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One Year Later: A Long, Sober Look at Sobriety and Looking

By Conrad Amenta | 29 July 2011

Because that’s what year-end top-whatever lists are all about, right? Sobriety, and looking. We spend the year listening to music we feel intensely about (or not) and writing intensely felt (or not) reviews that maybe, if we’re lucky, locate some kernel of insight at the center of all this delicious, buttery blather. We try to capture our temporary, conflicted, contradictory reactions to an album that’s dropped like a hornet’s nest into our laps. This is less a problem than what makes writing about music so fun, and what makes a group of interesting and talented writers a fun community to be a part of. But once a year we agree to collect ourselves—to file away our biases, to sober up, and to look. Or maybe try to look through ourselves at something else. We try to look at an entire year instead of at how that bass line reminds me of that other bass line.

Except of course we don’t. Sometimes an album comes along right when we happen to be discussing our year-end and obliterates everything around it (Kanye), or comes out the week after our year-end list runs, and it better be lethal if it’s going to survive (Merriweather Post Pavilion [2009]). Sometimes the enthusiasm of the few becomes infectious and gets the better of the group. Sometimes we get it wrong. Sometimes we’re right without realizing it. The point being that this discussion is fluid, and lists only have the illusion of permanence and authority. Creating a list is like running a series of personal reactions through a personal reaction aggregator to give an imperfect sense of consensus. Sometimes it’s just a surprise to go back and think about how badly we once freaked out over Deerhunter, or how deeply our mystifying love affair with Destroyer runs.

Anyway, this column is designed to look back at some of our choices from the year prior and react, totally subjectively and in no particular order, these many months later.

Flying Lotus :: Cosmogramma

I’m just gonna come out and say it: this album—which I thought was the 2010 album of the year—may someday be considered sort of Important. Hoo boy, if the concept of year-end lists is contentious then that statement is just stupid, right? But these months later the pure fucking density of this thing has yielded to all kinds of new appreciations. It just keeps unfolding. The experience of listening to Cosmogramma is downright fractal in comparison to something like Surfer Blood or Sharon Van Etten. Those guys aim for your gut, and for the most part they hit it. Flying Lotus seems to aim not at you, but at groups, at entire audiences, at your culture. He pulls at threads of all of this intense, tricky acid jazz and funk and 1) combines it—and this where most artists stop—BUT THEN, 2) distills this new combination into something mercurial and faithful and yet entirely fresh and contemporary and digestible. Listening to this album is like sitting in on an entertaining and authoritative lecture on the history of 20th century music. It’s no experiment—components mashed together and the messy results shared, like “Here, listener, you make something of this.” No, Cosmogramma might end up being seen as an important record because it says equally important things about both listening to and making music, and is totally uncynical and unironic about linking these two things. An ambitious album by a guy with every ounce of the game required to back it. Three thumbs up.

Swans :: My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky

Man, did we ever go through a Swans renaissance when this, their first album in fourteen years, came out. It was like a legendary dark force from a D&D novel had opened a transdimensional gate. Scott uploaded everything they’d ever done and as a result just about every staffer stared unblinkingly into the great abyss at the center of our souls for about three weeks, and then we remembered that a Big Boi album entitled Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty existed, and there was light once more.

Villagers :: Becoming a Jackal

Just to listen to their album, Villagers, for all their skill, still feel like a heartfelt poem encased in airtight laminate. This sort of thing just begs to win the Mercury Prize, for which it was eventually shortlisted, which is to say that it was a very good album held back by overly attendant production and accompaniment. It was safe. But since its release, Conor O’Brien has travelled from one side of the globe to the other offering spare, often solo performances of Jackal standards, all exposed, bleeding renditions of theretofore polished pop ditties. It’s sort of breathtaking and charming in equal measure to watch him perform “The Meaning of the Ritual” for about eight people. He’s also released some duets with Charlotte Gainsbourg, the ultimate pilferer of raw talent, so you know he’s legit.

Four Tet :: There is Love in You

I loved this record at the time, but now I’m not so sure. Some accused Hebden of seeming a little strategic to have created this, his most accessible and straightforward dance (produced after many a DJ set in some legendary English nightclub or other), but I saw it as a very necessary return from his quasi-difficult glitch of Everything Ecstatic (2005) to his roots, for which the great Ringer (2008) served as a bridge.

