The Intern: My Year In Music by The Intern
As written in the KWUR Constitution, it is the responsibility of every former GM to write a year end “best of” post for the blog. Believe me, I wish I didn't have to do it. I wish that I didn't have to bear this terrible burden of posting my thoughts on the Internet. But to paraphrase Spiderman, the main character of Spiderman: Turn Off The Dark, with 10 watts of power comes moderate responsibility. So, here goes nothing. As past readers of my year end posts know, I have a philosophy behind it:
-No rankings, more or less ordered by when in the year I listened to them
-Not limited to this year's releases; really, it's the year in music as I experienced it
-If I didn't really get around to it, I didn't get around to it, no matter how excellent it probably is (sorry Wavves and Janelle Monae)
For a longer, more boring discussion of this philosophy and why I have it, you can read my old year end posts here and here. As a heads-up for the tl; dr crowd, this will probably be too long, and you will probably not read it. Sorry, read it in chunks or go sext and play with your Tamagotchis while I drone on and on about music.
The album that carried me into 2010 was Beach House's Teen Dream. I'm honestly stunned that I'm not seeing this album in more year end lists: maybe it's suffering from the Oscar curse of being released too early in the year, maybe people are forgetting it actually came out in 2010 because it was leaked in 2009. As stupid as the term is, there's no better way to describe this album but as an “instant classic,” a record that I knew was going to outlast the hype cycle from the moment I heard it. I often wonder if the associations I make between records and seasons are really related to the sound of the record or whether it's just a coincidence, but in any case, putting this one back on quickly brings me back to huddling under the covers in my apartment in St. Louis on a snowy morning during winter break. I think it really is the sound: Victoria Legrand's expansive, weather-cracked voice proceeding slowly and carefully over drum machine/synth drone in the most echo-y recording studio this side of that Arcade Fire church. If you want evidence of what a great album Teen Dream is, listen to YouTube covers of the album. Well-meaning and talented people doing the same material can't come even close to matching the power of the original combination.
The best album of the year (of course, I never do rankings) was released in early March: Titus Andronicus' The Monitor. When I got this record from KWUR on a Friday in February, I spent pretty much the whole weekend shut in my room listening to it on repeat. The record–with the unabashedly insane “concept” of using the Civil War as an allegory for a failed relationship/move to Boston–is amazingly as Springsteen epic as it aims to be. As I was fond of telling GM Kenny, finally, someone made a Hold Steady record about me. The distorted, melodic, vicious guitar swells and the infectious bar-shouted sing-a-long choruses felt like every party at which I had ever stayed too late. The atmosphere of impotent rage, failure, disappointment in the world and general drunkenness seemed to me to capture the zeitgeist of 2010 better than any other album released this year (I'm looking at you, The Suburbs). There are so many lyrics from this album that are just plain burned into my brain (the unbelievable hooks of “the enemy is everywhere” and “you will always be a loser,” “soon you'll be burning orphanages down / watching ashes scatter all over town / and when smoke gets too close to the ground / you'll see blue trampling over grey and green over brown,” “I'm sorry mama, but I've been drinking again / Me and the old man got us a head start on the weekend / And rest assured tonight I'm going to be in Kevin's basement with all my friends / Provided we can get our lazy asses down to Bottle King by ten”. . . I could probably quote the album in its entirety). If you haven't heard this one yet, buy it, sit your ass down and do nothing but listen to it all the way through. By the time the last of the fuzz dies and the smoke clears, there is no question that nothing has come closer than this half-drunken album about the Civil War to capturing what this crummy year has been all about.
Another killer “winter album”: Gonjasufi's A Sufi and a Killer. This was one of the few albums released that year that really felt musically interesting to me. There are some people out there who are having precisely none of what Flying Lotus is selling, but let's stick to the facts, this album has some pretty inspired production. All of the Middle Eastern and Indian samples that sound like they were fished out of a dusty tape bin in a city that God forgot, combined with Gonjasufi crouping right in your ear, well, that's a winning combination.
