Friday, October 16, 2015

My Top 15 Albums of 2010

Woah hey this is early, wait no uh... do you know what year it is? Do you need a brain doctor?

No, the only sickness I have is the sickness of nostalgia, and maybe some sort of compulsive thing regarding making lists. I'm really happy that I've now had a two-year streak of best album lists, but the holes in my record nag at me. There were a lot of really fantastic albums that came out in 2010 and I need to cement my opinion of them before enough critical hindsight makes my insights too trivial. These are healthy human being thoughts.

Seriously, though, I don't really see these lists as being any sort of definitive, set-in-stone thing. When I first attempted to make a 2010 list, in uh, early 2011, when it would have been reasonable, which then stretched embarrassingly into mid and then late 2011, and then was wholly abandoned (it was gonna be a top 100 list, basically just a "every album I liked in some sort of order" list, and I was going insane), my top 15 only overlaps with about half of my list now, and in a drastically different order. Even my "modern era" 2013 and 2014 lists are different from how I'd make them now. It's kinda fun to go in to these sort of projects aiming for some definitive ideal, but it's not really the point. The point is to have fun rediscovering these great albums and hopefully helping people check out some music that they may not have otherwise heard! So let's get started!!

15. Avey Tare - Down There

I talk a lot about "aesthetics" when I discuss music and very rarely do I try at all to define it except in cyclical terms. Like I'll say "this song really has a mountainous aesthetic!" as if that was a sensible statement. And if you ask me to tell you what exactly is this mountainous aesthetic, I'll just say that it's the part of the song that makes you think of mountains, and then probably run away from you to avoid further questions. Okay okay but that's really the best I can do to define an aesthetic: it's the qualities of the imaginative universe the album generates in your mind, the really sticky stuff between the instrumentation and the lyrics and any other thing you can point at, the stuff that's more than the sum of all those parts and yet often adds up to something simple, like a colour, or a place.

Like in this case, the word is "swamp". Listen to this album and tell me you don't think of a real swampy swamp, with reeds and grasses and croaking toads, and things lurking out there, way out there. Unidentifiable beasts and deranged people, a sense of foreboding, a sense of things happening "the way they do" way out there for generations passed, something you couldn't comprehend or even mess with. Like a season one True Detective sorta feeling. Do you hear it? In those squelchy drums? The murky bass? The rough and rambly vocal samples? In cemeteries and hospitals, the swamp pervades.

What's truly remarkable, though, is where you don't hear it. This swampy backdrop, expertly crafted and sometimes almost overwhelmingly evocative, is only the beginning of Avey Tare's adventure. It fits well within the Animal Collection tradition of lyrics that use bizarre imagery and blank abstraction to convey very human and understandable thought processes. It swings wildly between both extremes, hinting at an inner, sensible heart. Like "my heart is a nurse, but my tongue's in the blender" says obviously something, something pretty extreme, but means it in a way that maybe you can never understand. Then you get the repeated cyclic mantra "And if I have some kind of need/Maybe the thing I need is the thing I've got/And if I look inside of me/I find the thing that can't be took or bought", which says almost nothing, and yet actually means something pretty profound.

Combining these two lyrical techniques and dousing them in swamp water, Avey then stretches them across masterful structures of songwriting. The first is the sprawling, ever-progressing, epic of a song, seen on "Laughing Hieroglyphic" and "Heather in the Hospital", which feel like heading deep into the swamp, deep into your mind. This then folds into the second, the "jam", a concept I got into at the end of my PBMTGR review, seen here in absolutely masterful form on "Oliver Twist" and "Lucky 1", feeling like really settling into the aesthetic, the lifestyle, and allowing it to surge through you in some sort of ecstasy. These moments of musical power anchor the other songs, which defy any sort of structural expectation and forge new paths into the true unknown. The whole thing manages to paint a nuanced emotional portrait, alongside a landscape of a deep swamp, without losing any detail or meaning in other.

