Friday, December 31, 2010

2010: The Year in Music

Years are such an arbitrary way to bracket our discussion of pop culture. Sure, lots of stuff happens in 12 months, and that's certainly a substantial enough time period to allow you to discuss trends, movements, and other stuff that takes more than a few weeks to unfold. But lots of stuff happens in 11 months or 13 months or maybe even in a month. And unlike the movie industry, which has the Oscars to shape its release schedule, popular music lacks any real kind of ceremony to dictate when artists or labels should release their albums (the Grammys simply do not count).

But, unfortunately for the chronologically contrarian, years are pretty much all we've got. After all, it's much easier for everyone to have a conversation about a given period of time in culture if they agree on what that time period is. And isn't the conversation really what these year-end retrospectives are all about?

So, let's talk about what happened this year: the good, the bad, and, um, the Ke$ha*.

Everything old is new...but not like it used to be

2010 saw the release of albums by a whole bunch of artists who, at one time or another, I counted as my favorites. After releasing a string of band-approved solo albums, Broken Social Scene put out Forgiveness Rock Record, a quite good collection of songs that nonetheless managed to ignite little fire in my chest. The album has all the exquisitely-arranged instrumentation and knack for melody that made BSS one of my favorite groups back in college. But it didn't compel me to play it over and over like my favorite albums and songs of 2010. That might just reflect my growing disinterest in bands who take themselves as seriously as BSS do, but maybe some formulas, no matter how well-honed, just get old.

The Suburbs, the new record by Arcade Fire, exists in the same zone. It's got a bunch of songs I enjoy and some I downright love ("Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)," the title track). The album suffers from too many ideas and not enough execution. It's not that those ideas are bad, but they rarely develop into the kinds of gut-punching moments that made Funeral a classic. Neon Bible's in the same boat, but the bright moments shine more clearly on that album because they're not buried in a sixteen-strong tracklist.

But while those two bands put out otherwise very good records that failed to do much for me, the Hold Steady unfortunately released a downright mediocre record. The band's always been on the verge of being a schmaltzy Gen X'er nostalgia project, but they've always been able to walk the line between endearingly sincere and downright corny. But on Heaven is Whenever, the band sounds like they've done all they can with their sound and are unsure of where to go next. And that unfortunately manifests itself in songs that sound like the Hold Steady but lack the subtlety and craftsmanship of their prime material.

Take "Hurricane J," a song iTunes tells me I listened to 27 times this year. So it's clearly got some great stuff: a massive hook, great loud/soft dynamics, an exuberant "oh-oh-oh"opening. But the lyrics sound more like a Hold Steady checklist ("those kids don't seem positive," the scene, etc.) and are far too on-the-nose ("I don't want you to settle/I want you to grow"). A damn shame, since these guys not only put out some of the finest music of the decade but were practically the standard-bearers for sincerity that didn't seem lame.

Oh yeah, and Daft Punk's Tron: Legacy soundtrack sucks.

...Unless it is

Then again, several of my old favorites put out new material in 2010 that measures up to, and in some cases surpasses, their best. Spoon's Transference was unfortunately buried in the anonymity of early January, when the luster of the previous year's best albums hasn't yet faded. It's too bad, since Transference is a terrific album, chock full of the spidery, intelligent indie rock that made the band a staple of the indie mainstream. If it doesn't reach the towering heights of Kill the Moonlight or Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, the album definitely adds a bunch of songs to the canon of all-time great Spoon songs ("Got Nuffin," "Written in Reverse," "Who Makes Your Money") and even pushes Spoon's well-worn formula forward with some new tricks (the hazy synth blooms on "Money," the Billy Squier stomp of "Nuffin").

