Some readers have been back in school for at least a week (hi, mom). But in Madison we start after Labor Day. Today also marks my first day TAing a new class and the first day to my last year of coursework. For many people, today represents possibility–new teachers, new classes, new school supplies, new misadventures. There’s a lot riding on it, which is actually why I prefer the second day of school. But I’m ready to get back to it. I chose my outfit, packed my lunch, and went to bed early. I also picked out some “plate” music.
Next week, my graduate program is playing a kickball game to start off the new year. As an attendant of many ASL games, I understand the importance of selecting the right song for coming up to bat. The use of pre-recorded music at sporting events fascinate me wherever I’m watching, particularly when it heightens our collective response to people challenging themselves and others to win. Remember when Aly Raisman scored lower than expected on her balance beam final and the judges scurried to review the routine after the Károlyis challenged them? During their brief deliberation, Katy Perry’s “Firework” blared in the background. That song was on a loop during the Olympics, but in that moment Perry’s song called attention to the “liveness” of the moment. It played in real time as part of the diegesis and thus sounded radically different.
When you participate in a sporting event, music is just as enveloping. It can also give you a window into the player. The sounds and lyrics people use to create or convey a certain attitude during competition says quite a bit about them (even when they pick Eminem). For me, selecting “plate” music for a kickball game was soothing, as the sport is the root of a number of gym-related childhood traumas. But I bump “plate” music wherever I go. Here are some songs that make me feel invincible, especially on days heavy with expectation.
The other day, I was having a conversation with myself on the drive home from work. As an only child, this isn’t exceptional behavior for me. But the talk was productive for the purposes of this blog, so I thought I’d outline what conclusions I came to. Suffice it to say, I have a lot of opinions about Sleigh Bells and the sophomore jinx.
It’s kind of surprising, as I like Treats quite a bit but don’t rank it as highly as music critics I respect, like Ben Sisario and Jody Rosen. All Songs Considered’s Robin Hilton recently named it his favorite album of last year to considerable derision. Though I don’t think it can hold that title in a year of heavy hitters where I couldn’t suss out a clear contender, I do relate to his sentiment that Treats made him want to punch people in the best possible way. I’ll go him one better. The record’s gleeful ballast made me imagine those punches turning into leaping kittens.
Carrie Brownstein made the point that her incredulity toward Treats stemmed from its novelty and timeliness. She wasn’t sure if the record would date itself or prompt the duo to develop their sound. I empathize with her criticisms but made peace with them some time ago because, to a degree, all buzzworthy debut albums generate these concerns. Frankly, we won’t know for a year or so what its larger impact will be. The Strokes’ inaugural release still holds up really well. The Go! Team’s Thunder, Lightning, Strike–once described in laudatory tones as Northern soul reinterpreted on Fisher Price toys–kinda sounds like Fatboy Slim. This isn’t inherently bad, but suggests that one record was influential and precipitous of what followed it and the other didn’t impact the zeitgeist in quite the same way.
I don’t bring up Fatboy Slim to burn Norman Cook. I lobbied firmly on the side of the Chemical Brothers during the late 90s “who will be the king of electronica” debate that only music critics engaged in, but have some room in my heart for “Praise You”, “Right Here, Right Now”, and “The Rockafeller Skank”. Credit can be given in part to Spike Jonze’s video for one of those songs, but Slim’s sophomore release You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby broke so big in the states because selections were licensed to multiple advertisers and featured in the soundtrack to virtually every movie starring a young actor angling to break out of the WB. I actually heard “The Rockafeller Skank” for the first time in She’s All That, when Usher orders a bevy of professional dancers posing as high school students to shimmy through an intricate routine during prom.
Sleigh Bells’ new wave sound tap into that cross-promotional potential as well. “Riot Rhythm” is used to sell sports cars. “Kids” is featured in a promo for MTV’s remake of British teen soap Skins. And if The O.C. were still on, dammit if music supervisor Alexandra Patsavas wouldn’t have “Rill Rill” close the season, assuming that it ended with Summer reconnecting with Marissa’s ghost at a beach party instead of Seth sailing off into the sunset. The sampled acoustic guitar (lifted from Funkadelic’s “Can You Get to That”) even recalls the loping piano hook in Phantom Planet’s “California,” the show’s theme song.
