Well, this is thoroughly shameful. Every website, every major music magazine, even the goddamn Grammys, have already weighed in on the best of 2010. My excuse for not posting the second half of my best-of in a timely manner is pretty much unacceptable: the demands of a day job, plus too many good books to read and shows to watch in the hours off from the day job. And a lot of single-parent crap (despite my fervent wishes, enormous slag-heaps of laundry do not do themselves). Some of the material you will be reading below was composed months ago for the the official Institute of Idle Time website, some was composed over the last few hours in a hazy, sweaty white heat fueled by vodka, over-the-counter Benadryl, and desperation.
The Walkmen’s recordings are sparse — simple but effective tick-tack drumming, flashes of almost flamenco-style electric guitar strumming, and Hamilton Leithauser’s straining rasp — but they weave a melancholy spell that stays with the listener long after the last sad song has faded. The Walkmen have attempted to flesh out their sound a bit before (2006’s A Hundred Miles Off owes more than a little to the cluttered, rustic sound of the Basement Tapes-era Dylan*), and although their stock-in-trade is wistful meditations on loss and regret, they certainly do have a sense of humor (witness their track-by-track re-recording of Harry Nilsson’s 1974 cult classic Pussy Cats), but here they play to the more subtle strengths that have carried them since their 2002 debut.
#8. Dr. Dog – Shame, Shame
Philadelphia’s Dr. Dog has been a band I’ve been listening to for quite some time, just waiting for them to do something great. The potential was always there, but they seemed content to work within a certain template, where their classic rock influences (usually the Band, late-period Beach Boys, and the Beatles) were paid respectful homage, and they ended up chasing their tails. Now, their training wheels are off, and they’ve broken through with an original sound, and their influences — great as they are — are finally where they should be: buried deep, seeping into their material like an unseen, underground spring feeds a river. Shame, Shame is a fast-paced, jittery album for the most part, percussion and rag-time piano in the forefront, with a clarity of purpose and unity of theme that previous albums lacked. Even if the material was weak, Dr. Dog could always rely on its secret weapon to put a song over — gorgeous, harmonized backing vocals — and that trait is out in force and better than ever on Shame, Shame.
#7. LCD Soundsystem – This Is Happening
About six weeks from when this blog entry is posted, LCD Soundsystem will be no more. Their last performance will be April 2, 2011, with founding member James Murphy declaring his desire to do other things. LCD Soundsystem is (was) one of the few electronics-based bands I truly enjoyed. I usually just lump all of them in under one genre name — “electronica” — but I’m sure there’s someone out there only too eager to tell me how and why LCD Soundsystem isn’t electronica, but one of the other two-hundred-odd sub-genres currently listed on Wikipedia. Whatever. It’s a shitload of keyboards, a dance beat, and songs that are, frankly, a little too long for listening at home — but possibly just right for a crowded dance club. I wouldn’t know.
All that aside, what Murphy has concocted with This Is Happening is really a major achievement, weaving in touches of David Bowie’s late-70’s Berlin trilogy, familiar 80’s synth-pop (“I Can Change”), 90’s big-beat (“One Touch”), and Murphy’s own peculiar punk-rebel sensibilities (all over the place, but especially the album’s masterpiece “You Wanted A Hit”) that are more rock & roll that hundreds of other “rock” bands out there — rock bands, that in 2011, fewer and fewer people are listening to. Which is why it’s such a shame that we’re losing LCD Soundsystem.
#6. Band Of Horses – Infinite Arms
It’s not uncommon for a band to develop and grow from their first album to their third, but Band Of Horses does it the hard way — by changing almost their entire line-up between each album, the only constant being co-founder Ben Bridwell. He seems to think this version will stick, and I hope so, as this is Band Of Horses strongest effort to date. Like an aural version of those old 3-D posters, if you squint (with your ears? this metaphor needs work) past the beard-y folk strumming (which can be quite beautiful in its own right), you’ll find arrangements of surprising muscle, using a much broader sonic palette than their earlier work. Not really folk, but hearkening back to a bygone era. Not really country, but undeniably Southern. Not really indie-rock, but possessing a certain romantic earnestness and an echoing, shimmering production. This is the first Band Of Horses record that works all the way through, with no weak spots, and heralds the arrival on the scene of a new Major Artist.
