Also posted this at the Burnside Writers Collective, where I'm afraid people think I'm joking.
Top 10 Albums:
Cathedral–The Guessing Game (Nuclear Blast)
Jamey Johnson–The Guitar Song (Mercury)
Ke$ha–Animal + Cannibal (RCA)
Diana Reyes–Ámame, Bésame (EMI Latin)
Slum Village–Villa Manifesto (E1)
Israel Houghton–Love God. Love People. — The London Sessions (Integrity/Columbia)
Frightened Rabbit–The Winter of Mixed Drinks (Fatcat)
Groove Armada–Black Light (Cooking Vinyl)
Various Artists–Next Stop Soweto: Township Sounds from the Golden Age of Mbaqanga (Strut)
Top 10 Singles:
“Vida en la Noche”–Daddy Yankee (El Cartel)
“All the Lovers”–Kylie Minogue (Parlophone)
“Your Love Is My Drug”–Ke$ha (RCA)
“Felt Good On My Lips”–Tim McGraw (Curb)
“Baby”–Justin Bieber feat. Ludacris (Island)
“Get Off On the Pain”–Gary Allan (MCA Nashville)
“Praise You Forever”–Marvin Sapp (Verity)
“Babylon”–Congorock (Fool’s Gold)
“Soldier of Love”–Sade (Sony)
“Fresh”–Tye Tribbett (Columbia)
Looking over my albums list, what stands out isn’t so much its diversity as its obnoxious tokenism. I try to believe that diverse musical taste, even with frequent exceptions for rap and country, is more the rule than the exception for most people — especially now that the Hot Adult Contemporary stations have started playing token rap and country songs. The only genres to make it onto my list more than once are dance pop (Ke$ha, Diana Reyes, Groove Armada), metal (Cathedral and WASP), and, if it’s playing by the rules to consider a 2009 WASP album one of 2010′s best Christian albums along with Israel Houghton, CCM. But that leaves one spot apiece for country, Latin, rap, indie rock, and mbaqanga, the first four of which had vital 2010s.
Trust me, this tokenism wasn’t by design. Plenty of fine albums missed the cut at the last minute. Sho Baraka’s Lions & Liars (rap, CCM) felt too long, the Drive-By Truckers’ The Big To-Do (indie rock, country) and Vampire Weekend’s Contra (indie rock, mbaqanga) are too filler-happy, and Sleigh Bells’ Treats (indie rock, dance pop) is, despite its brilliance, decidedly one-note. For a couple of its songs I mean that literally. And as for the Roots’ How I Got Over (rap) — I’m really not sure why that’s not on the list. It’s arresting from top to bottom, and it rewards thoughtful attention as surely as the movie Inception. With the Roots, Rick Ross’s Teflon Don, Big Boi’s Sir Lucious Left Foot, the minor Wu Tang pow-wow Wu-Massacre, Nas & Damian Marley’s Distant Relatives, The-Dream’s Love King, Curren$y’s Pilot Talk, Ludacris’s intermittently icky Battle of the Sexes, and Kanye if we must, the major label Def Jam probably bankrolled more good 2010 music than any other corporation. Arguments for Barsuk can be advanced in the comments section.
Major label rock, on the other hand, didn’t have such a great year. I enjoyed two such albums — David Bowie’s live A Reality Tour (my preschooler’s favorite) and Ludo’s goofy American take on Muse, Prepare the Preparations. I’m not really sure how categorizing labels works, so other bands that might count are Disciple (distributed by Sony) and LCD Soundsystem (ditto Virgin), though describing LCD as “major label rock” seems weird. Compared to all the year’s good indie rock (check Dylan Peterson’s list), that’s a pretty sorry lot. I’m not the one to speculate where major label rock is going, but I will observe that, when I want to hear good new rock music on the radio, I turn on the country station.
This observation is nothing new, especially if you went through last decade air-drumming to Montgomery Gentry songs. But every year more mainstream rock tumbles into the country sea, whether it’s Jamey Johnson looking like a metal dude and ending his 25-song tour-de-force with a power ballad, the tattooed Gary Allan rocking harder than the Truckers, or Tim McGraw completely selling out any country pretenses to create an irresistible blend of post-punk riffs, skinny tie beats, and apparently Auto-Tuned vocals. Of the latter, Country Universe complains, “it puts every modern recording barrier it can think of between his vocal and the listener.”
