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The best music of 2011

Our top 20 releases of the year in no particular order

Photo: Jenn Sweeney, License: N/A

Jenn Sweeney

Despite his numerous personal shortcomings – all of which he’s laid bare from his career’s inception – it should be noted that Eminem, last year’s best-selling artist in the world, has never seemed preoccupied by finances. In fact, his debut album, The Slim Shady LP, drew from a fire that came out of the rapper’s dire financial straits – more than a decade later, he still spits about WIC and food stamps as if the fear and instability has never left his deepest thoughts. He may no longer be among the 99 percent of us, but he might be our angriest, loudest and most poetic representative.

During a year that saw Marshall Mathers collect a Best Rap Album Grammy, become the most followed person on Facebook and the only rapper to have two RIAA diamond-certified albums, he also resurrected the career of a former nemesis and starred in a Super Bowl ad for Chrysler that was so powerful, one Michigan paper wondered if it could “help revive [the] state’s image.” One has to wonder what’s next for the “modern-day Shakespeare.” How about making him the U.S. Poet Laureate?

It’s not as far-fetched as it sounds. Last year, acclaimed poet M.L. Liebler included Eminem’s lyrics in his literature anthology Working Words, and Irish Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney has said, “[Eminem] has created a sense of what is possible. He has sent a voltage around his generation. He has done this not just through his subversive attitude but also his verbal energy.” Likewise, The Last King of Scotland author Giles Foden, in writing of his admiration for Eminem’s song “Stan,” employed phrases like “bardic” and called the rapper “a multiple, elusive experience” whose “genius is, principally, poetic.” The anonymous Internet populace, as usual, puts it more succinctly: In the comments section of Charlie Rose’s interview with 2008 U.S. Poet Laureate Kay Ryan, user name Poetry Lover says, “Eminem is better.”

So what are his chances? Not great. First, if it hasn’t happened for Bob Dylan, it will not likely happen for any musician. Second, the position is decided by the Librarian of Congress, 82-year-old James Billington, and the decision is finalized only after consultation with past poets laureate as well as the current one. Today, the U.S. Poet Laureate is Philip Levine, whose work, ironically enough, has primarily focused on life in working-class Detroit, Eminem’s hometown. On the other hand, in an NPR interview this year, 83-year-old Levine admitted he’s never heard Eminem’s music before, but said his twin brother is a fan. (He did offer this promising note: “Why argue about it? You know? Is Bob Dylan a poet? Yeah, of course he is. My brother’s smart. [Eminem] probably is.”

Finally, to use one of Em’s lines, here comes the cold water: Almost every U.S. Poet Laureate also won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, sometimes decades before their laureateship. It’s not traditionally a post that reflects modern society, but one that rewards a body of work that Mathers, by way of chronology, hasn’t even approached yet. He may be his generation’s laureate, but a place on the president’s iPod will likely have to do for now.


The ’90s came back, while many new acts looked deeper into the past

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