2010: Brandon Bussolini
For most of 2010, I followed a strategy of isolation. I admire critics who can make a year-end list seem definitive: notes from the panopticon, no blind spots, everything sifted, that makes for a great and satisfying read. I thought that keeping a running tally of my favorite albums and songs and things from 2010 would make me more aware of my tastes, more in control of my prejudices, and less derivative when it came time to assemble this list. I’m not sure it worked out as I imagined — it seems I’ve set up residence in the electronic ghetto this year — but I am grateful for not having to scour other writers’ and magazines’ lists at the last minute to remind myself of what was good. In the process of tracking my favorites, I realized that, even with albums I’d already reviewed, my idea of the music often changed substantially by the time I dug it back out again. Sometimes I got too carried away, other times I was fussy or crotchety and invented reasons to write something off. So this list started to make more sense as a reason to revisit old opinions or take stock of why I more or less stopped listening to marquee indie rock releases this year. With obvious exceptions, the records below don’t exactly represent what I think are the best records of the year — just the things I wanted to think more about.
Owen Pallett is not the first musician to build a career on airing his suburban laundry, but boy is this stuff ever better than the other options. Heartland is for sensitive RPG nerds what Van Dyke Parks’ Song Cycle must have been for 1960s stoner dandies. If the deadpan delivery of lines like “I took a no-face by his beak and broke his jaw, he’ll never speak again” doesn’t sound like its own reward, this might not be a very involving listen for you, but this sounded more relevant and daring than 95 percent of the indie rock I heard this year. What do those dudes even sing about? Liking The Clean?
Large parts of Returnal could be described as drone, but Daniel Lopatin’s music has tons of movement. His inherited Roland Juno-60 is the instrument he’s most associated with, but he’s a master of the sequencer, wrangling gaseous moans and disorienting arpeggios into third-mind music. It doesn’t seem like Americans have the concept of library music in the way the English do, but Oneohtrix offers the same queasy comforts. Between Oneohtrix, his sunsetcorp videos, and the collaborative echo jams of Games, Lopatin teases new dimensions out of old tropes — an alternate computer world where stock footage is détourned to upend linear conceptions of time, where the Internet is more than an anti-privacy contraption that makes libertarians rich.
Before I was able to hear The Durutti Column, I thought they were probably the best band in the world. I hope Luke Abbott has likewise only heard of Vini Reilly’s band because I imagine Holkham Drones to be the kind of album you make when you’re inspired by the idea of a sound and not actual records. Luke Abbott’s take on electronic music places emotive, damp melodic leads over beats that ape clunky analog rhythm boxes. It sounds nothing like LC, but Luke Abbott captures the same hopelessly British window-gazing romanticism, a love of nature from a very domestic vantage point. It’s not all indoor-socks music, though — “Trans Forest Alignment” actually pumps.
Made up of longish suites that segue expertly into one another, the tracks themselves are in the classic Chain Reaction vein with an added analogue beefiness that makes tracks like “Maglev” feel turgid and danceable at the same time. Maybe, in addition to the built-in trippiness of Space Music, the goods were more tangible on The Coldest Season because you had to wait for them; this one is more of a travelogue along the lines of early Monolake EPs, and its drift feels almost procedural. Even if Liumin is for the most part incapable of evoking the corpse-pose calm of The Coldest Season, I have been listening to it all year without a lull in enthusiasm. With the ambient field recordings and synth hums that form the basis for these tracks segregated to a bonus disc, it’s not as well balanced a listen as it could be. That’s one reason the beat-driven tracks fail to really get lodged in your brain. The neon churn of the album is excellent for sure, but a few notches away from totally memorable. That said, the way these guys use tape echo is reason enough to pull the trigger on this album.
There are so many points of departure for talking about this album it’s insane. I don’t know quite where to begin, partly because I don’t know how I actually feel about Mount Kimbie. I imagine, for the sake of my argument, that they are responsible dads. The confusion is about wanting a believable narrative about the band — why their music is more than just extremely pleasant. It’s also about the para-social weirdness of its endorsement by online music recommenders who make a big deal of having graduated from Pitchfork and American Apparel. This is English “beat music” that Hipster Runoff readers can listen to without irony and without exoticizing too much. Shockingly, the duo likes both American Indie and dubstep! We used to call this “Boards of Canada.”
I don’t really buy into the rockcrit story that Crooks & Lovers is just the sound of this duo modestly and politely crafting the first dubstep album to take advantage of the form. There is something inherently suspicious about emphasizing how transparent artists are when the music is this good. “Just two dudes, hanging out, sure-footedly making the chillout album of 2010.” The more people emphasize MK’s straightforwardness, the purity or whatever of their intentions, the more baggage the listener has to deal with. And so the more I think about it, the less I like it. But this isn’t a bad trade-off when the music is consistently blissful: the sound of 21st-century Albion without all the Ghost Box complications.
