2010: Jennifer Kelly
A week or so ago, when first trying to piece together how I felt about 2010, I ran across a kind of depressing discussion about which, if any, of the big records of the year would top the polls. The consensus was that there weren’t any consensus records. The ones that everyone had heard of — Arcade Fire’s Suburbs for instance, or The National’s High Violet — were not very exciting. Both were weak-ish efforts by well-liked bands, not terrible, but nothing to rally around. Grinderman’s 2, which came up as well, was quite a good record, but in a solid, middle-of-the-pack kind of way. You can’t imagine waking up feeling different about the world the morning after you’d played it. Sleigh Bells had the opposite problem, being vaguely exciting but not quite good. Nothing like Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavillon, with its combination of sizzle and meat, had emerged for 2010, and it made you wonder whether the everyone-on-the-same-page enthusiasm for it last year had been some kind of anachronistic fluke. It’s a bit late to observe this but 2010 underlined it: the lowest common denominator has become so dull that not even the pack cares about it much.
In one way, that’s fine, because it’s become easier than ever to explore whatever part of the periphery you prefer. Yet, I think because music is such a social phenomenon, listening to great music, music that is 100 percent targeted to your taste, but listening in isolation, is ultimately unsatisfying. We all want a consensus, a sort of mythical community where everyone agrees with us. That’s why we sometimes have discussions, not about what the best records of the last year are, but which ones are likely to score the highest. How well-accepted a record is becomes almost as important as how it sounds. The rating process becomes a hall of mirrors in which opinions are reflected and refracted into infinity, and the actual object that they’re based on fades into insignificance. Which is how people can propose The National’s third- or fourth-best album as Record of the Year, or Arcade Fire’s pallid third. It’s all about what we think other people have heard of, what they might like, and how we can position ourselves in the midst of some dubious communal sentiment. It’s pretty dicey and almost intrinsically dishonest.
And yet the alternative, of somehow separating the records you enjoy from the circumstances under which you heard them, the people you were with, the jokes you told, the food you ate, is also untenable. There’s no such thing as an unbiased experience. What you hear is, at least in some sense, inextricably linked with who you are at the moment the record goes on. I’m still not sure why The Soft Pack’s self-titled elicited the instant “yes” that it did, or why the effect of what is essentially a very good guitar-rock record persisted for the whole year, but I’m guessing it says as much about me and where I was this year as about the album itself. I know, on the other hand, that Wetdog’s Frauhaus triggered a whole bunch of positive post-punk associations, and that though it sounds like home to me, it might not to someone who came of age later or earlier. Still all the positive associations in the world couldn’t make Alejandro Escovedo’s over-slick, over-produced, back-up singer’d, big rock Street Songs of Love from sounding like the worst kind of AAA commercialism, and the fact that I’ve spent countless hours in the car listening to The National with my son (his favorite band at one point) didn’t make High Violet any less disappointing.
So here are 10 very good albums that hit me the hardest this year. I can’t make the case that they are objectively the best, and they certainly aren’t the most popular, but all 10 are worth listening to and passing on to friends. And maybe that’s the only way to build consensus, driven by real love and in increments of one or two at a time.
Ms. Golightly, with her partner Lawyer Dave and a cameo from Tom Heinl, tripped lightly over hallowed backwoods traditions, injecting murder ballads with sardonic humor, chafing against the restrictions of dry “Medicine County” and slipping in one funny country song about being afraid of escalators. Even the most traditional cuts — old-time “Jack of Diamonds” for instance — had a liveliness that was anything but archival, but rather fresh and vital and a little bit dangerous.
Surreal, dream-like and almost the definition of a slow-burner, St. Bartlett surrounded Jurado’s ghostly high tenor with watercolor washes of strings and synthesizers, in addition to the standard guitar strumming. Indefinite stories spool out in ellipses, so that we glimpse the socially uncomfortable narrator of “Rachel and Cali” in a series of snapshots, or piece together the missing father scenario of “Kansas City” in fits and starts of narrative. An aura of mystery draws you in, yet even over multiple listens fails to fully resolve itself, so that these songs seem as strange and beautiful six months later as they did the first time through.
Not a comeback, because she never really left, but a definite refresh and reboot of Mavis Staples’ gospel-rooted, socially-conscious art. Jeff Tweedy produced and helped select the material for this album, but he stepped graciously into the background, too, allowing Ms. Staples’ voice (and, critically, her long-time backing band) to shine through. She’s a bit huskier now than in her glory days, but still extraordinarily expressive and powerful, whether belting a cappella church rousers or swampy Delta rockers. I like the “Pops” Staples tunes the best, but there’s a lot to be said for Tweedy’s two contributions, especially the stately and wonderful title track. It might not have been a gospel song when he wrote it, but it sure is now.
