Jennifer Kelly is my favorite writer at Dusted, my go-to music e-zine. Recently she conceded that this year in music had a lot of contenders, but no clear leader of the pack. She then went on to list ten albums she really liked regardless of music critics’ echo chamber. It’s a good list, and I recommend you check it out. I also think you should give some time to Wetdog, a British punk band I learned about from her list.
In many ways, 2010 was an embarrassment of riches. So many big-name artists released career-peak records and lots of up-and-comers made me excited to listen to music each week (day? half-day? quarter-day? how rapid is the cycle now?). On paper, it’s a banner year. Yet I can’t pick one album that defines it. But that’s probably a good thing.
If I were to draft a list, three albums would place at #2. Critical darling Janelle Monáe comes the closest to topping my list. She defied commercial expectations with a pop album called The ArchAndroid about a futuristic metropolis that fused Prince with Octavia Butler. Joanna Newsom channeled Randy Newman, Joni Mitchell, and Blood on the Tracks-era Dylan to create the dusky reveries on the enveloping Have One on Me. LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy lifted synths straight out of Depeche Mode’s Black Celebration and the Eurythmics’ “Love Is a Stranger” while borrowing from Berlin-era Bowie for This Is Happening, which was book-ended by two of the man’s best songs.
The last two artists also managed to follow up and improve upon the albums that made them big tent attractions. Like most great pop music, they transcend their influences and ambitions. Yet each album is weighed down by at least one song. I always skip Happening‘s “You Wanted A Hit?,” which is too long and repetitive, even if it is aware of these things. I won’t fault Monáe and Newsom’s scope, but pruning a few tracks off for an EP or as b-sides might have been helpful. I think “Say You’ll Go” and “Kingfisher” don’t have the impact they could have elsewhere. If Newsom were referencing PJ Harvey’s Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea, “Kingfisher” would be her “Horses in My Dreams,” but it’s buried here.
BTW, no one’s jostling for #3. It’s Flying Lotus’ elegantly trippy Cosmagramma all the way.
As with every year, there are albums that are overrated and underpraised. Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is a perfect #11. It’s got fascinating angst and pathos that recalls another celebrity guilt rock record, Nirvana’s In Utero while squarely situating it as a black man’s experiences with fame. West’s bionic, prog-inflected production is the most potent it’s ever been. “All of the Lights” and “Monster” are among the year’s best songs, though credit goes solely to Nicki Minaj for the latter. But Jesus am I tired of reading ovations that cite the rapper’s Twitter feed. Yes, it provides insights into his process. And yes, it is noteworthy how West made so many tracks available to fans before the album was released (and maybe I’d bump it to #10 if “Chain Heavy” made the final cut). But it’s hardly album of the year or even a career best (in my opinion, he still hasn’t improved upon Late Registration).
Conversely, Spoon’s Transference is an ideal #9. People seem to hold one of America’s best rock bands in lower esteem this year for making an incomplete-sounding album. To my ears, this is an ingenious thing for a band so preoccupied with space and compositional austerity to do with a break-up record. I keep returning to tracks like “Is Love Forever” and “Nobody Gets Me,” yearning for a resolution I know I won’t find. I’d also mention that Marnie Stern‘s latest record (which would probably round out the top five) and Dessa‘s A Badly Broken Code (a peerless #4) were slept on. If they didn’t place higher, it’s only because they didn’t feel the need to announce their greatness and came on as slow burners. The same could be said of Seefeel‘s earthy dub on Faults (possibly #7) and Georgia Anne Muldrow, who had an incredibly prolific year that peaked with Kings Ballad (between #8-10). Psalm One’s Woman @ Work series on Bandcamp has me anticipating her next album. Oh, and since this was a year largely defined by albums about break-ups and shaky make-ups, Erykah Badu’s Second World War (#8) needs your attention.
There’s also lots of new stuff I liked this year that I hope ages with me. I’ve made peace with my misgivings about the limited shelf life of Sleigh Bells’ bubblegum through blown speakers, in part because Treats (#12-15 with some staying power) sounds amazing in the car, which is where all great pop records become immortal in the states. I’d like Best Coast more if leader Bethany Cosentino just went ahead and wrote a concept album about the munchies or her cat instead of devoting so many songs to boys. Sufjan Stevens’ indulgence bored me silly, as did Surfer Blood’s inability to rise past their influences and sound like themselves. Big Boi and Bun B’s ambitious releases deserve their accolades, but they should excite me more than they do. I have yet to fall in love with Robyn the way everyone else has, but Rihanna continues to be my girl.
