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.
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.
Thanks to my friend Evan, who alerted me on Monday that some serious Aughties musical canonization was going down this week, I’ve been following Pitchfork’s unveiling of the Top 500 tracks of the decade. As it may be of interest, I thought I’d share my feelings.
In subsequent posts, I may comment on their impending coverage of the decade’s best music videos and albums, as well as their formulations on the reclamation of pop, the exploration of noise, and the mainstreaming of indie rock. I won’t devote posts to it, though, because there’s a fine line between providing useful commentary and hearing yourself type. And my hunch is that discussing the singles list will suffice, as it presents, by microcosm, a general set of criticisms I’ve long held about the “tastemaker” e-zine.
Covering Pitchfork’s appraisal of the decade in this way makes more sense to me anyway, as the 2000s marked the resurgence of the single. Our increasingly digitized media culture cultivated the need for that one song, found at the click of a mouse or the touch of an mp3 player button or phone pad. That song also tended to get posted on blogs, e-zines, and MySpace pages (however briefly) as a means to define the self or selves (this was a decade when Gnarls Barkley, Brightblack Morning Light, and Crystal Castles could potentially coexist on the same shuffle or mash-up).
So, this list is the first time I’ve seen music of my youth canonized in such a way that it now seems historical. When Pitchfork first did the list half-way through the decade, I was 22 and just out of college; an adult, but only sorta. More specifically, the songs were still new. But having graduated from college twice over and a year into my second post-college job in 2009, I can look at songs from 2000, when I was in high school, and feel my age like many folks who transitioned into adulthood in decades prior.
And now, some nostalgia. A lot of the songs on this list bring up specific memories, images, people, and feelings. I remember my friend Brooke trying to teach me a dance routine to Aaliyah’s “Try Again” for our junior prom. PJ Harvey’s “Good Fortune” reminded me of a high school boyfriend which, in hindsight, speaks to an epic love song’s power to project. I remember a classmate singing the chorus to OutKast’s “Ms. Jackson” to herself in French class. I remember hearing Jay-Z and UGK’s “Big Pimpin'” at a Claire’s somewhere in New York City on a field trip. Radiohead’s “The National Anthem” confused the hell out of me, but I kept playing it at full volume anyway. Missy Elliott’s “Get Ur Freak On” was a confusing song that made perfect sense. And if Daft Punk’s “One More Time” was released when the class of 2001 voted for our song, it would’ve been my pick (I submitted U2’s “Beautiful Day” and Counting Crows’ “Hanging Around”; our song ended up being Aerosmith’s cover of The Beatles’ “Come Together” from the Armageddon soundtrack, for some reason).
Then there’s the rough transition between high school and college. Songs off Radiohead’s Amnesiac and Daft Punk’s Discovery suggest my lonely, uncertain summer before college. I started college, withdrew mid-way through my first semester, and resumed in the spring. This was a “the” time — The Strokes, The White Stripes, The Shins, The Avalanches, and the last album by The Dismemberment Plan. It was also when I started to follow Pitchfork, mostly to avoid writing term papers.
After a summer back home, I applied for a college radio show. It was here that I really started learning about music, and just how much music there was. KVRX maintains a “none of the hits all of the time” policy; if a musical act got a single or video on rotation in a commercial market, they could not be played. While I was there, we pulled The Arcade Fire and Franz Ferdinand from rotation. Some deejays would think that by pulling a musical act they liked out of rotation, we were initiating a taste-based attack on coolness (i.e., undiscovered = good, discovered = bad). While this prejudice existed (and I would certainly perpetuate it at times), pulling an artist embraced by the mainstream out of college radio rotation felt more political to me. “Spoon is on 101X? Great! They’re awesome. Now let’s shine a light on the thousands of other bands who’ll never get that kind of attention.”
Pitchfork made an effort to shine a light too, biases notwithstanding. During my tenure at KVRX, my relationship with Pitchfork became contentious. While I followed Pitchfork, I was also dismissive or derisive of the staff’s opinions (a classic push-pull for many music geeks: we are at once too cool for Pitchfork, yet check to see if we line up with their rulings). As I came into my own as a feminist, I also became more critical of what they covered, how they covered it, and what they dismissed, out of which came, among other things, this blog.
Yet, there are so many songs on this countdown that remind me of that time. I remember my first radio show, when I played Interpol’s “NYC” because I had some vague idea of who they were. I remember exactly where I was when I first heard TV on the Radio’s “Staring At the Sun” and Dizzie Rascal’s “I Luv U.” I remember seeing Spoon perform “The Way We Get By” on Conan and hoping they’d get big. I remember hearing the bass line to Broken Social Scene’s “Stars and Sons” for the first time. I remember fighting The Rapture’s “House of Jealous Lovers” for weeks before surrendering. I remember being unable to avoid The Postal Service’s “Such Great Heights.” I remember playing Broadcast’s “Pendulum” while getting ready for parties. I remember rocking out to The Gossip’s “Standing in the Way of Control” in the deejay booth. I remember LCD Soundsystem’s “Losing My Edge” being one of the go-to songs deejays would throw on for a smoke break when we weren’t quoting from it (I alluded to it in this post’s title). I remember hearing M.I.A.’s “Galang” at a party and having it blow my mind. I remember impromptu dance parties after Alliance for a Feminist Option meetings when a bunch of sweaty grrrls I still call friends would shimmy to Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love” and OutKast’s “Hey Ya!” I remember skanking harder and smiling wider than I ever have with the person I built my life with to Ted Leo and the Pharmacists’ “Where Have All the Rude Boys Gone?”
