the important and the not-so-important, horribly conflated.

20/10: Best Albums, 4-1

In music on December 7, 2010 at 9:23 pm

4. / 3. These New Puritans’ Hidden / Deerhunter’s Halcyon Digest – The calling card of these two bands is Eccentricity—TNP reimagines punk and grime with clarinet solos (“Canticle”), waves of trombone(“5”), and downright martial dancehall beats (“we want war”); Deerhunter’s frontman wears floral print dresses.  But with their 2010 releases, these imaginative quartets used their eccentricity in different ways: Halcyon Digest is bookended by two songs that could not be more disparate—“Earthquake,” the opening track, is full of clipped melodies, static, and cryptic lyrics; “He would’ve laughed” closes Deerhunter’s record with a kaleidoscoping guitar lines and a repeated, clear, and emotive question, “Where did your friends go?” In between, Digest is, on the suface, conventional. They let static and distortion creep in around the edges of hits like “Revival” and “Helicopter,” but the popular success of Digest suggests that Bradford Cox & Co have realized that they don’t have to create new genres to show that something unique and vital can still be crafted under Rock’s big tent. Hidden is a different story. It’s sprawling and confrontational and skeptical of all things conventional. It’s also flawed—“Orion” cranks up the dramatics to Jerry Bruckheimer levels, with grating effects; the beautiful sections of “Where Corals Lie” are disrupted by space-invader synths. But it was unbelievably refreshing for a band to interrogate the accepted aesthetics of contemporary music and push outward towards a sound that might exist, in 2010, only as an idea.

2. / 1. Joanna Newsom’s Have One on Me / Owen Pallett’s Heartland – What happens to the idea of self when you create something through someone else’s voice? On Have One on Me, Joanna Newsom is the woman of 1000 voices—channeling ancient princesses (the title track), medieval songstresses (“Kingfisher”), and, to a heartbreaking effect, a past version of herself (“Does Not Suffice”). We see in the album’s ever-shifting melodies, time signatures, keys, a representation of the transience of a single version of the past—and a reminder of the ways memory both strengthens and corrupts the very real relationships that form our concept of self. Newsom makes you wait for the revelatory moments of beauty on Have One on Me, but is kind enough to weave echoes of these melodies throughout the album’s epic 18 tracks—little reminders of a past still not understood.

The 12 songs of Owen Pallett’s Heartland speak to the listener in the first person—but the “I” is not Owen Pallett, per se: Our narrator is a character created by the man (Owen) soundtracking his life (with the most intricate and evocative pop compositions of the year). And this “I” is not content with Owen speaking through him or for him: He acts out (violently—an iron spike is plunged into an eye at one point) against the other characters that populate Heartland, and seeks consolation in the untouchable chaos and impregnable order of nature:  “Whizzing off the clifftop, / listening for the splatter 30 floors below,” he sings in the gorgeous “Tryst with Mephistopheles.” It all adds up to the question: Do our creations—our songs, pictures, stories—seize something like self-agency when we let them populate someone else’s mind? Owen Pallett’s excellent record provides the best argument for letting these alternate personas, these created voices, run free: they may just surprise their creators.

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