My memories of Mark Sultan's album $ are now indissolubly linked to the solo show of his that I attended, which was a singular experience. Mark plays all his songs as a one-man band, in one long thirty minute medley, needless to say, a dizzying feat to watch. I reviewed this one for KWUR already, so I won't add too much more. My recommendation, if you want an idea of what this album is all about, is just to put on “I Am The End.” Mark's voice, belting at full blast, carries the song for a good minute and twenty seconds before the guitars kick in, and it's more than enough. Man's got soul.
I staged a raid on the stacks in April, and came away with two great pop records: the self-titled debut of Happy Birthday and Shame, Shame by Dr. Dog. I'm always a sucker for solid pop, the kind of songs that worm their way into your head and get sung in the shower. It might be weird to like a band just for being charming, but that's sort of the way I feel about the Happy Birthday record; it's just really sweet and nice and boyfriend material. What makes it a great record is that it has all of those qualities, but the instrumentation is all distorted vocal harmonies and reverb-y guitars: it sounds like someone taught the machines to love. Saying that a band sounds like the Beatles is the music equivalent of saying that something tastes like chicken, but Dr. Dog actually does sound a lot like the Beatles, particularly the expansive, quasi-psych pop of Sgt. Pepper. This album is a lot more than it appears on the surface, and the surface already has some magnificent vocal harmonies. Keep your ears open for the occasional slide guitar, the relatively complex bass lines and a surprisingly rocking rhythm section.
Like Klax, I feel sorta sheepish praising a member of the KWUR family, but I'd be a liar if I said I didn't spend a lot of time listening to our very own Water Bears' release, Misogymnastics. It's just some plain old raw music, not the country of Wal-Mart and Dubya, but the country of Waco, Spade Cooley, Night Train and Winter's Bone, which is to say, the country which, in its own luridly insane way, tells the truth. The only thing better than Gabe's tenor wail and Zak's hear-it-to-believe-it bass is when they sing together in harmony. Listen to their cover (together with Julie Shore) of Bukka White's “I Am In The Heavenly Way,” and you'll find that a song written by a famously godless man will bring you sinners in.
A brief dialogue on Sleigh Bells:
Hater: Ugh, really, Sleigh Bells? Don't you know that's just an internet hype band?
Dylan: Sometimes the internet is right about things. These songs are catchy, the combination of ear-bruising guitar shriek, dance beats and a female voice put low in the mix like it was just another instrument sound like pretty much nothing else I've ever heard.
Hater: But they sound just like [band I've never heard of]!
Dylan: Well, I've never heard of that band. Besides, a lot of the stuff I like sounds like other things. Everyone steals from everyone.
Hater: Ugh, whatever. [storms out]
Dylan: Ok, gonna put this record on and blow my speakers out.
I graduated jobless and angry, and the only joy I took in this summer was going to loud as hell shows at Death By Audio and flinging my body around. So I proved a receptive audience for Ty Segall's Melted, a close runner-up for album of the year. Our old music director Daniel Burton's response to my summertime obsession with this album was, “Oh, I didn't realize you liked Nirvana so much.” Well, yeah, it sounds a lot like Nirvana, and that's a great thing. Grumbling, grungy guitars put on a punk framework driven by pounding drums, sounds alright to me. Do yourselves a favor and see him live. The last show of his I saw, the whole audience was bouncing around together in one sweaty, happy huddle around the man himself, enthusiastically singing along.
Again, don't want to engage in too much KWUR self-promotion here, but when I heard the masters of Flaming Death Trap's album, Swamp Monster back in August, I was floored. Propulsive drumming, loud guitars, with a hint of a Replacements-type pathos and pop sensibility, there's nothing to dislike about this record unless you dislike rock music. Always nice to hear good stuff coming out of St. Louis.
