Scott Miller sat in with Rubberband Girl on Berkeley's venerable KALX 90.7 FM this afternoon. Really this was just an excuse for Miller to talk about music, but obstensibly he was promoting his new book, based on a series of CDs he made, then wrote liner notes for, each one comprising a single year from 1957 to 2010. This is so fantastically geeky—many of us have thought about doing things like this, but few of us have the time or patience or discipline to actually do it. Miller's own music has always made clear that he loves other people's records immensely. He thinks about, and is able to distinguish, every minute detail of what he likes about it, from the songwriting to the playing, from the production to its net impact as a snapshot of a place and time. Scott is as far over into the left brain as any pop songwriter ever has been, which accounts for both the astonishing quality of his music, both in the 80s with Game Theory and in the 90s with the Loud Family, and his total lack of commercial success; it's a shame he couldn't have one without the other. I haven't read the book yet but will buy it, but I did read the blog entries the book is based on, and Miller is as good a writer about music as he is a writer of music.
As I understand it, Miller's process was taking 20 tracks from each year—not necessarily all his favorites, but all stuff that evokes that year in his mind, that inspires some powerful emotion. Some of the tracks (like the 18-minute "Dogs" from Pink Floyd's Animals) he would edit, since another thing about Miller that comes across in his music is his impatience. There's no Krautrock or dub or hippie jamming on his list. Miller limited each artist except the Beatles to a single song on each year's CD. For the Beatles he allowed up to three per year, one for each of their major songwriters. Once he had 20 tracks that could fit on an 80-minute CD, he would sequence them in order of increasing quality, with the first song usually something that Miller felt captured the gestalt of the year (even if it wasn't necessarily something he was crazy about) and the last song his pick for best of the year. Finally, once he had the sequence down, he would write little paragraphs about each of the songs and what he liked about them.*
* On the radio today, he was talking about how, after he made the CDs, he refused to let himself listen to them while he wrote about the lists. It's funny; that's how I do it too, though I don't consider it a rule. Each year as I write this year-in-music wrap-up, or before I wrote it when I was just compiling lists of my favorite music, sometimes with more notes and often with fewer, there will times when I listen to a song I'm writing about, to check a lyric, to more precisely understand a bit of music I want to describe. But generally I listen to other music, or sometimes even nothing, when I'm writing.
He had three hours, and most of the stuff he played was stuff he'd written about in the book. Rubberband Girl slipped in a few of her own selections, some of which Miller also had written about. Everything they played was terrific, even if some of it is stuff I admire and respect more than outright love. As you'd think given their exception-to-the-rule status, his lists are full of Beatles songs, but he didn't play anything so obvious as that. A few pretty big hits and well-known songs, but mostly numbers he sees as historical turning points—he played "Carrie-Anne" because he considers it the prototypical power-pop song. He talked about how the Beatles, as great as they were, became so much the template for what came after them that they killed a lot of the styles of music that existed before them, even styles the Beatles themselves loved and imitated. Obviously, as a music nerd who occasionally (ever more occasionally recently) writes long prose pieces about toonage, this could not have been more directly up my alley.* Unsurprisingly, it made me think a lot about the process of writing about music and why it's so meaningful to me.
* Scott is not planning to put out a new album. He's sort of entered the state of private contentment described at the end of this classic tune.
One of the best-known songs he played was Smokey Robinson's "You Really Got a Hold on Me," which for me has the greatest single pop lyric of all time, or certainly the one that packs the biggest word-for-word punch: its great first line, "I don't like you but I love you." Those seven words—instantly memorable, expressing precisely a complex and universal phenomenon anyone's who ever been in a romantic relationship can understand immediately. Dave Marsh famously said that, growing up in segregated and racially tense metro Detroit in the 60s, he heard the complex human emotion that line captures as the definitive refutation of white supremacy. How could the people around him say black people were inferior to whites when William Robinson, Jr. is capable of having and expressing a feeling like that? I actually think breaking apart and analyzing music obsessively, while it's not for everybody, is not so different from but is complementary to actually creating music. Both are about deciding what you like and what you don't. I wouldn't say reading music journalism gives me as much enjoyment as listening to actual music, just like reading about sex isn't as much fun as actual sex. But exposure to other people's thoughts and beliefs and orthdoxies and uncertainties about music often brings great rewards. If nothing else, there's always stuff out there I don't know about.
So: this is for all the people out there who write about music. Thanks. As always, this ballot is based on the tried-and-true Tris McCall Critics Poll format, with various additional smartass categories.
Away we go:
1. Drake Thank Me Later
The rise of the middle-class rap superstar is a funny thing. Most every art form, and certainly every pop-music genre you can name, from jazz to British Invasion blues-rock to D.C. punk, has straitjacketed itself with rigid standards of authenticity. But none has fetishized “realness” and ostracized the phony like hip-hop. Sometimes “realness” has been about preserving the form, keeping its unique properties separate from R&B or pop or whatever. But that’s proved next to impossible, because musically hip-hop is so omnivorous it has successfully assimilated every other genre of music under the sun except maybe bluegrass. (They’re working on it.) So as often as not “realness” isn’t about music but about a particular economic and cultural experience, a specific type of class consciousness. “Realness” is more elusive than crime or extreme poverty or machismo, but that’s the shorthand in which more complex ideas get expressed, the blunt instrument some emcees use to smash open the can of worms. Well, anyway: the biggest rapper out now is a Canadian ex-child actor who’s never had to sling a rock in his life and whose given name is “Aubrey.” It shouldn’t surprise anybody. Poor people are invisible in American society; our African American Democratic president may well be presiding over the slow-motion destruction of our social safety net, and with it his own party. You might think hip-hop would be an exception to this trend, but maybe not. The genre’s biggest stars have long striven to transcend their narrow creation myths by pitching Ciroc vodka or clubbing with Anne Hathaway, to the point where even broke-ass newcomers defensively boast about their chains. So the audience has had plenty of time to get used to the idea of the bourgeois rapper, or at least stop administering purity tests. At least in this case I am not complaining, because Drake is a highly skilled performer. He’s a five-tool emcee: he has lyrical skills, vocal ID, a recognizable personality, and superior flow; he can even sing. Maybe he’s not truly world-class in any of these respects, but he’s very, very good in all of them, which means he’s world-class on the whole. He’s one of the few rappers who can express a coherent and evolving conversational through-line, with ebbs and flows and ideas building one on the other, over the course of a full 16 or 24 bars. He rarely breaks momentum or resorts to randomness; everything he says is on purpose. He has a little of the hashtag-rap tendency to compress his language in an effort to communicate more information in less space. His big formal innovation is to drop the word “like” from his similes, since we know what he’s saying anyway, as in “Presidential suite, girl, Barack Hussein” or “Gotta set it off in this bitch, Jada Pinkett.” Over the whole record, this sort of becomes a tic, but what’s interesting is how he uses the device. With one fewer syllable to each idea, he can either speed up (by combining two ideas where before there would have been room for only one) or slow down (stretching out the remaining syllables to cover the additional space). His beats are clean, relaxing, often gorgeous; they are a perfect attitudinal match for the emcee and end up reflecting and magnifying his strengths. Drake is about the most non-confrontational, conciliatory, accommodationist rapper of all time. He doesn’t fuck with battle rhymes, doesn’t dis anybody, even anonymously. Instead, he raps almost exclusively about how weird it is to be so famous and desirable, sort of like you or I would. He wants to enjoy that but wonders if he can without destroying himself. He’s not particularly tortured; he’s just clear-headed about the unreality of his life. The whole thing is deeply human.