Charge Shot!!! favorite Jamey Johnson also put out a very good new record this year, one that has been the subject of much hyperbolic praise from people who don't normally write about country music. But the thing that frosts my ass is that The Guitar Song, as good as it is, isn't nearly as consistent or effective as Johnson's 2008 album, That Lonesome Song. That record drew the same kind of critical gushing as Guitar, but it was mostly from the country music establishment. Lonesome Song lacks a single weak track, including "In Color," Johnson's somewhat corny paean to mainstream country radio. Its analogue on The Guitar Song, "My Way to You," is an overblown, melodramatic flop and by far the worst song on the behemoth double-disc album.

But despite Guitar's regrettable overreach, it showcases the unstoppable swampy drawl and sparse, witty songwriting that has made Johnson a worthy successor to Jones, Jennings, and Nelson. "Can't Cash My Checks," "Lonely at the Top," and Johnson's cover of Kris Kristofferson's "For the Good Times" are as good as anything on Lonesome Song (except maybe the towering "High Cost of Living").

The National's High Violet might actually be the best album of their career. The band have been playing subtle variations on the mopey middle-aged man rock that has become their trademark, adding and removing sounds and generic conventions over the past decade. High Violet is a supremely confident slice of triumphantly sad music that features the crispest songwriting and arrangements of the band's career. "Bloodbuzz Ohio" is a roaring, propulsive track that transforms the, well, buzz of its heady intro into a sky-high chorus the likes of which are rarely seen amongst the navel-gazing milieu of modern indie rock. "England" is even more ambitious, and it's hard to imagine a more fully-formed National song than "Lemonworld."

I've already sang the praises of Nachtmystium's Addicts: Black Meddle, Pt. 2, but it's worth repeating just how ballsy it is to put out this kind of record in a scene that barely tolerates a professionally-produced album, much less a synth-drenched pop black metal opus like Addicts.

That New Hotness

But though 2010 saw the release of stellar new material by already-great artists, it was arguably more noteworthy for the new faces it introduced to the music not-buying public. Sleigh Bells put out the best M.I.A. album of the year, one that is so wonderfully impossible to categorize that I've changed its genre name five or six times since I downloaded it.

Anybody'll tell you that Best Coast was all I talked about for a month or two this summer. And though her bite-sized bits of sunstroked pop might be better digested in EP form, Crazy on You was a really excellent record that showcased singer/songwriter Bethany Cosentino's honey-coated voice and knack for infinitely hummable hooks. There were times this year when I just put "Boyfriend" and "Our Deal" on repeat. She and Wavves (whose King of the Beach contained two of the most indelible pop-punk nuggets of the year in "Idiot" and "Post-Acid") really were the Brad Pitt and whoever Brad Pitt's dating of the indie rock world this year.

There really were just too many great new acts this year, so I'll just name a few so that this thing doesn't stretch out to Boivin-level grandiosity: Janelle MonĂ¡e, Yuck, How to Dress Well, Free Energy, Fang Island, Delorean, and kinda-newcomers Das Racist all put out terrific material in 2010.

Chill Out, Bro, and Roll on Dubs

Of course, a discussion of oh-ten in music would be sorely lacking without at least a passing mention of the chillwave "movement" that pissed off bloggers and turned several hours of this year's Pitchfork music festival into an extended bathroom break. So here's a passing mention: chillwave was a thing, a thing that's more diverse than most give it credit for, but a thing characterized above all else by dudes trying really hard to sound like they're not trying. The sound of bands like Neon Indian (who, to be fair, were more of an '09 thing) and Nite Jewel is practically apathy manifested in aural form. So even though I like several of the groups in this not-really-a-genre (especially Washed Out), chillwave never really made an impact on me because it tried so hard not to.

The first year of the new decade also saw dubstep go mainstream. The U.K. electronic music subgenre is characterized by clipped vocal samples, repressive bass lines, and guys who work out too much and wear Ed Hardy. Groups like Bassnectar and Katy B sold out theaters in the U.S. and abroad, and pop hitmakers from Rihanna to Snoop Dogg started to incorporate elements of the druggy, wobbly sound into their music.

