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Issue 136


From retro-futurism to the iPod generation, the best music of 2010

BY Anwyn Crawford AND Klaus Walter in Critic's Guides | 01 JAN 11

Photograph: Adam Laycock

Anwyn Crawford
A writer based in New York. She blogs at populardemand.wordpress.com.

Attempting to catalogue the best music of the year is about as honest as sticking a teaspoon into a river and declaring that you’ve surveyed the Nile. The sheer volume of product available, increasing exponentially with each year of digital living, provokes in me a kind of panicked indifference, if that’s not a contradiction in terms. I want to hear less, not more – but even the sounds I find to cling to don’t often endure very long, breaking up like flotsam on the current.

Even a pop-cultural event as large as Lady Gaga’s number-one single ‘Telephone’ couldn’t quite last the year out. The universe and all its known counties conversed over ‘Telephone’, but was it really only released in March? From inside the endless churn of new releases – and re-releases – that feels like a century ago.

April saw Ikonika’s first full-length recording, Contact, Love, Want, Have released on Hyperdub. The glooping synth melodies, bright as enamel paint, will trigger a chain of associations in any listener who played an Atari console during their childhood, but the London-based producer avoids the wholesale nostalgia that hobbles so many of her peers.

Nostalgia made Autre Ne Veut’s self-titled debut, on the tiny New York label Olde English Spelling Bee, my year’s most disturbingly addictive listen. On the one hand it’s a thrilling, backwards rush into the textures of 1980s pop; on the other, I had hoped that by the time I neared 30 I’d be listening to music that simply couldn’t have been invented in 1986, not to an art school Hall & Oates tribute project. I love this record and also resent its very existence. Not so the ‘Study Series’ on Ghost Box, a tally of (so far) four 7"s – contributions have included Broadcast, Belbury Poly and The Focus Group – delightful knickknacks on the dusty charity shop shelf of retro-futurism. A remaster of Disintegration (1989), the last great record that The Cure made, was testament to the enduring power of a band who never seemed to look either forwards or backwards, but were content to float inside their own fixed and mysterious sonic universe.

Two fascinating hip-hop albums were released by artists who feature on each other’s records. Big Boi’s Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty, three years in the making, has a rhythmic self-assuredness not often heard on mainstream rap albums. Big Boi rhymes fast, but his beats unfold with slow ease. Among his many guests is Janelle Monáe, whose own album, The ArchAndroid, defies classification. A melange of funk, hip-hop, soul and space exploration, orchestrated by a woman who holds herself like Little Richard crossed with the Pied Piper, The ArchAndroid is hugely ambitious, overly long, and very welcome.

Strange Tourist, the first solo record from Gareth Liddiard, pushes the category of a ‘singer-songwriter’ album to its limits. Lengthy, lyric-dense songs are born from the stubborn vision of Liddiard, a ferocious talent who also leads The Drones, Australia’s most compelling rock band. Just about the only North American indie record to have caught my ears was Twin-Hand Movement, by Lower Dens, a Baltimore quartet led by Jana Hunter. There’s a touch of shoegaze to this record, but more of Mazzy Star, the entrancingly lysergic Santa Monica duo whose reunion I would celebrate far beyond and above that of Pavement. Pavement’s sold-out run of shows in New York’s Central Park in September was, one can only hope, the peak of 1990s revivalism. Unless there’s a Soundgarden tour slated for 2011.

Klaus Walter
A writer living in Frankfurt am Main. He also works for various radio stations, including Byte.fm.

‘It becomes even harder to work out on blind listening if a track is from Trinidad or Tottenham, Orlando or Oporto […] The question of who is appropriating whose music becomes ever messier.’ This is how a critic, writing in The Wire last summer, described a core problem of pop in 2010. When it is possible to produce steel-drum-driven calypso sounds in Vladivostok and machine-driven Detroit techno in Dakar, certainties and logics are lost – the logic of the correlation between location and attribution and, with it, the logic of the body. ‘In a post-human universe governed by zeroes and ones,’ writes Marlo David, ‘the body ceases to matter.’ David, Afrofuturist scholar and a professor of women’s studies at Purdue University, Indiana, notes this development in her text on an artist who may not have produced the most exciting record of 2010, but who certainly prompted the year’s most exciting discussions this side of Lady Gaga: Janelle Monáe. For critic Tobias Rapp writing in Der Spiegel, ‘Monáe is a child of the iPod, whose shuffle function knows no black and white.’ But the article’s headline claims: ‘Janelle Monáe’s album The ArchAndroid renews black music.’

