Mix Suggestion: The Best of 2010
Well, I'm glad that year is over! How many more of them are left? Can't be more than three or four, right? At any rate, here's my tracklist of the best songs I heard in 2010, delayed well past the point of relevance because of two simultaneous ear infections that rendered me largely deaf and thus not great at writing song descriptions.
Yes all right fine--even less great at writing song descriptions.
Even though it was an immensely frustrating year personally and with regard to national events, I did hear a lot of albums I enjoyed. (And lots I didn't. I am looking at you, Best Coast, Of Montreal, Lali Puna, Hot Chip, Matt K. Shrugg, Eternal Summers, David Byrne & Fatboy Slim, Dum Dum Girls, Swans, Sisters, Crowded House, Gold Panda, Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti, Sage Francis, and Antarctica Takes It! Thank you all for standing in a big clump so that I may look at all of you at once!) Lots of runners up for this list of my favorite songs, too, including "Clusterfuck!" by Electric Six, "Hit 'Em Up Style" by the Carolina Chocolate Drops, "Don't Cry" by Deerhunter, "Cinema Star" by Black Francis, and "Grey Gardens" by Patrick Pulsinger (feat. Franz Hautzinger). As always, if you have a rebuttal or would like to contribute your own best-of mix to this page, please e-mail me at email@example.com. Nick Reed, I think you are the only person who might possibly still read this, so you can read that as, "Come up with your own one, Nick, and I'll put it here."
With that, I give you Luxury Expectorant: The Best I've Heard of 2010.
1. Roky Erickson with Okkervil River: "Devotional Number One" (2:17) Back when I was a churchgoer, I heard a pastor describe an inarticulate individual who would pray by reciting the alphabet over and over on the theory that God would take those letters and arrange them into the words that the individual felt but couldn't summon, and God looked with great favor upon this person because what's in your heart is more important than whatever fancypants wordsmithery you can... uh... do. It's an annoyingly unlikely anecdote, but its point is difficult to argue against, paticularly when you're confronted with something like this blissful "devotional" from psych-rock casualty Roky Erickson. Over a microcassette-quality acoustic guitar backing, Erickson mewls an original biblical tale that's so innocently cracked and flaky that a literal interpretation would be challenging ("Jesus met Moses drinking from a well/Moses had thought he was Jesus/Moses had just got back from hell"), but whose intent is audibly so full of genuine love and awe that it's more moving and majestic than any more straightforward song of praise I can imagine. From True Love Cast Out All Evil.
2. The Extra Lens: "Adultery" (1:35) Mountain Goats frontman John Darnielle may, at this point, rival the Coen brothers in his fondness for creating weak-willed characters who make poor decisions and fail to find happiness before they land with a splat. In his moonlighting role as half of the Extra Lens, Darnielle's fascination with humanity's capacity for disappointment feels even more acute than usual, goaded on by like-minded indie-rocker Franklin Bruno (who leads Nothing Painted Blue, about whom I know only that their album Placeholders is staggeringly uninteresting) and best exemplified by this quick, infectious little strummer. Buttressed and belied by Bruno's enthusiastic, chunky lead guitar, Darnielle's full-nasality-ahead baying documents the beginning of a joyless and instantly regrettable extramarital affair that, we can assume, will continue indefinitely simply because it's something to do. In John Darnielle's America, that is probably the citizenry's most commonly acted-upon motivation. From Undercard.
3. Devo: "March On" (3:50) Devo has never had much use for complex melodies. It makes sense, of course, as writing snide, memorable anthems for a rapidly disintegrating species has always been their shtick; regardless of the clever musicianship on display in songs like "Deep Sleep" and "Gut Feeling," the joke at the core of their songs has always been that a planet full of damaged mutants couldn't be counted upon to remember more than two or three notes per song if their lives depended on it. Hell, Devo's greatest song, "Smart Patrol/Mr.DNA," mines its hooks from its three vocalists' distinct speech inflections rather than any identifiable tune. The fuzzy electropop of "March On," though, dispenses with this custom and in so doing becomes the sole highlight of Devo's first album in 20 years (which is otherwise rather a dire affair). Its melody--particularly in a celebratory bridge that luxuriates in the futility of everything--is arguably the most complexly satisfying that the band has ever written, and Gerald Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh harmonize far better than you'd think their flat Ohioan larynxes would be capable of. From Something for Everybody.
