Friday, December 17, 2010

PoMo Jukebox's (and friends'!) Top 25 Albums of the Year: 5-1

Welcome to PoMo Jukebox's first ever Album's of the Year List (2010 edition). By now it seems pretty evident that 2010 was all about excess. We had Kanye West's excessive production and ruminations on celebrity, Sleigh Bells' excessive volume, Joanna Newsom's excess of material, The Arcade Fire's excessive everything, and Sufjan Stevens' excess of feeling and whatever the hell else is going on with The Age of Adz. Oddly, through all of this excess 2010 ended up being a pretty incredible year for music. While excess has traditionally been a dirty word when talking about music, all of a sudden our excess of excess ended up giving music fans an excess of exciting, larger-than-life albums that managed to mix raw enthusiasm with their unchecked ambition.

At long last, here they are PoMo Jukebox and Friends' top 5 albums of 2010. You listened to them. You loved them. You voted for them. Now read about them one last time, and give them one last listen before tucking them away on your shelves and turning your attention to 2011.

Ah, but I kid 2010. One more time, this has been an outstanding year for music, and I look forward to seeing many of the albums on this list show up on decade lists in 2020. I hope you've enjoyed our trip down music's short-term memory lane. Next week we'll resume our regularly scheduled sporadic updates.

5. Sleigh Bells - Treats
Label: N.E.E.T. / Mom & Pop

After generating a killer bee swarm of buzz in 2009, the duo Sleigh Bells delivered on it this year with their aptly-titled debut CD Treats. Singer Alexis Krauss and guitarist/keyboardist Derek Miller create the ultimate party-rager’s music, influenced as much by late 1980s techno and industrial as by early Andrew W.K. Miller’s aggro-beats are offset by Krauss’ comparatively ameliorating vocals. The juxtaposition of these two musical counterpoints has the effect of seeing Sigur Ros perform live in downtown Baghdad the night the United States launched Operation Iraqi Freedom. For as anarchic as this all may sound, Sleigh Bells are great because given sheer amount of volume they produce, they are exceedingly accessible. This is music equally suited for peaking trippers as well as cheerleading competitions. Sleigh Bells is packed with entertaining numbers like the opener “Tell ‘Em,” the hit “Infinity Guitars,” and metal-stomp of “Crown on the Ground.” The group also displays a knack for effective sampling on “Rill Rill,” cribbing Funkadelic’s psych-gospel masterpiece “Can You Get to That,” creating the most chill moment on the album. Sure, one could criticize Treats for being slight, but so is some rock’s best music (“wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-wop-bam-boo” to you). —Brian Flota

4. The National - High Violet
Label: 4AD

More than any National album before it, High Violet is immediately accessible and moving, and for a band that released a contemporary classic like Boxer, that’s saying something. Similarly, “Bloodbuzz Ohio” may be the tightest, strongest song The National has released to date, and it stands as one of the best singles of the year. Like the rest of the album, “Bloodbuzz” is catchy yet complicated, with all the instruments and voices coming together in a perfect and unified whole. “Bloodbuzz” also serves as a good representation of the album’s major themes: love, loss, the search for a solid plateau to place one’s feet on. Other highlights include “Terrible Love,” “Afraid of Everyone,” and “Runaway,” though High Violet has no truly weak tracks. From first note to last, it is a tightly crafted, beautiful album that deserves all the commercial success and critical recognition it received this year, and then some. --Joshua Cross

3. Deerhunter - Halcyon Digest
Label: 4AD

Over the past few years, Bradford Cox has become one of the most important voices in indie rock, both with Deerhunter and his solo project, Atlas Sound. Halcyon Digest stands above all of Cox’s prior releases as the most coherent, beautiful, and devastating work. In short, this album is his masterpiece to date. What sets it above Deerhunter’s past works, and many of the year’s other best albums, is its cohesion, the way it functions as a proper album, not just a collection of great songs. While the first two singles, “Revival” and “Helicopter,” are both excellent songs on their own merits, isolating them from the rest of the album makes any of the songs seem somehow out of place, a quality usually found exclusively in proper concept albums. While Halcyon Digest is not necessarily a concept album in that it does not tell a story from beginning to end, the themes of isolation, aging, and coming to grips with one’s mortality form one harmonious whole that forces us to consider the album as an entity. And a powerful entity at that. The move to 4AD exclusively (the label had previously distributed Deerhunter overseas) brought a slightly higher budget to the album’s production. But somehow the band managed to retain their signature bedroom recording feel, psychedelic dreampop sound, and DIY aesthetic while benefitting from the production, rather than losing intimacy and immediacy. All told, Halcyon Digest is a hallucinatory dream that catches the listener the moment the needle drops and doesn’t let go until long after you hit the run-out groove. --Joshua Cross