2. The Wonder Years The Upsides
Wordy, self-righteous, and morally correct early-20s Philadelphian Dan “Soupy” Campbell battles through a miserable, half-drunk, post-collegiate year by huddling together with his bandmates for heat in the backs of vans. Campbell is an inveterate smartass; the toons on his last record sported handles like “Bout to Get Fruit Punched, Homie” and the immortal “Buzz Aldrin: Poster Boy for Second Place.” But this time he’s too sad and wretched for that kind of callow japery. The most he can lift his tired head to muster is a snarky, pained aside. He’s getting older every second, just like the rest of us. The Wonder Years play the sort of music people I think still call “emo,” third-generation punk rock that is glossy and overwrought and adenoidal and accordingly unacceptable to Belle & Sebastian fans. They have a lot going for them: the band is tight, useful riffs appear fairly often, and the guitar players understand how to complement each other. If they don’t yet understand how to write catchy melodies on a consistent basis they still come up with sturdy ones. But of course the band’s meal ticket is their logorrheic frontman. His concerns are probably familiar to you, but you’re not nearly this articulate or consistently amusing. All Campbell remembers from college is a bunch of dudes punching each other on the shoulder and calling each other “faggot”; he only comes out of hibernation after a dismal winter when the Philly public-works people turn on the Logan Circle fountain. The “Girls Gone Wild B-team” and the future date rapists down at the bar don’t appeal; as he explains, “I don’t need to pump my fist or look ‘sweet.’” He has a very bad experience in the Bible Belt and loses his shit completely, making terrorist threats. At the end, he ticks off the names of all his friends bunking in dank sublets or with their tolerant, employed girlfriends, wishing them nothing but the best. Back in the 1960s, 23-year-olds made records like Astral Weeks and Piper at the Gates of Dawn, but the best minds of Campbell’s generation value literal reportage and self-diagnosis over mysticism and substance abuse.
3. Jamey Johnson The Guitar Song
One hates to agree with those guys at the New York Times, but sometimes they have good ideas too. They and every other critic were right about how great this record is. Maybe it goes on too long, a couple of songs near the end are sorta marginal, but these are quibbles. It's a double CD of fundamentalist outlaw country, like Waylon used to make and Willie sometimes still does. Supposedly it's divided into yin and yang, a drunken, wrathful first disc and sober, hopeful second disc, though the distinction isn't rigid; the best song on the second half is the one where Jamey flees California before it explodes into riots, and possibly slides into the ocean, like the mystics and statistics say it will. If form holds and most Times readers are liberals, it’s good the paper flogged The Guitar Song so aggressively; maybe its readers will buy it. Because Johnson doesn’t seem like a liberal to me. Neither does he seem all that conservative, though he does nod to Bible-believin’ folk in “I Remember You,” wherein he narrates the birth of a baby in the voice of God, and no—that’s not one of the record’s better moments. Mostly Jamey gives the impression of being an empathetic fellow with a depressive streak who despises phonies. He makes a point of speaking for people forced into compromises or outright lawbreaking just to stay on the margins of society. He directs explosive contempt toward the greedy and powerful who are forever trying to draw the margins of society inward, leaving more people outside the boundary. He understands the sins of greed and pride and avarice are also in him; he is most merciless toward himself for seeking fame on a reality TV show. If you want to read a much better writeup than this, which this record certainly deserves, go here. There are a ton of great songs on this album. Both kinds: songs for leaving your sweetheart, and songs for when your sweetheart left you.
4. Big K.R.I.T. Krit Wuz Here
This list is heavy on rappers who make their own beats, like Curtis Cross and Mr. Kanye West down the list, but I like Justin Scott’s record most of all of them. His beats are nothing like Black Milk’s forward-thinking electro-glitch, with its weird, syncopated drum breaks and analog synth squiggles. Krit is much more conventional, using mostly sped-up soul samples like Kanye before him and the RZA before Kanye. But like Kanye, he puts his own stamp on the technique. By which I mean you wouldn’t say Krit Wuz Here is a similar record beat-wise to 36 Chambers or The College Dropout, much less lyrically or emotionally. Krit is a better rapper than Black Milk, and certainly more technically accomplished than Yeezy, though you may feel Yeeze is a more distinctive monomaniacal nutjob. We live in an age of market testing, so it’s unsurprising that Krit has calibrated his niche appeal precisely; he tells you right off on the intro to “Viktorious,” “I’m countrier than a motherfucker but my lyrical content is crazy.” Well, he knew this collection of songs was excellent, insisting on a low-budget physical release so ign’ant fools wouldn’t call his album a mixtape. I am not fully convinced the “album” will really exist in 20 years; the “novel” barely exists today. But I love to see the kids fighting for the form. It’s still the best way for a person to impose his worldview on the masses.
5. Elvis Costello National Ransom
Especially over the past two decades, Elvis has mainly released records with defined and discrete musical concepts. There was the string quartet record, the one with the opera singer, the Burt Bacharach collaboration, the Allen Toussaint Crescent City homage, and last year’s sophisticated-hillbilly effort. Even of some of the early, funny ones can be summed up this way: we all recall the Stax/Volt Ray Charles apology (Get Happy!!) and the attempt to beat the Beatles at their own game (Imperial Bedroom). But he’s always been equally capable of showcasing his entire range across a single LP, starting with his ‘77 debut My Aim Is True. These smorgasbord albums are some of his most enduring works: Trust and Spike and Brutal Youth come to mind. And don’t be fooled that so much of the personnel are held over from Secret, Profane & Sugarcane; National Ransom is pure smorgasbord. You must know by now that Mr. MacManus can do anything under the sun with precision any academic would envy, even if I sometimes wish he’d go ahead and risk the F rather than settling for the A-minus. Lyrically, it’s fascinating to me that the loudest coherent voices in pop music objecting to our current state of perpetual warfare and the looting of our national treasury by the wealthy and powerful are English guys in their 50s and 60s. National Ransom has a lot in common with Richard Thompson’s dreary Dream Attic; both are rogue’s galleries wherein men with bad intentions viciously exploit the unwary. And we’ll get to Roger Waters a little later. The fact that American pop artists aren’t standing up any taller on these issues suggests we’ve entered the stage of nationhood where our prime directive is “Fuck it.”
6. Janelle Monàe The ArchAndroid
It’s an incredibly impressive formal accomplishment, all over the place in the best possible way. Monàe has a sense of adventure and a willingness to be weird and most of all the voice to execute whatever nutbar new thing she tries out, all of which goes a long way. For those who didn’t read the million or so reviews of the record talking about this, The ArchAndroid is a concept album about a half-robot lady deathlessly pursued by paramilitary assassins for her crime of falling in love with a full-blooded human. It’s half Romeo and Juliet, half Logan’s Run. Since anyone who buys this premise has already given you the benefit of the doubt, this is a great platform to do whatever the fuck you want, which the artist proceeds to do. The thing that keeps me from rating it higher is just that it’s a little distant. I know that’s part of the idea, the outcast on the run from a hateful society. But as an emotional experience the record is out in the ether with 2112 or A Farewell to Kings. She really is an arch android, you see.
