Friday, December 31, 2010

2010 in music

by Emmanuel Legrand

2010 was a good year for music. No major trend dominated, leaving more space to diversity and variety. Here’s a personal A-Z review of the year in music. Feel free to disagree!

A for Alternative
Arcade Fire's 'Suburbs' (Merge)
If mainstream pop music was the toast of the year (and not always for the better), the most interesting music came from the fringes, especially “indie rock”. Arcade Fire (Merge), The Black Keys (V2/Co-Operative), Local Natives (Infectious), Tame Impala (Modular), Deerhunter (4AD), Harlem (Matador), The National (4AD), Sufjan Stevens (Asthmatic Kitty), Midlake (Bella Union), Vampire Weekend (XL), Two Door Cinema Club (Kitsuné) to name but a few, provided the soundtrack for the year with energetic, intriguing and sometimes amazing new music.

B for Bella Union
In the last decade, the label set up by Cocteau Twins’ Robin Guthrie and Simon Raymonde (now sole master on board) has established itself as one of the most creative new labels in the UK. This year’s must-have albums from Bella Union are John Grant’s ‘Queen Of Denmark’, Midlake’s ‘The Courage of Others’ and Beach House’s ‘Teen Dream’.

C for Canada
What a year for Canadian acts, with stunning albums from Arcade Fire ('Suburbs' is both a creative and a sales success), Black Mountain (Jagjaguwar), The New Pornographers (Matador), The Besnard Lakes (Jagjaguwar), Broken Social Scene (Arts & Craft), Owen Pallett (Domino) and Holy Fuck (Young Turks/XL), among others. What makes them so creative?

D for Dylan
Not Bob, but LeBlanc, who has shown with ‘Paupers Field’ (Rough Trade) that there is in him a brilliant singer/songwriter. And speaking of Dylan (Bob), The Bootleg Series Vol. 9 – The Witmark Demos: 1962–1964’ (Legacy) documents the fascinating evolution of Dylan, the folk bard doing covers of Jesse Fuller, Bukka White and Woody Guthrie, into Dylan, the songwriting genius.

E for Electronica
Thanks to Daft Punk and their soundtrack to ‘Tron’, there was a reminder that not too long ago, electronic music could be cool and mainstream. Unfortunately, few of today’s act in the genre manage to cross-over, despite good offerings this year from Bonobo (Ninja Tune), Darkstar (Hyperdub), Underworld (Cooking Vinyl), LCD Soundsystem (DFA), Lindstrom and Christabelle (Feedelity), Villeneuve (see below) and the very challenging, but brilliant Zola Jesus (Sacred Bones). And on top of that, Brian Eno offered in 2010 one of his best recordings in a long time (‘Small Craft on a Milk Sea’ on Warp).

F for Failure
Christina ‘Bionic’ Aguilera – Kings of Leon – Michael Jackson – Miley Cyrus – Jonas Brothers – Santana – Rod Stewart – Love (Courtney)… They all tried, and did not convince.

G for GaGa
The Lady, of course. And this year’s sole global megastar. Some predict that her lifespan will be as long as that of the outfit she wore at the VMAs… I beg to differ. As irritating as she can be, she provides the goods in the form of perfectly packaged dance-pop tracks and she does the hard selling quite well. On top, she has a clear vision of where she wants to go, a very good management and a label working with her to stay at the top (Interscope). So hats off to her, and let’s wait for the next album before writing her off.

I for Idols
SuBo may now be “as popular as the Beatles” (according to British media), but it seems that the lifespan of these so-called Idols is shorter than ever, and the selection process more odious than ever. No wonder Simon Cowell moved on. Now there’s ‘Glee’, another karaoke show, but at least, there’s life in it. And what could we say about this “genius” (according to his manager) named Justin Bieber?

Robert Plant's 'Band Of Joy' (Decca)
J for Joy
Robert Plant’s ‘Band of Joy’ (Decca) did exactly what it said it would. Who needs Led Zep, eh?

K for Katrine
Largely unknown outside French borders, Gallic iconoclast Philippe Katrine (Barclay) deserves a wider audience. With his unconventional style (check the video for ‘La Banane’…) and his melodic sense, he comes across as one of heirs to the great Gainsbourg.

L for Live
Bon Jovi have scored the most successful tour of the year. At 67, Roger Waters is taking ‘The Wall’ to sold-out venues. Muse are now one of the world’s biggest draw. And seven out of the top 10 best-selling tours of the year were by artists in their late 40s to late 60s (according to Pollstar…). Depressing.

M for Monae
Janelle Monáe's debut ‘The Archandroid’ (Wondaland Arts Society/Bad Boy) is probably the most exciting R&B release of the year. It is diverse and inspired, with that little ounce of controlled madness that makes you want for more. The future is hers!

N for Ninja Tune
At 20, British label Ninja Tune created by DJs Matt Black and Jonathan More, better known as Coldcut, has lost none of its edge, as this year’s output proved: the aforementioned Bonobo with ‘Black Sand’, R&B rising star Andreya Triana with her debut ‘Lost Where I Belong’, and Los Angeles-based producer Teebs with ‘Ardour’. Check them out.

O for Outstanding track
Has to be Cee-Lo Green’s ‘F*** You’ and the way it crawled organically into public’s consciousness.

