Monday, December 27, 2010

Favorite New Music for 2010 [updated]

I listened to a lot of music in 2010, including most of the albums on most critics' lists. Some were pretty good. Most were terrible. I won't pretend that my selections here are comprehensive or definitive, but I enjoyed all of these records quite a bit.

Album of the Year: Gil Scott-Heron - "I'm New Here"
This record embodies many artistic virtues. It's heartfelt, honest, modern, and brief. Rather than hiring The Roots and recreating the sound of a classic 70s album, producer Richard Russell keeps it contemporary. Like Gil Scott-Heron himself, the album sits somewhere between rap, hip-hop, jazz, and blues.

There are only a few actual songs on the album, but like the chocolate chips in a cookie, this makes them even more special. The rest is spoken word or mood pieces. It's barely a half-hour long. But I love it, and everyone I played it for loved it as well.

Listen to I'm New Here.

Silver Medal: Neil Young - "Le Noise"
Neil Young is 65 years old, and not in the best of health. He could certainly be forgiven for either retiring or putting out a nice, quiet, lazy record.

This year he delivered "Le Noise", an album that felt like the work of a (forgive the pun) young musician. And I mean that in the best way possible. "Le Noise" delivers the kind of concept and production that typically only new musicians go for.

The album is just Neil Young and guitar. But it's mostly electric guitar. So rather than old folky/fogey strumming, Neil Young (and producer Daniel Lanois, for whom the album is punningly named) unleash billowing clouds and roaring oceans of guitar noise, feedback, and looping delays. Only a young musician would have the bravery and excitement about the sound and material to say "you know what, it doesn't need drums or bass or anything. Release it like that." (though I'm awaiting the inevitable "remixes" where people drop drums and bass on top).

But he isn't some tyro - he's a veteran songwriter, singer, and performer, and that means the album also has a sure hand, excellent performances, and solid songs.

Replace Neil Young's name and voice with anyone's, and this record would have likely topped many critics' lists. And again, he keeps it brief - about 35 minutes start to stop, which makes it easy to digest as a whole listening experience.

Listen to Le Noise.

Pop Category: Robyn - "Body Talk, Part 1"
As a songwriter and as someone who "follows the music industry", I listen to a lot of popular music in different genres. Today's modern pop music is really dumb. Willfully stupid. Awful.

This sort of idiocy is embodied by Kesha. Everything about Kesha - production, image, and overall vibe - is crass, cynical, depressing pandering to the lowest common denominator.

So if you want to dance and you want something that sounds good on the radio and you need a blonde pop tart to present it, what do you do?

Robyn is your answer. Produced in the same Swedish gene labs as Abba and other pop superstars, Robyn released 3 EPs and an album this year, all called "Body Talk".

It's great Top 40 radio dance pop, full of synthesizers, drum machines, and bright, harmonized vocals. No Auto-Tune singing robots.

What sets Robyn apart from everyone else? Songwriting and emotion. Robyn writes wonderful melodies (and unlike Kesha, she writes her own material). She sings with emotion and a big, solid voice. And her lyrics aren't half bad, especially when compared to the scribbling that most other pro songwriting teams hand in.

"Body Talk, Part 1" is a great example of pop music circa 2010. Solid songs, and again, brief. I think it's a better listening experience all the way through than Part 2, 3, or the full album. However, make sure you also check out "Indestructible", which is a really strong song missing from "Part 1".

Listen to Body Talk, Part 1.

Instrumental Ambient: Robin Guthrie - "Carousel"
Robin Guthrie played guitar in Cocteau Twins, and his solo records sound like Cocteau Twins albums minus the keening vocals. I find this to be a great improvement.

Shimmering chorused clean electric guitars twinkle like snowflakes or city lights. There's the occasional synthesizer or electric piano. On some tracks drums splash and crash in the distance. The tempos are slow and dreamy.

It's surf music in space, or at the bottom of the sea.