I’m really into the new Anika record, which is tailor-made for insomniacs. However, I’m certain that a woman with a Teutonic monotone snarling her way through catatonia as producer Geoff Barrow quotes post-punk’s buzzsaw guitar noise holds limited appeal. I always welcome a new Gorillaz album, and Plastic Beach certainly delivered. Among others, I liked new efforts from Baths, El Guincho, Noveller, M.I.A., Grass Widow, Sharon Van Etten, Soft Healer, Beach House, Mountain Man, The Black Keys, Cee-Lo Green, Tobacco, Sky Larkin, Tame Impala, Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, Nite Jewel, Deerhunter, Vampire Weekend, Warpaint, Antony and the Johnsons, The Budos Band, and Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, even if the last two artists essentially release the same great album each time out. And even though I get a free cocktail if Merge wins the Album of the Year Grammy, Matador had a good year for me with Glasser, Esben and the Witch, and Perfume Genius, whose harrowing confessionals will hopefully find a larger audience (Sufjan fans, listen up).
(Note: don’t get me started on the Arcade Fire. I’m going to be mean and unfair, as I’ve been since I gave up on liking Funeral. Suffice it to say, I’m not fond of them and think I can tell you more about living in a Houston suburb than they can. But it won’t be a productive conversation because I’ll tear up my throat launching cheap shots about dressing for the Dust Bowl and wearing denim jackets to prove that you’re one with the working man. It’s not helpful, so I’ll be kind and say they’re fine at what they do but I want no part of it.)
Part of why I can’t settle on a #1 is because I don’t think it matters. I don’t think I need an album to define the year for me. It’s always seemed that selecting one was a fool’s errand. Steve Albini may very well be an insufferable jerk, but he’s absolutely right when he said “Clip your year-end column and put it away for 10 years. See if you don’t feel like an idiot when you reread it.” Last year, I chose Neko Case’s Middle Cyclone. While it helped situate my feelings for the year, it can’t hold a candle to her modern classic Fox Confessor Brings the Flood. But now I’m not even sure what the point is. This exercise doesn’t take into account all of the older music I finally prioritized this year. For me, 2010 is just as much defined by digging through Cocteau Twins and Throwing Muses records (4AD had a good year in all kinds of ways), as well as getting excited about Mary Timony, Jenny Toomey, and Carla Bozulich.
Furthermore, I’ve sometimes lost sight of why I write in this medium. Apart from being vulnerable to having my content scraped by sketchy sites and feeling like I should be doing something more politically important with my time, it can be a challenge to keep the routine of blogging from dulling the impact of your work. This may have more to do with a need to explore scarier forms of writing, like the kind that requires the involvement of a guitar or a storyboard. As a departure, I started a film blog series for Bitch last month. It’s been the right kind of challenging, though I’m not always certain I’m effectively communicating what I hope to accomplish. Music allows for abstraction where films require exposition, which sometimes makes me feel like I’m writing several variations on “I walked to the chair and sat down.” But I’m learning and it’s been a lot of fun.
I’ve also been fortunate this year to contribute content for Bitch, Tom Tom Magazine, Elevate Difference, I Fry Mine in Butter, and Scratched Vinyl, for which I’m grateful and hope I’ve done a service to those publications. In addition to music critics I love like Laina Dawes, Maura Johnston, and Audra Schroeder, I’m excited and challenged by writing from Amy Andronicus, Always More to Hear, Soul Ponies, Jenny Woolworth, Sadie Magazine, Women in Electronic Music, This Recording, and regularly follow podcasts like Cease to Exist and Off Chances.
I don’t mean to be self-effacing toward my efforts, as I’m proud of them. It’s been a good year and it’s healthy to be critical when you’re taking stock. Perhaps I’m responding to a lack of stability. This was a year of change. Some changes were seismic, like when several friends had babies. Others were gradual, like my partner launching a successful music e-zine and me delving into the world of freelance writing in earnest while taking a deep breath and learning to play the guitar. While some friends returned to Austin, others moved away this year and more are soon to follow in 2011. There’s even an infinitesimal chance I’ll be in that number, but the likelihood of uprooting and leaving the food carts and backyard parties of my adopted home is so small and too profound to consider, so I push it away.
But as I’ve thought on these feelings during the year, the lyrics from LCD Soundsystem’s “Home” resonate. Though detractors may note Murphy’s manipulating my generation with lines like “love and rock are fickle things” and “you’re afraid of what you need . . . if you weren’t, I don’t know what we’d talk about,” I’ve taken comfort in crooning them in my car. That’s the best of what pop music can accomplish–taking abstractions and making them applicable to life’s mundane realities, at times clarifying their importance. In whatever medium, I can’t wait for another year of writing about it.