This one took me a while to come back to, when after a really protracted negotiation, I was all set to interview Mark E. Smith and, on the day of the interview, his wife called me and said it was her or no one. (I chose no one, because really, who cares about anyone but Mr. Smith?) But hurt pride aside, this is an excellent extension to the dazed, crazed tradition of later Fall, the music tightly reined in, staccato, paranoiac, and the lyrics drawled, spat and slurred in surreal streams of imagery, from “Mexico Wax Solvent”’s “I’ll fry chicken with a trowel” the final, whispered “You don’t deserve rock ‘n roll.”
So much tighter and more cohesive than Living with the Living, The Brutalist Bricks opens, literally, with a bang, with the image of a café’s doors exploding, somewhere in the terror dome. Yet as he’s gotten older, Leo seems to have turned a lot more nuanced, recognizing that the problem is not always punk rock bugaboos like big corporations, organized religion and government, but us. Even the crusading, socially conscious punk rocker, of whom Leo is maybe the last surviving example, is more complicated than he used to be, as anthemic “Even Heroes Have to Die” gives way to nostalgic, comfortable-in-its-own-skin “Bottled Up in Cork.” “We had the best of an imperfect world,” sings Leo in hard-banging, headlong “Where Was My Brain?” and that seems plenty good enough.
One of those semi-obscure supergroups, Rangda started as a one-off concert improvised live by Richard Bishop, Ben Chasny and Chris Corsano. The live show was good enough that the three reconvened to record this six-song album, which alternates frenzied free-jams with liquid, lyrical serenity. “Waldorf Hysteria” takes surf guitars to the brink of chaos, “Fist Family” sustains dissonance until it reaches a kind of beauty, but “Sarcophagi” and later “Plain of Jars” find the tranquil, translucent center in this dual-guitar’d, all-over-the-kit drummed endeavor. A concert performance last summer in Easthampton sealed the deal, with Corsano taking a much more prominent role than he did on the record, and the subtle differences between Bishop’s leads (in “Sarcophagi”) and Chasny’s (most notably in “Plain of Jars”) becoming fully apparent.
Eluvium’s Matthew Cooper struck out in a wholly different direction for Similes, incorporating his own singing, verse-chorus structure and audible percussion into his layered electro-acoustic compositions. Yet far from grounding his work, the singing seemed to float free, exploring spectral dream narratives about the nature of art, sensory experience and mortality. “I’m a vessel between two places I’ve never been,” murmurs Cooper in album highlight “The Motion Makes Me Last,” and the sense of suspension, between fantasy and reality, physical and spiritual space, persists throughout this odd and lovely album.
In a year when lots of female and part-female bands mainlined post-punk’s glory days, Wetdog, out of London, pulled off the deadpan herky-jerky best. “The Lower Leg” is one of this year’s best punk songs, all stuttery asymmetries and tempo-switching bass lines. There’s a lyrical snatch about “10,000 tons of sludge,” that puts me in mind of the Pixies “Monkey Gone to Heaven,” and a yodel yelp that can’t help but recall Sleater-Kinney, but the song’s all its own thing. That’s the standout, but by no means the only reason to visit and revisit this surprisingly varied album. You’ll find Young Marble Giants-ish minimalism (“Round Vox”) abutting sharp-edged ESG jitters (“Wymmin’s Final”), choral serenity (“Trees Fall” ) on the heels of Delta 5-esque stylized dance grooves (“Tidy Up Your Bedroom”). This is a band that’s equally unafraid of abrasion and prettiness — and my favorite new thing for 2010.
Jack Rose’s last solo full-length pulled together all the threads that made this guitarist so compelling, the spun-out ragas, the down-home stomps, the fondness for pre-war blues and country that extended not just to the fashionable, but to eccentricities like Percy Danforth’s jaw harp mastery. Easily the equal to Rose’s landmark Kensington Blues, Luck in the Valley should have been his entrée to a wider audience. Instead, it’s goodbye… but what a send-off.
I’m still not sure why I love this album so much. It is quite straightforwardly a guitar rock record, with standard instrumentation (two guitars, bass, drums) and short, catchy songs. It’s the kind of record that no one’s supposed to make anymore — and in any case, no one’s supposed to care about — but it stayed in the player all year long and gave endless fizzy joy every time it came on. “Pull Out” is, hands down, the song of the year for me. The bassline alone, coming in at the very start, is enough to elicit a smile and a rightward turn of the volume knob. I caught on, about halfway through the year, that this song wasn’t about what I thought it was, but rather about California secession, and it made no difference at all to how I felt about it.
As usual, I’m having trouble confining myself to 10 records, so here are a bunch more that I thoroughly enjoyed:
• White Fence - White Fence, (Make a Mess)
And a few reissues that stood out:
• Neu! - Vinyl Box (Grönland)
By Jennifer Kelly