2010 IN REVIEW - MUSIC (Part 3) Top 25 Songs

My year in music was so dominated by three superb records (any guesses which?) that some of you will probably feel I've overrepresented their songs on this list. I actually feel the opposite: I easily could have put "Vesuvius" and "Afraid of Everyone" and "The Suburbs" in the top 15, knocking a handful of variety songs off. But I also mean for this to be useful as a sampler, and that won't work if it only promotes three artists. Opposite problem if I expand the list to 35 or whatever it would take for me to get an honestly ranked diversity of songs. So here's the list. No download links this time; I got in trouble for that last year. Sorry.

My Favorite Songs of 2010:

Disqualified for using steroids:

Sufjan Stevens - Impossible Soul

Top 25:

25. Cloud Cult - Running With the Wolves

24. Broken Social Scene - World Sick

23. Josh Ritter - Orbital

22. James Vincent McMorrow - We Don’t Eat

21. LCD Soundsystem - Can Change

20. No Age - Glitter

19. Broken Bells - October

18. Jonsi - Go Do

17. Kanye West - Runaway

16. Horse Feathers - Thistled Spring

15. The Tallest Man on Earth – You're Going Back

14. The Lonely Forest - I Don’t Want to Live There

13. Sufjan Stevens - Futile Devices

12. Frightened Rabbit - Not Miserable

11. The National - Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks

10. Arcade Fire - The Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)

9. Sufjan Stevens - I Walked

8. Sleigh Bells - Rill Rill

7. Vampire Weekend - Giving up the Gun

6. The National - England

5. Arcade Fire - We Used to Wait

4. The National - Lemonworld

3. Sufjan Stevens - Heirloom

2. Arcade Fire - Suburban War

1. Sufjan Stevens - I Want to Be Well

2010 IN REVIEW - MUSIC (part 2) Top 20 Albums

But First: 20 Good records that didn’t quite make my list:
Bad Books - Bad Books
Beach House - Teen Dream
Best Coast - Crazy for You
Caribou - Swim
Cloud Cult - Light Chasers
Damien Jurado - Saint Bartlett
Deerhunter - Halcyon Digest
The Drums - The Drums
The Head and the Heart - The Head and the Heart
I Can Make a Mess Like Nobody’s Business - The World We Know
Josh Ritter - So Runs the World Away
Los Campesinos! - Romance is Boring
Matt & Kim - Sidewalks
MGMT - Congratulations
New Pornographers - Together
Sean Carey - All We Grow
She & Him - Volume Two
Sun Kil Moon - Admiral Fell Promises
The Walkmen - Lisbon
Wolf Parade - Expo 86

Second: Not only have I ranked my favorite albums; I also rate their accessibility on a 1-5 scale, and I even suggest alcoholic beverages to enjoy alongside them, fancy-restaurant-menu-style.
To help you understand my new Accessibility ratings, here’s how I would rate some pretty consistent artists:
5 – Coldplay. Your mom will like it.
4 – Death Cab for Cutie. Still pretty mainstream; you’ll like it unless you dislike the genre.
3 – (late) Modest Mouse. Not for everyone, but not too weird either.
2 – Radiohead. Definitely takes some getting used to.
1 – Animal Collective. “That’s music?” Enjoyment may require considerable effort.

The Top 20 albums of 2010:

20) Broken Social Scene - Forgiveness Rock Record
Sort of like TV on the Radio’s “Dear Science,” this record is all over the map sound-wise. At times it moves pretty slowly, but for the most part that’s a good thing. Best song: “World Sick”
Accessibility: 3/5
Pair with: Gin Martini

19) The Head and the Heart - The Head and the Heart
Your head might want to dismiss it as a sound-alike copycat (it obviously cribs Fleet Foxes, The Avett Brothers and Dr. Dog). But your heart wants to listen to it again and again, because it’s excellent. No contest.
Accessibility: 4/5
Pair with: Coffee w/ Baileys

18. Shout Out Louds - Work
In an off-year for the Dodos, and one in which Wolf Parade’s release lacked luster, we still had at least one fun-pop album to soundtrack our summer patio-parties (apart from the crowded bandwagon of mediocre Pitchfork-friendly low-fi beach-pop—I’m looking at you, Wavves). The high-energy, occasionally shoe-gazey “Work” doesn’t translate as well for the winter months, but so what? I love “1999” and “Candle Burned Out” no less.
Accessibility: 4/5
Pair with: Screwdriver

17. The Courage - Fearful Bones
Noah Gundersen has always written beautiful chill folk songs, and even the occasional rollicking guitar-thumper. But since he picked up a minimalist drummer and his violin-touting sister, his sound has totally broken free of any constraints it had before. “Fearful Bones” is still easy to listen to, but it’s an all-grown-up album that takes grown-up risks, and it confidently keeps us guessing.
Accessibility: 4.5/5
Pair with: House Red by the Magnificent Wine Company

16. Broken Bells - Broken Bells
James Mercer’s (The Shins) and famed producer Danger Mouse’s collaboration had promise. And a few of the songs—the ones that sound like they could have come from a Shins record—were among the year’s best. But I’m still hoping Mercer will get the old band back together next year. Listen to “October.”
Accessibility: 3.5/5
Pair with: Hard Cider

15. The Morning Benders - Big Echo
“Big Echo” sees The Morning Benders reaching beyond their old habit of just sounding like The Shins, and while that stride has resulted in some great and relatively unique summer beach-pop, it’s the moments where I can still pick out James Mercer’s influence (in songwriting and tone) that I appreciate the most.
Accessibility: 3/5
Pair with: Gin & Tonic

14. Jonsi - Go
The former Sigur Ros frontman’s new ‘solo’ album would fit in better at a wedding than a funeral. As good as we know he is at epic, sad, mysterious-because-they’re-in-Icelandic compositions, that’s almost a bummer. Jonsi’s ESL lyrics are simplistic but easy enough to ignore, and his new arrangements are a riot. Not many albums attempt to capture the feeling of Spring, but “Go” does it so capably it seems easy.
Accessibility: 3.5/5
Pair with: Mimosas.

