At least an episode of Tim & Eric has the decency to last only 10 minutes. Chillwave had the gall to last an entire year.
In truth, Willow Smith is 10 years old, and Rick Ross was never a drug kingpin. In practice, Willow Smith is 23 years old, and Rick Ross is the most notorious cocaine dealer in America. Such was the power of sheer will in 2010. Unlike Ross, there was no controversy or surprise about Willow Smith’s backstory: She’s Will Smith’s kid, and precocious superstardom was coming to her like adult teeth. But much like Ross, her single “Whip My Hair” is rife with blatant untruths: in her case, having haters, driving cars, grinding, “getting it in,” and saying “hurr.” And yet Smith channeled the spirit of Ross’s “B.M.F. (Blowing Money Fast),” inhabiting her character so emphatically and convincingly that it rendered her real self irrelevant and her song a megaton monster. Haters didn’t get shook off, as the song says; instead, they got run over. By a 10-year-old driving a car.
The sooner hip-hop loses the intolerable burden of living up to some bullshit simulacrum of “realness,” the better—I’m sick of reading white folks dismissing weirder-than-usual rap for not fitting their fetishistic version of what “street” is supposed to mean. And maybe Rick Ross’s evolutionary success is a good first step: Just crank up the unattainable opulence and the struggling hustler/billion-dollar-man dichotomy to levels where it seems so transparent that it’s hard to care about boring shit like verisimilitude. He knows he’s selling a Hollywood bill of goods, so why the hell not wink at the camera, especially when it’s what turned him from a joke into an A-lister? And now that he’s actually playing to his strengths as a rapper—that bellow as a rib-nudging sales pitch, all outlandish comparisons and signifying brand-name drops—he has rendered all speculation over who-cares gossip and counterfeit Louis Vuitton shades into an obsolete joke. Hell, everybody’s fake in the eyes of the Internet, anyways.
St. Paul, MN
The unearthed tracks on the Exile on Main Street and Darkness on the Edge of Town reissues were thrilling. But I was split on the revisionist history. I wanted to hear the original, un-fucked-with recordings. Then again, if I were going to publish half-baked riffings from 30 years ago, wouldn’t I want to “complete” them? At least the authors were alive to call shots (unlike Michael Jackson). Still, the deconstructed multi-track of the Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” that surfaced in November on dangerousminds.net was more revelatory than anything in the Exile package. And the un-retouched history on Dylan’s Witmark Demos was the most profound of the lot.
New Paltz, NY
If a song as good as “Plundered My Soul” was indeed left for dead for 38 years, that says more about the Rolling Stones’ early-’70s headspace than any of their landmark albums ever could. Or, alternatively, if a song this good was just now pasted together to replicate Exile’s aesthetics and help pimp a reissue, that says more about what these guys may have left in the tank than any of their recent tour-souvenir studio albums ever could.
Plenty of people are calling 2010 a banner year for rap, but it was also a good—and diverse—year for queer music. From Bradford Cox’s narcotized r&b to the ubiquitous vamping of Nicki Minaj to Robyn’s heartbreaking dance-floor drama to Ariel Pink as Menopause Man to Janelle Monáe’s gentle retro-futurist gender-bending, it seemed that the whole of the pop world was trending toward the middle of the Kinsey Scale.
Maybe I’m too invested in the idea that tear-the-club-up rappers should belt like top-volume M.O.P. to get fully on board with Waka Flocka Flame. Dude has hooks for days, and he can write aggro without being dumb. (“Fuck this industry/Bitch, I’m in the streets”—that’s some Clio-winning phraseology right there.) But unless he’s doing that thing where he’s screaming out his own name like blunt-force trauma onomatopoeia, he also seems to let the beats do most of the heavy lifting, the kicks and bass providing all the force as Flocka just cockily drawls his way to the point in the hook where he can yell a bit. It’s easy to go hard in the paint if you’re a lumbering Shaq-size dude and you’ve got Lex Luger as Garnett next to you in your frontcourt. And, like modern-day Shaq, this shit gets tired after about 20 minutes.
St. Paul, MN
Isn’t Taylor Swift’s big auteurist move the readymade critic’s darling it should have been? Why are Arcade Fire and the National topping out year-end lists she doesn’t even appear on? It’s not just that her record is better than their records—it’s better in all the rock-crit ways that are supposed to make you a Best-Of natural: musically broader and deeper than her last album, introspective about love and loss, a successful move into maturity from ingénue-ity. She even sings in a nasal whine that some people hate! So how come she isn’t this year’s new Dylan, or at least new Conor Oberst? Tell me it’s not because she’s blonde. Now tell me with a straight face.
A year after the Flap, Taylor Swift and Kanye West released multimillion-selling albums. The surprise was the unsurprising results. Swift bore down and wrote songs whose wit and detail suggest she either boasts a powerful imagination or is still interested enough in the world outside the VIP room. Since she’s so young, complacency is the sin her imagination must guard against. From Stevie Nicks to Sinead O’Connor, the history of pop music proffers too many examples of misguided talent and narcissism. Every indication suggests she’s going to be one of those talents about whom The Industry is self-congratulatory, a Grammy stand-by like Stevie Wonder. So I’m perfectly fine with Speak Now as her testament. She’s hungry enough to know relationships, like coal, exist as fuel for healthy furnaces, but whose fumes are toxic if inhaled.