7. Owen Pallett Heartland
This is a Borges-type deal wherein an author puts his protagonist through a gantlet of miseries—loss of wife and children, exiled from society, doomed to wander unloved and all that. In response, the character does the only reasonable thing; he decides to hunt down and kill the author who inflicted this bullshit on him. Tracking his tormentor to a remote mountain citadel (really probably a walk-up apartment where the guy is eating Apple Jacks and watching daytime TV, no idea what’s about to happen), the creation murders the creator. After which the character has an existential moment, the unsettling realization that for the first time he has free will and must make his own decisions. The text is so rich it conveys many sophisticated messages with equal force, whether or not Pallett expressly intended them. You have to break harshly with your mothers and fathers and influences to ever understand yourself. The artist loses control of her work the moment the work becomes public, and sometimes the results are not good. There is no God. Sharing too much of your soul through your art can leave you empty. It’s an answer to the Book of Job, who really should have told the Almighty to go fuck himself sideways. The music is light and airy chamber-pop, lots of beautiful and meticulous strings and woodwinds. I know this is a great sales pitch for the product.
8. Joanna Newsom Have One on Me
The announcement that Newsom was putting out a triple album was straight out of The Onion. She was already the wordiest and most ornate young artist going, and those tendencies already sort of torpedoed her last outing, the inarguably lovingly rendered Ys. I enjoyed Ys but there’s no denying it was a record you had to wrestle with, and people aren’t always in the mood for wrestling. I’m not sure I’ve listened to it even twice since the end of 2006. I would imagine Newsom wants to be the sort of artist whose music people actually listen to, as opposed to an artist whose work people own. But she also contains multitudes and has to let them out somehow. As compared to The Milk-Eyed Mender, which had songs about all manner of weird stuff, or even Ys, mostly about basic human relationships but using very elliptical language, the story behind Have One on Me is simple. A woman falls in love and moves across the country with her man; he makes her life so miserable that eventually she’s forced to concede defeat and slink off. Naturally Newsom renders it with the usual overkill, meticulously arranged numbers with multiple sections, her thesaurus and rhyming dictionary open on the standing desk. The prevailing vibe is a little girl lost in the woods, at the mercy of all of nature’s horrors and fighting a losing battle to remain in one piece. Before making the record, Newsom apparently had surgery to remove nodules from her vocal cords, which must explain why her vocals are now so breathy, so much less surefooted. There’s no sign of that assertive “Inflammatory Writ” chirp anymore. Of couse, the narrator has also gone wobbly. Six years ago Newsom arrived on the scene awfully sure of herself in dealings with the fellas (see, e.g., “The Book of Right-On”), but that’s gone with the wind now too. Have One on Me is two hours of a great artist licking her wounds. The camera never blinks the whole painful time.
9. Kanye West My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
The biggest hipster consensus pick since Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, MBDTF has obvious qualities. You certainly can’t front on the beats, whose each detail is so well-considered and flawlessly executed that stuble knocks, pings, and mumbles continue to reveal themselves to me even after several dozen listens. Kanye can get anyone he wants to do anything he wants, at least on record, so there are a ton of guest shots. Nearly all of them are all first-rate, even when the actual guest artists are marginal. Nicki Minaj basically makes her career with her 16 on “Monster.” She can talk nothing but shit for the next twenty years, and may intend to do just that, but whenever someone calls her on it all she’ll need to do is play “Monster” and that’ll be the end of it. Most critiques of this record have focused on Kanye’s immense misogynist douchebaggery, the way he insists white women give better head before virtually mass-murdering dozens of them in the “Monster” video. It’s not really a complete answer to say that he’s calling himself a monster, telling the ladies to run away from him as fast as they can. Kanye’s iconography is stupid and provocative, and hard to separate from his real-life misbehavior. He really puts the b in subtle. But for me, the biggest problem with MBDTF was that, for all its bluster, there really wasn’t a lot of genuine vulnerability on display. 808s and Heartbreak, which I underrated two years ago, now seems like one of the better records of the aughts; it had all the crazy nuance and multiplicity of this one, plus a consistent sonic landscape that really worked, but most importantly Kanye really was walking naked into high school. He showed us how he felt, whereas this time he just told us, and it didn’t hit nearly as hard.
10. Erykah Badu New Amerykah, Part Two: Return of the Ankh
Her last record was my favorite album of the aughts. This one isn’t as good, but it doesn’t give a fuck, which is its own virtue. You know the story: the last one was political, with a red-and-black cover spotlighting Badu’s clenched fist; this one is personal, with Erica’s blissed-out mug against a deep-purple background. You could say to Badu that this is really not such an original concept, the musical McDLT, where the hot side stays hot while the cool side stays cool. But it’s not so easy to execute and in the end both LPs went down exactly how the artist intended. Nobody but Badu could have made either one of them, because they are her.
11. Drive-By Truckers The Big To-Do
12. Against Me! White Crosses
13. Francis and the Lights It’ll Be Better
14. Big Boi Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty
15. Brooke Fraser Flags
16. Freddie Gibbs Str8 Killa No Filla
17. Screaming Females Castle Talk
18. Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti Before Today
19. Black Milk Album of the Year
20. B.o.B. The Adventures of Bobby Ray
21. Starlito Renaissance Gangster
22. Belle and Sebastian Write About Love
23. The Like Release Me
24. Darren Hayman & The Secondary Modern Essex Arms
25. Yelawolf Trunk Muzik 0-60
26. Ted Leo and the Pharmacists The Brutalist Bricks
27. Laura Marling I Speak Because I Can
28. Curren$y Pilot Talk
29. Trembling Bells Abandoned Love
30. Eddy Current Suppression Ring Rush to Relax
31. Danny Brown The Hybrid
32. Of Montreal False Priest
33. Kate Miller-Heidke Curiouser
34. Superchunk Majesty Shredding
35. Richard Thompson Dream Attic
36. Ghostface Killah Apollo Kids
37. Gil Scott-Heron I’m New Here
38. The Roots How I Got Over
39. Magic Bullets Magic Bullets
40. Phantom Band The Wants
Safe House by the Grisly Hand. KC-MO, represent! Your football team is back from the dead, too. What do you mean, “Todd Haley is a dick”? Moving westward, I was a big fan of Girls’ debut Album last year but wasn’t sure how much staying power Christopher Owens would have. Happily Broken Dreams Club suggests he will have some.
The Hold Steady missed my albums list for the first time in their history, but “The Sweet Part of the City” was a truly great song, as undeniable as anything they’ve ever done. It’s a great, precise (if kinda mythical) portrait of hesitant and fatalist young urban adulthood, but because Craig Finn is such a walking rock encyclopedia, by the end he’s abandoned the narrative, which was thin anyway, and started talking about his band like he always does. First he riffs on “Saint Dominic’s Preview,” which is more than enough to win my heart, before busting through the fourth wall altogether with “We were bored so we started a band/We’d like to play for you.” Bands fancy themselves corporations these days, so there’s no reason they shouldn’t have mission statements.
Album that started the strongest
Krit Wuz Here.
Album that finished the strongest
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Maybe the mid-record posse cuts go on a little long, but he makes up for it.
Francis Farewell Starlite’s “Get in the Car,” the sort of character study people used to write all the time in the 1970s but really don’t anymore. Francis sings like Richard Manuel, but this song’s greasy heart is pure Randy Newman. The lyrics draw an explicit parallel between entertainment-industry exploiters luring sweet young things into exclusive management contracts with promises of stardom and pedophiles cruising the mall parking lot in rape vans, intimating that candy is available inside. The particular guy in the song starts with flattery, but it’s ham-handed: “You could be bigger than Madonna/Come on, you know you wanna.” By the end he’s terrified his quarry is slipping the net, and he lets loose with the cruel taunt, “Don’t let the world find out what a coward you are.” That’s where the song ends; you never find out if she gets in the car or not. Part of the point of the song is that sometimes she does.