Recommended tracks: Laughing HieroglyphicOliver Twist

14. RiLF - Ferris Wheel

RiLF is a Japanese post-rock/neoclassical group that features the grand compositions of Takahiro Kido, the piano work of Yuki Murata, and the godly vocals of calu. Wow! It's an all-star cast of people you've never heard of! This sort of music is very precious to me, vaguely sacred. I find other people are split between "this is so gorgeous, the most wonderful beautiful music ever made", and "eh idk kinda boring". If you want to see what camp you're in, listen to the second track until about 2 minutes in, when the drums come in after calu sings "the moon is shining on your heart". Are your mouth and eyes open wide? Then about fifteen seconds later, when the guitars come back in, feel your cheek. Is it wet? Taste the wetness. Is it salty? Are they tears? Your tears? If so, I have several labels and discographies to recommend you.

And if not, I probably won't be able to convince you of the quality of this music. There's nothing really secret or subtle about it, no nuance that I can point out that will make you suddenly realize "ah, that's the appeal!" There's lots of stuff I can praise, but it's all pretty obvious... But hey, praising stuff is what we're here to do! Most of the songs function through the classic post-rock structure of long buildups into powerful climaxes; the slang term thrown around somewhat disparagingly is "crescendocore", but I think "Roller Coaster" is a pretty apt name. Other tracks are more like a Ferris wheel - a gradual, continuous, buildup on a dimension of sound that isn't quite "complexity" and isn't quite "dynamics", but somehow sounds most like "vantage".

Although it's anchored down by the dynamic showstoppers "Roller Coaster" and "Mint Tea", it's these more repetitive experiments in sound that make this project something special. Kido is eager to treat calu's voice as more of an instrument than a separate vocal line, chopping it up and extending it to bring out its shimmering essence. Likewise, Murata is given the chance to work with simple loops and melodies reminiscent of tintinnabuli. By removing the requirement of traditional song structure and placing them in a variety of more experimental arrangements, we see sides of these wonderful performers that never see light otherwise... the way Murata lays down GY!BE-esque chords alongside acoustic guitar on the despair-banger "interlude" or the way calu's voice is worked into weg-styled progressive-chaos rock on "so sad" feel like a rarely glimpsed facet of a dear friend. I wouldn't rank this among my absolute favorite albums in the "genre", but honestly calu coughing onto a microphone while Murata tries to play with her feet probably would have made the list. Luckily, this is much more than that.

Recommended tracks: Mint TeaPray for the Piano

13. Waka Flocka Flame - Flockaveli

Okay now for something COMPLETELY different. Not just from the previous two albums, but for me, at the time, different than basically anything that had come before. This might surprise you to learn, given the amount of Young Thug content on the blog, but I used to be pretty backpacker when it came to hip hop. The type that would look at a lyric and be like "DAMN that word is obscure", or "holy COW look at that sly triple pun". This isn't the first album I enjoyed that defied this system of appreciation, but it was maybe the first MASTERPIECE. So much stuff that I now find essential in hip hop first became apparent here.

Like did I really understand the importance of the sound of someone's voice before this? Waka's voice is both smooth and melodious, with a rich, resonate lower end, and is also so explosive, so dynamic, so wild and unrestrained. Or the beats? I can remember a time when I would have written these off as overly simplistic or unrefined, but Lex Luger's "Goldeneye on N64" melodies combined with relentless trappy drums is the perfect backdrop for Waka's energy... never competing with him, but just giving him the opportunities to be most dynamic.

The double on this album - Waka's second vocal take, where he shouts things like "Brick Squad!" and "Waka! Flocka!" - is a whole other beat onto itself, creating a sort of overwhelming energy... between the two of him, he never needs to run out of breath or energy. The quality becomes sort of memetic... "meme rap" is a common insult on /mu/ to refer to albums with discussion that perpetuates largely through repeated reference to several exemplary lines or moments. Flockaveli predates these insults but is actually a great example of how the term really ought not to be negative. Any album that makes itself so memorable and evocative in the space of a shitpost truly has something special going for it.

Flockaveli is so much the "real one", the most extreme imaginable version of itself, that it becomes a punchline onto itself, either through juxtaposition or sheer shock... it becomes the very idea of a "hard rap album". It functions within the album itself - would "Shoutouts to that fuck nigga tried to rob me at the Wal-Mart/Ran up on his car had him eating shells like Mario Go Kart" be such a classic line if it wasn't for the internal contrast of images? Or on more somber tracks like "For My Dawgs", would the message be as affecting if we hadn't seen such a range of him? It can function in your own life, too - I can remember one morning, I was lying in bed, and a bird outside happened to chirp four times, in the exact right rhythm, and I shouted out "bitch I'm bustin' at em!" and made myself laugh unreasonably hard. This was years ago; it is still a very precious memory to me.

If that sounds a little deranged in its sentimentality, and maybe utterly absurd and inappropriate for an album where one of the hooks is just "Fuck the club up/Fuck the fucking club up", then I encourage you to try to think of the entire process of listening to an album like this a little differently. It's authentic and extreme, but it obviously doesn't reflect your personal reality (unless the readers of this blog are much different than I imagined), but the trick is in embracing this distance for funsies and then engaging with a tongue-in-cheek, but also genuinely inspiring, personal reflection of Waka. What I mean by that is this: when you go and "fuck the club up", it probably means playing well at the next Smash Bros meetup, but when you listen to Flockaveli on the bus, you're gonna get PUMPED in exactly the right way. It still works now, five years later.

Recommended tracks: KarmaHard in the Paint

12. Kool Kats Klub - Glass, in my Head

Time for something completely different again. Just from the cover - the juxtaposition of the famous Green Mile scene with the obnoxiously provocative name and the Lil B-inspired warning label - you know you're in for some sort of treat. If you're really on your game you might recognize Kilo Kish's name on the left - her career in the years since is worth checking out, and she's worked with a few pretty high profile people. But I'd be pretty impressed if you've heard of this, a mutt collection of b-sides and unfinished tracks of her first group. I can only find this mysterious source, which I stumbled on back in early 2011 through means I've forgotten.

I got lucky. This thing is a wholly unique beast. It's undeniably amateurish, with loud, blown-out mastering, unsophisticated synthwork, and rapping that, while passable, isn't particularly noteworthy on its own. The song structures are... weird, with most tracks feeling like they're a hook or verse short of final. Many of the vocal tracks feel uncertain or undefined, often breaking down into laughing, distraction, or incomprehensibility.

Ah, but all of this works to their advantage! It's all so good! The production has this awesome full noisy quality that hooks you right in to the track. It contrasts so perfectly with their voices, making their airiness and steadiness feel defiant, a beam of light through the haziness. Their vocoder work, although basic, nails this awesome visceral "robot feeling" that I cherish on anything that I can find - Death Grips' "Why A Bitch Gotta Lie", Death from Above 1979's "Do It!", and some of my favorite tracks on this. The rapping might be unfocused, and the songs maybe even unfinished, but it brings out the fun they were having, the freedom they had in their visions and creation.

But it's way beyond just a well-done amateurish novelty, it's not just "better than it has any right to be", because the things they were attempting really don't exist otherwise. This style of production, with clean synth patterns running twice as fast as the rapping, blown out but frantic... these vocal effects, this whole world of sound, where does it exist outside of this? If you know, please tell me. While I return to Flockaveli five years later as an untopped example of a style I still eagerly consume, I return to this because no one's done it since.

Recommended tracks: Go way harderMy Anatomy

11. Venetian Snares - My So-Called Life

Alright, let's say you're not familiar with good ol' V-Snares and you see that album cover. What do you think is gonna be contained within? The "snares" might give you a bit of a tip, sure, but disregarding that, what do you have to work with? I'm sure you have a lot of ideas you're confident about regarding what it's not, and I'm gonna guess that those are all pretty accurate. This is not "normal people music". This is not gonna sell well to "normal people". Probably, regardless of what genre you'd expect it in, you have a certain sense of maybe some sort of depravity lurking within, some deranged quality, and let me tell you, it is everything you feared/hoped.

Venetian Snares is a breakcore artist, which is basically where your music goes really fast and you spam chopped up samples like spacie players multishining. There's a sort of inherent nuttiness to the music, a sort of jagged discomfort that comes from its speed, its relentlessness, its complexity... it's like... there's a "peace" to hearing a song that you can mentally encapsulate, that you could, say, whistle along to, or tap out the beat of, and breakcore music is, to put it lightly, challenging in that regard. And on some tracks, Aaron is content to push strongly just in that direction, attacking with jungle bangers that sound like the drums themselves have come alive and are rebelling - "Cadaverous", "Ultraviolent Jungalist", "Sound Burglar", each named after the vocal sample that brings them together.

