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My Beautiful Gargantuan Sprawling Music Post
Another year, another huge pile of music I listen to for every waking minute because the thought of spending even a single second alone with my own thoughts is simply too terrible to contemplate. So I’m feeling pretty good about this list! Are you excited? I’m excited!
Note: I do not claim this list is a Definitive List of The Best Music of 2010. It’s just the music that made the biggest impression on me, the albums that I wanted to listen to over and over again. Take it with a grain of salt, but recognize that my music taste is probably better than yours.
Skittish, The Perfect Shade of Green
This album is too big, and came out too late in the year, for me to feel I can assess it fairly. But it’s remarkable for the amount of ambition coming from a local (to MN) band I’d never heard of before this album. It’s a double album, and the stylistic diversity on it is pretty remarkable, from the shanty-ish stomp of “Love Songs and Lullabyes” to the power balladry of “Maggie” to “Bump in the Night”’s eerie folk.
It’s hard for me to pick standout tracks yet; one of the excellent things about the album is that I don’t hear any tracks where Skittish just falls on their faces, but besides the singles few have jumped out at me just yet. I will say that I like the atmosphere and main melody of the sprawling “Rearview Mirror”, and “Wrecking Ball” is pure rawk, perhaps more than any other song I’ve heard this year. To say more would be to reveal that I’m far more familiar with the first side of this album than the second. From the looks of the lyrics, it’s going to be a grower, and I’m really looking forward to digging into that second side.
Here’s an excellent interview with the lead singer and songwriter. Observant readers will notice an Easter egg of sorts about halfway through. No giving it away if you already know!
The National, High Violet
The National are a Sad Bastard band whose two albums that I’ve heard have been slow, steady growers. Their last, Boxer, seemed solid but never impressed me enough to earn any of my (official LJ) accolades. Either because I knew what to expect this time around, because I gave it more of a chance, or just because the songs are better, High Violet grabbed me (slowly and hesitantly) more than Boxer ever did.
I suspect it’s love-it-or-hate-it, but singer Matt Berninger’s baritone voice carries the lyrics perfectly over the usually lush instrumentation. Maybe more importantly, High Violet’s drums are surprisingly propulsive for such a lyrically downbeat album, so while it has its dirges (particularly closer “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks”), most of the songs bring the jams. The middle section, with “Lemonworld”, “Bloodbuz Ohio,” and the stellar “Conversation 16”, is my favorite run of songs. I always like an album with a strong middle.
Joanna Newsom, Have One On Me
I probably wrote about this album more than any other music in 2010, which isn’t saying a lot, but I don’t have a lot left to say here. As you may know or recall, it’s a triple album with 18 songs and it runs over 2 hours. Joanna Newsom has a voice that a lot of people can’t tolerate. She also writes amazing, rich, evocative lyrics and plays the harp like a fiend. Some kind of… harp-fiend? Ok, I’m not sure about that simile.
It would be unreasonable to expect Newsom to be in top form for the entirety of Have One On Me, and frankly she’s not, but she comes close enough to impress and there are some real gems on it. The most commonly cited point of entry is “Good Intentions Paving Co.,” as well it should be, since it’s likable from the big tasty layered vocals right down to the trombone solo that wraps it up. There are other early grabs — as I mentioned before and can’t resist doing again, “Go Long is gorgeous from the very first listen — but even the songs that seem like lesser ones on early listens have charms that start to reveal themselves with patience.
Mines shares a lot with High Violet: it’s an unhappy, uncomfortable album whose drums often keep it rolling along even when the lyrics are trying to drag it down. In fact, now that I think about it, Mines is pretty piano-heavy too. Still, despite all the similarities, I’d never confuse Mines for High Violet; the latter is more resigned, more weary, whereas Mines is often twitchy — witness the fractured ode to sex addiction (?) TAOS. In short, Mines sounds like the work of a much younger band, which it is, even if on many songs they sound kind of world-weary.