Titus Andronicus, The Monitor: Patrick Stickles sees Axl’s civil-war-as-social-metaphor and raises it so high it’s not even funny, except it actually is funny. Massive but never plodding, smart but never clever, this is the thing you should throw right in the face of the next person who tells you the album is dying as an art form. If you find a collection of songs that makes better use of the word “excrement” in the lyrics, you should buy it.
If there’s one 2010 artist I feel sure American critics are going to under-rank, it’s Shakira. Sweet, shrewd, and as brilliant as her blond highlights, she leaves me mesmerized, and I harbor no doubts that “Waka Waka” was the masterpiece of 2010. FIFA put the Colombian woman in the impossible spot of having to represent Africa at its World Cup coming-out parade, and she swiveled her way around that fix with an infectious hip dance and intimations of a melting-pot world to come.
Nicki Minaj and will.i.am, “Check It Out”: This is the second year in a row where will.i.am has topped my list—I must now seriously consider the possibility that he’s a genius on the order of Chuck Berry or Bill James. (Three years ago, I thought he was the Antichrist, or at least one of many Antichrists. My thinking has evolved on this matter.)
Gas stations, supermarkets, Walgreens—the more functional the environment, the more effectively Lady Antebellum’s “Need You Now” broke my heart. Foregoing massed tracked harmonies for the surefire technique of putting an average-voiced man and woman together at the mic, “Need You Now” evoked classic aural psychodramas like Rumours-era Fleetwood Mac. (Too bad its host album isn’t even as good as Mirage, though).
Against Me!’s “I Was a Teenage Anarchist” damn near made me cry into my Kashi cereal. Singer Tom Gabel—the dude who penned the punker-than-thou anthem “Baby I’m an Anarchist” back in 2002—did a 180: He reassessed the fundamentals of punk rock, ultimately concluding it’s all about an individual’s freedom of choice. Hive minds are retarded in the literal sense. Gabel’s dissent from the rigid scene is his most punk-rock achievement, and a reminder that the most terrifyingly punk-rock thing you can do is become who you are.
The five stages of a 2010 Sufjan Stevens Song:
“What the fuck?”
“No, seriously. What. The. Fuck?”
“Who does this guy think he is?”
“Oh, wait, I get it. Kinda catchy.”
“Hey, can you play that again?”
Wavves, King of the Beach/Best Coat, Crazy for You: Every generation gets the James Taylor and Carly Simon it deserves.
“Chasin’ venture paper, like what Twitter get/Sick of arguing with white dudes on the Internet”—one line in “You Oughta Know,” and Das Racist were pretty much guaranteed to make my year-end list somewhere. And the line from “hahahaha jk?” that countered/augmented/expanded on that sentiment— “We’re not racist, we love white people/Ford trucks, apple pies, bald eagles”—is acerbic enough to represent their m.o. alongside it, some kind of Br_wn B_st_rds in a Cheech and Chong’s Boutique Trojan horse. Christian Lander should fold up his iBook and go home.
St. Paul, MN
Taio Cruz’s “Dynamite” is a fantastic song, and not just because I wholeheartedly support pop music with synth riffs that take their cues from early-’90s rave music. After the song became a huge hit, Mike Tompkins’s a cappella version of the song went viral; the Maccabeats then covered Tompkins’s version (albeit with Chanukah-themed lyrics), and that went viral as well. And then, unexpectedly, something strange happened: I found myself liking the song even more, except that “the song” no longer meant just Taio Cruz, but rather his version plus all the other versions, assembled into some multi-headed beast that can’t be broken down into its constituent parts anymore. Maybe this is how the post-Glee, post–American Idol world is going to work: Everyone wants to be a karaoke star, and no song is untouchable anymore. The song recorded in a professional studio and promoted internationally at a cost of millions of dollars ends up on the same pedestal as the cover version recorded in some unknown singer’s bedroom, or the 90-second truncated version sung by a just-discovered teenager on a TV talent show.
This year, Flying Lotus’s Cosmogramma was likened to a “symphony,” and Miguel Atwood Ferguson’s Suite for Ma Dukes saw a full release. Recent years have also seen Damon Albarn’s opera Monkey: Journey to the West and Adam Theis’s Hip-Hop Symphony. These classical forms are inspiring a lot of exciting material—maybe 2011 will be the year of the dubstep concerto.
Lady Gaga and Beyoncé, “Telephone”: a song about a young girl in her 20s who’s too busy to text her friend or talk on her cell phone; based on informal observations walking around the city, this immediately moves it into the realm of science fiction.
The year’s most dispiriting trend: redefining genres so they reflected the listener’s own cramped tastes. When critics praise Janelle Monáe or How to Dress Well as great r&b, or Ariel Pink as a terrific update of late-’70s studio-rock, you know they haven’t listened to a note of contemporary r&b, or assume that standing the proper distance from the microphone signifies the act’s polish. The critical success of Monáe, How to Dress Well, and Ariel Pink actually showed the contempt with which r&b and studio-rock were still held by indie-leaning listeners, years after the Neptunes supposedly made things easier for them.