Considering how hotly his name is dropped, not many people sing like Arthur Russell. With its peculiar, cardboard timbre and flat affect, the way his inflections seem random, it’s the voice of self-knowledge and guilelessness white Buddhists strive for. It’s also poetic: he’s trying to get the words he’s singing to do double duty. Nobody really manages to capture its sound and its function (“Grownups are crazy crazy crazy crazy!!!”) except Sam Amidon. Maybe he’s not doing it intentionally, but it’s there, and it makes I See the Sign feel so rich and polyvalent when (with the exception of the R. Kelly tune) its source material is so dusty. Contributions from Beth Orton and Nico Muhly are so pared back they barely exist: the sign of smart collaborators, not parsimony. Amidon’s music is the kind of potent that appears slight at first.
Brutalist techno from Rene Pawlowitz. Though every track has its own aesthetic touches — the tinkling sounds that cut the tuffness of “44A (Hardwax Forever!)” or the synth pads on “Hello Bleep!” — the beats are lumpy and grotesque, and the whole thing lurches along like a council estate that grew legs. With a title like The Traveller, I was expecting a more narrative album than the series of sketches the album turned out to be, but, oh right, he’s travelling between genres and stuff, not trying to follow up on some Bowie Berlin trilogy vibe. The tracks are indecipherable, weedy, heavy on negative space, yet aren’t without their moving moments — genre-hopping electronic music that scans like roman graffiti. The bass drum sound he uses could be simple or painstakingly engineered, but the result is dull and massive, more skull-level than ear-level.
Despite its ponderous sad-sack tone, Darkstar’s very Northern North makes the band’s decision to “leave” dubstep — a genre they only nominally belonged to anyway — in order to cover The Human League and play piano and have singing and just plain old songs seem relatable. Maybe not justified, though. When I reviewed the album, I thought North made a great case for the sea change, but now I’m not so sure — I’m starting to think the previously released “Aidy’s Girl Is a Computer” is the strongest track here rather than a slightly irregular fit for a band meant for pop. I still think the album is excellent but find it harder to escape the fact that it’s just a real downer. As if Darkstar found dubstep insufficiently capable of gloominess, and opted for more indulgent shores. At least the rhythm of “Aidy’s Girl” kept the track grounded: synthpop sets Darkstar a little too free to put on their moues. The confusion and crisis of confidence audible in the album is understandable, but they didn’t have to lose a degree of subtlety for it. Of course, other people are taking care of the dubstep thing. Still, the “I won’t forget you when you’re gone” refrain of (doye) “When It’s Gone” makes me throw my hands up in frustration. Other times, when the grainy digital synths are nice and warm and there’s nary a cliché in sight, the synthpop angle really delivers (“Under One Roof”).
Having been introduced to Dial through Sten’s unusually conventional The Essence, I knew the label that redrew genre lines with releases like This Bliss also had its formalist tendencies. Between this year’s drab label compilation 2010 and Pantha du Prince moving on to Domino with the wheel-spinningly OK Black Noise, I began to think that, with its innovations absorbed into the rulebook, Dial had entered its dotage. But Glass Eights has little to do with other releases on the label, and less to do with the received ideas about house music that enforce stale, boring practices. This album is way, way tight. Over many listening sessions, its originality grows more surprising — Glass Eights is pinned to house mostly in unexpected, oblique ways, but captures more of its spirit than anything I’ve heard in a long while. Its warm grooves have some of the same soul and flow that Moodymann has, the sense that music that references history and tradition doesn’t need to be static; that static music actually misses the point, allowing the listener to feel intelligent but lacking insight and substance. This is the problem with Efdemin’s Chicago, which busted out of a label rut to end up in a conceptual one. Roberts uses a tracker called Renoise and a lot of vinyl samples to make his tracks, which give his music solidity and space for things that don’t exactly fit into the grid. This is top-notch head music that isn’t above breaking a sweat — as on the unstoppable “Porcelain,” my favorite track of the year — or being breathtakingly pretty in a new-age classical mode (check the beatless “Went”).
It’s thrilling to be listening to something that reveals itself as both familiar and the future. Hinted-at melodies give Jatoma’s Kompakt debut a sense of déjà écouté while they busy themselves taking established structures someplace new. Jatoma is a ball of nervous energy and sounds-as-ideas that never resolve. It’s also supremely chill and beautiful. The big assemblage this trio builds is unstable, as if they’ve climbed on one another’s shoulders to get a better view of Kompakt’s storied history and the field of techno as a whole. They run a real risk of spilling over into a heap of limbs, but somehow they manage to bring every track home with a minimum of close calls. Lo-fi lorded over a great swath of music this year, but this album presents the uncannily familiar in detail. All of its anxious doodles and grand arcs are right there on the surface.
• Donato Dozzy - K (Further)
By Brandon Bussolini