4. Glasser: "Apply" (4:59) As long as Kate Bush's Hounds of Love and Bjork's Post keep spurring women to make music with thrumming synths and go-for-broke singing that may feature any number of amusing mouth noises, I will keep putting those women on these year-end "best of" lists. Fair warning. From Ring.
5. Dean & Britta: "I'll Keep It With Mine" (Scott Hardkiss Remix) (4:50) While this sweetly self-effacing Bob Dylan song has been covered so many times that I couldn't say whether Dean & Britta's version is the best, I can definitely say it does a better job of showcasing Dylan's intended melody than many of the best-known versions floating around. (Fairport Convention discarded much of the original tune in favor of ponderous folky fluff; Nico's version is marked by her characteristic graceless bleating; Marianne Faithfull's attempt sounds for all the world like a field recording of a rusty handcar limping down the rails; etc.) I don't claim to understand why it was deemed necessary to autotune Britta Phillips's perfectly lovely voice, but her breathy emotion handily outweighs that weird distraction, and the arrangement is otherwise a smartly underplayed complement to the song, slowly widening from Dean Wareham's gentle strumming to an inviting string section playing basically the same part. Did you know Britta Phillips was the voice of Orel's mom on Moral Orel, by the way? Now you do! From 13 Most Beautiful: Songs for Andy Warhol's Screen Tests.
6. Stars: "The Last Song Ever Written" (3:16) I turned 30 this past year, and during one of the periods of mortality-heavy introspection that followed that calamity, I realized that I tend not to cry at pop songs anymore. Ten years ago, just about every artist--from Nick Drake to the Apples in Stereo--functioned as a divining rod to my tear ducts, but in the intervening time, I seem to have developed a more dispassionate appreciation of music overall. While in midlife crisis mode, I feared that this wasn't a positive indication of greater emotional stability than I'd enjoyed as an oversensitive 20-year-old, but was in fact a symptom of complete desensitization that would eventually turn me into an unpopped kernel of a human being, expending all my energy on nothing more socially constructive than griping about how damned slow this so-called "express checkout" lane is moving. My worries were at least diminished somewhat by finding myself sobbing at this morbid stunner from Stars, which begins as a bleak, hollow drone (blackly teasing, "You only need songs when you're young," which is the line that kicks me right in the breadbasket) and then busts out the warm, synth-drizzled homesickness at the precise moment you're at your loneliest. From The Five Ghosts, my favorite album of the year.
7. The Human Field: "Urban Cassock (for Paul Tillich)" (6:25) Though I certainly can't claim I've heard all the electronic music that's been released over the past few years, it feels like it's been a while since I've heard any IDM of the sort that was so fashionable (and that I so loved) in the late '90s and early '00s: Even conceding that Aphex Twin's misanthropic manifestos and Mouse on Mars's flippant Teutonic hodgepodge are basically inimitable, what has happened to IDM's encrypted rhythms and melodies that sound like random number generators were programmed to operate within a set musical scale? Is it just a failure of ambition that has made this type of thing obsolete and made way for the rise of dubstep, which is comparatively as exciting as a freaking slotcar race? Thankfully, mercifully, the exceptionally intelligent, Ypsilanti-based musician Michael Stohrer has plugged this hole. "Urban Cassock" is brimming with sterile reverb, rat-in-a-maze synths, and, most importantly, a structure that actually sounds like someone thought it through and didn't just initiate a loop and go out to get a bagel. As it unfolds, it plays like a belated missing link between the icy numeracy of Boards of Canada's Music Has the Right to Children and the aerodynamic kinesis of Plaid's Double Figure. If Michael keeps this up, Tadd Mullinix will seriously have a hard time defending his throne as Washtenaw County's reigning electronica kingpin. From 808s and Headaches, which you can download for free here, and should. (His "electronic fusion" project Launchfield is also worth a listen, incidentally. I should probably also note that I personally know Michael from George Starostin's old message board.)
8. Tobin Sprout: "You Make My World Go Down" (2:44) I always looked forward to guitarist Tobin Sprout's compositions on mid-period Guided by Voices albums, not only because of his gift for memorably stately melodies but because his songs' cooing maturity offered a much-needed counterpoint to Robert Pollard's scattershot spontaneity. In his solo career, however, Sprout has added more and more sugar to the mix on each successive album, and his lo-fi pop sophistication has at times caramelized into a gummy sedative; Neil Diamond with a four-track. How nice, then, to hear him bust out a number of unsuccored bitterness! This is about as punk as Sprout gets, with guitars that sprint (but sprint courteously, being mindful of fellow pedestrians), a third verse that's given over to unmusical noise (but a pleasant sort of unmusical noise that seems to be the speaking voice of a young girl), and lyrics about someone's poisonous effect on the narrator's life (but delivered in Sprout's typically measured, nonjudgmental intonation). Sprout appears to be such a wholly content fellow that even his attempts at sneering are closer to a knowing smile. I'm glad for him. From The Bluebirds of Happiness Tried to Land on My Shoulder.