Album I listened to the most this year
Probably The ArchAndroid, and as usual it was mostly due to the fact that it came out early in the year.
Worst album I bought this year
Fight Softly by The Ruby Suns.
Crappy record I listened to a lot anyway
Gorilla Manor by Local Natives. They do a Talking Heads cover! Talking Heads were a seminal 70s and 80s band from New York! Their singer was David Byrne!
Record I couldn’t listen to more than once
Lil B’s Rain in England. Well, did anyone?
Great song from a crappy record
Le Noise lost its flavor like Fruit Stripe gum (sorry, Uncle Neil), but “Hitchhiker” was unforgettable (and more on it farther down the page).
Lousy song from a good record
“Magic,” the Rivers Cuomo guest shot on The Adventures of Bobby Ray. Hey, you got your puke in my peanut butter! Hey, this tastes fucking horrible!
Album that should have been longer
Have One on Me! I HAVE BEEN WAITING ALL YEAR TO MAKE THAT CALL! That is a grade-A quality ZINGER! Seriouser: I assume It’ll Be Better would’ve had more songs on it if Francis Farewell Starlite had written any more songs. But as much as I could’ve stood it to be longer, it didn’t feel all that short—just felt like one of those 33-minute 70s LPs this genre was built on. What felt short was White Crosses. Tom Gabel, if you want to maximize the Elvis Costello-Ian MacKaye hybrid you’re toying with, you need to stretch a little. At least give us 45 minutes.
Album that should have been shorter
If Jamey Johnson had dropped the curtain on The Guitar Song after “Good Morning Sunrise,” it would’ve been near-perfect and hard to deny album of the year. Krit Wuz Here sort of had the same problem; everything after “2000 & Beyond” was perfectly fine but not essential.
Most up-and-down record
Kathryn Calder’s Are You My Mother? “Castor and Pollux” and “If You Only Knew” are two superb pop songs, but some of the others were pretty drowsy.
Least up-and-down record
The Upsides. One of its great virtues is how it captures the sheer speed of life at age 22, when things are largely out of control and every second counts.
Album that wore out its welcome the fastest
Judy Sucks a Lemon for Breakfast, by Cornershop. That first listen was awesome tho.
Album that turned out to be better than I initially thought it was
That new Belle & Seabass joint. Their weakest in a while, but it’s still a lovely and mature and tuneful pop record with a handful of great songs.
Album that felt most like an obligation to get through
This shouldn’t be the case so early in their career, but I vote for Frightened Rabbit’s Winter of Mixed Drinks.
Most welcome surprise
Elvis Costello has almost certainly given me more hours of listening pleasure than any other musician, so it seems inhospitable to demand further greatness from him. But when you get it, it’s still awfully cool. National Ransom was his best record since Brutal Youth, if not Spike, if not Blood & Chocolate. (It’s not anywhere near as good as Blood & Chocolate; I’m not nuts.)
Rookie of the year
I guess we have to DQ Monàe on account of the earlier EP and zing Pallett because of the Final Fantasy records. That leaves us with Francis Farewell Starlite, whose hilarious name is giving Waka Flocka Flame a run for his money.
Comeback player of the year
Ted Leo. The Brutalist Bricks was so much fun, especially given that it was a Ted Leo record. Hardcore legend Keith Morris also deserves a mention. OFF!’s First Four EPs is not quite up there with Group Sex or anything, but Keith is still doing his thing credibly three decades out.
Bust of the year
The Gaslight Anthem’s American Slang. Their last release The ’59 Sound was a half-ecstatic, half-despondent amusement-park ride through the entire history of post-war American hipster music, a Ken Burns film for Ritalin users. But they couldn’t really repeat that particular approach without leaving everyone with the impression that they had nothing to say for themselves. On the new one, Brian Fallon finally drops the artifice and talks about himself and his traumas explicitly on the closer “We Did It When We Were Young.” That’s a hopeful sign for the long term, but the great rock songs that elevated The ’59 Sound were missing from American Slang. In the end it was just a little too limp and conveying the impression that you’ve heard this shit before so just move along, nothing to see here.
Album from which I expected too much
Abandoned Love by Trembling Bells, whose debut Carbeth was my favorite record of ’09. I couldn’t believe my luck, that they had a second album out so fast. It’s not that they made it too quickly, because there are a lot of ideas and melodies here. I just think they got a little conventional. What made Carbeth so thrilling was its frequent and inexplicable weirdness; when the band snapped back to conventionalism it hit like a cannonball. There’s no question Alex Neilson and Lavinia Blackwall intended Abandoned Love as a big step toward the middle of the road. After a first record characterized by folky, sometimes twisted British Isles mysticism, they kick off the follow-up with a song called “Adieu, England,” which is not that weird but still the weirdest song on the set.
Album that should have been better
Nas and Damian Marley’s Distant Relatives was still good, but what was the point of teaming these guys up if Nasir is just going to rap the verses while Jr. Gong sits on his hands waiting to sing the hook? The record’s one great song is the single, “As We Enter,” specifically because the vocalists trade lines, interrupt each other, have a conversation.
Best album title
This was a very competitive category in the ‘010. I give my nod to Superchunk’s Majesty Shredding. For what it’s worth, which is $0.00, I also gave serious consideration to DOM’s Sun Bronzed Greek Gods, Broken Social Scene’s Forgiveness Rock Record, and Fear of a Black Tangent by Busdriver.
Good album with a bad title
Richard Thompson’s Dream Attic. That’s a pun on “dramatic,” right? That’s terrible. All my life my father has tormented me with one bad pun after another, but that’s well below even his standards. It’s no big surprise—Richard is an enduring artist who still makes good records every time out, but he’s not the go-to guy for wacky or inspirational record titles. He might as well call his next release Album of Songs.
Album title that most accurately reflects the spirit of the music
The Okkervil River/Roky Erickson collaboration True Love Cast Out All Evil. If only.
Worst album title
The Age of Adz by Sufjan Stevens. Rejected alternate titles included Straight Outta Church Camp and (I Know) I Got Harmoniumz.
Best album cover
Grinderman 2. It’s a photo of a suspicious-looking wolf (or dog, who knows) standing in a pristine white marble bathoom, white shag rug in front of the large circular bathtub against the back wall, and the wolf is unduly salivating and all planning to ruin your white-wine soiree with cocaine and vomit and unprotected sex in the lavatory, not necessarily in that order. Also there's the possibility he will kill you. This is the persona Nick Cave inhabits on the Grinderman records, but it’s always clear he’s playing. The wolf is not playing, because he’s a fucking wolf.
Worst album cover
MGMT’s Congratulations. Oof. I guess this is some sort of R. Crumb/M.C. Escher hybrid? Also, I have nothing but respect for Mike Watt's long and distinguished career, but the already awful cover of Hyphenated-Man also employed Comic Sans, and some things I just can't forgive.
Best song title
Gucci Mane’s “Shining for No Apparent Reason” is just so pure that it walks away with this category. But I want to say a word for “Flat of the Blade” by Massive Attack, not because it’s so great but because I am amazed no New Wave of British Metal band ever made a record called Flat of the Blade. Can’t you just see the cover in your head?