But what of the sophomore jinx? How does a buzz band follow up a lauded debut when they’re doomed to disappoint a fickle public? There are a few courses of action. You can strike while the iron is hot, as The Vivian Girls and Franz Ferdinand did when they followed up their first albums in quick succession without abandoning their sound. The Strokes waited two years and brought on producer Nigel Godrich to ultimately make the same record again, with a handful of synth flourishes and metal riffs. Life Without Buildings and the Unicorns disbanded. Members of the latter group formed Islands, a breezy outfit that anticipated Vampire Weekend’s indebtedness to Paul Simon’s Graceland by almost two years with their great debut Return to the Sea. The former can claim Any Other City as an promising work, largely because of Sue Tompkins’ infectious talk-singing.
Vampire Weekend are actually a good professional reference point for Sleigh Bells. My partner also cited Ratatat, with whom the twosome share sonic similarities. Both groups resumed and prospered following their initial success, largely by incorporating their novel ideas and thievery into larger concepts. Vampire Weekend did so this past year with Contra, which received backlash and critical accolades in equal measure. It’s also a pretty good pop record that builds upon their jittery, treble-heavy sound with deft employment of Auto-Tune and airy electronic instrumentation. While this move surprised some, it came as little surprise to those who recognized keyboardist Rostam Batmanglij as the band’s MVP. In 2009, long-time collaborators Batmanglij and Ra Ra Riot front man Wes Miles teamed up as Discovery to release LP. While spotty and half-formed at times, this endearing album marries an unironic love of modern R&B giants like R. Kelly with the glacial production qualities of pre-millennial Timbaland and Max Martin. It didn’t take much guessing to imagine how this could be filtered into Vampire Weekend’s sound.
I don’t know what Sleigh Bells’ plans are or if they’re at all interested in heeding some blogger’s career advice. But if there’s anything I’d like them to elaborate on, it’s their beats. This seems to be a pair that, if they don’t outright love commercial hip hop, at least absorbed a fair amount of it in their youth. People tend to bring up bubblegum and metal when they discuss Treats, but “Run the Heart” is obviously a club track. The driving beat on “Crown on the Ground” recalls the Bomb Squad or, perhaps less charitably (since my partner grimaced at that comparison), DMX’s “Who We Be.” It’s all four-on-the-floor without relent right now. But if they played around with sequence patterns or hooked up with an inventive producer, the band might surprise themselves and their detractors.
Echoing Maura Johnston, I’d like vocalist Alexis Krauss to be foregrounded in this development. Given the cultural assumption that girl groups and female pop singers are controlled by men and bolstered by instrumentalist Derek Miller’s role as producer, there’s probably an assumption that Miller runs the show. Once the member of a would-be commercial girl group, Krauss’ gauzy vocals display surprising character under layers of processed metal riffs and pulverizing beats. It isn’t a strong voice but she imbues its limitations with a distinct smoothness and keen phrasing. Aaliyah achieved similar things with her feathery whisper of a voice. Hopefully, we’ll soon hear what treats we’ll be in store for next.
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.
Recently, I put together my list of favorite albums and tracks from this year for another publication. In doing so, it occurred to me that some of my offerings were not discussed here. There are three reasons for this. For one, I don’t write about dudes’ music because I don’t need to be another outlet that tells you the new Flying Lotus record is great (though Scratched Vinyl wrote up a nice review). For another, I’ve never viewed this blog as a tastemaker. I don’t tend to follow trends, I like to take time to absorb things, and I often find myself defending or reconsidering obscured pop cultural artifacts. Finally, if I can’t figure out a way to discuss something from a feminist perspective, it often gets passing reference or entirely misses this site’s purview.
But some readers (primarily friends I consort with in my real life) tend to ask me what I’m listening to. I’ve mainly subsisted on a steady diet of Cocteau Twins this year, which I’ll elaborate on in a later post. However, I always try to keep up with new material. While I’ve mentioned some relevant artists (Janelle Monáe, Sleigh Bells, Dessa, Mountain Man) and avoided more obvious selections (you can assume that I like Björk and Dirty Projectors’ Mount Wittenberg Orca). There are also some artists I overlooked, which is why I’d recommend that you check out last year’s offerings from Grass Widow and Talk Normal, as well as encourage fans of The Knife to scale back two years to listen to The Nextdoor Neighbors’ Magic Vs. the Machine, which Kristen at Act Your Age clued me into after a clip for “Liars” was made at Reel Grrls’ music video workshop. The artists below may not come out of left field for some readers, but I thought I’d briefly outline some releases I’ve liked this year that you might also enjoy.
