Archive for December, 2010
Honorable Mention: KiD CuDi: Man on the Moon II: The Legend of Mr. Rager
#10 Vampire Weekend: Contra
While I’ve been a Vampire Weekend diehard since last January, George says “it makes me want to vomit cartoon rainbows.” Maybe there is something kitschy about Ezra singing about horchata, cheese steaks and toothpaste, but this is no reason to write off Contra. I’ve mentioned before that a good artist can take something simple, commonplace and present it in a completely novel way – in other words, make us pay attention to the clothes rubbing against our skin. This is what Vampire Weekend does. On one level, each song is completely unassuming, on another it’s mind blowing. Take “California English”, so fraught with auto-tune and syncopated rhythm you’re forced to ask “why?!” But the auto-tune is just a creative way to present “California English” or Spanish perhaps? Another way Vampire Weekend present simplicity is through perfectionism – the attention paid to minute detail. Although “White Sky” could be repetitive till dullness, it is instead subtly different through the use of changing percussion and inflections in Ezra’s voice. This is 2010’s version of XX – restraint, simplicity yet subtle complexity. The rarity of this combination is what makes such albums winners.
#9 Major Lazer: Lazers Never Die EP
Pure epinephrine runs through the veins of MAJOR LAZER. This causes him to create perfect dance music. This is what I imagine must be true for such unapologetically obscene dance music to exist. This EP is in part a recognition of all ML has done this year but also an appreciation of the EP itself. The remixes on this album do nothing less than improve upon the originals in the case of “Bruk Out” and in the case of “Jump Up” and “Can’t Stop Now” they remixes present the songs in a form that seems just as natural (or perhaps just as ridiculous?) as the originals.
#8 Arcade Fire: The Suburbs
Talk about album cohesion! Thematic, melting of one song into another, and even similar chord cadences in every song, Arcade Fire produced a soundtrack-like album. It even seems to have a beginning, middle, and end (it ends with “The Suburbs (continued)” that brings us right back to the first song on the album). On a smaller scale, within each song, the chord progressions are also circular. Where the cadence ends is also the beginning of the next cadence. Thus, every song is circular, and the effect is a continuous anticipation for a “real” ending. Maybe, that’s why this album is so catchy and debuted at #1 on the U.S. Billboard and received three nominations at the Grammys.
#7 Tame Impala: Innerspeaker
Listening to tracks like “Alter Ego” and “Solitude Is Bliss” really makes me want to put Tame Impala’s, Innerspeaker as number one on our list. But I honestly have to admit, the album as a whole just doesn’t make it that far. If you dig The Beatles, you might disagree with me, but as fresh as the whole classic rock, phased-out style, backed up by the “I don’t give a s**t” feels, may be, we have better justifications for our current higher rated picks. Innerspeaker succeeds in being nostalgic, without making the same mistake other indie bands make who just succeed in sounding stupid. Their 2008 EP sounds like it could have been made today by the band. That’s because Innerspeaker is Tame Impala’s genuine sound.
#6 Beach House: Teen Dream
Teen Dream is a very personable album. This may sound vague, but Teen Dream is vague. The entire album collectively makes a mess of your emotions. Obviously, from the song titles there is some theme of love, but honestly I can’t tell if the album is about falling in love or breaking up. Every song is introspective and absorbing. For example the song, “Lover Of Mine”, may begin like another kitschy song by MGMT, but after the bass and piano enter to accompany the guitar, the song becomes a pool of thought (perfect day-dream material). I personally found this album to be reflexive but I believe you can perceive this album in any way you wish. You can sympathize with it, embrace it, philosophize, etc. Every track on Teen Dream is unique to any listening aspiration. I don’t know how crazy I am about Alex Scally’s voice singing higher than his female counterpart, Victoria Legrand, but the duo together create a very luscious, yet translucent feel. The perfected and smooth production amplifies its imagery and tone. This album isn’t anything mind-blowing, but it pains me to pause my iPod midway through a song. You can claim that music is ear-candy, but Teen Dream is food for thought.
#5 Gorillaz: Plastic Beach
Damon Albarn clearly strives for grandeur with this album. Heavy beats, soaring orchestrations and collaborations out the wazoo do not mask Albarn’s intentions and in fact do quite well to propel this album most of the way towards what it seeks to accomplish. However, the album is plagued by just a few shortcomings that keep this album inches away from perfection. Unfortunate this was for Damon in a year like 2010 where these kinds of minor shortcomings keep a really incredible album at fifth place amidst some other really incredible releases. One or two really expendable songs (“Glitter Freeze” comes to mind) and a couple other hit or miss moments are the only real flaws and unlike in Demon Days, Damon proves that the Gorillaz project is more than just a vehicle for radio friendly pop singles.
