Published: Friday, February 11, 2011, 8:17 AM Updated: Friday, February 11, 2011, 9:30 AM
Not everybody has dark fantasies, or twisted fictions, or sick addictions. But those of us who do would really rather have them remain in the dark. Shine a light (or all of the lights) on the fantasy, and you’re liable to ruin what makes it compelling in the first place. If, in your fantasies, you’re a terrible monster, a bloodsucker, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re an awful person in real life. It could be the opposite: you could be the sort of person who helps old ladies across the street and shovels your neighbor’s walkway after a blizzard. The monster fantasy might be the safety valve necessary to make the rest of your personality work. As long as you’re in the dark, you’re okay.
Unfortunately (and this has happened in our lifetime), people are no longer interested in what you do at the crosswalk or after the snow comes down. They’re only interested in what happens after the lights go out. Your public acts are the facade; only your private thoughts represent the real you. People don’t want to know about what you have to say — they only want to know about what you don’t want to say. Exposing, uncovering, unearthing, disenchanting, and demystifying the world has become an obsession for us. Cartographers are mapping everything that can be mapped, including the purported genetic basis of your behavior. You’re part of the world; you may even be lost in the world. The unexplored regions in your brain are under scrutiny; because they’re dark, they’re suspect, fair game for curiosity-seekers. Are you ready for all of the lights to be turned on you?
Moralists who have never taken a psychology course in their lives are comfortable calling Kanye West a sociopath. The West of the popular imagination is the charming, talented, high-functioning villain whose dark motivations compel him to destroy everything he touches. He is a public success, but a private failure. Long before the “Monster” video, our criminal profiling of West was complete.
A persistent complaint about West’s work is that it’s all about him: his personality, his desires, his story. That may or may not have been true in the past, but it is definitely not true about My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. This time around, Kanye is rapping about you. Oh, he’s the main character, of course; he’s an egomaniac obsessed with his own tribulations, and that’s not likely to change. But he’s sensitive, too, and he recognizes that just as surely as all of the lights are on him, you aren’t going to escape the high beams, either. Right now, you’re getting profiled. You’re on the Internet; you’re going to be analyzed. There is intense interest in the private you — your hidden compulsions, your preferences, the “hard-wiring” of your brain. You’re a data point in a sea of informative pixels. Take a step in an unauthorized direction, and you’ll screw up the marketer’s rubric. Or the government’s. Or the rubbernecker sitting next to you.
Into this illuminated world steps the rapper, who throws the switch and turns off the lights. He is aware that the hell of a life he leads in the darkness is not a particularly enjoyable or rewarding one, but he can keep the searchlight from burning up his imagination like old film (pornographic film?) exposed to the sun. Again and again, he returns to his main themes, which aren’t quite a dichotomy: darkness equals sex, debauchery, comfort, freedom, privacy, room for the artist to stretch out and do his thing. Light is classifying, arresting, destructive, something to run from. Light is an allegation. Kanye is aware of the racial overtones of his transvaluation, but he doesn’t belabor them; a true prog-rocker, he refuses to insult his audience’s intelligence. He travels fast, because he figures that you’ve got it, and if you don’t get it the first time, he knows his choruses are catchy enough to bring you back again.
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy doesn’t get hung up on negritude, anyway. Kanye knows that white people are under surveillance, too. He just wants to make sure that you get it that African-Americans have always been associated with the values he ascribes to darkness, and that when we talk about disinfecting, classifying, and mapping, on some level, we’re always having a conversation about race. He might use a porn star’s itemized bill for services to make his point, and if he can’t reach you like that, he probably figures you’re lost to him. So West takes his stripper metaphors and pushes the critique toward something that’s genuinely Miltonic: here, the forces of light, truth, and accuracy are the destructive ones, and the devils are the good guys. Well, they aren’t good guys, because there aren’t any heroes in West’s world. There are just ordinary people, burdened with extraordinary fantasies, some dark and twisted, but all valuable personal possessions; regular Joes and Janes with irregular thoughts, increasingly besieged, running out of places to hide.
Album of the Year
1. Kanye West — My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
2. Francis & The Lights — It’ll Be Better
3. The Wonder Years — The Upsides
4. Brooke Fraser — Flags
5. Joanna Newsom — Have One On Me
6. Drake — Thank Me Later
7. I Can Make A Mess Like Nobody’s Business — The World We Know
8. Taylor Swift — Speak Now
9. You, Me & Everyone We Know — Some Things Don’t Wash Out
10. Of Montreal — False Priest
11. Tracy Bonham — Masts Of Manhatta
12. The Rocket Summer — Of Men And Angels
13. hellogoodbye — Would It Kill You?