Song title that most accurately reflects the spirit of the artist
Busdriver again, with “Unemployed Black Astronaut.”
Best liner notes
The fake TV Guide in Graham Parker’s Imaginary Television.
Naturally I did not pony up the $3 million it apparently cost, but the deluxe version of Springsteen’s The Promise was at least major-label money well spent. The best packaging of a record I did buy was the solid Freeway/Jake One collab The Stimulus Package, which came in the form of a wad of bills, Freeway’s face taking the place of Benjamin Franklin.
1. Rick Ross f. Styles P “B.M.F. (Blowin’ Money Fast)”
The portly buffoon who fronts like he’s some sort of drug kingpin, but whenever I see him I always picture him eating waffles, has actually turned into a reliable source of quality mainstream hip-hop. Album oriented, too. I liked last year’s Bigger Than Rap, and Teflon Don was even better, enjoyable all the way through. Rather than conceding weakness and inauthenticity after the world learned he’d been a corrections officer in a former life, Ross doubles down on the chorus of this slamming tune by assuming the identity of incarcerated gang leaders. The alchemical melding of the beat and vocal on said chorus is like a great slice of New York style pizza where the cheese and sauce have merged into one single thing. It doesn’t even matter that after four records Rawse still has no style other than honking through his nasal cavity, which by now, like, stop doing that already. If you want actual good rapping, here comes David Styles on the third verse to kick your ass into next week. On the radio edit his entire monologue is basically one long bleep. This is quality American entertainment, like biscuits and gravy with a cool glass of lemonade. I realize I’ve been using a lot of food imagery talking about this song. But listen to the chorus and the parody writes itself. I think I’m big meat/Whopper Jr./Apple pies!/Hallelujah.
2. Kanye West “Power”
This beat is so arresting that it’s reason enough to rank “Power” highly. But the big take-away here is how it exemplifies our continuing descent into the sort of meta-discourse where words are irrelevant in the face of pop-culture signifiers. Kanye writes a song about how he’s a crazy person living in this here year 2010 and sets it to Greg Lake screeching “21st Century Schizoid Man.” And just when you thought the reality-TV zoom lens couldn’t bring us any closer to our celebrity targets, this is arguably a whole new level of self-awareness. On the other hand, since the diagnosis is really just a King Crimson sample, it’s unclear our hero is self-aware so much as self-mythologizing. But our culture loves idiosyncractic expression by unreliable narrators, so Kanye is the superstar we’ve been begging for and deserve.
3. J. Cole “Who Dat”
The closest thing to “Made You Look” since “Made You Look.” Cole got that flame, so don’t worry about his motherfucking name. Though I suspect he actually wants you to know his name.
4. Neil Young “Hitchhiker”
For decades now, Neil has been arresting his (gradual, but still) artistic decline by scavenging the remnants of his mid-70s salad days. In 1990 he won Pazz & Jop and revived his career with Ragged Glory, which opened very strongly with “Country Home“ and “White Line,” both written in 1975. Before this year, “Hitchhiker” was sort of the white whale of unreleased Neil epics, much coveted by the sort of completists who are still circulating Internet petitions for a CD release of Time Fades Away. Neil wrote it 35 years ago, and performed it live numerous times, but never officially shared it on wax, unless “Like an Inca” from Trans counts, which it really doesn’t, with Neil chanting heavily revised lyrics through his vocoder. Like the rest of Le Noise, the accompaniment is just Neil, or several Neils, each hammering away at his Les Paul, breaking apart from one another through reverb and echo and then slamming back together with the force of a Buick Roadmaster hitting a retaining wall. You can tell “Hitchhiker” is of a very different vintage from the rest of Le Noise because the lyrics are not the least bit preachy or generic. The song is Neil’s autobiography of substance abuse, starting out in Toronto coffeehouses smoking hash through a pen, driving cross-country so wired on whites he’s unable to separate his heartbeat from the hum of his V-8, hitting the big time after Harvest with bags and bags of high-quality weed, abjuring superstardom and instead drowning his grief in tequila and cocaine. I liked the song better before he added the last verse, wherein present-day Neil looks back down the long road at the unreality of his life, but it wouldn’t be honest to pretend the story has the same ending he thought it did or would in 1978. Maybe he never liked that ending and needed to wait until life provided him a different one.
5. Drake “Fancy”
When everyone in the country is repeating the chorus of your single on the corner, in high-school hallways, in bars and airport lounges and bedrooms, you’re doing something right.
6. Kanye West f. Pusha T “Runaway”
Even if you forgive Kanye’s myriad difficulties you might sometimes resent the way he dominates the conversation to the point there’s no oxygen left in the room for anybody else. But he so brutally and furiously hates himself. When you combine that with his compositional skills, you’re almost guaranteed some compelling shit. It’s even harder than usual to put Taylor Swift et al. out of your mind listening to this one because the chorus is sort of a self-justification, but when Kanye offers a toast to the douchebags I have the sinking feeling he’s the only one in the room. Again, I direct you toward the airy, spacious, sonically breathtaking beat and the wonderful, singable melody. There isn’t much discussion of the purely musical aspects of Kanye’s work, but for me it’s the major point in mitigation of his flaws. I think the last artist to place two singles in my top 10 was Pete Rock & CL Smooth back in ’92, with “If It Ain’t Rough, It Ain’t Right” and “They Reminisce Over You.”
7. Ariel Pink “Round and Round”
Baseball obsessives love to point out that every time you go to the ballpark you’re liable to see something that’s never happened before in the game’s long history, some unique chain of actions, some improbable event. I know that’s true of pop music. It’s been a century since popular song, in the catchy three-minute form we recognize today, started to transform the world. One could spend hundreds of lifetimes cataloguing its many wonders. “Round and Round” is not the best pop single ever, but before its release nobody had ever precisely captured the aural equivalent of a 16-year-old blonde girl roller-skating around an in-ground municipal pool while fireworks erupt overhead and also I’m eating a hot dog. Well played.
8. B.o.B. f. Hayley Williams “Airplanes”
When it comes to pop music these days, all borders are porous and everything is on the table. That doesn’t mean any particular confluence of genres or combination of artists is going to work. But it might.
9. Starlito “Alright”
Wait, what? Lito is awfully high on this one. Fortunately the beat has smoked even more weed than he has. My favorite digression in a lyric comprised of nothing else is where he explains that, since he’s not supposed to get high on his own supply, he had to stop selling marijuana. That’s the kind of mentality we’re dealing with here.
10. Red Café f. Fabolous “I’m Ill”
Who knew Fabolous could actually be sort of distinctive? I’ve heard the guy rap on dozens of tracks over the last decade, but basically I don’t remember anything he’s ever said. Whatever, it’s nice to see New York lace up the gloves and fight back a little. Guys, you’ve been getting your asses kicked. Anyway, inspirational lyric: “Errbody eatin’/No Cup-a-Soups.”