One of the more depressing songs on Mines, Tithe blows me away with its slow build to those amazing guitar stabs, and with its vaguely hopeless lyrics sung by the guy whose voice I don’t even usually like all that much but it just works here. And then there’s that thunderous, ominous opening to Killemall, the sick bari sax thuds on Five Little Rooms (and its obfuscated, seriously uneasy lyrics), and the shitstorm mayhem that terminates “BOTE.” And again, though the themes are often depressing, the sequencing never allows the album to drag, and it’s an engaging listen from start to finish.
Das Racist, Shut Up, Dude & Sit Down, Man
Most uneven albums on this list, most fun albums on this list, and I couldn’t pick just one so they’re sharing the spot. Up front: these are the two free (downloads linked above) mixtapes released this year by the dudes who did “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell” (if you haven’t heard this, click at your own peril and with forewarning that it is not representative of what’s on the rest of these mixtapes). It’s the stupidest quasi-hit song of the year. Shut Up, Dude and Sit Down, Man have some of the stupidest raps of the year on them, but they’re not just fucking around. I mean, they are fucking around, but they’re really good at it. Take, for example, Rainbow in the Dark, which appears on Shut Up Dude right after “Pizza Hut” and blows it and most other rap tracks I’ve heard this year out of the water. It’s fun and silly and catchy and the lines get stuck in my head for days. It’s tempting to just start quoting stuff at you now but I’ll resist the urge; instead, I’ll recommend in the strongest terms that you listen to “Ek Shaneesh”, in particular the last verse. I can’t really say the same for the video, which is probably not something you want to watch at work or possibly anywhere.
So ok, Shut Up, Dude is about half amazing fun raps and half experiments in other genres that I wouldn’t miss if I never heard them again. Sit Down, Man is harder for me to characterize: it’s less sloppy and better produced but has a lot of stuff I don’t particularly care for: in particular, the guest artists, who almost all sounds like they’re trying to be Das Racist and failing. “Rapping 2 U” might be the best example of this: Himanshu (aka Heems) and Victor Vazquez (aka Kool A.D.), in that order, both drop verses that are just a blast all around, and then some Lakutis guy does his thing and it kind of sucks in comparison, I think. How about instead “You Can Sell Anything,” which is nice and short and does a nice job showing off the self-awareness that keeps these guys from being just a joke. Plus, “Caveman porn star riding on a unicorn / Undercover cop and I’m wearin’ a uniform / Plus I wrote all of my rhymes in cuneiform / Hella years ago, B.C., you better be informed.” Ok, I quoted a lyric. I’m sorry, I couldn’t resist. Go get the mixtapes, they’re free, you’ll either love these guys or hate them. I’m done now. Next.
The Arcade Fire, The Suburbs
BAM out of the gate with a jaunty piano tune comes “The Suburbs,” first and eponymous track on the Arcade Fire’s first album, sweeping away the murk and gloom of Neon Bible and replacing it with… well, uncertainty. Wistfulness? The Arcade Fire avoid most of the cheap shots they could be taking at the album’s subject, or at least dilute them with a strange kind of fondness. Win Butler seems to be working out how he feels about the suburbs on this album, and he does uncertainty a lot better than he does stridency.
I was listening to this again the other day and it struck me that an awful lot of it is pretty standard big arena-friendly rock, but it’s done well. All the elements seem to be in the right place, and it’s like U2 at their best, which is not at all an original comparison for me to be making, but there it is. And then there’s the moments that push it just that little bit further into some kind of transcendence, like the abrupt but wholly right-feeling tempo change three-quarters of the way through “Ready to Start,” right where most bands would call it a climax and repeat the chorus a time or two more before throwing in the towel. Or like when the unprecedented (for the Arcade Fire) 80’s-y or disco-y or whatever it is of “Sprawl II” sweeps away the gloom of “Sprawl I” like cresting a hill and seeing the city lights, and Régine Chassagne outdoes not only herself but her husband Win too.
