Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Stereophonics of Hopeful Pyromania: The Year in Music 2010

Some years, like bridges, deserve to be burned as you walk away from them and never re-visited.  Luckily, the sountrack to a year like this is full of potential.

This was the longest year of my life.  There's nothing implicitly suggested by the meaning of the word "long" that has a negative connotation, but whenever it's used it's almost always pejorative (using words like "pejorative" instantly make me a more eloquent, important, and physically attractive writer).  This has been a long day, the flight was long, "Why does it take so long for them to make my BLT?", the verdict of the H.R. hearing regarding this trumped up sexual harassment allegation is taking a long time, etc.  I mean, there are a few key instances when "long" is an endearing adjective, but I'll leave that to the suits in Washington to worry about.  

This was the longest year of my life.  And while there were a lot of positives for me regarding everything from God to overcoming challenges to traveling to Europe, there was enough ugliness, heartache, and being let down by people to give me the overwhelming urge to reach for the metaphorical gasoline and matches.  But hey, no need to get all emo about the whole thing.  Even though there were some "bigger" things this year compared to others, it was a mix of good and bad, great and terrible.  In short, it was a year.  And like most years you can remember, you have very little desire to revisit them unless absolutely necessary.  Years like these--just as I believe is true, really, for any year--have a distinct feel.  A taste.  A smell.  A vibe.  And an integral element tying all that together is the sound of it all.  It's all the big bad combined with the sugary sweet hazy goody good that inspires artists to compose and perform and for listeners to--well--listen.  I do my best to burn the bridge of the year I'm about to leave behind--and I'll be burning this year's bridge with a bigger smile on my face.  I'll take the important lessons with me and attempt to leave the rest behind.  But I'll also take the music.  And that--generally speaking--is a great thing.

I can't tell you all the details of 1997 that were undoubtedly "crucial" to me back in 1997.  But I can tell you that OK Computer, Too Far to Care, Blur, and Something to Remember Me By came out that year and I still carry them with me to this day--and they actually allow me to remember 1997 more fondly than in all likelihood it deserves to be.  Such is the transformative power of music or somesuch.  Having said all of that, here are two key observations you should be aware of regarding the way I view the year in music that was 2010:

1. If you "need" the following entry to include Arcade Fire or Kanye West to edify you, stop reading now. Arcade Fire has a whopping EIGHT members now, wears those ridiculous outfits, has a talented frontman who is allowing his no-talent hack of a wife to ruin the band and well--I just can't suffer them anymore. Even if I do still love their first album, Funeral. And Kanye? His latest album was a good rap album, but lyrically it is the greatest monument to victim mentality/"you don't know how tough it is to be a celebrity" ever recorded. Music? Strong. Lyrics? Well, let's just say they require me to care about Kanye and I just don't. My bad.

2. Despite what some of you may have heard, 2010 was NOT--in my opinion--one of the greatest years in the history of new music releases in the history of ever and ever. Just because a lot of the bands you really like all chose to put out albums this year doesn't mean all those albums were exceptional and thus make it an exceptional year. A lot of my favorite artists/bands put out albums this year and exactly TWO of them were what I consider to be the best work of that respective artist/band's career. Really good albums this year, but let's tap the breaks on how "great" this year was. And let's tap the breaks on overusing the word "great" while we're at it.

So let's do this. Here are my favorite albums of 2010. Now my friend Katie can finally figure out how to best use those iTunes gift cards as I am her musical compass. And my friend Angela is probably already thinking that this entry is too long, but a year-end "best-of" list requires a longer entry so stop your whining. Same format as last year's list. A refresher:

Three categories.  No rankings.  Except for my favorite.
1.  Honorable Mentioningz
2.  My Favorite 10 Albums That Weren't My Favorite Album (in no particular order)
3.  The Rob Album of the Year

Let's apply the people's elbow and get it on!

Honorable Mentioningz

III/IV by Ryan Adams & The Cardinals (Pax Ameicana)

The Quick Take: The latest and last entry to make it in to this year's list (it came out in December!)--and isn't it just like Ryan Adams to be tardy--III/IV is actually a double album that was recorded with his longtime band The Cardinals during the same sessions as his solid--if unspectacular--solo effort Easy Tiger. It--especially disc 1 which is presumably the III in this scenario--sounds like the spectacular rock album Ryan Adams has been trying so hard to create since he first released 2003's aptly-named and uneven Rock N Roll. Adams seems absolutely comfortable at poking fun at himself on this album--especially the more comic moments of his pre-sobriety. And he does all of this while tearing through themes of love, heartbreak, and lessons learned that feels cohesive and focused. Overall, these are tight, hooky, excellent rock songs that have all but assured me and many of Ryan Adams' fans that a sober Ryan Adams can still be a great Ryan Adams.

