The Music Club

Taylor Swift, M.I.A., Das Racist, Arcade Fire, and Other Great Listens of 2010
New albums dissected over email.
Jan. 19 2011 5:40 PM

The Music Club

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Taylor Swift.
Taylor Swift

Dear Jody, Jonah, and Ann,

Unlike the three of you, as a critic-at-large I had no obligation to make one of these lists till yesterday. (Or rather, I made one, but it wasn't strictly musical.) Despite the running list I'd kept, crunching it took all day. (Worse, between Jonah's post and mine, the annual Village Voice  Pazz and Jop critics' poll got posted, with its insanely distracting mess of picks and comments.)

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There were 150-plus hours in my 2010 playlist—I'd call that a good year. When Jody says year-ends throw him off, he's not confessing ignorance but its opposite: Socrates- (or Rumsfeld-) like, the more critics know, the more we know we don't know.

The surfeit has made me (even) more of a dilettante: With delectable sounds emanating from every surface and platform, who can focus? Thus there are gleanings from all sorts of fields here, usually tilled by more diligent genre specialists before me. Often what I choose might be heard as less "authentic," but often that really just means an artist has sacrificed the more dug-in approach in favor of a broader engagement. I like it both ways. (I'll post my longer working list later this week at my blog, Zoilus.)

It's ungladiatorial of me, but I've long since decided ranking these things is a mug's game. Each artist and genre gives a head, gut, crotch, or soul-rush that can't rationally be compared. The closest I got was my impulse to designate Erykah Badu's the album of the year as a yoni-forward counterthrust to Kanye's cocksure version of complexity. (I agree that Janelle Monae and Nicki Minaj promised something similar but didn't quite deliver—Minaj apparently for commercial reasons, and Monae because too often she seems to be starring in an Afrocentric episode of Glee in her head, and the theatricality swamps the music.)

I've put each set of 25 albums or singles in alphabetical order and disqualified overlaps: The albums are linked to audio or video samples that may well have made the singles list otherwise. And while I'm tempted to make other grand sweeping claims in reaction to J's & J's, this is a long list so I'll confine myself to annotations for now.

24 ALBUMS (AND 1 DVD)

Agalloch: Marrow of The Spirit("Into the Painted Grey"). Sometimes scorned by metal purists, this Portland band's emotional frisson requires no apologetics.

Arcade Fire: The Suburbs ("We Used to Wait"). No record can touch their live show—the Terry Gilliam-directed Web simulcast of their Madison Square Garden concert was a highlight of this year—and this one's overstuffed, though as such part of a widespread return to the album, even the overambitious concept album. Its best songs roil with young-persons'-nostalgia, and an ensuing mix of ego and self-skepticism and restlessness they share with Taylor Swift. This hymn to the postal service—and by extension to pre-Internet music—is one favorite, along with the startling departure of the Euro-disco "Sprawl II [Mountains Beyond Mountains]." Also of note: This song's interactive  video by Chris Milk, which through the magic of Google Earth relocates the ground of the tune to wherever you happened to grow up and catches your heart by surprise.

Erykah Badu: New Amerykah Part 2: Return of the Ankh("Window Seat"). Badu has all the freakiness, ambition, and relevance that bigger or fresher names get credited for, and is one of the few "neo-soul" artists still doing the label proud, but doesn't get the same hype.

Das Racist: Sit Down, Man ("Hahahaha JK?"). The exact reverse of rap classicism; they give the lie to the current cliché that the most sophisticated discourse about race and politics will sound like "grown-up talk."

Eric Chenaux: Warm Weather With Ryan Driver (Soundcloud sampler). Word is finally, slowly spreading about this perennially neglected Canadian guitarist and vocalist who melds disruptive string-slinging skills honed in years of playing free improvisation with gentle folk songs that should be beloved of listeners to Nick Drake or Harry Nilsson's quieter stuff.

The Extra Lens: Undercard ("Adultery" [live]). John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats and poet/critic/philosopher/showman Franklin Bruno (formerly of Nothing Painted Blue, now the Human Hearts) revive their long-dormant collaboration.

Flying Lotus: Cosmogramma ("Do the Astral Plane"). Dance music meets abstraction more convincingly, joyfully than usual.

Frog Eyes: Paul's Tomb: A Triumph ("A Flower in a Glove"). From British Columbia, the most concise, narratively lateral concept album in rock this year, from a band whose listing vessel of ecological and gender-terror anthems never seems to find safe harbor in critics' approbation despite consistently outthinking and outrocking all comers.

