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Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings
I Learned the Hard Way
(Daptone; US: 6 Apr 2010; UK: Import)
Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings
I Learned the Hard Way
The world can never have enough classic soul music, even when it’s created in 2010 in Brooklyn. Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings make the music up to date by struttin’ their stuff with tough vocals, brawny instrumentals, and tight horns, so that one can shout along to the lyrics and dance to the music at the same time. The songs allow Jones to show she knows the importance of not only standing up for her love rights, but also for standing up for oneself against all types of cruelty. She understands money is not a luxury, but essential for living, and that having compassion for others only makes one stronger. Jones defiantly sings about troubles, but celebrates triumphs instead of weeping at the world. The backing musicians crown her achievements through their
regal fanfares, infectious rhythms and solid beats. Together, they sock it to the present day universe. Steve Horowitz
Queen of Denmark
(Bella Union; US: 6 Apr 2010; UK: 19 Apr 2010)
Queen of Denmark
One of the ways that great pop music asserts itself is by establishing its own world, by staking out a space that a listener can identify with, inhabit, and return to. It doesn’t have to be a new world, for there is always fascination in exploring the hazy spaces of the half-forgotten. Such was the case with Midlake’s The Courage of Others, which brilliantly recreated the murky, weird soundscapes of 1970s British folk rock. Even better was the group’s other recording of 2010 when they acted as backing band for former Czars frontman John Grant. Grant’s album was all the more brilliant for allying Midlake’s ‘70s soft rock fuzz to a set of startlingly direct and intimate songs that tackled the perennial themes of love, loss, hate and hope.
There was a dramatic back story to Grant’s album for those who wanted to follow up the intriguing imagery of the songs (and, for those unfamiliar with the Czars, a wonderful back catalogue to catch up with). But even without any extra knowledge, it was clear that Queen of Denmark represented a process of sustained memory work: the references were quirky, personal, and unique. Like a sonic equivalent of Joe Brainard’s classic book I Remember, the highly personal recollections that Grant imparts are recognizable not because we share his memories but because we recognize that we too have remembered in this way.
I heard more sonically daring albums this year, more innovative work informed by cutting edge sonics and experimental narrative techniques. But I didn’t hear anything more devastatingly moving than John Grant’s little songs of wonder and fate, nor anything that resolved quite as brilliantly as the last line of the last song, the line that gave the album its title and that, in retrospect, the whole beautifully sequenced work seemed designed to lead up to. Richard Elliott
None of the guys in Surfer Blood actually surf, but their music is overwhelmingly informed by lives lived oceanside. Every song on their debut LP, Astro Coast, is sun-bleached and reeking of the sea. It is a definitive summer album that was released in January and unfuckwithable enough to stay in our collective heavy rotation until summer finally showed up. Casual references to David Lynch and President Obama drift through knotty surf riffs and saltwater taffy melodies. It’s all remarkably easy to love, yet the album’s longevity is still a bit shocking: a mainstay of 2010 from the very beginning to the very end. It’s fitting that their year was capped off with the news that they had signed to Warner Bros. Records—home to R.E.M., Built to Spill and the Flaming Lips. It’s not hard to imagine Surfer Blood truly belonging next to those names in five to ten years time. Ben Schumer
No one has ever claimed that Dan Snaith doesn’t know what he’s doing. As far as I’m concerned, every album that has come out with either the Manitoba or Caribou moniker has been a critical and popular hit. However, while albums like Up in Flames and Andorra have garnered critical acclaim, there was always the chance for them to lose appeal after around 30 listens. Previous albums have leaned on a more pastoral aesthetic than Swim. In fact, Swim tends to finally realize what Snaith has been building to this whole time; an album chockfull of songs that call to mind Kraftwerk, dance punk, and psychedelia mixed equally with no genre hogging center stage. The album pumps along with urban beats, electronica-inspired engineering, and ‘80s-styled programming. The heart of this album is meant to display Snaith’s craft as never before. There are more layers, more synths, more found sounds… in essence, there’s just more going on here. That’s not to say that this album is overkill. Snaith knows when to pull back and give the listener a break, but I find it difficult to believe that they would want one. Matthew Werner
The Guitar Song