9. The Suzan: "Devils" (2:52) The vocals might be off-key and the song might be underwritten, but this garagey snack from Japanese band The Suzan has two things going for it: The stomping, breathless percussion (in which the drums are augmented by some sort of phased clucking noise) and a spluttery organ part that sounds like keyboardist Rie is just itching to mash her whole palm down on the keys and see what kind of wonderful loud noise she can make. Sometimes that sort of enthusiasm is all one needs out of a three-minute rock song. From Golden Week for the Poco Poco Beat.
10. Bottomless Pit: "Summerwind" (4:15) It comes as no surprise, upon hearing Bottomless Pit's jury-rigged and unvarnished compositions, to learn that at least one of their members (ex-Seam drummer Chris Manfrin) is a veteran of the fecund mid-'90s Chapel Hill college-rock scene. A nostalgia-inducing example of that sound, "Summerwind"'s rhythm struts, the fuzzbox guitars are pushed into separate channels to emphasize their appealingly unstructured interplay, and Andy Cohen (not the insufferably attention-hungry Bravo network executive) manages the Mike Watt-style feat of somehow hitting all his notes without doing anything that counts as singing. I tend to think that the nonspecific lyrics--like those of fellow indie scrappers Stephen Malkmus and Isaac Brock--are too self-satisfied and tangled to make attempts at comprehension worthwhile, but that doesn't mean you won't be memorizing them to allow you to perform an impromptu duet with Cohen in your car. From the casually exquisite Blood Under the Bridge.
11. Sun City Girls: "Black Orchid" (3:06) The Sun City Girls' dauntingly humongous and varied discography came to a tragic end in 2010, with Funeral Mariachi obliquely eulogizing their late drummer Charles Gocher, Jr. to cap their career. "Black Orchid" is an extended plaintive wail that keeps breaking the fourth wall to stop the song in its tracks and whisper potentially vital information to the listener in a language I cannot identify, like an audio guide in a foreign museum. Frankly, I'm nowhere near worldly enough to identify the regional influence(s) of this track at all--the keening female vocals sound Middle Eastern to me, while the disquieting stop-and-go nature of the song makes me think of Chinese music for what may be no good reason--but in spite of their smartass streak, brothers Richard and Alan Bishop are well studied enough to avoid either facile parody or pretentiousness. (I gather they've both traveled extensively, and Alan is co-head of Seattle's invaluable Sublime Frequencies label, which has released a ton of secondhand music recorded in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.) Regardless of all the things about the song I do not understand, I can tell you definitively that it's haunting. From Funeral Mariachi.
12. Janelle Monae: "Cold War" (3:23) Janelle Monae deservedly drew raves for her debut LP this year, a giddy concept album about a runaway android in a Blade Runner future (an odyssey that began on her terrific first EP, Metropolis, Suite I: The Chase), and "Cold War" is the most exciting song of the batch by a hair. It's maybe 10% faster than your typical post-OutKast R&B dance number, meaning it bops and sways as crazily as the final moments of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, even before the whipcrack guitar solo arrives. Furthermore, Monae is smart enough to know that her vocal strengths will shine even without falling into counterproductive melisma; instead, she simply gives her clear-throated all to lines like "I was made to believe there's something wrong with me, and it hurts my heart," and it brings an immediate and philosophically interesting amount of soul to her robot narrator's journey. From The ArchAndroid.
13. Owen Pallett: "Lewis Takes Off His Shirt" (5:08) With a voice like Peter Cetera, a Scrabble champion's vocabulary, and a stated guiding principle of "putting so many notes on the page that the paper turn[s] black," Owen Pallett could easily come across as an insufferable showboat. Luckily, the Canadian violinist and multi-instrumentalist knows precisely how to balance his technical skill with cheeky humor, instantly appealing melodies, and arrangements that effervesce with synthpop gregariousness even in the face of dense orchestral whirlwinds. "Lewis Takes Off His Shirt" is the high point of Heartland; a pip of a tune in which the album's angry protagonist makes an explicit stand against his long-resented creator... one Owen Pallett. The final chorus, in which Owen bumps his voice up an octave to powerfully maintain, "I'm never gonna give it to you!" over and over, is as apt to raise emotional goosebumps as any pop song you'll ever hear. (I highly recommend you watch the video of Owen performing this song at the Hillside Festival in Guelph. It's obviously kind of silly to read any deep cosmic meaning into the way the skies gnash as Owen stubbornly presses through its abuses with a song about a character defying his creator... but it's still a cinematically appropriate coincidence.) From Heartland.
