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20/10 Best Videos

In music on December 16, 2010 at 9:51 pm

In no particular order, some of the music videos I enjoyed this year (click on pics for links):

Benoit Pioulard // “A Coin on the Tongue” – In which a new dance style is invented: the drunken convict.


Twin Sister // “All around and away we go” – In which jazz hands are returned to their proper usage: 80’s-style post-disco electronica.


The Smith Westerns // “Western” – In which downing Slurpees suddenly looks like a not only palatable, but perfect, way to spend a Friday night.


Perfume Genius // “Lookout lookout” – In which the camera breaks up with its subject, and gets the silent treatment for the remainder of the video.

The Very Best // “Warm Heart of Africa” – In which Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend proves that white men should simply not try to dance…ever—and you can never have too many clips of water buffalo in a single video.

Broken Social Scene // “Meet me in the basement” – In which TV is revealed as a perpetual apocalypse countdown extravaganza.

The Black Keys // “Tighten Up” – In which I realize that half a donut could’ve made my grade school interactions with girls a lot less awkward.


These New Puritans // “Attack Music” – In which bodies seem to defy time and basic physics.

Kanye West // “Runaway” – In which ballet simultaneously remains the purest form of dance and subverts its own suffocating formalities. (start at 13:46, the great stuff is at 20:00)


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.

20/10 Best Albums, 10-5

In music on December 6, 2010 at 10:24 pm

The countdown continues. Today: Best albums 10-5; tomorrow, 4-1. I’m presenting these in twos—album pairs that, like actual couples, can be mirror images of each-other or completely different, but always seem to reveal, when presented together, something new about the individuals.

10. / 9. Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” / Das Racist’s Sit Down, Man – DR: “Call me Dwight Shrute the way I eat beets(beats)!” KW: “Choke a Southpark writer with a fish stick.” While most of this year’s hip hop tended towards the cinematic, the two best rap albums of 2010 drew their format from the small screen. Through this lens, West’s Fantasy is like a HBO miniseries—dripping with elaborate pop production (“All of the lights”, but not scared to experiment (“Monster”);  filled with a star-studded cast, but inevitably carried by a single, and singular, performance (ie, Mr. West). Sit Down, Man adapts the successful “Daily Show” model of pop-culture/political skewering (“Return to Innocence”) and self-deprecating humor (“Hahahahaha J/K?”). And these albums both point to and (importantly) question a creativity-diluting meta-cultural shift: the line between the internet and TV has been irrevocably blurred—when it’s all one continuous meme, what happens to originality? Fantasy and Sit Down, Man set out (and succeed) to prove that music need not follow in the same direction.

8./ 7. Caribou’s Swim / James Blake’s CMYK & Klavierwerke EPs – How do you create music like this? The answer might be easier for Swim, the latest from Dan Snaith’s ever-evolving group. On tracks like “Bowls” and “Sun,” you can hear the Caribou frontman’s mathematician brain (dude has a PhD) at work—even as melodies spiral to unexpected places and the intricacy of the the beats builds, there seems to be a higher order to it all. Snaith corralls the dark and emotional and chaotic, and—amazingly—channels this energy into something downright danceable. James Blake, the young british producer, is a harder nut to crack. His music seems beamed down through multiple radio stations, scrambled like a kid with ADHD had a hand on the tuner, with gaps and static filling the spaces between gorgeous riffs and haunting dub-step. “I don’t know,” an ethereal voice sings in the beautiful Klavierwerke standout “I only know (what I know now)”—and maybe that’s the point of Blake’s two brilliant debut EPs: these fragmented and propulsive beats, these other-worldly melodies, suggest that there’s always more beauty in potentiality, and perhaps it’s the artist’s job to suspend our understanding of a fully-formed musical idea.