P for Pop
What is pop today? If judged by what is “popular” then hip hop (Kanye West), R&B (Usher, Rihana, Kesha) and dance (David Guetta, Lady GaGa) are today’s pop. Overall, it is usually upbeat and bland, with an embryonic melody and top production values.

Q for Quote of the Year
Has to go to good ol’ ‘Keef’ for spilling it out in ‘Life’, one of the most openly honest autobiography ever written by a rock star. The whole book could be quoted. We’ll stick to this one: “I've never had a problem with drugs. I've had problems with the police.” Errr, really?

R for Re-issues
Re-cycling old stuff has been a growing business in recent years, with “Deluxe” editions, re-mastered albums, final cuts, and so on. The Beatles’ Apple and EMI are experts at that… But how many times can you buy a Beatles album? And we have probably seen already five if not six incarnations of The Who’s ‘Live At Leeds’: single vinyl album, then its transfer on CD, then a CD with of all the tracks minus ‘Tommy’, then all the tracks including ‘Tommy’, and in 2010, the whole package above mentioned plus the concert in Hull… Luckily, sometimes the material is worth the purchase. This year’s outstanding re-releases include David Bowie’s ‘Station To Station’ (EMI), Bruce Springsteen’ ‘The Promise – Darkness On The Edge Of Town’ (Columbia), The Rolling Stones’ ‘Exile On Main Street’ (Rolling Stones Records), and Miles Davis’ ‘Bitches Brew’ (Legacy), as groundbreaking now as it was when initially released in 1970.

S for Second Album
Several bands succeeded to by-pass the traditional “Second Album Syndrome” and delivered masterful albums: MGMT (Columbia), Vampire Weekend (XL), Yeasayer (Secretly Canadian), These New Puritans (see below), to name but a few.

T for These New Puritans
These New Puritans's 'Hidden'
‘Hidden’ (Angular/Domino) was voted best album of the year by the NME, and it is easy to see why – it fulfils all the “indie rock” credentials advocated by the British weekly magazine. And the end result matches the hype. Just listen to ‘We Want War’ and you’ll be converted.

U for Urban
It could have been a poor year for Urban music but a few tracks/projects/personalities saved the year: Big Boi, K’naan, Kanye West, Tinie Tempah, Plan B, Drake, Janelle Monáe, Gonjasufi, Ben L’Oncle Soul, Eminem, Cee-Lo Green, Aloe Blacc…

V for Villeneuve
Not the Canadian F1 car driver but the French producer/songwriter, who worked with the likes of Agoria and M83. He delivered in 2010 his sophomore album ‘Dry Marks Of Memory’ (PIAS)  and his wide range of influences set him somewhere between krautrock and Mazzy Star, with a touch of Air. Strongly recommended.

W for World
Asmara All Stars's 'Eritrea Got Soul'
(Out Here)
Outside Anglo-American music, there’s a world of music. And some of this year’s best albums come from odd places such as Eritrea, with Asmara All Stars’s ‘Eritrea's Got Soul’ (Out Here) and its infectious blend of trad music from the African highlands with reggae and dub. Equally arresting is Tamikrest’s ‘Adagh’ (Glitterhouse), from a group of young Touareg musicians from North Mali/South Algeria, voted best World Music album of the year by French magazine Les Inrockuptibles. If you liked Tinariwen, you’ll like them. And it is hard not to mention ‘Ali & Toumani’ (World Circuit), the final installment of the collaboration between the late Malian guitarist Ali Farka Touré and kora player Toumani Diabaté. 

X for The XX
Yes, their eponymous debut was released in 2009, but it was equally as good in 2010, and probably better than most releases of this year. And they also managed to win the Mercury Prize. Looking forward to their second album.

Y for Yes
OK, I have to confess: I downloaded (from Amazon at £3.49) Yes’s magnum opus ‘Tales From Topographic Ocean’ (Atlantic). Initially a double LP when released in 1973, with four tracks ranging from 18 to 22 minutes, it now comes with two additional 20 minutes-plus tracks. ‘Tales…’ is often the source of sarcastic (if not hostile) comments and reviews, but I have to say I quite enjoyed the journey. It is not as pompous as I expected, and it almost has a pop feel to it, even if 22 minutes is not the average length of pop songs. A guilty pleasure, which will certainly destroy any musical cred I may have garnered over the years… E la nave va!

Z for Gorillaz
Had problem finding an entry for Z, in the absence of new material from ZZ Top and Zappa (whose works need to be re-appraised). So GorillaZ will do. In the competition Oasis v. Blur, the winner is without contest Damon Albarn. Whereas the old Mancunians are content with rehashing ancient recipes, Albarn manages to constantly surprise and remain fresh, getting his cue from African music to Chinese opera. Give Damon Albarn an OBE, he deserves it.

A for Album of the Year
Angus & Julia Stone's 'Down The Way'
(EMI Music Australia)
If there has to be one, if only based on the amount of times it was played on my iTunes, it has to be Angus & Julia Stone’s “Down The Way” (EMI Music Australia). It is hard not to fall for the subtle tunes composed by Angus, who has found in his sister Julia the right voice for his sometimes traumatic visions. The album went to No.1 in their native Australia, and they are huge in France, but virtually unknown elsewhere. As one BBC reviewer pointed out, “roll with them” and you won’t be disappointed.

Happy New Year!

1 comment:

  1. Great review!
    'Yes': a good shrink can cure this ;-)



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