The LeBrons of Rhythm & Soul (in a good way)

Not-so-freeway Ricky Ross also put out an album that makes his previous material look sloppy and hesitant by comparison. Teflon Don is so rich and luxuriant that it practically glows. Ross couldn't have tried any harder to make his beats sound expensive, what with all the money-printing sound effects and glitzy synths. Songs like "MC Hammer" and "Maybach Music III" evoke visions of platinum watches, million-dollar mansions, and Versace sofas. With Don, the bawse might be able to make those visions a reality.

Yeah, it's the album that features "Fuck You," but Cee-Lo's The Lady Killer is also an excellent album even without its world-conqueringly profane smash single. The erstwhile Gnarls Barkley singer went all out on this one, putting together a collection of ear-worming future soul that rivals his best solo and Barkley material. "Satisfied" simultaneously channels '70s countrypolitan and prime Prince, and "Bright Lights Bigger City" is the best Bond theme Shirely Bassey nobody bothered to write.

Big Boi practically soundtracked my summer with his massively delayed debut solo album, Sir Lucious Left Foot: Son of Chico Dusty. Proving that he's every bit the brilliant weirdo as Andre 3000, his co-conspirator in Outkast, Antwan Patton released an album in 2010 that not only lived up to the hype but exceeded most peoples' lofty expectations. Even more remarkable is how forward-thinking songs like "Shutterbugg" and "You Ain't No DJ" sounded considering that they might have been in the can for the past two or three years. Of course, "Shine Blockas" (unjustly slept on by yours truly when Pitchfork leaked it late last year) proved that there's no finer traditionalist than Mr. Boi in modern hip-hop.

2010 was also the year of the mixtape, with J. Cole, Freddie Gibbs, Joell Ortiz, and Big K.R.I.T. dropping tapes that rivaled the best LPs of the year. Wiz Khalifa was the breakout star of the year, but just 'cuz the dude turned suburban kids onto mixtape hip-hop doesn't mean he's not a flash in the pan.

... Feels like I'm missing something. Oh well. Time to hand out the awards.

The "Rattled by the Rush" Award for the Band Who (Seriously) Needs to Try Harder

It topped year-end lists and made bloggers cream themselves, but the new album (Before Today) by Ariel Pink & Haunted Graffiti just made me wonder why this dude was so afraid to sound interested in the (admittedly terrific) songs he'd written. "Round and Round" really does contain some phenomenally subtle songwriting touches, but his deadpan delivery and his been-there-done-that cheesy '70s synth lines were indicative of a generation of artists unwilling or unable to commit to their material.

The "Late to the Party, Richter" Award for Best Artist of 2009

A straight guy probably shouldn't be this utterly charmed by a man who isn't Don Draper, but the French-Canadian Nick Drake-isms of Leif Vollebekk had me head over heels. His music is often little more than his voice (he sings in French, too!) nimbly-picked acoustic guitar and a bit of careful drums or piano, but his gift for phrasing and melody makes his best material unforgettable. I listened to "You Couldn't Lie to Me in Paris" more times that I was practically speaking fake French in my sleep.

The Sparta Award for the Two Kings of 2010

Of course, I couldn't get enough of Kanye West's unfortunately-titled My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy this year, but the album that snuck up and threatened to dethrone the pimp at the top of Mt. Olympus was none other than Deerhunter's Halcyon Digest. I've always found the psychedelic noodlings of Bradford Cox & co. to be too vague to be effective, but something just clicked for me on Digest. The album manages to be subtle without being deadpan, sweet but not precious, psychedelic and yet focused, and always really, really catchy. The aquarian nightscape of "Helicopter," the sublimely jarring horn sections on "Coronado" and "Fountain Stairs," and the righteous jangle-pop shuffle of "Revival" are just a few of the unforgettable moments on this truly momentous album.

And as a late Christmas gift to you, I'll just go ahead and not talk about Kanye anymore. My feelings, after all, are well-documented.

* I think the picture qualifies as a sufficient discussion of Mrs. Dollar Sign.