2010! Music! Typing! It’s time for the year in review in music. I hope everyone’s 2010 was the best, and that you’re getting to spend the holidays with your loved ones.

Here’s how it works: I’ve developed a playlist of my favorite songs from the year, and I’ll work through the playlist and discuss the year’s music and other assorted nonsense. I’ve divided this discussion into two posts because it’s ridiculously long.

Honestly, 2010 was not the best of the years in music. Last year, I made a top 40 list of my favorite albums, and I had to leave some pretty good stuff off. This year I’d be hard pressed to name 20 albums I liked. Some years are like that.

Still, I came up with a playlist of songs I like, and I hope you enjoy it:

1. “Holiday” by Vampire Weekend

So, here’s my deal with Vampire Weekend. I mean, I kind of love them, but I kind of hate them, too. I’ll discuss the hatred first, because this is a blog, and the national motto of Blogsylvania is “why put off hating until tomorrow that which you can hate today?” or maybe “all the news that’s fit to hate” or something.

Vampire Weekend opens their latest album Contra with a song called “Horchata” and it’s about horchata, which is a beverage that is apparently so good that “you’d still enjoy it with your foot on Masada.” (Actual lyric. Also, unacceptable, Vampire Weekend. You would not enjoy any beverage while you were committing mass suicide to avoid surrendering to the Roman Empire. Try harder, Vampire Weekend.)

“No valet parking for my Land Rover? You must be joking.”

Anyway, my beef with “Horchata” is not really the egregious lyric about Masada; it’s something else. Look, I’m not the expert on alcoholic drinks, and maybe all of you drank horchata in your sippy cups and have known what it is your whole life, but, prior to hearing the song, I had never heard of the stuff. And that’s fine, I can learn things; I have access to google, but, they did the same thing on their first album (what is a Mansard roof, anyway?), and I always feel like I’m being patronized when I listen to them. Like they’re sitting around drinking their horchata with the Winkelvoss twins and looking at their Mansard roofs and smirking to themselves about how they are the smartest, Ivy-Leaguiest guys ever, and their fans are a bunch of poor schleps that barely got accepted to Dartmouth* and probably don’t even have a special Lexus that they only drive on weekends or something.

No offense Dartmouth. I’m sure your admissions standards are super duper. I just needed a random school that sounded like it might be a “lower tier Ivy League school,” as if that’s a thing.

So, that’s it. They just seem kind of like smug Ivy League guys that might need to be punched in their Ivy League faces.

But . . . I kind of love them, too, because they make really great, fun music with a refined sense of melody, and some clever lyrics mixed in with the smugness. “Horchata” is, on the whole, a great song: wonderfully melodic, rhythmically creative, and it nicely captures the moment when a taste or scent or sound can suddenly plunge you back into “a feeling you thought you’d forgotten.”

Ultimately, I’ve decided the good outweighs the bad with Vampire Weekend. Musicians are like people after all (well, they are people after all), and all of us are a mixed bag. Sometimes the bad is too egregious to overlook, but, as a general rule, I think it’s good policy to focus on, and enjoy, the good in all people, even musicians, as much a possible.

Oh yeah, and “Holiday” is a totally sweet song.

2. “Swim” by Surfer Blood

Jaws’ favorite band of 2010. There’s something about the opening of this song that is galvanizing. Just makes you stand up and pay attention.

Surfer Blood wins my Roy Oswalt Rookie of the Year award*, awarded annually to the best new artist on the scene. Others receiving votes (in no particular order): Best Coast, Phantogram, Sleigh Bells, Justin Bieber (just kidding; Biebs has been around at least a year and half).

*I named this award in honor of Roy Oswalt, who had a historically great rookie season in 2001, but made the mistake of being a rookie the same year as Albert Pujols. And now he’s not even the best right-handed pitcher named Roy on his own team. Oh, and his name is Roy. The guy deserves a break. I figure he at least deserves to have a nonsense blog award named after him. 3. “Is Love Forever?” by Spoon

You remember the Lostprophets? They had an alternative radio hit called “Last Train Home” in the early naughties (2000-2010: the naughties). Anyway, they sounded for all the world like they were from New Jersey or something – blue collar sound, straightforward rock, no accents — but they were actually from Wales.

Spoon is kind of the opposite of that. They’re from Austin, but they sound like someone cloned the Kinks during the 60’s and kept them in cryogenic freezing until the indie rock era. Spoon has a very sophisticated, sexy, British sound, and Britt Daniels’ voice even sounds to me like it has a slight British inflection to it.

