Monday, February 28, 2011

Catching Up With 2010: Music

Because I only did a brief top ten list for the past year in music, and because I heard so much of 2010's most acclaimed and noteworthy music after the calendar year was over, I thought I'd weigh in on some of the many albums I hadn't previously written about.  About half of these are things that I'd heard in 2010 that didn't crack the top ten list, and the other half are things that I didn't hear until very recently.  Since I didn't include letter grades for the albums on the top ten list and I am including grades for the albums listed here, I should note for comparison's sake that I would've given the Flying Lotus and Baths albums an A, the Big Boi, Zach Hill, Deerhunter, and LCD Soundsystem albums an A-, and the Gorillaz, Strong Arm Steady, Sufjan Stevens, and Kanye West albums a B+ (though in hindsight the last one is probably worthy of an A-).  The forty-odd albums covered on my top ten list and this current post aren't the only 2010 releases that I've heard, but they are the ones that had some sort of memorable impact on me as a listener.  

Arcade Fire – The Suburbs
Arcade Fire’s music has always been a little too ordinary to justify their occasionally bombastic arrangements, and they tend to sound way too polite when they are trying to “rock out” on their more stripped down songs.  They’re usually at their best when they aim for the soaring, open-hearted epic pop that connects them to the Bruce Springsteen/U2 tradition.  A few gems in this style, the terrific single “Ready to Start” and the quasi-disco “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” are hidden in this overlong song cycle.  C+

Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti – Before Today
Ariel Pink’s newest album sounds like some sort of record company-rejected glam rock opus, the quality of the tape weirdly manipulated by the passage of time.  Or it sounds like the Residents covering Hall & Oates.  What sets Pink apart from past “bedroom pop” crazies like Wild Man Fischer is his genuinely strong grasp of the pop form.  Songs like “Bright Lit Blue Skies” and “Little Wig” are at least as catchy and well-crafted as the best radio-friendly music of 2010, but they have an unpredictable undercurrent of feral, sweaty perversity that makes them truly exciting.  B+

The Black Keys – Brothers
The Black Keys are probably never going to make an album that doesn’t sound like everything else they’ve recorded.  But this is the best version of that album so far, with a welcome emphasis on the funky, soulful, and psychedelic aspects of the duo’s well-worn rootsy sound.  B

Caribou – Swim
This is the one album that definitely would’ve made it onto my top ten list if I’d heard it before the end of the year.  It certainly bears mentioning alongside some of the other top-shelf dance music of 2010.  Like Baths, Caribou seems as concerned with writing well-constructed songs as he is with crafting hypnotic beats.  He also knows how to make a coherent, tight album, with nine excellent tracks that are distinct from each other while still forming one overall vision.   And while the persistent lyrical themes, which revolve around the end of a long-term relationship, sometimes seem like an odd fit for the liquid, future-disco beats, Dan Snaith’s ghostly vocals do a great job of bridging the gap between the despair of his words and the elation of his electronics.   A-

Johnny Cash – American VI:  Ain’t No Grave
Maybe there didn’t need to be a sixth volume of a dying Johnny Cash singing Rick Rubin-produced cover songs from a variety of genres.  But there’s still a lot of life left in the formula, and the moody, cinematic title track may be one of the country legend’s most haunting vocal performances.  B

Cee Lo Green – The Lady Killer
Cee Lo Green’s previous solo albums were self-indulgent, overlong, and inconsistent, but they were also admirably ambitious and strange.  Even his poppy Gnarls Barkly collaborations with Danger Mouse had enough odd edges to set them apart from most other things on the radio.  But The Lady Killer represents a step back into thoroughly conventional soul music territory; even the catchy hit “Fuck You” sounds like something that might be played in a dentist office.  Cee Lo is still having some fun with the formula, as evidenced by the James Bond-style “theme song” that bookends the album, and the music is never less than competent and pleasant.  But it’s disappointing to see this once-exciting artist settling for so little.  C+

Dirty Projectors and Bjork – Mount Wittenberg Orca (EP)
I understand why this seven-track EP didn’t wind up on too many year-end lists.  It is too modest to serve as a proper follow-up to the last Dirty Projectors album, the earth-shaking Bitte Orca.  And it doesn’t qualify as a return to form for Bjork after 2007’s disappointing Volta, since she only appears on about half of the tracks and didn’t write any of her own material (DP head Dave Longsreth is credited with all of the songwriting).  Still, this is some of the prettiest, most otherworldly and most vocally exotic music to come out of 2010, and it finds one of rock’s most exciting and vital bands further refining their unmistakable sound while quietly delivering some of their best songs to date.  B+