But the true depravity of Venetian Snares is in his tracks where the breakbeat serves to facilitate other ungodly mashups and experiments. Take the opening track - an intricate harpsichord counterpoint melody quickly devolves into a strange juxtaposition between genuinely frightening D12 samples and the innocent "lucky me, lucky you", completely coated, of course, in splattering rapid-fire drums. It makes it so the breakbeat ends up being the most comprehensible aspect of the song, the part you have to cling to to bring together the other disparate elements... that inherently uncomfortable thing is now your lifejacket! How depraved is that?

Well, it isn't as depraved as the back-to-back combo of "Who Wants Cake?" and "Welfare Wednesday", where the same principle applies, but now you are beset by things too depraved to exist in low-bpm reality... Aaron's serving up a laundry list of punani-contents, and samples from a pilot that probably didn't air for a good reason... We get the sense that breakcore, a genre that fights for hyperfluousness and exexexcessiveness, is actually the simplest way to express these ideas. That's pretty dang depraved.

No no though the really really depraved quality of this album is on the tracks where he doesn't sound so deranged at all. "Aaron2", "Goodbye9/Hello10", "Hajnal2", and the closing title track all still have as their core a spine of untamable breakbeat, but aim not for irreverence, but for actual poignancy, reflection, nostalgia, despair... It's a seemingly impossible combination that Aaron had proved out on career highlights Rossz Csillag Alatt Született and My Downfall (Original Soundtrack), but here the effect becomes even more multifaceted. As these bids for sadness hit home, he manifests the strongest version of the unnerving "breakbeat normalization" yet, as you find that you really are comforted by the excessive drums as a release from the even more unbearable sadness (it reminds me of "The American Century as Seen Through a Brick" from Infinite Jest).

And then we get the absolute true real hip hop 2010 honest content depraved heart of the album, which is that, unlike any of his other LPs, all these tiers of degeneracy are on the same album. It's really unreal. When this came out, I was playing a lot of 40 line in Tetris, which I think is one of the more depraved video game experiences I can imagine. The album served as a perfect soundtrack... I'd spam the fast tracks on repeat until it became painfully apparent that the record wasn't happening that night, then switch to the sad ones, probably watching the sun come up, feeling some type of way.

Recommended tracks: My So-Called LifeWelfare Wednesday

10. LCD Soundsystem - This Is Happening

Okay okay let's take a break from all this "depraved" talk and look at this, an album I'll put on with my dad in the car. Going in to 2010, this was probably my most anticipated release. My obsession with Sound of Silver peaked in late 2009, that being the first "period of obsession" that I had free after all the other albums I was obsessed with from 2007. I remember when this first leaked, I was talking to my equally-hyped friend on MSN (so long ago!) and describing it to him moment by moment (kinda making it my first "live review", lol)... And when that moment hits on "Dance Yrself Clean" - you know the one - I had to stop. It had just gone beyond.

The narrative around James Murphy is basically that he was, more than a musician, a music fan, the sort of hardcore fan that proudly centers every aspect of his lifestyle around remaining as relevant and knowledgeable as possible. He was there, y'know? With his 2005 debut he proved that his veteran status translated into expertise, both in mastery of decades' worth of styles and a deep emotional understanding of the scenes they represented. In 2007, he doubled down on Sound of Silver, pushing out sonic masterpieces that were more than the polished sum of their parts, that showed something entirely new happening on top.

Riding that tsunami of critical acclaim, becoming the very sort of groundbreaking artist he admired, he tripled down on This is Happening, saying that it would be the final album, and definitely better than the other two. Working to make good on that hype, he aims for every facet of appeal in each of the last two albums, including the appeal of brand new sorts of sounds, and often hits new high water marks. There's the loudQUIETloud rock-bangers infused with social commentary that feels both acutely neurotic and profoundly significant. But before he strays too far into sincerity, threatening irrelevance, he undercuts it with irreverence and irony, as on the hilarious "Pow Pow" and "Drunk Girls".