Janelle Monáe, The ArchAndroid
There’s a strong possibility that the first half of this album (“Suite 2”) would be #3 or #2 on this list. The funky, poppy, alternately cerebral (“Dance or Die”) and vaguely Madonna-esque (“Locked Inside,” the chorus at least) run of three songs that leads off would be remarkable enough, but then there’s the pair of front-runners for Song of the Year, “Cold War” and “Tightrope,” with their accompanying videos occupying opposite ends of the spectrum of what a great music video can be. And, shit, even the remix of “Tightrope” is fire, showing it’s just as much a pleasure when Monáe spits as when she sings.
I find that The ArchAndroid falls off a bit after that in terms of how much I enjoy the songs, but their diversity and the proficiency with which they’re performed continues to amaze. You’ve got your J-pop (“Wondaland”), your shoegaze psychedelia (“Mushrooms and Roses”), your Broadway showtune (“BaBopByeYa”), and somehow they all fit loosely into a star-crossed android love story of some kind. And re: that story, I suspect it’s more a loose framework on which to hang some great songs than a lens through which to view every single song. Part of me is disappointed by the album’s refusal to be as coherent as its presentation implies (though if it tried to be, we probably wouldn’t have “Tightrope”), and I find some of the tracks eminently skippable, but overall I’m just picking nits here to justify this album’s not being in my top 3. At this point the big winners could be permuted in almost any order and I’d still feel it was justifiable.
Kanye West, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
I will concede that this album is overrated, but only a little. It’s gotten so much good press and so many overblown accolades from so many far-flung sources that I almost feel like there’s something wrong with how I’m hearing it to decide to slot it at #3. Nevertheless, I’ll soldier on with what I love about it and then get my gripes off my chest at the end.
I read a review of Black Swan or something that referred to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy as “trash,” and God damn it, it is trash, it’s Kanye spilling his guts and throwing shit fits and acting like he’s the center of the Goddamn universe, and as far as I’m concerned he gets away with it because in spite of it all he takes his craft seriously. The production is appropriately bombastic and hits everywhere it needs to: most of these songs sound huge in every way. I don’t have a benchmark for his rapping because this is the only album of his I’ve heard, but if I don’t take him too seriously when he’s rapping about how he’s the next Zeus plus King Tut, I like his flow a lot. Despite many of his guests’ being considered better rappers than him, I find Kanye gets off most of the lines that make me chuckle, and he seems to be by far the best at the snotty delivery that makes them work well. The combination of the often knowingly jokey, often melodramatically self-pitying lyrics and the enormous production just makes this album a great deal of trashy fun all around.
As promised, the gripes: It’s front-loaded, a little. Chris Rock’s skit at the end of “Blame Game” is funny maybe twice, then it’s just tawdry and lame. I’m lukewarm on the last track, especially the lyrics. The second halves of the following songs drag on too long: “All of the Lights” (Fergie? Seriously?), “Runaway” (the extended outro is effective in its way but doesn’t hold up to repeated listens), “Devil in a New Dress” (Rick Ross’s verse is pretty good, and the build to it is excellent, but it’s completely out of place). I’ve never liked the transition from the transcendent “Dark Fantasy” to the gritty lo-fi of “Gorgeous,” even if I accept that it was probably a conscious decision to have that jarring change. A lot of the lyrics depict attitudes towards women that I have a really hard time shrugging off, Chris Rock’s non-defense notwithstanding. Oh, and then I guess there’s the leaked video (not linked here, Google it if you want) for “Monster” — my favorite song on the album and one of my favorites of the year — which is either rabidly misogynistic or a grotesque meditation on the ill effects of fame on the psyche. I don’t know. There, now that’s off my chest. Let’s just say, in a nutshell, that Kanye’s coming across as misogynistic is why he got beat in my list by a skinny white Canadian homosexual. How’s that for a soundbite?