“Pint of bitters, love, if you please.”

Spoon reminds me of Death Cab for Cutie in that they are reliably excellent, though they never really seem to ascend to album-of-the-year heights. Transference, their release from 2010, follows this mold: a high quality album, but not a serious contender for best of the year.

4. “Lake Superior” by Jason Collett

Props to J. Middlekauff for turning me on to this album (but not otherwise turning me on: he can save that for Mrs. Middlekauff). Jason Collett is one of the cast of thousands who have been a member of Canadian indie supergroup Broken Social Scene. Seriously, I think Article V of the Canadian Constitution guarantees any “qualified indie rocker” membership of not less than one year in Broken Social Scene. Of course, there’s been a lot of litigation as to who is a “qualified indie rocker” — people get pretty uptight about fundamental rights like that.

Collett’s Rat a Tat Tat, which this song comes from, is a very solid album; it kind of has an Exile on Main Street-style ragged sexiness to it. Of course, this is a little bit like saying someone has eyes that look like Sofia Loren’s. I mean, that person obviously doesn’t look as good as Sofia Loren, and Jason Collett ain’t Mick Jagger, but, I’m just saying it’s a nice album.

5. “Anyone’s Ghost” by The National

It took me a while to get into The National. Matt Berninger’s baritone is very unusual, but, once you grow accustomed to it, you realize it’s rich and expressive and pretty great. Likewise, The National’s lyrics can be inscrutable on first listen, but after a while, they burrow into your subconscious and start to lay eggs which hatch into delicate butterflies of heartbreaking beauty, desperation, and tragedy. And sometimes their lyrics are just great:

“I owe money on the money on the money I owe.” (from “Bloodbuzz, Ohio.”)
“You said it was not inside my heart, it was.
You said it should tear a kid apart, it does.” (“Anyone’s Ghost”)

And their music is always great. Tasteful. Restrained. Playing for the slow build rather than the quick, cheap payoff.

I’ve always been a fan of the melancholy in music. I’m not depressed or hopeless or anything, but I find something incredibly beautiful about songs in a minor key about lost love or dreams deferred or disappointment or some other such thing. This is one of the miraculous things about art, that it allows us to take the ugly, painful things in life like sorrow and anger and transform them into something beautiful and transcendent.

6. “Goaltime Exposure” by Land of Talk

Last year I mentioned that I thought Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs was the best female rock singer going. I still feel pretty comfortable with that statement, but I was struck again this year by just how many great female lead vocalists are around. Here’s my quick and dirty top ten:

  1. Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Sounds a lot like the Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde. She has the most versatility of these great singers; she can deliver a sexy purr, a call to arms, or a cry of desperation with equal skill.
  2. Neko Case of The New Pornographers – Even after repeated listenings, the tone of Neko’s voice – like a clear, resonant bell – continues to be overwhelming.
  3. Norah Jones of herself – I still haven’t gotten over my Norah crush. For me, she is still the proverbial singer that could sing the phone book and I’d listen to it.
  4. Karen Bergquist of Over the Rhine – She brings as much conviction to her songs as anyone. Listen to her sing “I Want You To Be My Love,” and you’ll see (hear) what I mean.
  5. Rachael Yamagata of herself – Expressive, deep, rich alto.
  6. Chan Marshall of Cat Power – Her distinctive, breathy deliver may be too good, since it seems that everyone wants to use her voice to sell something.
  7. Elizabeth Powell of Land of Talk – The inspiration for this list. Seems to be growing as a vocalist and an artist on her third album.
  8. Leslie Feist of Feist (no duh) — I mean, have you heard “Mushaboom”? What more do you need?
  9. Fiona Apple of herself – Assuming she’s still alive. Has anyone seen Fiona? I’m worried about Fiona, you guys. My friend Brooke pointed out that, if Fiona Apple had a son and he married Chris Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow’s daughter, her married name would be Apple Apple.
  10. Erica Wennerstrom of Heartless Bastards – Her voice is a little strange – mannish, actually, but, my word, it’s hard to find a more compelling vocal than the one she delivers on “The Mountain.”
Water would go to this concert.
7. “Crash Years” by The New Pornographers

Speaking of Neko . . .

I’ve always thought that albums are kind of like people: some you like, some you respect, some you think are more or less garbage. It’s good to be around people you respect and admire. They push you to kick the inertia monster in the teeth and try to get something done. But sometimes you just want to relax with a friend who you don’t have to impress and who likes you just the way you are.