14. Jamey Johnson — The Guitar Song
15. Kate Miller-Heidke — Curiouser
16. Ghostface Killah — Apollo Kids
17. Sarah Harmer — Oh Little Fire
18. John Mellencamp — No Better Than This
19. Sky Sailing — An Airplane Carried Me To Bed
20. Nas & Damian Marley — Distant Relatives
Album That’s Getting Knocked For No Good Reason
False Priest. Look, I know Kevin Barnes has been extremely annoying for a very long time, and there’s only so much discussion of his member we all can handle. But this is not where to get off the bus. First of all, he’s rocking again, which should satisfy longtime fans who felt the funkmaster schtick was taking him over. He’s also pulled out of the disassociative personality disorder that was sinking his humor — around the time of “Aldhils Arboretum,” he was easily the funniest man in the pop underground, and his wit is recovering. Then there’s the amazing moment on “Sex Karma” where he convinces Solange Knowles to call him something he’s been wanting to hear about himself for a decade at least, but which I can’t print in a family newspaper. His musicianship has never been in question, and his Bowie impersonation is getting more convincing. All bloomin’ onions aside, if you like OM at all, you’ve got to engage with this one.
Album That’s Getting Slept On Because Of The Absurd Need To Compile Top Ten Lists in Mid-December:
Apollo Kids. I like it better than Fishscale; I think it’s his best album since Supreme Clientele. But you didn’t hear anything about it, because the musical calendar flips around December 7. The Committee to Restore Rational Top Ten List Practices would like you to call this toll free number. For only pennies a day, the price of a cup of coffee, rappers like Ghostface can have new hope and a Banana Nutriment. Please, make a difference in the life of someone special.
Single Of The Year
1. Foxy Shazam — “Oh Lord”
2. Brooke Fraser — “Something In The Water”
3. The Narrative — “Fade”
4. Kanye West & Dwele — “Power”
5. Elizabeth & The Catapult — “You And Me”
6. B.o.B & Hayley Williams — “Airplanes”
7. Drake — “Find Your Love”
8. Kanye West, Rick Ross, Jay-Z & Nicki Minaj — “Monster”
9. Steel Train — “Bullet”
10. Taylor Swift — “Today Was A Fairytale”
11. Nas & Damian Marley — “As We Enter”
12. Belle & Sebastian — “I Didn’t See It Coming”
13. Janelle Monae — “Tightrope”
14. The Rocket Summer — “Walls”
15. Taio Cruz — “Dynamite”
16. VersaEmerge — “Fixed At Zero”
17. Ke$ha — “Take It Off”
18. Wiz Khalifa — “Black & Yellow”
19. B.o.B — “Don’t Let Me Fall”
20. Valencia — “Dancing With A Ghost”
Best Album Title
Fast Trains And Telegraph Wires by Trembling Blue Stars. Bobby Wratten is a beautiful title-writer. He should do headlines for a twee version of the Post.
Best Album Cover
It’ll Be Better. It’s all here: the school clock, symbolizing the meticulousness and economy with which Francis Farewell Starlite assembled these tracks, the old spinet, symbolizing the ’70s piano singer-songwriters whose voices Starlite is channeling, the two drumsticks on the music stand, representing the artist’s obsession with charting percussion, the partially-unbuttoned button-down vest, representing the narrator’s struggle to break free from restraint; the half-light, representing the late-night vibe of the productions. Even the time on the clock is significant. It’s 2:56 and 31 seconds, which either means that the club is about to close and the girl Starlite is talking to will need to make up her mind about who she’s heading home with, or the bell is about to ring, and teacher is running out of time to make his lesson manifest.
Best Liner Notes And Packaging.
Have One On Me, and not because of the four pictures of Joanna Newsom putting her hair up. Okay, maybe those helped a little.
Most Welcome Surprise
No Better Than This. I guess when John Mellencamp said he didn’t care about selling records anymore, we should have believed him. That was one of the gutsiest projects ever done by a veteran rock star. Cutting the whole record with a single microphone? Recording in hotel rooms? Putting the album out in mono? Grumbling through the set like a toothless, unemployed former factory worker who is half deaf from the clanging of steel on steel? My hat’s off to you, you crazy Hoosier.
When I saw Mike Posner drive the girlies wild at Bamboozle, I figured there were two ways this story could go. Either he could leave the frat house behind and step with confidence into post-collegiate society, or he’d treat his success as a sign from the gods of Alpha Beta Zeta Theta that his laddish attitude was his moneymaker. But I didn’t expect him to curse out an ex-girlfriend by name, on a major label release. Ugh. If only he had chosen NJCU over Duke, I’ll bet the chair of the English Department would have knocked some humility into him.
Album That Opens The Strongest:
The Adventures Of Bobby Ray, which narrowly missed the Top Twenty. The acoustic number and the Vampire Weekend semi-cover are tough to take, and then there’s the predictably scenery-chewing guest spot by Eminem to plug your ears through. But the first half of that record is gold.