The Non-Rob Review: Here 

The Orchard by Ra Ra Riot (Barsuk)

The Quick Take: Ra Ra Riot are one of my favorite underappreciated, slighted, "little bands that could".  They don't need anyone's pity, but the lazy comparisons to Vampire Weekend are getting old.  Here on RRR's sophomore effort, there are admittedly less obvious hooks, but there is a sweeping, epic depth they are seeking here that is worth the listen.  There are still frenetic bass lines, pounding drums, those gorgeous strings, and Wes Miles' powerhouse voice--all which could lead you to think it's just more of the same.  The "same" that is still here is still great.  And the additional differences including the introduction of cellist Alexandra Lawn as lead vocalist on the gorgeous "You and I Know", the addition of a touch of synth, and the overall poetic upgrade to the lyrics makes it an album worth giving a real listen--if not several.  For me, it's a keeper.

The Non-Rob Review: Here

Interpol by Interpol (Matador)

The Quick Take: The biggest criticism I've heard of this album is that it sounds too much like Interpol's previous work.  That's like saying Jack Nicholson is Jack Nicholson in every movie.  Dumb.  Some bands don't need to reinvent their respective wheels and Interpol is one of them.  Dark, brooding, post-punk power that lingers in the air like a bad dream--these guys didn't invent this music but they are the best at creating it in our current day and age.  Interpol isn't as strong as the essential Turn On the Bright Lights, but it retains the same atmospheric presence and songs like "Barricade" and "Lights" still find the band at their very best.  Here's hoping for a shorter gap than we've grown accustomed to between this album and their next.

The Non-Rob Review: Here

Hippies by Harlem (Matador)

The Quick Take: "Someday soon you'll be on fire and you'll ask me for a glass of water.  And I'll say no.  You can just let that shit burn."  There is an art to taking petty feelings and ugly sentiments about love and making them  both comical and poetic.  This opening salvo from Austin-based garage outfit Harlem's latest album Hippies embodies that notion and introduces a rollicking, fun album that definitely has the power to make you laugh at how dumb love and girls and all that crap really is most of the time.  The band's style certainly isn't unique, but I've got to say that the sheer amount of hooks and catchy little tunes on this album sets them apart from the glut of their "garage" contemporaries.  The best example of this is the standout track "Gay Human Bones" which was selected as one of my dozen favorite songs of 2010.  Unlike most of the album's songs, I cannot possibly tell you what this song is about or what it's supposed to convey.  All I know is that I just can't stop listening and bobbing my oh so very Puerto Rican head to it.  This album demands your attention and some of these songs will simply hold you hostage.  Don't try to negotiate.

The Non-Rob Review: Here

My Favorite 10 Albums That Weren't My Favorite Album (in no particular order)

Before Today by Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti (4AD)

The Quick Take: So this is easily the weirdest album on this list. But in a good way. A great way. It honestly is like 70's FM soft rock mated with some alien creature and gave birth to this album. Much like the way I felt last year about The Flaming Lips' Embryonic, I wasn't impressed the first time I heard it. But with repeated listens, it felt like all the weird space-rock puzzle pieces started to fall in to place and I realized I was hearing something unique and rad. Yeah, I said rad--my ultimate adjective. It is befitting of this strange mix of rock, disco, psychedelic, and other unidentified elements. It works. With time. It'll get ya. Or it will possibly abduct you.
The Non-Rob Review: Here

Gorilla Manor by Local Natives (Frenchkiss)

The Quick Take: In this slightly sad age of the digital download, do you ever download so many albums that you end up forgetting about one you should have given a little more than the requisite ten minutes?  Well that happened to me with Local Natives and this album.  I downloaded it in the spring and didn't get back around to it until my iPod decided to randomly play standout track "Airplanes".  What I discovered was a true gem hidden under far too many wasted downloads this year.  A cross between the percussive might of The Dodos and the harmonic vocal excellence of Fleet Foxes, Local Natives offer a carefully constructed musical mix of rock, pop, anthems, and even a few muscular tribal beats they don't mind pounding you ever so gently with.  And they're so damn young, these kids--I can't help but be excited about their future.  In a crowded field of "indie" (yuck) rock, these guys are standouts.  A hope-inspiring debut.  Better late than never.