When I first hear an album from The New Pornographers, it’s always like meeting up with that friend you don’t have to impress. It’s nice. It’s comfortable. You pretty much know what to expect. They’re not necessarily going to challenge you, but you’re going to have a good time with them, and – the sign of a true friend – you won’t feel bad about what you did the next day.

Look, you don’t always want to listen to the latest cutting-edge stuff. The avant garde can be exhausting. Kind of like with people, sometimes you don’t want someone pushing you to be your best or some other such obnoxious thing, but you just want to hang out and enjoy yourself. The New Pornographers are the perfect band for that.

Speaking of which (and by which, I mean hanging out with fascinating people who are also your best friends and are totally excited to see you), there’s a moment at the end of “Crash Years” where I remember thinking, “this song is so great, it’s just too bad that A.C. Newman doesn’t get to sing any,” and, then, next thing you know, A.C.’s voice joins in during the coda! The perfect gift from your old friend, TNP.

8. “Revival” by Deerhunter

Um . . . so . . . yeah. This is a pretty great song. It’s got some mandolin in it, I think . . . . maybe some handclaps . . . just sounds really good. I thought Deerhunter’s last album was kind of a Dark Side of the Moon for the indie crowd. This album is not. But still good. (Racking brain for joke comparing the band to the movie The Deer Hunter . . . nothing).

Bob Dylan Tangent

Since I have nothing to say about Deerhunter (sorry Deerhunter: you guys are still great!), let’s talk about Bob Dylan. I’ve been putting off tackling Bob Dylan for years. I always felt bad about this because, clearly, Bob Dylan is essential for any rock music audiophile, but his catalog is so vast, and I’ve always been too intimidated to try to get a handle on him (Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen are kind of the same way for me). Yet I’ve always been intrigued by Dylan as well: How exactly does a guy with that singing voice become a rock star? It never really made sense to me.

Well, I got inspired to finally do it after watching the Dylan biopic I’m Not There. That movie . . . I mean, it was good, but I got to the end of it and felt like I had no idea who Bob Dylan was. I couldn’t really tell how much was actual biography and how much was “interpretation.” I’m sure that was the point: to make some sort of postmodern, “you can’t really know anyone anyway” sort of statement. Still, regardless of whether the movie’s ambiguity was intentional or not, it did inspire me to do some research on Dylan and, finally, to jump into his catalog.

I started with The Freewheeling Bob Dylan, worked my way through the immortal Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde, and Blood on the Tracks, and even tackled a couple of his Christian albums: A Slow Train Coming, and Oh, Mercy.

So, Bob Dylan’s music is really great stuff! I mean, really just so good! I’m sure Bob Dylan and the universe of music critics can sleep a lot easier now knowing that I agree with them.
“Whew! I was really worried that Water wouldn’t like Bob Dylan” — No one, 2010.

I’m obviously not going to have a lot new to stay about Bob Dylan, but two things struck me after listening to his music:

First, his band was just so good. His songwriting rightly gets most of the attention, but, wow, his band was incredibly solid. They just created the perfect setting for his songs: compositions that are loose yet spot on at the same time, giving Dylan the freedom to ramble along for five, eight, twelve minutes telling his stories. One little detail I noticed is the snare hit at the beginning of “Like a Rolling Stone.” We’ve all heard “Like a Rolling Stone” a quarter of a million times, but I had never noticed that snare. It’s such a simple thing, but it really says, “pay attention to this,” and, of course, Dylan rewards the listener for his attention. I guess Dylan’s band is called “The Band,” after all, so their excellence shouldn’t have been a surprise to me. But it was.

Second, Bob Dylan was (is?) kind of a jerk. He really, really likes to tell people off. I mean, some of his songs are like Dr. Dre taking a shot at Easy E back in the day. Along with “Like a Rolling Stone,” you have “The Ballad of a Thin Man,” and, particularly, “Idiot Wind.” Check out this refrain:

Idiot wind
Blowing every time you move your mouth
Blowing down the backroads headed south
Idiot wind blowing every time you move your teeth
You’re an idiot babe
It’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe.

Holy cow! It’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe! Um, that is another human being you are eviscerating in song, Bob Dylan! And this song is (at least in part) about someone that he used to have a relationship with?! You kiss your mom with that mouth, Bob Dylan? (Actually probably not after that song you wrote about her.) What a jerk! Pretty much the jerkiest!

9. “Rococo” by Arcade Fire

I tipped my hand on this in a previous post, but The Suburbs is my album of the year. I think it’s just the best. In fact, I think it’s one of the four best albums of the last 25 years. When my grandkids text me to ask me what life was like in 2010, I’ll text back to them “get off my lawn” (you know, on account of me being 100 years old and the dementia and all). But, assuming I am having a moment of lucidity, I will just beam the mp8 for The Suburbs directly into their brains through their virtual reality goggles or whatever and watch as their minds are blowed.

