What a year.
My apartment burned down, I got into a PhD program, I got engaged, I spent the summer sweltering in the Midwest, I got married, I drove across the entire country with my wife, and I just finished my first quarter as a doctoral candidate.
Did I listen to any music? Let’s perform a simple diagnostic test that will tell us the answer.
Diagnostic Question: Was I alive at any point during 2010?
Answer: The aforementioned details of what went on would indicate yes.
Result of diagnostic analysis: I listened to music in 2010. This is what I really got into.
LCD Soundsystem: This is Happening
Clean and long-form dance songs about how terrible and shallow people are in New York. For some reason this really spoke to me this year. There are also some meditations on commitment once and for all to yourself or another person, commitment to the wrong person, making the mindless sex with the funny people who have to drink and pretend they don’t want to make the sex before they make the sex, and sticking to your guns. End of shipping manifest.
Wild Nothing: Gemini
This record transformed the stifling inland old-growth Southern Indiana/Moon of Endor jungle where I spent the summer sweating myself into a damp raisin into a hazy place of dreams and pining. Wild Nothing is VA dude Jack Tatum, and what he achieved here made it safe for men to cry again, to cry little girlie tears of winsome loneliness into the 150% humidity of a million degree summer night. Reverb washes from these songs across miles of imaginary sepia toned highways, while jangly faeries hold your sniveler’s hand and you weakly bop to the no-balls-at-all vocals and the distant drums, too limp-wristed to masturbate. Seriously, this is a really good record.
Kurt Vile: Constant Hitmaker
For some reason this came out in 2008. I didn’t know anything about this until my buddy DC and his crew at WWALT alerted me to the fact that I was already deeply in debt and I didn’t know it. I was in debt and I needed to pay my respects to Mr. Kurt Vile. I have done so, and I continue to do so with interest.
Though the tome of wisdom that is comprised of Vile’s work can be opened to any page for enlightenment, this is the album that does my soul the most good. Every song takes you back into the womb of the blues, where mother earth’s arterial amplifier hum swishes all around your foreverdreaming ears and Momma never kicks you out of the house.
Squarepusher: Squarepusher Presents Shobaleader One: d’Demonstrator
Tom Jenkinson, or Squarepusher, is the guy Radiohead looks up to as their Radiohead. See the trailing bits of the below interview he gave to BBC2’s The Culture Show for Thom Yorke’s kudos if you want proof. If you sit through the part of the piece intervening between the start and the finish of the interview, and I don’t see any reason why you wouldn’t want to, you will gain a valuable insight as to why Jenkinson’s work always stands out as such an individualized oeuvre. As he puts it, he tries to keep a “hermetic” approach to his work, to let what he is expressing develop with limited influence from or intertextuality with trends that sweep through music at any one time. I listened to nothing but this record for several weeks straight as it deeply and tortuously carved from the inside of my head the high chambers of Squarepusher’s new cathedrals of tone. Everything on this record, from art to composition to the engineering of the sound, is a high resolution postcard from a new world. He has pulled in the reins and diverted from his last few performance jazz influenced records to revisit some earlier themes of otherworldly R&B and sharp synthesizer crunch, culminating in a record that could just as easily have been named “Oh my god” if the demonstrative appropriateness of the record’s title had been deemed important than being cryptic and awesome.
Deerhunter: Halcyon Digest
Sure, fine, I’ll reduce this record to an oft-reproduced blurb singer/songwriter/guitarist Bradford Cox posted on his Facebook page around about the time of this record’s release. He said that the title is a reference to “a collection of fond memories and even invented ones…The way that we write and rewrite and edit our memories to be a digest version of what we want to remember and how that’s kind of sad.”
What is it really? It’s a painful and ecstatic faceplant on the very edge of spiritual awakening, if you take the subject matter of “Don’t Cry” or “Revival” at face value. I’m just one listener/fan/critic, but these sound like meditations on how a person at the end of their rope can turn toward faith instead of away from it when they’re at the very terminals of extremis.