I spent a lot of the late summer and fall listening to hip-hop, and as someone whose tastes run strongly to old school East Coast stuff, I was surprised to find myself digging two albums that were distinctly Southern: Big Boi's Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty and Waka Flocka Flame's Flockaveli. I always thought it was a shame that Big Boi's half of Speakerboxx/The Love Below got short shrift, really only because it happened to be the disc that didn't have “Hey Ya” on it. These days, I find myself returning to Speakerboxx far more than the incredibly uneven Love Below, and I think it's a testament to the kind of artist Big Boi is: dedicated to a quiet consistent excellence and a fun time before anything else. This approach is exemplified by Big Boi's flow: not as pyrotechnic as say, Weezy, or as versatile as Jay-Z, but nevertheless virtuosic and full of surprises for careful listeners. The beats are charmingly out-there, but that's not the point. The point is to make a fun, funky record, which is exactly what Big Boi has succeeded in doing here.
Flokaveli is the album that finally got me to appreciate Crunk. The key for me was to stop considering the album hip-hop. It seems to me that people who complain about “cell phone beats” and slow, uninventive flow miss the point. The beats are so triumphantly tinny and ugly that they constitute their own aesthetic, like a sax solo in a no-wave song. The flow luxuriates in the long vowels of the Southern dialect, the incredible ability to make rhymes out of nothing but drawl and patience. Once freed from the traditional standards of hip-hop, what's left is the album on its own terms. It's quite a strange creature, which, of course, is my favorite kind.
Late in November, I got to see Phillip Roebuck perform at a bar in Bushwick. There's a pleasant novelty to seeing a one man band, and it's even more pleasant when the performer is more than just a novelty. I have had his 2005 album One Man Band on steady rotation since I bought it from him that night. Steve Albini's production is breathtakingly immaculate, and it serves the simplicity of Roebuck's music well. The constraint of being a one man band results in music that never strays far from the emotional core of Roebuck's plaintive voice and phenomenal banjo picking. Particularly nice is the steady beat that drives every song.
Yawn, Ghostface Killah released another album, Apollo Kids. It's that's same old, excellent Wu-Tang shit. Ghostface kills it on pretty much every verse, and gets the best producers and guest verses. Boooring.
Here are some one-offs of note:
Golden Triangle, “Cinco de Mayo” – Some rock songs sound like being shot from a fucking cannon into the sun. This is one of those songs.
Natural Child, “Shame Walkin'” – Natural Child succeeded in crafting a classic punk earworm so insanely infectious that this cheap bastard wasn't satisfied with playing the live YouTube version again and again and had to have it on 45, the only format in which it was available. The trick to this song is that there's absolutely no trick. It's one of those great songs that you are amazed wasn't written already. Pounding drums, ever-present but subtle bassline, and the probably greatest chorus of all time: “I don't wanna fuck / you / but I got to.” Voila, instant classic.
Magic Kids, “Hey Boy” – I didn't like the other stuff I heard off of Memphis quite as much as this number, but what a number it is, a textbook case of effusive, ecstatic pop. I love the bratty, taunting girl chorus, the Phil Spector bombast of the horn attack, the freakin' bells, and best of all, the lead singers “creepy Morrisey” vocal stylings. Seeing these guys live is great, a real fun show, with the lead singer slinking all over the stage like Iggy Pop.
