2010. The Year in Music.

December 27, 2010 § 3 Comments

Musically, it has been an interesting year. Functionally speaking, the music enthusiasts have sustained some puzzling tensions; the number of vinyl records they own is comparable to the number of artists they follow on Twitter. This old-school-new-school collision has also put the value of medium into question. The availability of online music has created history’s largest generation of thieves. Meanwhile, vinyl and cassette sales have rocketed.

These incongruous trends reveal a new, driving force to the world of music: physical aesthetic. This explains why so many people left their laptops at home and braved freeways and downtown parking to visit their local LP supplier on National Record Store Day this year. Thousands waited in line to pay $40+ for 180 grams worth of Beach House’s Teen Dream, an album many of them probably already downloaded for free online.  But isn’t music just music? An essentially aural experience?

Perhaps there is more to the vinyl revival than just the tactile aesthetic. In an increasingly cost-free industry, music—especially cool music—is losing its exclusivity. Yeah, you’ve heard Age of Adz, but do you own the vinyl with the prophetic artwork? “Impossible Soul” takes up an entire side! If the Internet made High Violet available to anyone, how else are you supposed to identify yourself as one of the National’s true fans? Our generation prizes authenticity first and foremost. In the world of free music, this translates to the tactile, the ownership, and the identity.

2010 has also witnessed the rise in prominence of the music blog. Now, blogs have been around for a number of years, but their significance and validity have increased with their readership. Each listener swears loyalty to their own blog-of-choice, whether it’s the grassroots intimacy of Brooklyn Vegan or the indie-turned-corporate reportage of Stereogum. Personal favorites aside, all pay homage to the all-powerful Pitchfork, whose 10-point record review scale carries colossal weight in the blogging community. Any band without the Best New Music blessing has essentially been deemed by Pitchfork as mediocre and forgetful. This label, however, can have a reverse effect. Bands given Best New Music seal of approval run the risk of being cast by others as overrated.

Blogging has also had a large hand in diversifying music. The immense variety of music available online is added to everyday. New genres spring up all the time. All this information needs classification, and that’s where the blogs come in.  This year artists like Baths and Flying Lotus brought “Glitch-Pop” to the table, Washed Out and Small Black pioneered the “Chillwave” movement, and former Lo-Fi acts Best Coast and Wavves bumped recording quality up a notch for a sound some are calling “Post-Fi”.  The origins of these labels can each be traced back to blog writers, whose authority in identification seems to have more weight than the artists themselves.

This movement circles back to the question of identity. Indie just isn’t indie anymore. Under the umbrella of indie are all sorts of movements, many of them stark in their differences. Now that indie has lost its indie-pendence, more specific labels are needed. The classification of bands is getting narrower and narrower. Again, exclusivity must be maintained.

Exclusivity and identity go hand in hand with personalization, another area that made great strides in 2010, most notably through the social-celebrity-stalker-site Twitter.  A lot of artists are using the site to wear down the glossy, shaded partition that separates them from their fans. Bands got creative with this online conduit for free communication, many of them using it to announce secret shows, post links to new music videos, and, in many cases, give away free tickets to devoted fans. The increasing personability of musicians has turned starry-eyed fans into something more like distant friends. This pseudo-intimacy—however farcical—is at least, well, kinda fun.

Kanye West—whose Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy scored a perfect 10.0 on Pitchfork—has over two million followers on Twitter. Musicians of his caliber, however, have a sphere of influence much larger than that of social networking. This year, former President George W. Bush told NBC’s Matt Lauer in an interview that the lowest point in his Presidency was when Kanye West called him a racist as a result of the less-than-satisfactory response hurricane Katrina. Lauer told the former President that he might receive some heat for those words. “And here’s the reason,” said Lauer. “You’re not saying the lowest point in your Presidency was watching the misery in Louisiana. You’re saying it’s because someone insulted you because of that.” Kanye’s claim carried enough weight to cut the former leader of the free world to the core. Lauer then interviewed Kanye about a number of sensitive subjects, Bush and his award show interruption of Taylor Swift. Kanye reacted angrily, telling Lauer he was upset they used footage to provoke a reaction. His resulting tweets-of-rage made their way onto the Today Show the following day.

Now, in terms of actual music, 2010 went a lot of different directions. The one-man-bands of the year have garnered considerable attention: debut acts Wild Nothing and Twin Shadow—the creations of Jack Tatum and George Lewis Jr, respectively—made breezy reverberated guitar pop that could fool you into thinking they were each frontmen to full 4-piece bands. The accessibility of technology, along with the trend in lo-fi recording quality makes projects like this very possible. The aforementioned glitch-pop acts Flying Lotus (Steve Ellison) and Baths (Will Wiesenfied) each took to the stag with nothing more than a sampler and a lot of confidence. In September, solo act Panda Bear (Noah Lennox) headlined the FYF fest in Los Angeles.

2010 also gave rise to a less expected trend in music: pretending to surf. The summery, youthful beach-pop of The Drums, Surfer Blood, Best Coast and Wavves all recieved massive recognition. It seems, however, these acts are nostalgic for something they were never really a part of. The Drums, who wrote the whistley hit “Lets Go Surfing,” are from Brooklyn. Bethany Cosentino of Best Coast wrote most of her first songs while living in New York, and has admitted not being the biggest fan of beach life. Not a single member of the Florida based Surfer Blood knows how to surf.

The colliding old-school/new-school dichotomy discussed earlier manifested itself in many of the musical styles of 2010. Kanye West’s Pitch(fork)-perfect Twisted Fantasy was praised for mixing narrative themes and indie rock with the fundamental elements of rap; the last track on Fantasy begins with a sample from folk artist Bon Iver’s “Woods.” Bands like No Age and Deerhunter blended their traditional indie-noise rock with prerecorded loops and samples for a tighter, more focused sound. Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs is threaded with a longing for the way things were, and a lament for the way things are now. The music video for “We Used to Wait”—the track that arguably contains the most explicit depiction of nostalgic longing—ironically utilized the technologically advanced program Google Earth to evoke childhood memories in the viewer by showing photographs of their home. Sufjan Stevens’ apocalyptic love ballad Age of Adz made a large departure from his previous material. The familiar folk Sufjan leaves you after the chilling opener “Futile Devices,” and gives you over to a lovesick, virus infected cyborg Sufjan who guides you down through a minefield rumbling with harsh textures of noise and abrasively distorted guitars, and back up through spiraling crescendos of chanted harmonies and moments of awe-inspiring clarity and brutal, emotional honesty. The tour-de-force ends with the soft, familiar picking of acoustic chords that brings the album full circle and leaves you looking back, thinking—as Sufjan sings—“Boy, we made such a mess together.”

Music has undergone a lot this year, and society with it. We enter 2011 sustaining a lot of strange polarities and wondering how these tensions are going to tease themselves out. Stylistically, musically, culturally, aesthetically, a lot of exciting things are happening, and I’m looking forward to see what comes next, even if it is a bit messy.

By Christian Koons


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