[8 December 2010]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
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
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.
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.
Warpaint wins the award for most difficult band to classify in 2010. In fact, they deal in what seem like opposites all over The Fool. These songs are intricate and expansive—they all clock in around 5 minutes—but they’re built on moments of precision. No songs fade or blur to pretend at atmosphere, they earn it with a careful weave of powerful sounds under Emily Kokal’s otherworldly singing. In fact, when she lets us know, “Now I’ve got you in my undertow,” you have to agree, if you can snap out of the song’s spell long enough to nod your head. In all this atmosphere and sonic size, Warpaint excels at combining unlike sounds. From the electro-pop-turned-post-punk of “Bees” to the sweet-turned-troubling folk of “Baby”, this album has all the power of a rock record with all the hooks and intricacy of eccentric pop. The Fool is an album made with an impressive maturity and confidence. These songs build with patience, and the payoffs that their complex approach yields are impressive. So, really, when the music is this good, who cares what you call it?
For a world that lost Michael Jackson the performer, Monae gets points for hearkening back to his finest days as an artist. But ArchAndroid is great because it shows Monae doing so much more than that. She knows her music—her MJ, her Prince, her Stevie Wonder, even more current, left-field stuff like Of Montreal—but she shapes her knowledge into something squirmy, shape-shifting, and all her own. Let’s forget for a second the futuristic concept of the album and just appreciate all it does musically. From neoclassical interludes, to arch hip-hop, to frenetic pop, to sharp-as-a-tack R&B, to glimpses of psych-pop, this record runs the gamut. It’s also not easy to tap into the combination of sci-fi and humanity Bowie pulled off at his best, but Monae does exactly that here. If dual comparisons to MJ and Bowie aren’t enough for you, check out the energetic pop bliss that is “Faster”, or the soulful, ass-shaking “Tightrope”, or the glittery vamping of “Make the Bus”. Or any other moment on this record, since each is distinct and works in its own right. Along with Newsom, this is one of the most ambitious offerings of 2010, but Monae matches ambition with a consistency and unique vision that few can match up to.
Beach House’s dreamy churn should have run out of steam by album three. But, instead of retreading their already fantastic work, Victoria Legrand and Alex Scully blow the roof off their sound on Teen Dream. The keys no longer curl in on themselves, the guitars no longer drift out into space. Instead, they grow and mesh here into something far more expansive and lush. These songs don’t drift out to you, they reach past you rising into the atmosphere. It’s a brilliant move for these guys to go big because Legrand’s voice is one that begs for size. No longer strained through the gauze of a humble sound, her voice sounds full-blooded and powerful. It also helps that these songs—particularly “Zebra”, “Used to Be”, and “Lover of Mine”—are the most immediate and melodic songs of their career. As one of those blog-buzz bands, it would have been easy to dismiss Beach House as a flash in the pan before now, but with Teen Dream, Beach House proves it’s the genuine article. The duo has made its strongest record yet, an album that has stayed fresh since its January release—no small feat in the Internet age—not through publicity stunts or a barrage of singles, but by being built to last, by finding a sound big enough to match up with Legrand’s amazing pipes.
Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy may have manned the boards on You Are Not Alone—and you can feel some of the folk/soul of Sky Blue Sky in places—but he smartly stays out of the way, because this is Mavis’s show, and she is in full command on this album. Her third album for the Anti- label is also her best yet, meshing the revival energy of tracks like “Don’t Knock” with the brimstone fury of songs like “Downward Road”. In between those spiritual poles, there are energetic and heartbreaking covers, like Staples’s take on the little-known Randy Newman gem “Losing You”, or the dusty stomp of “Wrote a Song For Everyone”. Ironically, the best song here was written by Tweedy, but you get the feeling he couldn’t have quite pulled it off himself. In Staples’s hands, the title track is deep and resonant, a call to anyone in dark times to keep their head up. She’s coming in to lift us up, and she does that with brilliant consistency on this record. This isn’t some laid-back, late-career victory lap. Staples can play the torch singer well here, but mostly she’s charged up and leading us on. And we follow, whether we want to or not, because even if you don’t have faith in anything, performances this strong can get you believing in something.
2Sharon Van Etten
There are a hundred reasons why Sharon Van Etten is not your typical lovelorn singer-songwriter, but here are just a few. First off, her organically powerful voice, with all its range and size and knack for subtle emotion. Then there’s her songwriting itself: The breathless rundown lines on “A Crime”, the biting edge on “Save Yourself”, the heartworn, guileless declaration of “DSharpG”. Van Etten makes heartbreak sound fresh by avoiding fragility. These songs are hurt but still strong, and as expansive and powerful as Van Etten’s voice. In just seven songs she stretches her palate from the mostly acoustic dust of her debut album to churning sound experiments, twanging country, and bright power-pop. This record is a huge leap forward for an already great songwriter, and the sound of promise being both fulfilled and then surpassed. Van Etten may be heartbroken and beautiful, but she’s hardly in need of rescue. In fact, with the brilliant epic, it could be her that bails us out.
1Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings
As much as Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings tap into the past, and float through the history of Stax and Muscle Shoals, I Learned the Hard Way is very much an album for 2010. Jones is the fiery woman scorned she’s been in the past, but bigger issues circle her heartache here. The recession funk-jam of “Money” is the most direct connection to our current woes, but even “Window Shopping”, about her man’s wandering eye, taps into greater issues. Jones seems to be aware of that scope, of how heartache can be put in perspective, and her singing is at its most subtle and restrained and, as a result, powerful. Where older records, and the live show, have Jones as a performer, this record shows Jones the singer. Behind her the Dap-Kings are tight as ever, without letting their straight-up soul fall into by the numbers simplicity. Jones and the Dap-Kings may have broken out with 100 Days, 100 Nights, but this record is their most definitive statement. It keeps one foot in tradition and one in the troubling present, and manages to make ‘em both dance in unison. Timely and timeless are two things that are hard to pull off on their own, so the fact that they pull off both on I Learned the Hard Way is more than enough reason for Jones to top a pretty stacked list.