Saturday, January 1, 2011

Top Tens for Twenty Ten

(Note: these comments were submitted with my Pazz and Jop ballot. For an explanation of the point system, try their website. Pazz & Jop 2010 results will be posted there on January 19th.)

It was a year in which we lost our collective shit. You could just feel the nation embracing the crazy. Week by week, rationality grew weaker, and Ke$ha grew stronger. And then, to add injury to insult, we lost Captain Beefheart, too.

Once Captain Beefheart’s dust blew back whence it came, I knew I had to make some adjustments to my top ten list. For one thing, I was gonna kick Sleigh Bells up a few notches just for bringing the noise. Would there even be such a thing as “noise pop” if Beefheart’s disciples hadn’t spread the gospel?

But also, I knew that somebody had to be kicked out to make room for the latest Fall album.

I know: If you’ve heard one Fall, you’ve heard ‘em all. And this isn’t even the greatest iteration of the eternal Fall album. But it’s not undeserving, either. “Your Future/Our Clutter” gave me pleasure every time I heard it, and it comes closer than anything else on the list to a Beefheartian ethos. So instead of the eleventh best album of the year, I say it’s the tenth.

And thus, no disrespect, but my apologies to Britt Daniel of Spoon. Unlike Mark E. Smith, nobody’s ever going to call him an unheralded visionary who’s influenced bands both far and wide. But you could call him a dedicated artist with utter commitment to his craft. And that’s Beefheartian, too, in its way.

I know I could stretch this analogy to the breaking point. If everything is influenced by Van Vliet’s legacy, then nothing is. But though they broke the mold, the pieces of it are scattered everywhere. Nobody will make music as uncompromising, fierce, free, disturbing, enthralling, experimental, and fearless as Beefheart did. But everybody who wants their music to make a difference will aspire to some of those qualities.

So the collectivism of Arcade Fire, the drive of Janelle Monae, the wit of James Murphy, and the iconoclasm of Sufjian Stevens are all facets of vanvlietism. So too are Kanye and M.I.A.’s determination to be themselves, warts included. The Black Keys, like Don, managed to sound both timeless and of their moment, no mean trick. Girl Talk shows the determination to push the envelope wheresoever it leads. And Sleigh Bells, like Smith, hand down the gift of dissonance, more mainstreamed with every year.

Think of Satchmo’s disdain for bebop, and how conventional it now sounds. Think of how the Sex Pistols sound as powerful as they ever did, but no longer sound radical. Think of how Kid A seemed to open up a new universe, and how we live in that universe now without really noticing it. Contrariwise, I don’t think Beefheart’s music is ever going to seem normal or conventional – but his gifts to us keep showing up year after year.

#10: The Fall, Your Future Our Clutter, Domino Records, 7 points
As usual, our hero has hired a band who play like weasels with their tails plugged into light sockets, then enumerates his grievances with modern life in a carefree lilt. I gather said grievances continue to mount. His food processor of a voice seems perfectly suited to these times, just as it was during the Ford Administration. That says as much about us as him.

#9: Girl Talk, All Day, No Label, 8 points
The modern-day equivalent of a Depression-era musical, so effortlessly exuberant and uplifting as to make it look easy. I want to see it choreographed with Busby Berkeley-style dance pieces. The unity of the market-tested hooks, seared into our collective unconscious, with the rap declarations from our collective id, give us something greater than the sum of its uncleared parts. I’d hate to be his lawyer, but if this isn’t fair use, I’m the Mona Lisa’s moustache.

#8: LCD Soundsystem, This Is Happening, DFA, 8 points
Seldom have we had more to dance about, and this one-man band provides the necessary groove. Aside from the humor, though, what I like best is how badly he sings. Everybody sings so damn well these days - not that there’s anything wrong with that. But I recall when a de-emphasis of virtuosity dominated the zeitgeist. That moment is gone, but James Murphy remembers. His off-key warble is the perfect counterpoint for his music’s precision.

#7: The Black Keys, Brothers, Nonesuch, 8 points
Seriously, you could imagine these two doing what they do in Sun Studios in 1955, couldn’t you? Simultaneously ancient and modern, loose and tight, gritty and smooth. The best tracks here grab you very gently by the spine and wave you back and forth.

#6: Janelle Monáe, The ArchAndroid, Atlantic, 8 points
The mastery of so many pop idioms is so complete, it’s like a resume and cover letter, applying for the job of superstar. Everyone can’t help saying she’s going to be huge, and everyone’s right. But we all said that about Terrance Trent D’Arby, too. I’m no good at predictions, but all I know is even if she never makes a better album, this one stands the test of time.

#5, Kanye West, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Roc-A-Fella, 9 points
In a pop moment where auteur theory is waning - i.e., reversion to a pre-Beatles paradigm of separation of powers between stars, songwriters and producers - Kanye stomps an impressive boot in all three camps. Sprawls like a Phoenix subdivision before the housing bubble popped. So impressive, it’s inspired an Inception-like backlash. It can’t possibly be as good as they say it is, right? But it’s better than the people who said that say it is.

#4: M.I.A., /\/\/\Y/\, N.E.E.T./Intersope, 10 points
In contrast, badly underrated. The deluxe edition in particular shows a depth and breadth that builds on her previous masterworks. Like Kanye, she’s both self-critical and defiant. Unlike Janelle, she seems uninterested in stardom, or at least seriously ambivalent. Eisenhower once said the best president would be someone who didn’t want the job. For that reason, M.I.A. should be the President of Pop. She’s got my vote.

#3: Arcade Fire, The Suburbs, Merge, 12 points
As a statement, it takes some chewing and digesting. It really kicked in on the third listen – on my car radio, naturally. But the drive of the music mirrors not only the exhilaration of escape from the stifling sterility of Everytown, but also its contradictory comforts. You can take the boy out of the suburbs, but the suburbs within still have the power to urge him on. And as an old suburban boy myself, I feel that tension and release in this music as acutely as if it were yesterday. Don’t know whether to grind my teeth or pump my fist.

#2: Sleigh Bells, Treats, N.E.E.T, 14 points
If you could scan my skull and create a new band out of the loose detritus and DNA fragments within, it would sound something like this. It would encompass contradictions. It wouldn’t be afraid to be grating or cloying. It would crunch, it would trill, it would grab you by the collar and look you in the eye. It would make you dance down the street while walking the dog. It would go over the top and then it would climb back up again. It would sound like all the albums on this list and none of them. All my friends would love it and hate it. This fills the bill.

#1: Sufjian Stevens, The Age of Adz, Asthmatic Kitty, 16 points
Stevens’ wide-ranging concerns, protean talents and effortless stylistic synthesis make this the album of the year. He’s the perfect bridge between the old, weird America and the newer, even weirder one. Equally at home with pastoral folk or industrial beats, he makes it all feel like the same music, simultaneously urban and rural. Even at 85 minutes, leaves you hungry for more.

Cee-Lo, Fuck You
Janelle Monáe, Tightrope
Yeasayer, Rome
Sleigh Bells, Rill Rill
Vampire Weekend, White Skies
No Age, Fever Dreaming
M.I.A, Haters
Shakira, Loca
Katy Perry, Teenage Dream
Ozomotli, Elysian Persuasion

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