Welcome to Sound of the City’s year-in-review rock-critic roundtable, an amiable ongoing conversation between five prominent Voice critics: Rob Harvilla, Zach Baron, Sean Fennessey, Maura Johnston, and Rich Juzwiak. We’ll be here all week!
King Kong, Loch Ness, Goblin, and Ghoul,
I’m a zombie with no conscience. But if this trip ’round the mulberry bush has got me thinking about anything, it’s evangelizing. We all champion the artists that feel precious and reject everyone else’s narrative. Rich positioned the much-hyped Robyn as the invalid child of the dance-pop elité, propped up as a paragon of fortitude and invention, before doing the deep-dig on some great dance music I’d not heard at all this year. Zach crawled into the depths of his youth to make Superchunk the cool Aunt and Uncle of the game, the kind who let you smoke and watch R-rated movies when you slept over their house. Maura made the last-minute battle cry for R. Kelly, a conflicting but righteous choice, while closing the book (for good?) on the American Idol Generation. Rob repped for Robyn in the face of dismissal, defied me (!) on Taylor Swift, found evenhanded things to say about the hegemony of Arcade Fire, but ultimately couldn’t even muster a joke about the Black Eyed Peas. And then there is Zach’s reminiscence on a moment we shared in my living room (you’re all invited to come and see the weird mirrors some time soon) that involved Pusha T and Kanye West. During a VMA live chat with Ryan Dombal for this very blog, I wrote, quickly, after the performance, “Feels really good to see the two rappers I’ve been most invested in for the last 10 years closing the VMAs. Frivolous, but weirdly important.”
In retrospect, that’s not frivolous at all. It’s why we’re having this conversation. We believe in a moment that represents a bigger idea. For Kanye and Pusha it was awareness, grandeur, a tenuous grip on self-loathing. But that’s the easy stuff. It all raises the notion of getting paid (actual money!) for writing about these things that take hold over us. That’s a pretty rare opportunity in the world these days. Hell, I got to go bowling and drink beers with Titus Andronicus for a short profile in January, and I can’t imagine a better way to spend a Tuesday evening during that frigid bitch of a month. And still, I find myself looking for what doesn’t come so easy, what’s out of my comfort zone. It often feels like mixing chess and accounting.
So what else is there? I saw Marissa Pasternoster and her Screaming Females (who are actually not females) put a hole in the sky in Brooklyn this fall. Her clenched jaw was almost as tense as the crowd, who sort of gasped and geeked over the speed and agility of her guitar-playing. Screaming Females made an album, Castle Talk, I couldn’t much connect with this year, but in person, I was converted. Likewise but in reverse for Alabama’s Jamey Johnson, the 2010 winner of The Annual Country Dilettante Honorabilis Award. I saw him perform this summer after a rather hilarious phone conversation we shared (He asked me, incredulously, if I was black after I made mention of the “Black Album” half of his overstuffed but occasionally excellent double-album, The Guitar Song. We didn’t quite have an easy rapport; he may have sniffed out my novice exploration.) But Johnson, though a celebrated songwriter and falsely positioned carrier of the Outlaw Country torch (he’s a pure Nashville technician), wasn’t nearly compelling enough live. I left halfway through his turgid set at the Highline Ballroom, despite the quite special sartorial choices of his backing band. Flared denim was involved. Either way, “Can’t Cash My Checks” is one of the year’s best songs, and I do not regret devoting long portions of valuable listening time to The Guitar Song. Speaking of flared denim, one of the most enlivening things I saw this whole year was 67-year-old Van Dyke Parks sitting at a piano in an auditorium in a Barcelona museum singing about the historical vegetation of Florida and the eschatological implications of slavery. So, you know, relevant youth culture stuff. That show, which was a classy aside amidst the reunion-fueled (Pavement! Pixies! Liquid Liquid!) indie corp at the Primavera Sound fest, was a delightful respite from The Now. Maura, that was my time travel (and actual travel) moment of 2010.
But, coziness is still our guiding light in these critical times, and as per Rob’s question, I was never less than nestled in with Das Racist. I had a few beers with their Himanshu Suri for a story this year, too, and found myself nodding vigorously at him when he identified that crossover Def Jux-to-Dipset transition that so many rap nerds experienced in those halcyon days of Purple Haze. I think @heems also said that the late Camu Tao was one of his favorite rappers ever, a fascinating and illuminating comment. DR’s two mixtapes from the year are great, obviously, and confirmation that maybe me and my friends aren’t alone in the world, but I know they can do better. I pity the label that signs and then crams to understand them. Perhaps it will be that perennial punching bag Interscope, who have a track record of shelving long-desired albums from hard-luck artists.
But there was a crucial de-shelving from Jimmy Iovine and the boys this year. That’d be “Kush,” the first single from Dr. Dre, he of the headphones, and his forthcoming (you betcha it is!) Detox. “Kush” was badly timed, released during the same week as My Beautiful Dark Twisted Promo Tour. It also features Akon, which, what the fuck. Still, as I said earlier this week, let’s be more empathetic and listen harder to this multi-millionaire producer. “Kush” is conceptually rote, sure. It’s also a massive Dr. Dre doorknocker, layered and swarming and perfectly fussed-over. Those don’t come along everyday. I sure hope the Good Doctor doesn’t Chinese Democratize himself in 2011. And with that, I’d like to say thanks to Rob and Zach, savvy interpreters of The Now and gracious hosts, and also hear about the things that challenged or confounded Rich and Maura. What really put you on your ass that you didn’t see coming? Besides Bieber Fever, obviously.
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Was 2010 The Best Year For Music Ever? Five SOTC Critics Discuss.