Wednesday, December 15, 2010

How To Be A Grouch: Top Seven Of 2010

So it's that time again. I'm spurred on my by my colleague's mention of his impending list... and my own guilt about not really even thinking about mine in ages. See, 2010 was big for me. Got a good job that I like, that lets me write professionally... got married... moving to a nice new place before the year is out... and more specifically around here, started up a new musical endeavor of my own... which has tended to make me listen to more ambient/drone/experimental stuff than I have in the past.

So maybe, I've just been busy... maybe that's why I'm finding it so hard to muster up a top 10 albums of 2010. Scrolling through the digital Post-It (TM) that I've been keeping on my laptop for years... the one that says "Best Albums Of The Year"... it's December, and I've only got eight. The ones I've been thinking of adding would take my pool of candidates up to 13. Not the glorious two-or-three dozen I've had in some recent years to sift through and really decide what cut my jib the past 3-6-5. Nope, a slim, trim 13. So screw it. I'm calling it off. There will be no top ten this year (*waves arms in that "simmer down" motion to quell outraged threats and hysterical sobbing*)... no, not this year. In this year, I present to you a top SEVEN. Not a TEN, a SEVEN. There were plenty of albums, new to me, that I heard that I liked. A medium-sized percentage of them were even from this year. Several were even albums I really enjoyed listening to over and over, but they were like flings... nothing that really stuck. So here's a short list of what I REALLY, REALLY liked,

7. Wu-Tang Meets The Beatles - Enter The Magical Mystery Chambers
I just found this a week ago, and the earliest date my completely half-assed search for info on it pulled up was in January, so there. It is what you think it is, just spliced 'n' diced Beatles bits with the Wu-Tang swarmin' at you like a bad fever dream. Not revolutionary, in this post-Danger Mouse world, but it's a good example of how far sampleadelic culture has come since a JBs break first got lifted by an enterprising DJ. Well-done, with surprising sound quality and a nicely-put-together cover. The best part? It's the most fun you'll have if you're that rare breed that straddles a line between Liverpool and Shaolin. The re-contextualization appeals if you're jaded by hearing another Beatles song ANOTHER time, and it's fun to hear tales of feudal ghetto warfare over psych-pop breakbeats.

6. Sade - Soldier Of Love
My adoration for this record is based almost entirely on the title track. Most of the rest doesn't begin to live up to that pinnacle of (in my opinion) her career. But it's good enough to get the whole album on this list. Low on the list, though, but still... It's a great album, but my god, that song. It wouldn't have such power if it weren't sung by a returning champion we didn't understand... we hadn't seen her dark side. Hearing the jagged, murky landscape of this song, traced with a voice that is older, more nuanced... but still familiar? Fantastic.

5. The Dead Weather - Sea Of Cowards
I'm a Jack White fan, yeah, but I'm no patsy. I've said it before, but if Jack wants to make it on my list, he's gotta earn his keep. Lucky for him, it was a thin year, because this ain't his finest-ever. But so what? A greasy, sexy profanity of an album, it's dark, angry, sexually-charged, and loud. It's primitive, thudding, grinding rock music. Electric guitars turned up to "loud" and banged on rhythmically. And it's pretty great. And if he keeps making these, I'll take back most of the good things I said about the second Raconteurs album. promise.

4. Janelle Monae - The ArchAndroid
I can't really give a fair description of this record, because I don't really know how I'm supposed to be listening to it. Is it coming from an R&B/soul angle? Because it doesn't make sense as an R&B album. It's not a "rock and roll" album either. And forget pop, this is almost (nay, certainly) willfully weird. And that's its best trait. The songs are great, the presentation is great, the experimentation is great. One of the only reasons this wasn't my favorite album of the year is that it felt "still a little unformed". If Monae can keep her artistic freedom for another album or two, those will be the ones that really knock it out of the park. Like Prince, circa Dirty Mind... we'll be looking at it in ten years as the great warmup that's also a classic in it's own right.

3 Malory - Pearl Diver
It's the sound of dreaming about clouds while floating underwater in bright sunlight. Pensive, layered, thoughtful, beautiful.

2. Ceremony - Rocket Fire
Cold but human, noisy but pretty. I can't listen to it quietly, because there really is no quiet in there. Ceremony wraps synth-pop drum machines in the gauzy wrap of fuzz and static. If you're in a city sometime, close your eyes and listen. Start to isolate sounds... the radio across the street, honking horns, people yelling, that white-noise of a hundred thousand people moving around? Now fix in on the way that nearby construction saw's whine is rubbing against the screech of bus breaks down the street... now bring in that jackhammer a block over. Pummelling, pulsing rhythmically, but not too loud... just an insistient, continuous machine-gun "brrrap-brrrap-brrrap-brrrap". You suddenly realize the synchronization of those sounds... or your mind somehow glues them together... and you hear, in your head, just for a second, the way the sounds make some alien type of music together, like they're playing off of each other... that's what Ceremony sound like.

1. Gorillaz - Plastic Beach
...speaking of albums that will be better appreciated later. It's funny how after all those years of Albarn getting Ray Davies comparisons for his incisive Brit-life lyrics, he'd years later slide into that other Ray Davies role, that of underappreciated storyteller, the weary poet with a fondness for humanity, but not much hope that anyone will listen until it's too late. The way we can look back on some of the Kinks' mid-period work and ask "How was this a commerical failure?" This is great pop, it's danceable and it has catchy hooks. It's conceptual - after all, the band is made up of cartoon character ape-people who live in a floating fortress. It's post-modern pop music that makes a patchwork out of its genres and guest stars, painting slashing swathes of memorable (con)texture over unfamiliar backgrounds. It's social commentary, in a not-too-veiled way. It's the tabloid story of a phoenix-like second-chance career run from a former Buzz Bin bad boy, who's both a Royal National Treasure and a one-hit wonder. Here he's making the most personal album of his career, and even if it's not his best, it's his bravest yet.

Special extra credit to albums by Erykah Badu, John & Exene, Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings, School of Seven Bells, Manic Street Preachers, Black Mountain, High On Fire, Beach House, and several others my mind is far too full to conjure up right now. Nice job!

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