Like I’ve done the last two years, here are some under-informed ramblings about my favorite tracks from the past calendar year. Feel free to ignore them.
“The Wilhelm Scream” // James Blake
Blake started the year off right with his self-titled debut full length. And by right I mean correct for the winter months in the northern climate where I reside. Blake’s fusion of lounge singer vocals and dubstep low end felt transcendent during a gray February, but once summer rolled around it quickly left my rotation.
“Lotus Flower” // Radiohead
Most of The King of Limbs is a major downer, but “Lotus Flower” is almost danceable. See Thom Yorke in the video, for example.
“New Beat” // Toro y Moi
First of all, let’s get something out of the way: I hate Ariel Pink. I therefore wasn’t predisposed to loving Toro y Moi’s abrupt turn from atmospheric, Dilla-esque beatmaking to sun-drenched beach pop. But what has always differentiated Toro’s tracks from his peers is their messy humanity, and that characteristic is retained here despite the spit-shined sparkle.
“Rano Pano” // Mogwai
Mogwai released their strongest album in years, Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will, and they also assaulted my eardrums at Mr. Small’s Theatre outside Pittsburgh. It was a revelatory concert, and one that cemented this song in particular on my best-of list. The video sucks, but I’ll forgive it.
“Wicked Games” // The Weeknd
Two well-publicized mixtapes and a few Drake collaborations later, The Weeknd’s work feels more contrived than when I first heard it, but no less cathartic.
“Lofticries” // Purity Ring
Purity Ring seem to have emerged fully formed from the internet ether. Sure, they’re aping The Knife a little, but given that the siblings Dreijer aren’t making any music of late this will have to do. For me, it’s more than satisfying.
“Ice Cream (feat. Matias Aguayo)” & “My Machines (feat. Gary Numan)” // Battles
Battles are at their most madcap and wonderful on Gloss Drop, and these two singles typify their post-Tyondai Braxton approach: hired vocal guns. I saw two excellent Battles sets this year, one at a festival and one in a small Cleveland venue, both of which augmented their live instrumental assault with large, expensive-looking video screens featuring the aforementioned guns, to dramatic effect.
“Putting The Dog To Sleep” // The Antlers
The Antlers provided the soundtrack for my sad bastard moments this year, and this track is the saddest of all. I’m not that into Hospice, their more critically lauded 2010 album, mostly because its themes of cancer and death and hospitals aren’t as universal as those explored on Burst Apart. The album strikes a deft balance between electronic and analog, along with specific and universal, and the results are profoundly affecting. “Put your trust in me / I’m not gonna die alone… I don’t think so…”
“Jaguar” // The Dirtbombs
A garage rock band covering Detroit techno? I’m in. Unfortunately, the rest of Party Store doesn’t hit quite as hard as this track for me. Great concept, above average execution.
“The Vision (feat. Jessie Ware)” // Joker
If he can make pop songs as convincing as this one, who cares if Joker has (arguably) turned his back on his dubstep roots? I predict he’ll be producing Beyonce and Rihanna before we know it.
“Are You Can You Were You? (Felt)” // Shabazz Palaces
Shabazz Palaces make what once upon a time would have been referred to as “abstract” hip hop, but these days are put in the “blunted” category along with Dilla and Madlib. On one level, the comparison is flattering, but the Stones Throw sample crowd has never produced anything this organic. The balance of electronic and analog is what makes this music sound so fresh and so clean.
“Banana Ripple” // Junior Boys
This is an excellent dance track from one of my favorite artists. It unexpectedly turns into something transcendent and trance-inducing after the 6:45 mark. Bit heavy on the treble though, boys. It’s tough to really crank it up.
“Please Turn” // Little Dragon
A number of Scandinavian bands ruled my airwaves this year. Particularly The Radio Dept. – who would have shown up on this list if their album hadn’t come out during 2010 – but also I Break Horses, Iceage, and Little Dragon. LD’s best track combines a great vocal performance from Yumiki Nagano, their signature electronic melodies, and an incessant foot-tapping beat.
“Otis (feat. Otis Redding)” // Jay-Z & Kanye West
A lot of critics wrote off Watch the Throne because it flouted the Roc brothers’ celebrity and conspicuous consumption. I say, there’s nothing we need more after three years of recession than a little fun. If Hova and Yeezy spend a little money bringing it to us, I say it’s a wash.
