Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Best of 2010: Music That Is

I think it was Descartes or another philosopher, who said that "once a rock critic, always a rock critic." Once you review music as a job or avocation, you can never just return back to the safety and security and relaxed attitude of the normal listener. Listening as a critic is a little more disciplined and a little less joyful.

So I will begin this look back to the best of the year with a confession that my selections for top songs and albums of this year involved some unnatural, repeated listening for the sake of this once and always critic's summary; the results are albums and songs that are some new, some borrowed, and even some blue. That may be par for the course for a once and forever rock critic; the boundaries of a year are arbitrary and somewhat flexible, and lists are imperfect and always leave out some great music. The bad things about lists of top music of the year are well covered in the discussion at this web address:

Even with many shortcomings, here goes my observations about the best music of this arbitrary year period--

The best album of the year for me was "Suburbs" by Arcade Fire--which stood out in its variety of song styles, its effective messages, and its overall theme that made it work as an complete album, at a time when albums are being discarded and disregarded by orderless downloading. There are so many good songs on the album--songs that are well-crafted, well-performed and had enough variety to keep all of the songs fresh and successful, no matter how many times I heard them.

Vampire Weekend had my second favorite album, "Contra," which was a sprightly trip through some world-influenced pop rock. They may be going a little too mainstream and popular, as evidenced by "Holiday" becoming a friendly car company reminder. But even in their concerts, they play very tightly yet still with enough joy and organization to make it work well and produce happy and contagious music.

My next favorite was "Broken Bells" by Broken Bells, which was as close to a super group as we would get this year--and the down-tempo and smooth vocals and interesting arrangements help. "High Ground" was as good a song as anyone could craft this year, and the sound is intricate and fresh each time I hear it.

Beach House came in next with a good sound in "Teen Dream" (as in the song "Zebra"), even though it all sounded like they were still trying to figure out what direction to go in. In person, they were louder, sloppier, less careful, and not nearly as artful, but they continue to have a lot of potential.

My next two groups showed artful promise in 2010, but were not quite ready for a larger stage of success. LA's Warpaint placed in the top 5 with some interesting sounds on the "The Fool," but the sound is a little thin and they lack an ingredient or two to fill out their repetiore and sound.

Avi Buffalo's 'Avi Buffalo' included the simple, catchy, and wonderful "What's In It For?" with a fitting video, but their album and their live show is also a little thin, and uni-dimensional, yet they show some promise.

The rest of the year's favorites are a mixed group that all played well, but lacked a certain level of musical power when compared to those above them.

Gil Scott-Heron, one of original rapper/poets returned to center stage with his sometimes powerful "I'm New Here." "Your Soul and Mine" provided a good explanation of where he is and has been, and where we are and have been too.

Neil Young's "Le Noise" was a punned title that hailed the work of the eternally electronic, never old Mr. Young with veteran producer Daniel Lanois. The results are mixed with the intimate instant classic sounding "Love and War" and "Hitchhiker" alternating with the more noisy and less rhymical sounds of "Walk with Me" and "Angry World."

The rest is the best of the rest:

Belle and Sebastian - "Write About Love"

LCD Soundsystem - "This Is Happening"

Sleigh Bells
- "Treats"

Band of Horses - "Infinite Arms"

The National - "High Violet"

Manic Street Preachers - "Postcards from a Young Man"

First Aid Kit - "The Big Black & The Blue"; "Ghost Town" (EP)

Best Coast - "Crazy For You"

Black Keys - "Brothers"

Deerhunter - "Halcyon Digest"

Hey Marsielles - remastered version of 2008's "To Travels and Trunks"

Lost in the Trees - "All Alone in an Empty House"

Yeasayers - "Odd Blood"

Newspeak - "Sweet Light Crude"

MGMT - "Congratulations"

Mumford & Sons - "Sigh No More"

Broken Social Scene - "World Sick"

Kanye West - "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy"

Jens Lekman
- "
The End of the World is Bigger Than Love"

John Grant - "
Queen of Denmark"

Sleigh Bells - " Rill Rill"

The New Pornographers - "Together"

And it was the year of Glee, including Gwyneth Paltrow's performance of "Follow Me" that played proper homage to the great version by Cee Lo Green.

Finally, there is the hope of classical music reviving itself in reaching across boundaries and there is a good indie classical scene evolving as reported in this article and broadcast:

It was a good year for a varied diet of interesting music, and the music business is spinning and evolving into new business models with the end or landing point nowhere in sight. I wish all a Happy and Healthy New Year.