2. LCD Soundsystem - This is Happening
Label: DFA / Virgin

I was not entirely sold on LCD Soundsystem until their latest effort, This is Happening. James Murphy’s overt debt to David Bowie and his very hit-or-miss attempts at humor in some of his songs always struck me as a weakness. For every stunning track like “All My Friends,” there has been a “New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down” to undermine it. On the new album, these moments are kept to a minimum (even the record’s most troublesome cut, “Drunk Girls,” possesses irresistible pop hooks). The album moves briskly; few hour-long albums seem this brief (this is a compliment). Beginning with the slow-building opener “Dance Yrself Clean,” James Murphy’s focus is sharp. The first three minutes of the track are barely audible. Then, the drums kick in, along with a sick blast of Atari 2600 keyboard goodness, and the song instantly becomes legendary. “All I Want” is his one direct stab at Bowie, drawing heavily from “Heroes,” with its intermingled, atmospheric guitar lines. The lyrical self-reflexivity of “You Wanted a Hit” is as playful as its propulsive beat. Unlike most of the great European/American dance music of the past twenty years or so, This is Happening is largely free of drug-fueled pretensions, aesthetically speaking. This is direct, minimal dance music, driven by a “motorik” drumbeat, bass, guitar, synthesizers, and vocals. There are no samples, overdriven drum machines, or disorienting keyboard textures. This approach makes it one of the strongest albums of the year. —Brian Flota

1. Kanye West - My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
Label: Def Jam / Roc-A-Fella

After the initial fervor surrounding the release of Kanye West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy died down, I've been trying to figure out the perspectives of those who can't get into it. While this year's Kanye West earthquake (measuring a 10.0 on the Richter, erm, I mean Pitchfork Scale) may have been a surprise to many, especially coming as a follow up to the interesting but heavily flawed 808's and Heartbreaks, not to mention West's status as Most Hated Celebrity in America, the album makes perfect sense for our time and place. That time and place, of course, is somewhere adrift in a distorted, fragmented version of pop culture that permeates our every move and leaves us always a bit suffocated by its ubiquity. Enter Kanye. I get how people can be alienated by My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy--the absence of commas from the title alone is enough to make me want to punch a nun--but, in a way, this album is about alienation. Not just West's alienation as he grapples with fame and identity, but the alienation we feel in our relationships with spectacle.

That's why West's excess works, here. It doesn't matter that he doesn't have the best flow, or that the songs are all six-plus minutes long, or that production is over-blown, or that the Chris Rock skit goes on a bit too long. Those are all details, ill-considered quibbles thrown against a juggernaut text that sets out to do nothing less than put Kanye West and the idea of pop spectacle in an outhouse together then blow them the fuck up. And that's just what My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy does. West alternates between euphoria ("can we get much higher" from album opener "Dark Fantasy") and self-hatred ("I'm a motherfucking monster" from, of course, "Monster") in an exploration of the fame and the sense of entitlement with which it comes. One of the album's more controversial moments, the extended vocoder outro on "Runaway" also manages to work as the album's cathartic core--after putting himself on the line, turning himself inside out and more often than not finding a repulsive, angry, arrogant man, we are offered that man's soulful, but mangled pleas for inner peace.

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy isn't a masterpiece because it is relateable, or because it is all about Kanye (it's not either of those things). The album is a masterpiece because it's about the way we relate to pop culture and celebrity, and the ways we forge our identities through interactions with that very culture. Now, thanks to West, we have been confronted with just how fucked (and fuckin' ridickahliss) that culture is. Still, that shouldn't keep us from coming back for more. --James Brubaker

1 comment:

  1. I just can't agree with you guys--or anyone else--about the merits of the Deerhunter record. I was massively disappointed with it, and it has yet to grow on me at all. What's worse is that I can no longer see the sense (if there ever was any) behind the Atlas Sound-Deerhunter split. The two are pretty much synonymous now, and they're both pretty bland, IMHO. It's marketing at its finest. That is all.