#5. The Black Keys – Brothers
Blues is not popular around the Institute of Idle Time, for two reasons. 1) Acute distaste for the direction the genre has taken in the last forty years, and 2) complaints regarding the limitations and repetitiveness of the genre itself. The second is maybe a matter of taste. I happen to revel in all the little sonic subtleties and emotional nuances that can be wrung from within the blues’ 12-bar constraints, much like the beauty that can be found in a sonnet or haiku. The first is a legitimate gripe. The blues’ African-American originators have mostly abandoned it in favor of more “sophisticated” R&B and rap, leaving the gauntlet to be picked up by well-meaning white musicians who clumsily love it to death like Lenny with the rabbits. I don’t want to get into issues of “authenticity,” but my Caucasian brothers seem to be missing a key something when they try their hands at the blues. OK, it’s authenticity. If the ham-handed psychedelic bludgeoning of the 60’s wasn’t bad enough, then latter-day artists sanitizing it into a sonic sleeping pill perfect for a Starbucks compilation almost justifies all the disgusted dismissals I hear around here every time I try to slip something onto the list that has a little bit of a blues influence. And that’s the crux – influence. It’s all that remains. The genre itself no longer exists in any meaningful way, so the Black Keys don’t really play the blues. Every note from their buzzing amps is steeped in it and informed by it, but they don’t fall into the trap of trying to re-create it (at least not anymore.) They take their influences — specifically Delta blues, the most primal and primitive kind (and my favorite) – break them down, and re-build them into something entirely their own, like an old cabinet TV set turned into a tropical aquarium. The form is still in place and visible (or audible), but it’s purpose has been entirely gutted and re-imagined. If it’s not too politically incorrect to say, the Black Keys seem to exist in a parallel universe where the blues was originated by basement-dwelling white kids in suburban Ohio, and therefore bypass thorny issues of authenticity.
#4. Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers – Mojo
Seriously, who is a better American band? When you break it down, musician by musician, album by album, no American group has had a longer run of artistic success than Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers. R.E.M? Perhaps, although the 1997-2005 era is tough to defend. The Replacements? A great run of 5-6 years at best. Aerosmith? Two words: Diane Warren. (And listened to Rock In A Hard Place lately? Or their “comeback” Permanent Vacation, beyond the three hit singles?) I’m very serious — if you can name an American band that has had a better string of albums over thirty-five years than Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, please contact me and make your case. (It becomes even more difficult when you factor in two brilliant Petty solo albums, Full Moon Fever and Wildflowers.)
Petty is, of course, the Fearless Leader and General-in-Chief, but this is Mike Campbell’s album. The 1958 model sunburst Gibson Les Paul is to guitarists what a Stradivarius is to violinists, or what the ATC Honus Wagner baseball card is to collectors: The Holy Grail. Campbell, one of the great unsung lead guitarists of any era, finally acquired one, and it leaves its scorch marks all over this album. This may be the Heartbreaker’s most blues-oriented album, and if you can get around any difficulties in embracing that (see album #5 above), you are in for a good listen. You’ll get rambling story-songs (“The Trip To Pirate Cove,” “Running Man’s Bible”) reminiscent of Highway 61–era Dylan (**), throwbacks to Leiber-Stoller 1950’s commercial R&B (“Candy”), classic-rock barnstormers right out of the 1970’s Tom Petty playbook (“I Should Have Known It”), and a couple of slow-burn ballads to close ‘er out. The album looks defiantly backward, and is a little overlong — Petty suffers from the classic-rock-legend disease of shunning editing and believing all his ideas are worthy of release — but it’s still highly recommended as perhaps the best played album of 2010.