13. No Age - Everything in Between
This post-punk, low-fi two-piece has made its best album yet. Experiments in layered guitar noise combine perfectly with an under-control whirlwind of drums in most of the (surprisingly polished) songs, which address the difficulty and general unpleasantness of growing up and growing old. “Glitter” is my favorite.
Accessibility: 2/5
Pair with: Gentleman Jack; make it a double.

12. LCD Soundsystem - This is Happening
They Wanted a Hit, so LCDS’s James Murphy gave them the gloriously annoying-but-catchy “Drunk Girls,” which “makes you want to feel like a teenager, until you remember (listening to “I Can Change”) the feelings of a real-life, emotional teenager. Then you think again.” But not for long. “This is Happening” may not rival 2008’s “The Sound of Silver.” But it’s still great in its own hyper-intellectual, I-miss-the-80s way. “Love is an astronaut; it comes back but it’s never the same.”
Accessibility: 1/5
Pair with: Whatever those drunk girls had.

11. Spoon - Transference
Is there another band as consistent as Spoon? They comfortably walk the thin line between bands that succeed by constantly reinventing themselves and those who keep making the same album 2-year-cycle after 2-year-cycle. They’re at home in the Mystery Zone.
“Transference” experiments plenty, but Spoon is so good at being itself by now that the catchiest, most straightforward tracks (mostly frontloaded) are ultimately the most rewarding.
Accessibility: 3/5
Pair with: Screwdriver

10. James Vincent McMorrow - Early in the Morning
One of Ireland’s top emerging folk-pop talents, James Vincent McMorrow’s chief appeal is that he sounds so much like artists we already love. His swelling song structures and backup instrumentation borrow from Mumford & Sons and Fleet Foxes. His perpetual falsetto is just as ethereal as Bon Iver’s, though his lyrics aren’t so mysterious or poetic. And his songs are all so immediately pleasant to listen to that concerns about his originality probably just won’t occur to you.
Accessibility: 5/5
Pair with: Chimay

9. Kanye West - My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
[watch the 34 minute music video “Runaway” here]

If you haven’t noticed, Kanye West’s new record has done very well for itself. I and most people I know have been mystified by the album’s critical success—not just because KW is still universally recognized as a huge douche, but because he’s only an average lyricist and he leans too heavily on guest appearances and vocal modulation. But I’ve done some reading and listening and pondering, and I think I’ve got it figured out.

The intelligent reviews of Twisted Fantasy basically take a deconstructionist approach. They begin (vaguely) with the New Critical theory of “the death of the author,” which for reviewers’ purposes just means that an artist’s intentions don’t have to mirror a critic’s appreciation. (The negative term for the same is the Intentional Fallacy.) So in other words, it’s okay to like something for ironic reasons.

The reason that’s important here is that West’s artistic intent is a total joke. I mean, Twisted Fantasy stands up pretty well as a hip-hop record—catchy beats, candy-sweet pop choruses, high-profile cameos. It’s got excess written all over it. But at some point you’re going to begin hearing the words, and without a deconstructionist’s detachment they’re either hysterical or totally depressing.
West’s awkwardly intimate lyrics (over)expose him as:
  • still super arrogant – “My presence is a present; kiss my ass”
  • the opposite of down-to-earth – “Can we get much higher?”
  • still a little racist – “tantrums based off the way we was branded: face it, Jerome get more time than Brandon” (sic)
  • a sex addict – “24/7/365, pussy stays on my mind”
  • an exhibitionist – “I sent this girl a picture of my dick”
  • misogynistic – “I’ll call you bitch for short”; “don’t know what it is with females, but I’m not too good with that shit”
  • sexually abusive – “in a bathroom, gripping you up, fucking and choking you”
  • and an out of control hypocrite – “I thought I was the asshole—I guess it’s rubbing off”
This shit is more messed up than any of Pedro the Lion’s fictitious songs about infidelity and addiction, and it’s (mostly) not fiction! Even when the lyrical intent is ironic (e.g. Kanye’s “toast to the douchebags”), Yeezy, as he’s content to be called, proves clearly that celebrities don’t have it all figured out. That’s not news, but he’s so obviously trying so hard to figure it out, and watching him uncover the little disillusionments of ordinary life for the first time is mesmerizingly pitiful.

In “Gorgeous,” for example, he discovers that spending money can’t give him lasting happiness. [“Ain’t no question: if I want it, I need it. / I can feel it slowly drifting away from me.”] In “Blame Game” he laments that a girl he slept with after his show is now “cheating” on him with her old boyfriend. Most earnestly, “Monster” finds him trying to come to terms with his ceaseless yearning for both love and notoriety. “I’m ’a need to see your fucking hands at the concert,” he pleads, before admitting that what he really craves, his “Achilles-heel” is “Love—I don’t get enough of it.” Because, as it turns out, when you’re rich and famous, people will try to be your friends for selfish reasons! Who can’t relate to his righteous anger at the “vampires and bloodsuckers…these niggas I’ve made millionaires.”

