Last year I started tweeted a Music Writer Exercise created by Gary Suarez. It happens every February all month long, here are the details:
I figured that I shouldn’t keep to just the 280 characters If I wanted to, so here goes for week one:
Television – Marquee Moon : The title track is a dizzying piece that mesmerizes you, while the remaining songs are improvisational post-punk to their core. Decades onward, and there’s still a lot on the album that’s fresh. “Venus”, “Friction”, and “Elevation” are standout of Verlaine’s poetic lyrics over unrestrained riffs. You can hear the influences its made on LCD Soundsystem, Interpol, The Strokes, and countless classic attacks like R.E.M. among others. Even Joy Division fans can’t deny that Television’s album, which came out years before Unknown Pleasures, is a bedrock to the genre and many that came after.
Doves – The Universal Want: Long time since Kingdom of Rust, and the sound is like they shook off a lot of it. Not overly ornate, but the expansive melody and Goodwin’s anguish (“Prisoners” and “Broken Eyes” come to mind) makes a luster that washes out the dull. It’s difficult to pull off a decent album after an eleven-year hiatus, many stumble on the comeback swing. yet Doves pulls the uplifting from the melodrama as the adept veterans they have become.
PJ Harvey – Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea: A love letter to urban life that reaches out to you. Nightlife, seediness, longing – Polly Jean makes the alt-rock strumming intimate, even with that widespread appeal. The Thom Yorke tracks are amazing, but you can’t overlook “Good Fortune”, “Kamikaze”, and “This Is Love”. On a more personal note, I feel a slight pang of guilt because I should have listened to this album DECADES ago when I heard her live when she opened for U2 back in 2001.
White Zombie – La Sexorcisto: Devil Music Volume One: Slick, primal sleaze-metal w/ trashy intensity oozing out of every song. The monotony is saved by the punctuations of exploitation movie samples like the devil’s ad-libs. There’s nothing to be lost from an Iggy Pop spoken word bit in the middle of “Black Sunshine”, either. The crunch in”Cosmic Monster Inc.” and unrelenting “Grindhouse (A Go-Go) ” are of note, along with “Thunder Kiss 65”, of course. Faster, slimebag, kill!
Death – …For The Whole World to See: Some archeologists fight about the origins of musical instruments. It’s not the same for this album and Death’s mark on punk rock when you listen. From start (“Keep On Knocking”) to finish (“Politicians In My Eyes”) it is a burst of vibrant, nonconformist rock that should have been respected at release, but alas.
Animal Collective – Sung Tongs: What an offbeat little symbol of emergent 2000s weirdness. Veering on the twee at times, it’s a psych-folk album that takes you on a jaunt through an indie idyll. Whether it’s back to normal or down to hipsterdom, that would depend if you went on to listen to Merriweather Post Pavilion.
Actress – Karma & Desire: Certain hypnagogic melodies permeate this album. It has a Selected Ambient Works Vol II vibe, evolved into something organic, energetic, and cybernetic. Whispers slip into pulsating beats on “Angels Pharmacy”. There are haunting piano pieces throughout, but “Many Seas, Many River” with Sampha’s soulful vocals is a standout. Actress’ house roots still emerge on the bottom half of the album, and the T-909 special guesting.
Around ten years ago at a bar in the Village a few hours before we rang in 2010, I had a spirited debate about what were the best albums of the decade that had passed. I still maintain on some (Discovery, Demon Days, Stankonia) while have forgotten others. As I’m reaching that point once again, I’m taking stock of the albums that have captured me in the last ten years.
I typically put them out in no particular order, but it felt right to put them in the order where they meant the most.
2018 – Mitski – Be the Cowboy
There’s more to Mitski’s latest album than fitting it into critics’ tired description of the sad girl breaking down over an electric guitar. On this one, the songs come from a blend of anecdotes and allegory. She pulls away from the curtain of these lives, constructed from songs like “Washing Machine Heart” and “Me and My Husband,” and allows you to look into for a fleeting moment. Is there still that tinge of melancholy that is part of her style? Of course, her lyrics very much keep that part in check. But the range of sound makes it deeper.
Favorite Song: The best way to describe the juxtaposition of despair and musicality in Be the Cowboy is in “Nobody”. Mitski cleverly mixes her desperation from solitude with a catchy indie-pop hook and it works.
2017 – Arca – Arca
This is what happens when you make an abstract Venezuelan beatmaker become BFFs with Bjork- you end up with something defenseless and cacophonous, brave yet jarring. Ghersi’s voice is arguably the most important part of this album, as it reveals her Latinx identity, using the folk song “Caballo Viejo” on “Reverie”, releasing a blossoming hurt in her voice mixed within the sweeping distortion. The distinctive marks of Ghersi’s industrial brooding remain locked in a melody of her own design, and somehow this strange monstrosity works.
