The Top 10

Arguing about mellow indie rock, Lady Gaga, and the real grizzly bears

Yeah, I voted for Animal Collective. Get over it.

Stephen M. Deusner
Sunnyside, NY

I saw two great Animal Collective shows in 2009. The second was at All Tomorrow's Parties, and when "Brother Sport" exploded from a swirling echo-vortex near their set's end, I knew Merriweather was album of the year. (OK, I was a little high. But still.) AC's magic wasn't just the melodic and emotional sleight-of-hand in "My Girls," "Summertime Clothes," and "Brother Sport," but the extended techno/psych abstractions they emerge from, both on record and live. It's a jam-band paradigm—check the bootlegs—so I'm not surprised they have haters. To my ears, though, nothing else this year sounded so dizzyingly joyous.

Will Hermes
New Paltz, NY

Spending fruitless hours agonizing over Fever Ray, Grizzly Bear, and the increasingly paradigmatic Animal Collective was instructive. That age is much more than a number explains only the half of it. In the case of Animal Collective, I hear a half-understood but determined effort to examine "maturity," I think, with the guilelessness of the young-adult sensibility. AC want domestic bliss to resonate like the unmediated wonder of 13-year-olds making sense of their bodies. But a twentysomething isn't a pre-teen, and if you're still having trouble figuring out the difference, you need to find another analyst. I expect bands to realize that confusion is sex—as recent albums by Sonic Youth, Maxwell, and Ghostface showed. But they didn't dumb down their approaches to get at higher truths; if anything, their albums showed that human drama often can't accommodate them. Ideals are fine, but a burden, too—maybe a luxury—and an economy increasingly hostile to the pursuit of venalities puts a greater demand on clarity than Animal Collective are prepared to give.

Alfred Soto
Miami, FL

I'm sorry to all those loyal to the Dirty Projectors' Bitte Orca, but I just couldn't get past this lyric from track two: "And what hits the spot, yeah/Like Gatorade/You and me, baby." It's a pickup line that only Tiger Woods might appreciate.

Jason CherkisWashington, D.C.

I've been asked to explain my adoration for the Dirty Projectors' Bitte Orca on several occasions this year. Each time, words elude me. The reedy falsetto, the harmonic cawing, the asynchronous and paradigm-shifting jags of r&b, freak-folk, prog-rock, pop—it just seems self-evident. Like, have you heard music before? Have you heard anything like this?

Caitlin Dewey
North Tonawanda, NY

Two hundred years from now, when anthropologists thaw out my cryogenically frozen head and ask me what it was like to live in early-21st-century America, I'm going to point them to these lines from Dirty Projectors' "Temecula Sunrise": "I live in a new construction home/I live on the strip behind the dealership, yeah/I live in a greenhouse and I am getting wasted, yeah." Talk about American prospects—those lines are like a Joel Sternfeld photograph. It's description and metaphor all rolled up into one.

Michael Azerrad
New York, NY

Speaking of lack of objectivity: My dad was a very minor avant-garde composer of difficult music in the late '60s/early '70s, and a much more laidback person who could enjoy weird rock 'n' roll in the decade before his 2001 death. Dirty Projectors struck me, from the beginning, as the type of band his older self could have composed for, the tentative beginnings of an awkward truce between his musicology and the devil's pop songs. Bitte Orca is the happy peace and triumphant new alliance; people are listening to it and blogging about it and voting for it, and I couldn't be more delighted. I'm aware it has nothing at all, in fact, to do with my dad. It'll do.

Brian Block
Greensboro, NC

Besides Sonic Youth—who continued their bittersweet late-career trend of releasing the year's best album to relative indifference and scored bank from the CW for playing their mellowest set ever—only metal bands managed to cut the diet-soda inoffensiveness of the year's consensus faves the way Fucked Up did in 2008. Animal Collective, Grizzly Bear, Neko Case, Dirty Projectors: In Brooklyn, no one can hear you yawn (although not because the music's too loud). I'm all for sensitivity or whatever—I like Bon Iver!—but listening to these records was like watching PBS. With the best hip-hop of the year partying like it was 1996, mainstream country was the most exciting front of popular music in 2009. But Converge, Baroness, and especially Mastodon—whose Crack the Skye received a 7 from Decibel—deep-throated my proudly untr00 brain-stem and reminded me that rock 'n' roll has depended, from its duck-walking, hip-gyrating beginnings, on a (however illusory) suggestion of menace. These were the real grizzly bears of 2009.

Michael Robbins
Chicago, IL

Increasingly, the critically celebrated avant-garde sounds like stuff that might've been on soft-rock radio in the 1980s anyway, sometimes with messages as banally optimistic as Reagan's "Morning in America."