But then Flying Lotus’ Cosmogramma arrived, planet-sized, and altered the gravity in the universe, and now this (and pretty much everything else) sounds downright thin. Also, his work with Burial in the months following has shown huge growth. I suspect his next dance record won’t sound like dance music doing Four Tet, but Four Tet doing dance music, if that means anything at all.

Sufjan Stevens :: The Age of Adz

Calum, I love you, but you’re out of your mind.

Blue Hawaii :: Blooming Summer EP

Sort of our Little Engine That Could, this electro-pop EP came out of absolutely nowhere to snag the #10 spot, beating out several of the established artists listed above. Little did we know at the time (Mark probably knew; he knows everything) that singer Raphaelle Standell-Preston was also part of sure-fire 2011 year-ender Braids, whose Native Speaker is even now (and after weeks of listening) demolishing me on a daily basis. The Blue Hawaii EP is still great and catchy, even if its sheen has worn off a little (totally normal for any music whose appeal is partially based on being raw and open. Eventually you just get desensitized), and deserves to be listened to on its own terms and merits, independently of Braids. Except holy shit is this Braids album ever incredible. Please tell me you’re listening to Braids.

Gorillaz :: Plastic Beach

Twenty years from now we will look at the fact that we put an album called Plastic Beach by a group called Gorillaz and featuring Snoop Dogg in our 2010 top 50, and we will not understand. This thing is destined to only appear in randomized playlists, at which time everyone in the room will acknowledge that the music is far better than its terrible packaging suggests. Feels like listening to a song you really like while in line at a Quiznos, which I guess is about the opposite of what an album called Plastic Beach is going for.

Arcade Fire :: The Suburbs / Kanye West :: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

Twin juggernauts in their respective genres, the first seems to have only gotten bigger, winning Grammys and going on huge tours, and the other to be lying dormant for the day it will once again rise and consume us all. Like the Michael Jackson nostalgia it contains, West’s triumph seems to have waned a little. (Did you know that this seismic event of a record has only sold about 1.6 million copies to date, even after about eight months on the charts? That’s K.D. Lang’s Greatest Hits territory.) I don’t speak for the staff on this one (or on anything, for that matter) as I reviewed and adored the former and was puzzled by the adoration for the latter, but suffice to say for any huge, hyped-up release the enthusiasm is a part of the enjoying. Once it wears off the records might remain pretty damned good, but you’re still just telling stories about a great party you once went to.

Warpaint :: The Fool

This is probably the album on which I’ve performed the most complete about-face. I once thought it a stylishly noir, occasionally minimalist, assured rock record, and put it in my personal top 50. Today it sounds limp, directionless, and boring. There are still kinds of nice touches and the drumming is fantastic, but over time you realize it’s those touches that initially arrested your attention. It just doesn’t hold together as a package.

Janelle Monáe :: The ArchAndroid

The hip-hop/R&B market is completely ruthless. Back when I was working in a record store we used to order an insane number of the latest product for the problematically-named “Urban” market, sell through all of them, and then never order another box again. An album would debut at number one on Billboard, sell a bazillion copies in its first week, drop a hundred spots a week later, and then disappear forever. Meaning that the market is constantly moving, always looking for the next big single, whereas rock fans just keep buying The Wall (1979) over and over again. Monáe was doomed from the start; definitely an album artist rather than a singles one, The ArchAndroid wasn’t a huge commercial success, though the critical honeymoon is ongoing. It seems even the lukewarm response to something as amazing as “Tightrope” has cooled. It will be interesting to see if her next effort will be as sprawling, ambitious and, yes, cumbersome as this still occasionally mesmerizing record. Still one of the most impressive virtuoso performances of 2010, but it feels like an enormous amount of energy just kind of spewed out into space.

Women :: Public Strain

The band you least want to see get into a public fist fight and then break up forever, they did just that, and our top ten placement of Public Strain—which has only gotten better with time—is now a pathetic letter from CMG to the boys, begging them to put their problems behind them and keep killing it.