The record’s a desire-gone-cold reflection on lost youth and gained cynicism, on life lived on the perimeter if you take “Desire Lines” (sung by guitarist and vocalist Lockett Pundt) at its word. “Memory Boy” is a tribute to the departed Jay Reatard if I ever heard one. The opening riff is pretty reminiscent of the former Deerhunter collaborator’s track “Before I was Caught” from his final album, Watch me Fall.
The limitless talent and the fearlessness with which Deerhunter put out their new music is incontrovertible, unassailable. It is the only true mark of an artist. At the end of the day or the end of a life, what does one have but one’s work? The simple fact is that we, all of us, know that we have nothing if we have not remained true to our talents and our ideal selves, to THE IDEAL SELF locked like a minotaur inside the maze of mysteries or miseries he or she must decipher alone. Deerhunter is a pack of monsters who live that human axiom to its rarely practiced extreme. I unabashedly love this band with their shimmering atmospherics, their endless experimentation, and their personal lyrics.
A weird trip through handcrafted techno. This album which I thought completely programmed in a DAW is actually completely played live. It’s cold-weather music for weird headspaces.
Lloyd Cole: Broken Record
My wife, she of the impeccable musical taste who is always teaching me something new, she introduced me to Mr. Lloyd Cole during our courtship. Maybe first she slipped me “Like Lovers Do” during one of those stealthily competitive and eminently meaningful exchanges of single songs that takes the place of exchanging mix tapes in the digital era, and, when I was sufficiently whammied by that, by the depth and breadth of her musical knowledge and her acumen in discerning killer songwriting, she closed in for the kill with the masterful and timeless “Are You Ready to be Heartbroken?” That could be how it came about that I became a fan of Lloyd Cole.
Then, there we were with a 3,000 mile road trip ahead of us. Thank the songwriting gods with every pagan rite they demand that Lloyd Cole put together a top-notch country band to back up his melancholy musings and Westerbergian turns of phrase just in time for our departure. It starts eloquent and sad, lamenting the pratfalls of self-involved lovers on the skids in tracks like “Like a Broken Record” and “Writers Retreat!”, and it ends elegant and glad with overtures like “Oh Genevieve” and “Double Happiness”. On the way he manages to touch the fuck you kiss off base as well, with the resignedly exasperated- but not too hurt- “That’s Alright.”
Thanks, Lloyd. Glad to see you weren’t afraid to be heartbroken again.
Matthew Dear: Black City
Black city is a wild meander through the secret ghettos of techno, where the locals will tell you there’s nothing to do, but from the windows waft strange vocal stylings and the streets throb with secrets.
Shy Child: Liquid Love
Have you ever been wrong, said something in foolish youthful bravura you wish you could take back? I have. I’m sorry, Shy Child, but I was wrong about your new record when I first heard it. I thought that your last record, Noise Won’t Stop was the pinnacle of what your work was going to amount to. All the staccato breaks, the overpowering, interweaving lead synth lines, the barely comprehensible shouting over all that musical intensity. It was so tight and immediate. How was I supposed to be prepared for this shift into measured genius, into subtle groove? I wasn’t up to the task.
I’ve spent the year listening to the new record, Liquid Love, however, and I’ve changed my ways.
Have you ever come to the realization once you took inventory of how many of a certain group’s CDs you had or how many plays of an artist’s songs you’d racked up on your MP3 player, that you were a superfan of a band, or that that one record you’d been overlooking was, unbeknownst to you, in actuality your favorite? That’s how the ballad of me and Shy Child would go.