Album That Ends The Strongest
Speak Now. All you really need to know about Taylor Swift is that the most passionate love song on her coming-of-age LP is the one she wrote about her band.
Song Of The Year
“Sailboats” by Sky Sailing. Woolgathering gets a bad name: not only does it guarantee you a pillow, but it makes the sheep feel nice, too. And dreams aren’t always escapes. What you see in your reveries might not be real, but the emotions sure are. Adam Young’s Bright Beautiful Fantasy is even more imperiled than Kanye’s, because hanging out with strippers and porn stars can be justified by making recourse to the superficial allure of what you’re doing. To the people behind All of the Lights, or a typical boring Bad Boy, Young just looks like an smiling idler. Me, I call him a freedom fighter. Taylor Swift, who always cuts to the heart of things and comes away with the mot juste, wrote “Enchanted” about Young, and that’s the perfect word for him — because in a world addicted to disenchantment, he’s determined to dream all he wants, and you can’t shame him out of that. After listening to Owl City and Sky Sailing nonstop for the past two years, I’ve come to two conclusions about Young, and the realization that he is the bravest man in pop is the lesser of the two. Adam Young will entertain you and get you to sing along and skip through the flowers and paint dreamscapes on your bedroom wall, and all of that is great. But he will also show you where you are screwing up. Adam Young’s work is a detector of spiritual problems. I have learned that the things about Owl City and Sky Sailing that make me uncomfortable almost always correspond to areas that I need to work on. I will give you an example. “Steady As She Goes” is a very sweet song in which Young expresses love and admiration for his sister. At first, I found this unbearably sentimental and borderline perverse. Then I had to admit that it wasn’t perverse at all: it was beautiful, and the perversity I was ascribing to it was just a cover for my own feelings of inadequacy. Because I have a sister, too, and she’s my hero, just as Young’s sister seems to be his. And if I’m too ashamed to say so, well, I’m not worth much to anybody. I’ll give you another example: on “Explorers,” Young sings “pale gibbon moon.” This really bothered me at first. The term for when the moon is half-illuminated is “gibbous,” not “gibbon.” But who cares? I knew what he meant. I was forced to concede that I’m the sort of jerk who gets pedantic when somebody mixes up his astronomical jargon. So even when he makes a mistake, he’s showing me where I’m falling down, and how far I have to go. In this way, he truly is God’s instrument. Adam Young remains who I want to be when I grow up; better yet, he always gives me faith that I’ll eventually get where I’m headed. The earth doesn’t care if we go up there — if we want to, just ask, and he’ll take us along.
Bryce Avary of the Rocket Summer. Laura Marling is also a satisfactory answer in this category.
Sorry, it’s still Nas. You’re bored of reading it, and I’m bored of writing it, and we all may be getting a teeny bit bored of listening to it, but that doesn’t make it any less true.
Best Vocal Harmonies
Jenny and Johnny on “New Yorker Cartoon.” Sometimes the narco-haze works for them, and sometimes, they’re crushed by the big wave.
Best Bass Playing
Mickey Madden of Maroon 5. Songs About Jane was guitarist James Valentine’s showcase, It Won’t Be Soon Before Long belonged to synth player Jesse Carmichael, and Hands All Over was dominated by the bottom end. (Adam Levine doesn’t need an album.) Just goes to show you: they’re a real hydra-headed outfit, an old-fashioned, chopstastic funk-rock band that happened to luck into a Top 40 career.
Jose Lopez, formerly of Houston Calls, now hanging with Ace Enders in I Can Make A Mess Like Nobody’s Business.
Best Rhythm Guitar
Forrest Kline of Hellogoodbye. The best rhythm guitar phenomenon is the curtain of KAPLOW that falls like a fist on Jimmy Eat World’s “Evidence.” Works for me every time, coz I am Mr. Troglodyte, and I like when jimmy man make big sound with big stick.
Best Lead Guitar
Marissa Paternoster. You could draw a straight line from Crazy Horse through J. Mascis and Thurston Moore, straight to her playing on Castle Talk.
Best Drum Programming
Francis Farewell Starlite. That is programming, isn’t it? Don’t tell me he played all of those crazy shaker and cabassa patterns himself.
Best Synthesizer Playing
Best Piano Playing
I’d love to vote for Sky White from Foxy Shazam, but the answer is the piano all over My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. My best guess is that Jeff Bhasker played it, but you never know, it might have been Mr. West himself. This is a guy who brought his MPC to the Video Music Awards. He’s not just a concept-master, he’s a musician, too. Sometimes we forget that.