Marc Hogan
Des Moines, IA

A lot of people sneer at so-called "NPR rock" for being wimpy or something, but it's a hoary cliché that underground music has to be loud, fast, and out of control. Once upon a time, mainstream culture was blandly, blindly complacent, so underground music was angry and dissatisfied—look at the Velvet Underground droning about heroin while America tried to paste a fluorescent smiley-face over Vietnam; look at the Sex Pistols railing that "England's dreaming" in '77 while the Queen's silver jubilee distracted from rampant unemployment and racial unrest. But in 2010, mainstream culture isn't complacent; it's stupid and angry. So underground culture has become smart and serene. That's not wimpy—it's powerful and constructive, a blueprint for kicking against the pricks.

Michael Azerrad
New York, NY

What's novel about the xx is that they're merely callow when so much of today's Kindermusik is both callow and cutesy. Thematize ineptitude all you want—I still object on fundamental musical grounds, much as when I hated Vampire Weekend not for carpetbagging, which was an irrelevant criticism, but for not listening to each other, which wasn't.

Glenn Dixon
Silver Spring, Maryland

Lady Gaga was not only my obsession this year, but the obsession of just about everyone I knew. Here is a pop star who exists just to be a pop star. It makes sense that she started out as a coffee-shop folkie—it just shows how self-constructed her current persona is. Naming your debut album The Fame is some sort of brilliant self-fulfilling prophecy, marking her as the most cocksure pop artist since Madonna herself—and also the most (over)analyzable. It almost didn't matter what the music sounded like, except that it totally does matter. I spent weeks humming "Paparazzi" after her VMAs performance, not because of the fake blood (which certainly helps), but because of that gigantic chorus and clever metaphor.

Stephen M. Deusner
Sunnyside, NY

Despite her endless, uninspired proclamations to the contrary, Lady Gaga still feels, if not contrived, harmlessly momentary. But Ms. Germanotta isn't this year's only female pop singer that fashioned herself as an oversimplified response to the recent, paradoxical influence of futuristic production techniques and retro-minded fashion on commercial artistry. Whether it's Rihanna, Xtina, or even Leighton Meester, the digital radio waves and YouTube channels are besot with histrionica divas dressed like Blade Runner extras, the purity of their voices drowned out amid Auto-Tuneups and soulless robo-glitches. Makes it easy to understand why Susan Boyle's comparatively lucid debut has been such a phenomenon.

Kenny Herzog
Brooklyn, NY

Is gay the new black? Possibly. Just ask Lady Gaga, whose LGBT-heavy demographic raised her star into the stratosphere, making her the new Queen of Pop—a crown vacated by the tragic death of Michael Jackson (who may have been 2009's most-played artist). And, certainly, the innuendo-fueled speculation abut Gaga's alleged peen (not to mention photographic evidence of her nuzzling a stripper's coochie) kept the trashy rumor mill ablaze. Meanwhile, a much larger debate over an actual issue of substance—same-sex marriage—courted an equal amount of controversy, yet for entirely different reasons. In the end, "Poker Face" trumped Proposition 8 in the national game of Hold 'Em, suggesting that while looking fabulous was one thing, demanding equality was quite another.

Eric Arnold
Oakland, CA

Not a particularly good year for music or much else, I think, but it did at least provide a vindication for Devo's theory of things evolving backwards. I for one clearly remember contemplating diva du jour Amy Winehouse back in 2007 and hoping she wouldn't kill herself. And yet here I am now, a mere two years later, contemplating diva du jour Lady Gaga and hoping I won't kill myself.

Steve Simels
Hackensack, NJ

Twitter-paced historical revisionism makes me want to ascribe the strength of this year's music to the ascendance of our 44th president. So much of the best music this year is so ebullient, so irrationally exuberant, so disrespectful of petty boundaries like genre, era, culture, and geography, that I find it difficult to accept any other explanation. Animal Collective covered Frankie Knuckles and transformed house into home; the deeply goyish Black Eyed Peas made thrilling and brainless music for bar mitzvah dance floors; Semitic indie-rap group Why? traded erudite rhymes for Midwestern ennui; Yeasayer returned from some retrograde future and brought back a pagan paean to the athletes of my Zaide's generation; Hungarian composers inspired the dapper Frenchmen in Phoenix to craft flawless mall rock; Mos Def and DJ Quik went on world tours without ever crossing paths; and Alicia Keys and Jay-Z put on for their city and somehow came up with an anthem for every damn person on this planet—"Empire State of Mind," indeed.

Daniel Dzodin
Pittsburgh PA

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