Music, like any art, consists of component parts. At a base level is sound, traditionally made on instruments, turning into melodies, contrasting with others, turning into songs, given meaning by lyrics, collected into albums, existing in a cultural context, made by human beings. Over time, the idea of what constitutes "good music" has become increasingly complicated- the set of values of rock and roll put forth, the idea of the album as an ideal form, punk notions of integrity- have created a world in which one would pretty much need to be a genius polymath in order to excel. At the same time, the very proliferation of music in our culture has made the idea of music-making have a wide appeal. There is an idea that anyone can make music, which is true- but when the year-end lists get tabulated, people begin to talk about albums as timeless pieces of art.
In 2010, there are simply too many bands. Many people just want to make sounds, or play an instrument, or travel. Beyond any contemporary trends, I see things returning to a level akin to folk music, emphasizing home recording and peer-to-peer interactions. Partly I think this because it seems like the music-marketing apparatus has failed. Pop music creates monoliths in the shape of celebrities, and the thing calling itself "independent music" now standing in the center of a corporate circle-jerk hasn't really made anything that struck me as "good," according to the old criteria; existing, as it seems to, with the goal of only being "interesting," new enough to be used to sell the idea of cool.
In 2010, the music that struck me came from what could be called the underground, or simply the work of friends of friends. There are hundreds of undergrounds, and what was valued by people I knew when I lived in Olympia is irrelevant and dismissed by those I know in Baltimore. I pretty much ignored local music in Olympia, as it wasn't of interest to me, than the main producers of it seemed to possess a different sense of values and interests than myself. In Baltimore, home of "the best scene in America" according to a Rolling Stone article a few years back, the realm where it seems like the action is could be called noise music. It's not that I'm particularly fond of noise as an end to itself, but just that the realm of dissonance allows for freedom. None of my top albums are pure "noise records," but all come from that cultural sphere.
Which is funny: To me all of culture is one big "noise sphere," in terms of how much information there is to parse, with so little of it having any value. But these are the records I found to have value, that come the closest to succeeding in terms of the classic idea of an album, consisting of songs. Admittedly, past a certain point traditional notions of songcraft become negated, and I just mean that they have vocals and lyrics grounding them in something human, away from the pure abstraction of bent machinery. With the diminished expectations of little hype, things can simply succeed on their own merits, achieving one idea in a live performance and another on record.
1. Sun City Girls - Funeral Mariachi. (Abduction Records) Dante's Disneyland Inferno was reissued this year, and that record, with its epic scope, feels like a bid for immortality on Charles Gocher Jr.'s part, a concentration of what it was he brought to the band. Now he's dead, and with his contribution diminished, what exists is a tribute to a human being who earned said tribute by being a chaotic force. This is a major work in a year that lacked for them, but might not be recognizable as such without a deep knowledge of the band and their history of dicking around. "Dedicated to you know who and the souls who know." A great many couldn't deal with Dante's Disneyland Inferno, either, so I will stop acting like the lack of discussion of this album demonstrates the criticism industry's grand failure. Although: by coming at the end of their career, it cannot be trumpeted as "the next big thing," the way so many are interested in. I saw Sir Richard Bishop perform as part of Rangda this year, and while their record False Flag is not going to make this list, live they were a reminder of all the force he can conjure. On this record, force is subsumed into beauty.
2. Big Blood - Dead Songs. (Time-Lag) Big Blood were the best band of 2007, though I didn't know it at the time. They pressed a series of CD-Rs, all great, all offered online for free. This year, there are two more CD-Rs available for download, which could actually be better than this official release. This is the sort of behavior I so value in bands. This is their first official CD/vinyl release, but unlike Rain In England, the only purchasable Lil B album amongst a sea of free mixtapes, it's a pretty effective concentration of what makes them a good band. (I listened to a ton of Lil B as well, but none of his mixtapes are super-consistent, or of a manageable length.) These two used to be in Cerberus Shoal, whose final album, An Ongoing Ding, also dripped out this year, on a Japanese label, though I have only heard bits of it. A married couple making folk music and recording it immaculately, this album might not be better than their previous work, but it's available commercially, on Amazon even, and so this makes it "real" in a notable way. Although much of what I will go on to praise is not as tangible. Double standard.