Yes, it can be a little same-y at times, but it's pretty. I found myself playing this at work a lot and probably listened to this more than any two of the other albums on this list combined. Some of it is quite beautiful, and a few of the pieces are evocative and emotional. Another short record, too!

Listen to Carousel.

Hip-Hop: The Roots - "How I Got Over"
Everyone is gushing over the new Kanye West album. I can only assume that Kanye's hype and obnoxious public persona are what they're really paying attention to.

There's no other reason for the public to continue to ignore or underrate The Roots. Real musicians playing real instruments, writing their own hooks rather than sampling others. They can rap. They have lots of friends. But they don't jump up on stage in front of people and say outrageous things.

They made what may be their best overall album this year. While it doesn't really have a track as immediately arresting as "Get Busy", nothing else out there really sounds like this. It's a rare hip-hop record filled with the joy of making music rather than the joy of posturing. 

Like many of my favorite albums, this really grew on me over time this year.

Listen to How I Got Over.

Late To The Party: Iggy Pop - "Preliminaires"
This record came out in mid-2009, but I didn't really listen to it until this year. It's a "fake jazz" album, according to Iggy. It's also a sort of sci-fi concept album, brief, and in some ways similar to the Gil Scott-Heron album.

Iggy's voice sounds wonderfully rich, deep, and weathered. He's got a synthy cover of "Insensatez", a New Orleans-ey stomper ("King of The Dogs"), and a tip of the hat to some of his old stuff ("Party Time").

But my favorites are the slower, darker numbers like "I Want To Go To The Beach" and "It's Nice To Be Dead".

Many people will dismiss this album because they only want to see Iggy smearing peanut butter on his lithe frame and yowling about TV Eyes and his Lust For Life. But Iggy is 63 - nearly the same age as Neil Young - and this is a much more age-appropriate record (for Pop and for me!) without being embarrassing! It's the kind of album that reminds you for all of his stage antics, Iggy Pop is an artist.

Listen to Preliminaires.

[UPDATE] Other Notable Albums:
  • LCD Soundsystem "This Is Happening" is a more consistent album than "Sound of Silver", but because it sounds almost exactly like the last record, it's less transcendant. Still very good, though
  • Bryan Ferry "Olympia". I really wanted to like this record more. I dug the remixes of "You Can Dance" more than the album version, though. Still pretty nice.
  • Underworld's "Barking" started off pretty strong but failed to keep up all the way through. It's also very much "more of the same" from them, which is both very good and very bad at this point. I really liked the first 3 tracks.
  • Devo's "Something For Everybody" was a great album the first few times I listened to it. Then, like bubblegum, the flavor wore off. The brickwalled mastering hurt my ears. The record runs at least 4 songs too long (brevity is the key in 2010, guys!), and Devo undermines their own breathtaking cynicism with some open-hearted ballading. I can't tell if they're joking or not, and that's a bad thing. Still, when you first hear the robot disco grooves of songs like "What We Do", it's hard not to start doing bad new wave dancing.
  • The new Kanye West album had a couple of good tracks on it, but these were offset by the relentless hype as well as a few tracks that were so amazingly, jaw-droppingly bad I could not get all the way through them.
  • I really wanted to like the Big Boi album. I thought it was boring. 
  • Most of the 3rd Harold Budd & Clive Wright collaboration album "Little Windows" was good, but I have a hard time recommending it to anyone who doesn't think Harold Budd is a genius. And many of Clive Wright's tracks should be half as long and lighter on the vibrato.
    There's a lack of "first albums by bands" on this list in 2010, which is personally disappointing for me. I want to like new music by new bands. I just didn't hear any that made an impact this year.

    10 years after the "digital revolution" little has changed.  The iron grip radio and MTV held over taste-making, the public ear, and stardom has been replaced by Pitchfork and other blogs and various internet sites and memes. Look at most of the lists people cite and you'll see a tremendous amount of similarity. This is more due to the effectiveness of PR machinery than a true consensus on how "great" some of this music is.

    Still, plenty of good stuff came out this year.

    Up next: 2010's bumper crop of reissues!

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