Fighting the music scribe’s uniquely annoying desire to make definitive lists, I’m instead sharing some informal thoughts about what I noticed, loved and despised about pop music in the year 2011.
It’s clear from Bon Iver’s four recent Grammy nods – including Best “New” Artist – that 30-year-old frontman Justin Vernon is one of the establishment’s darlings du jour. Vernon doesn’t necessarily crave the increased buzz. He was already blessed by loads of critical praise after he released his first album, For Emma, Forever Ago, in 2007.
That stark acoustic collection, recorded in cabin-in-the-woods solitude, afforded Vernon some unexpected artistic opportunities. He traded cover versions with Peter Gabriel, collaborated with North Texas native St. Vincent on a friggin’ Twilight soundtrack and, most notably, contributed to the production of the two best songs on Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (“Monster” and “Lost in the World”).
Whether or not Bon Iver’s sophomore, self-titled album would prove to be worthy of its predecessor likely didn’t matter much to Grammy nominators. He’d paid some dues, and the stars were aligned. But he delivered a grand slam in Bon Iver, released at the beginning of summer in a nice show of counter-programming.
The new record found Vernon recording with a band and expanding his palette. Strings, horns and full-on drums made for richer, bolder arrangements, but his heartstring-tugging stacked vocals remained the central focus. Alternately, the lyrics and their delivery were more muddled than before. Tracks like “Holocene,” “Perth” and “Calgary” feature garbled poetry that seemed intentionally enigmatic. They sound so gorgeous, though, that I’m tempted not to care too much about their messages. Cop out? Sure. But I’m never one to resist getting swept away by tone, as you’ve probably figured out over the last few months of posts.
What makes my critical voice even more questionable is my delight regarding Bon Iver’s unapologetic love for classic VH1 adult-contemporary hits. “Beth/Rest” could’ve been on a long-ago Bruce Hornsby record with nary a raised eyebrow, and among Vernon’s many B-side covers was a Raitt-worshiping version of “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” I might begin to complain if Bon Iver tackled, oh, “The Greatest Love of All” … but maybe not?
To distract further from the words being sung, the Jagjaguwar label recently released on iTunes a “deluxe” version of the album with abstract, ahh-inducing videos accompanying each track (take that, Spotify).Vernon’s recent U.S.tour, with an inspired stop at the Winspear, effectively completed the seduction.
What sayeth you, folks? Why do I love what’s essentially a folk-rock Enya so much? Come to think of it, why do I love Enya so much?
Go here for more year-end pop music highlights. Be back tomorrow for a discussion about the ballad that did wonders for in-car crying this year. Until then, ponder this: With every new comment that stings, a navel-gazing blogger gets his wings.