Like the Old 97’s, the New Pornographers seem absolutely incapable of making a bad album (knock on wood.) The NP’s — and indivdual members A.C. Newman and Neko Case — are all veterans of my best-of lists (or, in the case of Dan Bejar’s Wolf Parade, my Honorable Mentions), and I don’t have a lot of musicological insight or breakdowns to add to all the ink I’ve already spilled about them. Just know that they are a true mood-altering band — I’m at an age where I still love music, but sometimes I lament it has lost the transcendent boost it gave me in my teens and twenties. Not so with the New Pornographers. I put them on, and my mood is instantly elevated. Newman remains a peerless bandleader, their songs are a sly, savvy melange of classic pop structure and indie experimentalism, and I am not a “huggy” person, but Neko Case’s voice makes me want to hug her.
#2. Vampire Weekend – Contra
We are now far enough away from December that Vampire Weekend’s “Holiday” — a very charming song back in September — is no longer being used to hawk Hondas in a winter-themed commercial that ran with brutal frequency. An issue that is a minor quibble for me, it is the sort of thing that makes Vampire Weekend the victims of a powerful backlash because they do everything wrong in the eyes of the Hipster Elite (eagerly licensing their songs for commercials, raiding traditional African/Caribbean rhythms to turn them into cash-cow pop songs), and because in those same eyes they simply are wrong (they’re Ivy League trust-fund kids from wealthy families). But all of that is a sideshow. Music should be about music, not meeting arbitrary audience expectations regarding financial/educational backgrounds, and the songs of Vampire Weekend are as strong as they come, blending the aforementioned world-music influences with touches of classical and electronica. The insanely catchy “Horchata” and “Cousins” (and for that matter, “Holiday”) counterbalance the slower meditations like “Diplomat’s Son” and the utterly haunting “I Think Ur A Contra.”
The Grammys already named the following as Album of the Year on February 13, so I feel like I’m following the elephant act with a shovel (check out their sloppy, migraine-inducing Grammy performance here — it’s unlikely to win them new fans***, but compelling for those already hooked), but there’s no arguing the album really is awesome. The following write-up was crafted in early January, if that allows me to retain a shred of credibility.
The Arcade Fire (or at least chief songwriter Win Butler) are arguably products of a typical suburban upbringing, and have gone on to become the darlings of a very urban audience. Their ambiguous feelings about where they came from versus where they are now is the album’s recurring theme. Sometimes the suburbs inspire contempt for such a complacent existence, sometimes sweet nostalgia, but ultimately they are a place from which to escape. However, the big city that lures kids away with a siren song of excitement and possibilities is also full of deception, pressure, and a different, crueler kind of conformity (is the place where “the kids all stand with their arms folded tight” the regimented suburbs, or the detached, too-cool city?) And what does a band do with these concepts musically? Like the 600-pound gorilla in the old joke (Arcade Fire consists of seven multi-instrumentalists), anything it wants to. Songs that perhaps could be categorized as R.E.M.-style jangle (“Suburban War”), crunchy 90’s-style alt-rock (“Month of May”), or catchy dance grooves (the mighty “Sprawl II”) are infused with a peculiar, sweeping grandeur by the sheer size of the ensemble blasting them out. The genre-hopping sound is unified by the wistful heartache and clear-eyed detail captured by Butler’s lyrics, which grow stronger with every release. The Arcade Fire uses its big, big sound as a cudgel for an equally vigorous attack on both suburban shallowness and urban pretension, but the attack is always regretful, never hateful — as if they are fighting at the top of their game but against their will. Will Win win?
(*)(**)(***) The specter of Bob Dylan really hovers over a lot of what I’ve said here, but speaking of not winning new fans, how about his squirm-inducing Grammy performance? His vocalizations have always been, um, unconventional, but recently the man has been sounding like he’s gargling razor blades. Unlike the Beatles, who broke up before they aged into a public embarrassment, I’m pretty sure that once the current (i.e., final) generation of Dylan supporters such as myself have died off, there will be few or none to take their place. Anyone unfamiliar with his early body of work is fully forgiven for wondering why this mustachioed, Yoda-ish figure is such a big deal.