14. The Handsome Family: "Snowball" (2:16) If none of the superlatives I've ecstatically blurted about The Handsome Family over the past few years has convinced you to at least investigate their singular pleasures, I suppose nothing I can say will. That's not going to stop me, though, because every new twist in their already quite twisted discography thrills me. This bouncy, Hee Haw-tinged ode to a high-jumping horse, for example, was evidently written and recorded for a children's music compilation. It starts off innocently enough, with a silly list of the things Snowball has been able to successfully leap, but at a crucial moment, frontman Brett Sparks slips in a minor chord as lyricist Rennie Sparks arrives at a description of Snowball's ongoing troubles with "the bad children." Following a sprightly dobro lick, old age has taken its toll on Snowball, his once-adoring fans are now murmuring about "the glue factory," and the bad children have taken his increased clumsiness as an opportunity to step up their torment of the poor fellow. (Never fear, though: There's an open-ended conclusion whose degree of happiness can easily be interpreted to fit your personal level of optimism or lack thereof.) If I would have indeed heard this song as a kid, it would have made me terribly sad and it would also have been my very favorite song. From the thoroughly enjoyable rarities compilaton Scattered.
15. Dungen: "Skit I Allt" (2:59) While the Super Furry Animals have yet to release a bad album, they also haven't released anything especially inspired since their 2001 apex, Rings Around the World. Fans impatient for a return to form may want to start paying attention to Swedish band Dungen to tide them over. I say this not just because Dungen's Gustav Ejstes and SFA's Gruff Rhys each boast singing voices that sound like they're doing an adenoidal Elvis Costello impersonation, but because the two bands share an audible affection for the fussy production of '70s pop intellects like Steely Dan and ELO, as well as a healthy respect for all that's happened in the rock world since. This isn't to say that Dungen is a mere SFA rip-off, mind you; they're contemporaneous analogues, much like Gorky's Zygotic Mynci. And at their best, as they are on this song, their logical-yet-exciting tonal shifts, playful arrangements, and spot-on harmonies make them a band worth paying attention to no matter what other acts are at the top of their game. From Skit I Allt, which translates to "The Best of SNL."
16. Boduf Songs: "Bought Myself a Cat-o-Nine-Tails" (4:45) I'm generally leery of bands who try to capture the way they think it would feel to be genuinely violently disturbed. I love a good murder ballad, but those are generally meant to be evocative rather than convincing; even Nick Cave at his most blaringly demented could never be mistaken for the genuine article (nor does he try to be). When bands try to inhabit the skin of a madman without black humor or overt literary attempts to ground the exercise in anything beyond make-believe, it usually winds up sounding laughably overwrought, like Skinny Puppy or some shit; music that takes itself too seriously for grumpy teenagers who take themselves too seriously. The secret, as Boduf Songs' Mat Sweet proves in this spare, cloaked sketch, is subtlety. Sweet plays an old upright piano so delicately that he sounds as if he's trying to avoid disturbing the spiders living inside, and barely whispers the inner monologue of a person who's been driven to literal self-flagellation in an effort to redirect increasingly murderous thoughts about a longtime mate. And as soon as you feel fully besieged by the creepiness, here's the barely perceptible sound of a computer choking and then the addition of ominous, Fever Ray-style harmonies seething, "Lay still/You breathe too much." And you make a mental note to reread The Gift of Fear to help you avoid this person in the future. From This Alone Above All Else In Spite of Everything.
17. Flying Lotus: "Nose Art" (1:58) While it's impressive for a band to be able to make their mark within an established genre, it's hard not to spare particular amazement for folks like Flying Lotus's Steven Ellison who completely corner the market on their particular music. That is, if you're in the mood for a good power-pop album, you've got superior options by the New Pornographers, the dB's, Supergrass, and a thousand other bands. On the other hand, if you want to listen to weirdo electronic music that somehow combines obsessively precise rhythmic cut-and-paste with a jazz-derived penchant for sprawling abstraction, you've pretty much got to listen to Flying Lotus and only Flying Lotus. The scampery "Nose Art" is so drastically overcompressed that it sounds like a typical drum-and-bass song turned inside-out, with the spoken samples and disembodied keyboards constantly cutting out behind the thwack and hiss of the rhythm. Then it's broken up further still by a hilariously batty bassline that sounds like a frustrated Water Wiggle trying to escape the Earth's gravitational pull. And despite the chaos, the beats manage to be slyly contagious enough to make your body shake in unfamiliar ways. From Cosmogramma.
