Ultimate Mixtape #2: 20 Songs of 2010

It may be a bit early, but I don’t anticipate anything from Daft Punk’s Tron soundtrack to come close to making this list, so in no particular order here are my 20 favorites from 2010:


“Home” & “Dance Yrself Clean” // LCD Soundsystem

It’s difficult to put into words how great these songs are. It’s also hard to make a list of people James Murphy is competing with. It’s a cliche, but he really is in a league of his own. The cloying self-consciousness in his voice, the shambling imperfection of the instrumentation and the generous length of these songs all work in concert, drawing the listener into a personal relationship that the lyrics underline. Can anybody else accomplish that and get people dancing simultaneously?

“A More Perfect Union” // Titus Andronicus

I saw these guys play at a record store the day their album came out in late February, and they brought the house down. Then in July at Pitchfork Music Festival, they brought a much larger house down. The energy and enthusiasm they bring to the stage (and their recordings) is still refreshing on every listen. The Monitor is my album of the year, at least it was before My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.

“Slowdance” // Matthew Dear

As good as Black City is, it doesn’t feel like Matthew Dear has hit his peak; he gets better and more accessible with every album. “Slowdance” still hits the pleasure centers of his house music past, but slows things down a bit to add lyrical and textural depth.

“Out Go the Lights” // Spoon

Spoon have been one of my favorite bands for going on a decade now, and they continue to amaze me with their easy experimentation and studio magic. Transference is distinctive for its rough, demo-like production, but to me it’s more than just that, it’s a continuation of Britt Daniel and Jim Eno’s search for new forms of authenticity. On several tracks, “Out Go the Lights” included, I find my brain rushing ahead of Daniel’s lyrics, completing thoughts even when their resolution is denied. Nothing feels more personal and authentic than that.

“Stranded” // The Walkmen

The Walkmen are the ultimate synthesizers of influence. Listening to their new album Lisbon, you can pick out the rhythms and melodies of rockabilly, calypso, country and western, and mariachi, but they’re always at the service of that unnamable Walkmen sound. Hamilton Leithauser’s trademark howl is restrained on “Stranded,” but the mariachi brass adds to this track’s yearning power.

“Afraid of Everyone” // The National

It’s the quick little guitar lick introduced around the 1:12 mark that gets me every time, but the lyrics, dramatizing the process of coming to terms with a new reality, don’t hurt either. High Violet, and especially “Afraid of Everyone,” is the sound of The National firing on all cylinders.

“Jamelia (feat. Luke LaLonde)” // Caribou

I hate to say it, but what’s always held Caribou back from being one of my favorite bands are the limitations of Dan Snaith as a lead vocalist. This track, my favorite from their album Swim, substitutes the voice of Luke LaLonde (from Born Ruffians) to dramatic effect.

“Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” // Arcade Fire

What’s that you say? Arcade Fire recorded an electro-pop anthem for suburban kids? And Regine takes lead? There’s no way it’s anything but amazing…

“Mmm Hmm (feat. Thundercat)” // Flying Lotus

This year the magnetic pole of hip hop officially shifted to Los Angeles. The circle surrounding Steven Ellison, including The Gaslamp Killer and Samiyam, have successfully fused the blunted Stones Throw style of late J Dilla and Madlib with the glitchy sampling of Dubstep. FlyLo’s Cosmogramma is a stunning listen for its stylistic fusions and fearless experimentalism. “Mmm Hmm” is its standout track.

“Ancestors” // Gonjasufi (produced by Flying Lotus)

Here FlyLo’s clattering, bass-heavy backdrop melds perfectly with Gonjasufi’s incomparable vocal manner, both seemingly washed in the harsh light and heat of the desert. With tracks produced by both FlyLo and The Gaslamp Killer,  Gonja’s album is as close to a cohesive statement of purpose as the LA hip-hop scene is gonna get.

“I Only Know (What I Know Now)” // James Blake

I could have chosen any number of James Blake tracks from this year. From “CMYK” to “Limit To Your Love,” Blake was on a roll all year long. What stands out about “I Only Know…” is its prodigious use of silence. Also of note is the feeling of constructedness this track exudes. I like to think of it as a sequence of spaces or a building, something you can inhabit with your entire being for five minutes, if you so choose.

“Love Cry” // Four Tet

In which Kieran Hebden successfully synthesizes the glitchy electronics of his past with the messy humanity of his collaborations with Steve Reid, only to find that it ends up sounding like house music.

“Rill Rill” // Sleigh Bells

On the strength of this track alone, I think we should all get together and convince Sleigh Bells to turn the volume down. Not many of their Treats tracks “have a heart” or a soul, but this one has both in spades.

“Take It In” // Hot Chip

I’ve always thought of Hot Chip as the great humanists in electronic music. Theirs is a dance music indubitably made by and for human beings. The varying textures of this track are what makes it amazing to me. The first verse contains the obligatory bloops and blips (this is Hot Chip we’re talking about), but during the chorus those synthetic sounds are replaced by four or five drum tracks on top of a simple piano loop, and one of the sweetest vocal melodies these guys have ever written.

“Dancing On My Own” // Robyn

Robyn was the standout performance at this year’s Pitchfork Music Fest in Chicago, and this is the standout track from the trilogy of Body Talk albums she released this year, but that sells “Dancing” short. Robyn isn’t just asking us to dance, she’s asking us to feel the forlorn jealousy the lyrics describe. Emotionally, this is lightyears more mature than whatever Katy Perry is yelling about on the charts this week.

“Tightrope (feat. Big Boi)” // Janelle Monae

As much as I love Big Boi’s Sir Luscious Leftfoot: Son of Chico Dusty, nothing on it hits me as hard as this collaboration with future-pop diva Janelle Monae. Produced by Monae herself with Nate “Rocket” Wonder and Chuck Lightning, “Tightrope” successfully synthesizes the prodigious riffage of soul revival with the Southern-style hip hop of Organized Noize.

“Yamaha” // The-Dream

What a ridiculously pleasurable song this is. By unapologetically ripping off Prince, The-Dream finally found the sweet spot for the type of raunchy, danceable R&B he’s always been capable of producing. What’s unfortunate is that “the Minneapolis sound” probably won’t be making a comeback on the strength of this track alone… I’m looking at you, Justin Timberlake.

“Power” & “Runaway (feat. Pusha T)” // Kanye West


After a series of missteps and a year out of the limelight, the heroic return of America’s favorite narcissist is complete. This pair of performances on Saturday Night Live proved it. The Vanessa Beecroft-meets-Michael Jackson performance motif he uses here is original and appropriate, and it is repeated in the long-form video for “Runaway” to dramatic effect. When Pitchfork gave My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy a coveted 10.0, I wasn’t terribly surprised. You have to respect when an artist simultaneously reaches for an intensely personal expression and universal appeal the way Kanye did. When it actually works, it’s beautiful indeed.

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Dubstep, The Dirty House, and the Aesthetics of Recycling

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.

 

David Adjaye, Dirty House (2002)

 

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.


Ultimate Mixtape #1: 20 Songs of 2009

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.


Whatever happened to Post-Rock?

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.