While the men were showing us their dark and beautiful fantasies, or pulling us into their high brooding violet, the women were absolutely taking over 2010. And no, I don’t meant Sarah Palin’s Alaska. As an antidote to the depressing images of women we get in the political world, this year in music has seen a stream of releases by women that are strong and striking. While that may not be exactly surprising, the attention they received, and continue to receive, is worth celebrating. Newcomers, veterans, and downright legends all put out some of their best work this year. We saw ragged-edged rock, protean sci-fi pop, singer-songwriters at their finest and most bare, and sweet soul music to keep our chins up in dark times. These are hardly the only great records we saw from women in 2010, but to me they represent the best of what was an awfully strong year. So while the guys gripe about the suburbs or whatever, dig into ten albums by female artists strong enough to scare the shit out of any momma grizzly.
Honorable MentionJoanna Newsom
Have One on Me
You got to give Newsom points for ambition here. The 140-minute, 18-track Have One on Me seeks to pull off what most have not in the musical world: the cohesive, consistent triple-album. The results are brave and sprawling, if mixed, but the best moments remind us what’s great about Newsom. The heartbreaking coo of her voice on “Baby Birch” or “In California”, the experimental piano-pop of “Good Intentions Paving Company”, the odd yet affecting take on the Garden of Eden in “‘81”—there’s enough expansive and compelling ideas in these songs to see what made her want to keep going down this road to the tune of two-plus hours of music. Of course, it doesn’t all match up to those highlights, and falls short of the other records on this list, but Have One on Me still gets the award for most compelling record of the year. Because for all its imperfections, it still shows an original voice taking risks and pushing forward, with a handful of real gems to show for it.
Their songs snap in sharp angles, vocals bark down on us from up high, and then there’s the fact that they’re named after a 19th-century German novel. Considering all that, Effi Briest might seem pretty academic at first sight. Until you hear them. This album churns, sweat-wet and driving, through nine moody and crashing songs. The thick, dripping bass lines soak the dry snap of the guitars and vocals warm into a blistering howl as these four women build this angular, frenetic, often troubling sound and then bed themselves down in it. They’re a gauzy rock band, for sure, but they push past their fuzzy contemporaries with a richer palate, and a sound wholly original and not a half-retread of 120 Minutes fare. Rhizomes was one of the most striking and energetic records of 2010, and it only reveals more layers with each listen. Zola Jesus may be the crown of the Sacred Bones label right now—and rightfully so—but that doesn’t mean she’s the only brilliant act in the fold.
Love and Its Opposite
US: 18 May 2010
UK: 17 May 2010
Love and Its Opposite
Tracey Thorn is certainly remembered most for her time with electro-pop outfit Everything but the Girl, but Love and Its Opposite rides a quieter, less expansive track. These songs, basically piano-driven songwriter fare, come at us with a spare honesty and a quiet bravery. I say brave because, well, these are modest pop songs about the trappings of middle age. That recipe could risk trudging, but Thorn’s sultry voice and precise melodies push the album along with a quiet insistence. Piano balladry like “Oh, The Divorces!” or album standout “Long White Dress” remind us just how much Thorn can emote, hitting the right notes hard and high, and pulling some down into the shadows with her voice’s smoky low end. These are songs that cast us into limbo, into missed connections, into whatever love’s opposite is—and it’s not something as simple as hate, that’s for sure. The bright “Hormones”, one of the finer pop songs this year, thumps with lean drums, hinting at passion, but for Thorn, “Yours are just kicking in / Mine are just checking out.” Another moment for connection, for a quick burst of lust, is lost. There’s hope in this album, but it’s a murky kind, one that needs to be pulled out in shards and reassembled over many listens. So while the album plays it straight, don’t expect it to give up all its secrets right away.
Kaki King has spent her recording career trying to reign in her intricate guitar techniques. In the past, it has made for thickly orchestrated and expansive albums, but on Junior King finally finds a direct power to her sound. Rather than fill the space around her guitar with strings and keys, she builds her brilliant, clustered riffs into the songs instead of letting her virtuoso playing stand out above it all. With all this immediacy, she never sacrifices variety either. There’s the driving rock of “The Betrayer”, the dusty shuffle of the “The Hoots of Hudsmouth”, the towering rock theatrics of “Falling Day”, and so on. She spends much of the record fascinated with espionage, and it fits her style, because King isn’t hiding behind disguises as she shifts moods and genres, she’s adopting new lives, blending in with the best of each scene, like she’d been there all along. With Junior, we’ve seen King’s songwriting catch up with her ambitious guitar playing, and the combination makes for a vital, lasting rock album.
Golden Triangle fits firmly within the lo-fi garage rock movement, but there is plenty in its hefty songs to make the band stand out. Double Jointer plays like a lesson in how to use fidelity, which is to say sparingly. These women don’t hide behind the gauze, they cut through it with tight licks and powerful vocals. Either that, or they build on it with more expansive tracks like “Arson Welles” and “Eyes to See”. This is garage rock that refuses to fit into the garage. It pushes at those walls, its sound throbbing outward instead of sneering and turning in on itself. Double Jointer sounds like it could have come from any time in the last 20 years not because it is standing on the shoulders of slack-rock giants, but because this is a type of rock music that is timeless. Hooks, power chords, charging drums, furious energy—these are the weapons Golden Triangle deploys on this record, and the band delivers them with more punch than most.