The Head on the Door
Another year, a thousand more attempts by commentators to declare the album dead, and a thousand more opportunities for me to decline into irrelevance by not being able to abide the newfangled sounds these young people are making. But you’d have to be deader’n shit not to have noticed this was a great year for albums, and I responded as well as I was able. So I’ll go ahead and celebrate with typical comfort and complacency: a top ten!
 Owen Pallett, Heartland
 Deerhunter, Halcyon Digest
 Joanna Newsom, Have One On Me
 Laura Veirs, July Flame
 Janelle Monae, The ArchAndroid
 The Radio Dept., Clinging To A Scheme
 The Depreciation Guild, Spirit Youth
 Robyn, Body Talk
 Lower Dens, Twin-Hand Movement
 Jeremy Jay, Splash
I have the same needs as anyone else, but I guess they express themselves differently. Imagine a club where “E Is For Estranged” plays while the patrons stare silently into each other’s eyes. That would be a joy greater than talking or dancing!
Anyway, I think I’ve made the mistake of emphasizing (in my mind) this album’s technical accomplishment over its effectiveness as a great pop album, but still I don’t understand how even a genius like Owen Pallett has time for this undertaking.
Please don’t call it haunting: No album made me feel closer to real living breathing people this year. Even the dead ones (Dima, Jay Reatard) sound yet alive, not just a-ghosting. Call it instead: Sundays = Youth.
Slow down, people. Even geniuses need time to mature. This is the year even the Newsom skeptics came to love her, and she gave herself in such abundance. There was a time when she didn’t believe she could be a singer, and now, at 28, she’s giving words, in her phrasing, more meaning than they have in their entire etymology: “hotter’n Hell,” “duration,” “my love for you,” “lawlessness” (standouts).
A lot of people made the albums they were born to make this year, none more convincingly than Laura Veirs. That “born to make” designation is especially compelling in her case, ever since I came to the conclusion that July Flame might be a conception album. But even if the apocalypse doesn’t happen soon and Veirs’ newborn Tennessee doesn’t become our John Connor, this album can still be a reminder of how good and unfettered life was as recently as 2010.
I’ve got no beef with the Kanye album, but we all know (don’t we?) that it’s not nearly as exciting as Sir Lucious Left Foot (in its rapping) or ArchAndroid (in its weirdness, epicness, thorough tangling with music history), and that it’s doubly inadequate when you add those two together to get the best OutKast album since Stankonia. Or ever? But, nay, Monae’s brilliance and weirdness are entirely her own, and she has better taste than anyone right now … Whoa, I just went into a mini-reverie trying to think of something to say about her, but all I came up with is that she is the best person ever.
Two honey-voiced men—one is Kurt Feldman, whose sadly defunct Depreciation Guild has internalized as much of the best music of the 1990s as has his other band, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart; the other is Johan Duncanson, who, being Swedish, has of course internalized all music—awash in warm digital and analog environments, respectively, as delicate as themselves. Though your definitions of honey and delicate might be different than mine.
Any single installment is excellent enough for placement, but since “Cry When You Get Older” is on Pt. 1 and “Hang With Me” is on Pt. 2, let’s just consider the whole 21-song, 82-minute aerobic mastercise for inclusion here. OMD’s Andy McCluskey, who knows better than anyone, says: “I don't think that Robyn is interested in making history. She is too busy loving, hurting, singing, and feeling. But she is making musical history. This is Ibsen and Munch set to a metronomic beat.” Yikes! But he’s right. It’s always a mistake to not take Robyn seriously.
A new addition to my listening, so I’ll elaborate… I wrote the other day that “I feel myself turning away this year from the dreamy and hazy, the half-formed and half-heard,” and in my recent listening bands continue to be edged out in favor of, in the words of last year, “faceless musicians serving the visions of individual artists, bringing to life the singer’s ideas about himself or herself.” So that I’m currently so high on a Band playing Essential Psychedelic Patterns of American Rock ‘n’ Roll, while Jana Hunter lisps and mumbles half-heard phrases through the compost heap, is proof of some kind of personal salvation. And let’s dispense with the rumor that Hunter sounds like PJ Harvey. It’s not only wrong, it’s irrelevant: This is as much an instrumental band as The Feelies, which is to say not entirely, but essentially.
So let’s let Lower Dens stand in for all the great freak-pop bands (my coinage!), lo-fi fops and weirdo manufactories of melodie I’ve been hearing in the fourth quarter: Women, Weekend, Tennis, Veronica Falls, Twin Sister, the refurbished Crystal Stilts. Lower Dens are from Baltimore, the home of John Waters, Frank Pembleton, and the Beach House/Wye Oak contingent, but that album cover looks a lot like Montana, so (to tear myself from deadening bedroom listening and remind myself that this music-loving business doesn’t pause for retrospective December but continues year-round) I took a stroll with the music through a wintry Montana dusk and, lo and behold, it really brought the landscape alive. The only thing that qualifies this album as freak-folk is the ripe possibility that it was recorded outside. (The totally indescribable) Twin Sister, on the other hand, seem to record in an overstuffed bedroom in which all the objects give off tiny frequencies. (Can you even call them a band?)