Mary Halvorson Quintet: Saturn Sings ("Crack in the Sky no. 11"). Marnie Stern fans, here's your next female guitar hero; contemporary jazz fans, here's your new bandleader hero, with a knotty, long-form intensity inherited from mentor Anthony Braxton but a distinct voice of her own.

Lower Dens: Twin-Hand Movement("I Get Nervous"). Former "freak folk" singer Jana Hunter puts together, by hand, the best new electric-guitar band I heard all year.

Mantler: Monody ("Childman"). A little-known hometown favorite: Toronto composer Chris Cummings puts yacht-rock in a leaky, drunken boat and beguiles with some of the sweetest melodies anywhere—my default choice whenever I put on music this year.

Jason Moran: Ten ("Gangsterism Over 10 Years"). Jazz album of the year, by consensus—game-changing pianist's summing-up of his decade.

Oneohtrix Point Never: Returnal (title track). Ditto my comments on Flying Lotus.

Owen Pallett: Heartland ("Lewis Takes Off His Shirt") Formerly Final Fantasy—another concept album, this one self-deconstructing.

Pernice Brothers: Goodbye, Killer("Bechamel"). Unknown legend of power pop.

Robyn: Body Talk ("Dancing on My Own"). Fembot, no—singles machine, yes.

Bruce Springsteen: The PromiseDVD, directed by Thom Zimmy. (In-studio clip) The album is good but the documentary is amazing: I wrote about it at length here.

Superchunk: Majesty Shredding("Digging for Something" video, via Videogum). Fountain of youth.

Swans: My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky ("My Birth"). I think Michael Gira got tired of Nick Cave hogging all the old-scary-noise-master glory.

Taylor Swift: Speak Now ("Mine": not the lousy official video.) I agree with some of Jody's internal backlash here, but he takes it too far, seeming to expect Swift to turn from ingenue songwriter to mature craft-master in one leap rather than a few—this record finds her in transition, but with so much confidence, it's hard to hear it that way. You're right that she needs to learn that mean-spirited revenge songs that seemed empowering from a teen look bad on a grownup, but someone tell Avril Lavigne and Liz Phair that first, OK? And call them maudlin if you want, but I'm touched by the ones that struggle with losing her childhood, whether through the inevitable passages of time, relationship blunders or the effects of success—and all the songs sound better if you don't get caught up on whatever celebrity they're supposedly about and appreciate how the songs stand apart and make those tales into universal ones. I'm ready for her to stop being the princess of relatability (or the princess of anything, actually), but you have to admire the touch she has for it. And "Mine" is my single of the year.

Titus Andronicus: The Monitor("A More Perfect Union"). Best newish '90s-style indie band and hope-restoring crew of smartypants.

Kanye West: My Beautiful, Dark, Twisted Fantasy ("Runaway," in the much more bearable short version). Album of the year? sure, through sheer force of will. Its reception may be overblown, as Jon Caramanica said, but that's for many more reasons than mere group-think: post-"death of hip-hop" liberation from previous boundaries; a comeback for machismo, albeit the neurotic and defensive kind, after several Years of the Woman; social-media manipulation; and a sonic generosity and copiousness that serves as antidote to the over-simplification in hooks and choruses that another Times writer named Jon, Mr. Pareles, complained about in a widely disliked feature late this year—I thought Pareles was too cranky and one-sided, but I think there was a notable split between minimalists and the going-for-baroque camps in both mainstream and non-mainstream music that's worth further talk.

25 SINGLES

Laurie Anderson: "Only an Expert." She wasn't gone, but it's nice to have her gimlet-eyed perspective back at less than Moby Dick scale.

Best Coast: "Boyfriend" (Un[?]intentionally self-parodying "critical" video). Of all the beach-invoking, fuzzy-sounding, Spector-fetishizing indie bands that creased the horizon this year, I'm fondest of Beth Cosentino's, maybe because they sound like they're playing in this style by choice rather than because they're not capable of much else, and maybe because her voice is so reminiscent of a young Neko Case. Others I like in this general vein: Dum Dum Girls, Warpaint, Beach House. Not Wavves. Not Sleigh Bells, except—see below.

Aloe Blacc: "I Need A Dollar." Sham-Stax, sure, but it hit the 2010 mood square in the jaw.

Justin Bieber, remix by Shamantis: "U Smile" (800% Slower). I get the poptimist defense of Bieber, but who expected there'd also be an avant-garde-droneist one?