Best Use Of A Non Traditional Rock Instrument
This one goes to that classically-trained musician who runs her orchestra-standard axe through all kinds of effects, double and triple-tracks it, and uses it to expand the sonic palette of her strange, ambitious, and wildly romantic songs. That’s right, Tracy Bonham and her demon violin. Who did you think I meant?
Best Backing Vocals
Keir Nuttall on Kate Miller-Heidke’s “Politics In Space.” He sounds like a cross between the Big Bopper and Doc from the Seven Dwarves.
Kevin Barnes. I’d also like to acknowledge this year’s unsung hero: Nathan Chapman, who plays just about every instrument in the shed on Speak Now. The bass parts on that album are quietly fantastic. Don’t think the twelve year old girls didn’t notice. They’re wiser than you are, pal.
Best Instrumental Solo
Kevin Barnes on “Hydra Fancies.”
The year’s most acrobatic melodies were penned by Forrest Kline. But it’s not a melody contest. This one goes to Sarah Harmer, the part-time Canadian environmental activist who finally got around to putting out another set. Half of the songs on Oh Little Fire aren’t anything special, but then there are the ones that are, and those are built to subtly wow those who’ve never tried to write a song, and to thoroughly destabilize those of us who’ve tried. “Late Bloomer” is a sauntering country-pop ballad in which Harmer lets some fibster rake play yo-yo with her heart; “One Match” is pure post-Vega grown-up storytelling; “Captive” is a coy cat-and-mouse game. The best by far, though, is “The City,” which is one of those rainy trolley-window dreams, with all the elements of a town’s architecture and a failed relationship thrown up in the air, only to have it all scatter on the tarmac until you can’t tell which is which, or why you wanted to know in the first place.
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Every year, there’s an easiest question on the Poll. This is it.
Kate Miller-Heidke. If you can integrate opera singing into your pop songs and not make your listener want to rip her ears off with her bare hands, you’ve got a sense of balance worthy of an Olympic gymnast.
Best Lyrics On An Individual Song
John Mellencamp, “Easter Eve.” When the father and his angelic son blunder into a bar fight, you think you know where this is going. The boy will get killed on Resurrection Day, and the moon of bitter irony will break through the Midwestern clouds. Instead, the kid beats the heck out of the evil drunk, everybody goes to jail, and they all have a bloody good time. Mellencamp’s narrator even gets the girl in the end. There’s no moral, but there sure is a message: although the stars may be aligned against you, fighting back is worth the risk. It’s a hardass narrative for tough times, and a nice substitute for the tales of tragedy we’ve become resigned to.
P.F. Rizzuto Award For Lyrical Excellence Over The Course Of A Full-Length
Dan “Soupy” Campbell over Joanna Newsom, because I will always prefer the person who says “I don’t know why I’m here but I know who my friends are” to the person who disconnects and retreats to where she’s most comfortable, only to find that she still can’t sleep at night.
Band Of The Year
The Kent Hardly Playboys, Jamie Johnson’s misleadingly-named cowboy outfit.
Best Live Show I Saw In 2010
Prince @ the Izod Center.
Most Disappointing Show
VersaEmerge/Anarbor/Dangerous Summer at Highline Ballroom. Bad vibes, bad sound, and a very bad outcome: members of Versa got into a fight with the Dangerous Summer’s Cody Payne after the show, and the tour fell apart. These Warped Tour vets come into the Big Apple with two strikes against them, and a nasty ace pitcher named Weblog Consensus on the mound. Nobody wants to believe you’re any good, guys; if you don’t hang together, you’re sunk.
Best Music Video
Janelle Monae’s “Tightrope.” She didn’t have much competition.
Most Romantic Song
Drake’s “Shut It Down.” I had a long conversation with a little bird about this number. The bird did not care for Drake’s gender politics. Her argument was that while Drake is not the virulent misogynist that other more reupholstery-type emcees might be, the woman in the song was still fully objectified, and only granted value by the male gaze. I said, well, yes. So I lost the argument, but much to the little bird’s chagrin, that didn’t change my opinion of the song. I still believe that Drake’s excitement upon seeing his girlfriend is, while not politically progressive, still kinda beautiful. I’m a showbiz kid at heart. I do believe you have to work the crowd and look good for the camera, and that goes for boys as well as girls. If the clock doesn’t stop when a gorgeous person walks into the room, then the minutes just tick on toward five o’ clock in their slow, dull, monotonous rhythm.
Liz Phair’s mock record-industry conversation in “U Hate It.” I am sufficiently juvenile to find the genius/peenius rhyme funny, and so, I guess, does Phair, so I consider myself in excellent company there. The funniest moment of the year involved reupholstering. That howling sound you heard across the sky on release day was America getting its first listen to “Blame Game.” Or maybe it was just me. I’m pretty sure I woke up most of Harsimus Cove.