But he also seems to recognize that you can’t have your cake and eat it, and his innocent outrage—at the incompatibility of his capacious desires for fame and love—is so piteously infantile it’s downright touching. His desolate disillusionment (“I always find something wrong”) culminating in the heartbroken single “Runaway” reminded me of the murderous anger I felt as a six-year-old when my parents informed me I actually couldn’t move in to the Swiss Family Robinson tree house at Disney World. I coulda killed a bitch then, so I understand how bad it feels to have your dreams shattered. In the end, Kanye West isn’t so different from you and me.

Well…okay, taking a step back: In case you haven’t actually heard the record, I should probably clarify that this whole poignant feeling of entitlement is something I have read into the album. West sees things differently: “This pimp is at the top of Mount Olympus,” he extols, “this [album] is my Olympics.” The end of “Blame Game” is a funny-on-purpose Chris Rock monologue revering KW’s sexual prowess. “[I] got so much head, I woke up in Sleepy Hollow,” he jibes elsewhere. “Devil in a New Dress” is all about how religion can’t help Christian girls resist his charms. And, to top it all off, he actually says in “Gorgeous” that he’d like to “choke a South Park writer with a fish-stick.” [Cf. one of the all-time best episodes of television, ever]

Because for all the self-examination that must have gone into writing this record, KW honestly doesn’t get the joke! Much like Tommy Wiseau, the clueless schmuck who wrote, directed, and starred in that glorious clusterfuck of a movie known as The Room, West has created an artistic monument to his own ego, and his awkwardly earnest, too-personal-for-comfort lyrics are proof that he just can’t see the naked humor of his puerile situation. Because his ego is just so monumental, and because his album is a genuinely impressive piece of music—expertly mixed and thoughtfully structured—it couldn’t possibly be ridiculous!

But that same naked-emperor’s naivete is exactly why Twisted Fantasy is so winning. Just as The Room’s social ineptitude is what makes it so funny, West’s wildly ambitious and painstaking sonic shrine unto himself offers us a voyeuristic window on a (sym)pathetic human being—a guy denuded and disarmed whether he sees it or not—in a way he never could have pulled off if he’d been trying. So, a toast to the douchebags!
Accessibility: 4/5
Pair with: Mai Tais / Booty Sweat

8. Frightened Rabbit - The Winter of Mixed Drinks
What impresses me most about Frightened Rabbit is the band’s ability to truncate so many various sounds into its post-rock style. This places them among the strongest artists in the genre, and probably my favorite vocals-inclusive post-rock band. “The Winter of Mixed Drinks” dresses straightforward 4/4 chord progressions in uncharacteristically pretty hooks, surrounding them with cavernous harmonies. All this lends an epic feeling to the album’s decidedly down-to-earth lyrics.
Accessibility: 3/5
Pair with: Car-Bombs

7. Horse Feathers - Thistled Spring
In one word, Horse Feathers is organic. The band’s four members play like a single, perfectly coordinated organism, and on “Thistled Spring” they reach sonic nirvana. No instrument is ever too present; no melody ever lacks a euphonious harmony. Without the rhythmic constraints of a drummer, frontman Justin Ringle’s percussive guitar strumming changes tempo naturally like heartbeats accelerating or slowing down, and the rest of the band is always in step. Ringle’s lyrics are nature-focused as usual, still more at home in the South than the Northwest; and of course that’s good. After two bleak, wintry records, “Thistled Spring” is a breath of warm air.
Accessibility: 4/5
Pair with: Sunshine Wheat-Ale

6. Sleigh Bells – Treats
Sleigh Bells is the Surge cola of contemporary bands—as frenetic and cavity-inducing (and addicting) as anything I listened to this year. The duo mixes ultra-low-fi noise-punk guitars with beat-based tweepop songwriting. It’s a setup calculated to grab Pitchfork by the balls, but as simple as it may be to trace Sleigh Bells’ roots, it isn’t easy to argue the band’s 35-minute sugar-rush of a debut album sounds like anything else.
Accessibility: 2.5/5
Pair with: Mike’s Hard Cranberry Lemonade.

5. The Tallest Man on Earth - The Wild Hunt
Certainly the most dressed-down album on this list, “The Wild Hunt” is an amazing example of how much energy a single performer can bring to a record. Swedish singer-songwriter Kristian Matsson now has two albums and two EPs under his belt as a solo artist, and the experience shows. The rapid-fire guitar finger-picking is still first-rate, and his gravelly voice sounds more like Dylan than ever. Occasional banjo or piano input from punctuates the already solid formula, and Matsson holds our interest for even longer, all by himself.
Accessibility: 3.5/5
Pair with: Fat-Tire Amber Ale

4. Vampire Weekend – Contra
I’ll admit it; I definitely didn’t believe that Vampire Weekend—2008’s Flavor of the Year—would ever release more than one memorable album. How sweet it is to be wrong. The best sophomore album since “Room on Fire” by the Strokes, “Contra” has everything I loved about VW’s debut—sharp-edged guitar hooks, subdued world-music influences, and Ivy League lyrics—and it’s twice as easy to get into. Instant singles “White Sky,” “Giving Up the Gun” and “Horchata” are still stuck in my head a full year after the album leaked last December.
Accessibility: 3.5/5
Pair with: Um, Horchata. Doi-oy-oy.

3. Sufjan Stevens - The Age of ADZ
[NOTE: ADZ is meant to be pronounced odds. It’s not actually a word though; it’s a term Sufjan made up to denote the end times, combining the Latin acronym A.D. (the year of our Lord) with the letter Z (the end).]