This attitude comes through in the music, too: while the complexity and innovation in his synth work hasn't diminished, he doesn't neglect the traditional rock elements that bring them into a familiar, "banger"-type place. If I've ever been at a party where "Drunk Girls" wouldn't be appreciated, I probably didn't want to be there. For me, the height of this fusion is on "All I Want", which doesn't stray far from the classic guitar/drums/piano/vocals paradigm, but pushes these sounds so dramatically and emotionally that it feels like nothing else I'd ever heard.

LCD Soundsystem has always proudly worn its influences on its sleeve, and, perhaps emboldened by this being the finale, pushes even further into established sounds: the aforementioned "All I Want" is David Bowie's "Heroes" superpowered; "Somebody's Calling Me" is like Iggy Pop's "Nightclubbing" in a 21st century club; "Home" nails the David Byrne "Naive Melody" sound like no one else since the man himself. It's very satisfying; the "authenticity" of these songs feels like a great achievement of something he had always admired and aspired to understand and develop. To see the obvious success of such experiments gives the album a triumphant power that becomes sentimental and beautiful in the context of endings.

The best, though, is still the tracks where it feels like he's pushing it a bit, really putting himself out there, where you can feel him working out exactly how the track could exist within the track itself. "You Wanted A Hit", the album's centerpiece, finds Murphy both witty and vulnerable, bemoaning the impossible demands of his fans and critics while simultaneously achieving them beyond any expectation. Musically, it's everything all at once - beautiful synthesized melodies, garage band jamming, overwhelming polyphony, each sounding like the version too cool for you to know about. Could anyone else have put it all together? Will anyone ever again?

Recommended tracks: All I WantYou Wanted A Hit

9. Exit Tunes - Exit Trance Presents 電波トランス

Normal music interlude over. Degeneracy now set to HYPERMAXIMUM. Did you enjoy that nice break, normies? Did you like your "guitar music" and "widespread critical acclaim" or even just "public acceptance"? Forget about all of that. Forget about those words. Forget the whole English language and strap in: it's denpa time. Okay fine you can remember English if you want to read the rest of this and see what the heck is going on.

Exit Tunes is a Japanese label that curates and publishes albums of electronic music - usually stuff like vocaloids or anime remixes. One of their most popular series is Exit Trance, which takes popular anime songs and stretches them out into certified trance bangers. Already we are on dangerous ground. Anime songs are a strange cultural artifact to begin with, especially opening themes, the most popular remix targets. These songs are usually designed by committee with one goal in mind: to remain catchy and memorable, week to week, such that the show lingers in your mind as a positive entity, especially when you are in the position to buy merchandise. The end result is a song that is scientifically catchy but often very devoid of meaning, itself only a pointer to the show, inherently signifying nothing.

The other half is trance music, a popular electronic subgenre that foregoes complexity for familiarity, anticipation, and dancability. The appeal is in the name itself - you're supposed to lose your mind, move your body, all that good stuff. Typically tempos are kept under 140 bpm, to facilitate fun club movement, but the requirements of normie-clubs are of no interest to us ITG-degenerates, and Exit Trance cranks it up to the "14+ footer" 180-200bpm range. We're left with a definite call to tranced out dancey movement, but with total disregard for the physicality of it, immediately immersing us in a fantasy mindset.

As far as selling merchandise goes, this combination of empty advertising signifiers and mind-draining beats seems especially potent, but maybe not too novel? And indeed, there are dozens of Exit Trance releases. So what makes this one special? Even more powerful? Even more degenerate? It is, of course, the denpa factor. Like the breakbeat drums of My So-Called Life, the hypercute vocals are the one unifying thread of this album. The shows sampled vary in obscurity, genre, and era, sending you spiraling from recognition to confusion (or, for most people, confusion to confusion), but the smaller pool of vocalists gives you a consistency and point of entry to even the most baffling of developments.

Although there is some comfort in this, there is also maybe a fear around the power of this element, as this "denpafication" that gelled the album into a homogeneous whole threatens to obliterate all meaning whatsoever. Like you can look up the lyrics to these songs, but they probably didn't mean anything in the first place, and they certainly don't in this context. And although there definitely seems to be a lot of emotion in their voices at times, it's a weird, impossible sort of emotion, one that feels both performative and fake but also too innocent to be at all knowing, keeping the listener at a paradoxical distance of both understanding and being tricked. It really doesn't matter, though. Like consider the ending of the third track, when mi-mi shouts "vamanos!". That isn't even Japanese! But in any language, there's only one thing that it could mean.