Joanna Newsom’s “Baby Birch.” Why is there bunny blood all over your arms, Joanna?
Most Moving Song
“Ice On Her Lashes” by Brooke Fraser. If “Albertine” was Fraser’s version of “Mere Christianity,” “Flags” was her “Grief Observed.” She won’t specify because she’s not the kissing and telling type, but she clearly went through something terrible. By the end of the record, she’s pieced herself back together, no small thanks to her faith, but the scars are all still visible.
“Leaves” by Gregory & The Hawk. If you can’t be with the SuzyV you love, love the SuzyV-wannabe you’re with.
Most Inspiring Song
“A Bigger Point Of Pride,” by the deeply sympathetic Ben Liebsch of You, Me & Everyone We Know. So here he is, working in a copy shop and taking crap, but he won’t get down. Everything he owns fits in a single bag, and he’s toting it from crash pad to crash pad, but he’s not giving up. The heat’s been turned off in his place and he doesn’t have a girlfriend, but that’s bound to change, eventually. Time is on his side, for now. He can hear the sands hissing through the aperture in the hourglass, but he’s going to try to block it out. Okay, he can’t block it out, but maybe he can drown it out with his singing. He’s got his smarts, he’s got his passion, and he’s got his band. That’ll have to do for today, because it’s the only day they’re giving him.
Jenny Lewis gets her new boyfriend to beat up on her old boyfriend on “My Pet Snakes.” It’s a duet, because two on one is the only way to administer a critical beatdown in a place as unfair as Silver Lake. Note to anybody in a band: when you are told “all the best of luck with your career,” that’s sarcasm. We don’t mean it; we hope you’ll never get booked again, and that your name will become mud, and that you’ll be poisoned in your sleep. The drugs only seem to have made us laid back; really we’re seething inside, and determined to chart higher than you, and smooch in front of you while you’re searching for your name in Billboard and finding only ours, together, having lots of fun.
Rookie Of The Year and Hardest Album To Place:
It must have been an accident, or an unauthorized leak, or a mistake by an overworked intern. This July, I was sent a CD from Universal called Silver Threads & Golden Needles. No press release or album notes (or album cover), but I caught the reference to Johnny Cash, so I threw it on. What I got was two siblings with terrific voices singing country standards in close harmony, and tossing in a pair of nifty originals. It reminded me of the album by British folksingers Maddy Prior and June Tabor: here were a couple of young-sounding female traditionalists singing standards associated with men, and slyly altering the meaning of the songs. I tried to write Universal for more information about the group, but nobody there would get back to me or acknowledge the album’s existence. If they had a website or a mySpace page, I couldn’t locate it. Flash forward to the autumn, when I discovered that T-Bone Burnett had signed a group called the Secret Sisters to his new label, Beladroit. I was sent two copies of the Secret Sisters LP, also called The Secret Sisters — and lo and behold, it turned out to be Silver Threads & Golden Needles. Only the songs were all out of order, and there was a new, crummy track stuffed in the middle of the sequence. A few of the songs had been re-cut: much of the gorgeous piano had been removed in favor of standard country hokum. The Sisters themselves re-did some of their vocals, turning in performances that were noticeably more subdued than the ones on Silver Threads & Golden Needles. The basic tracks were the same, the repertoire was the same, but everything felt different. If Silver Threads & Golden Needles had ever been released, it would have made my Top 20. The Secret Sisters is a nice little album, but the world is never going to know what could have been. I can’t even say that the Sisters have potential, because that potential was already fully realized on the album that didn’t come out. I tell this story to underscore a point: small changes made to a recording are enormously significant. Magic really does get lost in mastering, or remixing, or in last minute alterations that seemed imperative at the time, but were wholly unnecessary in retrospect. That extra polish you add to your record can sink the whole enterprise. I also tell the story because I’ve got no place else to complain. I lost a great album in translation from a language I knew to one that I only thought I did, and I really wish I’d been in the room to set Universal straight, and to tell the suits in charge that they were about to make a terrible blunder.
2010 Album You Listened To The Most
Oh Little Fire
2010 Album That Wore Out The Quickest
Kathryn Calder’s Are You My Mother? I never got tired of “Castor And Pollux,” but those ethereal tracks on the record never did cohere. She needs to trade in some of those Pornographers and Immaculate Machinists for the genuine pop-punk musicians who play the music she’s not-so-secretly itching to make. Before she gets too old to make it, I mean. Ditch the zeroes and get with the heroes, Calder.
