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.
Hip-hop royalty Jay-Z and Kanye West join forces to inspire each other to even higher artistic heights. Not only did their rhymes rise to the challenge (especially in "Murder to Excellence") but their already-intricate deliveries improved, as they bob and weave with each other and the music on "Otis" and "---- in Paris."
2. TWILIGHT SINGERS, "DYNAMITE STEPS" (Sub Pop)
Greg Dulli drops another stunning soundtrack to the dark, art-house thriller playing in his mind. "She Was Stolen" is a sweet-sounding lover's lament/revenge fantasy. "On the Corner" conjures all sorts of seductive danger, while "Waves" is a return to his harder-edged, grungier days with the Afghan Whigs. It's the most compelling rock album of the year.
3. JOSEPH ARTHUR, "THE GRADUATION CEREMONY" (Lonely Astronaut)
He may not get the hype, but Arthur builds acoustic atmospherics as beautiful as Bon Iver and melodies as memorable as a slew of next-Dylan singer-songwriters. Add the lovely "Out on a Limb" and the poignant "Face in the Crowd," as well as his ode to our shared homeland "Midwest," to his impressive catalog.
Justin Vernon writes songs with the meticulous mastery of a painter, knowing exactly what words would make his angelic voice sound even better and what instrumentation makes his point even stronger. And yes, "Holocene" does deserve its song of the year Grammy nomination.
What makes RiRi's state-of-the-art dance pop better than the rest is her ability to soak in musical trends and cultural trends and sweat it out as her own thudding angst ("Where Have You Been?") and aching triumph ("We Found Love").
"Arlandria" for when you want to rock. "White Limo" for when you want to scream.
7. PATRICK STUMP, "SOUL PUNK" (Island)
The former Fall Out Boy front man recasts himself as Prince circa 1982 with spectacular results.
8. LUCINDA WILLIAMS, "BLESSED" (Lost Highway)
Married bliss hasn't spoiled her keen, detailed observations ("Don't Know How You're Living") or blunted her outspoken views ("Soldier's Song").
9. ADELE, "21" (Columbia)
Yeah, it gets a little sappy in the middle, but "Rolling in the Deep" couldn't be a more stylish kiss-off and the soul-clap sass of "Rumor Has It" will get you through -- if you can put the tissues away and take "Someone Like You" off repeat.
The reunited "Tell All Your Friends"-era lineup delivers the band's hardest anthem "El Paso" and its catchiest single "Faith (When I Let You Down)" within the album's first seven minutes before heading off in various interesting directions.
11. LYKKE LI, "WOUNDED RHYMES" (LL/EMI)
The Swedish singer-songwriter twists blues, doo-wop, '60s girl-group pop and Euro dance rhythms into her own unique sound.