Every year, the Reader music staff rounds up the highlights, major trends and favorite albums of the prior 12 months.

Hope Survives by Tim McMahan

Two years ago for The Reader’s Year in Review wrap-up article, I said that it was the beginning of the end, that there had become a universal recognition that the best days for those who make a living making music were very likely behind them.

That was in the year 2009 B.S. – Before Spotify. 

Now it’s 2011 and nothing has changed, not really. Except for one thing: There used to be a glimmer of hope that a talented band with good songs could maybe land a record deal with some small independent label. That glimmer of hope continues to fade, and not just for young bands like local heroes So-So Sailors, who in any other year would have had labels like Saddle Creek or Merge clamoring to release their debut album. No, even established acts like Morrissey have been left out in the cold. Last week, after a successful national tour that included a live performance on Conan, Morrissey announced, “I now no longer expect to live long enough to experience an offer to record for a grownup label….The world, I expect, will somehow endure, even as the follow-up to Years of Refusal grows less and less likely.”

Left with the choice of either going the self-release route (like So-So Sailors) or never getting his music heard, Morrissey, it seems, has chosen the latter. How many other bands or songwriters are choosing a similar path? Sure, online digital services like Spotify now give us access to all the music all the time, but with virtually no way to generate money, fewer labels are releasing fewer “albums.”

And yet… bands persevere. Music continues to be made. Live performances are only getting better and fantastic albums continue to be released. And to prove it, here’s the list of my top-10 favorite albums in 2011 (in no particular order):

— Eleanor Freidberger, Last Summer (Merge)

— So-So Sailors, Young Hearts (self-release)

— The Decemberists, The King Is Dead (Rough Trade)

— Destroyer, Kaputt (Merge)

— The Beastie Boys, Hot Sauce Committee Pt. 2 (Parlophone)

— Future Islands, On the Water (Thrill Jockey)

— Stephen Malkmus, Mirror Traffic (Matador)

— M83, Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming (Mute)

— EMA, Past Life Martyred Saints (Souterrain Transmissions)

— Big Harp, White Hat (Saddle Creek)

Big in Omaha by Chris Aponick

While technology and the music business’ economy continue complicating life for those looking to survive in the music industry, there was still plenty of activity in Omaha’s music scene. This is what was big in Omaha during 2011.

* Emphatic: The local hard rock heroes became major label modern rockers with the release of their Atlantic Records debut Damage. Label executive Jeff Blue and big-time producer Howard Benson made Damage with the band, which once again became the core duo of guitarist/songwriter Justin McCain and singer Patrick Wilson. A vocal injury to Wilson derailed a semi-homecoming at Stir Cove this summer, so the band has yet to take a local victory lap to celebrate their record. Only Emphatic knows whether that’s an accidental oversight or an intentional 311-sized snub of the band’s Omaha roots.

* Aksarben Village: The midtown development and its cozy Stinson Park amphitheater hosted two big summer music concerts, after flood concerns washed out events at the riverfront-situated Lewis & Clark Landing. Playing With Fire’s Sharon Jones-headlined show and the three-year-old MAHA Music Festival found success of the Aksarben grass. MAHA organizers have already secured Aksarben Village for next year’s event, slated for Saturday, August 11, 2012.

* Red Sky Festival: Headliners like Kid Rock and the Zac Brown Band pulled in crowds to TD Ameritrade Park, but those same crowds were nowhere to be found on the oven-hot slabs of concrete in north downtown during daytime sets. That failing is Red Sky’s, as several acts would have pulled similar crowds for more-expensive club or casino shows. Even 311’s homecoming, which coincided with the band’s release day for Universal Pulse, drew much less than stadium capacity. Still, the Metropolitan Entertainment & Convention Authority’s parking lot/baseball stadium music series will be back from July 17-22, 2012. 

* Local “supergroups”: Get to know the So-So Sailors, Conduits and Icky Blossoms. Actually, you might already know them. All three of these rising acts feature successful local music veterans. Icky Blossoms is the post-dance rave-up indentity, led by Tilly & the Wall’s Derek Pressnall, Conduits’s Jenna Morrison is surrounded with wily players, capped off by the fractured guitar bliss of ex-Eagle Seagall member J.J. Idt, and So-So Sailors is Ladyfinger singer Chris Machmuller’s soft-pop odyssey aided by the Bruces’ Alex McManus, among others.

* Locally-produced video: Want to hear what a local or regional band sounds like? Chances are there’s a local videographer who has captured that band’s soul in moving picture form for you to check out. Love Drunk, Ingrained, Sound Survelliance and others, many of them aided by HearNebraska.org’s band width, have gained traction by their unique approaches to music videos.  

Ten Unranked Favorites of 2011

— Reigning Sound, Abdication (Vice)

— Menomena, Mines (Barsuk)

— Tapes ‘N Tapes, Outside

— Kurt Vile, Smoke Ring For My Halo (Matador)

— Pajama Club, Pajama Club (Lester)

— The Head & the Heart, The Head & the Heart (Sub-Pop)

— Scott H. Biram, Bad Ingredients (Bloodshot)

— The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, Belong (Slumberland)

— The Airborne Toxic Event, All At Once (Island)

— Zola Jesus – Conatus (Sacred Bones)

Honorable Mentions: Liam Finn, FOMO (Yep-Roc), Yuck, Yuck (Fat Possum), Sam Roberts, Collider (Zoe/Rounder), Soft Moon, Soft Moon (Captured Tracks), Deer Tick, Divine Providence (Partisan)

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