Owen Pallett, Heartland
Following up on my mild complaint about The ArchAndroid’s refusal to cohere is an album that can be understood more richly, if not thoroughly, by heeding its central conceit: Heartland’s main character Lewis lives in a world, Spectrum, in which the deity is named Owen. You will notice that name appears just above; needless to say, this is no coincidence. Besides painting himself as a god, though, Pallett doesn’t flatter himself (“ha!”, right?); he’s more of a classical Greek god: callous, self-absorbed, shamelessly lusting after his followers such as Lewis.
This is, in my opinion, a legitimate example of where knowing about a musician’s personal life is important to appreciating his music; yes, Owen Pallett is gay. One of my favorite pet theories about this album is that the song “Lewis Takes Off His Shirt” — one of its best; choose from the somewhat nonsensical official or weather-defying live video — is so named because while in it, Lewis is declaring his intention to find Owen and kill him, Owen only cares that Lewis is stripping because it’s hot out. And because he’s telling the story, he titles the songs after what he cares about.
There’s a strange interplay between Lewis-as-main-character and Owen-as-storyteller in Heartland, and it’s a large part of what makes Heartland so fascinating lyrically. Many of the lyrics are sung by Lewis, but of course it is Owen really singing them, and Owen who wrote the words; how much autonomy does Lewis really have? He complains in “Oh Heartland, Up Yours!” about Owen’s portrayal of him, but is it how he’s depicted, or how he’s made?
The depth in this album would mean nothing, of course, if the songs weren’t good, but I love them: start to finish, they sound great and like almost nothing else I’ve heard. It’s a delight to hear a symphony orchestra employed in the service of pop music by someone who can actually make use of their skills instead of just having the cellos wail for some instant gravitas or dropping in some melodramatic flute trills. Perhaps the best example is the hectic “Flare Gun,” the album version of which seems to be inaccessible on the internet. Add a dusting of electronics and you have an album that satisfies sonically as much as it does lyrically. Pallett’s voice sounds better than ever. This album fires on all cylinders.
Big Boi, Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty
Prior to Sir Lucious Left Foot, it’s safe to say I regarded hip hop as something I’d want to listen to only occasionally. A sometimes food, if you will. Nowadays, I’ve incorporated it into my musical diet more evenly, and I think I’m healthier for it. Years from now, I think I will look back on this album as one that, like Kid A a decade ago, broadened my perspective on what music could do and still be enjoyable to me. While it may have been something of a “right place, right time” kind of deal, Lucious nevertheless made more of an impression on me than any other album in 2010, and that’s why it’s my album of the year.
Unlike my #s 2 and 3, Lucious is all over the place; it only barely manages to cohere, but somehow Big Boi holds it all together. Despite a truckload of guests and producers, this is very much his show, and he seems to keep it all in check through sheer force of personality. Nowhere does that personality assert itself so much as in his consistently deft but never monotonous rapping: listen to how he switches up his flow at “…sat in the back of class” in his first verse of “You Ain’t No DJ” for an example of what I mean. (Apologies for the censored video; it sounds terrible, but I like the video itself.)
It’s not in the spirit of objectivity to include this in my decision-making process, and Lucious probably still would have been #1 without it, but it’s also notable for getting me into OutKast. So far I have only really listened to Aquemini (solid but frontloaded) and Stankonia (overrated, mostly weak besides the singles), but it’s amazed me how much I loved Andre 3000’s verses on both of them and could take or leave Big Boi’s. To my ears, Lucious is a quantum leap for Boi in terms of his wordplay and his performance. So I guess he wins my Most Improved as well as my Best Album award this year.
Earlier this year I started writing a “tour guide” for this album; I think it’s almost done, but it kind of used up my ability to write about it. I’ll try to polish it off and post it sometime in the next couple weeks, in case anyone’s interested after all this. Thus, this list ends. Here’s to a great 2011, musically and otherwise.
Other Notables, In No Particular Order
Vampire Weekend, Contra
This band has its haters and detractors but I like the thing they do: the guy’s voice is pleasant and complements the music well, and it’s always peppy and fun to listen to. Contra takes the things that made their debut good and pushes them a little farther out from normal, and that it does this and succeeds is to be applauded.