“We Bros” // Wu Lyf
I’ll admit it. I have no idea what this guy is sing-saying. He might as well be speaking Danish (this band isn’t Danish by the way), but I love this unintelligible but sunny reflection on brotherhood and solidarity nonetheless. The atmosphere of their album Go Tell Fire On The Mountain is what gets me, I can always feel the space its songs were recorded in, which is refreshing. And that organ!
“Ohio” // Justice
I really want to love Audio, Video, Disco, but I don’t. Most of its tracks are short on melody and just too short. There are blissful moments on the album, particularly the 1:00 mark of “On & On,” but Justice never lets them breathe. The burping synth breakdown here is utilized effectively, unlike similar cues on this new album. Also… this song is not about Ohio.
“All The Same” // Real Estate
Lackadaisical. Irreverent. Profound? [Note: This live version feels a bit rushed compared to what they put on record, but it highlights the chemistry these guys have on stage]
“Surgeon” & “Year of the Tiger” // St. Vincent
I could have chosen nearly any two tracks from St. Vincent’s excellent new album Strange Mercy. It’s easily my album of the year, and contains no less than six that I think warrant inclusion on a list such as this. Boiling her band down to drums, bass, keys and the occasional embellishment, Annie Clark has put her vocals and guitar front and center. This approach better approximates the effect of her live act. The stories on Strange Mercy are also Clark’s best so far. “Surgeon” is probably the best song I’ve ever heard about a fit of depression and features a completely unexpected, honest-to-God funk solo near its end. “Year of the Tiger” is the most apropos selection on this list given that its narrative is about an wealthy executive on the run a la Bernie Madoff or Raj Rajaratnam. Sketched through micro-scale details (an ever-growing stack of mail, a suitcase of cash in the back of a stick shift) these stories are affecting in ways I typically associate with literature and film.
Appendix // Here are a few 2011 tracks I hadn’t yet heard when I initially made my list. They deserve recognition:
“Wildfire (feat. Little Dragon) // SBTRKT
“Generation” // Liturgy
“Thinking About You” // Frank Ocean
“Marvin’s Room” // Drake
I experienced a curious bit of symmetry today between an article I discovered yesterday and some music I purchased this morning. The article was “Ornament from grime: David Adjaye’s Dirty House, the architectural ‘aesthetic of recycling’ and the Gritty Brits” by Ben Campkin, and the music was James Blake’s Klavierwerke EP.
Campkin, a Lecturer in Architectural History and Theory at the Bartlett and Co-Director of the UCL Urban Laboratory, argues in his article that David Adjaye, in his production of the Dirty House, adopts what has been called an “aesthetics of recycling,” a self-conscious exploration of the qualities and meanings of degraded materials.
While it would have made more financial sense to remove it, Adjaye and his clients chose to keep the shell of a former furniture warehouse, gutting the interior to create a pair of sculpture studios and capping it with an open plan penthouse. Adjaye radically modernized the building while keeping its now-ghostly shell. This shell is coated with an expensive but unpretentious matte black paint. Specially formulated to prevent the posting of fliers and the presence of graffiti on the surface, Campkin describes this drab paint as a ubiquitous presence on elements of London’s civic infrastructure. Punctuating this shell are two window types, transformations of the original building’s normative openings into flush mirrored surfaces on the first floor and deep recesses on the second. Despite the new paint, the rough and uneven original shell is unavoidably present, transformed through its paint and deep window recesses into something very alien to its surroundings.
At the same time, Adjaye’s metamorphosed warehouse seems to belong. Its myriad textures absorb the atmosphere and context, changing with the weather and with sunlight from a light gray to a slick black. The simple change in color requires one to reflect on adjacent textures, placing them in a new, deeper relief.
One could argue similar reuse and transformation occurs in dubstep, an electronic music style developed in London during the same period as the Dirty House was being constructed. Dubstep, like most electronic music, makes heavy use of sampling, but one of the things that makes it different is its clipping, cropping, and stretching of said samples, specifically vocals, to the point that they are almost unrecognizable. Dubstep artists like Burial make heavy use of digital effects to transform human voices into sounds more at home in science fiction than the dance floors of London.