# 4 Sufjan Stevens: The Age of Adz
“Letting loose” doesn’t exactly evoke ideas of frivolous brass and superfluous choir. We usually associate “letting loose” will sloppiness, incompletion and disorder. The wonderful, absolutely amazing, extraordinary thing about The Age of Adz is that it’s everything we wouldn’t expect from a free-form, sufjan-finally-let-loose album – it’s saturated with technical orchestration, complex ideas, story lines and masterful song writing. But even more impressively, the free form is still there – themes meander, noises pop out of nowhere, there seems to be little restraint. What makes this a top ten album is the effortlessness – orchestration that would sound contrived if written by anyone else, flows out of Sufjan like drunken ramblings; song structure that would normally either confuse us or put us to sleep, is instead enthralling and deeply emotional. Sufjan is naturally complex and often stabs at the air with odd “noises”. Every so often he stabs us in the heart and throughout his chaos he carries a beautiful melody and story – the combination of chaos, dissonance and harmony and peace is something only Sufjan could have crafted and something that may never be achieved on such a high level ever again.
#3 Flying Lotus: Cosmogramma
I initially wanted Cosmogramma to be album of the year. This was because from the moment I heard the leaked tracks in early 2010 and still to today, the album hit me on a supremely spiritual level. Its huge “cosmic” sound left me paralyzed. However, perhaps its scope was alienating; you’ve really got to get inside your own head to get into this music. Is this enough to push FlyLo off the top spot? Is it problematic at all? Perhaps, if you’re afraid of dementia or insomnia.
Aside from the psychological problems the album chaperones, FlyLo does some innovative things with his music. For instance, he seems so deliberate with his beat placement and ultimately you can tell because FlyLo’s seemingly sloppy, lazy beat (which in reality is probably incredibly delicately timed) really kills it, in a good way. I mean, if it was just a tad more sloppy in places, it straight up wouldn’t work and it is exactly that teetering on the threshold, that suspended dissolution that makes FlyLo’s music so kickass.
#2 Kanye West: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
The reason this album is so perfectly effective is because Kanye created an album that is a self portrait of a megalomaniac: A cinematic self portrait that is never self-effacing and always opportunistic. The cinematic aspect of it comes from his ability to sculpt an album that shows his true self from several angles: his obsession with power and opulence, his monstrous ego, his inability to sustain a relationship, his devils and his tribulations. Perhaps the reason MBDTF touches so many people so deeply is because it has an protagonist with whom we can clearly relate: a protagonist who is his own antagonist. Kanye’s got a pretty twisted mind to create such a fantastical album, full of dark imagery yet beautifully brilliant music.
#1 LCD Soundsystem: This Is Happening
Exceptionally danceable. Stylistically nouveau. Tastefully self-deprecating. Often humorous. The facets of this album which, when working in tandem, make this our favorite album of the year are surprisingly actually not that hard to pin down.
In effect, this album just hit our pleasure centers from the very start and the music on this album hasn’t really stopped doing that even now. It’s not even a drip feed of pleasure, it’s like an endless waterfall of pleasure. However, it goes beyond that. The album goes the other way too. The absurdly ridiculous simplicity that this album exudes at first glance is a front for what is actually a crazy synthesis of several incongruous genres into one pseudo-dance-punk-who-cares-for-proper-labeling awesome piece of musical ass. I safely assert that this album contains the songs that James Murphy has been trying to make since “Losing My Touch”. This would be irrelevant if not for the fact that Murphy feels perfectly at ease in these songs. The production is tops, and in fact quite interesting, as Murphy finds way to play with your perception of the sounds he records. The sounds all sound framed in space yet still succulently clear. No sound is hidden or masked but there’s still an infinity of depth. In the end, This Is Happening just happens to be the most perfect album of the year.
More Sufjan and just in time for the Holiday Season! According to Between Hipster’s and God there if Sufjan Stevens, Sufjan and the National have collaborated to bring us hipster friendly Christmas songs. The funny thing is, I’ve been listening to an old album of Sufjan’s called A Sun Came for my Christmas music fix. It’s not a Christmas album, but something about Sufjan often sounds so Christmas-y.
Our friend, Abbas Rattani, just finished and posted his review of Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and well, the world finally has a comprehensive, in depth, excellent review for this album (P4K’s, as described by George, fell wayyy short). Abbas writes his review by addressing each track, its artists, and alludes to everything from Kanye’s previous albums to Aristotle’s Poetics. It’s clear a lot of time and critical thought went into this review – probably more than anyone’s given it so far so I’d say this is a must read. Oh, since I must have said something brilliant and relevant, I’m also quoted in this review. Naturally, now I’m a fangirl.
