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!
Dear fellow illuminati,
My favorite Das Racist line from 2010 remains one they wrote in 2009: “Listening to coke rap, listening to joke rap/Listening to Donuts, listening to grown-ups/Listening to Camu, listening to Cam too.” (I have fond memories of watching them perform it earlier this year in Mexico, as a drug war began to break out around us.) But I’m also partial to Sit Down, Man‘s “We aiight, but media cats think we clever though/Are we?/You may never know.” Together, those lines pretty much explain their appeal to rap fans and critics alike–they are us, simultaneously diagramming our passions and, gulp, doing our jobs. Still wrestling with whether there were ten albums released this year that I liked more than their two mixtapes; as discerning rap critics and habitual self-deprecators, I kind of assume they’re in the same spot, wondering the same thing.
Once I would’ve made a similar argument on behalf of Drake, whose Thank Me Later began life as a lock on my year-end list and is now hovering somewhere around the bottom of it, waiting in line with those DR tapes. The Canadian child star’s iffy rapping (we should probably just start writing it as #Drake and get it over with, no?), privileged background, and hilariously moody and depressive dispatches from frontlines of outsized success rubbed a lot of traditional rap people the wrong way. But I took unabashed pleasure in a guy who seemed like he could’ve been be part of my clique in another life telling me in great detail what it was to be 23 and famous. Perhaps it was indeed Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy that snapped me out of it; not only did West raise the bar on narcissism in 2010, but he lived a more interesting life, too. (Is it uncouth to suggest here that Drake’s strongly rumored dalliance with Amber Rose is just one more way he’s ultimately followed unimaginatively in West’s footsteps in 2010? The “Deuces” remix, a lock for my singles list, certainly suggests that Kanye himself believes this.)
I will pull back from the MBDTF brink, though I’m amazed that seven posts into this thing, no one has plunged off of it yet (critical fatigue? self-evident greatness? are we just trying to give Taylor Swift a breather? Let me know). Instead, a moment for Ariel Pink, critically resurrected in 2010 on the dubious logic of being godfather to a terrible genre fabricated by a satirical website. Pink’s usurping of West’s rightful spot at the top of the most visible singles list yet published crowned a year in which nostalgia (a cousin, if not outright byproduct, of the ’90s revivalism Maura highlighted earlier) ruled supreme. This was a 2010 filled with music–from “Round and Round” to How to Dress Well to post-dubstep guy James Blake–that sounded like, in the immortal words of my good friend Nick Sylvester, “half-sung melodies refracted through the quarter-remembered chopper blades of the opening sequence of Airwolf as I fell asleep in my basement.” The technical term for this stuff, I’m told, is hypnagogic pop, the definition of which has never successfully remained in my head for more than five minutes–not unlike most of the music it denotes.
Nostalgia is a funny thing, see? LCD Soundsystem’s This Is Happening wrecked me precisely because of how clear-eyed its backward gaze was, whether meditating on irreparable relationships (“All I Want” and “I Can Change,” your two finest lonely-hearts anthems of 2010, and back to back on this album) or the disillusioning harvest of a life spent doing something as disposable as playing music (“You Wanted A Hit,” the bitter kiss-off; “Home,” the rueful, belated assumption of responsibility). James Murphy’s loyally transparent (you can hear every room this record was recorded in) production left nowhere to hide, no place to be coy–“Talking like a jerk, except you are an actual jerk,” and that’s just the first song. It’s the work of man running out of illusions (“Love is an open book to a verse of your bad poetry/And this is coming from me,” still maybe my favorite lyric of 2010) and with absolutely zero patience for someone else’s muddy, half-heard recollection of a bygone summer’s day. I’m with him.
You just get less romantic about this stuff. No one epitomized that (heavily age-influenced) dichotomy in 2010 more than Superchunk, who despite once having written an actual anthem about an actual bygone summer’s day, didn’t waste much time dwelling on the past this year. Their latest, Majesty Shredding, vibrates with the bright melodic savvy of a band that never stopped touring, never stopped trying to figure out why they were still bothering, as adults with spouses and children, to perform songs with titles like “My Gap Feels Weird” for audiences half their age. (A show earlier this year at Bowery Ballroom decisively answered that question for me, anyway.) What bands like Superchunk know that their more callow peers don’t is that self-doubt and lack of clarity doesn’t always have to be a chore; in fact, in pop music, it tends to be an opportunity. “Digging For Something” is a song about having no idea why you’re doing what you’re doing, but doing it anyway. And on “Winter Games,” a chiming, lean, adrenaline burst of a song on an album full of them, the band’s frontman, Mac McCaughan sings: “Everything you wanted/Was more than you could handle/And the light that surrounded you/Leaves you in the dark, staring at a candle.” The tenor is uncertain, the music anything but. “Time and transition is a wave that’ll put you over,” McCaughan swears on the aforementioned “My Gap Feels Weird.” Who could doubt him?
Speaking of time and transition and once-seemingly-lost-causes like Superchunk, one thing I dearly loved about 2010 was its redemption of those who seemed beyond it, particularly in rap. Fabolous’s mixtape of the year There Is No Competition 2. Rozay’s surprisingly fluent Teflon Don. Lloyd Banks and Juelz Santana on “Beamer Benz or Bentley.” Fergie on “All of the Lights.” Dipset’s “Salute” (to say nothing of Dipset’s actual reunion). Of all of these, perhaps dearest to my heart was the salvation of Pusha T, the rapper most beloved by my friends and most hated by people who buy albums for running on five years now. Sean, I was in the room with you, watching this year’s MTV Video Music Awards, when Pusha strode out during Kanye’s evening-closing set (which doubled as the debut of my favorite 2010 single, “Runaway”), his steely, determined voice audible long before the camera actually deigned to cut to him–salmon-colored suit jacket, cameo of the year. I’ll leave it to you to tell the world whether or not I was weeping with joy or if it was just some weird trick of the light, which light you have to admit is pretty unreliable, your living room being covered with deceptive shadows and weird mirrors and all…
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