When I interviewed Dan Snaith for Halifax’s The Coast, we talked for a bit about his goal of making dance music that sounded liquid, rather than solid. As someone whose rock tastes are built on solids—sharp rhythms, tight riffs—the whole idea seemed counter-intuitive to building the sort of dance album I enjoy. But it’s a testament to Swim’s quality that Snaith (the man behind the Caribou monkier) manages to pull off such a loose, free-flowing album without losing his measure in the process.
Credit, perhaps, Snaith’s creative process, which saw him spending his weeks recording at home and his weekends test-driving material in UK clubs. As a result, the album feels populist and insular at the same time, high energy yet intimate and personal. It ramps you up and brings you down, and manages to pull of a set of dark, introspective lyrics alongside even its most compelling, intense beats. Equally as compelling blasting through headphones as it was live and in person, Swim grooved like nothing else in 2010.
Teen Dream sounds like a swoon. An effervescent feeling of bliss, an all-encompassing sense of warmth and wonder, covers every note of Beach House’s third full-length album. There’s a reason their work has earned the description “dream pop.” They fill the speakers with gorgeous reverb and the oscillating voice of Victoria Legrand, who can flip between breathless and breathtaking on a coin’s turn.
It’s an album that I’m half surprised ended up this high on my list, if only because there’s a sameness to it.This isn’t a record with a lot of ebb and flow; its quieter moments aren’t all that quiet, its loud moments not all that loud. Yet Teen Dream kept returning to my stereo throughout the year, always there when I just needed to shut out the world and just lose myself in something sweet, haunting and beautiful.
In May, Pitchfork’s Tom Ewing wrote about the idea of the “imperial phase,” a term he borrows from the Pet Shop Boys. It describes moments in an artist’s career where “intense scrutiny meets intense opportunity,” when it seems like everyone is paying attention and desperate for something great. The artist, through the quality of their work, manages to seize that moment, delivering something that demonstrates command of their form, capitalizes on the audience’s goodwill and self-actualizes, setting the tone for the era of their career to follow.
Ewing is using the phrase to describe major pop musical forces—like Lady Gaga, for example—and he has reservations about applying it to album-led styles such as indie rock. But what he describes happens regularly on a variety of scales, from the top of the charts to the bottom of the local rock scene. Of all music’s joys, few are more compelling than watching an artist or a band seize a moment in time that’s been presented to them, and to do so with great work that elevates not only their own career but the music culture around them. Though three very different releases, what unites my three favourite albums of 2010 is that sense of an imperial moment, of opportunity presented and opportunity seized—with expectations exceeded.
In the case of The National, the scope is smaller than the other two, but the the self-definition is staggering. High Violet is the sound of a band taking command of the moody undertones of their sound and making them the centre of the experience. Though always tense, many of the band’s most famous songs—“Mr. November,” “Apartment Story”—succeed in their moments of release. High Violet, in contrast, stays tense, tightly-wound, nervous.
And yet it’s compellingly precise in its atmosphere, a perfect match for the masculine anxieties that vocalist Matt Berringer so fantastically explores. It’s not nearly the crowd-pleaser of Boxer or Alligator, but its maturity struck a deeper, more resonant chord with me. It’s an album that solidifies The National as one of America’s greatest bands, and few experiences this year filled me with as much joy as watching them play its songs to bigger and bigger audiences, each time winning converts to their cause.
The opportunity presented to Arcade Fire, though, was on a whole other level: the chance to become the great art rock band of their generation, not unlike Radiohead before them. Lest you think I’m overstating things: what other rock band of such acclaim is selling out sports arenas right now? Who else has the industry appeal to wrangle a Grammy nomination for Album of the Year (on a legitimate independent label, no less)? In this fragmented media landscape, they’re the closest thing we have to a unifier in indie music, a common ground that we can all sing along to.
But I’d love The Suburbs even if it didn’t elevate the band’s career in this fashion, though I’m not surprised that it did. Painting with a broader palette, its exploration of adult regret and suburban life is far more compelling than its detractors give it credit for, and it’s buoyed by a captivating set of songs that dive deeper into the band’s post-punk influences. It’s an album that feels lived-in, a world populated with characters that feel the stitches and scars of their past. And it’s a complete album in the truest sense, with slow builds and quick releases in equal balance. It’s not Funeral, but making another Funeral would be the worst thing Arcade Fire could do right now. Instead, The Suburbs is the sound of a band building its legacy, one mountain at a time.
And then, we have Mr. West.
In selecting My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, I’m resisting the urge to go against the grain. After all, it’s not like Kanye needs another “album of the year” writeup to solidify his cultural dominance in 2010; hell, there hasn’t been this much of a journalist consensus around a record since Kid A ten years ago. Radiohead’s opus was a fairly uncomplicated choice; this one, though, comes with a lot more issues. Are myself, and others lining up to champion Fantasy, rewarding an album for its ambition rather than its success at achieving it? Is affection for Kanye The Persona preventing an accurate assessment of Kanye The Artist? (Pitchfork’s embarrassing “album of the year” writeup—a slight paragraph basically arguing Fantasy speaks for itself—only provides more ammo on this point).
I’ve been wresting with these issues for a month now, and I’m not sure I’ve come to a satisfactory conclusion on them. And yet, they haven’t been enough to dislodge My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy from this spot, one which I began to suspect it might claim after leak after leak, G.O.O.D. Friday release after G.O.O.D. Friday release, suggested that West was truly building something special.
More than any other album this year, Fantasy is the sound of a man in control of a moment, one he himself created through his successes (one of the greatest runs in hip hop this past decade, even excluding his guest spots and production credits) and his failures (Swiftgate, Matt Lauer, you name it). West would have the music world’s attention even without the scandals, or releasing free music every Friday, or the greatest Twitter account of all time. None of them were necessary, but they all played off one another to the point where West was inescapable in 2010 even without a chart-topping single
And yet, none of this would have mattered one iota had My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy not delivered. (You didn’t exactly see 808s and Heartbreak showing up on my 2008 albums list, did you?) As audacious as it as accomplished, Fantasy sounds like a record made without any compromises or accommodations: not to genre barriers, not to budget concerns, not to radio hits. Its cavalcade of guest stars speaks to West’s compelling balance between ego and selflessness. He gives so many great moments to so many great MCs—not to mention appearances from artists as varied as Bon Iver and Rihanna—and yet in the process, it’s as if he’s trying to position himself as the new centre of hip hop.
And damned if Fantasy doesn’t sound like he succeeds. The album feels like hip hop’s past, present and future, bringing together sonic linkages that stretch from classic rock (“Power”) to indie folk (“Lost in the World”) to electronica (“Blame Game”). It’s crowd pleasing yet challenging. It’s as comfortable working with the straight-up pop of “Runaway” and “All of the Lights” as it is simply providing a framework for MCs like Jay-Z, Nicki Minaj and Pusha-T to spit greatness. Does its reach exceed its grasp at points? Perhaps. But who else with the commercial platform that West has is reaching THIS far, succeeding this captivatingly?
“I love commercial art!!!” West Tweeted earlier this year. “I know that sounds like an oxy moron and if I spelled that wrong I just sound like a moron lol!!! …but seriously have you guys taken time to think about that concept???!! COMMERCIAL ART!!! It just came to me! That’s what I make!”
He’s not wrong. And in 2010, no one else made it better.
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