6. / 5. Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs / LCD Soundsystem’s This is Happening – Both of these bands last released albums in 2007, and their respective efforts (Neon Bible, Sound of Silver), while often enjoyable, seemed a little too constructed—they sounded afraid of having a single note out of key, or single lyric not witty or referential enough.  Their shared strategy for The ‘Burbs and This is… could be described as: put a mic in a room and jam out. These are not mini best-of albums—both drag a bit on their second halves, but pull out superb set closers.  What’s revelatory about these veteran bands’ 2010 albums is that James Murphy & Co, as well as the Win Butler Nonet, have finally learned how to take some of the songwriting weight off their frontmen. The result is two of the best group efforts of the year, and two unique treatises on how to reinvigorate (w/o reinventing) a band’s sound.

Weekend Reading

In music on December 5, 2010 at 7:25 pm

Do you see your work as a critique of white America? Suri: I think it is solely a critique of John Boehner. As our bandmate Ashok Kondabolu would say, John Boehner represents the utmost in white demonry.

Keeping with the theme of the week, here’s the Times Magazine interview with the hilarious rap group Das Racist.

20/10 Best Songs, 5-1

In music on December 4, 2010 at 7:46 pm

5. Crystal Castles / “Suffocation” – The lyrics are bleak, the bass so distorted that it grates, and everything about the song is busy and LOUD—but “Suffocation” is still probably the best electronic track released this year. Why? Because it’s all-consuming: by the third big crescendo of this Crystal Castles II stand-out, you can’t hear yourself think. This is not your normal dancehall dull throb or brain-numbing pulse—it’s more like the electric sensation of being able to feel every peripheral nerve fire at the same time. It’s anticipatory. And its subsequent release is abrupt and strangely beautiful.





4. Deerhunter / “Revival” –  I would probably start going to church again if every Spiritual, like Deerhunter’s “Revival,” could blend genres and embrace the moral ambiguity (“You won’t regret / if you choose to believe it”) and uncertainty (“All these darkened hallways”) that comes with giving yourself completely to something as fragile as faith. The song lasts just over two minutes, but there’s so many ideas and musical spaces to explore here: “Revival” is in constant flux—a propulsive and persistent representation of the aphorism, it is always easier to hold a “belief” than “to believe.”




3. Joanna Newsom / “Good Intentions Paving Company” – Good god, this song is amazing. The initial track leaked prior to the release of Newsom’s Have One on Me, “Good Intentions” was a stunner from the first listen. Much of Newsom’s work is intentionally maximalist, packing brilliant countermelodies and string embellishments into every nook and cranny of the central theme (played on piano or harp). But “Good Intentions is simple and direct in all the right ways; various instruments pass in and out of the mix, but the song’s jaunty pulse remains constant. “In the quiet hour / i feel like i see everything,” Newsom sings as this travelling song pulls over to the side of the road to soak in all the tiny flashes of beauty that they passed miles back.




2. Robyn / “Hang With Me” – Is this pop? You’re allowed to write sensitive and emotive lyrics without overdoing it? You can sing these lyrics without unnecessary flourishes and minimal over-dubbing? You can put all of that over a 2-step beat and intelligent synth lines? This is way too smart for Americans…This all sounds vaguely socialist…There must be a Swede behind such a creation. Robyn put together an insane collection (Body Talk) of some of the best top-40-worthy tracks this year, but “Hang with Me,” possibly the greatest “I-think-it’s-probably-better-if-we’re-just-friends” song ever created, tops them all—a distillation of all that’s right with her idea of what pop should sound like.

1. The Radio Dept. / “Heaven’s On Fire” – There were more intricately composed tracks released in 2010. There were a lot more original and witty lyrics written. There were better beats and better bass lines. But no song returned optimism and genuine fun to music quite like The Radio Dept.’s “Heaven’s on Fire.” It’s as infectious and unabashedly upbeat as a small child’s joy, and it’s a song that iTunes says I played 71—scratch that, 72—times this year. I’m not embarrassed.