The Non-Rob Review: Here

Transference by Spoon (Merge)

The Quick Take: Spoon is one of those bands whose albums share most of the same musical elements that will never (and should never) change.  But the funny thing about them is that some of their albums will grab you right away (Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, Girls Can Tell) while others will reveal their quality over an extended period of time (Kill the Moonlight).  Transference falls in to the latter category and grew on me as time went by.  This album is a bit rougher around the edges and is less afraid to "explore" for lengthier periods of time instrumentally than previous efforts, but the clever beats and lyrics that dare you to contemplate all worth contemplating are still quite in your face.  The music still goes down easy and is way beyond satsifying.  You just don't fill up quite as fast.

The Non-Rob Review: Here

Expo 86 by Wolf Parade (Sub Pop)

The Quick Take: While I hate the perpetuation of the term "indie" with a passion, it's a reality I must accept like the budget deficit or the Kardashians.  But if I accept that term and its "inhabitants", one of my favorite of these is the great Wolf Parade.  They've always been "indie" while being unafraid to punch you in the gut or rock your face off.  If they took anything up a notch on Expo 86, it is the "rawk".  This is without a doubt their heaviest--though not to be mistaken for abrasive--effort to date.  The guitars and the drums at the right volume can shake that seldom-shaken-these-days chest cavity of yours--all while delivering the same melodic, sweeping, epic songs that suggest that everything is falling down around you while still somehow offering you hope.  There's talk that this may be their last album and that would be tragic.  Indie rock NEEDS Wolf Parade.  Probably a lot more than Wolf Parade needs indie rock.

The Non-Rob Review: Here

Plastic Beach by Gorillaz (EMI)

The Quick Take: The album starts with the kind of gorgeous string arrangement befitting an Oscar-worthy epic and somehow seamlessly transitions in to a thumping groove of bass and beats--and the sound of Snoop Dogg.  And it works.  Even Snoop Dogg sounds great and less cartoonish than he has in ages--which is ironic considering Gorillaz was conceived as an animated, "virtual" hip-hop projectPlastic Beach is more luminous and less menacing than its predecessors, but retains its sonic power with ease.  Other guests on the album include everyone from Lou Reed to Bobby Womack to Mos Def to Mick Jones.  These seemingly ill-fitting parts maddeningly fit thanks to the constant undercurrent supplied by the great Damon Albarn--known in a previous life as the front-man for Brit-pop pioneers Blur.  The album has beats that won't quit and contains everything from Albarn's beloved tribal rhythms to entrancing electronics that are both hypnotic and joyful.  Get your copy and start grooving as soon as humanly possible.

The Non-Rob Review: Here

Melted by Ty Segall (Goner)

The Quick Take: I hate pretty much anything that's done for the sake of itself.  Except maybe arguing for arguing's sake.  That's just fun.  But in music, I hate noise just for noise's sake and thus, have hated most anything termed as "noise rock" for a long, long time.  This is not to say, however, that I don't like great rock music with some noise and distortion thrown in--as long as it is noise with a purpose.  By that standard, give me more, more, more.  And Ty Segall has found a balance I absolutely love with Melted--an album with some creative uses of "noise", but that never come at the cost of strong songwriting and great pop sensibility.  Something about the noise and the "coolness" of this collection of songs lends itself to the post-argument car excursion you simply must take to retain what sanity you have left.  Segall uses some rough tools at times--but always, always with a purpose.  In many ways, Melted is the biggest surprise--and one of my favorite discoveries of--2010.

The Non-Rob Review: Here

Lisbon by The Walkmen (Fat Possum)

The Quick Take: Much like Spoon's aforementioned Transference, this was an album whose effects weren't immediately felt.  But as I began to feel them, I was moved.  A myriad of moods abound.  Alternating between easy-going lamentation (album-opener "Juveniles"), frantic desperation ("Angela Surf City") and spiritual discovery (the hypnotic and beautiful "Blue As Your Blood"), Lisbon takes hold of you in the way that it reveals the many sides of lead vocalist and lyricist Hamilton Leithauser's psyche--and shakes you in the way that the music begins to reveal the many sides of your own psyche.  While not as immediately touching and delicate as 2008's nearly perfect You & Me, this latest effort continues The Walkmen's string of memorable and significant contributions to sweeping, vintage-valuing rock music.

