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2010: Benjamin Ewing

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Dusted contributor Benjamin Ewing spent 2010 indulging in oldies and feeling somewhat bad about it.

2010: Benjamin Ewing

In keeping with the year-end “best of” enterprise, let me be grandiose: if the continued foregrounding of paradox marked politics and economics in 2010, perhaps the many spheres of modern life are not so autonomous after all, and a zeitgeist withstands the increasing division of society and differentiation of taste. For my own private musical habits this year contained plenty of surface contradiction. To begin with, I resumed reviewing in large measure to re-familiarize myself with the massive stream of new releases, but ended up more often listening to new records by well-established or revivalist acts, obscurities from beloved eras, and even just plain old favorites.

First and foremost, spring and summer, it was a year of female soul singers — particularly those from the 1950s and ’60s with pop inflections. Emerging from the James Brown coterie with a tight record produced by Soul Brother Number One himself, Anna King made a 12-track studio album a shade bluesier than contemporaneous Stax releases, but otherwise comparable in its infectious combination of horns, organ and gritty soul with eminently memorable melodies. New to me this year, King’s Back to Soul quickly made its way into heavy rotation. Other similar staples included compilations of Mitty Collier, Patti Drew, Carol Anderson and Barbara Lewis — “Baby I’m Yours,” indeed.

Among my fall touchstones were Ace Records’ Songwriters and Producers series. After a long bout with Bert Berns — the impresario whose touch graces such pop soul gems as Garnet Mimms’s “It Was Easier to Hurt Her” and Hoagy Lands’s “Lighted Windows”) — as well as Jerry Ragovoy and Chip Taylor, I delved into the more obscure compositions by better known Brill Building duos such as Goffin and King, Barry and Greenwich, Mann and Weil, and Pomus and Shuman. Neither greatest hits nor rarities collections, the Ace compilations often gave me a fix of the familiar made new. A longtime fan of The Byrds’ rendition of “Wasn’t Born to Follow” (fixed in its cultural moment by its prominent cameo in Easy Rider — which incidentally just received a lavish reissue in the Criterion Collection’s BBS Story box set), I took to Dusty Springfield’s take on the Goffin and King classic. Springfield’s version of their great “So Much Love” remains my favorite, but Ben E. King’s is growing on me.

My aural experience in 2010 was also marked by new releases from favorite artists of old and genre staples, both of which were variable in quality. Beach House’s Teen Dream and Deerhunter’s Halcyon Digest were triumphant leaps forward for two groups I wouldn’t have thought so capable. Goodbye Killer was another solid, workman-like entry in the Pernice Brothers’ flop-less discography. Lucky Soul’s A Coming of Age had its share of highlights, but was a notch below the irresistible first side of the pop-revivalist ensemble’s debut LP. National Ransom improved upon Secret, Profane and Sugarcane but still found Elvis Costello trying to layer too many words and roots-rock licks on to weak melodies. Brian Wilson had the lovely idea of covering Gershwin, but the Disney-level saccharine of the cover art for Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin aptly conveys the too-often cloying execution of the project. Blonde Redhead and Belle & Sebastian took respites in the lounge of indie muzak. Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy sprung upon the world an especially purified dose of zeitgeist: big, blaring, crass and contradictory, it’s quickly sparked fascination and repulsion the musical equivalent of a Glenn Beck or Sarah Palin production.

But for all the attractions of the mainstream — or maybe just that one attraction, the lingering post-Bourdieu, post-rockist reverse elitism of self-consciously transcending insular niche listening and embracing vulgar populism — I remain resolute in my allegiance to the old fashioned charm of the pleasantly unheralded. The great, underappreciated record of my 2010 was Gigi’s Maintenant. A collaborative effort out of Vancouver from songwriter Nick Krgovich, producer Colin Stewart, and their collective of singers and musicians, Maintenant is probably too clean-cut and wide-eyed for contemporary “importance” — even in the always largely backward-looking realm of indie pop. But among the many new records bathed in reverence for pop’s past, it’s Maintenant that has worn best. Marked neither by ironic distance nor simple mimicry, the record sweeps and swoons with the class of Tin Pan Alley rebranded as the Great American Songbook, and the exuberance of 1619 Broadway’s youth-infused professional pop. Maintenant was just right for another year of listening chock-full of nostalgia, and appropriately half-hearted wishing it weren’t so.

By Benjamin Ewing

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