Favorite Song: “Desafio” is the odd mutant out in the album. While the rest of the album is this sinewy beast, this starts with an air raid horn and Europop sensibilities. It’s her most accessible song to date, despite having lyrics that literally translate to throat slitting and euphemisms of orgasms.
2013 – Disclosure – Settle
Electronic music is in a weird place now that it’s in a more recognized place. That’s why it’s refreshing to find two brothers from Surrey take a modern spin on house music. Settle’s influences, ranging from deep house, synthpop, and UK garage, create a high-energy trip that harkens back to the 90s house beats I grew up on with flourishes and features that make the songs sound like they are a uniquely 2010s creation.
Favorite Song: “When A Fire Starts To Burn” chops up a preacher testifying and blends it with the thumps of deep house into a highly danceable banger. As the intro song for an album, it definitely let’s you know what you’re getting into really fast.
2012 – Killer Mike – R.A.P. Music
Years before Killer Mike became a Bernie Sanders stan or released a Netflix show, he was an underground virtuoso on his mixtapes. It was this album that served as a prequel of sorts, a prototype of what would become of his career in the 2010s. El-P’s synth-heavy beats served as the bedrock of Mike’s fiercely political lyrics. He
Favorite Song: “Untitled” comes in like Southern freestyle and becomes this dark meditation into Mike’s worry on his legacy, but it ends with a defiant punch at authority. That, with El-P’s production and tribal drumming in the back, bring out this almost-sinister track.
2015 – Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly
I have a serious issue with “woke” rap, which is really difficult to come to terms with living in a Black Lives Matter era. What saves Kendrick from the incredibly tired cliches of many 2010 conscious rappers is that TPAB weaves a clever mosaic of what it means to be a black American. Each song serves as a piece of the musical and racial history they have struggled, and Lamar (with the help of an amazing cast of features) pulls it all together into this pseudo-concept album that is not overbearing. Even when it veers towards protest rap, you still remember that it has the DNA of West Coast hip-hop. The tinges of jazz give TPAB a sound that seals its “instant classic” label.
Favorite Song: The parable in “How Much A Dollar Cost” is a powerful Kendrick narrative. It’s haunting, and you know that the person, refusing to be charitable to the divine, will end in heavenly ruin, but it’s still strong words nonetheless. The Ronald Isley outro is killer, too.
2016 – David Bowie – Blackstar
Can anyone listen to this album without the feeling that Bowie is telling you goodbye? It’s almost impossible on this one, and once again he reimagined himself for this album. This time it was of the artist in reflection, staring at what he’s created before it ends. Songs like “Tis A Pity She’s A Whore” and “Dollar Days” both recall his history while cryptically signal his end. The album isn’t dark, but one that rekindles your admiration for Bowie.
Favorite Song: The final song of his career, “I Can’t Give Everything Away” is a swan song, but the reason it’s good is that he’s cleverly telling us that he’s walking away, taking some of his secrets with him. Like any good rock star, they have to take the mystique with them.
2011 -Florence + The Machine – Ceremonials
There are countless instances of indie-pop that came after this album but Florence Welch served as a standard-bearer with this one. Her distinctive vulnerability in lyrics is amplified in the baroque and bombastic (“Shake It Out”, “What The Water Gave Me”). On Ceremonials, Welch is a hopeless romantic with a booming voice that never stops howling for that lost feeling of love. And there’s no shame in diving deep into that spiral along with her.
Favorite Song: Florence Welch has made her share of hangover songs, with “Shake It Out” being one of them. But this one is somewhere between a celebration and a call for help on those 3 AM nights after way too many drinks. She’s reminding you about those dives into drunken abandon, but just maybe there’s a way out.
2014 – Run The Jewels – Run The Jewels 2
Fast-forward two years after Mike and El dropped not one, but two gritty, grimy collaborations that attracted a sizable amount of buzz, and they released a follow-up to RTJ1 that was unrelenting, grimy, and witty as hell. The bars Killer Mike and El-P trade-off on songs like “Close Your Eyes(And Count To Fuck)” and “Oh My Darling Don’t Cry” take no prisoners and slap the everliving crap out of you over tried-and-true El Producto dystopia-scratch beats. The duo produced a brick to your face that has you asking for more, and miles from Def Jux and Pledge Allegiance To The Grind.
Favorite Song: “Blockbuster Night Part 1” is an introduction, to the normies as well as the hip-hop heads, to the assault they cleverly hide behind wordplay and fuzzed-out aggression of El-P’s beats and synths. It punches you in the gut, and you smile before you want more.
2010 – Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
To take a bit of a phrase from comics writer Kieron Gillen and fuss with it, we all live in the shadow of MBDTF. Regardless of whether you are a Kanye stan or if you vilify him for the myriad faults he’s accumulated over the years, this album is epic, as badly as the word’s been overused. West takes the grandiosity of production and stretches it to what could be the closest thing to a hip-hop prog album readily available for the mainstream. His beats and words spill out the excess of his life to the maximum, and artists have been pouring it into their musical DNA throughout the decade (and perhaps more).