Here’s how it begins
Kanye West is a hip hop game changer, his recent album is avant-garde done right; he is the only rapper that has the capability of doing something like this. He challenges normative assumptions of what it means to be a rapper, while testing the boundaries of hip-hop. This album is full of personal emotion, vulnerability, and self-reflection; something that is often absent from rap. While listening to this album you feel like you are witnessing something paradoxically new, yet oddly familiar; musical history in the making. It seems reasonable to conclude that he (along with Kid Cudi) inadvertently created his own sub-genre of hip-hop, teetering on alternative, indie, and pop. Welcome to the era of transcendental hip-hop.
In preparation for our 2010 top ten list, I’ve been revisiting some of the most epic songs of this past year – just to make sure they didn’t lose their charm after the 50th listen or so. I hope at least our top 5 picks represent albums that don’t lose their charm after 50 years or so.
Sooo I’m in the mood to scrutinize music more than ever right now – that’s why I’ve also been really picky about anything that George has sent me recently (he often sends me music he’s working on). I really ragged on his most recent rap beat that contains a juxtaposing acoustic guitar finale. After expressing to him that it just sounds “messy”, we got in a debate about what it means to be an artist. And in some ways, this debate helped us define good music and explain our top ten choices… so here’s a preview of our thought process.
I believe artists have a burden – it’s their job to make an adequate presentation to an audience. By adequate I mean that if they’re going to highlight something really abstract or even ugly, it’s their job to make it beautiful. I personally feel this burden every time I learn a new prokofiev piece on the piano. He’s my favorite composer but his music isn’t always people friendly – it’s kind of psychedelic and even messy – for classical music that is. But, my favorite thing about playing prokofiev is finding ways to highlight the beauty in his music. It’s there I just gotta make you hear it. However, our debate centered around George’s belief that it’s sometimes the artist’s job to challenge his audience. My response is, if you’re going to choose a challenging subject (something inherently disturbing or ugly aka prokofiev) it’s your job to turn it around. Do the harder thing. It’s just lazy to make your audience ‘figure it out’.
Another job of an artist is to make us see things like we’ve never seen them before. You know like take something really simple or ordinary and present it in a completely different light – “Treachery of Images” style “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” like. My favorite artist of this kind is Tolstoy who takes love, death, war, peace and presents it to his audience in every form except for the way we usually think about it.
Then, there are artists that just turn your world upside-down and those are the artists that we chose for our top ten artists of 2010. So get ready for em. Here’s something else that turns your world upside-down.
If you’re going to pay attention to one top ten list this season, it should be Bob Boilen’s from NPR’s All Songs Considered. At first glance it looks esoteric. Infuriated by the choices Boilen, my hero of music dissemination, had made, I was really about to cast his list aside (actually I was about to criticize it in this post). He left out some of the greatest shapers of music the year– LCD Soundsystem, Kanye – and did he do it purposely just to prove that he knows something we don’t?
So I sat down to analyze his list and find all the reasons why his no name bands have no place on any top ten 2010 list. But after listening to every one of his selections, I have to say Bob Boilen’s choices had me asking, “How had I missed these this year?”. Most importantly of all, his list isn’t just a permutation of all the albums we already know are going to appear on every top ten list, and despite this he still manages to pick unbelievable albums. However, Boilen does have one of the “knowns” on his list and it is Sufjan’s Age of Adz. Dare I give this away, but I whole-heartedly agree with his choice and placement. I continued down the line to his #2 pick, Jonsi. Alright, this was also an ambitious album and, as Boilen points out, a mix of electronics and strings similar to Sufjan. Additionally, it’s always impressive when a soloist can leave a band and make music that’s even better – like Jonsi did without Sigur Ros behind him (we can’t even say the same for the love of our lives, Thom Yorke).
By his fourth choice, I was in awe at the list Boilen had put together. Buke & Gass are the artists of Boilen’s #4 choice and he describes their album as, ”the freshest sound I’ve heard this year.” I’d also have to agree – and I wondered why hadn’t I heard these guys? This is great! I continued down the list and was turned onto everyone of Boilen’s picks. I can’t honestly say that these choices are any worse than some of the big guys and proving Boilen wrong was what I had initially set out to do. Many of these albums are difficult listens, super complex and layered, but each of them has a distinct reason for appearing on Boilen’s top ten list and Boilen convincingly gives you those reasons in his few sentence write-up.
Finally, Stereogum’s “Album’s We Are Most Excited About in 2011” made me really happy. I’m a Wye Oak fangirl. And they include a song preview!
I’ve never been a fan of Indie music videos. I think I explained this in my ODDSAC post; “In the Flowers” video almost ruined the song for me. The weird thing is that the video is actually incredible, but paired with the psychedelic music, it can give you nightmares. The video of Gorillaz “Welcome to the World of Plastic Beach” featuring Snoop Dogg is exactly what a music video should be – silly, almost bad yet so amusing, coupled with a top ten song.
EDIT: ApheraMusic was especially upset to learn, through the video, that the vocoder lines that permeate the song, are saying “Just like that,” not, “Just like math” as we had originally assumed. How disappointing… -george
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