Prevailing Regrettable Theme Or Trend Of 2010
Concept records that did not cohere. How about that My Chemical Romance album set in an apocalyptic wasteland? The one about the battle between superheroes and the forces of repression? Which is why they sang about… the same stuff they always sing about. Then there’s Janelle Monae’s Metropolis suite, which sounds great on paper, but has yet to translate to much actual sci-fi content in the songs. Clare Burson’s set was supposed to be about the holocaust, or her grandmother, or European history; I listened to it ten times, trying and failing to tease the World War II narrative out of the songs. The Titus Andronicus album was advertised as a meditation on Civil War and New Jersey. Great!, but what about the Civil War and New Jersey? You can’t just string together proper nouns; eventually, you either throw in a verb or you become Billy Joel in “We Didn’t Start The Fire.” These are all good albums — I like them all, and I’m happy that I engaged with them. Ambition is great, and big talk is cool, and strong words in press releases do get the attention of gullible types like me. But at some point you’ve got to back up the blabbing with specifics; otherwise, you’re just a tease, and will make me angry, and growly, and green, and poised to destroy Tokyo. Rock and roll and cola war, I can’t take it anymore.
Maroon 5’s live version of Alicia Keys’ “Ain’t Got You.” The recorded version on the deluxe edition of Hands All Over does not compare; you had to be there, man, you had to beeee theeeeere.
Best Guest Appearance
I don’t mean to be contrary here, or take anything away from Nicki Minaj, but my answer is The Game on Apollo Kids.
Most Convincing Historical Recreation
This one comes with a big, fat, Cee-Lo-sized asterisk. The Lady Killer is a letter-perfect Philly soul record from ’74 — except for the silly, profane single that ran its tire-marks over the rest of the album. I recognize that Cee-Lo thought that he had to put out the single to get people to pay attention to the songs that were important to him, because that’s the crass, no-faith way he’s has been behaving ever since he ditched the Goodie Mob. But he ended up making sure that nobody would listen to The Lady Killer in the right spirit, and disappointing the many fans of gratuitous profanity who’d picked up the album expecting more of the same. Years from now when Anderson Cooper is dropping F-bombs on CNN like it ain’t no thing, we will look back on the Cee-Lo phenomenon of 2010 and wonder what all the fuss was about. Then, and only then, somebody’s going to spin The Lady Killer, and say, hey, the rest of this joint is pretty tight. Take away the novelty song, and you’ve really got something special here. But by then, Cee-Lo will be a black Republican senator from Georgia, and he’ll have banned his own records just to be perverse. To drive up their value on eBay, too; dude is always looking for an angle.
Crappy Album You Listened To A Lot Anyway
Beast Mode. I wade through eight tracks of indifferent production and uneven rhymes to get to the moment where Juvenile says he lives up in a bull’s ass. Also, I spun the Kelis album numerous times, and for the life of me, I do not know why I did such a thing. On first listen I had the good cans on, and I think I convinced myself that the synthesizer parts were inventive. I’ve spent every subsequent listen trying to figure out what gave me that impression. Bad headphones are a blessing. Lousy speakers: only the strong survive.
Artist You Don’t Know, But You Know You Should
Album That Felt Most Like An Obligation To Get Through And Enjoy
By now, you are probably wondering: where is the Big Boi album? Well, it’s here, sad to say. It never clicked for me, and I’m not entirely sure why. I always love Big Boi’s rhyming, and some of the individual tracks are fantastic, but I find the second half of the record a real chore. I admit that I could never get into the tracks with Janelle Monae and Jamie Foxx, and they’re back to back, and right after that there’s the George Clinton song that I don’t understand. I zone out around there and only re-engage when “Shine Blockas” comes on, and that type of thing never happened with an OutKast set. I adore them to pieces, and I will happily pay money for anything they put out, but I’m convinced now — Andre and Antawn really do need each other.
Album That Sounded Like It Was The Most Fun To Make
Jenny and Johnny, and maybe they should have had less fun.
Album That Sounded Like It Was A Chore To Make
Cruiserweight’s Smith Tower. The band was breaking up, and Stella Maxwell sounded incredibly bummed about it. The songs were about giving up on dreams and justifying your existence and life choices to invisible interlocutors, and the Maxwell brother (Cruiserweight was basically a family act) who jumped ship right before the boat went down. Even the cover was illustrated in heavy greens and browns. It’s an interesting companion to the explosive Big Bold Letters, but I don’t think I’ll be returning to it very much, and I’d advise the band not to spin it before Christmases and Thanksgivings at the Maxwell house.
Man, I Wish I Knew What This Song, Or Album, Was About
I know the exotic sound of the language was part of the point — disorientation and destabilization in a different land, and all that — but I’d still love translations of the Chinese pop songs on Cowboy Junkies’ Renmin Park. Also, Roky: “think of as are”? In his uptight liner notes, Will Sheff said you never sang any songs the same way twice, so I guess there’s no reconstituting that one, but it’s a head-scratcher, and you sound inspired enough to make me wonder.
