Welcome to Sound of the City’s year-in-review rock-critic roundtable, an amiable ongoing conversation between five prominent Voice critics: myself, Zach Baron, Sean Fennessey, Maura Johnston, and Rich Juzwiak. Let us acknowledge at the onset that we are ripping this off from Slate so hard, but though maybe let’s think of it as more of an homage, the way the Black Eyed Peas’ “The Time (Dirty Bit)” pays tribute to “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life.” Whether this is a wise analogy will be a central question undertaken by the panel.
For now, though, let’s start by deciding, once and for all, if this really is The Greatest Year for Music Ever.
This is a sense I am getting, from critics I respect, or at least I don’t think are completely insane. And any conversation about unified critical rapture has to begin, of course, with Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, easily the best-reviewed record of my 10-plus-year career as a critic: five stars, five mics, 10.0, etc. etc. Absolute consensus. Or at least that’s the perception. And so, to open the floor to my esteemed colleagues (and especially Zach, who has already cited “Rap Reinvented Itself With a Vengeance” as one of the year’s biggest music stories, and praised both Fantasy and the multi-media Kanye fantasia that surrounds it at length, here is my annoying three-part opening question: Were Fantasy, and Rap in 2010, and Music Overall in 2010, as good as a 10-minute spin around the Internet suggests they were?
With rap, for example, this year it seems like even former pariahs (Rick Ross, Soulja Boy) are now hailed as underrated, as secret geniuses — is Rawse’s fourth album really that much better than his first? Even current pariahs are handled pretty lightly: Waka Flocka Flame was declared “not, in the parochial sense, a good rapper” in Sean’s largely positive review in these very digital pages, and nonetheless made the cover of a magazine called Respect. Jay-Z stuck to the stuff he’s increasingly better at (marketing, ubiquity) than rapping, and avoided any “Young Forever”-type derision. Big Boi’s record got nearly as much lavish praise as Kanye’s did. Odd Future whipped up an unprecedented froth of Internet rage and/or euphoria. Drake! Remember Drake? New York rap — Fabulous! Lloyd Banks! Vado, maybe! — at least gave people something to argue about. Is it a masturbatory, sadly closed Internet circle propagating the idea that this was rap’s best year in forever, or is there some truth to it?
Even the year’s highest-profile poorly reviewed records seemed to get off easy this year: Pink Friday‘s failure (creative, not commercial, it should be noted) has been largely written off as the industry Not Letting Nicki Be Nicki (The Awl: “Minaj didn’t just release her first major album, she released the album that Lin Que — and a lot of other female rappers — once refused to record”), and M.I.A.’s Maya, reviled at the onset in some corners in the midst of her terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad year, is primed for a backlash against the backlash (Christgau, recently: “Just play it a few more times than the fools who clocked dollars for the job and you’ll get your money’s worth”). As fools who all clocked dollars for the job (probably, right?), do we have to agree with him? Is “Teqkilla” somehow not terrible now?
In desperation, it seems we’re forced this year to hate the albums we actually like. I reserve the right to tweak my own Top 10 lists for just a little longer, but here are five records, Zach, that I suspect you and I agree on:
Kanye West, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
The-Dream, Love King
Sleigh Bells, Treats
LCD Soundsystem, This Is Happening
Vampire Weekend, Contra
As for that last one, are you, like me, a little squeamish about your still-extant love for Contra, just given The Perception, VW’s deeply annoying history of preppy-baiting, model-annoying, holiday-ad-soundtracking? I feel bad that that record still resonates for me, nearly a full year later. Your friend and mine Christopher R. Weingarten last year around now spearheaded this thing called GAPDY, wherein he chastised critics for lavishing praise on the same five, indie-centric 2009 albums: Grizzly Bear, Animal Collective, Phoenix, Dirty Projectors, Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Is there any doubt VW shows up on this year’s tortured anagram, alongside Arcade Fire, the National, LCD, Sleigh Bells, etc.? (Can I sneak Dream or Deerhunter into that list so we can make VNDAL?)
In closing, and in the interest of trying to introduce a little more rancor into the 2010 critical hive mind, here’s a question for the field: What’s your least favorite record liable to show up in the Pazz & Jop Top 10? If I was building my own 2010 GAPDY, it would most likely start with a B: I have nothing against Beach House, per se, but despite seeing them several times this year and returning repeatedly to Teen Dream, I still can’t tell the difference between any of their songs, which seem designed specifically to pacify neuorotic Brooklynites and/or young children, which I guess is a valiant aim, but still. Doesn’t help of course that the album name inevitably makes one think of Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream,” another obsession I believe some of us have in common. I refuse to feel bad about that one, though.