Right, so one more thing about Auto-Tune and then I’ll shut up about it, at least until some enterprising musician finds a way to make it sound even more exciting than it did last year. Four of my top singles — Daddy Yankee, Ke$ha, Marvin Sapp, and Tye Tribbett — use A-T or something similar in a blatant way, as a vocal effect rather than a corrective device. Tim McGraw uses something, though it makes him sound less like a robot than like a Person Singing a Pop Song in 2010. Please note: that’s five of the year’s 10 best songs using blatant vocal fx. That’s more than use a piano. That’s as many as use audible guitar. Whether this makes you feel giddy or irrevocably divorced from pop music, or at least from my taste in same, there’s no denying Auto-Tune continues to be a commercial force.
But to my ears it’s also a creative force. (OK, two more things.) Musicians use Auto-Tune to talk to audiences and to each other, to say “This is a pop song” (Israel Houghton) “that deserves to be huge” (Diana Reyes) “and it represents a new chapter in my life and career” (Tye Tribbett) “and if you don’t like it, you’re an old man who is gross” (Ke$ha). Going Auto-Tune is similar to going electric in ’65 or going disco or punk in ’77 — that’s where things are happening. As a tool, A-T has facilitated aesthetic breakthroughs for Ke$ha and Tye; they’ve used it to create songs that sound like nothing else, and in K’s case, a persona that sounds like nobody else. For Marvin Sapp and Tim McGraw, A-T seems to be more of a lark, and maybe a chance to demonstrate that they care more about communicating with fans than living up to genre purity tests.
Not that purity can’t communicate. Most of my top 10 albums belong unmistakably to one genre, and some of their creators would probably scoff at the idea of incorporating different genres or gimmicks into their acts. (WASP goes crabcore!) But no matter how uncomfortable it’d make me to shove the pitch corrector at Jamey Johnson (or, God forbid, Sade), behind the scenes there’s often less purism at work than fans might hope. Johnson financed his songfest by writing huge hits, including, as every review must mention, “Honky-Tonk Badonkadonk”. Underground rappers Slum Village dabble in some very aboveground-sounding R&B and dancehall. Diana Reyes alternates her usual duranguense (read: polka) songs with Selena-style techno-cumbias. Frightened Rabbit are making a living helping to sell Detroit 1-8-7 and The Beaver. As factories for art — they love it when you call them that — artists need to take in much more raw material than they could ever produce, and they need money to finance their operation, that room of their own. Under ideal circumstances, this makes them both willing communicators and voracious consumers.
In 2010, nobody sounded more voracious than Ke$ha and Cathedral. Ke$ha is hungry for man-flesh; but even more, she’s hungry to turn her poverty into gigantitude, like ’80s thrift-store icons Madonna and Axl Rose, like most rockers since blue suede shoes were fashionable. To set herself apart from the pack of Katys and Avrils, she’s adopted a sprechtstimme style as calculated to offend as it is to entertain. Basically, K wants to transcend mere songs, so she’s in your face, real as life, even if your visceral reaction is to hate everything about her. Though I’m a fan, I can sort of understand where the hatred comes from — the most persuasive rap is that her music just plain sounds ugly, and it’s hard to argue taste. But as a fan, watching people hate Ke$ha with a vehemence usually reserved for pedophiles and Karl Rove is simply entertaining, like driving too slowly in front of an angry Hummer person. You can’t believe silly pop songs could provoke such outrage, yet the outrage is proof that there’s something to her, that she’s doing something right.
Less outrageous but maybe more ambitious are Cathedral, a veteran British metal band led by Lee Dorrian, briefly of Napalm Death. Though their double album The Guessing Game has moments of crushing brutality, it’s also got folk music, a mellotron, a flute, and some of the most charming psychedelic tunes in ages. One song, “Cats, Incense, Candles & Wine”, is about Dorrian’s quiet evenings at home with, you guessed it, cats, incense, candles, and wine. (No word on whether he knits.) There are also some scathing attacks on organized religion, including a misreading of the beatitudes that’s pretty standard Nietszche so I won’t get into it, except to point out that the catalyst for this misreading is A VISION OF A TALKING SCARECROW. The band sounds both spontaneous and premeditated throughout, and every song has about 10 different cool elements: Word Jazz recitations, blazing solos, even sections where the songs falls by the wayside and all that’s left is a monstrous thwomp. Spending an hour in Cathedral’s company is like spending the evening at a bar with the coolest, smartest, hairiest person you’ve ever met. I dug plenty of albums last year, but Cathedral’s is the only one whose greatness seems to lie forever beyond my grasp, that inspires a sense of awe every time I hear it.