(UMG/Mercury Nashville; US: 14 Sep 2010; UK: 14 Sep 2010)
The Guitar Song
During shows a few weeks before The Guitar Song was released, Jamey Johnson had taken to covering the George Jones standard “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes?”, a song that wonders if anyone can ever provide the classic country magic of the Opry legends. With his excellent 24-song double album, Johnson lays all doubt to rest regarding the honky tonk hero heir (and hair) apparent. Johnson’s band of road-burnished hippies keeps things loose with the steel guitars and Telecasters and organs and tight harmonies, showcasing a staggeringly rich fluency in country’s golden era and giving way to redolent open-air grooves. As a result, The Guitar Song is the coolest-sounding country album in ages. On one keeper after another, Johnson gets his Waylon wail on, with an authentic, distinctive moan on the kind of beard-in-the-whiskey twangers and ballads that everyone can agree on. However, the real feat of The Guitar Song is that Johnson completely steers clear of hokey retro on the strength of pure, convincing songwriting (and a handful of ace covers). It might be audacious for Johnson to drop a double-platter, yet on his fourth time out, he’s provided enough indispensable hard-hurting and redemptive tales to get you from Austin to Fort Worth. Didn’t Hank do it this way? Steve Leftridge
“Buying records in record stores is cool”, says the liner notes of 2010’s most aloof pleasure. Mirroring the stereotype of cliquey analog loyalists, Transference feels exclusive and cold, no matter what format you chose. It was even released in a promotional dead zone (January), purposely ducking the radar. Producer/drummer Jim Eno clips Britt Daniel’s screams like treated samples, as if deciding his thoughts are better kept a secret anyway. Lyrically, less is more here, which only enhances the band’s cool factor while its peers Tweet every bologna sandwich. On an album so rooted in the cerebral—and what isn’t said—why shouldn’t the music do the talking? The taut rhythm section swears under its breath, especially on the groove-loaded first half where serrated love notes like “Is Love Forever?” slice deep. There’s a hypnotic, numb aura that stems from (what else?) a breakup, but it could just as easily be from esteem-crushing unemployment and delayed political promises. The Austin boys keep theirs. Alex Bahler
The greatest trick that Grinderman ever pulled was convincing you it was out of control. The sweat-stained, creepy cousin of the Bad Seeds, Nick Cave’s unruly rock band may deal in jagged chunks and fiendish, salivating id, but these guys deliver every sneering burst as a definitive, calculated strike. The songs on Grinderman 2 came from improvised jam sessions, but here they are given shape and made to howl. From the predatory thump of “Mickey Mouse and Goodbye Man” to the gauzy heft of closer “Bellringer Blues”, these are expansive, gut-rumbling rock songs. And Cave fronts this underbelly rock band by crooning with a devilish bravado. He’s never had trouble making us squirm, but Grinderman has afforded Cave the opportunity to delve into some of his darkest characters, and the results are abrasive but stunning. Grinderman 2 is sex-crazed and seedy, self-obsessed and unapologetic. But it is not, not even a little, uncontrolled. What’s most brilliant about this dark record is that, despite its sprawl, it still finds Cave and company holding something back. Something I’m pretty sure we couldn’t handle. Matt Fiander
Nick Cave & Co. work hard to frame Grinderman as their dirty-old-man side project, but it’s a much more serious endeavor than they let on. Their first album was a horny, emasculated sulk, but it was also pretty poetic. That’s the fun of Grinderman—it’s thrilling to hear Cave comment so articulately about such base things. But Grinderman 2 is no fun: it’s a sex-crazed, abusive rage. That second adjective is the elephant in the room—Cave’s as articulate as ever, but this time he’s a completely malevolent figure, especially toward women. Throughout the course of the album, Cave’s narrators worship women, resent them, dis them, and at one point rape and murder them. That’s more than a little distressing. At least the music is too: a dense, unsettling swamp of buzzsaw guitars and feedback. Decay pulls at the edges of everything, climax is blurred with death; dang, this album is miserable. It’s also Cave’s best in years. I’m just not sure I enjoy it. Steve Slagg
Assume Crash Position
(Crammed Discs; US: 8 Jun 2010; UK: 17 May 2010)
Konono No. 1
Assume Crash Position
While Konono No. 1’s latest album may not have had quite the shock of the new that marked their Crammed Discs debut in 2004, there was no denying that that this was a mighty set of tunes from the Congolese group. Assume Crash Position was abrasive, brilliant proof that the group were not to be classed as a temporary hip trend, as that year’s differential, but that theirs was a sustained and grounded aesthetic that predated and superseded comparisons with experimental rock, trance, and electronica artists.