James Blake, a young London producer in the dubstep tradition, constructs deceivingly simple tracks using pieces and parts of his own piano melodies along with heavily altered samples. What makes his Klavierwerke EP so striking, however, and what had so much resonance for me with Adjaye’s Dirty House, is his use of silence. The centerpiece of the EP is “I Only Know (What I Know Now),” an incredible track that at times seems to disappear completely, completely stopping in a way that makes me concentrate strongly on ambient sound. Blake’s music is far from minimalist, but it focuses my attention on the context of my aesthetic experience the same way a sculpture by Donald Judd would.
Similarly, the Dirty House is an extremely silent piece of architecture. Its matte texture, mirrored glass and cantilevered roof all seem to draw London in, to make the context a part of the experience instead of the other way around. By creating difference through transformation, and leaving room for atmosphere, Adjaye and Blake conflate the aesthetics of recycling with those of minimalism, and I wanted to point out their strange symmetry.
I tried to pick my favorite albums, but I couldn’t, so in no particular order, these are my favorite songs of 2009. I realize I have up until now not been a music blogger, but I’m trying to keep things multimedia.
“The Animator” // Junior Boys
The critical talking point on this one seemed to be that it was the dreaded “mature” album, a dry batch of songs from a couple of former rabble-rousers. I humbly protest. Junior Boys have always brought such humanism to their dance tracks, and nothing changed with a little more sheen and restraint on Begone Dull Care, it’s among my favorite albums of the year.
“Bicycle” // Memory Tapes
M83-style maximalism, produced by American Dayve Hawk. Not many got close to this level of grandeur this year. Then again, not many tried. This is much more than mere Glo-Fi, that’s for sure.
“Crystalised” // the xx
Skeletal, minimal, spare. These words are all inadequate to describe just how restrained this song is. When The xx do a breakdown, literally nothing else is happening. I get chills around the 1:20 mark every time, for a rather minor crescendo. Where did these kids come from?
“Daniel” // Bat for Lashes
Does Natasha Kahn think it’s pandering to write a song this catchy? A damn shame, because something this universally bliss-inducing only comes around once in a while. Or once an album in the case of Two Suns.
“Despicable Dogs” // Small Black & “Feel it All Around” // Washed Out
What’s Glo-Fi you ask? This is it. Nothing sounds quite like synths and drum machines driven to the max and turned up to eleven, the sound of an MP3 reaching its limit. I’m looking forward to full albums by both Small Black and Washed Out in 2010.
“Laura” // Girls
2009 was the year the cool kids got out of the sweaty clubs and rediscovered the beach. No band embodies that transition better than Girls, who put out a whole album worth of throwback pop, the best of which is “Laura.”
“Liztomania” & “1901” // Phoenix
These two tracks are probably the best two pop songs of the year, and the fact that they’re back-to-back on Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix would make you think the album was front-loaded. Then you listen to the rest, and realize it’s just this good all the way through. What’s left for Phoenix this year? They released the best album of their careers, they rocked SNL, their work appeared in a Cadillac commercial. What’s the encore, guys?
“My Girls” & “What Would I Want? Sky” // Animal Collective
What’s amazing is that this can even be called a pop song; how far we’ve come in the past few years. Easily the most palatable and most pleasurable thing Animal Collective have ever written.
We all thought the year was over for Animal Collective. We were wrong. The fact that a song this good didn’t make the cut for Merriweather Post Pavilion says something about the roll these guys are on. Enough of a roll, apparently, that this song contains the first-ever approved Grateful Dead sample.
“Northern Lights” // Bowerbirds
Has any other song gotten under my skin as fast as “Northern Lights”? I heard this one for the first time four days ago, and it’s already among my favorite songs of the year. There’s not much to it, just an earnest set of lyrics, some nice stand-up piano, spare drumming, and a devastatingly honest voice.
“Shine Blockas” // Big Boi (featuring Gucci Mane)
Wow, is this the only hip-hop on my list? That says a lot about the strength of the genre in 2009. After an overdose of Kanye-style narcissism and one too many overrated “returns to form,” it had to be Big Boi to bring everybody back to basics. Dear Luscious Left Foot: Put out your album already! We’re all looking forward to it after this.
“Rain On” // Woods
2009 was a year of highs and lows for the denizens of Lo-Fi. In March, it was bigger than ever, by June it was tired and listing badly. A couple of it’s main protagonists released underrated albums, but unfortunately this year belonged to Wavves. Unfortunate, because people overlooked a nice group of songs from Woods, including this melancholy meditation on the weather.