‘It don’t matter if you’re black or white’? Was 2010 the year Michael Jackson’s claim came true? Was President Obama’s Utopia of a post-racist society realized in the pop world of 2010? A few pieces of evidence: The ArchAndroid features a guest appearance by indie types Of Montreal, and Monáe returned the favour on their False Priest album, which also features Beyoncé’s sister Solange. Both Beyoncé’s spouse Jay-Z and Kanye West collaborated with neo-folkie Bon Iver, and Danger Mouse (one half of Gnarls Barkley and producer for Gorillaz) worked with the late Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse (the album, Dark Night of the Soul, features a 100-page booklet of photographs by David Lynch, who also sings on one track). Blues-rock revivalists The Black Keys invited rappers including Mos Def, Ludacris and Raekwon to record with them, resulting in the album Blakroc. Meanwhile, 1990s trashy Euro dance is making a puzzling comeback in US hip-hop, and everyone’s talking about Prince – again. So what does this mother of transgression do now that we need him? He distributes his new album for free through major newspapers. And that, unfortunately, is the most interesting thing to be said for it.

Of course there are historic precedents of hybrid forms between ‘black’ and ‘white’ music. To give just one example: ‘Inspiration Information’, the long-overlooked and -underestimated 1974 album by Shuggie Otis. Shuggie’s father, R&B legend Johnny Otis, a.k.a John Veliotes, is the son of Greek immigrants who ‘grew up among Afro Americans and, as a youngster, made a conscious break with the white world. He has considered himself black ever since’ (John Hildebrand in The Art of Johnny Otis, 1995). Still, over the decades, the essentialist talk of ‘black music’ has strangely persisted. The racial segregation in popular music has always been taken as the fundamental prerequisite for a great anti-racist narrative on which enlightened pop discourse has been based since the days of Robert Johnson. Whites get rich on the back of black music, which they serve up to white audiences in palatable form. And white critics earn their money by denouncing this racist structure – and by reprimanding black artists when they betray their blackness for a few dollars more.

Do the convenient categories of the segregated pop world no longer apply because kids of the digital age know no black and white? Monáe: ‘I’m a part of the iPod generation. People don’t have one style of music on their iPods […] I’m a moody artist, I move around a lot musically […] Whether it’s psychedelia, classical, hip-hop, it’s all music.’ Myriad styles – including punk and studio orchestra sounds – are indeed to be found on The ArchAndroid, driving a grand meta-narrative about robots, androids and a city of the future. Concept album? Sci-fi? Eclecticism? Just a few years ago, this recipe would have got Monáe slapped down: oh how pretentious, can’t she stick to R&B? Today, Monáe is praised, not least for her courage in rehabilitating the long-player, a format under threat from digital erosion, by releasing, of all things, a long-playing concept album. In so doing, she brings another cultural concept from last century into the pop present – Afrofuturism. Marlo David compares Monáe’s approach with the process that empowers the Afrofuturists to ‘shift personae in ways that counteract the limitations of identity imposed by the hegemonic gaze of race, gender, class, and religion.’ There’s no need to share this optimism or to hail the arrival of ‘post-ethnic pop’, as some critics are doing. But it is worth noting that the most interesting pop music comes from places where the emphasis is less on the production of certainty and the assertion of identity – as in (indie-)rock – and more on the counteraction of the limitations of identity. It is such places that produce colour-blind post-dubstep. In terms of album releases, the prime example is Waiting for You (released in late 2009) by King Midas Sound, the duo of London-based Kevin Martin and London/Trinidad poet Roger Robinson. In the case of Chicago Juke music, entirely different limitations of identity are at stake. Here, iPod kids like DJ Nate and DJ Roc shred the space-time continuum in an agreeably nerve-jangling style and invent new dances to go with the new sounds. Watch this space.

As I write, I hear that U2 are teaming up with Danger Mouse – corporate rock still never sleeps.

Translated by Nicholas Grindell

Klaus Walter is a writer living in Frankfurt am Main. He works for various radio stations, including www.Byte.fm