3. Daily Life - Necessary And Pathetic. (Load) Christopher Forgues and Sakiko Mori's pop band, whose previous release, There Is No Solution Because There Is No Problem, I was asked to turn off at work, here make something more recognizable as a pop record. Specifically, it is a synth-pop record. Lots of drum machine. Crooning. I process this as being akin to CF's City Hunter zine in its vision of modernity, but this is a lot less abstracted. I listened to this record quite a few times, as November turns to December. I was talking this record up elsewhere on the internet and a dude responded by saying that anyone who cares about synthesizers has to hear this record. That struck me as crazy nonsense, but maybe this has got something to teach the people. Double standards, man: I like this sort of music when it comes from an unexpected place. There's a heft to knowing where this record is coming from that makes it hit so much harder than a band that is just making new wave in 2010 for some unfathomable reason.
4. Big Boi - Sir Lucious Left Foot, The Son Of Chico Dusty. (Def Jam) There are good songs that were made for this album that didn't make it, and bad songs that are still on it. A lot of the subject matter is that of an old man complaining about the youth. But it's still pretty great. I liked that Kanye West album too, but when I listen to that, I think "oh, this is interesting. This is ambitious." When I put this on, I am constantly reminded "oh, this is a really good song. This beat is really heavy." This record makes me think of the southern hip-hop ideal of driving around in a car with bass turned up, windows down. That Kanye record makes me think about celebrities. Even if I think about the phrase "30 K for a verse no album out!" like a mantra, Big Boi makes me envision a better world.
5. Humanbeast- Queer Marriage. (Gross Domestic Product) This record is available online for free, also. This band/couple/performance art project has an interest in bondage that I find fairly uninteresting. I don't understand why it's considered transgressive, or shocking, when it seems to me that's been in the public sphere since early '90s Madonna videos. But Humanbeast kind of remind me of Madonna also, with this record's addition of vocals. But really smart, both in their knowledge of building electronics and in their conceptual foundations. I saw them play two great shows, and this is their better release. They are a cool band. I remember, years ago, talking about the lushness of noise pop, how much sex there is, and also this soft womb: Humanbeast has a lot of the same ingredients reconfigured into terror. Putting on their clothes as the cops arrive. They make the argument.
6. Angels In America- Allergic To Latex. (Digitalis) This band makes me think of the glamour of junkies. They are not junkies, and they're not glamourous either. A pile of trash. An oil spill. Watching TV on a dirty couch. Heavy drum machine, murky vocals. Tank Girl comics. Inarticulate. Uncommunicative. Secrets. Saying a lot just by existing. Most of this tape is on the Free Music Archive. They've got a bit of a love for sleazy modern America and its gloss, but their aesthetic is that of caked on dirt. There are miles of empty space between these zones, and empty space is where I want to be. If industrial music evokes the dehumanization of factory labor pumping out plumes of black smoke, this is an a town with a Wal-Mart in it, these are the kids in the parking lot: An evolution of industrial music that is completely the opposite of Nine Inch Nails romanticism.
7. Salamander Wool - Lunarsophic Somnambulist. (Ehse) A folk record. No evil. Real pure: Which is not to say its for purists. Naive, almost? Free. Weird. Carson builds his own instruments, but there's a lot of guitar on this record. You can get this one for free as well, but I am proud to own it. The first time I saw this dude play a set, I hated it. He was just jamming. He continues to do sets like that, and sets that are completely thought out and planned to be mind-blowing. That's what I mean by purity, that's what I mean by freedom. These are good songs, though, once it gets moving.
I paid for all of these. Other records of note that folks I know made and the larger world ignored: Jenny Graf, Os, and her Marcia Bassett collaboration, Peradam. Lazer Zeppelin's cassette on Night People and LP on People In A Position To Know. Alex Body's "Chief Of Time And Frequency" on Night People. Russian Tsarlag "Unleash The Chain" tape that Discogs says came out last year. Lil B mp3s. Matmos, Wobbly, and Lesser's Simultaneous Quodlibet LP is better than Matmos' collaboration with So Percussion and Wobbly's collaboration with People Like Us, at least to my mind. Daniel Higgs' Say God and his collaboration with Twig Harper, Clairaudience Fellowship were talked about, but it is a wonder just that they exist and were put out by Thrill Jockey.
Best song I heard for the first time this year: