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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

by Bao Le-Huu

Last year, it was the new-gazers. This year, the fresh dope was delivered in the form of nostalgia for oldies flavors like doo-wop and the girl-group sound, which, historically speaking, is a little curious.

For a long time, fashion recycled itself in reliable, 20-year revival cycles. Think Happy Days, That ’70s Show and the fact that hipsters have been running around dressed like it’s 1984 for the last decade and are now starting to bridge over into ’90s revivalism. But this year’s new kick is reaching back over half a century to the sounds of the ’50s and ’60s, basically the fountainhead of what we recognize as pop music today.

This touchstone has been bubbling up in the underground for a while, but it hit total critical mass in indiedom this year, spreading into denominations as prismatic as garage, punk (Hunx and His Punx, Those Darlins), pop (Tennis, Cults, La Sera, Dum Dum Girls), rock (Hanni el Khatib, Mister Heavenly, Guards) and even experimental lo-fi (Dirty Beaches).

However regrettable stylistic regression like this may be to academics, it’s hard to deny how sweetly this stuff scratches that itch. Perhaps it’s the pop timelessness of this kind of melody craft or maybe just the special kind of quench for someone living in a radio market like ours that’s been mysteriously barren of oldies for years, but it’s been a breath of refreshing air from a long-lost love for me. Judging from the magnitude of the movement, though, clearly I’m not the only one.

Into that good Night

A Danish DJ soundtracks a year of magical thinking

by Jason Ferguson

Personally speaking, 2011 was a year filled with long and intense bouts of quiet reflection. Although the year had plenty of good news, it definitely had more than its share of bad news. Beloved friends, family members and even pets left this world during 2011, and, with a momentous milestone birthday myself this year, mortality was weighing heavily on my mind.

Of course, every good sojourn into self-reflection requires a soundtrack, and for at least half of 2011, Danish DJ Trentemøller’s contribution to the LateNightTales compilation series was the perfect musical accompaniment. Although Trentemøller is known for his experimental solo albums and expansive club sets, his LNT album takes a tack that’s darker, more organic and more psychedelically melancholy. Without being self-indulgent or sappy, Trentemøller’s track selection perfectly captured that emotionally cloudy, darkest-before-the-dawn resonance that’s likely familiar to folks grappling with the confusion and grief of loss.

Coupling tracks by artists new (M. Ward, Papercuts, Darkness Falls), old (This Mortal Coil, Mazzy Star) and really old (the Velvet Underground, the Shangri-La’s), Trentemøller cuts a wide and genre-agnostic swath across five decades of bummer-rock. The album’s most engaging moments come courtesy of Chimes & Bells and Darkness Falls, two Danish groups that Trentemøller produced. Chimes & Bells’ “The Mole” is eight and a half minutes of a pulsing electronic heart, draped in mumbled, reverb-drenched vocals and surging sheets of noisy guitars, while Darkness Falls’ “Noise on the Line” is a combination of simple acoustic guitar and a high, lonesome chorus that’s as gentle as it is cathartic.

Which, in 2011, was just what I needed.

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