Wednesday, December 15, 2010

A Trite and Incomplete Best of 2010

Seeing that publications are beginning to name their best of lists for the year, I thought I might weigh in as well. I don't listen to nearly enough new music to really have a valid opinion about this, but these are some songs that I really enjoyed this year.

Note: "Runaway", "Power", and "Shutterbugg" are purposefully absent from the list. They've really gotten enough attention already, even though they are all deserving of high praise.

9. "Sprawl II"

It's pretty surprising when a band that has only recently made forays into the now dwindling post-punk revival (e.g.:James Murphy's retirement) is capable of capturing so roundly the essence of said sound. So many bands have represented a particularly whiny side of privileged ennui that such an unapologetically and deeply spirited call back is damn refreshing, even if it is, in the end, also about privilege.

8. "Infinity Guitars"

Alright, so Alexis Krauss's vocals are probably the worst trait of this entire album, and if there was one thing I would change about Sleigh Bells, it would be that. "Infinity Guitars", however, is one of the tracks where they work best. Much of the initial appeal of the song is its intense build and release, but I know as well as anybody that the noisy shock of a song can wear off pretty quickly. What saves this track is, believe it or not, nuance and songwriting. The ending is more than just a punch in the face, but a crossroads where all the song's elements finally meet, most notably, Krauss's rising chant at its least obnoxious. The same goes for the sound. What could be, and has been, seen as gratuitous noise, is actually quite crafted and unique. The noise, surprisingly, reminds me alot of The Microphones, its fuzz revealing huge vacuums of negative space behind it, most notably in the drums, less resonating than sucking in the noise around them.

7. "You Ain't No DJ"

Yelawolf has been all over the web recently, and for good reason: he's a great new voice in hip-hop. As Jesse Thorn has said, his highest talent is in giving us the willies, just really creeping us out, and this track looks remarkably like his coronation as the next king of a long line of creepy southern rap in the vein of the Geto Boyz and Goodie Mob. Andre 3000 lays down a terrifically ominous beat and Big Boi knows to just get out of the way, allowing Yelawolf's slight, Alabama, Deliverance-style persona to really seep through.

6. "Makin Love to the Money"

I've often heard people dismiss Gucci Mane as "ridiculous" not realizing that his cartoonish character is a large part of his appeal. This song shows Gucci at his most overblown, literally talking about having sex with money. And yet, this isn't a Weird Al style parody. Despite its humor, the song actually comes off as remarkably heartfelt and sad. Why? I don't think we will ever know, but this is just one example of a complexity that can often go overlooked in piles of seemingly cookiecutter Lex Lugerish mixtapes, and of an art-form that is intriguingly moving more and more into something that we might call transparency.

5. "Throat I"

Noise music always seems to run into the same paradox. Attempts to grab the listener's attention with volume or surprise tend to become tiresome in large doses. Even bands like Sunn O))), some of the most arresting music available, can become white noise with rapidly repeated listens. Bands have a number of strategies for combating this problem. Bands like Lightning Bolt, for example, present dynamism in periodic and drastic changes in pattern. Little Women, however, have somehow moved themselves outside of this dialectic. Movement is so fundamental to every note of this music that its hard to imagine ever getting used to it. Even the solitary notes of a sax on softer tracks are ridiculously and eerily dynamic. Instrument and musician really seem to melt together here, and that could be part of the secret: the song's intensity really seems to come directly from the artists, most applicably, from the throat, where the body is translated into noise in its most raw form.

4. "The Joy"

With all the talk this year from big names like DJ Premeir about Kanye's supposed return to basics, MBDTF really was a surprising turn, even with the majority of its tracks already out and about. This particular track is most notable to me because it sounds like what Premo was talking about (soulful, classic, and 100% Kanye) and would have been incredibly out of place on the album. As much an elegy as it is a celebration of this type of music in the mainstream, this track is a small but deftly chosen all-star game of mid-90's New York Hip-hop, with Jay-Z on one side and Pete Rock on the other, finally working together even if it is fifteen years too late.

3. "All I Want"

While much of James Murphy's music seems to always leave me a little cold no matter how well made it is, there is always one or two songs on his releases that blow me away. "All I Want" is that track this year. A large part of my attraction to this song is its element of tribute to Bowie's "Heroes", a song very close to my heart. But also, what makes this track really appealing is a surprising inclusion of a little bit of chaos and uncertainty. For someone so well known for attention to detail, this track is at least made to sound sloppy, and this sloppiness allows the song to come to a deliriously uncontrolled yet cohesive climax, where a bleepy cloud of synths seems to break the track apart just as Murphy's voice reaches its most appropriate volume and intensity, producing an effect I would almost be tempted to compare to the whirling tornadoes of Sly and the Family Stone's "Luv n' Haight", even if the Murphy's song is infinitely more crisp, for better or for worse.

2. "Devil in a New Dress"

That this is the track on the album where sampling is most obvious really shows how much Kanye has changed since The Blueprint. The sample is so thin it borders on pure atmosphere, practically dissolving in the album around it, only held down by a high-hat and a bass-line, and the line between live and sample is equally hazy. As far as lyrics go, say what you will about Kanye's rapping, but he knows when to hold himself back. Regardless, the track really comes to a point with Rick Ross (probably the most appropriate collaboration you could have on this album) giving us a verse with the perfect amount of balls to finally bring the track out of the haze.

1. "Colouring of Pigeons"

I've had this track pegged as my favorite of the year ever since it came out in January, and I have to say it has held up incredibly well. Its reputation on the blogosphere has really been sullied by the bafflingly bad studio recording that later consumed it, but if there is anything that could potentially salvage what seems to be The Knife drowning in a sea of pretension, it would be this song. Regardless, this song is so complete, Tomorrow in a Year doesn't even have to be addressed. It almost reminds me of a of a round or canon piece from my cello playing days, with The Knife really exploring every corner of a chord progression that is pretty much perfect, both self-contained and self-perpetuating, so much so that the duo has to end the song with a nearly three minute, brain-wiping drone from a single cello string: nothing else would be capable of truly resolving such a strongly repetitive piece of music. At the same time, the final note really stands to reinforce the song's incredible cohesiveness, tying up almost every theme introduced throughout the song, be it the bending drone or the operatic vibrato, in a single ecstatic knot. This is, seriously, one of the few pieces of music that I would sincerely call inevitable. There is really no way it could be better.

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