Gone are the outsized orchestral arrangements of “Illinois”, replaced now with synths and sample-based beats, even a little bit of auto-tuning. The songs of “The Age of ADZ” are no longer vehicles for history and folk-stories, but Suf’s attempts to process lost love through the life and art of a nutty southern ‘prophet’ named Royal Robertson. It’s deeply mysterious, certainly his most opaque project thus far, but rewarding; it’s an album that gets better each time you listen to it.

The familiar-sounding, highly listenable “Futile Devices” launches first thing into exploring the difficulty of communication: “I would say I love you, but saying it aloud is hard,” sings a weary Sufjan. “Words are futile devices.” Beginning at the brink of giving up, this is to be an album about love, and all the arguments and confusion that come with the territory.

But Sufjan’s feelings don’t always come through clearly, because “The Age of ADZ” is as much about the end times as it is about relationships. And except for the rather heavy-handed volcano metaphor Vesuvius, the connection is usually pretty tenuous. It’s rarely even clear who’s supposed to be speaking at any given point on the album, much less to whom. But I’ll take my shot in the dark nonetheless:

Sufjan begins with the most obvious correlation between love and eschatology: Losing someone you love is a traumatic and, well, apocalyptic experience. It happened to Royal Robertson and it seems (from the depth of feeling in these songs) that it happened to Sufjan too. “Why does it have to be so hard?” he asks in “Vesuvius”—because the deeper and more (um) volcanic your feelings are for someone, the harder it is to live without them.

So if a relationship is unraveling, do you try to make it work? or do you cut ties before you risk getting hurt even more? SS seems to address this very question of ADZ’s title track: “When it dies, it rots. / But when it lives, it gives it all it gots” (sic). Convoluted this may be, but it’s a really courageous sentiment: that as long as love is still there, you shouldn’t give up. That’s the point of connecting love to “eternal living”: it makes love matter, so much more than the hurt that comes with a broken heart.

In contrast to that insight is Sufjan’s other basic observation—that really loving another person can be as crazy and over-the-top as making apocalyptic predictions. “I have known you for just a little while.” he says, “but I feel I’ve known you … when the earth was split in fives.” Love makes us feel unreasonably and even dangerously close to others. It’s craziness to conceive of your connection with someone you’ve know a relatively short time in the terms of eternity.

But that’s what people do, and that’s where Sufjan finally lands too. “Boy,” says his dialogic countervoice in “Impossible Soul,” “we can do much more together.” And even as the final line concludes that they’ve made a mess of things, it’s trumped by the song’s earlier optimism: “It’s not so impossible.”
Accessibility: 2.5/5
Pair with: Long Island Iced Tea

2. Arcade Fire - The Suburbs
It would not be the worst thing in the world if every band sounded just like Arcade Fire. Plenty have been trying since “Funeral” came out in 2004, but the Montreal original proves in 2010 that it’s still on top. It’s not easy for me to think of another album as immediately likeable as “The Suburbs.” So I won’t even try.

The album is about (you guessed it) life in suburban (North) America. That “Funeral” and “Neon Bible” were about the same makes it no less relevant. If anything, this is the top of Arcade Fire’s game. At least lyrically:
You never trust a millionaire quoting the sermon on the mount
I used to think I was not like them, but I’m beginning to have my doubts.

It seemed strange, how we used to wait for letters to arrive.
But what’s stranger still is how something so small can keep you alive.
All the feelings of alienation and decentralization you’d hope to find in a good suburbs record come through just fine (although Spike Jonze’s video for the title track helps shed some additional light on the ‘war against the suburbs’ going on in the background of most of the songs). Your idyllic neighborhoods won’t last forever, they seem to be saying, and on one level or another they must be right. Let’s just hope that when the end does come, the soundtrack is this good.
Accessibility: 5/5
Pair with: Dale’s Pale Ale

1. The National - High Violet
Matt Berninger’s squalid tales of urban fuckups, set in “the Manhattan valleys of the dead” contain his best lyrics to date, packed with spectacular one-liners like “It’ll take a better war to kill a college man like me.” And more importantly, the recording process the band developed while making “Boxer,” which made them infamous for compulsive revision and ruthless perfectionism, is pretty much a proven tactic now: “High Violet” does not make one false move. Every pitch-perfect moment lasts exactly as long as it needs to (except the chorus of “Runaway”). And what great moments these are—Sufjan’s eerie guest vocals on “Afraid of Everyone”; the guitar up-beats in the after-chorus of “Bloodbuzz Ohio”; the first string swells at the start of “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks”. And the emotive melodies and creative, painstaking arrangements that make for these moments are written all over the album.

It’s a tremendously sad album—a J.D. Salinger sadness, out of place in our fast-paced culture—but for me that just makes it more compelling. Berninger’s grandiose depressiveness doesn’t shy away from overblown emotion:
“all the very best of us string ourselves up for love”
“sorrow’s the girl inside my cake”
“the storm will suck the pretty girls into the sky”
But it’s grounded in other places:
“You said it was not inside my heart. It was. You said it should tear a kid apart. It does.”
I’m wary of saying much else. I listened to “High Violet” and almost nothing else through a summer’s worth of stolen moments at camp (it fit perfectly with the book of broken-down Ray Carver stories I was reading), and I’ve barely examined my own experience of liking it so much. I will say, though, that the first time I heard “High Violet” I was in a constant state of surprise: not just that the album was so good, but that I actually liked every song better than the one that preceded it (again, except “Runaway”). That all of these songs opened up and got even better as I listened to them more throughout the year just sealed the deal; I had decided by the end of May that “High Violet” would be the best record of 2010, and I was right.
Accessibility: 3.5/5
Pair with: Kentucky Bourbon, neat.