Emeralds – Does It Look Like I’m Here?
The twelve tracks on Emeralds’ newest full-length owe a heavy debt to the Fripp/Eno collaborations of the mid-‘70s.  Most of the tracks distinguish themselves from the music on No Pussyfooting and Evening Star by being pop-length and slightly more rhythmic; some of the lengthier, more ambient material sounds so similar to the trio’s most obvious influences that their existence seems pointless.  But even if this isn’t as forward-thinking or original as the year’s best electronic music, it sure is pretty.  B-

Eminem – Recovery
Why can’t Eminem just leave his tired shtick behind and rap?  On a number of tracks on his latest LP, he proves once again that he is truly an elite MC, capable of rhyming multiple words within many of his lines, switching the pace of his flow on a dime, and occasionally coming up with devastatingly funny battle rhymes.  But while the technical virtuosity is undeniably impressive, this “comeback” album doesn’t really have anything new to offer.  Even with ringers like Just Blaze and Dr. Dre handling production duties, the beats are mostly grey and lifeless, the tracks seem to have been assembled in a random order, and Eminem’s familiar life story gets less interesting every time he repeats it.  C

Brian Eno – Small Craft on a Milk Sea
It was a great year for electronic music, a genre that would scarcely exist without Brian Eno.  The electronica trailblazer’s most recent LP finds him refining old sounds rather than creating new ones, and the more ambient material isn’t essential, but eerie, percussive tracks like “Horse” and “2 Forms of Anger” are some of the most vital and lively tracks Eno’s produced in the past three decades.  B-

Field Music – Measure
Field Music have an almost scientific understanding of the inner workings of pop music songwriting and production.  The songs on Measure are complexly and densely arranged, but there aren’t any extraneous elements or unnecessary diversions.  The choruses are catchy, the instrumental breakdowns are purposeful, and the lyrics match up nicely with the music.  Measure is also amazingly consistent for a double-disc, twenty track album, and it’s hard to guess what would’ve been cut if they’d chosen to pare it down to a single disc.  But Field Music’s tastefulness is a double-edged sword; part of the reason that the album is so consistent is that few tracks really stand out (aside from a few gems like “Let’s Write a Book”), and the band’s tight control over their aesthetic can make their music seem a little safe, sterile, and distant.  Still, this is an impressive achievement, and one of the better guitar-pop albums of the year.  B

Flying Lotus – Pattern + Grid World (EP)
There was no way that this twenty minute EP could compete for attention with Flying Lotus’ epic song suite Cosmogramma, which found the Los Angeles-based producer confidently branching out into new territory with string sections, live bass, and occasional vocal assists from the likes of Thom Yorke.  But while Pattern + Grid World does mark a return to the more familiar instrumental hip hop of Flying Lotus’ earlier albums, it also contains some of his very best work in that style.  “Kill Your Co-Workers” might be Flying Lotus’ most impressive individual track to date, and it isn’t even that much better than the other six tracks.  A-

Ghostface Killah – Apollo Kids
Meth, Ghost, and Rae – Wu-Massacre
These albums by high-profile Wu-Tang Clan members seem to have been rushed into production to capitalize on the success of Raekwon’s 2009 LP Only Built 4 Cuban Linx II, which briefly suggested a return to form for the once-vital rap crew.  Wu-Tang are perhaps the only group in music who actually benefit from a “back to basics” sound, and the stripped-down, battle rhymes over heavy beats style heard throughout both of these albums is undoubtedly an improvement over their largely scattershot oeuvre of the last decade.  But the tracks seem to have been thrown together in an arbitrary order, with a goal of reaching the minimum length required for a full-length LP, and Method Man, Ghostface, and Raekwon rarely appear as a trio on their group album.  Standout tracks like “Purified Thoughts” and “Meth vs. Rae 2.0” show that the Wu-Tang Clan still possess the talent needed for a full-scale comeback, but they’ll have to stop making albums that feel so lazy.  B-/C+

Gold Panda – Lucky Shiner
The music on this full-length debut of London-based DJ Gold Panda is unfailingly lovely, but overall there are too many aimless and shapeless tracks.  Still, highlights like the hypnotic “You” and the exotically percussive “Same Dream China” suggest that Gold Panda might have a Cosmogramma or Cerulean-level masterwork in his future.  B-

How to Dress Well – Love Remains
How to Dress Well have a striking sound – Bon Iver-style close-miked falsetto singing married to crisp, repetitive electronic beats.  It sounds great on a track-by-track basis, but the band’s lack of versatility (you wouldn’t be able to pick out the one live track if it didn’t end with applause) becomes a problem over a full-length album.  C+

Jamey Johnson – The Guitar Song
You could argue that this two-disc, twenty-five track album could use some trimming, but its shagginess and sprawl is actually a big part of its appeal.  In fact, the second, looser half is an improvement over the first, largely because it features more songs that allow the musicians (particularly the guitar players) to stretch out and bend the songs into different shapes.  I may be underrating The Guitar Song a bit, because I am not really a country music fan, but even I can tell that Jamey Johnson is one of the more talented singer-songwriters in the genre.  B

Liars – Sisterworld
Too often, Liars’ music sounds like a muddy, aimless blur.  But Sisterworld marks an improvement over their past work by pumping up the volume of the guitars and finding lyrical subject matter that fits their sluggish vocal style.  Sisterworld is this year’s audio equivalent of a good horror movie; even if it isn’t always fun to listen to, it is never less than effectively creepy.  B

Julian Lynch – Mare
This lovely “bedroom pop” album suggests what Shuggie Otis’ seminal Inspiration Information would sound like if it were based around folk rather than R&B.  If anything, the four-track recordings of Lynch sound more primitive and dusty than the one-man pop constructions on Otis’ 1974 album, which only adds to the weirdly personal, one-of-a-kind ambiance of Lynch’s music.  Touches of jazz and hard rock come out of nowhere, yet seem like perfectly organic outgrowths of these moody, nearly-ambient pieces.  The album sneaks up on you, smartly pacing itself so that it gets better as it goes along, building to the ecstatic folk-jazz of “Ruth, My Sister” and the hypnotically repetitive (and almost Indian-sounding) “Travelers.”  With a few more listens, this modest yet deceptively complicated album might actually become one of my very favorites of last year.  B+

Maps & Atlases – Perch Patchwork
Maps & Atlases are yet another indie rock band that have figured out how to turn their complicated sound (twisty folk guitar parts layered over African-inspired polyrhythms) into an accessible pop sound without toning down their sophistication or ambition.  And while Perch Patchwork isn’t quite the unqualified breakthrough that, say, Veckatimest was for Grizzly Bear or Dear Science was for TV on the Radio, it’s strong enough to suggest that Maps & Atlases’ next album might be a masterpiece.  B

M.I.A. – Maya
The M.I.A. backlash seems to have been fueled less by musical concerns than some unflattering media profiles of the Sri Lankan singer’s personal life.  While Maya isn’t quite as colorful as Kala, and is certainly more confrontational than her earlier work, it’s still full of exciting, forward-thinking production and left-field genre crossbreeds.  Any album that can hold the infectious synth-pop of “XXXO,” the future-reggae of “It Takes a Muscle,” and the ferocious punk of “Born Free” deserves some credit.  B-

Janelle Monae – The ArchAndroid
Though this was one of the most acclaimed albums of the year, it sounds more like a good start than a fully-realized breakthrough.  For all of Monae’s sci-fi concepts and genre-blurring arrangements, her music isn’t really that far advanced from decades-old P-Funk and David Bowie.  And at over 70 minutes, The ArchAndroid could definitely afford to lose a little fat, even if the only bad track is a garish Of Montreal collaboration.  Still, no one could say that the album is boring, and Monae proves equally adept at straight-up R&B, Broadway-style showtunes, glam rock, and funk, and she even occasionally makes music worthy of her OutKast mentors (as on the wonderful, Big Boi-assisted single “Tightrope”).  If The ArchAndroid isn’t quite stellar, it’s mostly because it seems like Janelle Monae will be capable of making even better music in the future.  B

Mount Kimbie – Crooks and Lovers
Crooks and Lovers is essentially an album of pleasant background music, but it’s really good background music.  Hopefully Mount Kimbie will aim a little higher in the future, since standouts like “Before I Move Off” and “Mayor” show that they have a real talent for dense, James Blake-style vocal cut-ups, but there is something to be said for nice music that you can get some work done to.  B-