The Non-Rob Review: Here

$ by Mark Sultan (Last Gang)

The Quick Take: If you've read this blog regularly (my favoritest of you), you know by now that Mark Sultan is the "BBQ" in The King Khan & BBQ Show and one of my favorite musicians working today.  He's got a voice--as I'm sure I've said before--that sounds like it's straight out of a time capsule from the early 60's.  And while that has always lent itself well to the rollicking doo-wop he's best known for, Sultan sought with this album to add several additional dimensions.  Sultan weaves a myriad of instrumental sounds, uneven percussive time signatures, and a little psychedelia in to this time-tested mix on $ to create a challenging, but ultimately rewarding set of songs.  At first, you can't figure out what the chaos is intended to create, but this album is the sound of music falling apart all around you and then being put back together piece by piece.  Sultan's awe-inspiring voice never gets too lost in the shuffle and he finds a way to command the chaos like a quirky mad scientist/wizard who is completely in control of your little rock 'n' roll tempest. 

The Non-Rob Review: Here

The Monitor by Titus Andronicus (XL)

The Quick Take: The overwhelming feeling I get every time I listen to Titus Andronicus is that I'm listening to more than just rock music.  I'm actually listening to a mission statement.  And typically that statement involves a clear delineation between an "us" and a "them" and that the time for sitting on the sidelines and taking it is over.  And that we've all lived for this day whether we know it or not.  The Monitor uses thematic elements of the U.S. Civil War as a backdrop for these statements--seamlessly drawing emotional comparisons between the sentiments of now and then.  The laziest observation I continue to read in reviews is that while it's a concept album, "it's not actually about the Civil War".  But that's missing the point.  The point is that the Civil War is ABOUT US--specifically the way that we as Americans are prone to division and how necessary conflict becomes to flush out those of us who are holding back the continually moving needle of progress.  The album is full of indignation and anger, but it's also full of inspiration and makes me want to go out and change the world--even if I have to bruise a few faces to do it.

The Non-Rob Review: Here

High Violet by The National (4AD)

The Quick Take: I run out creative things to say about The National, but I never seem to run out of enthusiasm for them as musicians, performers, or artists.  High Violet continues the calculated brooding of men who are all too aware of the dark parts of your heart and whose sole mission is to add a soundtrack to it.  But unlike previous efforts such as Boxer, there's a tangible sense that The National are trying to make the sound, the sweep, and the scope of this whole thing tangibly bigger.  Bigger strings and drums, more horns, haunting backing vocal tracks--The National feel like they've added an extra layer on this album.  Songs like "England", "Bloodbuzz, Ohio", and "Conversation 16" are epic in this way, but the album never loses its intimate feel.  "Runaway" and "Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks" keep you right there--in the moment.  It's a strange symmetry The National have perfected here, but one whose impact is felt in both ways that validate and tear out our hearts all at once.

The Non-Rob Review: Here

The Rob Album of the Year

Halcyon Digest by Deerhunter (4AD)

The Quick Take: My friend Jake introduced me to this album one night while we were at this bar we don't visit often enough.  I say we don't visit it often enough because they let us plug our iPods in and drink to our own playlist.  Because Jake is a much more "plugged in" and well-connected music blogger than I am, he got an advanced copy of Halcyon Digest and plugged it in one night.  And all I can say is that I had "that" feeling.  The one I get when I hear something and know immediately that it's special and it's different and I'll probably love it forever.  I had heard of Deerhunter, but never actually HEARD them.  When the album arrived at my apartment, I was happy that my intitial affection wasn't due to the scotch I was drinking that night.  From the track opener "Earthquake" and its slow-building wall of dense sound to the precise and mesmerizing guitars of "Desire Lines" to the pop mastery and E-Street Band-esque saxophone of "Coronado", front-man Bradford Cox and his bandmates created an album that is creative and unique while still remaining universally enthralling.  The album haunts me in the way that an album by a band whose members are all dead does, but yet never gets me down.  Halcyon Digest retains a mystique that is retained effortlessly and an identity that sets it apart without qualification.

The Non-Rob Review: Here

UPDATE: Due to "popular demand" (relative, liberal use of that phrase), I've graciously decided to add a playlist highlighting one great track from each of the fifteen albums highlighted above--none of which have been included on previous playlist.  I think.  I'm not that diligent at checking, but I'm pretty sure I'm right about this.  Enjoy!

Now go forth and invest a little piece of your soul in some good music, Kids.  You have all the tools you need now.  As always, I look forward to your feedback, your insults, and your general apprehension over everything about this entry and my blog so that I can sit back and laugh at you.  And love you.  And marvel how we still--in so many ways--are doing this thing together.  Good riddance, 2010.  But thanks for the tunes.

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