11. Nas & Damian Marley “As We Enter”
12. Big Boi f. Yelawolf “You Ain’t No DJ”
13. Belle and Sebastian “I Didn’t See It Coming”
14. Janelle Monàe f. Big Boi “Tightrope”
15. Yelawolf “Pop the Trunk”
16. Curren$y “King Kong”
17. Erykah Badu “Window Seat”
18. Phantogram “Mouthful of Diamonds”
19. Gucci Mane “Long Money”
20. Superchunk “Digging for Something”
Song of the year
Kanye’s “Blame Game.” Start with the beat: that lone rattling tambourine, the stately piano, the periodic interjections by a moaning cello. Kanye remains one of the great melody writers in popular music; the hook is instantly memorable. The lyrics are a perfect, woundedly self-contradictory catalog of sexual jealousy. The second verse, where Ye uses the pitch-shifter to summon all the distinct voices of the chorus in his head, chirping and bellowing at himself, is the sort of formal achievement no one else even thinks to try. Then, as everybody knows, after all the moody, torturous jibber-jabber Ye brings out Chris Rock to deliver a monologue in the voice of a guy who is having some deeply grateful intercourse with the woman who broke Ye’s heart. By sending in a clown to play him offstage, Kanye is acknowledging his jealousy is pitiful and worthy of mockery. As always, the politics suck; the woman is present only as an idea and punchline but absent as an actual person. But in a way that just makes the whole deal sadder. You know the narrator is never going to get better; he can’t even see what’s right in front of his face. The Wonder Years’ “Logan Circle” was my runner-up, the sort of song that can help you get out of bed when things are really grim.
Bridge of the year
DBT’s “Birthday Boy.” This is just a plausible, empathetic hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold number until Mike Cooley hits you with his radical-feminist statement on the middle eight. The protagonist, thinking back to her younger days, comments offhandedly that “the prettiest girls from the smallest towns get remembered like storms and droughts that old men talk about for years to come.” Which is a fine and rueful lyric, but then Cooley drops the hammer with “I guess that’s why they give us names, so a few old men can say they saw us rain (reign) when we were young.” What Cooley is literally saying is men allow women the dignity of individual names only because it helps them remember which ones are most fuckable. Playing this song at a strip club would be exactly as appropriate as Ronald Reagan bumping “Born in the U.S.A.” during his reelection campaign.
Elvis Costello. Even in his pupal stage he was an astonishing songwriter, but after 35-plus years, with the sheer compositional chops and range he has on offer, nobody else is even in the same zip code. He’s like a one-man Brill Building. Except for, you know, the hit singles.
Hook of the year
Sorry, the chorus of “Whip My Hair” is indisputable.
Worst song of the year
“Teach Me How to Scream” by brokeNCYDE. These guys want to “party,” by which they mean “rape you.” Also, their name makes me think of ‘NSYNC.
Most annoying song of the year
Travie McCoy’s “Billionaire.” First, homie goes by “Travie.” Really? That’s the name he gives the barista when he orders his mocha? McCoy is the exact opposite of Kanye West: happy, dumb, straight down the middle. His band needs to go back to reggae school.
Most overplayed song
Cee-Lo always wins in this category. Most people I know, or at least people I know well and like, use the word “fuck” all the time. So it’s amazing to me that an obscenity each of us hears and says a dozen times a day still has enough power to morph a generic neo-soul tune into an iconic single.
Song that would drive me craziest on infinite repeat
Katy Perry’s “Peacock.” The story in this song is that she bullies a guy into showing her his dick (and balls, presumably—don’t forget the balls) by telling him if he doesn’t he must be half a fag. It’s a solid, progressive message. I know, she’s turning the tables on the patriarchy and undermining gender-based expectations. I’m not crazy about Wiz Khalifa’s ready-made Pittsburgh sports anthem “Black and Yellow,” either. Possibly I’m just tired of the yinzer diaspora and their sense of entitlement, particularly during football season. (No one cares about hockey.) I love french fries on my sandwich, but still. You notice you never hear them talk about the Pirates.
Song I feel cheapest about liking
I know I’m supposed to boycott reality TV, but Countess Luann’s “Money Can’t Buy You Class” crashes through the terrible wall and comes out hilarious. I’m pretty sure the main reason this song got made was in hopes it would become a drag-bar karaoke standard. She totally sounds like a dude on the verses, and the AutoTuned chorus is singable by literally anyone. There’s also ICP’s “Miracles” (“Fuckin’ magnets, how do they work?”). I especially like the part where a pelican eats Violent J’s cell phone. We’ve all been there.
Song I don’t feel at all cheap about liking
Surfer Blood’s “Floating Vibes.” I like those guys. I miss the 90s sometimes too.
Song I like better than I ought to
“Water in Hell,” the great tuneful rock number on Broken Social Scene’s Forgiveness Rock Record. They’ve never held my attention over the course of a full-length, but they’ve always been good for at least one great tuneful rock number per release, first “Cause = Time” and then “Fire Eye’d Boy” and now this one.
Song that got stuck in my head the most this year
“Fancy,” mostly because everybody keeps using the hook in casual conversation. It’s sort of an all-purpose retort. “Oh you fancy huh?” is the new black.
Freddie Gibbs closes Str8 Killa No Filla with “Slangin’ Rocks,” a really stoopid sing-along over the beat from the Whispers’ classic “Rock Steady,” and then closes “Slangin’ Rocks” with a fembot record exec trying to sign Gibbs by reciting her resume (she was in the studio with Dre back in the day, Lil’ ½ Dead put his dick on her head). I really think Gibbs will make great records before he’s done.
Ariel Pink’s “Can’t Hear My Eyes” was the bastard child of “Eye in the Sky” and “Abracadabra” and that’s pretty good. Over the course of a full album it’s hard to ignore Kristian Matsson, The Tallest Man on Earth, who bites Bob Dylan even harder than some of those songs from the last Helio Sequence record. Generally, The Wild Hunt does pretty well by Dylan. Matsson is letting it come naturally, not forcing it. And he’s nothing like Dylan from a persona standpoint. There’s no cultivation of some vague enigma, just a happy guy with a beard. Maybe that sounds like a putdown, but Dylan was always at his best when he allowed himself to have fun and be funny. Others: The Like updated 60s girl-groupery with sharply observational lyrics; Oaktown’s own Magic Bullets aimed for The Smiths but delivered The Housemartins, and that was still perfectly enjoyable.
Best purist rock and roll song
Ted Leo’s “Gimme the Wire.”
Most enjoyable musical moment of the year
A few seconds into “Who Dat,” when the drums and bass kick in after the Mardi Gras synth-horn lick.
Jamey Johnson. Just listen to “Set ‘Em Up Joe,” where dude is not really even trying, and tell me you could fucking do that, which you most fucking certainly could not.
Freddie Gibbs deserved this honor last year, when I snubbed him. He didn’t fall off too much this year. This seems like as good a point as any to mention that Fred’s manager is named “Archie Bonkers.”
It’s still the Truckers. The Big To-Do was a self-conscious return to riff and melody, neither of which are usually these guys’ strong suits. But it worked; this was the best they’ve sounded since the second half of Southern Rock Opera. And they're as productive as Irish Catholic parents—their new one Go-Go Boots is coming out in two weeks, less than a year after the last one.
Best musicianship on a record
The Nashville pros on The Guitar Song, who are just a wiggle left of center, maybe ten degrees off plumb. First it was the drums that caught my ear. They really are a marvel of subtlety and groove. But the steel guitar player is wailing his ass off for the entire hour and 45 minute run time. Basically every single part on every single song is great. Do all major-label country records feature playing this good? You don’t need to tell me I’m old because I prefer listening to this stuff instead of some Oxycontin abuser from Williamsburg punching his guitar.