In addition, there was Boards of Canada, Wolf Eyes, Feist, Black Dice, Andrew Bird, Ladytron, Devendra Banhart, Destroyer, Hot Chip, The New Pornographers, Deerhoof, M. Ward, Liars, Junior Boys, The Walkmen, Manitoba (later Caribou), El-P, The Go Team, (Smog), Sufjan Stevens, RJD2, The Books, Talib Kweli, Phoenix . . . . The list goes on. If I ever had trouble keeping up with new artists after graduating in 2005, it was only because I had so many established artists to follow.
Of course, my college radio utopia didn’t last. It couldn’t. My monolithic friend group fragmented. People moved, lost touch, became casual, or just stopped being friends. Perhaps this is really when the decade became more to me than a sequence, instead an evolution of time. Late-in-the-decade offerings like LCD Soundsystem’s “All My Friends” and Animal Collective’s “Fireworks” convey this for me.
After college, I acquired Deerhunter, CSS, Hercules and Love Affair, Santigold, Bat for Lashes, Grizzly Bear, Battles, No Age, Be Your Own Pet, Girl Talk, Magik Markers, Vampire Weekend, Vivian Girls, Women, King Khan and the Shrines, and St. Vincent.
Assuredly there will be more new artists for me (and you) to adopt. Just this week, because of the countdown, I picked up on The Knife.
There are artists whose countdown placement evinces moments when we were willing to bet the farm on an act that now seem dated (Death From Above 1979, The Streets, and Klaxons). There are also acts I didn’t “get” but sorta came around on later (hello, Joanna Newsom). There are acts I didn’t know that well in college but came to treasure later (bless you, Neko Case). There are acts I enjoy but could never fully champion (I like you fine, Belle and Sebastian). There are acts I appreciate, but kinda overwhelm me and can’t listen to all the time (Jesus, Xiu Xiu). And then there are acts for whom I just never got the fuss (Fleet Foxes and The Decemberists).
With that said, this countdown plays predictably. Accepting minor issues like what song was selected to represent an artist and where songs fell in ranking, Pitchfork got a lot right. They also got caught up with some songs that I think they’re overselling, and some things they marginalized or completely overlooked. I’ll preoccupy the rest of this post with those flaws.
For me Pitchfork’s big Achilles heel has always been hip hop, primarily because they really only cover mainstream hip hop (Lil Wayne, T.I., 50 Cent, Clipse, Eminem, Cam’ron, OutKast, Kanye West, and Jay-Z — the last three are all over this countdown). And while this isn’t a problem in its own right, it limits how hip hop is defined and what it represents, which, in a lot of commercial hip hop, that still means money, Cristal, whips, blunts, and bitches (though not in all cases). It certainly suggests that the only way for rappers to be successful and culturally relevant is to be part of a corporate mechanism. This seems like something a publication that prides itself on giving visibility to independent artists should re-evaluate. Because, in my mind, if there’s no Busdriver or Jean Grae, I question the validity of the list.
As a result, it largely eclipses underground hip hop which has seen tremendous advancements over the course of the decade, particularly in the states. Talent from labels like Stones Throw, Quannum Projects, Rhymesayers, Definitive Jux, and anticon., along with talent at labels like Plug Research, Mush, Warp, and Ubiquity have created some of the most vital and interesting work in the genre, expanding its sound and its content while working outside a corporate mechanism in the process (anticon. runs as a collective). But you’d never know that if you only read Pitchfork, who acknowledged a few efforts, primarily from white male label owners (El-P) and instrumental artists (RJD2, DJ Shadow). No female MCs were acknowledged. This may also speak to the dearth of female MCs in underground hip hop, but doesn’t excuse it (I love you, Jean Grae; I love you, Psalm One). My challenge to hip hop fans in the next decade is to try to create online resources as influential as Pitchfork to get the message out. You’ve got guaranteed spots on my blogroll.
Also, as you may have noticed if you combed through the entire list, only the top 200 songs are accompanied by blurbs from the writing staff. While I understand that writing 300 more blurbs presents its own challenges, I also think it suggests that tracks 500-301 weren’t good enough for a write-up. And this makes me especially sad when many of the women I loved in this decade — Vivian Girls, St. Vincent, Goldfrapp, Sleater-Kinney, Bat for Lashes, Björk, and The Gossip — are thrown at the end and not given any qualifying statements. This especially seems necessary for a song like The Gossip’s “Standing In the Way of Control,” which became an LGBTQI anthem this decade. That would be especially useful to read alongside #18, Hercules and Love Affair’s “Blind.” This is a great dance song that I’ve always interpreted as an anthem for coming out and living life queer. But you wouldn’t know that from Tim Finney’s write-up.
And while I’m heartened by the women who did make it to the top 200, especially women like M.I.A., Beyoncé, Missy Elliott, Annie, and Karen O of The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, who made the top 20, I can’t help but notice that many of these women are pop artists who work extensively with predominantly male producers. I don’t want to suggest that cutting a track with Timbaland or Diplo or Pharell from The Neptunes means that women are robbed of artistic autonomy, as I wouldn’t say that for Justin Timberlake. However, I do take issue with what female artists and what songs get praise. Or even what versions of songs. While the Diplo remix of the version of M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes” that features UGK is great, I wonder why her version isn’t enough.
That said, the 2000s were both a hell of an education and a hell of a time. Pitchfork knows it. I know it. Hopefully, you know it too. It was a great time to be alive. I hope the next decade is even better.