Bonjay: "Stumble." Another Canadian band you oughta get to know.

Cailfornia Swag District: "Teach Me How To Dougie." Is there anything better than a YouTube dance craze? No, there is not.

Caribou: "Odessa."

Cee-Lo: "Fuck You" (the official video's fine, but I still prefer the text-only version). When it gets treated as a mere naughty novelty, I think a lot of the more serious and timely subtext, as well as the way it pushes the comedy into the bathos, is getting overlooked. Here's what I wrote about that this summer.

Crystal Castles featuring Robert Smith: "Not in Love." Noise pranksters take a mediocre Canadian '80s hit and transform it into the great lost Cure song.

Eminem featuring Rihanna: "Love the Way You Lie." Hard to choose among Rihanna singles this year, but Em's presence gives it a bracing, brackish side that fits chillingly into her off-mic narrative arc.

Gregory Bros. featuring Antoine Dodson: "Bed Intruder Song." A problematic-every-which-way YouTube meme transformed by the power of song, or still super-problematic? Feel free to weigh in, but if this year left me humming any tune over and over, it was the one the Auto-Tune the News wizards created out of Dodson's charismatic passion here—and some Black-university marching bands felt the same way.

Gyptian: "Hold Yuh." Someone in the comments mentioned this as an alternative to Jody's Busy Signal pick—damn right.

M.I.A.: "Born Free." Verbatim version of the track I liked best on M.I.A.'s new album, not the unfortunately simple-minded provocation that made waves early this year: Imagine if instead of brown people, they persecuted redheads! While the trend to extended video versions of songs offers a potential creative canvas, frequently they're at the expense of the songs that inspire them. Truffle-fries-kerfuffle aside, I was disappointed by M.I.A.'s album this year—like the video, it seemed to lose track of her previous balance of flashy gestures with actual ideas. Will the aughts' most distinctive pioneer recover her leading position?

Nicki Minaj featuring Eminem: "Roman's Revenge." Is the fact that her album's a mild letdown really more important than the fact that there's finally a fierce, funny, multi-layered, non-hetero-normative female MC on the scene again? How quickly we take things for granted.

Janelle Monae featuring Big Boi: "Tightrope." Too many of Monae's efforts go shapeless and squidgy, but this genre workout is the total opposite—as the marketers who scooped it up for ad soundtracks quickly noticed.

Mountain Goats: "You Were Cool" (live). John Darnielle, one of my three or four favorite contemporary songwriters, has said this song probably won't ever be recorded. It should be done with a glam-metal band, but meanwhile this fan video should circulate widely. I spoke my piece about how I think it fits into the "It Gets Better" project here.

Rita Indiana y Los Misterios: "El Juidero." What I know about this group, led by a lesbian novelist from the Dominican Republic, could fit into, well, these two sentences. But every time I stumbled across a track by them this year, the sound had me mesmerized.

Sade: "Soldier of Love." Pour the bath salts and slip in—aaah.

Sleigh Bells: "Rill Rill." Not much else this band does captivates me the way it does other critics, and much of it feels annoyingly lazy, but this was one of the year's unshakeable tunes.

Sunny Sweeney: "From a Table Away." Short on country this year—this single was a promising new discovery.

Tracey Thorn: "Oh, the Divorces!" Midlife-passages meditation with a side of sly schadenfreude from the ex-Everything But the Girl girl.

Tomboyfriend: "Almost/Always." Lo-fi but with no chill in its wave, this Toronto collective led by a poet-activist friend of mine plays camp straight and sincerity skewed, and tells stories that can move from a scalpel-sharp story of sex and love—"The backseat was too hard, their first touch was too charged/ Breakfast came too early, hesitation set in too late/ They knew each other's foibles, microscopical, by the time he groped for a second date"—to a sociopolitical fantasia set "in the African Union, under universal heath coverage/ where everyone spoke Esperanto, underneath the ground," without losing riff-factor drive.

Yelawolf: "Billy Crystal." Just to add another name to the roster of "weirdo rappers" worth hearing this year.

Neil Young: "Hitchhiker." Young's collaboration with Daniel Lanois, La Noise, warranted more year-end attention than it got, especially this unblinkingly autobiographical and unregretful exploration of a life in drugs. He's always had the rare, easily underestimated gift of coming up with kinds of songs no one's ever thought to write before.

CW

Carl Wilson is Slates music critic. 

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