Best instrumental solo
These results are getting a little monotonous, but the clear answer here is Cowboy Eddie Long’s steel-guitar tumbling run on Jamey Johnson’s unforgettable “Macon.” Wayd Battle’s closing six-string solo on the same song is also fairly choice. But like I said, you could put the needle down anywhere on the record and hit a winner.
Best synth player
Ariel Pink. His synths are almost as funny as his songs.
Best piano/organ player
Francis Farewell Starlite. Every time I type that name I feel silly.
Marissa Paternoster of Screaming Females. Fucking powerhouse, she is. Neil Young gets honorable mention for “Hitchhiker” alone. We’ll never see his like again.
Kevin Barnes. False Priest felt like a retreat after the last three Of Montreal albums, but I don’t really have a problem with that. First Kev made the record where he reinvented his sound and broke through to the indie masses, then the one where he was literally going crazy, then one where he pretended to be crazy and protested too much about how you best believe he will get freakay in the no-pants club. It had to be a bit of a relief to him just to put out a bunch of pop songs.
Mike Kennedy of The Wonder Years. These punk-pop bands always have the best drumming, or at least the most frenetic. Kennedy is sort of Keith Moon, sort of Phil Collins. Honorable mention to Pete Thomas, still doing it 32 years after This Year’s Model.
Best drum programming
Black Milk, who is the most distinctive drum programmer working today. He’s got to be himself; he can’t be no one else.
Best backing vocals
Erykah Badu. On Warren Zevon’s self-titled 1975 album the backing vocalists included Stevie Nicks, Lindsey Buckingham, Jackson Browne, Don Henley, Glenn Frey, and Bonnie Raitt. Every Badu record is like that, except Badu does all the parts herself.
Best use of a non-traditional instrument
Joanna Newsom was determined to deemphasize her harp this time around in favor of the piano, so I’m not going to vote for her. I’ll go with Kian Byrne, fiddler for The Grisly Hand.
Dave Bielanko and Christine Smith are all that’s left of Marah, so they self-produced Life Is a Problem. I guess they meant it to sound like it was a blast to make, but mostly it just sounds drunk. I don’t blame Dave for tying one on, since shortly before he hit the studio his rhythm section abandoned him and even his brother and longtime collaborator Serge decided to sit this one out. That means we’re spared the couple-three songs where Serge sings, never to great effect, but the band really misses the substantial added dimension provided by Serge’s writing. That Dave was hammered to bejesus is further corroborated by his decision to release the record on MP3, vinyl, and CASSETTE TAPE. There are good songs here, and a little more experimentation than usual, so I’m not giving up.
Owen Pallett! Pork chop, pork chop, greasy, greasy; he takes this one easy, easy.
Over a full album I’m going with Soupy Campbell of The Wonder Years. It’s a narrow decision over Big K.R.I.T., who indeed has crazy lyrical content despite being countrier than a motherfucker. Darren Hayman turned in his usual quality performance on Essex Arms. Mike Cooley of DBT got in just three vocal spotlights on The Big To-Do, and one of them is sort of The Honeymooners set in the current economic downturn, but “Birthday Boy” is maybe my favorite lyric of the year and “Eyes Like Glue” is not far behind, a father’s brutally clear-headed preemptive apology to his son for all the pain he’ll never prevent the kid from feeling. I am intrigued by Odd Future and want to subscribe to their newsletter, but I have mixed feelings about Tyler, the Creator’s Bastard. (Too much Sage Francis in the mix; I’m more excited by Earl Sweatshirt.) Still, imperatives like “I’m bad milk/drink it” suggest we might have something here. Other individual songs with lyrics I love include “Blame Game,” Francis and the Lights’ “Get in the Car” and “Darling, It’s Alright,” Drake’s “Fireworks,” Tom Gabel’s self-actualization anthem “Spanish Moss” and his grief-battered “Because of the Shame,” and Joanna Newsom’s soul-crushing farewell transmission “Does Not Suffice.”
Worst lyric of the year
From Jenny Lewis and Johnathan Rice’s “Committed”: “You have to be patient/This new administration/Is doing the very best it can/But there’s armies in the banks/Who tried all of the skanks/Attorneys for the Ku Klux Klan.” That’s some astute political analysis. It manages both to kiss ass and make no sense whatsoever. When reactionary politicians take their cheap shots at know-nothing Hollywood liberals, this is exactly the sort of thing they mean.
Thing I don’t know but I should
Das Racist. Was the idea that they put out “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell” in order to see who would ride with them and who would write them off as a joke act? Before they hit us with their real shit? Seems counterproductive. I didn’t write them off and am happy to check up on them from time to time, but I haven’t really bothered, so feel free to tell me if they’re actually good. I dig raps about saag paneer as much as the next guy, but the Pitchfork rave didn’t diminish my skepticism.
Most overrated artist
The Black Keys. I like them too, but really, you think they’re a great band? Not a fun band, or a cool band, or a band you enjoy listening to while driving fast in your car, but a Great Band? Do you think they play “authentic rock ‘n roll”? Okay, let me guess—you were in a fraternity? No? Did you attend prep school? Also in the running are The National. If you’re into indie rock and also in a diabetic coma, High Violet just might be the record for you.
Don’t believe the hype
Titus Andronicus. Drunk and stupid in skinny jeans is no way to go through life, son. You can’t just fake your way through a concept album about the Civil War and hope no one will notice. Sure, you can bribe Craig Finn with a couple growlers of tasty microbrew to recite opaque narration through an olde-tyme amplification device, but diversionary indie-cred grenades like that only get you so far. Singer Patrick Stickles has all of Conor Oberst’s irritating tics but none of his personality or competence. More specifically, he shares Oberst’s love of and commitment to shouting but has a really shitty voice that can’t execute even the simplest melodic concept. Listening to him try to sing whole songs is like watching a drunk fall repeatedly off a balance beam. Speaking of which, can we take a break from writing songs about being wasted and pissed and fucked up and piss-wasted and ass-fucked by life and then the punchline is the guy is this hideous way because he is from suburbia? Jack Kerouac might have damaged even more young minds than Ayn Rand, though in Jack’s defense one could rightly point out that Dharma Bums devotees have done much less harm to our nation than the Cato Institute.
Gave Sufjan Stevens another shot this year.
Artist that has absolutely no reason for existing
People in England sometimes get on their high horse, but we’d never let something like Jedward happen in this country.
Band that is no longer getting it done and should break up
Blonde Redhead. Penny Sparkle was the sound of the needle hitting E.
Geezer who should give it up altogether
This category is harder than it used to be, with so many oldsters coming around to the realization that they are still allowed to make good music. I’ll go with Bret Michaels and his weave.
Most undeservedly hyped debut
Best Coast’s Crazy for You. Eight years ago, every rock critic and indie person in the continental US savagely killed Liz Phair for writing sing-song pop tunes, some of which had somewhat dumb lyrics. I know Liz had a track record that made her new material about blowing a 22-year-old with chiseled abs while he plays Xbox seem like a betrayal of Dylan-goes-electric magnitude, but even at their dumbest Liz’s music was still less simple and her lyrics a billion times better than Bethany Cosentino’s. I guess if you produce the record so nobody can hear anything except major-chord fuzztone guitar you can get away with it.