“Twin of Myself” // Black Moth Super Rainbow
In a list chock full of Eighties-worship, this is by far the cheesiest track, but I can’t resist it. The remainder of Eating Us isn’t designed for headphones, and it seems this is the only track to have bucked the overbearing influence of Dave Fridmann’s production. I love BMSR, but they’re music isn’t stadium-sized, and trying to make it that large only waters it down.
“Two Weeks” & “While You Wait For the Others” // Grizzly Bear
I’m a sucker for the old Motown pop formula, and here it’s deployed with such grace and vigor that I find the song irresistible. There’s much more drama and romanticism in these three minutes than an hour of inane, auto-tuned Top 40. Oh and the video ain’t half bad, either.
From the downright percussive guitar lick, to the unparalleled crescendo, this was the most advanced moment in pop music this year, not named “Stillness is the Move.” Even Michael McDonald thinks so.
“Walkabout” // Atlas Sound (w/ Noah Lennox)
I’ve never been much of a Bradford Cox fan, and obviously it took the involvement of Panda Bear to draw me into this one. He’s toned down the navel-gazing here, and the result is so wonderful I can only hope the fantastic Mr. Cox learns something from the approach of his friend and collaborator, something about how to give a song less intimacy and more appeal.
“Woods” // Bon Iver
Remember last winter? Back when we were drowning in a sea of Auto-Tuned pop? It took this insanely-great song from Justin Vernon to turn the butt of many a T-Pain joke into something far more consequential.
“Young Adult Friction” // The Pains of Being Pure at Heart
During four months of gray weather in Cleveland, we all need a little summery pop once in a while. These guys got me through last winter. All of their songs are unbelievably sticky, and it seems from their Higher than the Stars EP, released in September, that unlike the Lo-Fi groups with whom they were initially categorized, they’ll only get better with higher-quality production.
Once upon a time there existed a genre of popular music collectively know as “Post-Rock.” It was loud, it was cerebral, it was novel. But most of all it felt important, like your big brother in a rock band was now all grown up. Undeniably “grown-up” influences popped up as fluidly and organically as did rock n’ roll. Krautrock, Free Jazz, Minimalism… no style was safe from Post-Rock’s penetrating eye.
Post-Rock cleansed the palette of many a Gen-X soul burned by the popularization and ultimate downfall of grunge. Bands like Chicago’s Tortoise, Glasgow’s Mogwai, and those released on Montreal’s Constellation Records (Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Silver Mt. Zion) seemed more than adequate mediums for the introduction of new stylistic, rhythmic and melodic tendencies to popular music. Their albums challenged the limits of volume and the attention span of their listeners in ways traditional pop had never attempted; tracks spanned fifteen minutes, crescendos blasted your eardrums, and a general malaise often threatened to break one’s mood.
But oh how far the star has fallen. Post-Rock is fading into obscurity, and I for one don’t think it should.
When online music-review juggernaut Pitchfork.com recently released their list of the top 200 albums of this decade, the editors seem to have completely blocked Post-Rock from their collective memories. With the exception of Iceland’s Sigur Ros (arguably a genre all their own), Pitchfork has overlooked Post-Rock. No Standards, no Rock Action, no Lift Your Skinny Fists…? Really? All of these albums were critically acclaimed, and Pitchfork itself gave Standards a 9.2 upon release. What happened?
This is indicative of a trend in music criticism toward an obsession with vocals and lyrics. One might blame this shortsightedness on the rise of Rap. When radio is dominated by a genre whose players are pure lyricists, it becomes harder to appreciate an instrumental. Post-Rock is the victim. But why must we keep the faith? Why is Post-Rock still relevant?
For many, Post-Rock was (and still is) a gateway. Personally, it made me care about and get into all those “grown-up” influences it was tossing about so haphazardly. Without Post-Rock, I may never have discovered artists as wonderful as Lee “Scratch” Perry, Steve Reich or Neu!; I might never have noticed the sound of the studio in my headphones, and my music life wouldn’t be as rich.
Let’s not forget Post-Rock. It’s good for us. Much better, anyways, than a genre rife with misogyny and homophobia. It has plenty to say, it just chooses to do so musically.