A Record Year

2011 was a great year for music—if not much else

I’ve used this line before, but as I think back on the last year it keeps popping into my head. “Music will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no music,” Ben Sidran once said. In my humble estimation, 2011 was an outstanding year for music, if not much else.

Make no mistake—I have a strong belief in the power of music. I remember being twelve years old in 1963, lying in bed at night with the transistor radio under my pillow, waiting for one of the “Negro” radio stations in Milwaukee to play “Quicksand,” (that’s right, not “Heat Wave,” “Quicksand”) by Martha Reeves and the Vandellas before I could go to sleep. On a really good night I’d hear both “Quicksand” and Barbara Lewis’ “Hello Stranger” and I’d get a feeling in the pit of my stomach that remains exquisitely indescribable.

The Beatles changed my world, but for a long time I thought Motown would change THE world, and I was literally thrilled at the prospect. Since then I am living proof of Sidran’s more-serious-than-it-sounds metaphysical supposition. From Muddy Waters to the Moody Blues to Miles Davis, there were whole months of nights from the late sixties to the late seventies when I’d retreat alone to my little apartment and pass the hours with as much wine as I could buy for two dollars and music that would build in beauty, intensity and emotion until I simply sat there with tears running down my face. I’d get out my guitar, face yet again the reality that I had no talent, go to bed and do it all over again.

That’s the power music had on me. So during “down” music years, and in the last three decades there have been a lot of them, I’d worry that I was getting too old, or the industry was dying, etc. And then there’d be a year that would restore my faith. 2011 was one of those years. I’m talking popular music here. Not jazz, not country, not classical—each with its own mystery and magic. This is rock, blues and a little hip-hop. And a lot of it is old school. Maybe that’s why I like it so much. Fitz and the Tantrums and Mayer Hawthorne follow the long tradition of “white blues” you either loved or hated. Each put out CDs with killer hooks. But Adele is the real deal, and like many others I thought 21 was one of the best albums of the year. I sure hope her voice is going to be OK (she’s having problems as I write this), because it’s a gift.

Betty Wright’s The Movie, with The Roots, is seriously old school if you can be old school with The Roots behind you. The first cut, “Old Songs,” says it all. And speaking of The Roots, Undun is one of those really good albums that flows seamlessly from beginning to end so you want to listen to it that way.

Feist and Fleet Foxes both followed up outstanding albums with stuff equally as good. But Eau Claire’s Justin Vernon outdid even For Emma, which I loved, with the self-titled Bon Iver. And his relationship with Kanye West looks like something worth following closely.

Veterans Paul Simon and Robbie Robertson offered up their strongest work in years. Simon’s is technically flawless and emotionally rich. And I like Robertson’s even better (apologies to channel3000.com’s managing editor and music critic David Hyland).

Tedeschi Trucks Band’s CD was stellar and Wilco showed again it’s the best band in the world right now. But the best album of the year in one man’s opinion? El Camino by the Black Keys. Getting back together with producer Danger Mouse was really smart and the guys again ooze the blues and garage band hip-hop soul. Just a great record, even if Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” is the song I’d wait to hear before I went to sleep.

Neil P. Heinen is editorial director of Madison Magazine. Contact him at nheinen@madisonmagazine.com.

Find more For the Record columns here.

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