It's always humbling at year's end to remember you've missed so much—you never can hear all the worthwhile music, know all the worthwhile bands, go to all the worthwhile shows.
This is less of a problem, thankfully, the older one gets. To a maddening extent, you're stuck with the generation you're born into. Even when you're a teenager discovering music older than your parents, you're saddled in the historical accident of your conception, and you listen to ancients with contemporary ears. Youth swirls in a maelstrom of creative churning, but the noise falls away through adulthood, and you're left with a set of artists—however varied—who limn the borders of a common experience; who help you make sense of who you are, where you are, when you are. How a generation—a fractious jumble of humans with little in common but a haphazard pile of birthdays—coheres into a demographic force moving through time together, shaping circumstance, is one of the great mysteries of culture.
So while I appreciate new artists, the music that resonates with me mostly comes from people I've listened to all my life. And the music I loved in 2011 won't be pegged to that calendar year, but accumulate meaning as it lives alongside me.
When an artist you know and love releases an album you love. I've listened to Bill Callahan since I was a sullen, alienated teenager and he was a sullen, alienated lo-fi pioneer called Smog. I first heard him lying in the dark listening to middle-of-the-night college radio as the deejay played the whole first side of Sewn to the Sky. It was thrilling. He was awkward, expressed little regard for the conventions of musicality and seemingly didn't care if he was liked, but he had made this album that groped out for … something. Fifteen or so albums later, now working under his own moniker, he released Apocalypse, a deeply humane and musical work that moved me so much I cried the first few times I heard it, even though parts of his wordplay were as prodding and funny as ever. Callahan covers so much in it—from his pride and disappointment in his country and its legacy and influence, to the boundaries between who an artist is and what he makes, to the rewards and reckonings on the precipice of middle age. No one speaks more eloquently on male desire than Callahan has and does, and few artists have so generously shared the beauty and terror in their evolution as a person, the pains and comforts of a raw sort of umbilical psychological connection to the rest of us humans, as he has.
When an artist you know and love releases an album you hate. I love the Mountain Goats. I have communed with the music of John Darnielle since someone lent me a hissing cassette of Zopilote Machine in the early '90s. He's one of my desert island artists, and I'd follow him anywhere. So it was devastating and strange to hear All Eternals Deck and feel … nothing. In fact, there were parts of it that I downright hated. I listened three times in a row, just to make sure I hadn't made some terrible cognitive error, and then listened to everything else he's ever made, to compare. Nothing. I put it away until a few weeks ago, when I listened again, and while I still don't love it, it's my old friend John, and I can hear him and everything I've always loved in him in it, and maybe it'll grow on me. But I must say I was mightily relieved when I heard a track from his upcoming album and immediately swooned.
When an artist you know and love dies. Trish Keenan (of Broadcast) died of complications from pneumonia on January 14, 2011. My generation lost part of its voice.