In 2010 I stopped hearing the death-of-the-album guffthat’s been in the virtual air since the great Napster bubble of 1999. Not thatthe album has retained its economic primacy, though for many musicians ofquality that was always a chimera anyway, good for a passing windfall orauxiliary revenue stream in a career dependent on the rigors of touring and theluck of the licensing deal. On the contrary, sales continue to dip. But thealbum isn’t about to go away, because it remains the most efficient way formusicians to showcase their songbooks. If you take pride in your art qua art,as musicians of quality tend to do, that showcase is satisfying in itself—andconveniently, it also builds touring demand and licensing contacts.
Of course, the album formdoes get messed around with plenty, and this year’s Dean’s List includes itsshare of oddities: four free hip-hop mixtapes, a download-only girlpop EP, GirlTalk’s illegal art, and the longest of three overlapping 2010 albums by Swedishteenpop grad Robyn. But there’d probably be more such oddities if I wasn’t socommitted to doing things the old-fashioned way. As ever, I had no time for theunmappable world of alternate versions, disco remixes, online retweaks,mashups, videos, and interpretive dances on YouTube—byways many music geekswander daily. Yet even so I flagged down a couple of left-field surprises formy catch-as-catch-can singles list: Die Antwoord‘s “Enter the Ninja,”whose gruesomely jubilant video I imposed on visitors for months, and IanNieman’s “club mix” of Jason Derulo’s “Ridin’ Solo,” acatchy-generic focus track on songwriter Derulo’s generic-period r&b albumthat in Nieman’s hyperextension became the centerpiece of—what a coup—Now That’s What I Call Club Hits 2.
But if mapping pop music’sexpanding universe is indeed impossible, that doesn’t mean a guy can’t haveserious fun trying, and the best way is still to bird-dog albums likeScooby-Doo on a thermos of Dunkin.’ Once again I found more than 80 A recordsin 2010—records I expect to savor in 2015 or 2020 if I’m still alive and havethe time. Beyond Kanye West and Vampire Weekend, my top 10 differs markedlyfrom the critical consensus, which in my analysis—based on my webmaster TomHull’s breakdown of some 1000 online lists rather than the Village Voice Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll, scheduled to go liveshortly after this does—includes the Arcade Fire, LCD Soundsystem, theNational, Deerhunter, Big Boi, and Janelle Monae. But the only one you won’tfind further down on the Dean’s List is Monae, and only Deerhunter continues2009’s prog takeover, when the Pazz & Jop top six included AnimalCollective, Phoenix, the Dirty Projectors, and Grizzly Bear. The unbearableGrizzly Bear excepted, I didn’t hate those records, though not even the DirtyProjectors’ sat as well with me as Deerhunter’s this year. But as a seekerafter legible songs and compelling grooves, I did hate its hegemony. It’ll comeback strong whenever that gang puts out new albums—some in 2011, probably.Nevertheless, 2010’s rough map suggests that it’s less ascendant than I’dfeared.
Instead I see in the numbersa hip-hop resurgence. I don’t pretend to project the future from suchstatistical “trends,” which usually involve too much happenstance,such as the simultaneous return to form of Eminem, Big Boi, and Kanye West.Clearly more momentous than the 2009 tokens by Mos Def and Raekwon even ifthey’re slightly overrated, these three faves are the latest and most decisiveproof that hip-hop has supplanted rock as popular music’s most aestheticallyfruitful genre. Right, happenstance happens—there was no Bob Dylan album in2010, no U2 if I must, no Yeah Yeah Yeahs,no . . . Coldplay? Also, distribution arrangementscomplicate these analyses unduly. Still, isn’t it striking that not one of theover two dozen rock records on the 2010 Dean’s List came from a major labelunless DFA’s Virgin deal puts LCD over the line, and that Hull’s top 40 addsjust the Black Keys and Broken Bells? Yet of the 17 Dean’s List hip-hop albums(last year there were just seven), seven were accounted profit-promising by theguys with the obscene expense accounts.
“Def Jam paymentplan” bitching and all, one of these was my own album of the year, theRoots’ How I Got Over. No big crusade here—How I Got Over is getting more respectthan Eminem’s Recovery, 2010’s top seller, becausethe Roots always get respect, and if momentous counts I can see why many preferWest’s ginormous not to mention prog-friendly effort. But for reasons I’m notabout to bloviate into a theory because I believe the main one is happenstance,this just wasn’t a momentous-type year. If I felt obliged to vote momentous Iwould have gone with M.I.A.’s stupidly dismissed Maya,which got spanked because it tried to be momentous and because unlike West sheproved unequal to her own celebrity. But my only obligation is to my ears, andin 2010 what sounded best was the Roots’ brave and sometimes painfulchange-of-life hip-hop, a multivalent reflection on the pop lifer’s dangeryears, the late thirties. That’s when, even if you’re now Jimmy Fallon’s houseband, you start to worry that you’ll look and/or feel like an idiot devotingyour adulthood to what idiots consider a youth artform. So before I return tohip-hop, I should mention that my number two album comes from the samegenerational cohort: Welder, byNashville-based singer-songwriter and Sirius Radio morning jock Elizabeth Cook,who at 37, after four fairly good albums, strung together 14 fairly perfectsongs about such country things as love, marriage, sex, rock and roll, farming,and her sister the junkie.