The National – High Violet
I’m one of those people who think that the National are kind of boring.  But even I have to admit that High Violet is a very successful album within the narrow parameters (drums/bass/guitar, verse/chorus/verse) of the National’s straightforward sound.  Good stuff, even if it isn’t for me.  B

Owen Pallett – Heartland
The artist formerly known as Final Fantasy fully justifies his theatrical, melodramatic tendencies with genuinely complex, left-of-center arrangements that add delightful orchestral colors to his established violin-plus-vocals sound.  Even if Pallett’s lyrics wind up being no less baffling than on the average concept album, his whimsical arrangements give Heartland the feel of a fairy tale pop-up book come to life.  B

Prince Rama – Shadow Temple
It wouldn’t make sense to call the music of this Brooklyn trio original; three of Shadow Temple’s eight tracks are cover versions of traditional Indian songs, and the band’s psychedelic freakout style is clearly inspired by the more intense music of the hippie era.  But that doesn’t change the fact that Shadow Temple sounds nothing like the rest of the current “indie rock” scene, and it doesn’t make Prince Rama’s haunting, highly percussive sound any less riveting.  B+

Omar Rodriguez-Lopez – Mantra Hiroshima
Mars Volta leader Omar Rodriguez-Lopez has been putting out so many (increasingly indistinguishable) solo albums per year that hardcore fans could be forgiven for not even paying attention anymore.  Still, there are some gems buried in the prolific guitarist’s avalanche of releases.  This year’s standout was Mantra Hiroshima, the second Rodriguez-Lopez album to feature the ferocious drumming of Zach Hill, and a more focused, heavy, and enjoyable listen than their previous collaboration, 2009’s Cryptomnesia.  There isn’t much to write about here – just really great musicians tearing into a tight set of ridiculously loud jazz/rock/funk instrumentals – but the lack of distractions is a relief.  B

Spoon – Transference
Spoon have been so consistent and so tasteful for so long that it’s easy to take for granted a non-masterful yet perfectly fine album like Transference.  The versatility and ambition of Gimme Fiction and Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga isn’t in full effect, but there aren’t any bad tracks, and “Written in Reverse” is the heaviest thing that Britt Daniels and Jim Eno have produced to date.  B

Tame Impala – Innerspeaker
Considering that the Beatles are the most important, influential pop group of all time, it’s odd that so few current bands are directly inspired by their sound.  Tame Impala’s aesthetic seems entirely derived from a very specific element of the Beatles’ sound, namely the John Lennon-written songs of the Revolver through Magical Mystery Tour-era, with their sunburst guitars, tribal drum beats, primitive synth parts, and floaty, stoned vocals (this impression is reinforced by lead singer Kevin Parker’s uncanny vocal resemblance to Lennon).  The eleven tracks on the band’s first full-length are almost catchy and lovely enough to seem worthy of the music of their legendary inspiration, suggesting that Tame Impala will be a band to keep an eye on in the future even if their heads never get out of the past.  B

Titus Andronicus – The Monitor
At times, this ambitiously arranged, civil-war themed song suite suggests a punk version of Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (or at least a harder-edged version of Green Day’s American Idiot).  But while it’s nice to see any group branching out into more versatile territory, and it’s invariably cool to hear a modern rock band incorporate bagpipes, fiddles, and trombones into their sound, Titus Andronicus don’t seem to be able to transcend their straightforward punk rock background.  The chief problem is lead singer Patrick Stickles, whose Pogues-ish barking is a poor fit for his band’s newfound pretty side.  It’s only during The Monitor’s rare instrumental passages, such as the moving coda to “The Battle of Hampton Roads,” that Titus Andronicus’ music is allowed to live up to its full potential.  C+

The Walkmen – Lisbon
The Walkmen’s “Bob Dylan sings Velvet Underground songs with the Strokes’ recording equipment” sound can get a little monotonous, but Lisbon contains some nice variations on the formula.  The band seems to have acquired a Spoon-like ability to simultaneously refine and expand their sound, leading to highlights like ”Stranded” (which makes interesting use of what sounds like the world’s most hungover mariachi horn section) and “Angela Surf City” (a soaring yet compact anthem).  B

1 comment:

  1. Um...looks like you forgot to review Hanson's "Shout it Out" which is obviously the best album of the year. I mean, come on.