So, what’s so great about The Suburbs? I have an entire blog post in mind about this, but, here are a few thoughts:

First, it’s an album with some stakes. What do I mean by that? Well, so many contemporary albums address an issue or topic (if at all) from an ironic distance, as if to say, “isn’t it cute that people really care about things like [insert topic to be mocked here]? Aren’t we the best for being too smart and sophisticated for all that?” This is nauseating. Arcade Fire, to their credit, have the stones to actually, you know, believe in things, and have created an album through which they try to say something about the world we live in without irony or pretense. This is honest, engaging, and compelling, and part of the reason The Suburbs is my album of the year.

But it’s not enough to swing for the fences if you’re just going to strike out. Fortunately, The Suburbs is a three-run homer of an album in the bottom of the musical ninth with the count three flats and two sharps (yuck, sorry. I will now proceed to bang my head against the table like Dobby the word elf). It artistically and elegantly examines the issues of security vs. independence, finding your own identity while maintaining relationships, and authenticity vs. superficiality. Each of these are vital issues for our generation as we shape our identity and decide how we are going to relate to and affect the world.

Finally, The Suburbs is an album. It’s not just a loose collection of songs that happen to be performed by the same group of people. All of the themes discussed above can be found in opener “The Suburbs,” which acts as an overture, introducing themes which will be examined more thoroughly throughout the rest of the album. This thematic unity ties the album together into a cohesive artistic expression.

I really do want to do a full post on my love for The Suburbs, so I’ll leave it at that, but, everybody, check it out if you haven’t yet.

Here’s my top fifteen albums of 2010:

  1. Arcade Fire – The Suburbs
  2. The National – High Violet
  3. Janelle Monae – The ArchAndroid
  4. Vampire Weekend – Contra
  5. Sufjan Stevens – The Age of Adz
  6. Deerhunter – Halcyon Digest
  7. Land of Talk – Cloak and Cipher
  8. Yeasayer – ODD BLOOD
  9. Surfer Blood – Astro Coast
  10. Josh Ritter – So Runs the World Away
  11. LCD Soundystem – This Is Happening
  12. Sleigh Bells – Treats
  13. Spoon – Transference
  14. The Gaslight Anthem – American Slang
  15. The New Pornographers – Together
10. “I Can Change” by LCD Soundsystem James Murphy and the Mystery Machine

After some initial resistance, I’ve pretty much made my peace with electronic music. It probably won’t ever be my favorite. I think I will always find the sound of an electric guitar more compelling than the sound of electronic bloops and bleeps. But my last two albums of the year, Merriweather Post Pavillion and Dear Science, were pretty heavily electronic, so I am okay with electronic music.

So, what is this about the “mystery machine” you ask? Hang with me for a second. Over the years, Leaven and I have developed what might be called the “Mystery Machine Theory,” which states, essentially, that at no point in your song should a musician include something that could be a substantial part of the soundtrack of one of those scenes from Scooby Doo where Scooby and Shaggy are exploring the graveyard or whatever and discover that they’re being followed by the ghost of Don Knotts or the Harlem Globetrotters or some nonsense like that. Electronic music is obviously particularly prone to violating the Mystery Machine Theory,*

“Run, Scoob! We don’t stand a chance against those infectious beats!”
*Strangely, the most egregious violation of the Mystery Machine Theory was not in an electronic song at all, but rather in the song “We’re Not Right”from David Gray’s White Ladder. Check out the bizarre sound he drops in the bridge and tell me that’s not the goofiest thing you’ve ever heard. Totally ruins the song and is the only real misstep in that entire album.

All this to say that I think the keyboard hook in this song flirts with violating the Mystery Machine Theory. What do you think, Leaven?

Okay, I hope to have Part Two posted before New Year’s. For a preview, here is the remainder of my playlist:

11. “Riot Rhythm” by Sleigh Bells 12. “Zebra” by Beach House 13. “I Walked” by Sufjan Stevens 14. “The Curse” by Josh Ritter 15. “Architects and Engineers” by Guste 16. “Laredo” by Band of Horses 17. “Harlem River Blues” by Justin Townes Earle 18. “American Slang” by Gaslight Anthem 19. “Ambling Alp” by Yeasayer 20. “Write About Love” by Belle and Sebastian 21. “Tightrope” by Janelle Monae