Two numbers for graduation, Harlem, “Someday Soon” and Hector Lavoe, “Todo Tiene Su Final,” respectively for the worst and best sides of me. Harlem's Hippies was just on the line for inclusion on the albums list; I ultimately decided that it was a decent album, but not a great one. The classic kiss-off in the first twenty seconds of this song (“someday soon you'll be on fire / and you'll ask me for a glass of water / and I'll say no / just let that shit burn”) captures perfectly pretty much all the bitterness and spite I had leaving Wash U. Lavoe's song, on the other hand, was the last song I ever played as a DJ at a party. It's danceable, and it has the slightly wistful, but confidently forward-looking attitude I tried to have as a graduating senior. And oh man, the call and response and the piano solo near the end…
During the summer, I got really into the female '60s folk voice: a solid tenor as rich and resonant as a hardwood. Emblematic of that sound were two tracks I became obsessed with, Joan Baez' cover of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and Heart's “Crazy on You.” The Confederate sympathies of The Band's ballad remain sympathetic, but with that concern bracketed, this is the way the song was meant to be sung, backed only by guitar, Baez's voice stretching out the “night” in the chorus and clearly enunciating each “nuh nuh nuh nuh nuh” as if it were struck by a bell. There's so much to like about “Crazy On You,” the way the acoustic guitar builds tension in the opening, thrillingly transitioning into rhythm guitar while the electric guitar roars out the riff, but what seals it is Nancy Wilson's voice, the rich sound coming straight from folk. What I love the most about this song is that it is straight up about how great it can be to fuck a dude. There's a lot of adolescent naughtiness passed off as sex in today's pop music, but your Katy Perry and your Ke$ha don't have the guts to come near the kind of raw passion this song has.
Yelawolf, “I Just Wanna Party” – Rookie of the year MC is Yelawolf, no contest. He has a unique flow that combines Northern speed, Southern vowel slurs, and a staccato, hard consonant rhythm that's all his own. I recommend this track over the critic's favorite, “Pop The Trunk,” because it showcases his versatility. Listen to him effortlessly shift into double-time in the last verse. “Cropdusting from a Boeing,” indeed.
I'm embarrassed to say that the commercials for NFL's RedZone got me listening to The Detroit Cobras' cover of Irma Thomas' “Breakway.” But even without being played only a million times during NFL games, the song is criminally infectious. I am a skeptic of The Detroit Cobras' project to cover the best stuff in their record collection, but this is a solid interpretation of original material you probably couldn't screw up if you wanted to. From the goofy horn opening and bridges, the song just rockets out on a bouncy beat, and the amazing thing about the original is that Thomas belts it out at full blast, even though she hardly needs to to make the song work.
Au Pairs, “It's Obvious” – Don't ask me how I slept on this no-wave classic, but when I finally got wise to it this year, I played it again and again for practically a month. This is a masterpiece of post-punk minimalism: spare drumbeat; prominently featured, repetitive bassline and a simple, one chord anxious guitar squeal that appears only during the chorus. It's what pop would be like in an alternate universe, which is pretty much my aesthetic in a nutshell.
Finally, two stand-outs from albums on everyone else's list that I have made a point of not putting on mine: “Dark Fantasy” by Kanye West and “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” from The Arcade Fire. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is wildly uneven, and at its worst, its the same underwhelming Kanye flow and lazy sample-humping to which we are unfortunately accustomed. And while I understand that it's an elaborate performance, there's still something obscene about an extraordinarily wealthy man pleading for my sympathy nonstop for forty minutes. The best of the album is featured on the opener, “Dark Fantasy”: surprisingly inspired rapping from Kanye, untouchable production and Nicki Minaj. When is that album going to drop, damn?
“Sprawl II” is just a very good pop song with a nice beat. That is what The Arcade Fire does well. Without the lyrics, The Suburbs makes it on to my list. The problem is that I had to put up with those damn lyrics. I don't need The Arcade Fire to tell me to bike to work, to support responsible zoning, and to eat less meat. I don't need the facile, adolescent limousine liberalism (do we really all still think that the suburbs are the root of all evil?), and colorless generalities, ultimately nothing more than plain old bad writing. When Titus Andronicus asks, “Is there a girl in this college that hasn't been raped?,” it says far more about where we're at as a nation in that one line than The Arcade Fire can say in a whole album.
So that was my year. Some predictions for 2011: it will be the worst year for music ever. It will be the best year for music ever. It will be the year hip-hop finally dies. No, it will be the same year we always have, with a few gems and a whole bunch of schlock we forget about in December. Said it once, I'll say it again: the great thing about years, they end.