18. Magnetic Fields: "You Must Be Out of Your Mind" (3:14) Naturally, the greatest couplet of the past, oh, five years belongs to Stephin Merritt: "I want you crawling back to me down on your knees, yeah/Like an appendectomy sans anesthesia." There are plenty of delightful touches that enrich this measured kiss-off--from the banjo hesitantly asserting itself in the arrangement to the communal vocals underpinned by Merritt's uniquely disinterested baritone--but Merritt's long-prized gift for cynical wordplay and dry sentiment has always been the Magnetic Fields' chief calling card. Even though I'm growing impatient for him to stop relying on production gimmicks to carry Fields albums (the moratorium on synths that he's imposed upon himself since 2003's i has been expanded here to drums and all electric instruments, and it's starting to feel more constraining than creatively invigorating), I will keep listening as long as he continues being the peerless lyricist that he is. And either way, this song is an unqualified keeper. From Realism.
19. Matmos & So Percussion: "Water" (7:00) Resourceful electronic duo Matmos (who assemble frequently transcendent compositions from the sounds of such strange things as rat cages, semen, and Antony Hegarty) and resourceful rhythm quartet So Percussion (a quick YouTube search results in footage of them playing on popcorn tins, bike wheels, and chains) teamed up for this year's nifty Treasure State. The two groups' abiding love of sound itself unifies them particularly seamlessly on this track: A steel drum pings an appropriately aquatic figure that slowly changes shape, like a melting icicle. Eventually we pause to listen to someone pouring bucketsful of water back and forth. Then, organ and trumpet in tow, everything blossoms into a bright, slushy expanse that so fresh that it feels like it could clear your sinuses if you inhaled deeply enough. From Treasure State.
20. Four Tet: "Plastic People" (6:33) I've never paid a lot of attention to organic-electronica presence Four Tet--I sort of remember thinking his 2005 album Everything Ecstatic was enjoyable, though I could not tell you anything more specific than that, much like I remember learning about something called "covalent bonding" in high school chemistry, but for all I know it's some sort of proprietary Monsanto cow mutagen--but this penultimate track from There Is Love in You makes me feel like I should probably go back and reevaluate him. Clearly, anyone who can create a house-tinged capsule that balances repetition and fluidity this masterfully is capable of impressive things that I may have missed. The gently insistent bonging loop that keeps the beat makes the headphone-wearing listener feel as though she's being whisked down an express elevator in some giant, modern architectural marvel. It's so mesmerizing and the arrangement is so subtly developed that the next element you're likely to notice as the song progresses is the counterpoint provided by gleaming synth bells at the two-and-a-half-minute mark. And from there, the song may lull you into a trance so efficiently that the next thing you'll notice is a feeling of vague disappointment three minutes later, when you realize the ride has stopped and you have to get out and reenter the world again. You'll be refreshed when you do, though. From There Is Love in You.
21. Shamgar's Oxgoad: "Burning Coals" (Rough Mix) (1:57) I feel like it's slightly unseemly for this list to include a song to which I actually contributed, but "Burning Coals" makes me so happy that I'm going to stick it on here anyhow. In the middle of the year, my friend, fellow critic, and erstwhile bandmate Steve Knowlton invited me to record some extra parts on top of a handful of instrumentals that he and some friends had recorded. My immediate favorite was this cozy little indie-pop sunset, led by Steve's brother John, who fills the air with keyboard strings and a gentle piano line. I am disproportionately proud of the Yo La Tengo-influenced guitar bit I came up with, and especially the chiming tone I was able to stumble upon. For the EP version, Derek Lyons remixed the song into a more dynamic contraption, with so much shifting action in the arrangement that it feels like a condensed musical version of The Hero's Journey, which is really cool. I still like this rough mix, though, which shimmers and sighs but is too comfortable to move around much. I am convinced that it is by far the best song I will ever be involved with. The final version is on the Shamgar's Oxgoad EP, about which I hope to write more in the near future. Pending Steve's approval, I also hope to post the MP3 of this version. Continue hitting "refresh" until this happens.
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