Or maybe I was wrong? What were your favorite albums this year?


2010 in Review – MUSIC (Part 1 - Miscellany)

What a year for music. Here are some of the highlights:

(best albums and best songs are still on the way)

Best Live Concerts I Saw:

2) The National (w/ Okkervil River) at Marrymoor concert-lawn

1) Sufjan Stevens at the Paramount Theater

Best Websites to Discover Music:

Best Album Reviews – Pitchfork

Best News Source – Stereogum

Best Full-Album Streaming – NPR

Best Monthly mp3 Sampler – Paste (But Stereogum’s Is Free)

Best Year-End List – The AV Club

Weird/Honorable-Mention Music Awards:

2010’s Best Music Video:

3) LCD Soundsystem (& dir. Spike Jonze) – “Drunk Girls”

2) Arcade Fire (& dir. Chris Milk) – The Wilderness Downtown (a.k.a. “We Used to Wait”)

1) Arcade Fire (& dir. Spike Jonze) – “The Suburbs”

Best use of “Fuck” in a song: Sufjan Stevens - “I Want to Be Well”

Funniest Album Art: Weezer “Hurley”

Worst Album Art: Yeasayer “Odd Blood”

Most Annoying Song: Justin Bieber - “Baby”

Runner-Up: Cee Lo Green - “Fuck You”

Most Annoying Musician: Lady Gaga

Runner-Up: Kanye West

Stupidest Career Move: MGMT – “Congratulaitons” (instead of “Oracular Spectacular 2”)

Runners-Up: Kanye West’s VMA tantrum, Kanye West’s inarticulate Twitter feed

One Hit Wonder: The Weepies – “Please Speak Well of Me”

Two-Pump Chump: Band of Horses “Trudy” & “Bartles + James” (Infinite Arms)

Diminishing Returns Award, for less excellence since 2009: Mumford and Sons - “Sigh No More”

Leftovers (Great 2009 records I discovered late):

Caspian – Tertia

Danger Mouse & Sparklehorse – Dark Night of the Soul

Free Energy – Stuck on Nothing

Ivan and Alyosha –The Verse, The Chorus

Laura Gibson – Beasts of Season

Local Natives – Gorilla Manor

Loch Lomond – Night Bats EP

Miike Snow – Miike Snow

Old Canes – Feral Harmonic

Phoenix – Live & Unplugged

The Soft Pack – The Soft Pack

Sufjan Stevens – Gloria: Songs for Christmas Vol. VI (actually 2007 but still)

Sufjan Stevens – Astral Inter Planet Space Captain Christmas Vol. VIII: Infinity Voyage

The Welcome Wagon – Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing EP

The Top 6 EPs of 2010:

6) Now, Now (a.k.a. Now Now Every Children) – Neighbors

5) Lord Huron – Mighty

4) The Lonely Forest – The Lonely Forest

3) Tyson Motsenbocker – Until It Lands [buy it here]

Ok, I won’t pretend I’ve got too much critical integrity or whatever to throw Tyson a bone here. Because he is my friend, and I do owe the guy a few favors. But this isn’t a favor; it isn’t a case of friend-rock style nepotism. “Until It Lands” is a great EP that meditates on the weight of loss via songs about TM’s friends (Empty 25) and family (Until It Lands 1 & 2), and an ex-girlfriend he’s mostly managed to quit writing about (Lie Down and Die). The lyrics, packed with Northwest landmarks and biblical references, are a bit closed if you don’t know the stories behind them, but so are The National’s and (early) Death Cab’s. And the occasional line pierces that barrier and feels genuinely poetic to boot. e.g.:

She told me dying is not what people think,

“not like the endings in the books you love to read;

it’s more like finding that the sky will meet the sea

with no line in between.”

Tyson’s voice has matured considerably, and the arrangements & mixing backing it are totally solid (especially drums), though they’re sometimes a bit too prominent. It’s been really cool to see a college buddy put out an impressive, professionally produced record; but even more to the point, Tyson’s most recent songs are his most personal and deliberate, and they make me miss the Northwest even while I still live there.

2) Junip (a.k.a. Jose Gonzalez) – Fields

1) Sufjan Stevens – All Delighted People [listen free here]

Top 25 Promising 2011 Albums [via Stereogum]:

25) The Cave Singers – No Witch (2/22)

24) The Lonely Island – TBA

23) Blind Pilot – TBA (probably)

22) Chad VanGaalen – TBA

21) Cold War Kids – Mine is Yours

20) Coldplay – TBA (speculation)

19) Mogwai – Hardcore Will Never Die but You Will (2/15)

18) Bright Eyes – The People’s Key (2/15)

17) DeVotchka – 100 Lovers (2/15)

16) Okkervil River – TBA (probably)

15) David Bazan – TBA (probably)

14) Noah and the Whale – Last Night on Earth

13) The Strokes – TBA

12) Godspeed you! Black Emperor – TBA

11) Iron & Wine – Kiss Each Other Clean (1/25)

10) M83 – TBA

9) Panda Bear – Tomboy

8) The Decemberists - The King is Dead

7) The Streets – Computers and Blues

6) Explosions in the Sky – TBA (speculation)

5) Modest Mouse – TBA (speculation)