The New Pornographers, Together
Another eminently listenable album from the New Pornos. Breaks approximately zero new ground. Still a fantastic album chock-full of juicy power pop melodies and fun.
In theory I applaud the change in direction, and in ways it is successful: this is clearly a more tortured and disjointed album than its predecessors. Hard to say it’s as successful, though; some of the tunes just aren’t there. Enough still are, though, to make this worth a mention.
Sufjan Stevens, The Age of Adz
Sufjan can just not scale it back anymore, can he. An hour long EP, and now this monstrosity which is so backloaded it’s not even funny. It’s a strong album but, to me, a lot of the melodies seemed like an afterthought.
Frog Eyes, Paul’s Tomb: A Triumph
Furious and compelling like any Frog Eyes album. Spiky, forbidding and difficult like any Frog Eyes album. Combine the two: an album I can recognize as excellent but still don’t want to put on all that often.
The Extra Lens, Undercard
If you’d told me any time in the last two years that a John Darnielle effort wouldn’t make my top 10, I would have called you a liar and maybe punched you in the face if I was in a bad mood, but here we are. Of course, this sounds so tossed off I doubt it was much of an effort at all. At least, that’s what I’m telling myself in anticipation of the new Mountain Goats album proper in March. Nevertheless, a few good lines, a few memorable songs, not entirely forgettable.
Need More Time to Judge
Peter Peter Hughes, Fangio
This is the bassist for the Mountain Goats with an album about a South American race car driver fighting crime or something? I find it hard to get into mainly because dude’s voice is not very strong and he kind of covers it up with reverb, which who am I to talk but there it is.
Black Milk, Album of the Year
Guy is an amazing producer but his rapping — while I can recognize it as competent — doesn’t do a whole lot for me. Still, I need to give it more of a chance because the beats definitely deserve some more attention.
Sleigh Bells, Treats
Just way too punishing to throw on in most contexts, and I’m like 98% sure Jenn would hate the shit out of it. Sounds intriguing, but it’s just hard for me to want to listen to like 50 minutes of extreme distortion and clipping no matter how peppy the melodies are.
Flying Lotus, Cosmogramma
Very interesting, and kind of sort of good background music, but I just don’t really have a rubric for evaluating instrumental music. I had the same problem with Donuts. It’s interesting but not something I want to listen to repeatedly, which is my basic metric for putting something on The List.
Wolf Parade, Expo 86
These guys haven’t really done anything bad yet, but I liked At Mount Zoomer a fair bit less than their debut and I’m worried the trend will continue. I think I’ve only heard this once though, so far.
Rah Digga, Classic
No guest rappers on this at all, which seems kind of absurd now that I’m more familiar with rap, and now I can see why it’s usually not the case. Even the most skillful rapper will start to sound a bit samey after a while. Still, I have to listen to this more; I’ve only heard it a few times.
Surfer Blood, Astro Coast
I guess this is supposed to be like pretty much straight up but very well executed indie rock, which is okay, but the first time I heard it it sounded utterly unremarkable. One listen is not really fair to it though.
Cee-Lo, The Lady Killer
Another album I’ve heard exactly once. The intro struck me as unbearably cheesy but that shouldn’t ding the rest of it, but again, one listen’s not enough to judge.
Women, Public Strain
This got a lot of glowing reviews from sources I respect but I just can’t get behind the murky production and vocals that sound like they were mumbled at the bottom of a well. I do intend to give it some more tries, as it’s not utterly charmless: in particular, the wonky, jagged guitar line in (I think) the second track is compelling. But I think maybe the aesthetic just doesn’t work well for me.
Made no impression of any kind on me. I have literally no idea in my head of what it sounds like after hearing it two or three times.
Titus Andronicus, The Monitor
CALM DOWN, MAN! GUYS WHY IS THIS GUY SHOUTING SO MUCH?! DUDE ARE YOU GONNA SING OR SHOUT, PLEASE PICK ONE. THIS ISN’T WORKING FOR ME.
The Roots, How I Got Over
So this is what boring rap sounds like.