20/10 Best Songs, 10-6

In music on December 3, 2010 at 8:51 pm

I’m counting down my personal favorite 20 songs and 10 albums of 2010. If they’re not your cup of tea, that’s completely okay—actually it’s a good thing: it means you’re not an insufferable music snob like me. But give them a spin. Today: songs 10-6, Tomorrow: 5-1, Monday/Tues: Best Albums.

10. Women / “Eyesore” – Something is off—the guitars ring a little too sharp and bright, the vocals drown under twin telecasters’ clangs—and then, around the 4 minute mark, it’s not: the formula doesn’t change in “Eyesore”, it just seems, suddenly, that the brashness and fuck-it confidence that Women display here (they play the same riff for the last 3 minutes of this album closer) is the perfect antidote for the timidity of other acts (Wavves, etc) that hide their weak-sauce licks behind lo-fi production. “Eyesore” isn’t “retro,”  it’s Classic, and Women know it.

9. Vampire Weekend / “Diplomat’s Son” – Critics do VW a disservice by giving them the label of a “Love ’em or Hate ’em” band—it suggests that their records are a homogenous collection of pretty, preppy pop, when there are more genre experiments unfolding across an album (or, in the case of “Diplomat’s Son,” a single track) like Contra than a month’s worth of other top 40 bands. When this song shifts into it’s slow-as-molasses midsection, tiny flourishes of synth strings and bouncing reggae bass and plucked piano chords fill every gap of the speaker channels. Ezra Koenig & co. don’t do “space” or “silence”: that would be too easy. Instead, layer after layer of sounds and samples are laid down on top of one another (the story the lyrics tell, in which a memory repeats itself with each iteration adding new embellishments, reflects this structure) until the riff that VW started with is forgotten, and the tucked away patterns of “Diplomat’s Son” continue to unfurl even as the song stops.

8. A Sunny Day In Glasgow / “100/0 (Snowdays Forever)” –  I would ruin this beauty with analysis. I don’t think I care that I can’t make out a word they sing either.

7. Spoon / “Who Makes your Money” –  This is the magic Spoon pulls off on track after track: each individual part maintains uniform tempo, dynamics, etc.—but when other instruments drop out of the mix, the guitars or bass or kit seem completely changed, even when they’ve kept the same pace and rhythm. (Tah-Dah!) But “Who Makes Your Money” is more than a seminar on framing a melody or giving a beat context; the song, signaled by Britt Daniel’s clipped and cryptic vocals, is a devastating example of what happens when something beautiful ends too soon. When the snare breaks the trance of “Money”‘s superb middle section, it’s an expected return to reality (like the conclusion of a magician’s trick), but you still hurt and wish that what you saw/heard in between was truly magic.

6.  Kanye West / “Monster” (ft. every Hip-Hop star alive plus the Bon Iver Dude) – Our president could learn something about audacity from Mr. West. Who else would’ve used the phrase “have you ever had sex with a pharaoh? / put the pussy in the sarcophagus,” over this ridiculously weird (but deliriously funky) beat, while piping in an indie star’s silky vocals on the coda? So what if Jay-Z’s verse is a bit lame—it’s more than made up for by Nicki Minaj’s schizo lines about “eating brains” and “dick-ass whiplash” (did I actually hear that!?!) Hip Hop lost its shock factor a long time ago—but this is the sound of ‘Ye trying to bring it back.

20/10 (Best Songs 15-11)

In music on December 2, 2010 at 8:22 pm

15. How to Dress Well / “Decisions” – Musically, this slow jam has all the characteristics of a mid-nineties R Kelly serenade: a minimal, but insistent, kick and snare; string falls and swells; silky vocals. But HTDW’s lyrics are almost indecipherable; it’s soul music heard through a closed bedroom door. It’s kind of genius—leaving in all the R&B swoons, but eschewing the obligatory misogyny of  R Kelly’s usual jams, “Decisions” oozes seduction instead of sleaze.