Most Inconsistent Album
Audrey Assad’s The House You’re Building. The great Christian rock numbers were the blatant Brooke Fraser rewrites. The weak ones sounded like limp ’70s folk-rock; all Kumbaya my lord and major seventh chords. Assad is a very good singer, though, and her relationship to the divine is sufficiently tormented to have the ring of true belief. I’m worried she won’t get another chance. I hear Sparrow Records isn’t exactly inclined to turn the other cheek when the sales numbers don’t add up.
Most Consistent Album
Apollo Kids. Really, guys, it’s great. Best Ghost since Supreme Clientele.
Song Or Album That Should Have Been Shorter
Every song on Speak Now could have used a little pruning. Swift’s junior year was a bit like Oasis’s third: she went on and on because she could, and because nobody gives the cane to the country’s top seller; and because, mmm, that spotlight feels so nice. I am blonde and awesome, did I mention that? Long live me and my awesomeness. Also I always write a bridge and they’re really really good; here, take two, and bring one home to your momma.
Song Or Album That Should Have Been Longer
Hey Monday. As one of the few young women working this territory — and one who writes her own material — Cassadee Pope deserved more than six songs.
Album That Turned Out To Be A Whole Hell Of A Lot Better Than You Thought It Was
I’m going with the in crowd here, and voting for Belle & Sebastian, but only provisionally. My initial impressions of Write About Love weren’t wrong: it’s definitely going to go down as a minor entry in a major discography. But after God Help The Girl, Stuart Murdoch probably felt the need to reassure his band that Belle & Sebastian was a real band, and not just a vehicle for his May-December sex fantasies. So I think he eased up on the accelerator just a bit, and let some of his mates shine — and they do, especially the rhythm section. Sarah Martin gets to kick the album off and sing the big production piece toward the end. Mick Cooke plays more trumpet than he has since Tigermilk. Everybody gets into the game — it’s like one of those late Creedence records where, to avoid a mutiny, John Fogerty turned the band into something like a democracy. Mr. Murdoch, remember Tris McCall axiom #1: nothing good ever came of a vote.
Album That Was The Most Fun To Listen To
Some Things Don’t Wash Out
Sufjan Stevens. I keep hoping somebody will slip that guy the magic truffle fry.
Worst Song Of The Year
And speaking of the magic truffle fry, here’s “Teqkilla,” from Maya. Six and a half minutes of absurdly-loud synthesizer, the “innovative” garbage can beats by some overhyped jackass from fascist Britain, and an intoxicated dilettante reciting the names of brands of booze. “When I met Seagram/ he sent Chivas down my spine.” UGGH. Hearing “Teqkilla” was like being trapped in the basement of Luxx during a Berliniamsburg party, and having to listen to the show through the ceiling while being pinned to the vomit-stained sofa by a wealthy Connecticut girl who’d had one too many of every drug ever invented. I’d thank God the empress now has no clothes, but believe it or not, seeing M.I.A. naked is not high on my list of NYC things to do.
“Earl,” by Earl Sweatshirt. Man, that’s just gross.
I can deal with Katy Perry’s screeching on “Firework.” I don’t like it, but I can deal with it. Regine Chassagne, however, I cannot listen to, and I would much prefer it if you’d point her in another direction. “Sprawl II” sounds like a gang of first-year Tisch students invaded the karaoke bar, cued up a Blondie record, and decided to art-damage it to prove a point that none of them will remember when the X wears off. I know, it is a beloved record for many. I don’t understand you people.
Tickets to Kid Cudi’s concert at Terminal 5 go onsale at 4:20 on Friday. DO YOU GET IT? Because I do. I value Scott Mescudi’s contributions to Kanye’s records, but at this point, it no longer matters to me whether he’d begin to rhyme with some semblance of meter, or confidence, if he wasn’t stoned. This is because he is up there and he’s not coming down. He’s like a poorly-inflated mylar balloon, and his raps are the equivalent of a slow helium leak.
If Jonathan Rice could do anything on the bass guitar besides hump away on rudimentary eighth note patterns, I’d wager he would have done so by now. Also, no matter how much reverb you throw on his guitar signal, he is not going to make anybody forget about Blake Sennett. In concert at Maxwell’s, he wore a Jenny Lewis t-shirt just like any other fan. I’m glad he’s self-aware; otherwise, this story would definitely end in tragedy.
The 1900s are a cool band from the Midwest with excellent musical ideas. Stevie Jackson is a fan, which makes good sense, or maybe bad sense, since they enjoy ripping off Stevie Jackson. But the lyrics are terrible. Here is a sample chorus for your examination: “I would like to dance/ from Nola to Yahweh/ drinking soda from a paper plate/ Bmore/ Bmore amore.” Go on, guys, kick the next one in Esperanto. It can’t make less sense.