4) Fleet Foxes – TBA

3) Bon Iver – TBA

2) Death Cab for Cutie – TBA

1) Radiohead – TBA


2010 IN REVIEW (part 1): Feast your eyes on this. (Movies, TV, Books)

Typically my year-end lists have consisted mostly of superfluous numbers and numerous superlatives. Of course, ranking entertainment according to my preference is elitist and pretty much unnecessary, and ranking it according to inherent aesthetic value is elitist and pretty much bullshit. But I respect critics myself, and lean pretty heavily on reviews, for two reasons:

1) Even though critics are known for being elitist cynics (who for example give bad reviews to stuff normal folks like, just because they’re easier to write), I’ve found that a charitable and well written review can actually help me appreciate something I might not otherwise. When I watched Mulholland Dr this year, I had no idea what to make of the experience until I read a few reviews. Roger Ebert’s, even though it was an awful piece of writing, was a pretty perceptive bit of criticism. Sometimes critics notice things we don’t; it’s their job after all.

2) When I’m being entertained, I’m attentive but impatient. It’s not always a virtue, but if a movie or record or TV show won’t hold my attention, I turn it off. (Books usually fare better, though I did start and put aside Moby Dick this summer—what a chore.) More often though, that impatience supplies the anti-inertial willpower it takes to turn the TV off after the first half of Conan (or—I wish—to quit watching the Office, because it’s no longer funny,) and do something worthwhile. And that’s good, right?

So anyway, think of these silly ranked lists as a set of ordered recommendations for those of y’all who, like me, are looking for solid entertainment, but will only put up with so much.

Also, I apologize for the loooong sentences and too-numerous parenthetical intrusions to come. But I will not alter them.
And let the record show, I did not actually cry tears due to Toy Story 3.

This wasn’t the best year for movies in recent memory. There were only a handful of titles worth making a list for (I did finally round up 10) as opposed to 15 or 20 solid contenders in ’09. Only this year’s top 4 would have stood a chance of making last year’s list.


Pending but Promising (movies I haven’t seen):

127 Hours
Black Swan


The Kids are All Right
Rabbit Hole
Whatever the new TRON is called.

Special Mention:
“I’m Here” [watch it for free here]
Spike Jonze is obviously still cool, as the vodka company that sponsored his 2010 short film will attest. I mean, what’s cooler than an indie love-story in which the main characters are robots made out of computer parts from the late ‘90s?

What I think Jonze does best is setting. The exhaustively deliberate aesthetic of everything he’s directed—from the suburban war in his new Arcade Fire video to the cramped, faceless office in Being John Malkovich to the lonely suburban-LA interiors in Adaptation—eliminates the need for exposition and lets him tell whatever focused story he has in mind.

And what a story “I’m Here” has. Based on Shel Silverstein’s “The Giving Tree”, the film probes (among other things, and in just 30 minutes) the complications of mixing self-sacrifice into young love, as well as the metaphysics and emotional mechanics of just what exactly love is. It’s among the most earnest and human bits of film to come out this year, profound enough to get by as a metaphor for substitutionary atonement—all despite its characters’ metal parts.

2010's Top 10 Movies:

[edit: I saw Winter's Bone and would probably put it at #7 or 8 if I were making the list now. But I'll let things stand]

10. Inception
Inception is probably the most ambitious movie to come out in like five years: visually stunning, with a brilliant, high-profile cast and a plot layered more densely than a Fat Smitty Burger®. And the limited promotion of the film meant that, at least for the first 20 minutes, I didn’t know where it was going.

But (for me) the main plot-twist of Christopher Nolan’s newest (and weakest) effort comes in the credits, when it turns out that Inception wasn’t adapted from a Philip K. Dick novel. That’s less because it’s conceptually intricate than because none of its characters is really believable (and so none of them is sympathetic). Example: Remember the scene where Leo starts explaining to Ellen Page how dream-worlds work: not only is she not at all unsettled or confused to learn you can inhabit other folks’ thoughts, but she also immediately diagnoses Leo’s deeply buried psychological problems based on nothing but this little crash course. Kind of implausible behavior for a shy architect, right? Now remember that the concept behind that scene is how the human mind rejects incoherent fictional constructs. I mean, come on Nolan! That’s when the top quit spinning for me.

9. Shutter Island
Another ambitious “What’s Real? What’s a Dream?” movie, also starring Leonardo Dicaprio. Scorcese’s execution beats Nolan’s, and despite a few shortcomings (mainly the fact that we’ve seen pretty much this same thriller more than a few times before) Shutter Island works. The master-director’s greatest strength is making us wonder, at least initially, what kind of movie we’ve gotten ourselves into. Is it a metaphysical or psychological thriller? Maybe just asking that question gives it away, but I’d still recommend it over Inception.

8. Greenberg
Of the films Noah Baumbach has directed, Greenberg is the most watchable. Of course, if you know Noah Baumbach’s films, you know that’s saying very little. Another loser-drama from the almost too smart writer-director of The Squid and the Whale (2005) and Margot at the Wedding (2007), Greenberg casts a sufficiently unlikable Ben Stiller as the out of control narcissistic title character. The vital signs of a solipsist are all accounted for—arrogance veiled as apathy; unabashedly elitist manners and vocabulary and taste; zero ability to talk about anything except his own problems…. The list goes on, and it’s not fun to watch. But the story, really about someone who loves the angry bastard despite it all, is sneakily healing (without ever sacrificing its faithful representation such a loathsome character,) and it redeemed for me an otherwise unpleasant film.

