Top 10 of ’10

Delorean – Subiza

When I checked iTunes to see what I played most this year, Subiza by Delorean was way out on top. There’s two types of music I listen to – songs that have well-written lyrics and accompanying tones to match the theme. In a sense, narrative music. The other type is just pure aesthetic emotion. Subiza is the second type – almost like they captured a ray of hot July beachside sun and pressed it into record. I listened to this most when I *was* sitting out on beach in July (reading the Sun Also Rises, about hot slaughter in the Spanish sun), so it kind of all came together. That’s the way art works when it really hits you – all the random serendipitous bits of chaotic life congeal to make something more than the piece itself. But there’s no arguing with the unfiltered sugar buzz joy in these songs:

Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

I’ve written more here, and on a purely objective (as objective as music reviews can be by someone who’s listened to maybe 1/10000th of the music that came out this year) basis, Kanye should win. But hasn’t the guy won enough? I will say though, modern pop music is an ego machine, and perhaps ego is as essential an ingredient as talent and sampling skills.

Arcade Fire – The Suburbs

You can kind of see the Suburbs as the closing of an Americana trilogy. If Funeral was about growing up and leaving the cozy confines of family, and Neon Bible was about the seductive elements of religion, politics and pop culture, then the Suburbs is the resigned melancholy of mature adulthood. The lyrics are surprisingly more nuanced and introspective then something like Green Day’s Jesus of Suburbia. They aren’t complaining about white picket fences and tree lined avenues with manicured lawns – they’re crying out that sort of thing doesn’t exist anymore, the loss of innocence, exploration and possibility, both in the Pitchfork-ing of music (Rococo) and the closing of the “wilderness” (Sprawl II). Musically, they’ve expanded as well, be it synth beats (Sprawl II) or old school punk rock chords (Month of May).

LCD Soundsystem – This is Happening

We decry someone like Kanye’s ego, but James Murphy’s narcissism is right up there. Perhaps because his genre (indy electronica) is less visible, or because he looks like a schlubby high school science teacher, he’s not blamed for this. But his shtick: talk-singing over minimalist techno, fits him perfectly. Usually, DJs seek out some sort of mathematical perfection to their output, either tonally or rhythmically. LCD does neither, with the backing percussion often drunkenly performed on real instruments, and James’s vocals somewhere between endearing karaoke and cacophony. The only thing that carries them through is his ego. For some reason, This is Happening (which is supposedly Murphy’s last LCD record) reminds me of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. This is because of the way the record is laid out, with the opening piece Dance Yrself Clean a long minimalist intro of tik-toking that reminds me of Time. Then Drunk Girls, a “single” that’s short, noisy and somewhat obnoxious, like Money. And then a long session of songs that blend together and achieve some sort of melodic harmony – One Touch, All I want, I Can Change, like Us and Them / Any Color You Like. As it reaches the end, the record is increasingly soothing, melodic, perhaps peaceful. Home is positively chilled out, none of the crass superiority in Murphy’s voice. Maybe that’s what he was seeking all along, an exit from the madness of the clubs after a long night out, finally home.

The National – High Violet

The National are a band that exists solely to support a voice – the baritone of singer Matt Berninger. High Violet is the latest record to highlight his particular gifts, eliciting a particular brand of nostalgic melancholy. In the past, most of their songwriting was downright cryptic, but the lyrics of this record feel a bit more autobiographical, notably Bloodbuzz Ohio, with all its tumultuous emotions of returning home after a long, life-altering hiatus. The record is also a mix of their past styles, which vary from the intense rock-outs of Alligator (Lit Up, Abel), to the sad intimacy of Cherry Tree and Boxer. And because of that, it feels a bit scattershot, more like a collection of new singles rather than a cohesive album. It’s tough to pick up any sort of overarching theme to High Violet, other than a rehash of their past motifs. And despite the fact that this isn’t anything new, they’re such a solid band they merit a spot in the top 10.

Holy Fuck – Latin

Holy Fuck is a Canadian instrumental collective (like Godspeed you Black Emperor) that’s more interested in legitimate artistic experimentation than any sort of commercial success. Their “goal”, if you could call it that, is to create music that approximates the look and feel of electronica without the use of computers, loops, or mixers. They play traditional instruments with incredible speed and precision, and more than that, their rythm often congeal into a sort of hallowed awe that so often shows up in trace music. Of course, they’re using electric guitars, drum sets and reverbed vocals instead of synth samples, so you get something both strangely familiar and brand new.

Vampire Weekend – Contra

It feels so long ago that Vampire Weekend was riding the zeitgeist, with their boppy Ivy League charm and Wes Anderson love story lyrics. Now, they’re selling Hondas and Tommy Hilfiger with the ever-catchy Holiday. The actual record is a bit more adventurous, with the auto-toned vocals of California English, the rock-out anthem Giving up the Gun, or the remixed M.I.A sample in Diplomat’s Son. They may have left Columbia’s Upper West Side, but they haven’t strayed far from the elite enclaves that made them so infectious in the first place.

Joanna Newsom – Have One on Me

JN isn’t really my style. I’m not really into the whole singer-songwriter aesthetic, and most folksy female vocalists don’t do it for me. But there’s something strangely seductive about Joanna Newsom’s latest. She’s reigned in the high-pitched birdlike squawk of Ys, but the songs are still full of symbolism and folksy motifs. There’s a sort of lilting pace to whole record, almost like jazz. This one is unique enough; I thought it deserved a nod.

Naked and Famous – Passive Me Aggressive You

Given the unbalanced ratio of time I spend on the computer/internet vs the car listening to radio, it’s surprising how many bands I’ve discovered from the local college radio, 88.5. Naked and Famous is one such band, hailing from New Zealand, and sounding somewhere between M83 and Silversun Pickups. They play a fine catchy guitar hook, and beneath that lay impressive atmospheric synth work. Young Blood is the tune that got me initially hooked, all plinking strings and sing-along “yea yea yea’s”. Eyes and The Ends feels like outtakes of Saturdays=Youth. And the record closes with Girls Like You, perhaps an ode of the male vocalist to his female counterpart, the perfect blend of those two aesthetics.

Girl Talk – All Day

It’s strange giving GT a top ten spot, but All Day was some impressive work. Some of Gillis’s early work suffered from switching samples too quickly, leading to a jarring, schizophrenic feel. The new record is mixed with a much smoother flow, rolling from one classic rock or 80s pop hit and maintaining rhythm. Highlights include Twista’s light speed spitting on Wetter over U2’s With or Without You, and transitioning Modern English and Jay-Z to UGK’s One Day and John Lennon’s Imagine to close the record. Even better, the site that shows all the overlapping songs in real-time.

First Act (Remix)

F. Scott Fitzgerald said “There are no second acts in American lives,” and probably no one realizes this more than Kanye West. He’s been trying his damndest to stay on the radar, to stay relevant, regardless of how many (mainstream, conventional, boring) bridges he burns.

The fascinating thing about Kanye (as opposed to the myriad other famewhores that populate our modern celebrity-industrial complex), is that he’s legitimately talented, and his latest – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy – cements that fact.

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

Kanye realizes – subconsciously or not – that modern celebrity is 24/7 performance art, and so he must wear every emotion on his sleeve, whether it’s egotistical rage at the haters, or contrite guilt over rude (but perhaps somewhat truthful) jabs at Bush and Taylor Swift. Every faux pas paints West as an artist outside the bounds of “polite” discourse, which in this day and age is simply paying homage to corporate ownership. Kanye can either play along nicely with the narrative the media constructs for him, or he can be a contrarian (asshole). Either way he wins, because he’s in the news, and the subject of water cooler chit chat – “Did you hear what Kanye did, said, etc. Let’s go check out his 30 minute music video…”

Every Kanye record has been a reinvention of his own story. The first three “college” records form a narrative arc as West explores his own guilt and rejection of the “traditional” path to success – college education. As his real-life success is realized, his ego and disdain for a conventional lifestyle grows. There’s a huge shift from the humble grind (working at Gap, “spittin” through the wire) and the gospel allusions in The College Dropout to the outright hedonism and party anthems of Graduation.