Like LCD Soundsystem, Shy Child is a New York band that has learned how to put the space and pace back into dance music. That’s where I’ll stop that comparison, though, because Shy Child is doing something else entirely in all other respects. They’re a band that bites all the cheese of ’80s synthesizer decadence and cornball delivery, they steal riffs from Tango in the Night era Fleetwood Mac and vocal cadence from Hall and Oates, but they are still firmly entrenched in dance music. Between albums they’ve learned to sing and not shout, and the deliberate delivery of their carefully designed synthesizer sounds is a testament to a commitment to musicianship that goes beyond the berserker bombast of their last album. Arpeggios, sleazy slow disco-paced beats, throbbing basslines, and vocal harmony strung up over all the neon. An almost total lack of that dilettante’s crutch, irony. This is absolutely one of the best records of the year.
Ted Leo and the Pharmacists: The Brutalist Bricks
In the world according to Ted Leo, we are all terminal cases- unless we stand up, once and for all, and hear the tracks he’s laying down.
The hardest working man in Rock ‘n Roll is also the only actually earnest, tireless, unimpeachably incorruptible, driven, and humanist artist to aspire to the concert stage since the baby boomers popularized those tenets as a disguise for their avarice and consumerism in the ’60s. He’s a real punk.
He and his Pharmacists put together a big, lush set for their Matador Records debut this year marked by a speed, vivacity, and urgent intensity that has only grown more remarkable over the course of an already long and wonderful career in music.
And this is the thing about Ted Leo. He’s not cashing in, he’s not slowing down, he’s not mellowing out. He believes in his art and he believes in his message, and he backed that up this year with some of the hardest-driving music he’s put out to date.
“Where Was my Brain?”, the song from which the album’s title was taken, has these quintessentially Ted Leo lines, lines that really, really spoke to me this year:
Well modern agriculture gave me my fill/until I saw the things it brutally killed/well modern architecture gave me a kick/until I lived among the brutalist bricks/where was my brain?/with me all the time/getting it wrong again.
Sporting influences from Squeeze to Thin Lizzy (and millions of local stops in between I am not even qualified to speak to), the man, the songwriter, the band continues to set the world on fire, bathing it in the light of warning flares and messianic abandon.
Sebastien Tellier: Sexuality Remix
How many times in a row have you felt compelled to play a remix album? I didn’t think I could love the material on last year’s Sexuality by Sebastien Tellier any more. It was verging on carnal. Then this remix collection dropped.
Small Black: New Chain
This one has been growing on me, all new wave and echo. The opening track sucks you in with a combination of The Cure’s “Pictures of You” and Psychedelic Furs’ Pretty in Pink, and then the record just takes off.
Sweet Lights: S/T
This Sweet Lights S/T is a great record for fans of Kurt Vile and the Beatles, a good slow-grow set that I can’t say I deliberately put on for straight-through listening, but that came on randomly often enough, always giving me pause to see who it was, that I came to love it front to back. There was a reason this never came off my iPod all year.
Bear Claw: Refuse this Gift
Pure Chicago aggression, pure aggro intensity, pure obsessive method. This is one of the most inventive, intense, aggressive, and sonically interesting recordings I’ve heard in a very long time. No guitars, only basses. There isn’t anyone else out there doing what Bear Claw is doing. Small wonder Steve Albini listed them as one of his favorite bands.
Washed Out: Life of Leisure
Normally I revile music that trades in a false sense of nostalgia, but there is something really happening here. Digital aliasing brought on by downsampling, fuzzy filtering, the trappings of overbearing tape compression, slow compressors that mean each instrument is pushing the other one out of the way in the mix- all these things are here along with a dreamy 1.5 times slower speed to the swing tempo that really makes you feel like you are somewhere better, in the sun and on drugs.
Against Me! White Crosses
The follow-up to 2007’s Sire debut New Wave, Tom Gabel’s Against Me! are riding the Butch Vig big drum express deeper into pop territory. Good thing they are bringing all that ordnance. Sentimentality, power pop, strong lyrics (as always) and slick production find Against Me! still waving the punk flag. After the anthem of New Wave‘s “Thrash Unreal”, I didn’t think it was possible for him to make another sad song such a Springsteen-y stadium rocker. Yeah, he gets sadder on this one, and bigger.