It means go! Like go listen to this album and sing along to Japanese nonsense and clap your hands and stomp your feet and completely lose your mind. Put it on when you're exercising or cleaning or whatever and watch the task transform into a stupid ironic rave you can't help but indulge in. Put it on when you're miserable and crying and become the hontoniest of bakas, completely helpless in the tide of denpa energy. Let the music win! Forget binaural beats placebo nonsense, this is the real audio drugs. Feel yourself at the center of the collective scorn of demographics and immediately stop caring. Feel random Japanese gibberish override your language center. Feel compelled to buy PVC representations of animated characters. Denpa is a good feeling.

Recommended tracks: 四角い宇宙で待ってるよ超妻賢母宣言

8. Big Boi - Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty

I once had a dream I was talking to Jay Z on a train, years ago, probably around 2010. It was one of the best dreams I've ever had; as soon as I woke up, I wrote down everything I could remember about it. There was something Jay Z said, in the dream, that I still think about today. I'm going somewhere with this trust. He said "People keep saying I should make another Reasonable Doubt, as if that's something easy". People really do say stuff like this. It's pretty tempting to look at an artist with a legendary history and wonder why they haven't simply "gone back" to their successful earlier styles. To an outsider, it seems easier and safer than the unproven and sometimes hit-and-miss experimentation of their later work. But bringing back the creative energy of the past is never trivial.

In hip hop, the common variation of this, one that I often find myself asking, is "why don't they just make bangers?". It seems so simple, right? When I'm hearing some rapper clumsily explore other genres or get all soppy about their feelings, I can't help but wish they just stuck to pumping out big-hook, big-beat, club-dominating bangers. As if there wasn't anything more annoying and pathetic than a failed banger. As if there wasn't anything less memorable than a project filled with them.

So here we have Big Boi, a three decade legend, putting out his first full length project in four years. 2006's Idlewild, although imo underrated, had people thinking his best work was behind him; and since said work included some of the greatest rap albums of all time, adding to that legacy is a delicate task. Some people probably wondered if, at 35, he could still rap like he used to in his youth. Others worried that the general "scene" had left him behind, leaving him dated and archaic even at his best. Some wanted to see him continue to experiment with new genres and aesthetics, whereas others wanted a spiritual sequel to their own favorite Outkast album. Still others just wanted a bunch of bangers.

I bet you know where I'm going with this: he did it all. The album is fresh and experimental, as Big Boi draws upon his eclectic tastes in funk, rock, soul, gospel... country? opera?... far from dated, it makes his contemporaries feel like they haven't been keeping up. Everything is refined to a point of sweet slick hypnotic professionalism - most of all his rapping, which is so on point it feels like the golden days of Outkast coming alive again. His guest features range from Gucci Mane to Janelle Monáe to Big Rube to George Clinton, each of them given the opportunity to demonstrate the strengths that made them famous while also contributing to the unified sensibility of that album.

And what is that sensibility? It can probably be summarized as "if we're gonna do it, it has to bang". We can make a soulful followup to deep cut "The Train", we can have Jamie Foxx sing about what it means to grow up a hustler, we can get Andre to produce some weird-ass song and put Yelawolf on it, we can get some white kids no one ever heard of named after a sci-fi author to sing a hook, we can do anything and everything, but they all have to be bangers. Every song is a banger. Even the intro is a banger! And it ain't nothing but the intro! And like, we can have skits, but they have to be funny. They're actually funny skits! It sounds simple but I don't think for a second it was half as easy as he makes it look.

Recommended tracks: Daddy Fat SaxShine Blockas

Okay, that's it for part one!

I find that people don't want to even start skimming something if the scrollbar is below a certain length, so I'm sneakily splitting it into two. Plus I'm paranoid about bizarre formatting issues etc etc. And yes I just like having a high viewcount too. Feel free to chastise me I don't care just please also take a look at part two!

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