The year in music: The Throne was king

Yes, 2011 was another challenging year.

Like last year, it was hard inside the music industry and out, as economic uncertainty and cultural uneasiness had nearly everyone on edge. But this year, there was a difference. There were glimmers of hope -- on several fronts.

The debut from The Throne, the collaboration between Jay-Z and Kanye West, became the first major release in recent years to drop without leaking to the Internet first, proving that bootleggers and hackers don't always win. Lady Gaga -- with a major assist from Amazon.com -- offered a different strategy at combating illegal downloading. In the week of the release of her highly anticipated "Born This Way" album, the company put it on sale for 99 cents, essentially eliminating any reason for even the curious not to buy it. (The move, designed to help raise Amazon's profile as a music download seller and cloud service provider, ended up pushing sales of the album over the 1 million mark in its first week.)

In another sign of the shifting times, two artists on independent labels scored No. 1 albums, Cake and Mac Miller, whose "Blue Slide Park" became only the second independently distributed album ever to top the Billboard charts. This year's Grammys also reflected indie labels' growing power, as Arcade Fire, on North Carolina-based indie Merge Records, won the prized album of the year award for "The Suburbs," beating out major-label superstars Eminem, Katy Perry and Lady Gaga. Jazz singer Esperanza Spalding, from the tiny label Heads Up International, was named best new artist, over teenage sensation Justin Bieber and hip-hop powerhouse Drake.

More important, musicians seemed to be finding new coping mechanisms and sharing them with their fans. While the charts were still packed with club anthems designed to help people dance away their worries, more of them have had a distinct message of hope. Sure, LMFAO's "Party Rock Anthem" and Britney Spears' "Til the World Ends" dominated the airwaves with mindless escapism, but so did esteem-building hits from Lady Gaga ("Born This Way") and Katy Perry ("Firework") -- both part of the year's "It Gets Better" theme that everyone from Demi Lovato ("Skyscraper") to Lil Wayne ("How to Love") tapped into for at least some part of the year. If only Amy Winehouse could somehow have challenged her struggles in a similar way, we could have celebrated another great album rather than mourning her death from alcohol poisoning in July.

Even Adele moved toward empowerment with her breakup album "21," the year's biggest-seller, going from the bluesy lament "Rolling in the Deep" to the taking-the-high-road ballad "Someone Like You."

And, as usual, Jay-Z offered another blueprint for success -- putting egos aside and working with someone else. What a cray idea! In many ways, Rihanna's current smash "We Found Love" summarizes the year in music nicely with its mantra-refrain. We found love in a hopeless place. We found love in a hope-less place.

And we should feel lucky because we did.

--GLENN GAMBOA

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