7. Get Low
A scruffy tale of guilt & redemption that casts Robert Duvall in a role that would be the high point of anyone else’s career. Solid screen-writing means believable if sometimes merely functional dialogue, and the obligatory Duvall monologue is worked in with impressive subtlety. And seriously, Robert Duvall plays such a perfect senile, hard-to-forgive curmudgeon that almost nothing else matters. Just be warned, “else” includes a molasses-paced story and an uncomfortable, unfunny performance from Bill Murray. Still, forgiveness is a tough topic for film, and Get Low doesn’t flinch at it.

6. Never Let Me Go
Kazuo Ishiguro’s sort-of sci-fi novel probably didn’t need to be a big-budget movie. But it got made anyway, and it’s really not bad. Sure, the love-story would have been served better with another thirty minutes of childhood exposition up front (especially since the child counterparts of Carey Mulligan and Keira Knightley were so convincing). And none of the settings are ever developed to satisfaction. Oh, and every damn shot in the movie is colorized in the same gloomy seafoam grey.

But the story itself is more powerful than any science fiction I’ve come across since reading Ender’s Game, evoking a wholly believable dystopia in which human clones go to school, fall in love, and grow up just in time to have their organs harvested (yikes). The pacing is a bit off, but if you still manage to sympathize with its characters the film is a touching story of the value of human life. Do clones have souls just like the people they’re killed to save? It could be a stand-in for world-disparity, or the ethics of abortion, or genocide, or really any issue that matters today.

5. Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World
That British dude who did Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz is back. Woohoo!
Plot: Scott Pilgrim (the relentlessly type-cast Michael Cera) starts dating this cool, blue-haired indie girl (obviously cribbed from Kate Winslet in Eternal Sunshine) in the awkward-but-cool way Michael Cera’s characters date anyone. Then he finds out he has to literally (or figuratively?) fight her Evil Ex-Boyfriends to keep her.

In practice, this works similarly to a musical; only instead of breaking into showtunes, the characters break into Mortal Kombat-styled battle sequences. The gaming gimmick is cartoonish, but that’s the point; the movie totally commits and it works perfectly.

Pilgrim has more personality than any high school movie in recent memory, staying hip without being woefully over-written (Juno) or being influenced by John Hughes’s out-of-touch writerly sensibilities (Mean Girls, Easy A). Cera is his usual practiced-but-still-pitiably-awkward self, but the movie’s funniest performances come from unlikely cast members Jason Schwartzman and Kieran Culkin. Scott Pilgrim is the coolest, funniest movie of the year and none of its jokes rely on cultural knowledge more recent than the late ‘90s, so they shouldn’t feel outdated (pun?) for at least a few years.

4. Exit Through the Gift Shop
The reclusive graffiti artist Banksy made a documentary about street art. Telling you anything more would begin to give away the film’s oddly exciting twists and turns, so I’ll just say Exit Through the Gift Shop is the most entertaining documentary I’ve ever seen, artfully exploring the motives of the world’s leading street artists while shrewdly satiring America’s elitist high-art culture. The questions of whether the film is authentic or Banksy’s biggest hoax yet just deepens the mystery, and I wouldn’t really be disappointed either way.

3. True Grit
Jeff Bridges steps up to the Coen Brothers’ plate once again, this time to play the lead (a US Marshall whose grit is in question) in their latest film. The role suits him perfectly: Rooster Cogburn is the most lovable scoundrel in film since Jack Sparrow, and Bridges’ performance is at the center of a lot of humor. It would be easy to mistake all the laughs for comic relief from an otherwise pretty tragic story, but the Joel & Ethan Coen manipulate our feelings for much craftier reasons than that (Cf. Burn After Reading).

True Grit pays homage to classic Westerns—the tough guys are still tough, and the religious references have been kept intact—but it foregoes some of the genre’s conventional devices for modern techniques, and thus affords itself some of the lifelike realness of modern (i.e. post-Godfather) cinema. It’s still a Western, but it’s also more than that (just like The Big Lebowski is more than a stoner comedy, and No Country for Old Men is more than a revenge thriller). In other words, the Coens have done it again.

2. The Social Network
Even if it unfortunately backgrounds the Facebook’s creepiness (FB can sell its users’ contact info and photos to any third party it wants, and has a formula that can predict 90% of all facebook-relationship breakups three weeks in advance)—and even though, in fact, it’s only barely about Facebook, The Social Network is fascinating as a study of how interpersonal communication has changed in the last ten years. It’s also the best capitalist-thriller since 1987’s Wall Street.

The film focuses on Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, and derives its plot from the lawsuits brought against him by his earliest collaborators, and not, interestingly, from Facebook’s epic rise to household-name status. The bulk of the story is framed as an after-the-fact exposition (via deposition) of the company’s roots in dirty venture capital deals. Given the sort of boring legal claptrap the actual settlement transcripts consist in, it’s a miracle a film from this angle is watchable, let alone thrilling.

Credit for that miracle goes to screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s artful and faithfully human dialogue. The out-of-court settlement sessions feel like clever (and intelligible!) repartee fests, and we actually have a window into who these people (yes, even the elusive Mr. Zuckerberg) really are. Jesse Eisenberg puts in the year’s best male performance as an ambitious, starry-eyed, and super nerdy Harvard Zuckerberg, suggesting through pitch-perfect expressions and mannerisms that maybe the guy isn’t truly a douche; maybe he’s really just missing whatever gene makes the rest of us capable of social niceties.

