Was 2010 The Best Year For Music Ever? Redeeming M.I.A.
Welcome to Sound of the City's year-in-review rock-critic roundtable, an amiable ongoing conversation between five prominent Voice critics: Rob Harvilla, Zach Baron, Sean Fennessey, Maura Johnston, and Rich Juzwiak. We'll be here all week!
Dear Rob, Sean, Rich, and Maura,
I believe, as per our esteemed colleagues over at ILM, that the tortured anagram that Rob is looking for here is BLAND: Beach House (it's like you knew!), LCD Soundsystem, Arcade Fire, the National, and Deerhunter. I like exactly one of those records, so fine with me, but before I start gassing on about how inspiring I found James Murphy to be in 2010, I believe there was a sprawling three-part opening question to be addressed. Let's take a moment to recall that at roughly this time last year, two smart critics, Sasha Frere-Jones and Simon Reynolds, were gently declaring hip-hop as we knew it dead. (Sasha: "If I had to pick a year for hip-hop's demise, though, I would choose 2009.")
The comedy of that proclamation (which, paradoxically, I think was not entirely wrong--the paradigm-rattling records made by Nicki, Kanye, Drake, et al in 2010 at times begin to demand a whole new genre title, but let's leave that alone for now) a year later should provide all the warning we need about declaring 2010 to be anything but another number.
But there was indeed something undeniably transfixing--addictive, even--about following this stuff in 2010. Even acts whose music failed to move me--I'm sorry, Arcade Fire, I tried, I honestly did--did big things on big stages. Everybody's favorite married Canadian multi-instrumentalizing collective began the year soundtracking the motherfucking Super Bowl and will end it with a Billboard #1 in their pocket, their fiercely independent label Merge's first ever. In between those two milestones, the band smashed a venue no less venerable than Madison Square Garden. Not bad for a bunch of people with terrible haircuts. That they, Vampire Weekend, LCD Soundsystem, Spoon, MGMT, the National, M.I.A., and Sufjan Stevens all placed records in Billboard top ten this year (contrast to last year's year-end list titan, Animal Collective, who peaked on the charts at #13 and plummeted after that), along with the whole Pavement reunion blowout, suggests to me that 2010 was indeed the year when important, seismic shifts took place vis a vis the relationship between indie culture and the so-called mainstream. I leave it to Maura, who actually knows how to read a sales chart, to confirm or deny that impression.
Perhaps this is where your and my Vampire Weekend guilt comes in, Rob. Not so much because I have anything against people who dress well (I happen to be wearing a huge Polo sweater while writing this), or who make songs as quietly devastating as "Taxi Cab" or "Giving Up the Gun," but because it seems so obvious, heroin for critics and sorority girls alike. We are all of us here enough children of the '80s and '90s Alternative Nation culture to suspect preppies bearing gifts. But I am also enough of a grown-up to fall for things that I am absolutely meant to fall for, whether penned by Dr. Luke or The-Dream, two professional songwriters who put out almost unfathomable amounts of good music in 2010. I hope Rich, who almost cut me the other day when I suggested to him that Love King was the worst of three great Dream albums, and Sean, who wrote the still-definitive Dr. Luke piece for this blog earlier this year, will have more to say about how masterfully these two ran pop music over the last twelve months.
Meanwhile it was the ex-hardcore kid in me that swooned for records from both Titus Andronicus, whose The Monitor was at once an ace homage to a venerable Jersey punk tradition and a sophisticated, literary, Craig Finn-inspired update to it, and, yes, M.I.A., whose punk as fuck /\/\/\Y/\ remains by far 2010's most misunderstood record. If you ever wonder, as I often do, whether writers can change the conversation much in the 21st Century, look no further than Lynn Hirschberg, who used an august, New York Times Magazine-shaped shovel to dig a M.I.A.-sized hole out in the posh hills of Brentwood, then buried her in it. This century's most successful political artist (short of Kanye, maybe?) was pilloried for not becoming the pop star "Paper Planes" had inadvertently implied she might become; instead she made a weirdly avant record about playing video games, falling in love, and finding financial security, only to get betrayed by a fickle audience for being radical in form rather than merely in content. Like she says: "I know I made it just by counting up my haters." She's sure got a lot of them. But I ain't one. And on that note, I'll up Rob's five and go six:
Kanye West, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
Vampire Weekend, Contra
Titus Andronicus, The Monitor
LCD Soundsystem, This Is Happening
Superchunk, Majesty Shredding
More on those latter two to come, hopefully. As for my rancorous, GAPDY/BLAND-inspired picks for the Thing I Just Did Not Get in 2010, ambition has lately become my criterion: Kanye was my record of the year because (among many, many, many other reasons) he so desperately wanted it to be my record of the year. Don't think you could say the same thing about the National or Beach House. While I never got my head around the Arcade Fire, I was well aware they were trying. Ditto for Taylor Swift, whom I suspect is nevertheless about to have a very unpleasant experience at the hands of the next critic in our roundtable. Go easy on her, Sean.