Georgia Anne Muldrow – Kings Ballad
You may not know it, but the prolific Muldrow is having quite a year. She’s already released a solo record and SomeOthaShip with rising star Declaime, the latter of which caught NPR’s attention. Kings Ballad has been on continuous repeat this summer, yet another smart, eclectic mix from Ms. Muldrow. While some people elected Katy Perry’s inane “California Gurls” as their seasonal anthem, I gotta go with Muldrow and Declaime’s “Summer Love.”
Nite Jewel – Am I Real?
Ramona Gonzalez has been on my radar since last year’s SXSW. Her new EP delivers the Xanadu on Xanax sound that’s become her trademark. It’s not a startling record, but it’s got a good groove that warms up an icy sound. I’m not sure if we’ll care about chillwave in five years, but I’m pretty sure I’ll pull this record out after a long night of partying transitions into early morning ruminations. Regardless of what wave it’s currently riding, it’s good music to chill out to.
No Mas Bodas – Erotic Stories From the Space Capsule
Austin pride. Member Sheila Scoville graciously invited me to this album’s CD release party earlier this year, which I regrettably could not attend. However, I read Audra Schroeder’s review of their album, gave it a listen, and became a fan of the group’s hypnotic fusion of synthesizers with cello (like Björk, I’m a big fan of music that pairs electronic and acoustic instrumentation). I caught them during a lunch performance at Girls Rock Camp Austin earlier this summer and while I think they have yet to master their live presentation, I still find this haunting record to be full of potential.
Noveller – Desert Fires
Sarah Lipstate is another Austin affiliate, though she’s making her name in New York and parts of Europe following a stint with Parts & Labor. I was certainly aware of her talent when she was one-half of One Umbrella and sat in with Glenn Branca during the time we shared as deejays at KVRX, and I’m impressed with the solo work she’s doing now. Wasting no time following up her debut full-length Red Rainbows, Lipstate continues to build and invent upon her abstract guitar work with her second album. While she also accompanies her performances with self-made films, I really appreciate that the sonic landscapes she creates can let your imagination wander.
White Mystery – (s/t)
I had the pleasure of catching Chicago sibling duo Alex and Frank White at the GRCA SXSW day show and they killed. They were also really nice and personed their merch table stocked full of self-made goods, including a pair of tie-dyed underwear. Ms. White actually teaches merch workshops, which is extra awesome. Their self-titled debut may especially appeal to rock purists looking for some new garage rock to blast in the car.
What albums have you liked this year? Who are your new favorite artists?
NPR is currently streaming Sleigh Bells’ full-length debut Treats, which came out yesterday. Folks were all a-Twitter (nyuk nyuk) about it, including folks like Maura Johnston. This release, off M.I.A.’s N.E.E.T. label, is hotly anticipated. It follows “Crown on the Ground,” which Pitchfork named one of the best singles of 2009. Community‘s Donald Glover also sampled the song for his rap outfit Childish Gambino. As additional incentive, the album boasts a sweet cover. A photo of a cheerleading squad with the girls’ faces scratched out? Some Gleeks must feel vindicated.
For those unfamiliar with Sleigh Bells, the duo make abrasive pop music that grinds Derek Miller’s harsh guitar riffs and pounding drums against Alexis Krauss‘s sugary vocals. Imagine Lush‘s Emma Anderson and Miki Berenyi singing to Ratatat‘s hard rock guitar loops with The Go! Team contributing samples, claps, and children’s choruses. Then turn the amps to 11, blow out your speakers, and feel your ears bleed. This is the kind of music you want to pump in your car, but probably shouldn’t so as to avoid becoming a road hazard.
Now, I’m not sure if I’ll champion Sleigh Bells when we look back on the decade. We’ll see how if they live up to their (literal and figurative) buzz. I like “Infinity Guitars,” though note some problematic lyrics that brings to mind Jessica Yee’s dress-down of hipsters’ Native American appropriation. I love “Rill Rill,” but am not sure how much of this has to do with lyrics about girls with braces or the sample of Funkadelic’s “Can You Get to That.” But for now, we have a pretty solid debut that juxtaposes the harsh muscularity of metal and rock guitar with deceptively sweet female vocals. Play it loud.