My hip-hop picks skewyounger, although the Roots’ contemporaries tend 35-40 and even the next wavehas 30 surrounded by now (Eminem, in fact, is 38). They include fourcollections by 25-or-sos Nicki Minaj and Das Racist, three of them freebies, aswell as second albums by three 28-year-olds few hip-hoppers know exist:second-generation Rwandan Shad from Toronto, medical writer turned rap profDessa from Minneapolis, and spoken Cockney artist Scroobius Pip from London.Six of the 15 artists are black and six white; the others are Sri LankanBritish-American M.I.A., Afro-Indian Trinidadian-American Minaj, andHispanic-Indian duo Das Racist. Nas‘s Damian Marley collab is more reggae thanrap; Die Antwoord‘s Cape Town electrohop, fronted by an Anglo named Jonespretending to be an Afrikaner named Ninja, risks racist misprision at a pitchDas Racist wouldn’t think of. Then there’s supercallifragilistic MC PaulBarman, whose DIY label is called Househusband and who wrote one of his raps asan acrostic, and Boston Irishman Esoteric’s concept album about his dead dogand ailing vocation. Note too that the roll call includes three women plusNinja’s better half Yo-landi Vi$$er—not enough, but not the usual zero-to-one.
Get the idea? In generalblack hip-hoppers make richer music than white hip-hoppers and major-labelhip-hoppers make richer music than alt hip-hoppers. But hip-hop as a whole isevery bit as unruly and rewarding a free-for-all as[prefix-implying-“artistic”]-rock, and anyone who hopes to stayon top of semi-popular music without it will miss the damn plane. Fold in somedance records and DJ soundscapes and frost them with a Girl Talk mixtape thatintegrates no-account crunk and pop-historical touchstones and suddenlyprefix-rock is looking kind of feeble. These days even the young adults whooverrate wall-of-noisers Sleigh Bells and outsider-who-came-in-from-the-lo-fiAriel Pink recognize that there’s some truth to this, although beyond DasRacist they seem insensible to alt-rap. But they grew up with hip-hop. Thosewho didn’t can either get on it or settle for Neil Young’s Daniel Lanois album.
Ageist, moi? C’mon—I’m 68. Infact, the greatest peculiarity of my 2010 top 10 is its three albums—three!—by septuagenarians. Sexagenarians havehappened—Bob Dylan, Orchestra Baobab—and once 91-year-old Doc Cheatham came in12th with help from 23-year-old Nicholas Payton. But not this. Given myskepticism regarding Johnny Cash’s Rick Rubin years, I’d never have figuredthat the barrel-scraping American VI wouldprove Cash’s death album seven years after his physical demise at 71. As forTom Zé and Peter Stampfel (OK, a ringer, he’s 72 but Dook of theBeatniks was recorded in 1999 and neither of his fine little 2010albums—yes, there were two—is as strong), all I can tell skepticaltwentysomethings is that I know more about youth than they do about old age,and that in these cases happenstance has occasioned miracles as vital if notquite as juicy as Macy Gray making her best music at 40 or Robyn making herbest music at 30 or the Care Bears on Fire making their best music at 15.
Not that I believe theseassertions will staunch twentysomething skepticism, or that they should. Toooften right reason puts a damper on unlikely music. And while what HaroldRosenberg called the shock of the new has long since degenerated into thefrisson of the new and the next big thing of the week, it’s to the credit ofprefix-rock that there are still so many twentysomethings trying to carve out anew sliver of turf within its expanding confines. My main problem with this isthat by now many in that cohort think the turf encompasses stuff I can’t stand—metal,prog, lounge jazz, Enya, etc. Not to mention classical music, which I can standbut have zero interest in. But there’s also the sliver problem—so often the newturf, even when well-tended, is too narrow to provide sustaining nourishment.Sleigh Bells, I wish you the best, really.
This charge cannot be lodgedat my considered choice for the most overrated album of the year. Janelle Monaecan do it all, and that is why The Archandroid hascreated such a fuss. My riposte is that all she can do well is dance—hersongwriting is 60th percentile, her singing technical, her sci-fi plot theusual rot. For me, the anti-Archandroid is Halcyon Digestby Deerhunter, who after nine years and a typically muddled release historydecided and/or learned how to sequence 45 minutes of coherent music—inlate-’90s Sonic Youth mode only with fewer tunes and less sprawl, conjuringform out of mess and emotion out of mood. It’s not quite brilliant, but unlikeso many comparable projects, it definitely works if you give it the time arecord this beloved has earned. So while I’m pleased to note that in itsreactive way indiedom has re-engaged with pop songform after long declaring ityucky, Halcyon Digest means more to methan Surfer Blood’s Astro Coast or BestCoast’s Crazy for You. It means less, however, than anunnoticed songfest from England: the eponymous Allo Darlin’,featuring Queensland, Australia, twentysomething Elizabeth Morris, whose flirtyvoice and storytelling flair render romance physical and indeed sexy where forBest Coast’s superficially sunny Bethany Cosentino it’s atmospheric and indeedfoggy.
I’ve been bird-doggingpopular and semi-popular music for longer than two-thirds of the artists on the2010 Dean’s List have been alive. Of course I hear things differently than theydo. But probably not as differently as I did compared to my less-distant eldersin the late ’60s. That was a time of schism; musically, this continues to be atime of expansion, evolution, and sometimes mutation. I was fortunate toexperience it from the beginning, and far as I can tell, that experience hasn’tmade me an idiot. In a new time of schism whose politico-economic evils gotcloser to the pith of most people’s lives than any artistic palliative could, Iwish more people my age—hell, more people over 35—understood that. It wouldn’tsolve their problems. But it might ease them a little.