Of course, it’s doubtful that Zuckerberg was ever such a bad guy as the film (in the name of entertainment) makes him out to be. And Harvard’s classy-frat-partyin’ final clubs are misrepresented; and probably the scene where Zuckerberg and Eduardo Saverin get blowjobs in the men’s room of a Boston bar was made up too; etc. Zuckerberg learned from all those early lawsuits to keep his lips sealed, so we only have Saverin’s side of the story, filtered through two dubiously researched narrative versions. But none of that lessens the film’s impact in the least. The Social Network is the sequel Wall Street should have gotten.

1. Toy Story 3
1995’s Toy Story is the perfect kids’ movie—funny, infinitely re-watchable, profoundly affecting (for two years I refused to give away my old toys, worried I would hurt their feelings), and perfect for the coveted marketing demographic of, well, everyone who has ever been a child. The final installment of the unlikely trilogy is at least as solid (albeit still a little weaker for being a sequel). The story is more predictable than Wall-E or Up, but it still takes plenty of narrative risks for a kids’ film (at one climactic point even letting fear distill into dread and resignation), and there’s a wealth of smaller surprises along the way. Except for a few groaners (e.g. Buzz’s Spanish-mode) the jokes are never off-pitch, and its insistent heartstring-tugging final minutes are too appropriate to be off-putting (even to a world-weary cynic like me).

Toy Story 3 unexpectedly turns into a circle-of-life picture, an elegy to how everyone grows old, and childish things—youth itself—must be left behind. It’s truly moving when Andy hands down his old toys to a little girl who still has the imaginative equipment to play with them—a bit overwrought maybe, but the movie earns the feeling. And really, what a brilliant exit strategy for a series that has always been about toys—to transform it back, into a story about the people who play with them. Andy’s tiny CGI tears come from someone a lot like us, and when he kneels down to play with his toys for the last time, naming what makes each of them so special, we maybe even shed some tears of our own.

TV Still Worth Watching in 2010:

I watched lots of TV this year. Yuck. Oh well.

I like watching funny TV shows approximately 15 times more than watching dramatic TV shows. That is all I will say about why Mad Men and Breaking Bad and whatever else you might watch aren’t on my list. Also, I’m nowhere close to caught up on those shows.

The following are basically worthless reviews, because instead of offering any preview of what makes these shows funny I’ve been pretty much 100% evaluative. But I seriously don’t want to ruin even one joke from any of them by taking it out of context. Just take my word for it: I laughed very hard at every new episode of each of these shows.

3 Modern Family The easiest-to-relate-to sitcom since Seinfeld or Boy Meets World. 90% of the comedy is character-driven, 95% of the dialogue is well-written, and 100% of the jokes are politically correct. Straight As.

2 Party Down The 2nd (and tragically the last) season of Party Down slipped under many radars, because it aired on Starz. Of course, thanks to its premium-channel home the show got to do all sorts of funny shit (like saying shit) that broadcast and cable don’t.

Premise: It’s a sitcom about failed actors who work for a catering service in LA, which takes them to meet all sorts of people who did make it. Of course, that description is basically worthless, so think of it as Hollywood’s answer to The [British] Office, and expect to see most of its cast more and more frequently in the next couple years.

1 Community Community’s sitcom shtick is so obvious I’m baffled it didn’t emerge before 2009. It was fast-tracked from the start for Thursday-night success at NBC, on the strength of its (mostly) solid cast (including a not-quite-washed-up Chevy Chase!) and its “an unlikely group of gimmicky misfits oddly meet each other and strangely become a community, unexpectedly)” premise.

The first season began humbly, basing all of the first ten episodes on the romantic tension between main character Jeff (a douchey lawyer who got disbarred for faking his degree) and Britta, a snarkey and more importantly pretty blonde. That worked very well while it lasted, but of course, the only reason I still watch the show (other than that every TV show ever is an addictive habit) is that (unlike, say, The Office) it has largely abandoned that early meta-plot in favor of examining its (initially) minor characters and doing hilarious gimmick episodes, which reward but never require familiarity with the rest of the show. If you don’t want to start at the beginning, at least do yourself a favor and check out “Modern Warfare” (an all-school paintball war), “Epidemiology” (the Halloween zombie episode), “Conspiracy Theories” (self-explanatory), and “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” (in claymation!).

Good Books Published in 2010:
Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
If you know anything about Franzen, you probably know how cool it is to hate on him. Sure, he’s sort of an elitist and obviously competitive, and Freedom isn’t as funny or personal as 2001’s National Book Award winner The Corrections. But the glowing reviews from everyone (excepting a handful of unhappy consumers and too-cool critics), from the New York Times to The Economist to GQ to Oprah, aren’t an accident. Nor is it an accident that even the anti-Franzen publications are calling Freedom’s absent N.B.A. nomination a “snub” (which in all seriousness it obviously is. Half the finalists this year are historical fiction; and the main character in Nicole Krauss’s nominee is A FUCKING DESK).

Freedom is a great novel, one that captures better than anything I’ve read (besides David Foster Wallace’s essays) how Americans live now (or at least the sort of Americans who are likely to pick up a 700 page novel). The pages turn like the best of John Grisham, but you can turn back through them like the best of Tolstoy. And come on, it’s about us. Give Franzen a chance.

Runner-Up (which I haven’t read yet):
Absence of Mind by Marilynne Robinson
Robinson’s first book of essays was mind-opening. I expect her new one, which deals with everything from human identity to the New Atheism, is no different in that respect. I don't believe there's any subject her mind can't pick apart and put back together.

...well that's it for now. Come back soon for copious music musings.