Worst Lyrics By A Good Lyricist Who Should Have Known Better
Dan Purcell beat me to this yesterday. He disliked “Committed” for exactly the same reason that I did, and he put his objections to the song so forcefully that, for once, I’ve got nothing to add. A couple of you have asked me about Dan, since you enjoy reading his reflections on the year in music as much as I do. Dan was my college roommate, and we showed up at our freshman dormitory with virtually identical cassette collections in virtually identical wooden cassette racks. We were the two biggest music nuts on campus, and we probably did influence each other’s tastes more than we realized at the time. That said, Dan was more into the Nuggets collections and garage rock in general, and I drove him crazy by spinning nonstop Nick Drake and Sandy Denny. He lives out in Oakland (California, not Bergen County), but he pulls for the Kansas City Royals, which is another weird thing we had in common. Oh, and Dan introduced me to Bill James, without whom you probably wouldn’t be reading any of this, since I doubt I would have become a pro writer, or just a pro jerk, if it wasn’t for James’s influence. Therefore, based on some geometric or mathematical principle, Dan is responsible for this Poll; direct any complaints to him. Just kidding, I love Dan. Everything here is my own fault.
Worst Song On A Good Album
“Hands All Over” by Maroon 5. This sub-Def Leppard stomper just kills the album dead.
Most Unsexy Person In Pop Music
Waka Flocka Flame
Best-Sounding Album Of 2010
Thank Me Later
Most Thoroughly Botched Production Job
Nicki Minaj. Allow me to turn this one over to R. Lee Ermey, in the role of Gunnery Sergeant Hartmann: “Private Minaj, you’re not a singer! You’re a killer!” “A killer, sir, yes sir!”
Song That Would Drive You Craziest On Infinite Repeat
Ludacris, “Get Low.” I mean, he’s done, right? Please?
Song That Got Stuck In Your Head The Most This Year
Ke$ha’s “Take It Off.” That song made me want to be ten years old, and at a block party, jumping around in a ball pit, and trying to count the number of jellybeans in a jar.
Thing You Feel Cheapest About Liking
Frat-rap and electro-rap in general. Sam Adams, K. Flay, Mike Posner, MC Lars; jerky fellows on the mic and being oh so clever. At least I seem to be immune to MC Frontalot.
Young Upstart Who Should Be Sent Down To The Minors For More Seasoning
Christofer Drew of Nevershoutnever. I like him, though.
Hoary Old Bastard Who Should Spare Us All And Retire
Good Artist Most In Need Of Some Fresh Ideas
Carl Newman. At the very least, he’s got to shake up the running orders on his albums. First comes the frenetic, upbeat one, then the Neko Case ballad, then the radio single, then a group singalong, then we hear from Dan Bejar, etc.: he’s fallen into a rut so deep that all he can see is peat moss and earthworms. He’s also become awfully reliant on a few songwriting crutches — on “Together,” he keeps shaving beats in the choruses, jumping back to the verses before you’d expect in an attempt to restore a little urgency to his writing. He needs to do a death metal album, or collaborate with Lil Jon. Well, yes, that would be horrible, but it might switch his lightbulb back on.
Most Overplayed Song
Probably “California Gurls.”
Song You Identified With The Most
Take it away, Gerard Way: “You only live forever in the lights you make/ When we were young we used to say/ That you only hear the music when your heart begins to break/ We are the kids from yesterday.” Indeed.
Place The Next Pop Music Boom Will Come From
Nashville, since country music fans still actually buy the albums.
Will Still Be Making Good Records in 2020
Will Be A One-Hit Wonder
Biggest Musical Trend Of 2011
The rap floodgates open, and everybody gets on the mic: big-hatted country singers, sorority girls, toddlers with YouTube access, housewives real and fake, science teachers, politicians and civil servants, grandmothers and Godfathers. It’s the full democratization of hip hop, and it’ll be… um… well, we’ll all be pining for the days of yes y’allin’.
Forbidden Concepts for 2011
No emcee is allowed to claim that he is stuck in the Matrix. No emcee (or non-emcee) is allowed to have a name with dollar $ymbol$ in it. Also, can we stop featuring Rihanna on songs about domestic abuse? And let’s cool it with all the tattoos, guys. This is pop music, not a circus sideshow. MTV is starting to look like the Ringling Brothers Channel.
Best Album Of 2011
All Things Bright And Beautiful
Review your Album of the Year picks.
Or, review your Single of the Year picks.
Or, review the long Miscellaneous Categories document,
Or, wait patiently for the final essay, titled “You’re Missing A Great Game.”
Continue reading here: Critics Poll 21: My Ballot – The Star-Ledger – NJ.com
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