14. Beach House / “Walk in the Park” – This Baltimore duo’s arithmetic for success never gets old to me: drum machine + synth organ + finger-slide guitar + smokey vocals is always >> than the sum of the individual parts. It might not hit you initially, but by the coda of “Walk in the Park”—a spurned lover’s lament that turns into a reluctant, but releasing revelation that “more” would’ve never been enough—you realize that two (!) people have crafted something more whole, and wholly beautiful, than even the best 5-piece bands out there.

13. Yeasayer / “O.N.E” – This song is ridiculously fun. If you aren’t doing the robot by the 4:16 mark, you have no soul. A lot of bands tried to fill the glitter-covered shoes of Michael Jackson this year, but no one embraced the weirdness of MJ’s pop quite like Yeasayer.

12. Liars / “Proud Evolution” –  Sisterworld, from which this track is pulled, seems like a meditation on insomnia—it sounds like a journey through a sleepless night, and you emerge from its 11 tracks with weary but wide eyes. Most songs are shot through with hot anger, but “Proud Evolution,” while retaining the uneasiness of its album-mates, seems to embrace the buzzing, shifting energy of that other, streetlamp-lit world we miss out on when we hit the pillow.

11. Sufjan Stevens / “Djohariah” – I admit it: I usually skip the first 9 minutes of this 17 minute Soof-fest. One can only take so much spastic, seemingly atonal guitar solos. But at the 11:00 mark, when trombones and snare drums trade off 16th notes, the bass loops through octave-jumping countermelodies, and a full choir chants the title character’s name, the listener is reminded that no one in contemporary pop music has the compositional chops of Mr. Stevens. And the final five minutes, in all their terrifyingly personal and undeniably gorgeous glory, represents the most heartfelt tribute to a sister since, well, Soof’s “Sister.”

**10-6 tomorrow.

20/10 (Best songs, 20-16)

In music on December 1, 2010 at 9:58 pm

(It’s December, which means I get to make Best-of Lists. For music, I’m listing 20 songs and 10 albums—get it—that I selfishly blasted through my headphones for 12 months and now would like to share with the rest of the world.)

Best Songs

20. The Tallest Man on Earth / “The Wild Hunt” – The octave jumps in the chorus of “The Wild Hunt” are surprising and beautiful—the musical equivalent of waking up to 3 inches of snow on your window sill.

19. Matthew Dear / “Little People (Black City)” – Mr. Dear is from Detroit, and while this club funk marathon doesn’t sound much like the Temptations or the Jackson 5, it carries on the Motown tradition of a song’s subtle changes in tempo or rhythm sounding revelatory even on the 100th listen.

18. Four Tet / “Love Cry” – This is a exercise in disorientation—after what seems like an eternity of echoing synths, a snare finally kicks in at about the minute mark, but can’t quite catch up with the shifting pulses of electronic fuzz. Tension (and downright stupendous release) doesn’t come in the form of a drawn out crescendo here—it’s as simple as a beat trying to give disorder a living, funky pulse.

17. Delorean / “Stay Close” – Delorean’s single, the leading track from the Spaniards’ debut album, was my summer jam. Revisiting it now, nothing sounds stale or overwrought. It’s still shimmery, sugary goodness.

16. Antony & the Johnsons / “Fletta” (ft. Bjork) – There are three unique instruments working together here: Antony’s alternately jaunty and somber piano, Antony’s voice, and whatever otherworldly thing it is that comes out of Bjork’s mouth. Coming from an exuberantly layered and orchestrated album, “Fletta” stands out because of the huge spectrum of sounds emerging from its minimalist structure. It helps that the song is knock-you-over lovely, too.

**15 – 11 Tomorrow.


In music on November 22, 2010 at 7:14 pm

New Cut Copy.

On Repeat

In music on November 17, 2010 at 11:15 pm