In a year when you had to overturn rocks to find interesting guitar-based stuff on the pop charts, it was tempting to excessively celebrate something like Vampire Weekend’s Contra scoring a Billboard #1 in January, or Arcade Fire repeating the feat seven months later with The Suburbs, even if the latter was slightly less shocking. (Neon Bible had narrowly missed in 2007.) It was all more “Mission Accomplished” than “Yes We Can”: Neither record’s first-week sales roughly equaled the margin by which Kanye West bested Nicki Minaj during their far more garish first-week battle. It wasn’t quite 1992 all over again, no, but it was a start.
Charts aside, 2010 offered 12 months of huge, ambitious rock records. Liars’ Sisterworld coated L.A.’s pre-fab optimism in a sludge of negative energy the color and consistency of the BP leak. Titus Andronicus made a ginormous pop-punk record about the Civil War that the band’s fans, judging by their fervency, feel is slightly more important to American history. Broken Social Scene crafted a sympathetic, sweeping epic about settling scores (politely, like good Canadians). And the Aussies in Tame Impala simply suggested you take a massive salvia rip and crawl inside your speaker cabinet. But if you need a guide for How to Survive in America that doesn’t involve decamping to Hawaii with a dozen famous friends, you could do much worse than those nominal #1s. On one end, there’s Contra‘s wiseass peer-to-peer post-punk, fetishizing separation and blurring the lines between trendiness and genuine imagination. At the other end, there’s the Anxious Modern Man of The Suburbs, a proud Luddite longing for community on his own terms.
We just survived a year in which homes were swiped by fake math, we waged invisible wars in countries Americans can’t point out on a map but can mislabel as the birthplace of the guys in Das Racist, Time‘s Person of the Year was a script-kiddie who made billions from us becoming “fans” of corporate products, and the Republican Party reinvented itself by de-friending the opposition. If LPs can be lessons for living, then Contra and The Suburbs reveal the contradictory necessities of rock as the ultimate democratic art: standing out and sticking together.
True to its name, Contra focused on what divides us—from global anxieties to interpersonal insufficiencies—while daring us to feel comfortable in our own Sperrys. The album launch was a virally circulated Polaroid of a girl in a popped Polo, and the band smirked as the Internet used her as a dartboard for its cultural assumptions about class, race, and privilege. (Then she filed a lawsuit.) Like the first-wave punk and post–Golden Era rap that molds their aesthetic outlook, VW doubled down on their 2008 debut’s unapologetic pose, biting the hands that re-Tweeted them by academically “longing” for the days when your social status was determined by your last name, instead of your choice of organic toothpaste. They summoned the sardonic anger of Joe Strummer (an actual “Diplomat’s Son”) to chronicle a generation Lost in the Whole Foods, leading off an album about our aesthetic preferences with a song about the literal taste of a trendy beverage. They wore powdered wigs and/or played ping-pong with RZA in their videos. Frontman Ezra Koenig sang passionately about the social anxieties of being caught with a fake Philly Cheesesteak. While Auto-Tuned.
Whereas Contra ambivalently embraced the capacity of commodities to separate us from the pack, the gang with military garb and asymmetrical haircuts were inspired by the days when Levittowns atomized us and sitcoms gamely tried to patch us back together again. With The Suburbs, Arcade Fire reached out for a sense of community and continuity in an age of niche and rupture, selling out two nights at Madison Square Garden in the process. They agonized over the existential isolation of planned housing, fought fake wars against other cul-de-sacs, and imagined downtown hipsters as a homogenous clone army with a sardonic spirit worthy of Don Draper.
Though rooted in postwar anxiety, AF are no museum exhibit. The Suburbs made me feel nostalgic for growing up in a sprawling ‘burb outside Indianapolis, even while noting that so many of these rings around our great cities are suffering the same fate of abandonment as the ghettos at their cores. This is the band that triggered a thousand Tweets about YouTube’s slow buffer speeds while watching a video for a song about how nice it used to be to write letters. It’s an album on which an itinerant American Southerner and a gang of Canadians wrote timeless-sounding songs seeking a sense of place lost in a sepia-toned American past, outing themselves not as heirs to the Boss or Bono, but to the Band.
If I can allow myself some optimism, both these “victories” have encouraging precedents. Back in 1988, on the verge of Sonic Youth’s controversial move to a “major,” Kim Gordon gave us “The Sprawl,” a bleak dystopia draped with arty dread straight out of Neuromancer. Two decades later, on “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains),” The Suburbs‘ penultimate track and obvious instant classic, the sprawl is instead too bright for Regine Chassagne, and she shuts it out completely by simply wailing at the top of her lungs. Gordon’s haunted anti-consumerist anthem is rightfully legendary, but if I had to pick between the two, I’m going with 2010’s most lasting ode to embracing your art as a mall-crumbling force. If this is the blueprint for a rock resurgence that moves past punk’s creaky anti-commercialism, I’m all for it. Making do in the midst of McCulture never felt so inspiring.
The melancholy final moments of Contra are also that album’s most moving, but instead of a passionate embrace, “I Think Ur a Contra” is a chilly kiss-off that could’ve been transcribed from text messages. It’s the only logical ending for an album so completely fixated on the instant otherness we create when we fixate on fashion, and the pain that emerges from even the slightest disconnection. “Contra” is a negatively defined word in Vampire Weekend’s universe—like “hipster,” it’s a term that takes all its meaning from what the utterer is not. It’s the same impulse responsible for the generic modifier “indie”; it’s hip music’s very own “Party of ‘No.’ “
Both Contra and The Suburbs open with songs whose narrators strive to regain a sense of feeling amid the forces—commerce, technology, language—that separate us while promising to pull us together. Arcade Fire succeed through earnest creative toil, while Vampire Weekend find a much more ambivalent fate, one well known to those who tend to overintellectualize. Both succeed in their own ways, however, with coping strategies for us 21st-century moderns: pushing back against the encroaching horde, or luxuriating in its detritus.