Wristbands for SXSW went on sale today. Perhaps it comes as no surprise that the music festival is my favorite time of the year. I get no sleep, somehow go to work during the day, my feet hurt real bad, I smell like garbage soup come Sunday morning, and I usually end my nights with deliciously greasy food to soak up the beer. Absolute best. But since I know the proceedings can be a little overwhelming, I thought I’d offer some tips.
First, some petty bullshit.
-Calling it “South By” sounds like you’re trying to break into the industry. If you keep going, you’ll find that “South West” rolls right off the tongue. Okay, you can call it “South By.” Especially if we’re friends. I won’t correct you or make a face. But I will call it “South By South West.”
Now, some practical information regarding comfort.
-Relaxed dress code, ya’ll. Many follow the impulse to get styled out. And hey, power to you if you’re young and like playing with clothes. And if you decide that leather jodhpurs look great with your aunt’s vintage blue sequined tube top and later discover that you’re horribly wrong, Vice or Look At This Fucking Hipster might still take your picture and you can tell/text/Tweet your friends. I’m more casual, however. Hence why you haven’t seen me. The best you could hope for from me is being the brown-haired girl in a red hooded sweatshirt standing almost out of frame smirking at the girl wearing a tube top and jodhpurs.
-Keep in mind that you’ll be on your feet 98% of the time. You’ll be standing in lines or in front of bands or walking to places where you’ll be standing in lines or in front of bands. Some of these places will be outdoors where you’ll kick up dirt. It could rain. Some asshole might drop a full beer bottle or step on your toes. This is not the time to break out those pointy flats, gladiator sandals, platform pumps, peep-toe booties, jellies, or whatever fashionable shoe begs an audience. Think sneakers or, if you must be cool, flat-heeled boots. Also, since the 90s are back, maybe you still have a pair of floral print Doc Martens. If you have them in a size 5 and don’t want them anymore, give them to me.
-Free beer is great. If candy be dandy, then liquor be quicker. But you’re gonna need to drink lots of water. Dehydration is not the move.
-Remember that deliciously greasy late-night food I was talking about? Might I recommend Star Seeds or the vegan-friendly Kebabalicious for your cravings? Can’t go wrong with a treat from Mrs. Johnson’s either, especially since you can get a fresh glazed donut for free. I haven’t been to the 24 Diner yet, but it might be worth pursuing. If you wanna go the drive-thru route, What-A-Burger is Texas’s gift to tourists. I’m not so into Kerbey Lane or Magnolia Café, but they get it done. These are just some after-hours options. Entertaining the idea of what restaurant to eat at in Austin is a decision to step into a larger world. We’ve got good food locked down. If you’re looking for vegan fare, Lazy Smurf was good enough to provide a comprehensive list of restaurants. Happy eating!
-Sunscreen is a buddy. Earplugs are buddies too. But I always forget to bring them.
And now, the music.
-If you wanna gadabout and maybe see some shows, there’s lots of options. The festival offers tons of free, all-ages stuff put together by good people like Todd P. They’re even nice enough to offer those listings in neat little indexes you can fold in your back pocket. But if you want to see specific acts, particularly buzz artists covered by The Onion, Pitchfork, NPR, or others, you’re most likely gonna need a wristband. This is an international festival. Venues fill to capacity. If you can’t make this happen but you’re a student on spring break or can take off work, day shows and after-hours parties are your buddies. You can see a lot of up-and-coming acts that will be playing in the evening for little to no cover.
-Even if you can make it happen, take some time to enjoy the day shows. KVRX always delivers. TerrorbirdMedia put together great showcases. Yard Dog is for sweethearts. NPR is a buddy. GRCA is putting together a great day show.
-If you are coming in from out of town, please make sure you check out our local talent. Austin’s touted as the live music capital for a reason, as the city is lousy with awesome bands. One only needs to check out Matador’s Casual Victim Pile compilation for recent evidence (note: the title is an anagram for “live music capital” — har har). As a local, I tend not to see so many local bands during the evening because they’re around and I have to prioritize. But if I didn’t, I’d see as many Austin bands as I could. You should too.
-If you like an act, check to see what label they’re on. Chances are you might like another band on the roster. If you do, it’s probably worth checking out the label’s showcase. Some record labels I follow: Merge, DFA/Astralwerks, Warp, Kill Rock Stars, K, Stones Throw, anticon., XL, 4AD, Carpark, Kranky, and Sub Pop. They usually put on day shows as well, sometimes with other labels.