Anyway, I wonder if this is all happening too quickly. For example: I heard Deerhunter’s “Like New” sometime in 2007, and liked it well enough, thought it a nice foray into a mode of American music that was perhaps played out. It was another year before I heard Microcastle and realized all they were capable of, and then another year before they became absolutely essential to my life. Lower Dens are no Deerhunter, not yet, but I fear I’m exhausting them too soon. But no, there will always be more: More walks, more rooms to crank these waves in.
I guess I’m like that guy who discovered The Modern Lovers in ’76 and then never gave up on Jonathan Richman, telling all his friends about how great Richman’s ninth solo album is when they didn’t even care about his eighth. But Jeremy Jay will never be just coasting (I’m sure that’s true of Richman as well, but I wouldn’t know), and Splash, a real rock ‘n’ roll record, couldn’t be more unlike the austere fireside croonery of last year’s sublime Slow Dance. No one’s playing guitar more cleanly, and yet with greater attack, than Jeremy Jay right now.
Special Jury Prize
Beach House, Teen Dream
So awarded to an undeniably classic album that failed to make the cut for no reason other than my own fickle nature. You know I consider sobriety a virtue, but my prejudices don’t extend to music, and I don’t even know if this album counts as drugged out, since even a teetotaler could access these deep, deep feelings. Anyway, I feel safe letting this one go and entrusting it to the ages.
Twin Shadow, Forget
So awarded to a nearly perfect album that is, in the final estimation, perhaps a bit too labored over. Break-up albums have never meant much to me, but this is a great one, and the only one to ever make me feel what might be at stake in losing someone, how much there is that’s worth saving. But even though these songs might sound like attempts to get her back, I think they’re more likely a final purge of all the music that reminds him of her.
Lifetime Achievement Award
The Joy Formidable, A Balloon Called Moaning
So awarded to an awesome collection of songs that belongs just as much to last year and next year as it does to this year. And I don’t just mean that in some spiritual sense. This shot of brilliance was self-released in 2009, re-released in 2010, and some of these songs will find new life on major label debut The Big Roar next month.
Problems for the future
[a] How old am I again? Before college (6-10 years ago) the majority of the new music I listened to was simply the latest releases by all my 80s and 90s faves (Sonic Youth, R.E.M., Stephen Malkmus, Ken Stringfellow, Guided By Voices, etc.), and I thought that stuff described my life perfectly. Today I make a real attempt to keep up with new bands, whose members are barely older and sometimes younger than me, and I feel that the premature maturity of my youth never happened. I feel I’m aging in reverse even as I’m aging forward.
[b] Why am I so uninterested in this century’s IDM and electronic music?
[c] Should I feel bad that most of the new music I listen to is American? There’s an amazing amount of creativity in this country, considering that its musicians have access to everything they could ever need to be inspired by and can’t really feel a great sense of discovery on a daily basis. If North Korea ever eases up on its bullshit, even slightly, that’s going to be a place of art like we’ve never seen before.
[d] You know my life is good when I’m able to do a blog post like this. The year I don’t is the year you can start worrying about me. And, with a sigh of relief, I’m off to listen to some old music again, but first a roll call:
(these are all really good)
Arcade Fire, The Suburbs
Belle & Sebastian, Write About Love
The Besnard Lakes, Are The Roaring Night
Big Boi, Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son Of Chico Dusty
Darker My Love, Alive As You Are
Das Racist, Sit Down, Man
Field Music, Measure
Girls, Broken Dreams Club
John Grant, Queen Of Denmark
Let’s Wrestle, In The Court Of The Wrestling Let’s
Perfume Genius, Learning
Pernice Brothers, Goodbye, Killer
Emma Pollock, The Law Of Large Numbers
Rogue Wave, Permalight
Sun Kil Moon, Admiral Fell Promises
Superchunk, Majesty Shredding
Surfer Blood, Astro Coast
Teenage Fanclub, Shadows
Toro Y Moi, Causers Of This
Twin Sister, Color Your Life
Kanye West, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
Wild Nothing, Gemini
Zoo Animal, Zoo Animal
(I like all of these too)
Atlas Sound, Bedroom Databank
Best Coast, Crazy For You
Broken Bells, Broken Bells
The Chemical Brothers, Further
Das Racist, Shut Up, Dude
Kristin Hersh, Crooked
How To Dress Well, Love Remains
jj, no 3
The Magnetic Fields, Realism
Matt & Kim, Sidewalks
Matt Pond PA, The Dark Leaves
The New Pornographers, Together
Procedure Club, Doomed Forever
Quasi, American Gong
Shout Out Louds, Work
A Sunny Day In Glasgow, Autumn, Again
A Sunny Day In Glasgow, Nitetime Rainbows
The Thermals, Personal Life
Wolf Parade, Expo 86
Wye Oak, My Neighbor/My Creator