean, intelligent sound, each has an internal musical narrative that can stand on its own, separate from the film. Ultimately, this is all soundtrack music in the old-fashioned sense. Tindersticks may be a rock band, but there is not a thought that this music is anything at all like a pop hits compilation.

The music is excellent, lyrical, focussed, with themes that convey scene and mood with little cliché, and they are also a pleasure to hear. Predominantly instrumental, there’s also the excellent title song for “Trouble Every Day.” Every note seems set in the ideal place, a delicately crafted, multi-dimensional mosaic. In Denis’ slightly abstracted, slightly stilted world, the music has the essential effect of humanizing her narratives, connecting the story on the screen to sympathetic human experiences. The power of pop culture is best described in Doctor Who terms; it creates fixed places in the memory around which we orient huge stretches of our lives. The movies have a big hand in that, but listening to these discs, especially Nenette et Boni’s cafés of the imagination and the icy edge of White Materials carves out a whole new set of experiences and memories.  Film Scores is over 190 minutes of wonderful music, the easy charm belying the power of the music, standing on its own as the finest pop release of the year (listen to a sampler here).

2. Tom Waits, Bad as Me: An easy call, sure. Waits is one of the greatest musicians America has produced, and almost everything he does is notable. But over the last few years of collections and seemingly accidental records, his vital weirdness has been in hiding. No more. Bad as Me is vintage late period Waits, and is also an aesthetic advance on his previous body of work for the Anti label. It’s rawer, meaner, darker and also more inventive, wittier, pithier and sweeter. A highpoint is the most openly political song he’s produce, “Hell Broke Luce,” which is an amazing, funny, furious stream of consciousness rant, the story of one man caught up in the fucked-up history the 1% engineers for us. Essential.

3. Alva Noto & Ryuichi Sakamoto, summvs: A lusciously delicate combination of the lovely and the glitchy. The simple beauty and charm of Sakamoto’s thinking meshes exceptionally well with Noto’s flitting nanosounds. A great expression of the essentially fleeting nature of music itself.

4. Radiohead, King of Limbs: Easy to regard them the way we regard Waits, and just as apt. The toughness of the thinking and the continued shifts and growth of their musical style makes this their best release since Kid A, and one of their very best overall.

5. Milk Maid, Yucca: The kind of record that fulfills the promise that rock offered when it started to break free of its roots in R&B, the promise that, with a sense of musicality, you can make yourself heard. The deliberately crunchy, haphazard sonics and playing are the perfect dress for the pitch- and style-perfect song craft.

6. itsnotyouitsme, everyone’s pain is magnificent: There’s a lot of ambient music out there, even fewer true ambient bands, and none like this duo. Focussed music-making, including improvisation, means that the rich sound and slow-pulsation of the material is enfolding and involving, rather than just subliminally ‘chill.’ One of the more beautiful records of the year.

7. Joe Henry, Reverie: At first listen, this seemed a bit of a drop off from the rare heights of his 2009 release, Blood From the Stars, but after a couple more, the subtleties reveal the epitome of post-Dylan song craft, where the lyrics don’t have to necessarily mean anything but they need to make you feel something. Full of plangent, humane feelings, with Henry’s usual gorgeous production, and that inimitable voice.

8. Thundercat, The Golden Age of Apocalypse: This and the Stepkids record below are signs in a rare and welcome kind of pop-culture recycling, one that both sincerely loves the past and is irreverent about it as well. Thundercat mixes the best of of the ‘worst’ of 1970s soul and jazz-rock fusion into a hip, smart and extremely well-made record, with the kind of bass playing that must have Stanley Clarke nodding in approval.

9. Gabriel Kahane, Where Are the Arms: It’s a tribute to Kahane’s charm, intelligence and musicianship that a record that might seem to be a worthy yet anodyne entry into the LA-based sing-songwriter genus is instead so soulful, inventive and emotionally involving, all while wearing its virtues and pedigree so lightly.

10. The Stepkids, The Stepkids: To say this record is pure fun is in no way dismissive. The Stepkids know their way around a clavinet, funky kung-fu, and more than a little bit of Parliament/Funkadelic, Isaac Hayes, Lee Perry and Motown. In the right mood, their revival of every cliché you’ve ever missed is almost insanely great.

Honorable Mention: Skuli Sverisson’s Seria discs, Sondre Lerche, The Roots, Pitom, James Elkington & Nathan Salsburg, Finn Johannsen & Stefan Goldmann

Author: gtra1n

I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.

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