-If you feel like exploring new sounds or are intrigued by an act because of its name, do a little investigating. Might I suggest checking in with that thing called MySpace as a starting point? It has to be good for something.
-Don’t be afraid of bands you don’t know. Trust your friends and their tastes if you have evidence of compatibility, because you might discover something really special. In 2005, I remember going to the Church of the Friendly Ghost (RIP) to see a band because someone I knew thought I’d really like them. They were a British dance band and I don’t believe they had a deal in the states yet. They were a polite, brainy bunch who put on a great show and had lots of energy. They even did a charming cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Miracles.” Their name is Hot Chip and I haven’t been able to catch them since.
-Build a schedule. You can do it through SXSW’s Web site. Print it out or plug it into your phone. You’ll want it with you at all times.
-Stay connected. I posted this today, but acts will be added up to the last possible minute. Check SXSW’s Web site, Twitter, Facebook, listservs, various e-mags, etc. I will also update this post as more acts I like are announced.
-Finally, I’ll offer up lists of bands I’m planning to see so that setting a schedule can be a bit more manageable. This is by no means a comprehensive list, but rather my list. I’m not interested in being a tastemaker. I’ve taken the liberty of putting my selections in tiers. Tier 1 are acts you can only see during SXSW (last year’s example was Flower Travellin’ Band, a 60s-era Japanese psych-noise band). Tier 2 are the acts I’m really hoping to see. Tier 3 are the acts that have a lot of hype around them or staying power to them and are worth seeing. The Texas section is self-explanatory, and is all-killer, no filler. It’s a hierarchy, but it keeps things tidy. Also, I provided links to every artist so you can check ’em out.
Aa, Julianna Barwick, The Besnard Lakes, Best Coast, Black Dynamite Sound Orchestra, Black Milk, Bomba Estéreo, Breakestra, Califone, Carolina Chocolate Drops, Exene Cervenka, Daedelus, Kimya Dawson, Dengue Fever, Dosh, Damaged Good$, Dam Funk, The Entrance Band, Explode Into Colors, Fashawn, Flying Lotus, GZA, Invincible, Jean Grae, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, Les Savy Fav, Liars, Lyrics Born, Madlib, Major Lazer (their debut album didn’t meet my lofty expectations, but they should be fun in a live setting), Mayer Hawthorne and the County, Memory Tapes, MEN, Mountain Man, Murs, 9th Wonder, Peanut Butter Wolf, Jemina Pearl, People Under the Stairs, Phantogram, Pharoahe Monch, Psalm One, Smoosh, Themselves, Tobacco, Toro Y Moi, Total Abuse, Viv Albertine, The Walkmen, Wye Oak, The xx, YACHT.
Matias Aguayo, Andrew WK, Blue Scholars, BO-PEEP, Sarah Borges and the Broken Singles, Bowerbirds, Kría Brekkan, Broken Bells, Broken Social Scene, Buckshot, !!!, Class Actress, Cocktail Slippers, Crystal Antlers, Drawlings, The Ettes, 4th Pyramid, The Fresh & Onlys, General Elektriks, Golden Triangle, Ha Ha Tonka, Hole (if it happens), Horse Feathers, Hunx and his Punx, jj, Kid Sister, KIT, Solange Knowles, Sondre Lerche, Thurston Moore, Neon Indian, Nappy Roots, No Age, Denitia Odigie, Peelander-Z, Pocahaunted, Pomegranates, Ra Ra Riot, The Raveonettes, Rhymefest, The Ruby Suns, Rye Rye, School Of Seven Bells, She & Him, Slum Village, Surfer Blood, Thee Oh Sees, Titus Andronicus, Tyvek, Uffie, The Very Best, Visqueen, Washed Out, Wale, Warpaint, The Watson Twins, Yip-Yip, Jonneine Zapata, Zs.
Balmorhea, Best Fwends, Scott H. Biram, The Carrots, Dikes of Holland, Daniel Francis Doyle, Follow That Bird, Girl in a Coma, Paradise Titty, Pink Nasty, RATKING, Spoon (sorta local, though a big-tent act; they get a pass because Transference is my favorite album of 2010 thus far), The Strange Boys, T Bird and the Breaks, Ume, When Dinosaurs Ruled The Earth, Wine and Revolution, Woven Bones, White Ghost Shivers, YellowFever.
Have fun! See you around town!