Then loss strikes. A relationship falls apart; his mother dies. The money and vanity so celebrated in Good Life are the very vices that doom Donda, and Kanye must feel somewhat guilty for her death. So he produces 808s and Heartbreak, a strange and seductive experiment in minimalism and auto-tune. He takes a lot of crap for the record from the hip-hop establishment, but West embraces his melancholy and comes out not only with a decent album, but a continuation of his own personal story. He doesn’t drop off the map to deal with his loss as a private citizen, he formats and publishes it into a set of pop songs, that he goes on to perform nightly in spectacular light shows to sold-out crowds.

MBDTF continues the narcissistic extravaganza: Kanye’s life is a beautiful dark twisted fantasy –

Dark Fantasy starts with a sort of British nanny who frames the whole record as an age-old tale to tell children. Then the obligatory gospel choir fanfares and salutations, the curtains rising to the man on the stage – Mr. West.

Power is his anthem – the video even puts him in the place of a godlike monarch from antiquity – but he admits “no one man should have all that power”. He’s on top of the world, a modern day Pharaoh or Napoleon, but there’s a darkness that haunts him – “this’d be a beautiful death, jumpin out the window, lettin everything go.”

All of the Lights is a maximalist fanfare with dark chords, an ensemble of who’s-who among pop stardom (Rihanna, Fergie, Alicia Keys, hell, even Elton John), accompanied by a possessed marching band of hell-bent percussion and brass.

Monster pays homage to the King of Pop’s greatest allusion – Thriller. Kanye (and his posse of ghouls – Jay-Z, Rick Ross, Nicki Minaj) are at their Halloween heartless. “Everyone knows I’m a monster…”

And then Runaway. The opus, the central thesis, the masterpiece. This is the song that Kanye played on the anniversary of his disastrous Taylor Swifting VMAs. Combining all the tricks he’s learned from both his innovative sampling (Rick James – “Look at ya” – soaked in both sweaty coked-up energy and self-destructive pathos) and his auto-tuned misery. Pusha-T’s verse hits probably the hardest, a Dorian Gray of gangster rap; lines that would fit without a second glance in dozens of other rapper’s repertoires is transformed incredibly sad on top of those plinking piano keys:

Every bag, every blouse, every bracelet
Comes with a price tag, baby, face it
You should leave if you can’t accept the basics
Plenty whores in the baller-nigga’s matrix
Invisibly set, the Rolex is faceless
I’m just young, rich, and tasteless.

Hell of a Life and Blame Game continue the downward spiral of hurt and malice. Kanye knows he pushes those who could offer love away, if only to satiate the carnal desires that are magnified by the role he’s forced to play, as a pop star, as a rapper, a successful black man.

Chris Rock jumps in for a strange monologue faux-surprise, asking an off-screen girl how she became so slutty, so submissive, so generous. She replies in reverb, sounding both disciplined and near tears – “Yeze taught me.” It’s a skit that paints yet another layer of Kanye the corrupter.

Bon Iver, drenched in auto-tune, closes the record, with some of his most beautiful lyrics: “I’m up in the woods / I’m down in my mind / I’m building a still / to slow down the time.”

Kanye jumps in with “I’m lost in the world / lost in this plastic light.” He recognizes his own hubris, his own darkness, his own sin, but where is redemption? He’s bigger than any role models, or even the Christianity that supported him in his pre-fame youth. He sees himself a tragic figure, something from Aeschelus or Shakespeare.

Amiri Baraka, who was a sort of Black Panther Beat Poet, cuts in with a vitriolic speech: “America is all blood and tears instead of milk and honey,” he cries. With this, West is completing the trifecta of ascension – first artistic, then relational, and now political.

“Who will survive in America?” It’s both rhetorical and pointed. Kanye’s made it, made a fortune and millions, but has he survived? In his own mind, he’s become Christ, crucified for the masses, and he’ll not stop until we bow down, or at least raise the roof in his name.

There are no second acts in Amerca. Nope. Only first acts that continue to be retold, bigger and louder more triumphant than the time before.