The U.S. may not have a monopoly on cultural conformity, but it's definitely one of our specialties. As British economist John Maynard Keynes once observed, "Americans are apt to be unduly interested in discovering what average opinion believes average opinion to be."
The evidence is all around us, in the obsessive second-guessing and compulsive test marketing that permeates all aspects of our culture. You can even see it in that most innocuous of activities known as music criticism. How else to explain the remarkable uniformity of year-end "best of" lists, in which 100,000 releases are somehow boiled down to the 10 that demand everyone's attention?
From Paste to Pitchfork, from Rolling Stone to the AARP — yes, the retirement organization has issued its own "Top 10 Albums for Grownups" — critics have spent the holiday season worshipping at the altars of artists such as Bon Iver, Adele, Fleet Foxes, Paul Simon, Wilco, Tune-Yards, the Decemberists, Jay-Z and Kanye.
My point here isn't to devalue the work of those artists. It's just that, in an era of unprecedented musical diversity, it all seems overly cautious, as though writers keep looking over their shoulders so as not to miss out on what informed opinion believes informed opinion to be.
Which is why I gave up on that shit a long time ago. There's no standardized test for music, no set of unbending criteria that can determine some universal best and brightest. At this point, I think a more subjective approach is inherently more honest.
Toward that end, the following recordings, organized in order of preference, are absolutely not the Best of 2011. That much is obvious, since Bon Iver, Adele, Fleet Foxes, Paul Simon, Wilco, Tune-Yards, the Decemberists, Jay-Z and Kanye appear nowhere on the list.
With few exceptions, all of these tracks are from artists who have yet to release more than one album or EP, and only one is on a major label. It's also worth noting that seven of the 10 artists represented here have been interviewed by the Indy over the past year; you can go here for videos and story links.
Now that we've gotten all that out of the way, here are the songs that meant the most to me in 2011, the ones I can put on and still get a sense that there's no other music I'd rather be listening to at that moment. My hope is that, if you get the time to give them a listen, you'll find one or two that do the same for you.
1. Ghostpoet, 'Survive It'
"Survive It" is most likely the first song ever to name-check both Jill Scott and Rocky Balboa. But that's just a small part of what's so unique about this standout track from Ghostpoet's debut album, which made him one of a dozen artists short-listed this year for Britain's prestigious Mercury Prize.
Born Obaro Ejimiwe, the emcee leans toward drowsy vocals and understated arrangements that make his music both distinctive and engaging, especially at a time when so many artists are taking a more expressionistic, attention-seeking approach. And while Ghostpoet's heavily accented delivery may necessitate a few listens before the words fully reveal themselves, this song's lyrical take on loss — of work and love, but not hope — brings out the poetry in everyday life:
That's the plan in the end
Get a nice house, a few true friends
A wife I can cry with, laugh and create with
Kids so beautiful they're truly a blessing
But I'm just guessing, just speculating
Thinking aloud, you know that's all I do
I'm also just guessing, just speculating, but I'm pretty sure that thinking aloud is exactly what he was born to do.
2. Lianne La Havas, 'Final Form'
Lianne La Havas is far from a household name at this point, but that could all change when her major-label debut album comes out next year. In the meantime, La Havas' potential is made clear by this track from her EP, Lost and Found, released back in October on the Labour of Love indie label.
The distinctively melodic "Final Form" was written and first recorded by Everything Everything, a quirky band whose music seems to have more in common with XTC, Franz Ferdinand and 10cc than it does with the Jill Scott and Mary J. Blige records La Havas grew up listening to. A talented songwriter and multi-instrumentalist in her own right, La Havas' vocals on "Final Form" somehow manage to be both ethereal and visceral, perfectly complementing the arrangement as it shifts between acoustic and electronic settings. Hopefully, this track will be reprised on the upcoming album. Either way, it's well worth seeking out.
3. Fitz and the Tantrums, 'Don't Gotta Work It Out'
Our cover story previewing Fitz and the Tantrums' show at the Black Sheep ("Method of modern love," June 2) will fill you in on the background of this L.A. pop-funk phenom. So suffice it to say that "Don't Gotta Work It Out" is their best single since "Breakin' the Chains of Love," which happened to be No. 2 on last year's list.
With this entry, I'm resorting to the Grammys' famous "coming to prominence" rule, routinely invoked in order to honor artists who weren't widely known prior to the year in question. In the case of F&TT, that ascension rapidly followed the release of "MoneyGrabber," which took them from playing small clubs like the Black Sheep to revving up massive crowds at events like Seattle's Bumbershoot Festival. So although this track actually appeared on the group's debut album last year, its release as a single and video didn't happen until this past September.