Favorite Song: It’s hard to choose a favorite from this album. His enormity and vulnerability seemed to have hit me at all points, and it eventually became a three-way tie between “POWER”, “Runaway”, and ‘All Of The Lights”. For personal reasons “Runaway” edged out, but from an objective POV, the song bangs due to how that simple piano intro can become an anthem for break-ups, arrogance, and insecurity all balled-up into genius.
The Tenth Spot
Now the last one should be reserved for the best album of 2019, which I’ve kind of decided at this point but you’ll see in another post. When it comes down to it, I’ve always had more of a soft spot for Gorillaz, so Plastic Beach takes the spot.
Gorillaz – Plastic Beach
There was no way beat the alt-pop perfection of Demon Days from last decade. This time around, they stayed on the wave with some added guests that really popped. We got De La Soul once again, but also Snoop Dogg and the pre-Yasiin Bey Mos Def. Newcomer Little Dragon was an outstanding standout while legends Bobby Womack and Lou Reed provided the foundation for an ambitious concept album only Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett could devise.
Favorite Song: The intro to “Empire Ants” lulls you into a summer beach, Albarn singing you out of your comfort zone right as Yukmi Nagano pulls you into a vulnerable melody of broken machines.
So the time has finally come and 2009 is letting out one final push this weekend with James Cameron’s Avatar. Let me first start this off by saying that I have been waiting for god knows how long for him to submerge from his underwater adventures and finally get back to do the thing we all wanted him to do, which is making movies. Well, I’m glad he’s back, because Avatar was honestly a good return for him and a good movie for the masses. Warning, minor/major spoilers ahead.
In case you don’t know the story, let me break it down in a way that you can picture it: imagine the premise of The Last Samurai mixed with some Fern Gully and Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. Our protagonist, Jake Sully (played decently by Sam Worthington) jumps into an alien/human hybrid in the stead of his dead brother. Then, he gets lost and captured by the Na’vi, the dominant alien race filled with warriors and hunters and alien horses that still look like horses, oddly enough. In the line of Kevin Costner and Tom Cruise before him, he takes to their ways and fights back against the evil military/corporate goons that are trying to destroy them to get to a mineral deposit ( that they literally called unobtainium in this movie. Wow.) Truthfully, this movie’s story and plot is a B-, at best. The only thing going for it in this department is that everyone plays their part competently (in the case with Worthington and Zoe Saldana as Neytiri) or downright good ( Sigourney Weaver as Dr Grace Augustine. and Giovanni Ribisi as Parker the slimly corporate goon).
Honestly, where this movie really shines is, undoubtedly, in the visuals. I watched it in 3D, with some trepidation mind you, as I don’t really see how it adds to the experience for most movies. Cameron went out of his way to make sure that it did, however. Halfway through the movie I stopped noticing it and was just engrossed by how well done it was integrated into the movie. Pandora was stunning, although the wildlife was a bit peculiar at times (you can definitely tell what the director has been doing for the last couple of years). From the Hallelujah Mountains to the Home Tree, the locations created were an incredible sight. The true centerpiece was how well the capture was done on the actors when in their avatar forms. Granted, other movies have also done great work, but it does take something else to make 8 foot tall blue people move and look real. This is definitely true for when Dr. Augustine is in her avatar form; Weaver and Saldana really do pop out from under the CG work.
As far as the Na’vi themselves, the aforementioned capture work made them very watchable, but thematically they weren’t too astounding. The Native American/African vibe they gave off was a bit overdone, and did add to an overall cliché feeling of this being just a space cowboys versus aliens epic. I can understand why going with something that goes off the monoculture that hard would be good for a worldwide audience. Again, I think a more alien approach would have been more interesting, but with a 2 hour 40 minute run time, I don’t think the crowds would have enjoyed a treatise on Na’vi culture.The one interesting aspect of the world in of itself was the neural connectivity bit for the trees, but it gets treated more like an environmentalism trope than it does a cool alien concept.
Speaking of message, others have already been mentioning the whole imperialism/ white guilt fantasy aspect of this movie. I have in the past bemoaned the fact there is s severe lack of ethnic love in the sci-fi genre, but truthfully, I’m not going to go angry brown man on this movie. It would just seem silly to when the movie clearly doesn’t care about cultural divides anywhere past the “he’s a demon, kill him!” and “you are not one of us” lines. I’m not expecting sociopolitical insight from popcorn movies.
Overall, I’d have to say that Avatar was a movie that despite the tired story and plot, was completely saved and uplifted by amazing effects and an well-done world building. I am really interested in seeing the behind-the-scenes of this movie when it comes out, I want to see all the ideas and tricks involved with making this work. Whether this movie will be as revolutionary as they want it to be is anyone’s guess, but it will definitely get other studios thinking about the possibilities.