From Adele to Frank Zappa: 2011 in music

This year in music has been simply overwhelming.

Impossible to know where to start, but relieved to see veteran entertainment editor/critic Ken Tucker agree that this year has been a big one…and also that the discovery of 2011 is Adele. 

If any one musician held center stage in pop music this year, it was probably Adele, the English singer whose 21 was one of the bestselling albums of the year, as well as one of the most highly praised by critics. I would daresay it reached the widest range of listeners, too.

Proposal: when we consider year-end stand-outs, we should give added weight not to artists who are a little more or less popular than their peers, but to artists who are orders of magnitude more popular.

All of the artists mentioned here are successful, but Adele's astonishing Someone Like You has garned 78 million hits, and seems to be adding to that number by about a million a day. She is, as she says in the song, "making memories." And not just for herself. That deserves respect.  

But Adele needs no favors; she's perfect for the American Idol era, and you'll end up hearing her almost whether you want to or not. I was gratified to hear Tucker bring up the charismatic young Deertick, which will never be featured on the TV show, but no matter. It glories in the creation of raw rock, on its own and as a Nirvana cover band, which I would freaking kill to see. (This perf at SXSW gives some idea, despite — or aided by — the terrible production value.)

And not all the discoveries were new bands. For instance, this song surfaced this year on Liza Richardson's radio show. Sounded to me like an anthem for the Occupy movement, an ode to —

the left behinds of the Great Society

I wondered which new band this was, which featured everything from an electric guitar to a kazoo, and was shocked to learn it was by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, from l966.

Jeez. I think I'm a little behind. 

Other unforgettables included the Mountain Goats, whose lead singer John Darnielle not only writes weirdly fascinating songs but is the first rocker to really seem to get Twitter (his born howling voice is an inimitable mix of self-deprecation,  boxing, and strident opinionating on all matters pop cultural).

Yet more highlights included: overhearing Mavis Staples and Jeff Tweedy continue to develop their heartening You're Not Alone in live perfs, at benefits and D.C. protests. Bon Iver's immaculately beautiful Holocene. Fleet Foxes' flawlessness, especially on their Helplessness Blues, which (as one critic noted) suggested an entire philosophy in its opening verse. Mumford and Sons, the acoustic electricians who had a sell-out crowd at Neil Young's Bridge School Benefit on their feet an instant after beginning to play, a feat accomplished by none of the other ten or so other popular bands on the show. Watching Rufus Wainwright set out to write a hit with pro Guy Chalmers in a BBC doc, and nearly succeed with WWIII. This year was as much about seeing the creating, as the creation itself. 

A last example: A bass-heavy remix of Gil Scott-Heron's epochal Angel Dust…and a great tribute w/extensive interviews from Gil Scott-Heron, complete with his first recording, "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," a poem with drums, when the grandfather of rap is just learning his craft.

Tom Schnable's interviews with Scott-Heron date back to the early 80's, before "the godfather of rap" became famous, before what we know of as rap today came along, and long before Scott-Heron disappeared. (As chronicled last year in Alex Wilkinson's harrowing New York is Killing Me.)

But Scott-Heron is in fine form with Schnable — you're not likely to hear him, both the man and his music, better presented.  

Still, in the end, this is the year of Adele, an old-fashioned pop star who combines the power of Aretha with the delicacy of Dusty Springfield. It's especially apparent on her Someone Like You

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