4. Che Bong, 'Okay'
One of four emcees in the local hip-hop group BullHead*ded, Che Bong is also the second cover story subject on this list. "Okay" comes from his first solo album, Sleeping While You're Awake, which was released last month on Colorado Springs' Sound Powered Engine label.
A song about the downside of giving in to abusive authority figures — "You think by saying yes, you'll get respect, yes-man? OK, all right, you'll lose every step" — it marks the recording debut of an artist who (like the ReMINDers before him) is well-positioned to represent local hip-hop well beyond state boundaries.
5. Shilpa Ray and Her Happy Hookers,'The Chelsea Clinic Physical'
At his year's SXSW festival, Shilpa Ray worked her audience into a frenzy, capturing the spirit of the best late '70s and early '80s punk rock as she belted out street-smart originals that were tough, passionate and literate. Dressed in a sleeveless John Lee Hooker T-shirt, the New Jersey native also tore into the harmonium that she learned to play growing up in an Indian household.
On this, the most anthemic track from her group's sophomore album, Teenage and Torture, Ray and her band rock majestically, taunting listeners with a refrain, "Do you love your freedom?" in a tone that suggests there's probably not much of it worth loving.
6. Mike Clark, 'Hey Daisy'
Posted to YouTube the same day it was filmed back in September, the video for Mike Clark's "Hey Daisy" quickly went viral and has since racked up more than 8,000 views. Easy to see why, really, given that it consists of the local musician singing and playing guitar while riding down Tejon Street on a bike, trying not to get himself killed, all in one 3½-minute take.
In the months since, Clark has appeared on A Prairie Home Companion as a member of the Haunted Windchimes and released his own album, The Ghost of Michael Clark. But apart from the version in the video and a performance of it during the Windchimes' set at this year's Indy Music Awards Festival, "Hey Daisy" has yet to be released.
The plan, Clark says, is to put it on an album with his more soul-oriented band, Sugar Sounds. In the meantime, it's hard to overlook the potential of this perfect blend of musical catchiness — you'll be singing along by the second chorus — and apocalyptic lyrics: "It's gonna be dry this year / We're all gonna die this year / We're gonna be released from fear / We're gonna meet the Lord." What's not to like?
7. Atmosphere, 'The Last to Say'
If Lupe Fiasco's "Words I Never Said" drove home the point that politically strident rap can still chart, Atmosphere's "The Last to Say" should have done the same for its socially conscious counterpart. Unfortunately, Atmosphere doesn't really traffic in singles, at least not of the hit variety, but Minneapolis' favorite underground hip-hop group still managed to sell out Red Rocks this past summer.
A starkly compelling down-tempo track, "The Last to Say" takes on the subject of domestic violence in a way that's dead serious but not heavy-handed:
You can't hold hands when they make fists,
And I ain't the first to say this
But let me be the last to say, please don't stay
Let me be the last to say, you won't be OK
8. El Toro de la Muerte, 'The Chattering of Rats'
Another local Indy cover story subject, El Toro was formed six years ago, but took until this past October to get around to releasing its first EP, Dancer These Days. "The Chattering of Rats" is the disc's most instantly accessible track, a short, sharp art-rock gem that's characteristically weird and undeniably catchy. Arguably the most popular rock band in town, the Indy Music Award winner regularly packs clubs around town and was a Saturday night headliner at Denver's Summit Music Hall earlier this month. Long may they run.
9. Cults, 'Go Outside'
Even before the striking video that inserts Cults members Madeline Follin and Brian Oblivion into archival footage from the tragic People's Temple in Jonestown, "Go Outside" was an obvious standout track on the duo's self-titled debut album this past summer.
From its xylophone intro to vocals and arrangements that update Phil Spector's girl-group sound, it cemented Cults' reputation as one of the summer's best surprises.
10. Tokyo Jihen, 'Kaze ni Ayakatte Ike'('Go With the Wind')
Listen close enough to this 2½-minute track from the latest Tokyo Jihen album, and you'll likely hear traces of Kate Bush, Led Zeppelin and Goldfinger-era John Barry. And while the lyrics are mostly in Japanese, there are also interspersed snatches of English, including a verse that appears to rhyme "space invaders" with "fine masturbators."
The group, whose name translates to Tokyo Incidents, was put together by charismatic singer/songwriter Ringo Shiina as a touring support band back in 2003. In the years since, Tokyo Jihen has evolved into a formidable pop-rock outfit with a sound that's often edgy and generally difficult to pin down. Although big in Japan, the group is all but unknown in the States, where their music is absent from online music-streaming services and the average cost of their import CDs hovers around the $50 mark. But hey, that's what YouTube is for, right?