Unsexiest person in pop music
Best live show
I saw Roger Waters do The Wall in Oakland in early December. I don’t usually go in for that sort of deal. If you discount Phish, with whom I have a diagnosed but untreated problem, I never see arena shows. But second semester of sophomore year in high school, I listened to The Wall every day, usually more than once, and ironically this was the period of time where I figured out how to exist in society without being a social outcast. The record means a lot to me and always will. I haven’t listened to it more than three times in the past ten years, but of course I still know every word and note by heart. And I must say Roger did the work credit. He talked to the audience before “Mother” and after “In the Flesh,” the latter of which banter seemed like his nervous confirmation that he is not actually, or at least does not intend to be, an eliminationist fascist cult leader. He talked again at the end, and all three times he made comments designed to persuade the audience that he’s a much happier guy than he was in 1979. I hope he’s telling the truth and not just either trying to convince himself or coming to Jesus for the sake of his legacy. I have to believe he worries his music will be undermined in a historical sense by everyone’s apparent belief that he is a huge asshole. But Roger has always had a furious, universalist pacifist streak too, from as far back as “Corporal Clegg.” Given his advancing years and purported mellowing, it was no wonder that on this tour, which could be his last, he dwelled on and updated the anti-war and anti-commercialist themes in The Wall while giving less weight to the original rock-star douchebag narrative. (It was equally interesting to watch the Bay Area crowd, presumably liberal but almost certainly somewhat prosperous given the ticket prices, react to Roger’s agitprop. On all three parts of “Another Brick in the Wall,” the band strolled into extended jams, mostly for functional reasons. They needed to give the crew time to assemble the wall, so they could use all those fancy laser-light projections. During “Part 1” an animated bomber dropped massive payloads, first of crosses, crescents, Stars of David, and Chinese flags. The crowd murmured faintly but showed no real disdain for these religious or national logos; these are differences we’ve been taught to respect. But then the bomber started dropping clusters of Nike swooshes and Shell Oil scallops, and the crowd exploded into opprobrium.) Roger kept enough of the tricks from the original Floyd performance and the Alan Parker movie—the giant schoolmaster marionette, the flower-coitus animation during “Empty Spaces”—to keep the older fans happy, but his real agenda is his disgust with the turn our world has taken into normalized and permanent warmaking and cameras everyplace and random death from the skies and wealth concentrated in the hands of five corporations. Who can blame him? Maybe you’re unhappy about that stuff too. Of course, this was the highest face-value rock concert ticket I’ve ever bought, and the price tag made me feel faintly gross, leftist politics or not. I actually don’t know if it was the best show I saw this year, but it was a first-rate performance and certainly a spectacle without equal in my experience.
I don’t know. I watch so few videos. I’ll just list a few that I liked. First up is Janelle Monàe’s “Tightrope,” which I guess would be my pick if I had to make one. She’s stuck in an insane asylum patrolled by affectless hooded figures with mirrored faces; she’s wearing a bowtie as big as her head and a high-top fade exceeding Christopher “Kid” Reid’s wildest dreams. And she can really dance. There was also Holy Fuck’s “Red Lights.” It’s got cats driving cars, just like Steve McQueen in Bullitt. It’s also got cats playing analog synths, like some guy you might be in a band with. No idea what one has to do with the other, but, hey, cuteness. Also, I lied a little: I have seen Das Racist’s video for “Who’s That? Brooown!” Who doesn’t want their own video game? Maybe if I actually lived in New York I would find the insider humor played out, but to me it’s just goofy, and the world needs goofy. This year also saw the venerable rock-comedy team Scharpling & Wurster branch out into music videos, with Ted Leo’s (sort of amusing) “Bottled in Cork” and Superchunk’s (actually amusing) “Digging for Something.” In terms of the Rock Video Self-Referentiality Hall of Fame, these clips don’t quite meet the standard set by Yo La Tengo’s “Sugarcube” (wherein YLT are sent to remedial rock school) or “Tom Courtenay” (wherein YLT open for the Beatles on their reunion tour). But I love the guy hitting on Laura Ballance at the craft fair by boasting about his kiln, and even better is the way Ballance lures her replacement hipster bassist offstage with a copy of Hall & Oates’ Beauty on a Back Street.
Video they should have made
“In California,” the centerpiece of Have One on Me.
2009 record I ignorantly slept on
Darren Hayman’s Pram Town. I need to check the guy’s website more often, I guess. The second part of his trilogy set in the sprawl east of London, this year’s Essex Arms, was also pretty terrific, just not as conceptually coherent and with lower high points. Nobody knows Darren, possibly because he’s the most unassuming man in rock, but he’s a consistent artist of superior quality.
Deserving 2010 record I bought too late to meaningfully evaluate
Marcberg by Roc Marciano. Just got it this week, and it’s great, probably worthy of the top 20. Rakheim Meyer is another rapper who makes his own beats. It’s the new thing. Peter Gabriel said it many years ago: DIY. Nobody else is going to bust open those heads for you.
2010 record I will probably reevaluate a year from now
Brooke Fraser’s Flags. It’s great, but sometimes it floats by a little too easily. I’m not sure I trust it. With “Coachella” she tried to write her own version of “Woodstock,” and that turned out a little embarassing. (She should’ve used the chorus “we’ve got to get some wristbands/for the beer gaaaaar-den.”)
Comment on Bruce Springsteen’s The Promise
I enjoyed the hell out of it. Of course I also understand fully why he made the record he did when he made Darkness and why these songs weren’t on it. There is not a single song here I would add to Darkness; certainly I wouldn’t replace anything on Darkness, not even “Prove It All Night,” for anything on The Promise. But as other people have pointed out, there is at least a full vinyl LP of amazing pop music here—not just “Fire” and “Because the Night,” which everyody knows, but the pure, angelic “Save My Love,” which would’ve done Roy Orbison proud, or the girl-group classic “Someday” or the brooding/soaring “Breakaway” or the way “Ain’t Good Enough for You” predicts the fast songs on The River and “The Brokenhearted” predicts the slow ones, or “City of Night,” which would’ve fit in great on Born to Run. It’s too bad it was never the right time for Bruce to release it, but you wouldn’t really change that if you could, would you?
Rod Stewart Memorial Award for falling the fuck off
Given to the great young artist who does remarkable early work then spends many long years failing to approach her initial standards, if not outright sucking. Besides Rod (he never really did blow all those sailors, you know), other examples would be Cheap Trick, Liz Phair, Cesar Cedeno. It pains me to say it, but I’m looking at you, Jenny Lewis. Come on, now. This is what you want to do with your life? Smoking weed and making records with your boyfriend? The Execution of All Things and More Adventurous are no longer visible in the rear-view mirror. I am not a mindreader or resident of Silver Lake, so I have no idea how hard you’re trying, but from the music, which is all I have to go by, it doesn’t sound like you’re trying all that hard.
Stephan Jenkins Memorial Award for colostomy bag of the year
John Mayer. White people can get away with anything.
Liz Phair’s Funstyle. I’m sorry she ruined your masturbation fantasy when she tried to become a pop star, but you really need to let that go. Funstyle was not a major work and wasn’t intended to be, but if you don’t get the jokes, it’s not Liz’s fault. Go jerk off to Sleigh Bells or something where the words don’t matter.
Will still be making good records in 2020
Elvis Costello, especially now that he’s lost the weight. Kanye West faces somewhat longer odds, but I believe.
Best record of 2011
The first great record of the year came out on New Year’s Day—The One … Cohesive by Huntsvegas, Alabama’s awesome G-Side. I had to put it on probation so I could concentrate on 2010 music and finish writing this monstrosity. I’ll be getting back to it presently. See you this time next year (maybe even before then).