It made sense. Papa Mingiedi’s group has been honing its unique take on bazombo trance music for around four decades, after all. On this album, Mingiedi explored the extent of that history, delving into numbers performed by the first incarnation of the band and also slyly employing the talents of a young Konono tribute band from Kinshasha who mimic the distinctive distorted likembé sound with electric guitars. Highlights abounded, from the epic likembé-and-drum workouts “Wumbanzanga” and “Konono Wa Wa Wa” to the praise song “Makembe” and the closing track “Nakobala Lisusu Te”, a meditative solo performance by Mingiedi.
2010 also saw the appearance of some excellent media features on the band, with the elderly Mingiedi becoming a something of a cover star. Crammed released a lavish box set of Congotronics material that catered for fetishists of vinyl and hip African music alike and, toward the end of the year, compiled a double CD of hip acts such as Animal Collective, Juana Molina, and Deerhoof paying tribute to the same material. Richard Elliott
When Damon Albarn puts together a mixtape, he really goes the extra mile. Three albums in to his Gorillaz career, the Blur frontman isn’t treating his cartoon cavalcade like a side project anymore. While its predecessor, Demon Days certainly sharpened the concept, Plastic Beach perfected it, bringing on a host of all-star associates to create one of the year’s best albums. The percentage of albums featuring cameos from Snoop Dogg over the past decade must be as staggeringly high as Snoop by his own admission often is, but his choice as the host of Plastic Beach is as inspired as the segue into the hip-hop/Arabic mash-up of “White Flag”. And therein lies the beauty of Plastic Beach, an album made by many hands, yet with enough of a common thread to not only keep the whole together, but also allow it to work fully in a live setting with a band that boasts half of the Clash among its ranks.
Reading more like an idle flip through the record collection of someone you wouldn’t mind taking a road trip with, Plastic Beach features collaborations with Mick Jones and Paul Simonon, Lou Reed, Mos Def, De La Soul, Mark E. Smith, Gruff Rhys of Super Furry Animals, Little Dragon and Bobby Womack. The latter sounds a million miles away from his halcyon days in the soulful ‘70s, but his voice has matured into something both rougher and more beautiful. Indeed, Womack’s work on the album’s first single, “Stylo”, and on its emotional denouement, “Cloud of Unknowing”, are possibly the best performances on an album hardly lacking in them.
It’s possible Albarn sleeps maybe two hours a night, as he’s apparently recorded a Gorillaz follow-up on an iPad while on the road with the band, has plans early in the year for new Blur material and is nearly finished with an Afrobeat album with Flea and Tony Allen. In the meantime, there’s Plastic Beach, a journey that still sounds as fresh and vibrant as the moment it dropped. Crispin Kott
There Is Love in You
(Domino; US: 26 Jan 2009; UK: 25 Jan 2009)
There Is Love in You
The biggest compliment I can give to Four Tet’s There Is Love in You, besides pointing out that it’s lush and intelligently melodic, is to say that this is the sort of record that can play as the loud soundtrack to a heavily inebriated evening just as well as it can play on headphones during a long train ride through deep woods. Or, to put it another way, this is the sort of record that bangs successfully at high volume but still delivers satisfaction for anyone willing to dedicate time to a close listen. Kieran Hebden as Four Tet has been bending and blending jazz, electronica, and dance-flavored beats for more than a decade and this might be his most polished and approachable effort yet. His great achievement with this record is that he continuously moves his songs forward—all his edits and transitions push the sound, never letting it rest—and the end effect is an album of layered vocals, snares, and dozens of samples and loops that will move you, even if you’re sitting still. Sean Cooper